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If theology is prudent

· ​Theological reflection ·

Prudence is certainly at the top of the list of words endowed with ambiguity since it can mean at least two decidedly antithetical things. It is indeed frequently used, in ecclesial communities too, with its common and banal meaning: those who expose themselves, who take the floor on matters being discussed, who oppose orders they deem unjust before history has defined them as such, are deemed imprudent. In this sense, for example, Sophie Scholl of the White Rose was rash, and Lorenzo Milani was rash and ill-timed – at least until the record, always belated, had turned them after death into famous prophets for whom to build tombs. The words with which Manzoni describes Don Abbondio who, in addition to avoiding contrasts or if need be siding with the strongest so stigmatized those who behaved differently, apply well to this concept centuries later: “Then he was a strict censurer of men who did not control themselves like him, but only when his censure could be exercised without any, even remote, danger. The person who had been beaten was at the very least a rash person; the person killed had always been a shady character. Don Abbondio could always find some wrong-doing in those who, having maintained their arguments against a strong man, had had their skulls broken, Above all he then speechified against those of his confrères who, at their own risk, stood up for a weak and oppressed person against a strong bully”. To what extent all this may be applied to our own times and also to the strictly current situation is, I believe, so obvious that it requires no comment.

Sophie Scholl of the White Rose

Different, however, is the classical form of phronesis, which is an intelligent practice that scrutinizes, evaluatesand plans. It is also taken up in Scripture in this sense: not by chance does the Gospel text (Matthew 10:16) ask us to be phronimoi, as wise/prudent as serpents (also subtle[or cunning]in Genesis 3:1; this meaning is rendered in Greek by the same word although we prefer to translate it as cunning), as well as simple as doves. Gospel prudence is thus measured discernment and daring frankness with the addition of a particular, workaday gift which is the sense of limitations, the capacity of the penultimate: speaking and taking positions in fact entails moving away from the absolute, because one is speaking not of ethereal, immutable and impalpable ethereal essences but rather of historical matters, of bodies and of lives, of solutions to adopt and of ways to take. One might recall in this regard the doublet urgency/patience, which recurs throughout the main documents of this pontificate: in Laudato si’ it is a matter of making provision without delaying, but at the same time also of having eyes to see the beauty of peripheral things; in Gaudete et exsultate it isthe “holiness found in our next-door neighbours”, with attention to the small details and the demanding form of martyrdom; in Evangelii gaudium there is the recommendation to activate processes rather than to occupy spaces, without spiritual sloth.

Theology, marred by a status that claims it to be everlasting, does not immediately enter into this dynamic while nevertheless retaining its own service, linked to the critical instance and to thought. An exemplary form was achieved at the San Luigi Papal Theological Seminary of Southern Italy with the congress La Teologia dopo Veritatis gaudium nel contesto del Mediterraneo [Theology after Veritatis gaudium in the context of the Mediterranean]. These are the words of my colleague Anna Carfora, among the others: “It is necessary to demolish those narratives of women which in the past have done no good to anyone. To exalt women and to magnify the virtues of the eternal feminine was not a good service rendered over the years to men or to women. It is not a question of knowing who these women are but of admitting and permitting that they may exist, in the world as in the Church, recognizing that they are individuals, people. Besides, the feminine should not be declined in the singular, not even in theology: not the woman but concrete women and the opportunities for them and which come from them. The metaphor of the polyhedron may be applied to the female world: the universe of women is in fact also multifaceted”. Daring Prudence that sets processes in motion – the students (12 women and a boy, to be precise) have in their turn written a letter on these subjects to the Pope, entitling it “Before the stones cry out”. It will be important to disseminate and read it.

Cristina Simonelli
Lecturer in Christian Antiquities, President of the Coordination of Italian Women Theologians




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 18, 2019