Rev. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., where he writes and teaches on Thomistic metaphysics and Christology. He recently spoke with First Things assistant editor Connor Grubaugh about three modern presentations of the Catholic faith.
The first book you’ve chosen is John Henry Newman’s very personal Apologia pro Vita Sua.
In 1864, Newman was publicly accused by Charles Kingsley of converting to the Catholic religion for insincere reasons. Kingsley argued that Newman could not be both intellectually honest and Catholic simultaneously. In response, Newman composed a masterful intellectual autobiography, the Apologia pro Vita Sua, which he calls a “history of my religious opinions.”
The book is distinctively modern in that it narrates the development of the protagonist’s consciousness and worldview rather than presenting a series of propositions for disputation. It seeks rather slyly to establish not that the author’s views are true, so much as that they are sincere. Yet from within this typically modern and literary medium of expression, Newman does in fact offer the modern person a profound introduction to classical doctrinal questions. He does not condescend to the reader, but instead leads him on an insightful tour of doctrinal disputes between Anglican and Catholic theologians of the nineteenth century, and relates these to ancient disputes in the Catholic Church.
The summit of the book is Newman’s defense of Catholicism in response to modern agnosticism. He offers a vivid critique of the doctrines of secular “liberalism,” explaining why for him it constitutes an implausible intellectual alternative to classical Catholic Christianity. Newman’s book is a vehicle for transmitting the tradition of the Catholic Church in a novel form. He shows how a tenacious search for the truth can emerge from within the sincerity of a modern individual seeker.
St. Augustine’s Confessions similarly intertwines prolonged philosophical argument with reflection on the author’s own subjectivity. Why do you think this hybrid genre has proven so useful and attractive to Christian thinkers over the centuries?
Newman is clearly seeking to transpose Augustine’s ancient example into a modern key. The genre is evocative because it details the development of the person, from the inside, and therefore creates a powerful sense of the subjective motives for belief. Augustine in the garden, Newman at Littlemore. Both of them make their inner intellectual and spiritual dilemma vivid for us and invite us to accompany them observationally in their decision of conversion. This in turn suggests that we might follow a similar path, though not an identical one—conversion, not by way of slavish imitation but through our own personal discernment of the truth. It’s a powerful motif in the western Christian literary tradition, and one that Newman channeled poignantly.
Your second book is Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
This book was originally published in 1946 as a systematic exposition of the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas. But the book also considers deeper issues related to the perennial truth of Catholicism and its intelligibility in the modern context. Garrigou-Lagrange is often depicted as the ultimate anti-modernist reactionary, but few recall that as a young Dominican priest, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne with figures like Henri Bergson, Émile Durkheim, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Alfred Loisy. In fact, Garrigou-Lagrange from a young age was asking intellectual questions that anticipate postmodernity: Can we know anything about being that is stable and enduring? Is all intellectual knowledge merely a reflection of passing cultural constructions? Reality is a response to such questions in the form of a fully developed philosophical and theological treatise.
Turning to Aquinas for conceptual resources, Garrigou-Lagrange seeks to provide a properly metaphysical account of the fundamental structure of reality that can define and make intelligible our human experience. For this, he appeals to the classical metaphysical notions of substance, causality, knowledge, the human person and the spiritual soul, the virtues, and human flourishing. His treatment of the mysteries of the Catholic religion, meanwhile, seeks to show the inherent intelligibility of these mysteries and their concord with natural human reason, but also their irreducibility to mere truths of philosophy or religious sociology. The synthetic depth of this book is impressive, and it is a prototypically modern defense of the truth of Catholicism.
Many thinkers over the years have sought to “break free” from what they see as a burdensome and restrictive dependence on Thomistic categories and methods in Catholic theology. What does a committed Thomist like yourself make of their complaint? Is Catholicism in some way essentially Thomistic, or Thomism essentially Catholic?
Catholic theology is based on the principles of divine revelation, not on the principles of human philosophy. However, the Catholic tradition rightly does make use of philosophy in order to articulate theological truths and inevitably must do so. Consequently, some use of philosophy is always necessary, and on this point the Church has repeatedly emphasized that Aquinas’s thought provides a helpful and well-tested resource. That is very different from saying that other alternatives are to be excluded. The modern magisterium recommends that seminarians study Thomism, for example, not so that they feel obliged to embrace every point, but so that they will have a sufficient philosophical realism, and classical intellectual culture, as they move forward in their ministry as priests.
However, all this is somewhat beside the point given our contemporary climate. Very few Catholics suffer today from an overly rigid dependence on Thomistic metaphysics, and if anything the doctrines that blind us today stem from unreflective political liberalism and postmodernism. In the Church today, we typically encounter a generalized doctrinal amnesia and nescience of our best philosophical traditions. This creates intellectual indetermination and disorientation, which lead many back to fundamental metaphysical questions, and to a revived interest in Thomism. That is a good sign of intellectual health, not something threatening. There is no inherent opposition between the modern historical study of theological sources and the metaphysically informed work of scholastic theology. The revival of theology today requires that we embrace both, but it is really the latter tradition that is most in need of revival in our current climate.
Your last book selection is Joseph Ratzinger’s renowned Introduction to Christianity.
