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The Future of Public Theology (Daniel R. DiLeo)

The following is adapted from a talk given at the conference “Public Theology and the Global Common Good,” held at Boston College on October 15.

 At this year’s vice-presidential debate, Governors Tim Kaine and Mike Pence were asked to “discuss in detail a time when [they] struggled to balance [their] personal faith and a public policy position.” For many people of faith, the subsequent reflections were one of the most substantive of this election season. For all Americans, the discussions underscored that religion does play a public role in civic life.

In the 1979 article “Theology and Philosophy in Public,” David Hollenbach, S.J. helped pioneer the area of public theology by defining it as “the effort to discover and communicate the socially significant meanings of Christian symbols and tradition.” In light of the vice-presidential debate, and as Boston College celebrates Hollenbach’s legacy this weekend with the conference “Public Theology and the Global Common Good,” I offer these reflections about the current challenges, sources of hope, and future for public theology.


For the past seven years, I have worked for the Catholic Climate Covenant which supports and complements the Environmental Justice Program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In particular, we assist and promote the bishops’ legislative agenda on climate change. Towards that end, we help bring the Church’s theology of creation and the human person into the public square as a wisdom source to shape discourse and policy. In other words, we do public theology.

In doing this work of public theology, one of the biggest challenges that I have seen is translating broad theological truth claims into particular concern for climate change and support for concrete policies. For example, I have often heard—from both Catholics and non-Catholics—that the Christian commitment to “cultivate and care for” God’s creation expressed in Genesis 2:15 does not require either belief in human-forced climate change or support for the Clean Power Plan. Although these claims are true, the hostility with which I often hear them expressed suggests to me that there is more to them than simple charitable disagreement among the faithful about matters of prudential judgment (Gaudium et Spes #43).

As with any sociopolitical dynamic, there are likely many reasons for the challenges I have observed of moving from care for creation to concern about climate change and support for the Clean Power Plan. In my experience, however, three seem especially plausible. First, individuals’ positions on specific issues and policies often appear more animated by partisan ideologies than theological commitments. Second, there seems to be a perception that the Church’s attention to particular issues exceeds its technical competency. Third, there appears to be a fear that faith-based advocacy compromises the Church’s political neutrality.


Amidst these challenges, however, I find hope as an aspiring public theologian in two particular places. The first is Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’. There, Francis engages in public theology by addressing “every person living on this planet” (#3), explaining why religion should be part of public environmental discourse and outlining both “the Gospel of Creation” and its corresponding general ethical principles (e.g., the common good, solidarity, and the universal destination of goods).

At the same time, however, the pope goes on to make practical and policy-related recommendations about how to concretely implement the Christian commitments to care for creation and human persons. For example, he emphasizes that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay” (#165). Additionally, he criticizes “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’” (#171). Moreover, he underscores the need for “enforceable international agreements [that] are urgently needed” (#173). Through these assertions, Francis demonstrates that people of faith can and should proceed from general theological commitments to particular positions and advocacy.

In addition to Laudato Si’, I find hope in the staff and bishops of the USCCB. In their 2001 pastoral letter Global Climate Change, the U.S. bishops recognized the importance of climate change discourse and policy. Since then, and animated by Catholic theology, the USCCB advocated for a national carbon pollution standard, endorsed the Clean Power Plan, and called on Congress to honor the United States’ pledge to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund which will support international climate change mitigation and adaptation. Additionally, 110 bishops published statements in support of Laudato Si’, seven participated in encyclical-related press conferences, and several have written op-eds about the moral dimensions of climate change. I am thus encouraged by the bishops’ example and willingness to take public, faith-based positions on climate change and policies.


Moving forward, there are several elements from the work of Hollenbach and his colleagues that ought to shape the future of public theology. First, public theologians should embrace Hollenbach’s emphasis in The Global Face of Public Faith on the need for “practical moral reason” and casuistry (94-95). Especially in response to the challenge of moving from general truth claims to particular concerns and advocacy, these reflections can encourage public theologians to embrace the practical discernment that’s deeply embedded in the Catholic moral tradition. Here, I would add that the work of Richard R. Gaillardetz on levels of church teaching authority and assent can help guide public theologians’ progression from dogma to doctrine to prudential judgments.

Relatedly, public theologians should adopt J. Bryan Hehir’s “legislative-policy” model of Catholic social engagement and utilize the Pastoral Circle of Joe Holland and Peter Henriot. In his essay “The Right and Competence of the Church in the American Case,” Hehir describes the legislative-policy model that both preserves the Church’s “transcendence” à la Gaudium et Spes and enriches its teaching mission through casuistry (59-60). Additionally, Holland and Henriot describe in their book Social Analysis how the four phases of the Pastoral Circle—insertion, social analysis, theological reflection, and pastoral planning—can help people of faith practically pursue discourse and activities that are both technically informed and theologically enriched.

Finally, public theologians—especially those working with the episcopate—should emulate Hollenbach’s work and heed his call for consultation of the laity. Economic Justice for All on which he worked was celebrated in part because of the bishops’ extraordinary efforts to confer with interdisciplinary experts. Similarly in his America Magazine article “Joy and Hope, Grief and Anguish,” Hollenbach underscores the need for bishops to listen to the insights of the laity before moving to teach about morality and ethics. In my view, this insight applies to all public theologians, and with reference to the Pastoral Circle should especially occur at the step of social analysis.


 Public theology will undoubtedly continue to play a significant role in the church’s twenty-first century public witness. In order to effectively bring their theological commitments into the public square, people of faith should look for guidance from the work of David Hollenbach, S.J. who helped pioneer public theology and continues to influence this field. Doing so will help the faithful in “scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel,” and so enrich both the church and the world (Gaudium et Spes #4).

Daniel R. DiLeo is a Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in theological ethics at Boston College. He writes regularly for Millennial Journal.

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