Claire E. WOLFTEICH, editor. Invitation to Practical Theology: Catholic Voices and Visions: Paulist Press, 2014. Pp. 386. $29.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8091-4890-54. Reviewed by Richard SHIELDS, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON M5S 1J4

          Practical or Pastoral theology? Since the Vatican Council II Roman Catholic theologians have become more pastorally oriented in their work without necessarily describing themselves as pastoral or practical theologians. On the one hand this theological turn has greatly facilitated and enhanced the Church’s dialogue with the world; on the other hand it has opened the question whether there ought to be a distinct theological disciple that deals with the lived experience of Catholicism. The issue is not what name this discipline should carry, but what its proper field of inquiry, aim, and methodology are. Traditionally, the terms “pastoral” and “practical” have been used to name the activity of providing guidelines for the care of souls (Catholic) and congregational leadership (Protestant). Today theologians and Church leaders need to together articulate what they expect from practical theology, the criteria for distinguishing “good” from “bad” theological work, and how to establish the place of practical/pastoral theology in the university and within the life of the diocese.

Invitation to Practical Theology is a collection of sixteen essays which reflect the variety of “Catholic voices and visions” reflective of the unique contribution to the development of practical theology (PT) being made by Catholic theologians and emerging out of the ecclesiological self-consciousness and ecclesial practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  The book is, as its title states, an “invitation” to learn from and think critically about the questions facing PT today. It is not an “introduction to” or “handbook.” Instead of telling the reader how to do PT, the book opens a space for critically exploring the current practice of PT and to become part its development. The book unfolds in three parts. The first orients the reader through an historical overview and general description of PT, as well as a well reasoned suggestion for the kind of theological imagination that might best serve someone who would undertake PT. The second and longest section of the book provides examples of doing PT. Here it becomes clear how context and purpose of the inquirer influences the selection of practices to be studied and the approach taken, as well as how the theologians sees her/his work in the larger constellation of Church governance and in relation to the other theological disciplines. This also reveals the diversity of understandings and approaches that are advancing the development of PT, while contributing to the confusion as to what exactly we are talking about. Appropriately, the book’s final section raises concrete identity and methodological issues for PT, as well as a challenge regarding next steps that will support the continued development of PT in the Catholic Church.

In many Catholic theological faculties PT is not a core subject. “Before one can reflect on the practises of the Church or do a critical-theological analysis of concrete forms of the Church’s activity in the world, one must be well grounded in Scripture, systematic theology, and Church history,” the argument goes. As a result PT is viewed by some as an elective or, worse, intellectually and academically less rigorous. This situation echoes a question raised by Karl Rahner a half-century ago about the optimal place for PT. PT is more than an academic discipline, he argued; it is an ecclesial practice in its own right and might more effectively function in a way analogous to research/development centres that have become integral to creating knowledge and improving outcomes in industry. In this sense the future of PT in the Catholic Church depends not only the scholarly practice of PT “as a rigorous field of research that bridges academy, church, and culture, ” (Wolfteich, 340) but on its reception, by hierarchy and rank and file Church as an ecclesial science integral to the mission of the Church and Christian identity.