We are at a turning point. For the past fifty years the Catholic Church has taken an apologetic approach to secular culture that depicts Catholicism as the fulfillment of human civilization. The Church gives unity to the genuine social aspirations of humanity. This vision of the Church is not wrong, but it’s increasingly irrelevant, due to the changing shape of secular liberalism. To think constructively about the future of Catholicism, we need to understand the shape of our predicament.
We should begin with one of the most important works of Catholic theology written in the twentieth century, Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. A series of associative meditations on the social nature of salvation, this influential book focuses on the unity of the human race as understood by the Church Fathers. In their vision, the human community is perfected in the life of the one Catholic Church, the one Eucharistic communion in grace, and the one eschatological destiny of all men. De Lubac’s book is a masterpiece of intellectual erudition and sophisticated apologetics that argues that the deepest human longings for unity—longings that made communism so alluring to many idealistic people in the first half of the twentieth century—are fulfilled in the Church’s supernatural mission. It remains a classic reference point for contemporary theology.
De Lubac is often depicted as a “progressive” theologian who fought against the insular character of pre-Vatican II Catholicism in order to advance a vision of the Christian life more “open to the world.” That characterization is grossly inaccurate. In Catholicism, he sought to preserve a traditional view of the Catholic Church, but also rethink its presentation in a modern context. Early modern Catholic ecclesiology was triumphalist and also dialectical and militant. In response to the Reformation, the Church reasserted herself as the true ecclesial body founded by Christ. There is no other. Against Enlightenment critics, she insisted that supernatural revelation alone provides human beings with knowledge of the most ultimate truths. There is no salvation outside the Church. In response to the anti-clerical political movements of nineteenth-century Europe, the Church maintained that she is a perfect political society, one that governs herself in sovereign independence of the state, showing humanity the true form of social unity and solidarity.
De Lubac believed all these things. But he reconfigured them to address the aspirations of the modern secular political and social imagination in an apologetic mode, speaking in a way that is inclusive and relevant to concerns of non-Catholics. Catholicism presumes, in effect, that modern efforts to find a genuinely universal mode of social existence are legitimate, but argues that the Church in her grace and mystery is capable of doing what they have failed to accomplish. When Protestantism aspires to ecclesial unity by way of the ecumenical movement, it implicitly seeks the fullness that is found in the Catholic Church alone. When secular humanism proposes a transcendent meaning for human history that allows us to realize genuine ethical values in human society, it desires something that only the New Testament revelation can provide in an authentic way. When modern governments try to overcome divisions and create solidarity, they aspire to something found in the sacramental communion in Christ that the Church affords. The triumph of Catholicism works from within rather than against the spirit of the age. De Lubac’s thesis is that Catholicism alone is capable of fulfilling our tormenting desire for the universal, the desire that breaks the heart of an unstable and uncertain modern West, which in the twentieth century wished to see itself as achieving a non-religious universality based on reason, without resort to religious traditions or appeals to revelation.
This inclusive triumphalism came to the fore in the Second Vatican Council. In the opening chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Church is defined as the “sacrament . . . of the unity of the whole human race,” that is to say, the sign and instrument by which human beings are united in authentic communion with God and with one another. Paragraphs 14–16 are key expressions of inclusive triumphalism. The axiom that there is no salvation outside the Church is stated overtly, but reconfigured positively: All salvation that occurs in human history is in some way always already in the Church, or related to her in an intimate, if hidden, way. The whole world may come to participate more or less imperfectly in the universal mission of Christ and the Church: the Eastern Orthodox churches, Protestant ecclesial communities, the Jewish people, Islamic monotheism, the great world religious traditions that are not always explicitly monotheistic, and even secularists through the workings of the moral conscience by which human beings are led to seek the true and the good.
This viewpoint is complemented by other important Vatican II documents: Gaudium et Spes, Unitatis Redintegratio, and Nostra Aetate. The touchstone is paragraph 22 of Gaudium et Spes, which famously asserts that only in Jesus Christ is the mystery of the human person fully unveiled to the human race, and that each human being is invited in some way into the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.
