A Methodology for Practical Theology

At a graduate course on the “foundations for practical theology” we examined the work of Karl Rahner and explored his contribution in emphasizing the role of “practical theology” within the post Vatican II Catholic Church. In one of the articles that we read he offered this definition:

The task of practical theology as an original science demands a theological analysis of the particular present situation in which the Church is to carry out the special self-realization appropriate to it at any given moment.[1]

The idea of the Church intentionally inserting itself within the context of the present situation, what Rahner calls self-realization, is a concept that I find exciting. Like others who have contributed to the development of “practical theology” Rahner will strongly suggest that the theoretical theological disciplines (e.g. systematic, moral, biblical, and liturgical) would benefit from an intentional relationship with practical theology. However he places an emphasis on the power of practical theology to ground the other theological disciples with a methodology for doing concrete analysis and research. He reminds us that other academic disciplines rely on research and methodology in order to validate their developing theories. Theology must also engage in this methodological process.  For Rahner practical theology contributes its ability to provide critical analysis and a practical application to the theological perspectives.  “This contemporary analysis does not remain its only task, but it is indespensible.”[2]

In his article, “The Second Vatican Council’s Challenge to Theology ,“ Rahner again addresses how the theological disciplines must relate with the methodological process that practical theology offers. He goes so far as to suggest that even historical theology must take advantage of the analysis that practical theology offers into the emerging patterns so that the Church’s history can respond to the emerging situation. “He [historical theologian] must be sensitive to the evolving awareness, heralded both in the promising and in the distressing aspects of the imminent future.” [3]

This proposal from Rahner opens the way for a specific model for doing critical theological analysis that is developed by Peter Henriot and Joe Holland, A model they call the “Pastoral Circle.” Their book, “Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice” (a cherished book in my own personal library) has been an essential resource for me in my social advocacy and public policy ministry. What Henriot and Holland do is to develop a process for having church communities or organizations do critical theological analysis on social systems. The intention of the “Pastoral Circle” is that it “looks at the reality from an involved, historical committed stance discerning the situation for the purpose of action.”[4] They propose a four step process:[5]

  1. Insertion – locating “the geography of our pastoral responses in the lived experience of individuals and communities.”
  2. Social Analysis – “examines causes, probes consequences, delineates linkages, and identifies actors.”
  3. Theological Reflection – “an effort to understand more broadly and deeply the analyzed experience in the light of living faith.”
  4. Pastoral Planning – In light of the experience analyzed and reflected upon, what response is called by individuals and by communities?

Henriot and Holland follow a similar line of thinking with Rahner except that they come at it from two different paths. Rahner has made a theological argument for practical theology to develop a method for doing analysis in order for the theological disciplines to gain an emerging social perspective. Henriot and Holland are engaged in the process of doing critical social analysis and integrate this within a theological framework. While they do not mention “practical theology” I believe that it is implied in what they call the “pastoral approach.”

Henriot and Holland have constructed a valuable tool for those of us engaged in offering social analysis. It seems that slowly the academic world is appreciating the contributions of “practical theology.” On the ground the Church had invested some resource in doing social advocacy. After the 1971 Synod of Bishops which brought to life the prophetic document “Justice in the World” there was an ecclesial movement here in the United States to be aware of the “signs of the times” and to recognize that,

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel. #6

Various Catholic advocacy organizations and Diocesan projects like parish social ministries and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development had blossomed with this movement.  Sadly, with tight resources and a shifting political climate the Church here in the U.S. does not seem to be as interested in promoting this methodology or applying a socially critical theological analysis. For the moment the prophetic church seems to be relegated to “the voice of one [or perhaps a few] crying in the wilderness,” but even so we dare not lose this essential theological contribution.

Perhaps within the context of the “New Evangelization” we can re-appropriate this methodology and offer it to an emerging generation. The current synod on the “New Evangelization” has recognized that the cultural situation has changed and they are proposing that the Church must respond to this “with renewed energy, determination, resourcefulness and newness, to look at the way she lives and transmits the faith.”[6] The Church would very much benefit from the methodology of practical theology to accomplish this aim.


[1] Karl Rahner, “Practical Theology Within the Totality of Theological Disciplines,” in Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Volume IX, translated by Graham Harrisn (London: Darton, Longmans, and Todd, 1972), pp. 104-105

[2] Ibid.; pp. 105

[3] Karl Rahner, “The Second Vatican Council’s Challenge to Theology” in Karl Rahner, Theological Invetsigations, Volume IX, translated by Graham Herrison (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972), pp. 10

[4] Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983) pp. 7

[5] Ibid., pp.8

[6] Vatican, 2012 Synod of Bishops, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith: Instrumentum Laboris” #49, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20120619_instrumentum-xiii_en.html

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About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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