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Benedict XVI, Herbert Hoover, Balthasar & more

A useful primer for the Pope's trip to Brazil in The Economist. Two bits of analysis struck me:

1. The focus on the Pentecostalization of Christianity in Latin America, Catholic or Protestant. This is not new, of course, but it's still startling to see the numbers. (i.e. Guatemala may be majority Protestant in our lifetime; the enthusiasm among Catholics for charismatics.)

2. The article includes a throw-away line that tensions over liberation theology may fade with the end of the cold war and the successful transition to democracy in in the region. Today's New York Times (behind firewall) takes a different line, stressing the persistance of liberation theology in the region and the enduring importance of ecclesial base communities.

I've no idea who's right. But it's a useful reminder that ideological divides do often blind us from seeing larger trends. I teach U.S. history and students (or their parents) are often startled when I stress the similarities between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt in his first term. Or another example: I'm reading Fergus Kerr's brilliant (if aspish) survey of twentieth century Catholic theology and I'm struck by this conclusion. Kerr comparing Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar:

"Currently, Karl Rahner is played off against his old colleague Hans Urs Von Balthasar, with Rahner regarded as the 'progressive' theologian of the Council and Balthasar the 'conservative' theologian of the post-conciliar reaction....Since both [Rahner and von Balthasar] were rooted in the school of Jesuit spirituality, they were never as far apart as they may seem. Moeover, each was far more complicated than the standard story allows. As time goes by, in the perspective of history, their projecs may well come to seem more complementary than conflicting, overlapping much more than their admirers and adversaries think at present."


Commenting Guidelines

JohnThank you for the stimulating post.I would echo several of Kerr's observations regarding Rahner and von Balthasar. I have long maintained that neither can be rightly understood save within the matrix of Ignatian spirtuality which formed them both.Further, each is ill-served by some followers who reduce their richness to ideological slants or, worse, sound-bytes.I think an issue to ponder is put forth by R.R. Reno in the current issue of First Things (in the course of a review essay on Kerr's book). The issue is whether the great 20th century pioneers of "ressourcement and aggiornamento" that so influenced Vatican II managed themselves to provide an adequate replacement for the neo-Scholasticism that, with all its shortcomings, provided a common language for articulating the Catholic faith vision.The issue is a complicated one, and Reno may be unduly pessimistic, but his article would provide matter for a wonderful "Common Ground"-like exchange.

I also read the Reno piece. An interesting question: What provided a common theological language during the centuries between Scholasticism and Neo-Scholasticism?

Stimulating post, indeed, John.I understand seeking the truth in history is hard enough. Was Roosevelt different than Hoover in his second term? I would say yes, but I do want to hear your opinion. This has always intrigued me how one can quote someone out of context, or better yet, quote someone in context but at an earlier or later time. This is what makes Augustine, along with many others, so confusing. Maybe not to you. One can certainly quote the earlier over the later.How much does emotion come in. I am still in wonder how Ted Hesburgh was able to oppose the Vatican and not be declared a heretic. No one in Rome dare do anything like Ex Corde Ecclesia while he was making Catholic Universities and Colleges independent. I suppose it helps to have Paul VI's ear.And would Hans Kung have benefited if he had Hesburgh to guide him. I mean Hesburgh ended up by Ottaviani offering to help him. Then again Kung was able to survive Ottaviani but not Ratzinger, his former colleague. Do we have anyone like Hesburgh now?How much does emotions and friendships alter history. And heresy. Certainly Cyprian was a heretic in Augustine's book tho he tread lightly on him. Teach us John.

Thanks to all for the comments!At Bob Imbelli's prompting I just read R.R. Reno's piece which is quite stimulating and learned. I'm an amateur and Reno and Imbellia are experts but I wonder if Reno doesn't romanticize the shared culture of the nineteenth and twentieth century scholastics. Or put another way: is something that crumbled so quickly -- really twenty years -- good evidence that common ground and vocabulary are our goals? That said, Reno is absolutely right to note that we habitually condemn 19th and 20th century scholasticism without understanding it. Or appreciating that so much creative theological work stood on the stage it had built.

John,I'm glad you found Reno's article stimulating. As I said above, I think it would provide an excellent starter for a more sustained Common Ground Conference ... or an issue of Commonweal!Yes, the speed of the collapse of neo-Scholasticism was astonishing -- it could not support the manifold currents unleashed by Vatican II. Yet, as Walter Kasper and others realize, with the gains there were real losses.Let me pick up your two expressions: "common ground and vocabulary."One might say that all the great figures of twentieth century Catholic theology were bi-lingual. Even as they forged new vocabulary (De Lubac by returning to the Fathers, Rahner by appropriating Kant) they also spoke the common scholastic language.Since Vatican II many have become merely mono-lingual. Balthasar decried "saw dust Thomism." But he knew Thomas intimately. Rahner decried "Denzinger theology." But he was an editor of Denzinger. It is always more stimulating to converse with those who speak well more than one language. It provides perspective and depth.As for "common ground:" all the theologians concerned celebrated (often daily) the same Latin liturgy. So much of post-Vatican II energies have been taken up by disputes over the liturgy. (I don't want to over-generalize based upon a perhaps unrepresentative perusing of blogs.) But the common liturgy was a given for the Canadian Lonergan, the German Rahner, the French Congar and the Swiss von Balthasar, in a way that it is not for their would be successors. And with the common liturgy, a common vision and sensibility.So yes the neo-scholastic "stage" has collapsed, and we are all somewhat uncomfortably seated on our duffs in the pit. As Rahner often said: there are no longer "experts,: we are all "amateurs." Perhaps Benedict's first encyclical sought to restore the indispensable common ground: "Deus Caritas Est."Much more to say: perhaps Notre Dame or Boston College could sponsor a conference. Even jointly as a manifestation of Common Ground!

