Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia, has produced a rich, subtle, and impressive first book. Culture and The Thomist Tradition appears, curiously, in the Radical Orthodoxy Series. (I say curiously because some books in the series have not been, to put it mildly, particularly supportive of John Paul II’s vision of marriage and the family). This book establishes Rowland as a significant voice in current and future debates about the Church and modernity.
Rowland makes three core claims about the nature of the Church’s interaction with modernity. First, liberalism is not the “neutral ground” it claims to be but is instead its own culture and tradition, and one fundamentally hostile to a Thomistic understanding of the world. Second, the leaders of the Second Vatican Council had not adequately explored the nature of liberal modernity when they spoke of the “modern world” to which the Church must relate. Rowland here refers especially to Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). Third, the “Whig Catholics” and those close to them, such as the “New Natural Lawyers,” also fail to identify modern liberalism correctly and have therefore bent, and perhaps mutilated, Catholic principles in their attempt to synthesize these principles with modern liberalism. In light of these difficulties, Rowland calls for the Church to recognize a “postmodern Augustinianism” as the preferred approach to the age.
These are bold claims, but Rowland displays plenty of evidence to support them. With regard to the first, Rowland convincingly maintains that liberal democracy, the predominant political philosophy of the West, is hostile to any claim of a higher standard to which one must conform, making its relationship with Thomism adversarial. Rowland says that liberalism is focused on “formulating theories of justice within which maximum freedom is granted the individual to pursue any version of self-development.” She further maintains, following Alisdair MacIntyre, that since liberalism is a theory that promotes self-development without limits, a decline into some form of nihilism is inevitable (though, within nihilism, Rowland considers Sartre a viable alternative to Nietzsche). This, Rowland maintains, is the core of the “culture of death” identified by John Paul II. Self-development in the absence of an external standard will tend to become either sadistic or suicidal.
Moving on to her second claim, Rowland quickly establishes that Gaudium et Spes has no overarching theological framework and that the terms used in the document, notably “modern world” and “modern man,” are characterized by (in the words of Francis Cardinal George) “terminological looseness,” a problem further “compounded in various vernacular translations.” The most common rendering of the intention of Gaudium et Spes has been “accommodation” (though the word appears nowhere in the document). In response, Rowland repeats and endorses the question of Karl Barth: “Accommodation to what?” In light of John Paul II’s description of the modern West as promoting a “culture of death,” should the Church be in any rush to accommodate itself to Western modernity?
Given her description of liberalism and its problems, it is no surprise that Rowland finds fault with those who seek to discover or create a synthesis of liberalism and Catholicism. Certainly her exposition of the tensions between them mandates that any such attempt be made very carefully. But in her zeal to correct a mindless acceptance of liberalism, she lapses into an excessive hostility that prevents her from acknowledging the undeniable goods that modernity has brought. Her root-and-branch rejection of the modern era makes one wonder if she appreciates the improvements of the past two centuries and whether she has an alternative explanation for them. Rowland does not seem to grasp that modernity—and the liberalism with which it is intertwined—has improved the human condition in certain respects, even while simultaneously (as Rowland documents) diminishing it in others. Her failure to acknowledge that progress and decline coexist in Western societies makes her work less persuasive than it otherwise might have been.
There is also a certain ambiguity in Rowland’s use of the term “culture.” To just what culture is she referring? At times, she seems to have in mind the internal culture of the Church in the West (American and Australian) in mind, and when put in this context, her critique is indeed damning. The Church should be a “culture of love” and should accept nothing but the best in its internal workings. Rowland here adds to the growing and deeply disturbing documentation of the infiltration of bureaucracy and banality into church governance and—most critically—into liturgy. Rowland also draws attention to the difficulties inherent in attempting to frame Catholic concepts in liberal terms—she highlights and questions John Paul II’s use of such terms as “rights” and “liberation” in particular.
But when Rowland shifts her attention to the culture at large, her critique begins to lose its power. It goes without saying that liberal democracy and democratic capitalism have a great many flaws, but Rowland’s presentation lacks a prudential assessment of the range of possible alternatives. One can be acutely aware of liberalism’s shortcomings and still find it the best of all practicable options. Rowland sometimes seems to imply that liberalism is so fundamentally flawed and hostile to the faith that any replacement would be an improvement. The bloody history of the last century stands in clear judgment against this claim.
Finally, given Rowland’s familiarity with the wide range of Catholic-influenced political thought, her omission of two prominent writers is disappointing. The first of these thinkers is Pierre Manent, who would challenge Rowland’s assertion, borrowed from David Schindler, that the only moments of significance in human history are creation, incarnation, and the eschaton. In The City of Man, Manent makes a strong case that “modern man” is something qualitatively different from “man” simpliciter. If Manent is correct, Rowland’s analysis must deal with this fact. The second thinker whom she unaccountably passes by is Peter Augustine Lawler, who might question why Rowland feels the need to be “at home” in this world. In Postmodernism Rightly Understood, Lawler, echoing Pascal, challenges readers to accept the human destiny of being a wondering wanderer, or a wandering wonderer, in this world, and he might ask Rowland why she believes that any culture will ever be compatible with the transcendent focus of Catholicism.
Despite these omissions, this is an important book by a very welcome voice. If her own approach sometimes displays a lack of moderation, she also shows that others may have been similarly immoderate in their embrace of liberalism. Rowland has made a significant contribution to the Church’s continuing engagement with the wider world.
Douglas A. Ollivant is the editor of Jacques Maritain and the Many Ways of Knowing (The Catholic University of America Press, 2002).