Too Big a Tent?

As the editor of the Dominican theological journal New Blackfriars, Fergus Kerr, OP, has a reputation for fair-mindedness and scholarly precision. As the author of Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity (1997), Kerr deepened his reputation as a thinker who was not only rooted in the Catholic tradition but also open to currents in contemporary philosophy and philosophical theology. Immortal Longings critiqued philosophers Martha Nussbaum, Martin Heidegger, Iris Murdoch, Luce Irigaray, Stanley Cavell, and Charles Taylor—all of whom he credited with “recreating, rediscovering, something like the religio-metaphysical conception of human life into which Christianity erupted.” Kerr found in these contemporary thinkers an admirable recognition that human life is a spiritual enterprise, one that persistently raises metaphysical questions. Consequently, they offer points of contact for Christian theologians. The final chapter of Immortal Longings, “The Natural Desire for God,” points toward Kerr’s latest contribution.

Kerr’s new book is organized around the currents of thought leading up to, shaping, and then later interpreting the Second Vatican Council. He begins with chapters on the Dominican theologians Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, and Edward Schillebeeckx, then moves on to the Jesuits Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan. His survey is rounded out with chapters on Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Küng, Karol Wojtyla, and Joseph Ratzinger. The choice of these particular figures is somewhat odd, mixing as it does the work of distinguished and innovative historians and systematic theologians with those whose work has been focused on a more pastoral or even popular level. It is safe to say, for example, that Wojtyla’s theology, per se, would have made little or no mark on Catholic theology outside of Poland had he not become pope. If Kerr’s principle of selectivity included influence, then of course John Paul II takes center stage. Yet this principle should also have led to the inclusion of representatives of other prominent forms of systematic theology, including liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez and feminist systematic theologian Elizabeth Johnson. A broader notion of theology that included morals would have to have included the great Redemptorist, Bernard Häring.

Kerr begins with the church’s failure in the first half of the twentieth century to meet the challenge of “modernism.” Modernism, of course, was judged to be fatally infected with the Protestant error that privileged private judgment over the authority of the church. Seminary education was consequently organized around a set of neoscholastic theses in ontology, cosmology, psychology, and theodicy. Seminarians were to assimilate a supposedly coherent theological vision appropriate for all times and places. The now justly infamous “theological manuals” laid out specific theses, not Thomas Aquinas’s own writings. These theses were thought to defend the primacy of timeless reason against those who mistakenly understood theology to be rooted in less reliable sources of insight such as tradition, intuition, and experience. Yet the church’s reliance on the self-evident nature of right reason had its limits. “The history of twentieth-century Catholic theology,” Kerr comments, “is the history of the attempted elimination of theological modernism, by censorship, sackings, and excommunication—and the resurgence of issues that could not be repressed by such methods.”

The authoritarian atmosphere created by the dominant neoscholastic approach to theology is exemplified by the career and influence of the now little-known but once much-feared Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (he was Karol Wojtyla’s dissertation director). Garrigou-Lagrange taught at the Angelicum in Rome, and wielded great influence in the Vatican for much of the twentieth century. Contemporary philosophy, he thought, was distorted by either epistemological agnosticism (this included, in their own distinctive ways, both the positivists and the phenomenologists) or evolutionism (which included Hegel and Bergson). Modern German philosophers were worth considering only to the extent that they “limp toward Aristotle and Plato.” Garrigou-Lagrange pushed relentlessly for an unquestioning adherence to the metaphysical foundations of theology that had been provided in a definitive way by Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, “For the likes of Garrigou-Lagrange, there was no point in studying earlier authors whose work was absorbed into, or rendered redundant by, Aquinas’s achievement.” Thomistic metaphysics provided the only philosophically sound approach for those whose understanding would correspond to “reality.”

Kerr attempts to provide a balanced view of all these figures. He praises Garrigou-Lagrange for his “more informed and better balanced picture” of philosophy than that of “many philosophers, let alone Thomists” of the time. This kind of comment, however, is strangely at odds with his praise for the dramatic breakaway made by Chenu and others from Garrigou-Lagrange’s ahistorical methodology. The best chapters provide concise summaries of the essential contributions of the major Dominican and Jesuit theologians of the century. The chapters on Chenu, de Lubac, and Rahner are particularly good. They are no more than brief sketches, but they suggest key strains in the work of these theologians that eventually influenced the documents of Vatican II. In fact, Kerr might have improved the book’s coherence by making its focal point the major theological antecedents, formulations, and interpretations of the council.