Gaudium et Spes is a wide-ranging document that touches on many social issues. In every instance, the particular emphases, some of which seem initially indistinguishable from mid-twentieth-century secular progressivism, should be understood in a Christological light that is at once triumphalist and inclusive. The grace of Christ inspires all men and women of good will to embrace principles of the natural law that lead to social unity and authentic ethical universalism. We see a similar inclusive triumphalism in the document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. There the council fathers insist that the grace of Christ found in a perfect way in the Catholic Church is also at work, however imperfectly, in the genuinely Catholic elements of tradition and sacramental life found in other ecclesial traditions. Nostra Aetate strikes a similar note, speaking of the Word of God shining “a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” one that can inspire an authentic search for God in humanity’s great religious traditions. And so, just as the Catholic Church rightly takes the initiative in promoting human unity in social and political trends already at work in the modern world, so she can also take leadership in the ecumenical movement, and interreligious dialogue. To modify a favorite formulation of Pope St. John Paul II’s, the Church is expert in unity.
This inclusive triumphalism, so winsomely articulated by Henri de Lubac and given an official formulation at Vatican II, has served as the normative paradigm of mainstream Catholic thought for the past fifty years. One finds it in both conservative and progressive strands of recent theology. It animated the vibrant pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, from his anticommunist writings on human freedom in its relationship to truth, to assertions of universal human dignity in the face of the culture of death, as well as in his approaches to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. It is present in the pontificate of Pope Francis as well, providing the theological coherence to his appeal for an authentic environmental ethics, and in his approaches to the challenges of poverty and economic injustice.
This vision of Catholicism as the spiritual core of human civilization remains incontrovertible, theologically speaking, because the grace of Christ heals and elevates human nature in a unique and perfect way. But as an apologetic stance, this paradigm has become more and more difficult to sustain, despite its achievements. In fact, it is currently exhausted, and subject to a deep spiritual malaise.
The truth is that we now live in an age very different from that of the mid-twentieth century, one characterized by liberal political disenchantment, in which secularists aspire to create space for liberal freedoms, but no longer aspire to a deep form of social and philosophical unity. In fact, they fear it.
Why have the conditions of modern society changed?
The most powerful difference concerns the secularization of Europe, North America, and increasingly South America. This process of secularization is deeply connected to the rise of a neo-liberal economic and social consensus, one not based on traditional norms but united by a search for ever-greater utility. In an unexpected way, the metaphysical materialism that characterized Marxism has re-emerged after its collapse in a new form, as the ideology of the leadership class in liberal culture. To the extent that Western governments and universities seek to preserve and promote the ideals of freedom that they once juxtaposed to totalitarianism, these ideals have been transformed into the postmodern project of value constructivism. The state and the university should provide the free space that allows each one to determine for himself the meaning of his body, the use of his time, the purpose of his existence.
The upshot is a minimalist vision of human unity. The state provides physical protection, health care, and education principally to facilitate technology innovation, participation in the work force, and the management of markets and entertainments. All of this is given moral status through the promotion of “human rights” that are almost entirely individualistic, exemplified by the present fixation on sexual liberties. Allied with this new social configuration is the rise of postmodern theory that rejects the Enlightenment ideal of universal rationality. History turns on the conflict of heterogeneous conceptions of reality and social norms that express diverse cultural, ethnic, and gender identities. Under such a conception of social reality, unity is reduced to “tolerance,” a nebulous virtue, instrumental at best, that is meant to allow persons with incompatible worldviews to inhabit the common public realm in a nonjudgmental way.
This is very different from the context in which de Lubac wrote Catholicism, a time when the West was overrun by urgent projects of social unity: fascism, communism, and nationalisms of various sorts. These had perverse tendencies, but de Lubac could draw upon their impulse toward solidarity, which, as he demonstrated, is truly realized in the Church’s universal mission. In our new context, traditional religious practices frustrate the postmodern project, which is one of weakening the strong convictions that once bound people together. The claim to absolute knowledge, the appeal to a form of universalism that should inform civilization that is not based on empirical indexes alone, and the regulation of human sexuality that religious traditions promote make religion seem a threat to modern liberal society. When we add in the prevalence of Islamic extremist violence, the situation is only exacerbated, and quite acutely at that. For the postmodern imagination, strong social unity can only be imposed in artificial, violent, and tyrannical ways.
