Healing Fractures in Contemporary Theology
by tracey rowland and peter john mcgregor
cascade books, 302 pages, $37
Richard Malone, sometime director of the Doctrine Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, once approached a Catholic benefactor in the hope of a substantial donation for a fledgling theological institute. “Theology!” erupted the philanthropist. “It’s theology that got the Church into this mess in the first place.” It has to be admitted that the gentleman was largely right. The book before us sets out to change all that. Peter John McGregor, an Australian student of Joseph Ratzinger’s thought, identifies the internal fracturing of a once (pretty) unified theological culture as the principal source of the current malaise, and has invited a range of American and Australian authors to address it. McGregor’s fellow editor is his better-known countrywoman Tracey Rowland, a specialist in the identification of theological tendencies and the drawing up, after the manner of Alasdair MacIntyre, of ideological family trees.
I think it fair to say that all the contributors come from, or are sympathetic to, that broad school of Catholic divinity which goes by the name of Communio theology. For the less informed on such matters, the sobriquet refers to the journal of that name, founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger, and others, in order to represent the conservative wing of the Progressive majority at the Second Vatican Council—over against the liberal or radical wing, whose in-house review took, rather cheekily, the name of the Council itself, Concilium. The dividing line between the two groups runs as follows: Is change in Church theology and practice primarily to be governed by ressourcement, a return to the sources (biblical, patristic, liturgical)? Or is it chiefly to be dictated by aggiornamento, the demands of modernization—that is, accommodation to the distinctive aspirations of the contemporary West? (The accommodation was subsequently extended, by concern for “inculturation,” to societies largely unaffected by westernization—if such still exist.) Thanks to its retrieval of inspirational materials, ressourcement provides a rich theological diet and, by reaction against the early modern division of the theologian’s subject-matter into discrete tractates, generates theologies that are strong on an overall vision of divine revelation. But it lacks the doctrinal clarity of Christian Scholasticism—and this may be, given current circumstances, the Achilles’ heel of the present collection.
McGregor opens the volume with an essay that presents the divergence of theology and spirituality as the Urbruch, the primordial fracture. He cites a principle common to the Greek Fathers, Balthasar, and Benedict XVI: Absent spiritual practice, underpinned by an ongoing purification of the heart, sensitive theological antennae will not develop. The theologian can only be a spiritual theologian—a point grasped by Thomas and Bonaventure and even, as late as the nineteenth century, by the underrated Matthias Joseph Scheeben, but missed by modern Thomists of various stamps, as well as by the political theologians. The simple reason runs: All use of God-language (theo-logia) turns on God’s self-revealing word. As that word reaches the Christian teacher, it is inherently trinitarian, and thus both Christ-centered and Spirit-derived. This fact points in turn both to the need for a biblically serious conversion of mind and heart and to the centrality of the Holy Eucharist, wherein the practice of worship that glorifies God in Christ becomes, through the grace of the Spirit in Christian living, the practice of active charity. (The Orthodox have a neat name for that practice: “the liturgy after the Liturgy.”)
The next two essays have in common the desirability of a full-blooded metaphysical philosophy, working in concert with a theology that has a speculative or contemplative dimension. That is not to say the essays’ authors are entirely at one. William Hackett sees revelation as entering the field of rational concepts and mastering it. Revelation proposes to philosophy the highest degree of intelligibility possible for an understanding of philosophy’s own supreme topics: God, humanity, the world. “Mythos,” mythopoeic thinking of the kind native to religion, far from being antithetical to “logos,” the logical thinking of philosophy, has been, historically, its producer. This fact renders, if not otiose, then at best supplementary a philosophy of being as the necessary foundation for all metaphysics. If the formulation of concepts in a revelatory thinking indebted to poetic intelligence is what gives metaphysical thought its most adequate basis, then the long philosophical struggle of the Greeks to establish the contours of the real by further reflection on the nature of what is (thus enabling a grasp of what lies “beyond physics”), will be, for the theologian, of only ancillary significance.
David C. Schindler, by contrast, does not want to move quite this far from the Thomist realism officially honored by the Catholic magisterium. For him, philosophy and theology are two totalities with radically different principles—not so different, however, that the spheres they govern only touch each other peripherally, on the circumference. When conceived aright, both disciplines study the divine “generosity” at the origin of all things: metaphysics by tracing the dynamics of the gift of being, theology by exploring the mystery of another Gift, the trinitarian Son made present through his Spirit to his Bride, the Church. By learning from the metaphysical mode, those writing in the theological mode will be better able to express convincingly a truly sacramental vision of the world.