Originally published in 1968, this book stems from lectures Ratzinger gave at the University of Tübingen during the tumultuous period just after the Second Vatican Council. The book is presented as a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. However, one has the impression that the book is written as much for skeptics and atheists as it is for cradle Catholics. Little is presumed. Ratzinger enters into the problem of Christian belief in the modern world with a thoroughgoing honesty, and seeks to explore the intelligibility and meaningfulness of Catholicism much as if he were discovering it for himself along the way.
Though he is named only half a dozen times in the book, the liberal Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann was undoubtedly one of Ratzinger’s main interlocutors in this work: How do we know that Christianity is not just an elaborate pre-modern myth, standing in need of demythologization? Ratzinger does not treat historical study of Christianity as a threat, but as an opportunity and advantage. He seeks to introduce the reader, as if for the first time, to the rationality of the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and medieval Scholastics, so as to show how and why Christianity provides unique and true insight into the human condition of modern persons. The most significant portion of the book is the treatise on Christology, where Ratzinger inverts the Bultmannian logic: It is only when we realize that the mysteries of the life of Christ are real, and not mere symbols, that we acquire a true understanding of their existential significance for modern humanity. It’s not an accident that this book has helped many readers grasp the truth of Christianity within the context of our skeptical era.
Is modernity something that these three authors are responding to, or something they too are participating in?
Modernity can be defined in many ways: the rise of capitalist democracies in the eighteenth century, the scientific revolution, the divisions of Church and state, the primacy of subjective consciousness (Descartes), skepticism about ultimate metaphysical explanations coupled with an ethics of autonomy that gives rise to liberal secular culture (Kant), the use of historical studies to relativize all absolute truth claims. What makes these three works modern is that they take seriously and engage directly with the modern problematization of knowledge of absolutes, whether that problematization is metaphysical, historical, or religious. In an age of globalization, the problem of any possible reference to absolutes (and the question of whether any such knowledge exists, really or artificially) does affect many people across a spectrum of intellectual standpoints, be they classical Marxists, Nietzschean postmodernists, scientific empiricists, agnostic Keynesian liberals, Wahabi Muslims, or South American Catholics. Newman, Garrigou-Lagrange, and Ratzinger all participated in their own way in this prototypically modern form of questioning, and were very sensitive to the existential disorientation it produced, to say nothing of the massive cultural upheavals that arose in the modern era. From within this problematic, however, they each discovered and were able to portray for others something of perennial importance: the human search for the truth. Each of them was able to present in a profound way the truth of the principles of Catholicism from within this modern context.
Older generations of Catholics have made much of the need to minister to modern people and modern societies in a new way, whereas many Catholics of my own generation seem to prefer more traditional forms. How should the Church respond to changing historical circumstances? In apologetics, is it possible to change keys without changing tune?
People under forty in the West have grown up in a largely secular and religiously uncatechized world, so when they turn to religious resources to explain reality, they are typically interested in the discovery of principles, lasting structures, and tested reference-points. This instinct is more sound overall than that of the post-Vatican II generation, which was looking for ways to nuance and expand the intellectual and liturgical life of the Church, against what was perceived as a deadening cultural sclerosis. This latter instinct is of course justified in many respects. The problem, however, is that a fundamental confusion existed in many from the beginning between openness to non-Christian culture and the alteration of the very foundations of faith.
The divinity of Christ is a good test case. It is one thing to consider the resources of modern historical study for placing Jesus of Nazareth within his historical context. It is quite another thing to forsake, in practice if not in theory, the idea that Christ is God, and the universal savior of humanity. You cannot give what you do not have, and so the loss of references to tradition has eventually led in many quarters to a tragic loss of knowledge about Catholic culture, and the end of its transmission.
All that being said, there are many features of modern existence that characterize just about everyone today, many of which are unambiguously positive and some of which are morally neutral. The problems that arise in modern intellectual and moral culture are not met well by ignorance or mere reactionary condemnation. What is needed is serene analysis based on the principles of divine revelation, philosophical realism, coupled with a charitable and merciful response to questions of our time that stems from the best wellsprings of the Catholic tradition, both ancient and modern.
Your newest book, The Light of Christ, falls within this genre of modern Catholic apologetics. What need did you see for another work of this kind? Were you bearing in mind any particular objections to the Catholic faith when writing it?
The Light of Christ is a meant to be an introduction to Christianity for all comers: non-Christian seekers, Protestants, or Catholics who want to think more deeply about the claims of Christianity. The book is structured not by apologetic concerns but by a consideration of basic teachings of Christianity: God and the Trinity, creation and the human person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church and the sacraments, the social doctrine of the Church, and eschatology. There is also a section on prayer. So the book is based on the perennial teachings of the Church, in line with your observation above that millennials are typically more interested in the traditional claims of Christianity.
At the same time, certain questions are now more pressing in the public imagination than they were fifty years ago, when the last of these three works was written: the compatibility of Christianity and modern science, the divinity of Christ and its relation to modern historical studies, the sexual teachings of Church, the difference between human beings and other animals, and whether or not there is a spiritual soul. The book engages with topics like these. The aim was to show, by way of an overview, the deep inner intelligibility and realism of Christian truth claims across a broad spectrum of issues, with regard to God, the historicity of Jesus, the nature of the human person and the reality of grace, the sacramental life, and the Christian eschatological hope. It’s meant to be a helpful book for those who want to explain Catholicism to others, and also for those who are interested in thinking seriously about Christianity in a structured way.
Thomas Joseph White’s most recent essay for First Things, “Catholicism in an Age of Discontent,” appeared in the November 2016 issue. The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism was released this month by Catholic University of America Press.