Reading Ratzinger is always stimulating. In his book, The Nature and Mission of Theology: Essays to Orient Theology in Today’s Debates, he says:
[T]he intrinsically necessary and positive value of the Magisterium has also lost its self-evident character in the general consciousness of today’s Catholic theology. Ecclesiastical authority appears to be a tribunal wholly foreign to the nature of scientific scholarship, whose inner logic in and of itself would preclude the existence of such an authority. Scientific scholarship–so it seems–can obey only its own laws, which dictate, however, that it recognize as valid nothing except reasonable, objective argument. That some authority, taking the place of argument and of the comprehension which can be attained by argumentation, should decide what may be taught and what may not is judged to be an act contrary to scholarship: it discredits theology in the body of the university (p. 47).
The reduction of theology to a mere academic enterprise of the university (and, therefore, subjected to scientific thought and disconnected from its proper ecclesial context) is an extreme and twisted form of scholasticism. I here use scholasticism in a very broad sense. The word “scholastic” means “of the school”. While there have been and are now a variety of places in which theology is practiced, in the West the primary place today and for nearly a thousand years is the university. Considering the current state of theological practice, might this be changing? The primary place theology is practiced changes with society. Before the schools, it was the monasteries. The move from monasteries to schools was not sudden. It began in the late 11th century, continued through the 12th century, and came to fruition in the 13th century. Europe was also going through many changes during this time. In the 11th century it began to come out of the dark age that characterized most of the early Middle Ages. One of the crowning achievements of the later Middle Ages which would come in the 13th century was the university. The emergence of the university is directly tied to the Church and, therefore, it comes as no surprise that the universities became the great centers of theology. Theology was no longer the province of monks. It was still monopolized by clerics, but a great many of these — and the most notable — were friars. This reflects another change in Medieval Europe: the Church had primarily been characterized by monastics and in the 13th century it became characterized by mendicants. This characterization would be strengthened during the Renaissance and Baroque periods through the addition of other orders (especially the Jesuits) with the university continuing to be the defining place of theological practice.
While there have been changes through the centuries, one thing had remained the same: the theologians were also clerics. This, however, is no longer the case. In the 20th century, particularly the latter part, a great many lay persons began going to university to study theology. For the past few decades, there has been a great mixing of clerics and laity in theological fields with the laity becoming predominant. By itself though this has not changed the primary place in which theology is practiced. It is still the university. There is another phenomenon though coupled with the predominance of the laity in theological circles that may shift the primary place away from the university. This phenomenon is also characterized by the laity: lay movements. The rise of lay movements preceded the influx of the laity into theological schools, it has accompanied it, and lay movements continue to grow at a great rate. In the future, they may very well be what characterize the Western Church, just as the mendicants did in the later Middle Ages and the monastics did before them. In the future might lay movements become the primary place of theology?
Update: This post from David Mosley is an interesting take on one of the issues that has arisen because of the shift to lay theologians.