The later half of the nineteenth century saw an interesting – and lamentable – development in Catholic theology (unique from the interesting and lamentable movement that occurred in much Protestant theology). Various forces within the Church and without caused theology to begin to consider itself as more or less complete. That is, the house of theology was finished and all that was left to do was to furnish it.
It should be rather apparent as to the kind of problems such an opinion would cause. Theology as a discipline quickly stagnated, though a few fields (such as mystical theology – or spirituality) still flourished with new thought (for example, this was the era of St. Therese’s Little Way). This began to come undone in the 1930s with the “New Theologians” (the term was originally derogatory and indicated the degree to which it was presumed theology shouldn’t do something new). They rightly observed that the infinite mystery of God as revealed to the Church could never be exhausted. The work of theology would never be done.
As the world progresses man begins to notice new issues they had not before. At some point all these issues need to be addressed by theology; its constant process is to join in noticing new things with the eyes of God.
Several great issues exist today that were little noticed before. For example, the environment, political oppression, and, of particular interest in this post, the relation of the sexes and marriage. It is interesting to note that prior to the nineteenth century there is almost no notice of sexual inequality; for various reasons it simply was not an issue. Today such an idea is almost incomprehensible. Perhaps surprisingly, the same can be said of marriage. There were theological thought on marriage but they were few and usually belonged to another subject (for example, sacramental theology or moral theology). Marriage qua marriage was rarely discussed.
Today it has become apparent we cannot ignore the idea of Marriage and the myriad subjects that related to it properly (sex, contraception, divorce, etc.). An answer was needed from not simply the world but also the Church; that is, by theology. To be the true answer (as opposed to the popular) it must grow from the heart of the Church, from her Scripture and tradition.
If we look at the theology of the last forty years (theology is always slow; a problem exists in the popular eye for many years before theologians can address it rightly) it is clear that there is a rich, growing tradition of thought in marriage. Perhaps the greatest boon has been the writings of Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II. Between Love and Responsibility and his Wednesday audiences compiled as The Theology of the Body he addressed most of the new questions that had been framed in the last hundred years regarding marriage (and thus sex, etc.).
It is worth remembering that some of the answers provided by the Pope truly were new. The traditional Catholic understanding was simply inadequate. What John Paul provided was not contrary or discontinuous from this tradition, but was not contained in it. One could not simply mine the works published prior to 1950 to find everything given us by his thought; there is something there that wasn’t there before.
We are, of course, not done; there are many new theological thoughts to be drawn out, itself not the final step. A cursory glance at the Church (much the less the world) reveals that no theology of the body (lowercase) has been integrated into her life. It will take many more years for it to find it’s place and these will, undoubtedly, reveal new theologies questions to be answered.
Theology is the ever-present work of bridging the gap between the unchanging God and the ever-changing world of man. And as such, it shall never be done but always worth doing.