In the second half of the book, Kerr changes gears significantly with the surprising announcement that Balthasar is “widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian of the century.” Kerr traces Balthasar’s relation to the Protestant theological giant Karl Barth and Balthasar’s dissatisfaction with the “sawdust Thomism” he was subjected to in seminary. Unfortunately, Kerr speaks more formally than substantively of Balthasar’s often arcane theology of divine beauty. Balthasar was certainly a prolific writer, but he was neither a systematic theologian of the sort exemplified by Rahner nor a philosophical theologian in the way Lonergan was. Kerr raises questions about Bathasar’s “nuptial theology,” according to which the doctrines of creation and redemption are radically Christological and, at the same time, best understood in light of analogies drawn from marriage and sexual intercourse. These claims about the so-called nuptial nature of reality, so influential on Pope John Paul II, are theologically controversial. Balthasar’s treatment of “male” and “female” as fixed ontological categories fails to address contemporary accounts of how gender is shaped and interpreted culturally. He also naively accepts the now discredited assumption of male sexual assertiveness and female sexual passivity. It remains to be seen whether the theme of “nuptiality” will have staying power in future theological discourse.

Kerr’s chapter on Wojtyla begins by asking whether the pope’s long reign as pastor makes it possible that his contribution “as one of the innovative theologians of the twentieth century might easily be overlooked.” The pope’s theological significance might have been overshadowed by his fame as universal pastor and world leader, yet at the same time one might wonder if his worldwide audience didn’t provide a uniquely prominent forum for the communication of his theology. John Paul II’s authority was used to promote his theological work throughout the universal church. The question now is whether John Paul II’s theology will have lasting effect on theology. Kerr discusses the evolution of Wojtyla’s “phenomenological Thomism” from his early work under Garrigou-Lagrange through his personalistic approach to human agency, and then his somewhat eclectic use of Thomas in papal documents like the encyclical Fides et ratio. Kerr rightly praises John Paul II’s opening to Judaism and his embrace of interreligious dialogue, as well as the mildly reformist inspiration he communicated in what was probably his best encyclical, Ut unum sint. Yet Kerr does not show how these accomplishments were connected to any systematic set of theological principles.

Kerr turns to John Paul II’s theology proper when he considers the theological anthropology connected to the “theology of the body.” He suggests that John Paul broke “new ground in the Catholic Christian tradition, far beyond received doctrine, and signaling the most remarkable theme in turn-of-the-century Catholic theology—nuptiality.” It is not clear to me why this view is so radical, since Kerr had indicated a variant of its appearance, two chapters earlier, in Balthasar’s work. As pope, John Paul II was able to make what was one minor theme in some dogmatic theologies into a prominent part of the church’s reflection on sexuality. The late pope’s theology of the body has been subjected to a variety of strong criticisms from biblical scholars (in terms of his exegesis of Genesis), systematic theologians (as an account of God, Christ, and the church), and social scientists (again, by those working in gender studies). Kerr properly notes of John Paul II’s understanding of “maleness” and “femaleness”: “Many are baffled by such reflections.” Many are unpersuaded by the attempt to offer, through problematic biblical exegesis and ontological speculation, a theological basis for traditional gender roles, the moral prohibitions of Humanae vitae, and the subordination of women.

The same difficulty of interpretation confronts readers of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology—the need to distinguish his distinctive intellectual contribution to theology from his position of power in the church and the ability it gives him to promote his own theological vision as universally relevant.

The final chapter of Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians, concerned with the post–Vatican II church, shifts from theological biography to a survey of ongoing debates since the council. The demise of neoscholastic theology has been followed by much good work from Catholic theologians based on more historically conscious methodologies. Throughout the volume, Kerr helpfully distinguishes neoscholasticism from the thought of Thomas Aquinas himself, the retrieval of whose authentic theology was part of the creative agenda of twentieth-century Catholic theology. A similar book written on moral theology would reinforce Kerr’s endorsement of the healthy diversity that now exists within the Catholic intellectual community.

The Second Vatican Council left several important issues unresolved. These included dissension on the far Right (particularly those who doubted the legitimacy of the contemporary papacy), the relation between bishops and the papacy (specifically the status of collegiality), and strife over the liturgy, sex, and marriage. Kerr praises everyone in this book, but it is hard to see how he can do this and maintain any sense of theological coherence. He endorses the idea of a “big tent” church, but some of the movements and ideas he praises seem to work in opposite, even irreconcilable directions. Kerr encourages us to recognize that different theological movements can coexist within the church without being reconciled. Kerr himself indicates the possibility of admiring the strengths of different approaches without consenting to their conclusions. He laments the fact that “there have always been people in the church ready to excommunicate others for lack of orthodoxy, often ending by going into schism in order to preserve, as they believed, ‘the true church.’” This point indicates one of the major shifts of attention in twentieth-century theology: the increased centrality of ecclesiology and the need to continue the ongoing discussion about what constitutes the Catholic community.

Published in the 2008-01-31 issue: 
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Stephen J. Pope is a professor of theological ethics at Boston College. He is the author of A Step Along the Way: Models of Christian Service (Orbis, 2015).

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