Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877–1964), was the twentieth-century Catholic theologian whose outlook and intellectual projects epitomized the confident intransigence of the pre-Vatican II Church. Professor of theology at the Angelicum in Rome for many decades, Garrigou-Lagrange taught Aristotle and St. Thomas to many generations of seminarians. As a consultant to the Holy Office, he played an important role in the intellectual politics of mid-century Catholicism. His reputation was clear: hardnosed about truth and in favor of the use of church authority in its defense.
In recent decades, Garrigou and the Catholic sensibility he embodied has been out of style, very out of style. Richard McCormick, Roger Haight, Elizabeth Johnson, Monica Hellwig, Charles Curran, Gregory Baum, David Tracy, and other post-Vatican II theologians emerged as the standard bearers for what they hoped would be a new church, a new spirit, and a new age. They wanted to be flexible and pluralistic when it came to truth, and they were suspicious when it came to authority, especially church authority.
Time has passed. The young progressives have aged and grayed. Critical theology became contextual theology, which turns out to be progressive political platitudes lightly seasoned with pious phrases. For the rising generation, the old, supposed authoritarian and discredited tradition so roundly denounced by the liberals (who have their own authoritarian tendencies) has begun to seem relevant, even attractive. Any enemy of my enemy is a potential friend.
So things now seem to stand. In the last few years two books devoted to the rehabilitation of Pére Garrigou-Lagrange have appeared—The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., by Richard Peddicord, O.P., and Reason with Piety: Garrigou LaGrange in the Service of Catholic Thought, by the prolific and popular theological writer Aidan Nichols, also of the Order of Preachers. Taken together, these two volumes provide a useful survey of Garrigou’s philosophical and theological work. They also suggest reasons why his once vast influence should be renewed.
The standard liberal histories of Catholicism offer a self-serving dichotomy. The decades before the Second Vatican Council are labeled anti-modern, and the period after the Council is described as a season of engagement. In other words, before the Council the Church had its head in the sand, and after the Council courageous theologians finally got on with the business of taking the modern world seriously. A Heroic Generation finally overcame a weak, defensive, world-denying generation that only survived by the raw and cynical exercise of ecclesiastical power.
This historical caricature is worse than inaccurate. In a technical sense, the Catholic Church was anti-modern. In 1864, Pius IX published the Syllabus of Errors. The last proposition (to be rejected, of course) was that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”
Pius IX was surely right. Insofar as modern Western culture claims to be the font and judge of all truth, then, yes, of course the Catholic Church was (and remains) anti-modern. The Syllabus of Errors denounces a wide range of theological, philosophical, and political perversions. One can agree or not. But across the list of eighty errors, it becomes transparently clear that the nineteenth century Catholic Church was quite aware of modern intellectual, social, and political trends—and was sharply critical of them. She hardly hid her head in the sand.
Garrigou-Lagrange exercised such an important role in the history of early twentieth century Catholicism because he was one of the clearest expositors of Neo-Thomism, the intellectual project that provided the most sophisticated and successful philosophical and theological arguments for sustaining the basic claims of the Syllabus of Errors. He and Neo-Thomism flourished because it was engaged, very engaged, with the pressing issues of modernity.
Nichols gives a helpful example. More than a hundred years ago, Catholic scholars adopted assumptions about the historical structure of Christian faith that threatened the Church’s claims about revelation. These scholars presumed that, because all knowledge and belief is socially and historically and subjectively constituted, therefore what counts as Christian truth changes according to historical and personal frameworks. This tendency toward historical and subjective relativism was condemned as modernism by the encyclical Pascendi (1907).
The modernist crisis came to a boil while Garrigou was a young scholar, and he put his finger on the underlying issue. Is our knowledge so thoroughly historically or subjectively determined that the Magisterium cannot teach with reliable authority? Are the concepts of person and substance, for example, so historically conditioned that a modern person does not grasp the same truth as an ancient when confessing the unity of divine substance and trinity of divine persons?
Garrigou recognized that the very idea of historical revelation collapses if a fourth-century Christian in Constantinople confesses something different from a twentieth-century Christian in Paris simply because of the intervening centuries. If historical and subjective frameworks are all determining, then God does not reveal himself in Jesus Christ. Instead, God reveals himself in our historical categories and personal religious experience. As Karl Barth once said, this approach to revelation amounts to “talking about God by talking about man in a loud voice.”
To combat the underlying historicism and subjectivism, Garrigou demonstrated that truth has an objective solidity and permanence. Drawing on the Thomistic tradition, Garrigou gave a clear explanation of the priority of existence over essence, a metaphysical principle that allowed him to show how reality anchors the intellect rather than the intellect constructing or constituting reality. Truth comes from the way things are, not from the way we see things.
Neo-Thomism was trashed by progressives in the aftermath of Vatican II. “It fails to take history serious. The theology is remote from the real experience of modern men and women,” we were told. In the place of the Neo-Thomist synthesis, the Rahnerians promised a transcendental theology that would magically transform subjective categories into the language of faith. History, social context, personal experience—these human-centered phenomena would somehow extend the hand of friendship to the official teachings of the Church.
Garrigou fought against the new theologies that were advanced in the decades immediately prior to Vatican II. Indeed, his opposition was notorious. In the late 1940s, Henri de Lubac was bitter about “the kind of dictatorship that Father G-L is trying to exercise in the Church.” But Garrigou was prescient. Indeed, less than two decades after Vatican II, Henri de Lubac would end up ringing the theological alarms, reiterating the spirit if not the letter of Garrigou’s clear and rigorous Neo-Thomism.
I have never understood the animus against Neo-Thomism in the post-Vatican II Church. By my reading, the Second Vatican Council was a remarkable event, one that endorsed all sorts of changes and new directions in the Catholic Church. Historians rightly emphasize these changes. Yet, all the bishops who attended the Council, all the theological advisors who drafted the documents that were eventually adopted, all the major players were educated within the Neo-Thomist synthesis. Garrigou himself was the teacher of many important figures at the Council. Therefore, by any responsible historical judgment, the creative and lasting significance of the Council necessarily owes a great deal to the supposedly antiquated and discredited manual theology of Neo-Thomism.
We need not rely on generalizations. John Paul II was a young bishop at Vatican II. Throughout his long pontificate, he remained enthusiastic about the achievements and significance of the Council, especially the renewed emphasis on the Church’s engagement with the world. The Church contributes to world by speaking the truth about our humanity, a truth vouchsafed in Christ, a truth that must be spoken in season and out. And who directed Karol Wojtyla’s doctoral dissertation? Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange.
Neither Peddicord nor Nichols ask us to turn back the clock. We don’t need to, because time seems to be catching up with Garrigou. As Nichol’s observes, Garrigou consistently saw relativism as the “generative principle” of errors, and he saw “the need to re-establish the ‘exigence of truth’ for both culture and life.” Today, Benedict XVI denounces the “dictatorship of relativism” and calls for the renewal of a culture of truth.
The specific teachings of the Neo-Thomism that Garrigou represented so well may or may not provide a fully adequate theology for the Church. For all its limitations, I am of the opinion that it still offers an enviable clarity and coherence for beginning theological students. Garrigou’s books helped me when I was a confused graduate student. But some think otherwise, working instead for a Balthasarian or neo-patristic synthesis to provide adequate systematic coherence. They have my best wishes. The Church only stands to benefit. Nonetheless, one feature of Garrigou’s theology is indispensable: a deep and—dare I say—inflexible commitment to truth.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is a professor of theology at Creighton University.