What the Roman Catholic Church in SA can learn from the Dutch Reformed Church

The Dutch Reformed teach us a lesson: we are in a theological desert

25 August 2011 | by Russell Pollitt SJ


The University of
the Free State (UFS) in Bloemfontein has been in the news often in the last few
years, most times for the wrong reasons. For many in South Africa it conjures
up memories of apartheid, it was of one of the old bastions of the system. It
is a place where one expects to hear Afrikaans and to encounter traditional
conservative thought which would be less inclined to dialogue with “outsiders”.
This would be a reasonable expectation especially in the theology faculty which
produced many Dutch Reformed Clergy during the apartheid years. Memories,
images and assumptions about “how things used to be” can be wrong and, at
worst, very debilitating.

In July this year I
accompanied Irish Jesuit scholar Fr Jim Corkery, who presented this year’s Winter
Living Theology
, to the cold Free State City. Over three days and three
nights Fr Corkery presented a series of lectures and workshops on Vatican II.
In Bloemfontein Fr Corkery was invited to give a public lecture to the faculty
of theology at Free State University. Last year Jesuit Christologist Gerald
O’Collins had also been invited to speak. On a wet, cold Monday night in Bloem
(like an Irish winters night Fr Jim remarked!) we headed off to the University
not sure of what would be expected or how many people would show up to listen to
this Catholic Scholar – remember the days not so distant of die Roomse
? (the Catholic danger)

We were warmly
received at UFS by the dean and deputy dean. As the commencement time of the
lecture drew near, the auditorium filled up with staff and students, black and
white. There must have been 120 or more bodies seated awaiting the lecture.
There was an energetic buzz. After a welcome and introduction Fr Jim gave his
lecture entitled “The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger – Pope Benedict XVI”. A
strange topic in a Protestant Faculty with strong Calvinist heritage? The topic
was at the request of the faculty itself! Anybody who has read the writings of
Pope Benedict will know that he is not for the faint hearted; the Pope has a
very dense style which requires much attention to master. He comes from serious
“high brow” German scholarship. He is a serious academic theologian.

Once the lecture
had ended there was an opportunity for questions. I was amazed. The enthusiasm,
the passion and the deep knowledge of the theology of Benedict, his views on
salvation, nature, grace and anthropology were striking. Good questions were
asked by the young and old. It was clear to me that serious scholarship
combined with passion and enthusiasm was alive and well at UFS. It was a night
to be remembered and a night in which I felt consoled about the quality of
theology which was discussed.

The next day Winter
Living Theology
started for the Catholics. What an anti-climax. Only
sixteen people arrived (out of the thirty that had registered). It was, in my
view, disappointing. I began to muse again, as I have before, about how much of
a theological desert we really inhabit as Catholics in SA. We are, for the most
part, under resourced and strenuous theological investigation and development
has not been a priority in the South African Catholic Church. We have produced
some excellent scholars (like Albert Nolan and Brian Gaybba) but in a Church
which is struggling to meet pastoral demand (many communities don’t have a
priest for example) and in a Church which has tried to respond to other crises
like HIV/AIDS using many resources this is not surprising. It is inevitable
perhaps. What is more worrying is that there seems to be little passion and
enthusiasm for good theology. Some priests, after leaving the seminary, proudly
announce that they have never looked at a theological book again! Our lay
people seem equally (not surprising either!) disinterested in the faith. When
good scholars, like Jim Corkery, come to SA both our professional ministers
(priests and religious) and lay people do not seize the opportunity to grapple
with good Catholic Theology. It’s a shame and it says a whole lot about where
the Church is and, I suggest, a somber warning to us that we are losing the
very foundation of our faith.

The growing divide
in the Church in SA (and other parts) between what some deem
orthodox/unorthodox, the mushrooming of more and more Catholic fundamentalism
(right and left) and the unwillingness to dialogue about thorny issues which
require a willingness to listen (in areas like ethics and liturgy) are all
examples of what happens when good scholarship and investigation is, for the
most part, absent. Perhaps Catholics believe that we have “the sacraments” and
somehow, magically, they will always be enough. Our sacraments themselves are
threatened by the lack of good theology, they become diluted and interpreted in
a space of ignorance albeit innocently. Changing our worship or seeking to
enforce the letter of the law or rolling back Vatican II are not going to make
much qualitative difference – it will lead, dare I say, to more ignorance.
What’s missing is a fundamental passion and enthusiasm to grapple with good
theology so that the content of our faith is explored and understood. It is, once
this is done, that we can make good, informed theological decisions which will
open the pathways to dialogue and transformation. It’s the old story: good
theological education is the key and we are not using that key.

The Catholic Church
in SA can learn from the Dutch Reformed Church. They have something we are
lacking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of the theological passion and
enthusiasm rubbed off on us? We desperately need good home grown serious
theological investigation and study coupled with serious passion and

I am grateful for
my experience at UFS, it gives me some hope in what is largely a theological



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