Jordan Aumann, O.P.


Spiritual theology did not emerge as a distinct and well-defined branch of sacred doctrine until the seventeenth century, although special treatises on the spiritual life had been written by various Fathers of the Church. The terminology "ascetical and mystical theology" was firmly established by the Jesuit, John Baptist Scaramelli (1687-1752). Unfortunately, the terms "ascetical" and "mystical" do not have the same meaning for all theologians, and this has given rise to a great deal of discussion down to the present day. Authors will usually fall into one of the following classifications:

1) The terms "ascetical" and "mystical" are used interchangeably to designate the subject matter of the theology of the spiritual life.

2) Ascetical theology covers the spiritual life from its beginnings to the dawn of infused contemplation; mystical theology treats of all the grades of mystical prayer and the passive purgations, terminating in the transforming union.

3) Ascetical theology treats of the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways insofar as a person operates under the impetus of ordinary grace; mystical theology treats of the extraordinary gifts and charisms that sometimes accompany a religious experience.

4) Ascetical theology deals with the purgative and illuminative stages; mystical theology studies the unitive stage of the perfect.

5) The distinction between ascetical and mystical activity is determined by the predominance of the operation of the virtues, which always function modo humano, or the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are activated by the Holy Spirit and function modo divino.

Definition of Spirituality.

Not too many years ago, theologians were discussing and debating such questions as the universal call to holiness, infused contemplation as the logical flowering of the life of grace, the possibility of an "acquired" contemplation, and the relative merits of the active and the contemplative life. Today, however, the documents of the Second Vatican Council have definitively settled many of the questions that previously caused division among the schools of theology. In their place we have a more radical disagreement concerning the definition of spirituality and spiritual theology.

For example,. Louis Bouyer states that "Christian spirituality. . . is distinguished from dogma by the fact that, instead of studying or describing the objects of belief as it were in the abstract, it studies the reactions which these objects arouse in the religious consciousness. . . . We still need to indicate the place of spiritual theology in relation to moral theology. . . . While the latter examines all human acts in reference to their ultimate end, whether this reference be explicit or not, spirituality concentrates on those in which the reference to God is not only explicit but immediate. . . . Spirituality is located far more within the heart of morality than alongside it" (The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. vii-ix, passim).

According to Hans Urs von Balthasar, "spirituality may be approximately defined as that basic practical or existential attitude of man which is the consequence and expression of the way in which he understands his religious---or more generally, his ethically committed---existence. . . . It is not fully covered by 'practical theology' . . . nor can it be identified with 'ascetic-mystical' theology, which . . .limits the personal application of fundamental religious decisions to specific 'exercises' and experiences" (Spirituality in Church and World, pp. 7-8).

Francois Vandenbroucke describes spiritual theology as "the science of the application of the Gospel to Christian life on the intellectual plane, the ascetical plane and the properly mystical plane" (Spirituality in Church and World, pp. 51-52).

Having seen a sampling of contemporary opinions concerning spirituality and spiritual theology, we shall review some of the basic premises from which we can formulate a definition of spiritual theology. First of all, taken in its widest sense, spirituality can be predicated of any life style or experience that has a religious or ethical connotation and is concretized in an individual as the attitude or spirit from which his actions flow. (cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, op. cit., pp. 7-8). Hence, wherever there is a belief in the transcendent being which we call God and the witness of that belief in one's life, there is a spirituality. In this context one can speak of a Zen spirituality, a Hindu spirituality, a Muslim spirituality, a Jewish spirituality and a Christian spirituality, although we agree with Louis Bouyer that the study of spirituality in this wide sense pertains to the field of religious psychology rather than theology (cf. L. Bouyer, op. cit., p. viii).

