[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.] 

An innovative Protestant author by the name of Alan Hirsch has applied the concept of paradigms to church life. While he identifies paradigms of the Church in a manner quite different than I would, I quote him here for the sake of clarifying the concept for theology:

[A paradigm] is a way of perceiving our world, of filtering out what is considered real or unreal, of creating mental models of how things should be. Once established, paradigms in many ways do our thinking for us; that is their purpose . . . Although paradigms help us make sense of our world by giving us ways to interpret it, they also create what is called paradigm blindness: an incapacity to see things from outside that particular perspective or paradigm. And this can account for how people fail to see certain important things that might be glaringly obvious to others. It can also account for many of the problems we in the church now face.[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 the thought of Aristotle arrived in Europe just before the dawn of the modern period.[3]

Throughout the universities of medieval Europe, which were then just emerging on the historical landscape, a tremendous work was underway by scholastic churchmen who endeavored to organize and systematize the whole body of theological works handed down since the time of the Church Fathers.[4] What gave the effort a paradigmatic quality is how the organization of these writings and the systemization of thought occurred in dialogue with the thought of Aristotle. This systematic approach produced vast volumes or summaries of theology, the most famous being St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae.  For over 500 years, the Summa theologiae served as a primary framework within which the science of theology developed during the modern period. The history of scholasticism is a rich and varied history I will not recount here, but I mention it because it represents the theoretical framework from which the modern period had its seminal beginning. Aquinas’s framework was not the only operative paradigm in the medieval period, however. Others emerged that resulted in centuries of internal rivalries over the resolution of certain disputed questions. In particular, the Dominican and Franciscans “schools” developed divergent theological approaches that rivaled one another vehemently at times.[5]

I would attribute all the aspects of Hirsch’s definition to the paradigms created within the scholastic tradition. That is not to say that the scholastic tradition has been harmful. Quite the contrary, the West built an entire civilization up from this vigorous and engaging period of intellectual development. Tremendous advances in our understanding of Revelation would not have occurred without medieval scholasticism. The difficulty has been that throughout the past 500 years, the scientific revolution, which scholasticism precipitated, has produced several other paradigms that gradually shifted the foundations of Christian society. We call this new historical context, modernity. Concisely, certain strands of scholastic thought evolved into modern political philosophy and other sciences, which in turn precipitated the Enlightenment, and eventually established the framework of modern secularism.[6]

For example, the philosophy of Liberalism drastically altered the social landscape and almost entirely reshaped life in the modern period.[7] More importantly, this and other paradigms deeply influenced the science of theology in the past 500 years. Our theological paradigms have shifted and continue to shift under the influence of modern modalities of thought. New paradigms emerged and contended with older ones. As a result, the Church and the cultural landscape today are vastly different than they were when the Summa theologiae assumed the place of honor on the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica during the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Theological paradigms thus arise when intellectual frameworks are engaged in such manner that scholars form a unique and somewhat independent “school of theology”. This kind of intellectual creativity has always been part of the science of theology. Augustine’s thought is distinct in his reliance on Plato. Aquinas’s work is unique for its Aristotelianism. Pope St. John Paul II built up his Theology of the Body through engagement with the philosophy of Max Scheler’s phenomenology. What is characteristic of the history of theology as a discipline of inquiry, in fact, 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 contentious “politics” that theological paradigms engendered within Western Christianity and its spheres of influence.

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

Each of the theological paradigms I named previously bears indispensable elements of the Christian faith. The problem is that these elements do not stand in isolation. When they do, one distorts their perception of the faith. Even more, when Christians cling too rigidly to paradigms, as opposed to the Catholic whole, and do so as a matter of personal identity or as a stubborn insistence that this is the only way to see the faith, it betrays the blind spots to which every paradigm is susceptible and becomes divisive to the Church. Paradigmatic blindness is not only about the realities we do not or cannot see, but it can also become willful prejudice toward others who operate in other paradigms than our own.

In practice, blind spots tend to silence dialogue and those who have them tend to cling to a closed system that admits few or no considerations or perspectives from outside the paradigm.[9] Not only can they make us selective in our beliefs, but they can also lead us to reject or deny essential aspects of the faith, especially if these aspects do not fit within our preferred paradigms. Hirsch goes on to state, “Paradigms . . . are good only as long as they match and interpret external conditions. When the context shifts significantly [paradigms] can become problematic because they can prevent an organization from readily seeing its way beyond them.”[10] What Hirsch states here is one reason Pope St. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The Neo-Scholastic paradigm had become tired and seemed to be undermining the Church’s witness, making Christianity less influential and relevant in the modern world amidst the progressivist ambitions of modern secular society.


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

[2] The Church recognizes the difference between the realities in which we believe and our human modes of expressing these truths. CCC, no. 43: “In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.” From the same paragraph: “Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity.”

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

[4] R.W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), chapter 1.

[5] See Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[6] Ibid. See also Charles Taylors large tome 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 et ratio, nos. 16-35.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, On the Nature and Mission of Theology: Approaches to Understanding Its Role in the Light of Present Controversies, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 32-34; 73-98.

[10] Ibid, XXXiii

Image: A Franciscan Monk Preaching. Walters Gallery. Public Domain.

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Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the President and CEO of Preambula Group. Prior to founding Preambula Group, he served as the President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and the Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2014, he was a professor moral theology and Academic Dean at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. He taught for seven years at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA, also serving as Academic Dean from 2008-2012. He holds a B.A. in Theology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and a Doctorate in Fundamental Moral Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland (2007). Michel is the author of The Catholic Faith Explained (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

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