Introduction: From the Middle of Our Life's Journey
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) begins The Divine Comedy , his great work of poetic theology, "midway along the journey of our life," awakening in a dark wood and realizing that he has lost his way. In writing this introduction to Catholic theology we have found ourselves returning again and again to the idea that we are always beginning our theological endeavors in the middle. Theology, taken in its broadest sense of talking about and reflecting on God and all things in relation to God, is something that we find ourselves doing long before most of us are ever aware that there is an academic discipline called Theology. Our talking and our reflecting occur spontaneously from the middle of our life's journey, and that middle is as particular as each life story. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the Church sharing in "the joys and hopes and the sorrows and anxieties of people today" ( Gaudium et Spes n. 1), and we presume this means that the Church's theology can begin from any of the joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties that people experience. We feel ourselves lost, or found, and find ourselves praying in moments of crisis or of great joy; we wonder why it is that a loved one suffers or why we should be so lucky; we tell and are told stories about Noah and Moses and Mary and Jesus; we are taught and teach others to ask St Anthony for help when we've lost something and to talk to St Jude when things seems really hopeless; we hear politicians say, "God bless the United States of America" or "God save the Queen"; priests say, "The Lord be with you" and the rest of us respond, "And with your spirit"; we find a sudden peace, a sudden clarity, descend upon us without any preceding cause, while engaged in activities as diverse as washing the dishes or embracing our child and we wonder what its source is. In these and countless other ways, people are always already engaged in God-talk and God-thought, so we do not presume that there is an obvious place to start in theology.
We also begin in the middle because that is where God is at work, and God is at work not only in our talking and reflecting, but also in our actions. We have sought to be attentive to the ways in which Catholic theology is rooted in Catholic practices in all their diversity. Our thinking about Jesus, for example, is related to the practice of offering a prayer in his name, but it is also, he tells us, related to what we are doing when we offer a drink to the thirsty or food to the hungry, when we care for the sick or visit the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Claims about what Catholics believe about the Eucharist are inseparable from practices such as Eucharistic adoration, the care shown for the sacramental elements after communion, discernment concerning who can and cannot receive communion, the offering of "stipends" to have Masses said on behalf of the dead or for other intentions, and so forth. The meaning of our talk and reflection is only made clear in relation to the practices that accompany them, and vice versa. It is not simply that the practices display the beliefs that underlie them, but the beliefs are shaped by the practices. Christians were praying to Jesus and in the name of Jesus for centuries before the Council of Chalcedon defined what it means for him to be both divine and human; Catholics were concerned with reverently disposing of the Eucharistic bread and wine centuries before they formulated the doctrine of transubstantiation. Catholic theology grows from the desire not only to have our practices conform to our beliefs, but also to have our beliefs conform to our practices.
This book reflects the various practices in which its authors have engaged over the years: participating in the Eucharist, being parents, preaching homilies and hearing homilies, baptizing and being baptized, feeding the hungry, and so forth. One practice that we have both en