What is the point of all this rapidly sketched sociology? That Catholic theology today offers the modern secular world a vision of civilizational unity it no longer seeks. Thus, we need a new apologetic orientation that recognizes our new circumstances. Communism was the ideal for human unity that served as the stalking horse for de Lubac’s Catholicism. It was a real metaphysical alternative in the age of Vatican II. Today we face a different cultural challenge, one suspicious of any strong claims around which we might rally—or that might command our souls. This requires a distinctive and different theological response.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s classic, The Theology of Karl Barth, is another important book in the development of twentieth-century Catholic thought. Devoted to a sympathetic exposition of Barth, it also contains a treatise on the relationship of nature and grace in Catholic theology. Balthasar gives particular attention to the question of the natural human capacity to grasp universal truths regarding the created order, natural law, personhood, and the transcendent reality of God. Does the fallen human condition darken our natural capacity for metaphysical knowledge? Does the grace of Christ heal these native capacities, directing them toward a deeper Christocentric wisdom?
Balthasar was influenced by Gottlieb Söhngen, the Munich theologian and teacher of Joseph Ratzinger, who disputed with Karl Barth about the question of natural, metaphysical knowledge of the existence of God (the so-called analogia entis). Barth claimed that such knowledge was impossible and an obstacle to true knowledge by faith (the analogia fidei), because it tempts us to substitute a philosophical construction for authentic revelation of the living God. Söhngen attempted to do justice to Barth’s insight about the frailty of human knowledge of God by placing the question of natural knowledge of God within a uniquely Christological context. When the light of the incarnate Word shines upon the human mind, the native capacity for thinking metaphysically is revived and drawn into fruitful relation to the revealed truth of Christ. Therefore, the natural knowledge of God develops interior, so to speak, to the act of faith itself. The analogia entis operates within the analogia fidei.
Balthasar adopts this approach and accepts its implications. First among them is the need for a vital ecclesial intellectual life and culture of grace as the context for knowledge of basic metaphysical truths about God, the human person, and the natural law. This allows Balthasar to disagree with Barth’s wholesale rejection of natural theology but transform this overly theologized insight into a practical claim regarding the inefficacy of modern Catholic appeal to the classical Western metaphysical and moral tradition in today’s secular culture.
Thus, insofar as the Church seeks to generate and nourish a culture of the living knowledge of God and a proper human anthropology in the midst of a secular age, she must seek first to articulate a Christological vision of reality based on revelation. Apologetic efforts to build up from unfulfilled desires that we see at work in society today, showing their tendency toward Catholic fullness, won’t work. The Church serves humanity by promoting an integrated Christian wisdom rooted in sacred tradition, at once dogmatic and metaphysical, systematic and practical. People in the secular world can recognize their true desires only if they are first confronted with the plenitude of Christian revelation. Postmodernity is an era of spiritual impoverishment and metaphysical pessimism. People need to encounter the unexpected possibility of God become man in order to have their natural desire for transcendence reawakened.
We see this approach in Balthasar’s work. He seeks to illuminate all human thought by appeal to the light of Christ, which draws the fragmented, disparate truths of humanity, both secular and religious, into a universal truth that is distinctly theological. Here we are no longer speaking of inclusive triumphalism. The idea instead is to present a beautiful alternative to secular culture, an explicitly Christocentric and comprehensive form of wisdom.
This way of engaging the postmodern West has characterized what is known as the Communio movement, a name derived from the journal founded by Balthasar, Ratzinger, and others. Thomists like me have been sympathetic to this project, but tend to find it defective in at least one respect. In a world marked by the effects of original sin, and certainly in a post-Christian, secular culture, one can agree that human beings have a very difficult time grasping metaphysical truths or principles of the natural law. Revelation illumines and heals human reason debilitated in these various ways. The Thomist agrees, therefore, that a culture informed by grace is one in which metaphysical realism should flourish, and a culture of ignorance of or indifference to the mystery of Christ is one in which metaphysical disorientation often follows. Contemporary postmodern skepticism is a particularly vivid example of this tendency.