I very much appreciate the reflections here. I also have a hunch that framing the conversation in terms of Rahner v. Balthasar just doesn't work. A few years back I had a piece in America, where I reflected on the ways in which Rahner and Balthasar helped me in a complementary way think through issues of faith and doubt in the lives of high school students, whether in the classroom or in a retreat setting. After having a chance to study more theology since then, I would perhaps frame it a bit differently and maybe in a more sophisticated way, but my basic hunch about the value of both remains.Of course, it is important not to ignore their real differences. I think Reno is correct to suggest that it is time for a period of consolidation that allows us to integrate the lasting achievements of 20th century theology. Here's a rough sketch of my aspirations for consolidation; I have included liberation/political theoloy -- a point under-emphasized in Reno's piece (although the piece was a book review essay, and Reno does mention that F. Kerr does not deal with the movement).(1) theoretical theology: namely Aquinas and contemporary transpositions of his thought (e.g. Lonergan and Rahner): this move enables one in a contemporary context to engage constructively and critically the social and natural sciences; (2) aesthetic-dramatic theology: most notably HUV Balthasar, this move enables one to acknowledge that Gods self-disclosure is predominantly manifested in aesthetic and dramatic forms; (3) a mode broadly described as political or liberation theology: this move enables one to acknowledge the concrete histories of suffering, the overwhelming and pervasive reality of evil that is an undeniable dimension of our existence. The hard work of consolidation would entail discerning where these different emphases and insights can complement one another, where there are irreducible dialectical differences, and where they are working at higher or lower levels of one single process of development.This would keep one busy some time!Randy

This set of postings is a pleasure to read. I wish Randy Rosenberg the insight, time, health, etc. that he'll need for the work he projects.I don't have anything much to contribute here. It may not be useless, though, to say that at least some of the criticisms that have been made of dominance of the notions of substance and production (efficient causality) in the standard versions of Thomism are well placed. This dominance leads, I believe, to deficient conceptions of human beings, on the one hand, and of the kind of God made manifest in Scripture.It may well be, I think, that nether the triune God nor the human way of being can be properly talked about in a way that resolves every relevant enigma and paradox. So internal coherence remains an ideal, perhaps, but not an unconditional requirement for good philosophizing about these topics. If this is so, then I would think that something of the same should be acknowledged about theologizing.

Will someone explain to me why Reno's article is so good, or helpful? Does it seek common ground? I must be reading a different article. Specific quotations from the article would help.Is an expert similar to a guru. I always liked that saying about shooting your guru.And John M are you writing tongue in cheek? Stay with us John. Tell us what you think. And Robert is a common liturgy just Latin? I appreciate that Randy acknowledged that in Thomas there is a lot of theoretical theology. At one time it was de riguer to agree with him.Back to Rahner and Balthasar? Are we going to flip a coin as to what they are saying. I know Joe K likes Lonergan too. But how confusing!!And what prevents theologians from studying Hans Kung? Is it jealousy? Hardly anyone has written with the comprehensive depth and clarity that he has. Does that mean that we all adhere to damnatio memoriae?I guess one day we will have a Hans Kung conference.

A common theological language arose in the Middle Ages from the study of Aristotelian texts in the Universities. Dante's "il Maestro di color che sanno" says it all. Neo-Scholasticism was an attempt to revive that tradition. (Does anyone else remember that there was once an SAT in Scholastic Philosophy for graduates of Catholic Colleges?) Since V II that seems to have gone out of fashion. But no one thinker has the philosophical influence that Aristotle once did. Scripture might seem to provide a common language, but the theologies of the authors of the works in the New Testament are diverse.

I should have said GRE in Scholastic Philosophy. It's been a while.

JG-I'm no historian, but it strikes me as interesting that a common theological language can arise from reading a source that was so virulently opposed by ecclesiastical authorities. Didn't the Bishop of Paris want Thomas' work destroyed because of its use of the Pagan (much less the Muslim and the Jew)? What might this fact suggest about a current climate in which theologians are under suspicion? (Of course, I guess many of the great Vat II figures underwent their time of suspicion too)

The use of Aristotle was first for logic. Peter Abaelard's introduction of dialectical reasoning into theology brought him in conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux, who accused Abaelard of heresy. I think the current view is that Abaelard was not a heretic. This was in the 12th century. In the 13th century much more of Aristotle became available in translation, and also of commentary on Aristotle, including commentary by Muslim philosophers. Some bishops opposed the use of Aristotle in the Universities, but wiser heads prevailed. Thereafter the study of Aristotle, or books based on Aristotle, became standard fare in university study preparatory to theology. When Descartes put his ideas in textbook form, his Principia Philosophiae, he was hoping the Jesuits would adopt it in place of who else but Aristotle.


About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.