Erik Borgman OPL
To speak in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas: It seems that there is no such thing as Dominican theology. This would be Thomas’ way to say that, counter to common belief, there is such thing as Dominican theology, in a way. This is exactly what I intend to say here.
The Dominican tradition does not focus on ‘to have and to hold’. It is a tradition of wandering around, begging for food and shelter. As for theology, Dominic did not encourage his followers to develop a separate theology, but send them away as soon as possible so as to preach to all.
The start of the Dominican Order was embedded in a much broader movement of people who, in the midst of societal and cultural turmoil, wanted to live a life according to the Gospel. “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts”, they read in the Gospel according to Matthew, “no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food” (Matt. 10:9-10). This attempt to live with the bare necessities was a revolution in comparison with the religious life taking shape in abbeys or in the dedication of the Canons Regular to the liturgy in their cathedrals.
Saint Dominic was such a canon in Osma, Spain. On a journey together with his bishop Diego, he saw the necessity to preach the Gospel from a position that was directly connected to everyday life in the world. The Cathars, who were highly successful in the South of France, preached that only those disconnecting themselves from the material life of food and procreation would be saved. Dominic, as Preacher of Grace (Predicator gratiae), contested this strongly: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). But the Cathars were successful partly because they were without possessions, living the lives of the apostles in the early church. This is what Dominic took from them.
Religious life as traveling, eating and sleeping among the common folks in order to be able to credibly preach to them, from the midst of their world: It was a revolution and remains revolutionary to this day.
This vision of preaching in poverty has not been handed down from one generation to the next. For quite some time therefore, Dominicans saw poverty as an ascetic value in its own right, and not in its direct connection to their preaching mission. And they considered the content of what they preached as their possession, from which they could take and give freely and at will. In the nineteenth century, the Dominican mission of living a religious life dedicated to preaching in poverty was rediscovered. It is not claiming too much, I think, to suggest that the rediscovery of the Dominican mission, and modern Dominican theology, started with Henri-Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861). Lacordaire re-established the Dominican Order in France after the French revolution, but in point of fact he re-founded it as really and truly an order of preachers directed to preaching.
Lacordaire did not intend to return to the pre-revolutionary situation. The mission of the Dominican Order as he saw it was based on the insight that – as Lacordaire phrased it – présence au monde est présence à Dieu: Presence in the world is presence with God. From this there would then develop a form of theology that could be called Dominican.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Lacordaire’s adage became a slogan within the movement of worker priests. This movement wanted to reconnect the church with the workers. Priests, and many Dominicans among them, started to live among the workers. They took jobs in factories, mines and harbors. The experiment of the worker priests was terminated in 1954, but its influence has been lasting.
Dominican theologian historian Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990) was closely connected to the worker priests. Chenu developed a view of theology not as a static treasure, but as a reflection on the contemporary situation and of God’s involvement in it. It is God’s faithful engagement with the people in their ongoing history that makes faith and theology possible. Instigated by Chenu, the Second Vatican Council would then come to speak of a phrase therefore coined by “reading the signs of the times” (Gaudium et spes, 4).
Dominican theology, in my view, is reading God’s presence in the signs of the times and in the light of the Gospel. We are still discovering what this means for the method and the content of theology, but for me there is no other way.