The problems arise with the insistence that natural reason can only be exercised effectively within the explicit domain of theological wisdom, that is to say, as part of a process of theological reasoning and proclamation. The danger here is that Balthasar’s approach turns everything into theology, all the way down. Ontology is always already Christological. This approach is attractive because it expresses a theological ambition that is often sadly lacking in modern theology. But in reality it gives too little place to the universal power of natural human reason, whether philosophical, scientific, or historical. These endeavors of reason remain legitimate on their own terms, even as they fail to bring us to the fullness of truth. Here de Lubac is right: Revelation should not be placed in opposition to fallen human reason. In the face of a secularism that is indifferent to Catholic inclusive triumphalism, the Church must avoid retreating into an epistemological and cultural sectarianism that announces Christ’s fulfillment of all things without venturing into the failures of our time to show, with ambition and creative élan, inklings of that fulfillment already present.
What then should we do? We face new challenges. The Catholic Church in the twenty-first century cannot presume that today’s postmodern West stands in need of the existential answers offered by the Church of the Vatican II era. Nor should she resign herself to efforts to remain relevant by underscoring the occasional progressive causes that have some affinity with Catholic social doctrine. It is useless to aspire to become merely the domesticated court chaplains to secular humanism.
We need both Balthasar and de Lubac rather than the one or the other. Balthasar helps us recognize that only the fullness of Catholic wisdom that arises from a Christocentric focus can heal our fallen, God-forgetful human culture. With de Lubac, and against postmodernity, the Church must restore to the human person a sense of the natural human capacity for the universal, and with it the possibility of an ennobling unity based on shared metaphysical truth rather than the negative peace of nonjudgmental tolerance. Our postmodern age needs both the radiant light of Christ’s theological wisdom and encouragement to venture out in search of decisive philosophical understanding.
Along with these two imperatives we must adopt a third, one brought to the fore in the current pontificate. Our theological and philosophical efforts to overcome postmodern fear of—and despair about—truth must be accompanied by spiritual charity toward those who live disoriented and loveless lives in today’s secular culture. We can sketch out these three ideas briefly, construing them as tasks for contemporary theology.
First: the need to recover within the Church a basic sense of doctrinal literacy. Balthasar rightly grasped that in an increasingly de-Christianized epoch we must return to the core teachings of the Gospel as revealed in Scripture and Tradition. Only then can we be properly formed to gather the seeds of truth found throughout human culture and bring them into the one light of Christ. The deepest threat to Catholic intellectual life today stems not from a lack of engagement with the outside world, but from ignorance of our own tradition and widespread loss of authentic biblical and doctrinal thinking. Dogmatic amnesia within the Church is the central intellectual challenge facing the Church today. The question is, how can we return to the sources of faith so as to renew in the West an aspiration to attain the universal? The question is especially pressing in an age in which theological truth is perceived as a direct threat to secular society.
In judo, the martial artist learns to use the weight of his opponent against him. Skepticism is the weight that secular culture brings to bear upon the Church today. But this is also its weakness. Our own era is haunted by metaphysical despair. Plenary freedom for identity construction is, in the end, an empty freedom. The same goes for liberal despair over the possibility of a common purpose for political life. The negative peace of nonjudgmental inclusion fails to satisfy the natural desire for real political unity. What is at stake is the question of whether being a human person (and not just a thing the cosmos randomly begot) has any ultimate meaning. In the face of this basic question, we must put forward the very mystery of God himself. Today, Catholic theology should focus on Trinitarian monotheism. Why? Because God is the ultimate source of personhood, the principle of explanation that gives human existence its greatest intelligibility, and the source of enduring happiness.
In the beginning there was the Trinitarian communion of persons. The ultimate explanation of reality is Trinitarian, which tells us that, metaphysically speaking, personhood is primal. The universe is a gift from a transcendent source and is made for the communion of human persons, something we can anticipate by nature and fully enter into by grace. As such, our capacities to seek the truth and make free, deliberate decisions to love are not merely evolved or accidental features of our humanity. On the contrary, the human search for knowledge and love is essential to the human condition and takes on ultimate meaning in light of the communion of Trinitarian persons.
