‘Novus Mentis Habitus’

Last month we considered the impact of the decision made nearly 50 years ago, when the bishops of the Second Vatican Council took up the question of a renewed diaconate permanently exercised. We conclude this series on the novus mentis habitus demanded by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II with a consideration of the expression itself. The common translation (“a new way of thinking”) can obscure its theological impact by evoking an almost secular appeal to simple human creativity in order to “get things done,” even in the service of others. Indeed, habitus has a rich theological heritage which can assist us in ministry.

In his book The Shape of Catholic Theology, Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols introduces his readers to the activity of theology by referring to the “habit of theology.” He then offers the famous insight of Yves Congar, who wrote, “theology is the highest of the habits of mind that a Christian man or woman can acquire.” Nichols summarizes, “This theological habit of mind, like all aspects of Christian existence, is at one and the same time absolutely ordinary and natural, yet entirely extraordinary and supernatural. It is natural in that it draws on the human ability to study. It is supernatural in that its root and source is divinely given faith in the self-revealing God” (pp. 13-14).

This habitus theologicus, the “habit of theology,” can certainly assist us in applying the call for a renewed pastoral and canonical habitus mentis from our conciliar and post-conciliar popes. Consider what this habitus is: it is a disposition to think and act in certain ways. It is learned recognition that certain actions, certain patterns of behavior, are more in keeping with the best of who we are called to be, and so we choose to do certain things and to avoid others. This is why Aquinas described virtue itself as a “habit.” Habits, as Nichols points out, are based in nature and find both their source and their end in the supernatural. There are habits of thinking, of feeling, of willing religious and moral habits, all of which collectively form a hermeneutical framework for pastoral action.

Habits are not instinctive: they are learned behaviors and attitudes. As one writer once put it, habits are learned through exercise. The challenge therefore seems to be this: As priests and deacons collaborating in the pastoral service of others in our pastoral charge, what habits have we developed? I’m not referring to simple human habits, or habits that are developed in a purely secular way, but to our spiritual habits? For example, one might have developed habits of business management in a former secular profession. How might these habits be exercised and developed further by the addition of Nichols’ supernatural dimension? For example, many priests and deacons do not care for the administrative details of church life, much preferring the pastoral and sacramental side of things. However, administration itself is pastoral when we view it through the supernatural lens of proper stewardship of all of God’s great gifts to us. We can find a “new habit of thinking” about what we thought we already knew.

I think that all of this is found in the call to a novus mentis habitus. We are not simply being asked simply to find a new “way” of thinking; rather, we are being asked to develop whole new “habits” of thinking, being and acting in our ordained ministries. Do we work at exercising these habits, or do we too often continue relying simply on pastoral “instinct”? Exercising and developing new habits can lead to the kind of courageous new pastoral approaches such as those being modeled by Pope Francis. This is truly a creative disposition that finds its source and its end in our relationship with God, and not merely human wisdom.

Developing a new habitus in service will keep us focused on the future, not merely repeating approaches of the past. “This is the way we’ve always done things here” can give way to “This is how we can best apply the lessons we’ve learned in the past to meet the demands of the future, with mutual love, respect, courage and commitment to the highest ideals of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the world today.”

How has each of us responded to this papal call to develop a new habit of thinking, being and acting?  

Deacon Ditewig, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.