When we focus on Christian spirituality, we find that it can be described as the spirit of the Gospel actually lived and manifested. W.K. Grossouw defines it as "faith in God and love for man, in the fellowship of Jesus Christ" (Spirituality of the New Testament, p. 194). For A.M. Besnard it is "the structuring of an adult personality in faith, according to one's proper genius, vocation and charismatic gifts, on the one hand, and according to the laws of the universal Christian mystery on the other" (Spirituality in Church and World, p. 26). All those who have faith in Jesus Christ and strive to live according to his teaching are witnesses of Christian spirituality, whether they be Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.

If, further, we concentrate on Christian spirituality in the Catholic tradition, we discover that there are "schools of spirituality." Numerous authors in modern times have rejected this classification in the name of egalitarianism, but the variety of schools of Catholic spirituality is reasonable and necessary, both on the part of God and on the part of individual souls. As regards God, St. Paul has stated: "Just as each of our bodies has several parts and each part has a separate function, so all of us, in union with Christ, form one body, and as parts of it we belong to one another. Our gifts differ according to the grace given us" (Rm 12:4-6). And St. Thomas Aquinas says: "The first cause of this diversity is to be sought on the part of God, who dispenses his gifts of grace variously in order that the beauty and perfection of the Church may result from these various degrees" (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 112, a. 4).

The justification of schools of spirituality from a subjective point of view rests on the fact that grace does not destroy or replace nature but works through it to perfect it (cf. Summa Theologiae, I-II, loc. cit.). A person's response to grace and the use one makes of it will be greatly influenced by subjective factors such as moral predispositions, temperament and character. Moreover, numerous saintly individuals have attracted followers who embraced the same form of Christian life, as happened with the founders of religious institutes.

The schools of spirituality are an indication of the diversity of the ways of the Spirit and a sign of the Church's respect for personal freedom. The Christian life must allow for adaptation to individual needs as well as the diversity of various cultures and changing circumstances of history. As the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church must be constantly adapting and renewing, in accordance with the demands of various gifts, graces, ministries and charisms. This is evident from the history of Catholic spirituality throughout the centuries.

Spirituality as Theology.

Yet another use of the word "spirituality" is its designation as the theological science which investigates the nature of Christian perfection and the means to attain it. In fact, the terminology "ascetical and mystical theology," in use since the seventeenth century, was replaced in France in the 1920's by the title "spiritual theology." Later on, in Spain, the term "theology of Christian perfection" became popular.

The difficulty involved in constructing a theology of the spiritual life consists in the fact that the Christian life is at once a mystery and a problem, as was stated by Jiménez Duque in Teología de la Mística. It is a mystery because it is a sharing in the divine life, which is "hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3). It becomes a problem when it is made the object of study and investigation, in accordance with the ancient maxim: Prius vita quam doctrinam; vita ducit ad cognitionem veritatis.

The literature on the spiritual life can be divided into three types of writing: 1) that which records and describes the actual experiences of the saints and mystics (e.g. The Spiritual Doctrine of Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity by Fr. M.M. Philipon); 2) that which exhorts the reader to greater perfection and gives spiritual direction (e.g. The Imitation of Christ); 3) that which makes a scientific study of Christian holiness and the means to attain it (e.g. the pertinent sections of Summa Theologiae, by St. Thomas Aquinas).. On the other hand, the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are a blending of all three types of spiritual writing.

This brings us to the question of spirituality as a branch of theology and the proper method of theologizing. It should be evident that since the Christian spiritual life belongs to the supernatural order as a life of grace and the virtues, the proper method of investigation and study is the theological method. Secondly, the conclusions drawn from this study must be sufficiently universal, since there is no such thing as a science of particulars. For St. Thomas Aquinas, the science of theology is primarily a speculative science which seeks knowledge through causes and deduces conclusions from principles. The Spanish theologian Santiago Ramírez, O.P., puts it this way:

Theology is a scientific "habit," and like every habit, it is specified by its formal object. Theology is indivisibly one science which has as its unique object God sub ratione deitatis. Since spiritual theology has as its subject matter the supernatural life of the Christian soul, it considers God insofar as he is the first cause and the last end of the spiritual life of the individual Christian (cf. De hominis beatitudine, vol. I, pp. 57-58).