This personalist view of the universe is not only derived from supernatural faith. It is also consonant with philosophical realism, which brings us to the second imperative: Restore confidence in reason’s capacity for the universal. The world is best understood metaphysically. The existence of a multiplicity of finite, contingent beings requires us to posit the existence of a necessary, transcendent being. The imperfect goodness, beauty, and truth of the universe serves as an indirect but reliable witness to the existence of the Creator who is infinitely good, perfect, and wise. In this sense, God is the natural lodestar of the human intellect, the most universal truth the human mind can aspire to, because God is the cause of all that is.
This renewed attention to metaphysics commits us to a vindication of the Enlightenment aspiration to universal rationality, and rightly so. De Lubac’s era was haunted by the search for a collectivist movement that could unite humanity politically. De Lubac’s apologetic response was to show how Catholicism provides the authentic answer to the human search for genuine solidarity and universal communion. Today, the challenge is different: to convince human beings that the search itself is even possible.
The skeptical turn away from any form of universality, metaphysical or social, makes our situation more dire in one respect, but more promising in another. The Catholic Church faces suspicion because she promotes the notion that the human intellect is naturally made for religious truth. It can be difficult to endure this suspicion, but it is also the case that in our postmodern moment the Church has few competitors reaching out to those who are genuinely seeking something more. Who else is presenting coherent philosophical conceptions of reality? The human person has a natural desire for the universal that, even if repressed by today’s skepticism, aches for fulfillment. Consequently, the Church needs to make philosophical arguments in the public square, ones that show that the world is inherently intelligible (and that our minds are naturally made for objective truth). This will resonate powerfully in today’s skeptical consensus.
In short, the Church should simultaneously promote Catholicism as the religion of mystery and as the religion that promotes reason’s full capacity for grasping universal truths. The two are not opposed; they are deeply interrelated. A renewed trust in our capacity for rational objectivity opens the mind to the mystery of being, just as a deep engagement with the revelation of Christ leads the mind toward a more realistic, honest approach to all of reality. Serious science encourages wonder; faithful theology curbs reason’s tendency toward fantasy and wish fulfillment.
The need for both mystery and reason is evident. Contemporary culture assumes the importance of the scientific revolution. But how can the natural sciences answer larger questions of philosophical meaning? They give us no real reason to support a culture of liberal freedoms, and they offer no transcendent purpose to human life. Deprived of an understanding of reason that transcends science, people are tempted by purely subjectivist attitudes toward their deepest moral and political commitments, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation and cynicism.
A key task, then, which twentieth-century Catholic theology largely ignored, is to show the fundamental compatibility of the modern natural sciences with a deeper philosophy of nature and a metaphysics of the human person, one religious in orientation. The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas provides assistance, but so too do the philosophical reflections of secularist critics of naturalism who are dissatisfied with the reductionism and over-simplification of contemporary materialism. Modern physics, evolutionary theory, and contemporary neuroscience invite us to pose deeper metaphysical questions about the meaning of human existence. When rightly understood philosophically, they pose no real challenge to a religious interpretation of reality. The Church would do a great service to our current culture if she could help those who care deeply about truth see that their devotion to reason need not condemn them to a crimped, scientistic approach devoid of moral wisdom and metaphysical meaning.
A further philosophical issue, also of deep concern to many, appertains to the rationality of religious commitment within the context of modern democratic political culture. Contemporary secularism and Islamist extremism are at odds on a host of issues but united by a common conviction that democratic liberalism and traditional religious conviction are incompatible. Here the teaching on religious freedom offered by modern Catholicism is crucial, but it requires a more extensive philosophical and theological exposition, something to be done in engagement with secular self-understanding as well as with Islamic traditions. How is it that Catholicism can claim to represent an absolute religious truth and at the same time defend religious freedom? Articulating the answer is crucial, because today there are growing threats of coercion on both sides, and the secularism that refuses to recognize the proper civic roles of religious members of society gives rise to religious reactionaries that reject the moral legitimacy of democratic society. What is needed is a Catholic theological interpretation of modern pluralistic democracy, one that insists on real space for the ideas and active contributions of religious traditions, while underscoring the value of respectful argument and even friendship among those who hold competing views.
