“Ask a Priest: Does the Church Have a List of Authoritative Theologians?”

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Q: My question pertains to Catholic doctrine, or more precisely, how to learn it. Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, emphasizes the importance of Sacred Tradition. This is why we look at the popes’ encyclicals, for example, as well as other Church documents. They are full of quotes not only from the Bible, but also from other texts which have enough authority to be used as a “proof” to back up a certain assertion. The problem is that we Catholics don’t seem to have a precise list of such texts. We know we can rely on the Bible, the Church documents, the early Church Fathers, the doctors of the Church, and maybe the saints’ writings. The problem arises when it comes to the theologians. How can we know if we can consider a certain book theologically authoritative? We Catholics do not seem to keep track of who are those who are theologically reliable — as far as I am concerned. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make such a list if it doesn’t exist, in order to protect the faithful from errors? — P.G.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good to remember that many saints and doctors of the Church were in fact great theologians. Lists of the doctors (that is, outstanding teachers of the faith) are easy to find online.

The phrase “theologically authoritative” is not a standard term used by the Church.

Certainly, some theologians are more highly regarded than others. Pope Leo XIII, for instance, held up the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas as a model, in the 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris. But even St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t get everything right, notwithstanding his brilliance and holiness.

Ultimately the only one who is “authoritative” is the magisterium of the Church.

The magisterium is the Church’s teaching authority, vested in the bishops, as successors of the apostles, under the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St. Peter. It is also vested in the Pope, as Vicar of Christ and visible head of the Catholic Church.

Even the writings of the best theologians might need to be corrected over time. This isn’t because the theologians are closet heretics. Rather, theologians at times advance arguments that push the limits of what is generally accepted in their own day.

Their arguments, in turn, face the scrutiny of other theologians and later generations of thinkers. The best ideas of theologians will withstand the test of time. But again, not every great theologian gets everything exactly right. Their work has to be evaluated — and constructively criticized if necessary — by the Church.

This isn’t to say there are no helpful lists of esteemed theologians. One such list is in the Index of Citations, under Ecclesiastical Writers, at the back of the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Looking for assurance about the veracity of modern theologians, some Catholics will look for a nihil obstat (“nothing stands in the way”) and imprimatur (“let it be printed”) at the beginning a book.

In theory these designations should ensure that a book is basically sound theologically. But they don’t mean that everything in the book is infallible.

Indeed, for some books of theology a more-fitting Latin phrase is caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

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