In an interview titled A Turn to the Fathers, Father Robert Dodaro, director of the Augustinian Patristic Institute at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, sees cause for optimism about his chosen field.
Q: What are the difficulties limiting the number of students at the Augustinian Institute?
Father Dodaro: The greatest problem is the insufficient knowledge of Greek and Latin, and the lack of familiarity with classical studies. To prepare the students to take on the texts of the Fathers in their original languages, we began a prerequisite course of intensive Latin and Greek three years ago.
This year there are also supplementary classes on ancient Roman history, classical literature and ancient philosophy. As you can imagine, students do not study these subjects adequately in institutes and universities. Thus, the low levels in classical studies are for us the greatest challenge.
Q: What do you think about the relationship between patristic and modern theology?
Father Dodaro: During Vatican II it was decided that the updating of theology and Church praxis demanded a turning toward the wise patrimony of the Fathers of the Church. For this reason, the Servant of God Pope Paul VI wanted an institute of patristic studies in Rome. But today’s theology seems to have set out on another path distinct from the ever-more-distant gate of tradition and, therefore, while the scholars of the Church Fathers investigate the historical context of the theology of the Fathers, today’s theology withdraws from its origins. The Church today needs to confront the question of the relationship between patristic and dogmatic theology.
Q: Perhaps the Fathers existed too long ago?
Father Dodaro: No, the Fathers are very current. Theirs is a beautiful spirituality, and a liturgical and theological fashion. The general public is fascinated with it, and sales of the patristics — even with translated texts — are high. There is a living interest. The problem is that the theologians are unconvinced about the Fathers’ teachings.
Q: You confirm that, among readers, there is an interest in the Church’s origins and especially in the patristic era, although many of these works are academic and little known. The challenge is, perhaps, maintaining a high academic level while making the content of the Fathers accessible?
Father Dodaro: This is another of the challenges to which we are trying to respond. The question is how we can offer the treasure of Patristic theology and spirituality to Catholics. From this point of view, I feel proud when I see many of our graduates dedicated to translating, even after earning licentiates and doctorates.
These students and alumni work with publishing houses well-known for these types of works. I’m also surprised at the blooming of patristic studies in Italy. Today, Italy is on the forefront in researching, studying and disseminating the patristic authors not only because we find in Rome the Patristic Institute, but also because there is widespread interest among the state universities, where we have friends and collaborators.
For example, Italy’s Città Nuova publishes a collection of patristic books, something that doesn’t exist in all Western countries, although the trend is spreading throughout the world. Some alumni are dedicated to translating patristic texts even into Korean. I think the spread of these works can help local Churches respond to pastoral demands.
Therefore, we need texts translated into the many languages so people can study and deepen their knowledge of the Fathers. Then, courses are needed in the various spirituality and theology institutes. Bishops should challenge seminarians and young priests to study the Fathers of the Church.
Q: If you had to persuade youth to study the Fathers, what argument would you use?
Father Dodaro: I would speak about St. Augustine. But apart from that example, I would say: Take the 10 greatest and most difficult problems in today’s Church, choose whichever ones you want, and then try to compare them to those the Church Fathers develop. In the classic patristics, you will find the roots and responses to whatever controversy the Church must confront today. This is the importance of the Church Fathers.