Much of the animosity felt by older theologians toward the Vatican or, more generally, toward episcopal authority, has disappeared. Such skirmishes that do occasionally play out the old ‘free-thinking theologian’ versus the ‘heavy-handed bishop’ script simply bore. To young eyes media events dramatizing the conflict between freedom and authority look tired, and to be a pastime for the retiring. (A case in point is the recent vitriolic over the Bishops’ censure of Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God.) By contrast, the majority of young Catholic philosophers and theologians that I have met through my teaching—in England, Canada, and America—are eager to serve the Church, to imbibe her customs, and to perpetuate her faith. For the most part, where frustration is felt it is not at being restricted by authority; it is at not being confidently commissioned. Being a bishop is not for cowards. Failure of episcopal leadership in the post-Vatican II era has typically not been in the clumsy exercise of power, but in their reluctance to support those who defend authentic Catholic teaching. This trend is passing.
From September 15-17 the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference brought together a group of young untenured theologians to Washington D.C. for a symposium titled The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization (co-sponsored by Catholic University of America and underwritten by the Knights of Columbus). Keynote presentations were delivered by Professors Janet Smith and John Cavadini, a top theologian from the University of Notre Dame, as well as Houston’s Cardinal Di Nardo and Archbishop Joseph Di Noia O.P., Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The need to re-evangelize the West is now obvious; less clear, or at least less often discussed, is what shape the intellectual apostolate should take in these troubled times. The question put to the new scholars was this: if theology is an ecclesial activity how can your efforts serve the reconversion of Europe and the Americas?
Over the course of the weekend three themes emerged. First was the need to reconstruct a humane anthropology. The most dynamic contemporary thinking on this front has been inspired by Blessed John Paul II’s reflections on the theology of the body. Janet Smith showed how, in John Paul’s own understanding of personalism, the language of self-gift, self-mastery, and so forth, should be received as an extension, not a revision of Thomistic categories. Smith remarked how in the coming decades it will take “an army of scholars” to draw forth the richness of the late pope’s work. One task for the next generation of theologians, so it seems to me, will be to show how the theology of the body integrates within the Church’s more settled vocabulary of virtue, vice, concupiscence, and natural law. It is not that the older terms have been surpassed. It’s more of a case where meanings have been lost in translation. That new rhetorical strategies should be deployed in the defense of the person and of the family is not unsurprising. What Europe suffered two hundred years ago was an attack on God. What we face today is an attack on man. As the politics of the last century has made abundantly clear, humanism without God devolves into an inhuman humanism. And, without a transcendent origin or destiny, why should we respect ourselves? In a world of material scarcity, even the well intentioned find it hard these days to offer compelling reasons for giving a preferential option for the human. Monkeys need trees too.
Beyond confronting the antihumanism of the reductionist scientists (who would reduce mind to brain) and the over-zealous environmentalists (who would elevate beasts to men), the New Evangelization requires a more confident philosophical grounding. Respect for a diversity of theological styles is healthy. But pluralism has stepped wildly beyond its useful limits. Theology must once more regain trust in reason’s native capacity for truth. So to the second theme: the queen of the sciences must choose her help maids wisely. Some servants are unworthy. Others will betray her. Theologians today can settle for nothing less than a robust philosophical realism. Only such a foundation will support the world transforming ambitions of the New Evangelization. On this front, Archbishop Di Noia warned of the “third schism” that was splitting the Church; Cardinal Di Nardo spoke movingly about a “degenerate apophatism” that was undermining much modern theology.
To some pious ears this might sound like a throw-back to the days before the Council. In part, it is. The Church has yet to retract her praise of St. Thomas as a model. The chime is often rung that neo-scholastics of the pre-Council era squeezed propositions about God into a perfectly rational, and hence suffocating, matrix. I have often pondered this claim. If I would have had Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange as my professor perhaps I too might have thirsted for a greater sense of the mysterium dei. But he was not my professor. And most of my friends in theology, especially in Biblical Studies, trained under the shadow of Derrida. Today it is not mystery that is lost, but our hold on the world beyond words. It is not systems that threaten, but the prospect of finding no escape from the gerbils’ wheel. Sadly, theologians with a background in Continental philosophy rarely find their way off an endlessly deferring round of words about words about words. We need humility, of course. Not intellectual despair.
And the bishops are right. No middle ground exists between those who would and those who would not affirm the possibility of metaphysical truth claims. Can we have natural knowledge of God, or not? Can we establish binding moral truths, or not? Only an impoverished mind would consider natural theology the summit of Christian doctrine. Still, it is a solid footing. It is as necessary to theology—as Aquinas might say—as is mathematics to music. We all want to learn to sing beautifully. But a great ear only goes so far until you have to learn how to count out the beats. We have to be clear: the modern alternatives to philosophical realism are bleak: Heideggerian silence or fundamentalist noise. Though they wear different hats, underneath the brim they both mumble with their eyes closed. If being is never present in the world, if all we can look at is the fuzzy white screen of shifting appearances, then man really is alone in the world, alien from the infinite, a stranger even to his own nature. For, as Aristotle said, man desires to know. Affirming the natural knowledge of God, then, saves theology from stumbling either into the pit of liberal indifference or over the rock of Biblicism.
Third, if these are some of the tasks before us, how should the next generation of theologians go about their work? What resources beyond post-Kantian philosophy can serve? It was notable—though perhaps not surprising—that several of the conference’s speakers called for a return to classical texts of apologetics. In works like Origen’s Contra Celsum and Augustine’s City of God, John Cavadini suggested that young theologians can find enduring models of engagement with a secular or half-believing culture. There was also a call to deeper prayer. Over drinks one evening, the group I sat with battered around ideas for how we could find time to pray more, even amidst the demands of changing diapers and preparing lectures. At my office I’ve now added the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel as part of my morning routine.
All of this for me, as a young theologian, was inspiring. And, as far as such gatherings go, everyone was treated to a banquet of good ideas for thinking about the intellectual apostolate. I must admit that what most struck, however, were not the discussions, but the setting. The room was full of good will. Many of the young participants I met this weekend had growing families of four or five children (our fifth is due during exams). Though being a dissenting theologian is still, in many Catholic universities, the best thing you could do for your career; that is no longer universally true. This weekend I observed once more that what younger believers are increasingly experiencing is not a rebellion against the Church—for that is old; but a rebellion against rebellion, a revolt against intellectual anarchy and a return to tradition. The conference put on by the US Bishops is a herald of these new times. And we can be grateful for it.
Ryan N.S. Topping, D.Phil., is the Visiting Chair in Studies in Catholic Theology at the John XXIII Centre for Catholic Thought at St Thomas University, Fredericton, Canada. His most recent book is Happiness and Wisdom: St. Augustine’s Early Theology of Education (forthcoming with Catholic University of America Press).
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