I suppose someone might attempt a synthesis of Hackett and Schindler; it would entail splicing together two distinct and apparently alternative approaches. The first, which might be called “noetic,” is based on the genesis, in cultural history, of philosophically cogent theological ideas. The second, which might be termed “ontic,” turns on the transformation of a philosophy of being when divine grace supervenes on natural being and transforms it from within. The reconciliation of these approaches would be a huge undertaking. It would marry a history of how concepts, developing from their cultural matrices, conspire to maximalize human understanding in a Christian fashion (a history whose articulation awaits an orthodox Hegel) with a very different grand narrative, one in which the only reality it is fundamentally necessary to recognize, that of being itself, is re-energized by the effects of salvation history (a narrative for which a new Thomas Aquinas would be indispensable). Someone might suggest that Hans Urs von Balthasar, already mentioned, has done this anyway.
In his opening essay, McGregor touches on the role of the liturgy, but his claims are enormously magnified by David Fagerberg, whose single, eloquently rehearsed message is that liturgy must be recognized as Theologia Prima, the one and only “primary theology.” To call the liturgy the “maternal home” of faith certainly makes sense, since, as Fagerberg rightly says, revealed theology issues from the mystery the liturgy celebrates—and he would add that natural theology emerges in an analogous way, since all being derives from the movement of ecstasy-and-return (terms favored in Christian Neo-Platonism) of the out-going and home-calling Creator. This is a beautiful gospel, but it is odd that it emerges at a time when the actual (Roman) liturgy we meet in the churches is, through the restrictiveness of its ritual repertoire, so little inspirational for many. If the English vernacular of the western liturgy has recently undergone a degree of sacralization, the same cannot necessarily be said of other translations from Latin, while the rudimentary ceremonial indications of the modern Roman liturgical books are all too often mirrored in woefully inadequate music and poorly designed material accoutrements—furniture, iconography, vestments, and vessels.
After spirituality, philosophy, and liturgiology, how should exegesis be reconceived if it is to take its place in a more interconnected theological culture? According to Leroy Huizenga, by a return to the classical scheme of the fourfold senses of Scripture, where the Bible instructs by signifying realities that are themselves the signs of further realities—whether the “further” there be the heavenly (or possibly hellish) future or the tasks before one in the all-too-earthly here and now. Baldly stated, the thesis may sound unconvincing in the face of the sophistication of the contemporary biblical academy, but Huizenga does a good job of showing how the gradual separation of exegesis from a theocentric view of the cosmos, and, within that view, from anything remotely resembling a doctrine of inspiration, has reduced the food of the Word to meager fare.
The semiotics are somewhat overdone. The density of symbolism in the Scriptures, though vital for biblical hermeneutics, is not a reason for setting aside consideration of the historical value of the texts. Though key biblical events, understood as vectors of divine revelation, cannot be approached using purely historical methods (“divine revelation,” as such, is not a concept in the historian’s toolbox), any attempt to insulate the texts from historical examination (if this is what Huizenga is proposing) is a counsel of despair. A revelatory event minus a genuine historical happening can be no more solid than the smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat. Though Huizenga makes much, at the close, of Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, I doubt he has done justice to the exactly contemporary document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Sancta Mater Ecclesia, on the importance of maintaining the substantial historicity of the Gospels.
Thus are the main pillars of this collection set in place. For reasons of space, as well as from a sense of the intellectual architecture of the overall construction, I shall now be brief. A friar preacher, James Baxter, pleads for more doctrinally substantial liturgical preaching, and points out its connections with the renewal of apologetics: Both aim at sharing the faith, with a view to unity in God, and at making use of “rhetorical prudence.” Paul Morrissey presents another Dominican, the Fleming Servais Pinckaers, as a model for moral theologians today—which he certainly is in terms of his overall vision of the discipline (in which—lo and behold—spirituality, philosophy, liturgy, and traditionally conceived exegesis are pivotal). Yet Pinckaers’s shying away from the hot potatoes of special ethics (social ethics, sexual ethics, medical ethics) is, I fear, not good enough.
