The Oberlin protesters say things like this: “You include Black and other students of color in the institution and mark them with the words ‘equity, inclusion and diversity,' when in fact this is titleism, and is sexist heteropatriarchy.”
They demanded that buildings be renamed, that “Black healers/nonwestern health practitioners” be hired in the Counseling Center, “guaranteed tenure” for eight black tenure-track professors, a black woman be hired as head of the Jazz Vocal Department, nine officials and professors be fired immediately, Oberlin provide free busing for Oberlin primary and secondary students, Oberlin divest from Israel. . . .
It ends with a threat: “If these demands are not taken seriously, immediate action from the Africana community will follow.”
The whole things ends amounts to a temper tantrum. Not even the hyper-liberal Oberlin administration was able to respond with much sympathy
For those of us on the outside, especially for academics at institutions that have seen similar adolescent outbursts, it's a dismaying campus form of street theater. That's where the Port Huron Statement helps. It was the manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society, and while I disagree with the progressivist plans of Tom Hayden and his fellow activists, one has to appreciate the sobriety and thoughtfulness of the document.
Let the document speak for itself. Here is the seventh paragraph in full:
Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority—the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through,” beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.
I became aware of Cornelio Fabro’s existence a few years ago through a lecture given by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, at a conference on the Renewal of Thomism. In his lecture (available here), Fr. White identifies two different paths open to Thomists after the Second Vatican Council, which he associates with the French Dominican Yves Congar (1904–1995) on the one hand, and the Italian Stigmatine Cornelio Fabro (1911–1995) on the other. A year or so ago I read a good deal of Congar's diary from Vatican II. Lately I've been thinking more about Fabro, and started reading his book God in Exile. In light of this, I'd like to revisit the distinction drawn by Fr. White, with some of my own thoughts.
Yves Congar’s Thomism was characterized by a broad optimism about the Ecumenical movement, the relations between the Church and the modern secular world, and the malleability of ecclesiastical institutions to meet the needs of the day. He was more concerned with the abstract methods and intellectual style of St. Thomas than his particular views. He saw the task of modern Thomists as one, not necessarily of preserving the doctrines of the Angelic Doctor, but of doing with modern philosophy what St. Thomas did with the new Aristotelianism and Islamic philosophies of his day. Thomas reached outside the Church to embrace the philosophical riches of humanity, and incorporated them into his own language and ways of thinking. So too, thought Congar, we ought to embrace the riches of other world religions, of modern existentialism and phenomenology, of the separated brethren, and create a new language and conceptual apparatus that would enable the Church to draw closer to (and eventually embrace) all the people and groups outside it. For Congar, the Thomist project is about dialogue and incorporation, best expressed in the ancient adage found in Origen’s letter to St. Gregory Thaumaturgus: As the Israelites took the spoils of Egypt with them into Sinai to build the Ark, so we should despoil the pagan philosophers and turn their ideas to divine use.
Cornelio Fabro was less sanguine about the Church’s prospects in the rising tide of secularism. For Fabro, the tendency of the modern world and the rise of modern atheism can be traced back to a single principle, which he calls “immanentism.” Immanentism is the reduction of the truth to states of subjective consciousness—the abstraction of truth from being, the rejection of realism. This rejection, according to Fabro, means that the philosophical tradition descended from Descartes, even in its ostensibly theological activity, will always tend toward atheism. In fact, he goes so far to say that modern philosophy is “radically and constitutively atheistic,” precisely because of its prioritization of the reality of states of consciousness over the objective being of things. (Interestingly, this diagnosis of “immanentism” as a primary undercurrent in modern philosophy and theology was masterfully explained in Pope Pius X’s 1907 encyclical on “modernism,” Pascendi Dominici Gregis.)
Because of the nuclear atheism of modern philosophy, possibilities for authentically Catholic dialogue with and appropriation of modern thought are limited. Dialogue happens on the basis of some underlying agreement—between subjectivism and realism there is little to go on. Furthermore, the theologians who adopt modern habits of thinking and philosophical principles tend (however good their intentions may be) to fall into confusion about the meaning of their words. Language about God ends up becoming merely descriptive of human experience; theological mystery is transformed into anthropological allegory; and, in the end, conversations arise in which one party talks about the nature of the Divinity, while the other is talking, in nearly the same language, about the human community’s collective experience of “the new.”
None of this is meant to suggest that Fabro rejected Origen’s dictum about the “spoils of Egypt.” He studied modern philosophy in great depth, and with great care. His corpus includes books on Marx, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and other modern thinkers, as well as an enormous survey of atheism in modern philosophy, God in Exile: Modern Atheism. But, unlike Congar, Fabro’s researches were colored less by a desire for universal peace and human brotherhood (and certainly not by resentment over the strictures of Pius XII’s pontificate) than by a desire to understand, with reference to eternal Truth.
Congar’s approach carried the day. His optimism was enshrined in the documents of Vatican II and became programmatic in the adoption of the “new theology” in Catholic seminaries across the world. For my part, looking over the trajectory of modern thought since 1960, I can’t help but conclude that Fabro’s desire for the truth did greater justice to the inner tendencies of the modern world than Congar’s starry-eyed hopes for universal brotherhood. The past half-century of endless calls for dialogue and inclusivity seems to have given us little more than tide after tide of confusion and fragmentation in Catholic theology. Thomism has been broadly abandoned in favor of a series of faddish, increasingly anthropocentric theologies, and our clergy (poorly trained by “new theologians”) are barely capable of presenting Catholic doctrine to their flocks, much less defending it. Congar's yearning for unity found its principle in Origen’s “spoils of Egypt.” But perhaps this principle, while sound, should be supplemented by a more medieval principle: that the identification of real differences between things is prerequisite to their unification. Distinguish to unite. Where there is disagreement, or failure, or error, let it be acknowledged, so that an earnest confrontation of the difference can help lead those who differ toward greater unity—not on the basis of their shared humanitarianism or abstract “respect,” but through their common participation and friendship in the Truth.
I've been reading one text over and over again—The Jeweler's Shop by Karol Wojtyla, the man who would become Pope John Paul II. This is a play about the sacrament of marriage and how love (and its absence) shapes us across generations. I am directing the play here at the First Things office. Tickets are free, but if you're interested in coming to the June 8th and 9th performances, you should book your seat today: space is filling up fast!
The Rhapsodic Theater (a group Wojtyla helped found, and in whose style The Jeweler's Shop is written) was a “Theater of the Word.” Part of the excitement of the rehearsal process has been digging into Wojtyla's words, and finding the character motivations behind even the most philosophical passages of the text. For instance, in one scene we discovered that a slightly mysterious exchange was, in fact, a proposal of marriage!
Another very mystical passage in the play comes when wavering wife Anna encounters the Bridegroom, stepping out of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins onto the street in front of her. She runs to the Bridegroom in hope, but falls back when she sees he has the face of her disappointing husband Stefan. The Bridegroom speaks:
Two lamps are out.
One didn't give its flame to the other.
One didn't give oil to the other.
Didn't give its wick.
Didn't give its wick.
—two lamps—and the rain.
This was very hard to stage until we realized the Bridegroom might be speaking, somewhat, with Stefan's disappointment at failing to incarnate the Bridegroom to Anna—disappointment at their mutual failure as a couple to keep their lamps burning to light the Way of the Lord. Then the staging became a delight to work out. If you want to see the solution we hit on for these lines, come to the show in June!
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?