Years ago, (If my memory is not mistaken) the late Fr. Andrew Greeley mentioned, in a column I am unable to find, about his distaste for theology. Theology, acknowledged, might have been necessary, it might even be a “necessary evil.” Many progressives today agree and even go further, dropping the adjective and keeping the noun. Joining forces with the antinomians and enemies of canon law,they would say that it is time to “progress” past medieval theology into the modern world. Yet, there is more of regress than progress in their views- for the rejection of theology takes one only forward to a modernity that is as backward as pagan antiquity. No one developed a theology of Zeus or the pagan gods. And so, the “progress” of the modern progressive Catholic becomes nothing but the regression of the ancient pagan, who was more backward than the Middle Ages that developed so much of theology.
In the early centuries of Christianity, theology was largely in the hands of the bishops, the main (though not only) defenders of Catholic orthodoxy against the intellectual attacks of the pagan. Men like Augustine of Hippo and Ambrose of Milan explicated Early Christianity to a pagan world, defending it against heathen attacks, developing Christian thought, and applying Christian principles to new issues. After the fall of Rome, for several hundred years, there was little done in the way of serious theology. From 500 to 1000 AD, Christian thought, in a sense, shrunk, undergoing what one historian (Robert Markus) called an “epistemological excision,” responding to crisis by purging itself of most thought outside of the Bible. Little else was read or considered. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this was reversed. Latin Europe recovered the science and philosophy of Aristotle and other pagan authors, applying the rules of logic and philosophy to theological questions, leading to the development of schools and universities, where a broad theological tradition developed.
For many moderns, one senses that this development was a regrettable one- at best a necessary evil, and perhaps worse. These dislike what they see as the limitations of (good) theology. They see theology as something that limits, restricts, and holds back. The theologians (the good ones at least) say, for instance, that a man may not marry another woman while his first wife is still living; they impose other limitations even less popular. They, like lawyers, make distinctions, draw lines, and put up fences. The modern man would rather blur the lines and, in his contempt for theology, tear down the fences. But, as Chesterton has said, a man should be cautious about tearing down a fence until he knows why it was put up in the first place. If a man, imagining he was to break free of limits and boundaries, and strike a blow for progress and liberty, should blow a hole in a dam, he would find at least one boundary that even he might regret crossing.
In a real sense, theology does limit. It limits in the same sense in which a dam limits. It places a boundary not to limit individual freedom, but to guard it, for a man who broke the boundary of the dam would quickly find himself less free and not more. And so the medieval theologians did limit. They drew lines and made distinctions. They were the lines that separated truth from falsehood, and inside the Christian faith from without. To be more precise, perhaps, they did not draw the lines, so much as recognize the lines that were there. If the marriage of a husband and wife is the image of the relationship between Christ and the Church, then a line exists between that man and any other women he would wish to marry while his first wife is still living. The line defends not only the man’s wife from abandonment, but the man from sacrilege. The divisions between truth and falsehood are not made by the theologians, but only recognized by them, for they are in the gospel also. They are there when Christ declared that he came not to bring peace into the world, but division. They are in the gospel when He told of those within the wedding feast and those without. When the Light came into the world, He divides the light from the darkness, which some prefer because their works are evil. And when the Truth comes into the world, there will be a line between Him and falsehood, though some will prefer the falsehood.
Yet, theology does not only limit- it expands. It sees the world as a part of a larger world. Theology is the “study of God,” yet, in his theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote not only of God, but much on man. This was because theology studies also the whole of creation, seen in light of God. And seen in light of God, that is, by theology, the world expands and grows larger. Flatland becomes a three-dimensional world. A higher and larger floor is added to a poor and rude hovel. Seen in light of God, a sunrise becomes not only a sunrise, but a sign of God’s majesty, and a storm, a sign of his splendor. Marriage becomes not only marriage, but a sign of the union between Christ and the Church, a union that man cannot break, but may break himself upon. This was the world of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas, this larger world of which the material was only a sign or symbol.
This at any rate, is the task of good theology. There is also bad theology. This sees not the world in light of God, but rather, sees God in light of the world. Feminist theologies that see the gospel in terms of secular feminism and liberation theologies that see it in terms of marxism are only two such examples. This sort of theology, which is not really theology, is not necessary, though it may be evil. But theology, real theology, as long as there is truth in the world, will draw lines. As long as there is light in the world, it will recognize the darkness. And God help those who try to pull the fence down, lest they learn the hard way why it was put up in the first place.