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Lieven Boeve {*}

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An interview with Lieven Boeve about Theology in Europe


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 1/2009, P. 15-19
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Twenty years ago the "Cologne Declaration" was published, in the consequence of which the European Society for Catholic Theology (ET) was established. Where is theology's place in Europe today? What position does it take in view of the many and diverse challenges? About that we talked with Lieven Boeve, the President of ET. The questions were put by Stefan Orth.


HK: Professor Boeve, today theologians have in many respects not an easy time. What are at present the activities of Europe's theologians, when they do not occupy themselves with research and teaching within their own discipline?

Boeve: At present theology faces a triple challenge: with regard to the church as well as to the university and not least to society. In each case the actual role of theology as well as its primary tasks are to be clarified - though just the mutual relations of those fields cause further problems.

HK: As different as the situation in Europe's individual countries might be: What is, with regard to society, the crucial issue with which theologians have to concern themselves today?

Boeve: In Europe's societies of today there is a breaking-off in tradition that does not only affect Christianity but also other cultural traditions. In the current secular world all religions are to redefine their role, because the handed down ideas, customs and values are no longer regarded as a matter of course. Crucial is here the new religious pluralism causing two effects. On the one hand it intensifies the processes of de-traditionalization, because people know that everything could also be different; and therefore they occasionally also believe that in the end everything is indifferent. On the other hand the wide variety lets you also become better aware of what it really means to live as a Christian.

HK: The impending end of cultural traditions makes many in society restless. But is the decidedly theological study of the causes and consequences wanted, appreciated and then also sufficiently supported at all?

Boeve: A long way is still to be gone there. In some European countries, as e.g. in France and Belgium, a laicist consciousness is still prevailing that does not yet allow that the present approaches become really effective on the political level. At least here and there politicians or state institutions expressly give theologians the task of examining the interreligious dialogue so that they, on the basis of the results, are able better to cope with the societal problems. As for the rest, between society and the academic world lots of things are in a sorry state. Scientific findings, communicated by the media, are often enough taken note of only very selectively.

HK: When we, for the time being, ignore the church interests, which at least in some countries are also recognized by the state, what are the arguments for theology's greater promotion by society?



Boeve: In the discussions on climate change, economic globalization and worldwide poverty, stem cell research, abortion and other ethical and political issues, for example, it is to a considerable extent about the fundamental anthropological convictions that are behind the individual proposed solutions. Theologians can a lot contribute to clarify those issues. Politicians should also generally become more aware of the fact that theological faculties which propose reflecting one's own faith prevent the respective religion from becoming fundamentalist. The European society must therefore, for the sake of its own project, be interested in investing in theological research. That applies not only to Christians but also to Jews and Muslims, and also to other religious phenomena. After all, there is a new interest in religious issues, which leads to the fact that a secularist understanding of European society increasingly recedes into the background.


"Not Avoid Academic Standards and Criteria of Good Research"

HK: What does this mean for the funding of theological research? After all it applies on the whole also for theology that large-scale research projects and a corresponding staff can only be financed through third-party funding.

Boeve: That differs very much from country to country and also depends on the individual university to what extent theology is taken seriously there. But in the supporting programme for research and technological development of the European Union there is nothing intended for theology. That is to change. In the European Reference Index for the Humanities theology at least exists as discipline, although the selection of magazines could greatly be improved. The good relations existing here should now also be established with other institutions that are of importance for research, in order to achieve more for theology. That is, admittedly, at present not more than the germ of new opportunities - and it will certainly be a slow process.

HK: What are theologians to do in this situation? What task is to be mastered by them [Bringschuld] and how is it related to the particular nature of the subject, which likes it to point to its special role in the concert of sciences?

Boeve: It is very important for theologians to show that the subject has an identity of its own and a distinctive profile. But the reference to that must not lead to the result that one evades the academic standards and particularly the criteria of good research. In the past one has perhaps tolerated it here and there. Today that is rightly no longer the case. You are to publish in good journals, accept the peer-review system, publish books, organize conferences, write applications for research projects, and compete with other scholars in humanities. Interdisciplinarity is of central importance. Basically, we have the impression that one also listens to theologians, if they correspond to the standards of the humanities.

HK: Has from theology's viewpoint the Bologna Process, which has been keeping the universities of the continent busy for years, brought progress here?

Boeve: I have mixed feelings with regard to that. Theologians are doubly affected here: On the one hand it is about church interests, on the other hand about the national level to which the respective faculties must do justice in order to be accredited. This has, de facto, not always led to a harmonization, because the state-church relations differ in the various countries. Diversity and complexity continue.

HK: The promise was at least made that it will be easier to move from one university to another one. That should comply with the wish of just those theologians who have always regarded it as a matter of course to make their studies at several faculties, often enough also abroad.