E. Gilson agrees with this statement. After stating that the spiritual life is the life of sanctifying grace, which elevates the individual to friendship with God, he concludes that the only science that can study the spiritual life is theology.

Since this life is ultimately a communication of divine life to the soul, everything that one says of it enters directly into our science of God, which is theology. . . .Since it is a question of a science, it will treat of the nature of the divine life and the general laws according to which it is communicated to the human soul; since it is a question of a science that is primarily speculative, this teaching will be concerned first of all with a theoretical discussion of this nature and these laws; and since, finally, it is a question of a sacred science. . ., this study will have no other method than that of theology itself: it will proceed dogmatically, starting from the word of God, of which the Church is the custodian and interpreter. . . . Based as it is on the authority of the word of God, the theology of the spiritual life proceeds by way of authority. . . . It states dogmatically the laws which every authentically spiritual life ought to obey, because these laws are deduced from its origin and its end (Théologie et l'Histoire de la Spiritualité, pp. 12-17).

However, granting the obvious benefit of greater certitude as a result of the Scholastic method of theologizing, some theologians have been reluctant to follow a rigidly scientific approach. This seemed to be the only way to avoid an a priori definition of spiritual theology. Moreover, and more importantly, the spiritual life is dynamic; it is a life lived and experienced by individual persons within an existential framework . Consequently, the theology of the spiritual life must necessarily take into account the manner in which grace works through the personality to bring individuals to the perfection of the Christian life. Hence, Yves Congar called for a reflexive type of theology which "philosophizes on the whole Christian reality, illuminated, if you will, by the existential experience of man" (A History of Theology, p. 17). Chenu called for an historico-biblical theology which strives to supersede the doctrinal-speculative theology of tradition (cf. I. Mennessier, Saint Thomas d'Aquin: L'homme chrétien, p. 248}.

Both Speculative and Practical.

The fundamental question is whether spiritual theology can be classified as .an extension of moral theology or whether they differ, and to what extent. According to Santiago Ramírez of Salamanca, there is only a "modal" or "accidental" difference between the two, and he explains it this way:

"Moral theology as such treats of the act of charity in its totality, as incipient, advanced and perfect; casuistic moral theology treats of incipient charity, so far as it discusses the lawful and the unlawful, or what is compatible or incompatible with incipient charity; ascetical theology treats of advanced charity; and mystical theology treats of perfect charity, though not exclusively. . . . Therefore, they are in error who wish to establish an essential difference between moral theology and ascetico-mystical theology by reason of the primary object, just as they would be in error who would attempt to make a specific distinction in the psychology of the infancy, adolescence and maturity of the same individual person (op. cit., pp. 57-58).

Other theologians, however, have been unwilling to admit such a close relationship between moral theology and spiritual theology. They have insisted on a much greater autonomy for the theology of Christian perfection. To justify their position, they point to the obvious differences between the theology in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas and in The Ascent-Dark Night of St. John of the Cross, or the differences between the modern manuals of theology and the textbooks of systematic Scholastic theology. They could also point to the historical fact of the separation of spiritual theology from other branches of theology, which is the logical result of the development of theological investigation and the emphasis on specialization which characterizes the modern age. What they are seeking is a new approach to theology which will satisfy the needs of modern man: less systematic and speculative, and more attentive to the needs of the individual in his existential situation.

Maritain responded by making a distinction in moral theology: it is a speculative-practical science insofar as it is an objective, systematic study of the principles of Christian morality; it is a practico-practical science insofar as it applies speculative moral doctrine to the concrete situation of human conduct in pursuit of Christian perfection. But T. Deman branded Maritain's distinction as "fictitious," asserting that the application of moral laws and principles to singulars does not change the nature of a science. Moreover, subjective experience is outside the domain of science as science; it belongs to the area of prudence. As such, it is valuable for moralists and spiritual directors, but it lies outside the domain of theologians.