Matthew Tan invokes the Anglo-Catholic masters of Radical Orthodoxy to encourage theologians to enter the waters of social theory, since—so he reports—sociologists are increasingly aware of the epistemological and metaphysical limitations of their discipline, thus making possible the “smuggling in” of the transcendent. His argument is more impressively mounted than that language of contraband might suggest, but apart from drawing the reader’s attention to the late Peter Berger’s “rumors of angels,” he does not move us far toward a new minting of T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society.
Tracey Rowland, brilliant at the geopolitical mapping of theological currents, uses her essay to warn against the dangers for both doctrine and pastoral care of any view of theology in which something other than faith “positions” faith—as when, in the manner of a debased Hegelianism, ontology is pulverized by the historical process and culture becomes all. That is, for her, a mistake that links together the occupants of a trio of categories: Latino liberation theologians for whom Marx is the new Aristotle, American “correlationists” who limit their interest in revelation to answering whatever questions—existential, psychological, or philosophical—are currently being posed, whether in the secular academy or on the public square, and the “second generation Schillebeeckxians” in the Low Countries for whom not so much Marx as his epigones in the Frankfurt School call the shots. Kevin Wagner, a member of the charismatic Emmanuel Community, suggests for largely lay theologians in the university faculties some lessons from community life, including the cultivation of silence in the setting aside of desert times for corporate meditation and, less surprisingly, of civility, charity, and (hardest of all) humility in debate.
In the essays that round off this volume, John Cihak analyzes the reasons for non-communication between theologians and non-theologians, with special reference to believers among the latter, in a thorough diagnosis that is followed by ample prognosis and prescription. A host of plausible proposals, especially (but not exclusively) of an institutional kind, make this chapter suitable reading for bishops. Helenka Mannering describes in engaging fashion the gap between generation-X Catholics and their millennial and post-millennial successors, providing reasons to hope for a more propitious sensibility (reconstructive, not deconstructive) in matters of the faith of the Church in time to come—at any rate in the Anglophone West. Finally, Nigel Zimmermann interweaves episodes from the life and writings of Newman with a report on the vicissitudes of the relations between theologians and the magisterium since the Second Vatican Council—not, however, noting that in recent times (that is, since 2013) the magisterium has seemed at certain moments to take the side of theological dissent over against its own earlier incarnation.
McGregor’s passion for connecting dots and Tracey Rowland’s genius for identifying trends and schools have served well the selection of contributions to this enterprise. Nevertheless, the collection falls short of offering a general panacea. Why so? Suppose we compare the reintegration of fragmented subdisciplines not so much to the resetting of fractured limbs as to the successful solving of a jigsaw. That would remain a problematic, not to say impossible, task if some pieces of the puzzle were themselves irreparably damaged—defective in a way that was never meant to be. To adapt a conceit in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, some items will never be use-worthy till they are carried off in the Button-Molder’s ladle, to be recast in the furnace and there remade. Not all the ills of the contemporary theological scene concern fractures—that is, failures to connect. One thinks, for example, of the moral theology of the Proportionalist (or “Consequentialist”) school, which deprives of its force the daily prayer made by priests before Communion that the Lord may guard in them fidelity to the Commandments; or those approaches to the world religions that find in these cultural products “ordinary ways of salvation,” setting aside thereby the clear teaching of Scripture (one scarcely needs to add in this context the customary rider “as read in Tradition”).
At a time of peace in the Church, a careful restitching of the patchwork quilt of Catholic theology might suffice, ensuring that a workman in one area takes into full account, for the sake of the overall effect, those working on other parts. But we are not in a time of peace, as the imminence of the 2023 Synod on Synodality reminds us. The likely push of delegates from Western Europe and North America for the legitimization of homosexual acts, exploiting thereby the ambiguous openness to irregular unions in Amoris Laetitia, and of fellow delegates from Asia, emboldened by the Abu Dhabi Declaration, for a statement on the salvific efficacy of non-Christian religions (a widespread concern of theological spokesmen in, say, India, where some bishops have been supportive), makes the better coordination of theological effort less urgent a priority now than the protection, and reaffirmation, of theological truth. Truth of creation, truth of redemption: both at stake. The plans of the writers in Healing Fractures in Contemporary Theology are not for tomorrow but for the long haul.
Aidan Nichols, O.P., is a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.