Boeve: I have at least not the impression that it has got worse ... But here in Leuven, for example, we are to offer foreign students special courses taking their needs as starting-point. Nothing has changed there; we have done it that way already before the Bologna process started. The harmonization has certainly not yet reached a level that allows comparing the theological studies in European countries according to the same criteria. But that is perhaps not even necessary. The diversity of approaches allows individual countries and not least the various universities to give themselves a clearer image.


"To Stand up for Our Convictions Under Different Conditions"

HK: What role play in this context theologians at Catholic universities about whom at present is intensively discussed in Belgium as well as in Germany? Is it easier for them than at state faculties because they have less strong head wind?

Boeve: We work here at a Catholic university. This university was founded in 1425; the bull was issued by the Pope.



But also a church university is not unaffected by social developments and must deal with slogans such as pluralization and detraditionalization. That particularly applies to a large institution like ours: Two-fifths of all Flemings study here. Many of them are baptized, but that sometimes means only a cultural Catholicism without any religious practice. Muslims are studying here, as well as atheists and agnostics. They too are to give the Christian identity serious thought. That means that the societal discussions are led within this university and it is therefore by no means easier to teach here. It's true though that theologians within a church university are less isolated. They play an important role when one reflects on the image of the institution.

HK: Let's ask the question vice versa. Is it not rather advantageous for theologians at state universities that they are less identified with the church as institution and that society therefore easier listens to them?

Boeve: Apart from the fact that theologians at state faculties too have a church mission, for representatives of a Catholic university it is - at least in Belgium - sometimes more difficult to contribute Christian values to the discourse in a pluralized society. In today's public debate you are taken less seriously also for the reason that in the past theology had a monopoly the negative aspects of which continue to have an effect. But it belongs to our tasks to stand up for our convictions also under changed conditions.

HK: What is in view of that situation the greater threat to theology: Due to occasional self-secularization it is in danger of becoming a subject of the humanities; others want to restrict its task to the presentation and - if necessary - the interpretation of the church doctrine?

Boeve: Both must not happen. Theology is a fundamental concern of the church. But it is equally important that the church does not seal itself off the academic world. As we have seen in the Netherlands, it is indeed a serious risk that theology is identified with religious studies and thus becomes a mere subject of the humanities. On the other hand the dialogue with the other sciences is essential and must not be abandoned. Theology cannot be reduced to only explaining the statements of the teaching authority of the church. There is the obligation to consider them into broader, also historical contexts. Otherwise, theology is lost.

HK: Does it suffice here to refer state and society to the autonomy of the training of church employees? To what extent can you today in the area of the university put the question of God and discuss claims to truth?

Boeve: If we do not at least try it, we would not fulfil our mission. The diversity of theological disciplines with their specific tasks is of course necessary. But to what extent God is today present in our societies, is one of the most important questions that theologians always have put and should continue to ask. We are not allowed only to consider how we can live as Christians in today's secularized society. It is rather also about the question to what extent God reveals himself to be existent in this society. It remains a central and highly topical task to recognize the signs of the times, as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council has called it. And what matters is, just as in Gaudium et Spes, to take those signs as starting-point for one's theological thought, and not first to develop a theology with which one then confronts society. Today it is not as in the past only about a dialogue between Christians and atheists. Besides the advocates of a secular world-view in Europe the Muslims too belong to the interlocutors of Christians.


"It is Our Task to Help the Muslims"

HK: In Germany at present the case of the Munster professor of Muslim theology, Muhammad Kalisch, is discussed. Critics of the training of Islamic scholars at the University are worried that, on the basis of cooperation with the strictly conservative Muslim associations, natural academic freedoms will be curtailed.

Boeve: Cardinal Godfried Danneels likes it to point out that Islam has still to go through a phase of enlightenment so that a whole string of difficulties can be solved. One possible way was to let Muslim scholars within universities do research, and there in the context of other sciences from philosophy to natural sciences to let the results to be questioned. Muslims too are e.g. to discuss how the belief in the Creator is compatible with the theory of evolution. As long as Muslim theologians do not increasingly work at universities that question will not get the importance that it deserves. Over-simplifying then it says that the theory of evolution was part of the Western world and that Muslims therefore needn't deal with it.

HK: But are you then not to assume that for a long period compromises are to be made which contradict the basic convictions of university research and teaching?

Boeve: Even if it will not be easy, what it, after all, was also not with us Christians - there is no other way. We like forgetting our own history. We only need to remember how difficult it was in the 19th and 20 century to adapt theology to the results of a historical-critical exegesis.



The Catholic Church, but also the Protestant Church had their problems with it. That process took much time. Why should we expect from a different religion, which is present in Europe only since a few decades, to take this step at once? It is even our duty to help it with this development. In any case, we should take those discussions quite seriously and adopt them.