Following a similar line of thought, Yves Congar maintained that there is no justification for classifying "spiritual theology" as a special theology distinct from general practical theology. It is simply a practical and applied function of theology insofar as it applies to the experiential awareness of the principles of moral theology, and in this respect spiritual theology may be classified as a "specialty" within the context of moral theology.

The discussion continued until the 1940's, when Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., and Joseph de Guibert, S.J., intervened and explained the precise role of psychological data in the study of the spiritual life. The psychological elements of the spiritual life have scientific value then they are interpreted by the principles of theology. Using a methodical process of induction, the theologian demonstrates their relationship or dependence on theological principles. An example of this is found in the writings of St. John of the Cross when he relates the psychological effects of the "dark nights" to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the soul. Spiritual theology will necessarily deal with the psychological aspect of the spiritual life and it is precisely that which distinguishes it from speculative, systematic moral theology. Spiritual theology adds to general moral theology the experiential element, which constitutes, as it were, its specific difference.

The foregoing explanation by Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen was generally accepted by theologians of the spiritual life, and the heat of controversy gradually subsided. Although there were minor points of difference, theologians had reached a consensus concerning the three elements that constitute spiritual theology: 1) the psychological data of the spiritual experience; 2) the application of theological principles to the experience; and 3) practical directives for further progress in the spiritual life. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange stated it most succinctly when he said that spiritual theology is "the application of this broad moral theology to the direction of souls toward ever closer union with God" (Christian Perfection and Contemplation, p. 13).

Definition of Spiritual Theology

At this point we can formulate a descriptive definition of spiritual theology as "that part of theology which, from the principles of systematic moral theology and the experiential data of religious experience, defines the nature of the supernatural life, formulates the laws of its growth, and explains the process by which souls advance from the beginning of the spiritual life to its full perfection." Each phrase in this definition deserves a fuller explanation.

In saying that spiritual theology is a part of theology, we admit that there is a distinction between spiritual theology and dogmatic and moral theology, not as a specifically distinct branch of theology but as an area of specialization. In a sense, according to Garrigou-Lagrange, it holds the place of honor in theology because "ascetical and mystical theology assembles all the lights of dogmatic and moral theology, of which it is the most elevated application and the crown. . . . Ascetical and mystical theology, or spiritual doctrine, is not a special science but a division of theology" (Christian Perfection and Contemplation, p. 17).

Theology is divided into two parts, dogmatic and moral. Traditionally, in accordance with the Scholastic method, moral theology treated of human acts, sin and law, grace and the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the course of time some theologians rearranged the content of moral and dogmatic theology. As a result, moral theology was reduced to casuistry, thus making it a science of sins to be avoided rather than virtues to be practiced. The net result was that moral theology was no longer sufficient for the guidance of souls aspiring to greater perfection. Consequently, the theology of the spiritual life and Christian perfection emerged as a distinct area of specialization in theological study. However, the creation of different specialities in theology does not signify a process of fragmentation or decadence; rather, it is a normal process of development.

To say, secondly, that spiritual theology proceeds from the principles of divine revelation is to emphasize the fact that it is a science of the objects of faith, an explicatio fidei. If this were not so, it would not be theology at all. Unlike the purely philosophical knowledge about God, acquired through reason alone, sacred theology is a knowledge of God stemming from the gift of supernatural faith. Credo ut intelligam; and unless you believe, you will not understand.

The reason for stressing this point is that spiritual theology must frequently treat of the findings of psychology (for example, when dealing with concomitant or extraordinary phenomena). In such cases it is theology that must judge the experimental data, and not the natural sciences which sit in judgment on theological principles or the articles of faith. This does not preclude a psychologist from studying the external manifestations of the spiritual life and religion, as long as it is understood that the supernatural lies outside the domain of natural science.