Another issue is asceticism in public culture. As a philosophy of the “naked public space,” liberalism shifts the crucial political questions away from happiness and toward freedom and utility. But the question of how we should use our freedom and what counts as utility constantly re-emerges. Yes, we are free, but how can we be happy? The traditional answer to this question, offered by Aristotle and Augustine, entails a disciplined use of our freedom so that our lives are shaped by rational decisions and ethical nobility.
At first glance, this answer is scandalous in a liberal culture, which promises freedom for freedom’s sake, limited only by external considerations of public utility and to prevent harm to others. It cannot digest the traditional claim that freedom is perfected by an internalized discipline, an ascetic disposition that renounces the satisfaction of lower desires for the sake of those that are higher. Yet this ascetic message is not difficult to promote, because liberal postmodern culture’s promise of freedom is increasingly empty. It leaves people alone, unmarried, subject to the whims of the market, and captive to addictions. The West wants a philosophy of authentic freedom, even as its liberal ideology pushes it away.
I’m more and more convinced of the apologetic leverage available to us. We need to redeploy the metaphysical rationality and theological wisdom of the Catholic tradition to help postmodern men and women escape the dead ends of our era: the false choice between science and transcendent meaning, the failed pluralism of secular societies, and the liberal exaltation of freedom that has led to many forms of self-imposed bondage. And yet, as important as this assistance may be, we must not discount the third imperative: the profound importance of spiritual charity in a cold world.
When he wrote Catholicism in the 1930s, de Lubac feared that the Church’s current thinking was one-sided, occupied by an overly individualistic view of salvation. He aimed to re-orient theologians toward the solidarity of the Christian life and the social character of salvation. One can argue about whether de Lubac rightly depicted the pre-Vatican II Church, but he has certainly turned out to be prophetic regarding life outside the Church in our present age. Men today seek to save themselves by piling up credentials and building resumes. Their lives are marked by trying solitude and extreme forms of individualism. In this context, the witness of the collective life of the Church takes on a special healing power: in the liturgy, in Christian marriage, and in the witness of authentic religious life.
The Church’s concrete witness to charity is deeply marked by how we relate to one another in our bodies. Many of us think the Church’s mission is hobbled by her rigorous sexual ethic. The truth is the inverse. The physical lives of people today are frequently commodified, sexually objectified, or analyzed materially through the tools of science. None of this tells us what our bodies are actually for or how to live a genuinely happy life, which of course involves our bodies. The wisdom of the Church teaches that our bodies are made for the worship of God and for genuine acts of spiritual love. When Catholics live and teach this truth, they show the world what it means to be human, and what it means for the Word to become flesh. A Catholicism that lives the victory of the charity of Christ in the flesh is one that can vanquish spiritual adversaries and convert doubtful hearts.
This is the time for courage. Hans Urs von Balthasar was right. We need to speak frankly and earnestly from the heart of the Church, not trimming or adjusting to the spirit of the age. That’s as true for Catholicism’s tradition of metaphysical reflection and age-old stewardship of perennial philosophy as it is for the Christocentric core of the Church’s proclamation. And Henri de Lubac was also right. Our bold stance in defense of reason’s capacity for the universal—a capacity fulfilled in Christ’s universal truth—is how we serve the deepest need of our age, a need all the more urgent because so thoroughly repressed by the skeptical, cynical mentality that predominates. In the First Book of Samuel, it is not Saul’s army that gives David victory over the Philistines, but his confidence in the truth of the God of Israel. For a Christian, the only real weapon we bear is the truth lived in authentic love, which alone has the power to save. When the Church not only preaches but also lives this truth, her universalism shines forth, and her enemies have nothing truly substantial to oppose her with, no matter how powerful they may seem. Over the course of the ages, de Lubac is right: It is she alone who remains standing.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.