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Book review: Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic dogmatic theology by Mauro Gagliardi

05 April 2024

Andrew Davison reads systematic theology from an Italian scholar

OVER the past year, I have had more time than usual to read systematic theology. Two volumes stand out: Kathryn Tanner’s tiny Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A brief systematic theology (2001) and Mauro Gagliardi’s gargantuan Truth is a Synthesis: Catholic dogmatic theology (2020). Gagliardi’s book, which escaped these pages’ purview during the pandemic, has become my first recommendation for anyone wanting to consult a comprehensive, accessible, energetic survey of Catholic theology.

Gagliardi’s distinctive outlook is to emphasise Catholicism as expansive and binocular in approach: taking what he calls an “and . . . and . . .”, rather than “either . . . or . . .”. Thus, Catholicism values and attends both to creation and to God, to nature and to grace, to this world and the next. In these examples, one pole has higher place, but not so as to eclipse the other. This is an appealing and insightful way to proceed and is, for me, the principal reason that the book deserves a wide readership, beyond being such a well-handled survey of Catholic belief.

That emphasis on breadth does not extend far outside of the Roman Catholic fold. Other Christian traditions are mentioned, but more with an interest in their shortcomings than from any belief that they hold anything for the author and his tradition.

Gagliardi offers a thoroughly conservative vision of Catholicism, but it is presented calmly, and without the chest-thumping that can attend that form of Christianity. He says and covers what you would expect, but without shrillness or building shrines to hobby horses.

In keeping with Gagliardi’s emphasis on breadth within Catholicism, and on synthesis, the range of sources cited (and often quoted at length) is broad, and Thomas Aquinas is central, that greatest of synthesisers. Gagliardi adopts the position that it takes at least 200 years to judge the merits of a writer; so female theologians are thin on the ground. Magisterial documents of the Church, from popes and councils, escape his 200-year rule. Turning to sources treated so authoritatively may be uncomfortable for some non-RC readers, but they may be struck, as I am, by how well (and beautifully) many of those documents serve the Church.

Gagliardi’s book has been admirably translated (from La verità è sintetica: Teologia dogmatica Cattolica, Edizioni Cantagalli, 2017). That it should have been translated so soon after publication in Italian underlines its significance, and speaks well of the discerning eye of the commissioning editors at Emmaus Academic.

Translations of theological works into English are less common today than they used to be. Translations from Italian were never particularly common in the first place. Italy has not been a hotbed of theological writing of the first order over the past century or two. Gagliardi’s magnificent volume may indicate a revival of theological writing.

Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College.

Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic dogmatic theology
Mauro Gagliardi
Emmaus Academic $US54.95*
*available from stpaulcenter.com

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