"The Mechanisms of Self-correction are Disturbed by Premature Interventions"

HK: What are the minimum requirements for establishing Muslim theology at European universities?

Boeve: In Belgium one is currently debating whether an Imam training at the University is to be established. But it is quite clear that Muslims are to accept the scientific rules if they want to award academic degrees. Here the work at theological faculties can quite reasonably serve as a model. We too are always faced with new problems. Dealing with the phenomenon of relativism or the diversity of religions and the questions resulting from interreligious dialogue as well as from religious studies are not yet sufficiently clarified in theology and church.

HK: Benedict XVI has both, as theologian and as Pope repeatedly given his view just on those topics. In view of the history of conflict between theology and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, is it actually an advantage that the current Pope is a renowned theologian?

Boeve: Yes and no. On the one hand we profit greatly from it that we have a theologian as pope. You can clearly see that theology is of crucial importance in his statements. On the other hand, there is the risk that a certain theological approach becomes normative. Of course, his rather Augustinian approach in pursuing theology is as such totally legitimate. But it nevertheless is one among many. Our church has always been very careful about canonizing certain theological schools. The pope himself knows very well that there is a danger there. That's why he in his theological publications invites to give conflicting opinions on them, as he has last done it in his book about Jesus.

HK: It may well be that the Pope himself is intent on the distinction between his theological work and his role as the supreme representative of the teaching authority of the church. But are we not always to worry about the fact that in the awareness of the average Christians, up to the Curia, the levels are quickly mixed up?

Boeve: Indeed, there are occasionally students who refer to a theological article by Joseph Ratzinger and say, "The Pope has said this or that." But it was only Joseph Ratzinger, who as cardinal saw to it that his theological work was separated from that in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

HK: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was last severely criticized for the lack of scholarliness of its work, not least by Peter Hünermann, the Honorary President of the European Society of Catholic Theology. Has the situation improved since he had found fault with the notification on the work of the Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino?

Boeve: In this respect so far not much has changed. But that was probably not to be expected.

HK: What is the problem in your view? What was to change in the for a long time tense relationship between theology and the teaching authority of the church?

Boeve: The main difficulty is that the theological discussion of a particular issue is interrupted by the publication of a notification. Sometimes even the theologians themselves see the problems of a certain position. It is not least the task of theology to discuss new theories. But when some day the teaching authority of the church has spoken, certain still urgent questions are no longer treated. The mechanisms of self-correction within the academic theology are disturbed or even blocked by premature intervention. That is damaging to theology but also to the church.

HK: Exactly 20 years ago a large number of Catholic theologians from the German language area pointed to those issues in the so-called Cologne Declaration. That led to the foundation of the European Society for Catholic Theology...

Boeve: When in 1989 the European Society for Catholic Theology was founded many theologians felt the situation to be frightening. In the mean time the situation has calmed down somewhat. Now rather constructive relations are in the focus of attention. But that does, of course, not mean that they could not be further improved. Anyway, the questions remain topical: How can theology fruitfully contribute to the church life? How does the church treat its own traditions? And how does it want to address the contemporaries?

HK: What can theologians today offer their church in this situation?

Boeve: Theology's task is to a considerable extent to train future priests and lay employees, by helping them to become reflective believers. They are to start with reflecting on their belief and be able to assess the relations between church and society.



Also bishops and church institutions take advice from their theologians. That is, on the one hand, a challenge for theology which it must face. But on the other hand it must, of course, also get the opportunity for it from the church. Supply and demand should here balance one another.

HK: And what do theologians expect of their churches?

Boeve: There is a danger that one forgets that continuous research is essential for a good education of theologians. The church must time and again wonder in what way it can support that research. Conversely, we professionalize the work of our society: The intervals between the congresses, for instance, will be shorter. We also want to make possible individual memberships in the European Society for Catholic Theology. It is not necessary that a section exists in every country or region. After all, there are awakenings, for instance in Portugal. Young scientists put great pressure on.

HK: How intensely can you as association of European theologians today talk at all with the officials in the Vatican about the tasks of theology?

Boeve: We are in good contact with the Vatican. Every two or three years my predecessors and I have, inter alia, visited the Congregation for Education and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On that occasion we also want to inform about the concerns of theologians. Our discussions are always informative and take place in a friendly and constructive atmosphere. Occasionally the question is put what theologians can contribute to a specific theme, for example, last with regard to the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. At the suggestion of the former Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith we are preparing at the moment an edition of the ET-Bulletin on that subject.


    {*} Lieven Boeve (born in 1966) is since 2005 President of the European Society of Catholic Theology. Boeve is professor of fundamental theology and dean of the Catholic Theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Recent publication: God Interrupts History. Theology in a Time of Upheaval, New York 2007.


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