Nevertheless, spiritual theology must acknowledge the psychological aspect of religion and the spiritual life. That is why we include the spiritual experience of individual persons, meaning the psychosomatic effects or manifestations of their spirituality and religious practices. Spiritual theology is not a purely speculative science; it cannot ignore the existential aspect as manifested in the spiritual life of individuals. As a practical and applied theology, it must investigate the experimental data or run the risk of formulating laws and drawing conclusions by an a priori method. These two aspects of the one theology---both speculative and practical---are harmoniously synthesized in the works of the spiritual masters such as St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales as well as numerous modern theologians such as Tanquerey, Garrigou-Lagrange, and Arintero.

The experience to which the definition refers is not simply the external manifestations that are investigated with the help of psychology; rather, it is an experience of the supernatural order, flowing from sanctifying grace. Yves Congar refers to this when he discusses the two ways of perceiving God in his mysteries:

It can be done in the way of supernatural contemplation, based on an affective union with God, or it can be done by way of theological contemplation, based on an activity of knowledge of the rational and discursive type. These two ways are characterized by two different manners of possessing the principle, which is God in his supernatural mystery. In the first case, the soul possesses the principle and is united to it by way of experience. The soul penetrates the object of faith to a greater extent by charity. It is not so much that the soul works on the mystery of God, as it is this mystery which works on the soul interiorly, rendering it vitally agreeable, conformed and sympathetic. . . . It is quite certain that if we must distinguish theology and mysticism on their formal rationalities, it remains forever true that the theologian will find--- and this for his own theological work---an incomparable profit in being both a rational and a mystic. God alone speaks well of God. To study the things of God and to speak about them, it helps to live the things of God. (A History of Theology, pp. 205-206).

This does not mean, obviously, that only a mystic can be a theologian of the spiritual life, but it does mean that spiritual theology cannot consist in theory alone. It must treat of the religious experience of the individual, and for that reason a knowledge of the psychology of the human person is a necessary auxiliary. Moreover, since the psychosomatic manifestations of a religious experience may be natural, supernatural or diabolical in origin, there is a need for the discernment of spirits. Psychology, therefore, both normal and abnormal, can contribute greatly to the diagnosis of a religious experience. Sometimes the diagnosis remains doubtful and in that case the safest course is to follow the rule: "By their fruits you shall know them."

We further state in the definition that spiritual theology defines the nature of the supernatural life, and this must be done before the theologian can investigate the growth and development of the spiritual life. At this point the theologian relies almost entirely on the data of divine revelation and the certain conclusions of theology. It is a question of establishing the essential elements of the spiritual life as such, prescinding from the variety of manifestations that may characterize the spiritual life of individuals or schools of spirituality. This section of spiritual theology comprises the doctrinal principles that are the basis of any and all authentic Christian life; namely, the nature of Christian perfection and the supernatural organism of sanctifying grace, the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual theology then formulates the laws which govern the growth and development of the spiritual life in the individual person. Still closely related to the truths of revelation and the general principles of theology, the procedure at this point is scientific and somewhat speculative rather than experiential and descriptive. The reason for this is that the formulation of laws governing the spiritual life and its perfection must be such that they transcend particular differences. In an eminently practical way, they must be applicable to Christians of every class and condition. Therefore, in this section of spiritual theology one treats of such matters as sin and temptation, the need for detachment, the active and passive purgations, the sacraments, the practice of prayer and the secondary helps for growth in holiness.

Finally, spiritual theology explains the process by which souls normally advance from the beginning of the spiritual life to its full perfection. In this part of spiritual theology the method used is predominantly descriptive and experiential. One must now take into account the various types of spirituality---lay spirituality, priestly spirituality, the spirituality of a particular form of consecrated life, and whatever falls under the title "schools of spirituality"---and apply the general doctrinal principles to particular situations. In addition to that, each particular type of spirituality is charted along the lines of the three stages of spiritual growth: the purgative way of beginners, the illuminative way of advanced souls, and the unitive way of the perfect. This final phrase in the definition constitutes what is distinctive about spiritual theology and distinguishes it from the other parts of theology as an area of specialization.