The promise and limits of theological paradigms


[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on “Vatican II and Theological Paradigms” by Michel Therrien, STL, STD, exploring some critical issues in the post-conciliar Church, particularly the root causes of internal divisions and polarization. In this series, Dr. Therrien considers the debate over the possibility of paradigm shifts in Catholic theology.

Click here for Part 1. The next installment will be posted on Wednesday, November 30.]

A pioneering Protestant author by the name of Alan Hirsch applied the concept of paradigms to church life. Although he identifies the paradigms of the Church quite differently than I would, I quote him here for the purpose of clarifying the concept for theology:

[A paradigm] is a way of perceiving our world, of filtering what is considered real or unreal, of creating mental models of the way things should be. Once established, paradigms think in many ways for us; that is their goal. . . Although paradigms help us make sense of our world by giving us ways to interpret it, they also create what is called paradigmatic blindness: an inability to see things outside of that particular perspective or paradigm. And that may explain how people don’t see some important things that might be glaring to others. It can also explain many of the problems we currently face in the church.[1]

What is true of all modern theoretical sciences is also true of theology, which the Church considers a science. By this I am not suggesting that Revelation is a paradigm, but our attempts to understand and conceptualize the meaning of Revelation create theological paradigms or schools of thought.[2] Interestingly, the systematic organization of doctrine underwent a “scientific revolution” when Aristotle’s thought arrived in Europe just before the dawn of the modern period.[3]

In all the universities of medieval Europe, then emerging in the historical landscape, a formidable work was undertaken by scholastic clerics who endeavored to organize and systematize the body of theological work transmitted from time of the Church Fathers.[4] What gives the effort a paradigmatic quality is the way in which the organization of these writings and the systematization of thought are carried out in dialogue with the thought of Aristotle. This systematic approach produced vast volumes or summaries of theology, the most famous being that of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologica. For more than 500 years, the Summa theologica served as the primary framework within which the science of theology developed during the modern period. The history of scholasticism is a rich and varied history which I will not relate here, but I mention it because it represents the theoretical framework from which the modern period had its seminal origin. Aquinas’ framework was not, however, the only operational paradigm in medieval times. Others have emerged that have resulted in centuries of internal rivalry over the resolution of certain contentious issues. In particular, the Dominican and Franciscan “schools” developed divergent theological approaches that sometimes competed vehemently.[5]

I would attribute all aspects of Hirsch’s definition to the paradigms created within the scholastic tradition. This does not mean that the scholastic tradition was harmful. Quite the contrary, the West built an entire civilization out of this vigorous and engaging period of intellectual development. Considerable progress in our understanding of Revelation would not have taken place without medieval scholasticism. The difficulty has been that over the past 500 years the Scientific Revolution, which scholasticism precipitated, has produced several other paradigms that have gradually shifted the foundations of Christian society. We call this new historical context, modernity. Concretely, certain currents of scholastic thought evolved into modern political philosophy and other sciences, which in turn precipitated the Enlightenment and finally established the framework of modern secularism.[6]

For example, the philosophy of liberalism has radically altered the social landscape and almost entirely reshaped life in modern times.[7] More importantly, this paradigm and others have profoundly influenced the science of theology over the past 500 years. Our theological paradigms have changed and continue to change under the influence of modern ways of thinking. New paradigms emerged and opposed the old ones. As a result, the Church and the cultural landscape today are very different from what they were when Summa theologica took the place of honor on the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica during the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Theological paradigms therefore arise when intellectual cadres are engaged in such a way that scholars form a unique and somewhat independent “school of theology”. This type of intellectual creativity has always been part of theological science. Augustine’s thought is distinguished by its dependence on Plato. Aquin’s work is unique in its Aristotelianism. Pope Saint John Paul II built his theology of the body by engaging in Max Scheler’s philosophy of phenomenology. What characterizes the history of theology as an investigative discipline, indeed, is the ongoing relationship between the content of divine revelation and the philosophical nature of the human mind.[8] What makes the modern period unique is the controversial “politics” that theological paradigms have spawned within Western Christianity and its spheres of influence.

Paradigms are not inherently problematic until researchers attempt to fit everything into the paradigmatic system without broadening the horizon of understanding through continued engagement with the actual content of reality – or in this case, the content of the apocalypse. No system exhausts truth, and yet theoretical reductionisms are all too easy to adopt, especially in today’s highly subjectivist culture. Worse still for Christianity is when we see the foreign elements of outer thought systems begin to reshape the meaning of Revelation or to impute to the Word of God interpretations deeply at odds with the intention of the divine and human authors. . We can also become blind to aspects of faith that do not fit our chosen paradigms.

Each of the theological paradigms I named earlier carries indispensable elements of the Christian faith. The problem is that these elements are not isolated. When they do, we distort their perception of faith. Even more, when Christians cling too rigidly to paradigms, as opposed to the Catholic whole, and do so out of a matter of personal identity or as a stubborn insistence that it is the only way of seeing the faith, it betrays the blind spots to which any paradigm is susceptible and becomes divisive for the Church. Paradigm blindness is not only about realities we don’t or can’t see, but it can also become deliberate bias towards others who operate in other paradigms than our own.

In practice, blind spots tend to silence dialogue and those who do tend to cling to a closed system that admits little or no considerations or perspectives outside the paradigm.[9] Not only can they make us selective in our beliefs, but they can also cause us to reject or deny essential aspects of faith, especially if those aspects do not fit our preferred paradigms. Hirsch goes on to say, “Paradigms. . . are good only insofar as they correspond and interpret external conditions. When the context changes considerably [paradigms] can become problematic because they can prevent an organization from easily seeing its way beyond them.[10] What Hirsch is stating here is one of the reasons Pope Saint John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The neo-scholastic paradigm had grown tired and seemed to undermine the witness of the Church, making Christianity less influential and less relevant in the modern world amidst progressivism. ambitions of modern secular society.


[1] Permanent Revolution: Imagination and Apostolic Practice for the 21stst Church of the century (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), p. XXXii.

[2] The Church recognizes the difference between the realities we believe in and our human ways of expressing those truths. CCC, no. 43: “By defending the capacity of human reason to know God, the Church expresses her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialoguing with other religions, with the philosophy and science, as well as with as with unbelievers and atheists. From the same paragraph: “Certainly, in speaking thus of God, our language uses human modes of expression; nevertheless it really reaches God himself, although unable to express him in his infinite simplicity.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Fides and ratio (On Faith and Reason), nos. 36-44.

[4] RW South, School humanism and the unification of Europe, flight. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), Chapter 1.

[5] See Louis Dupre, Passage to modernity: an essay on the hermeneutics of nature and culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[6] Same. See also Charles Taylor’s great volume A secular AGe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

[7] See Pierre Manent, An intellectual history of liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[8] Fides and ratio, ns. 16-35.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, On the nature and mission of theology: approaches to understanding its role in the light of current controversies, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 32-34; 73-98.

[10] SameXXXiii

Image: A Franciscan monk preaching. Walters Gallery. Public domain.

Did you like this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!

Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Preamble group. Prior to founding Preambula Group, he served as president of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and director of evangelism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2014, he was Professor of Moral Theology and Academic Dean at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. He taught for seven years at Saint Vincent’s Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, also serving as Academic Dean from 2008 to 2012. He holds a BA in Theology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, a Master of Divinity and Christian ministry from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a licentiate in sacred theology from the International Theological Institute of Play, Austria, and a doctorate in fundamental moral theology from the University of Friborg in Switzerland (2007) . Michael is the author of The Catholic faith explained (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

The promise and limits of theological paradigms


Comments are closed.