An Urgent Need
Increasingly since the 1950s most secular democracies have set up Scientific Advisory Committees to enable governments and civil society to access scientific knowledge in the most independent, impartial and comprehensive manner. It is our intention to do something similar with regard to the field of Catholic theology.
The ultimate goal is to set up independent academic bodies which could offer peer-reviewed reports at the service of the Christian church at large and the Catholic hierarchy in particular. Their main purpose would be to offer ‘green papers’ – aimed at consultation (of the wider theological community, the entire church, or of a specific section of it, e.g. medical doctors, economists, laywomen, parents, and so on) – and ‘white papers’ offering authoritative reports on theological issues. Those reports will enjoy the authority generally assigned to peer-reviewed, independent, evidence based, and academically rigorous scholarship.
The need for such bodies is quite urgent. In our contemporary complex societies, all churches are faced with problems whose solution often requires specialised expertise. With regard to theology in particular, the papacy did set up official advisory bodies at the service of the Catholic Church – the International Theological Commission (ITC) and the Pontifical Biblical Commission – but those still lack an adequate selection procedure to guarantee their academic freedom and independence.
Again, the 27 reports produced by the ITC since 1969 display varying degrees of scholarship, but they have not always reflected the best available evidence or theological scholarship, including the many insights which have emerged from the ongoing ecumenical dialogues. A large global institution like the Catholic Church can do better than that. Today it is relatively easy to tap on the experiences, insights, judgements, and values of Catholics worldwide, both experts and lay.
Moreover, setting up peer-reviewed independent advisory committees in various areas of theology would be an initial step towards addressing the current lack of official structures for genuine dialogue between theologians and the episcopal hierarchy (as well as between the former and the church at large).
The goal, it needs to be underlined, is not for such bodies to become an alternative to the current ITC. Rather, we hope that its findings and position statements will complement the work of the ITC and, whenever they are both addressing the same topic, provide an independent peer-review of the latter’s conclusions.
How Will Those Theological Advisory Committees Work?
Theological Advisory Committees operate differently from the ITC. It may be helpful to recall that the ITC can only have up to 30 members – who cannot possibly be specialised in the many areas of theology and of intersection between theology and the other disciplines.
In contrast, there can be an Advisory Committee for every of the major areas or topics to be addressed. Rather than trying to be an assembly of polymaths, each of them will be composed of experts in the relevant discipline(s) only.
Their role would be that of supervising the collaborative process by setting the agenda, contributing to the data-gathering, moderating the discussion, assessing successive drafts, and bringing to closure the collaborative report once agreement has been reached.
Nowadays, a considerable portion of the discussion and drafting required to produce agreed statements could take place remotely, via video-conferencing and private online discussion forums. This also entails a great flexibility in terms of the time commitment required of members of any future Theological Advisory Committees.
Finally, similar advisory bodies could also fulfil the function of clearing house for contributions from the national theological associations, whose world-wide coordination is still currently very weak.
What to do next
If you want to be part of this new initiative and contribute your expertise to produce peer-reviewed research reports on key theological issues, please register online here.
We would be delighted to have you on board. Should you have any questions or suggestions at this early stage, please let us know.