ROME – Affirming the critically important role of a “free and responsible” form of Catholic theology in the life of the church, Pope Francis called on theologians to “remain faithful and anchored” to the vision of Vatican II, as well as “immersed” in the instincts and concerns of ordinary people who’ve never taken “academic courses in theology.”

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Francis said, called the Church “to announce the Gospel in a new way, more consonant with a profoundly different culture and world,” and he added, “The Church must always refer itself to that event.”

“That effort requires from the whole Church, and theologians in particular, to be implemented in a spirit of ‘creative fidelity’,” the pope said.

“For that reason, I ask you to continue to remain faithful and anchored, in your theological work, to the council and the capacity the Church demonstrated there to allow itself to be rejuvenated by the perennial novelty of the Gospel of Christ,” Francis said.

The pontiff’s remarks came during a noontime audience with roughly 100 members of the Associazione Teologica Italiana, the “Italian Theology Association,” the main professional society for Catholic theologians in Italy founded after Vatican II and this year celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Unlike his predecessor Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who’s an accomplished theologian and took a keen personal interest in doctrinal matters, Francis positions himself more as a pastor, usually referring to theologians as “they” – for instance, speaking to a visiting group of Evangelical pastors in 2016, he said, “Theology is a very complicated subject, and we should let the theologians argue it out. In the meantime, we should love each other and learn to value people who are different than ourselves.”

Famously, during a visit to the Anglican Church of All Saints this past February, Francis quoted a quip from Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI after their historic 1964 meeting: “We’ll bring about unity between us, and we’ll put all the theologians on an island so they can think about it!” (Francis even added he’d confirmed with Athenagoras’s successor, Patriarch Bartholomew I, that the line wasn’t just an urban legend.)

Given that background, Francis’s remarks to theological groups typically are seen as a fairly rare opportunity to better understand his doctrinal vision.

To begin with, Francis on Friday urged theologians to see their work not as an individual quest for insight, but as being rooted in a broader community.

“What theologians do can’t help but be a personal quest,” he said, “but one immersed in the widest theological community possible,” insisting that it’s not just an “accessory” to the ministry of theologians.

In particular, Francis asked theologians to pay careful attention to the insights of ordinary believers, what experts sometimes call “popular religiosity.”

“It’s in this living faith of the holy People of God that every theologian should feel immersed, and by which he or she should also feel sustained, transported and embraced,” the pope said.

The pope also called theologians to what he termed a “duty of the essential,” meaning finding ways to transmit the heart of the Christian faith in a culture today in which “distorted visions of the heart itself of the Gospel may insinuate themselves.”

Moving to specific challenges, Francis mentioned several areas in which he believe there’s need today for creative theological thought:

  • The “ecological crisis”
  • “Developments in neurosciences or techniques that can modify the human person”
  • “Ever-greater social inequalities”
  • “Migrations of entire peoples”
  • “Theoretical relativism, but also its practical version”

Francis applauded the Italian association for being made up of experts who don’t just “talk among themselves,” but who see themselves “at the service of the different churches and the Church.”

Pope Francis was greeted by the current president of the Associazione Teologica Italiana, Father Roberto Repole, who took the reins in 2011 from legendary Italian theologian Monsignor Piero Coda, who’s also a stalwart of the Focolare movement.

Headquartered at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the Associazione Teologica Italiana brings together some 300 professors and writers in Catholic theology from every region in Italy.

In one sign of the times in Catholic theology, the current vice president of the association is Serena Noceti of the Theological Faculty of Central Italy in Florence, who also does training for the Archdiocese of Florence. It’s the first time a woman has held a position of leadership in Italy’s main theological guild.

The pope’s next public activity during the holiday season will come on Sunday, when he delivers his last Angelus address of the year at noon and then, in the evening, presides over the traditional vespers service in thanksgiving for the year coming to a close. On New Year’s Day, Francis will celebrate a Mass honoring Mary as the Mother of God, followed by another Angelus.

Traditionally, the Vatican’s holiday season is said to wrap up on Jan. 6 with the feast of the Epiphany, when Francis will once again lead a Mass in the morning followed by an Angelus. Informally, however, it’s usually considered to extend through the pope’s annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, in which the pontiff lays out his foreign policy priorities for the year to come.

This year, that speech to diplomats will be held on Monday, Jan. 8.