I want to begin by thanking Dr. Matthew Minerd for his generous and thoughtful response to my recent article on who it is that controls the narrative of modern Catholicism. Dr. Minerd and I have been in dialogue on these issues for about a year now and I think that we have gotten to know the theological views of one another quite well.
Therefore, I would like to offer a “response to his response” in the interest of continuing this very important conversation, doing so with the same charitable spirit that characterized his response to my original essay.
Let me start with where Dr. Minerd and I agree. First, there is the sad fact that currently we are witnessing a resurgence of progressive theology in the Church (including many important prelates of high rank appointed by Pope Francis) and that this theology is, in many significant ways, strikingly similar in tone, language, and substantive content to the progressive theology that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Council. On the surface, of course, it would seem that the contemporary iteration of progressive theology is different from the older version since the issues are somewhat different. For example, the LGBTQ juggernaut had not yet emerged in the Sixties and the Seventies as a strong ideological movement within the Church.
But these differences are ultimately negligible since the root issues are all the same and are grounded in baptizing the secular Zeitgeist of the West as expressive of a real movement of the Holy Spirit. And this is especially true with regard to the moral and spiritual values inherent in the sexual revolution.
Dr. Minerd and I agree, therefore, that the resurgence of this progressive brand of theology poses the greatest threat to the contemporary life of the Church. We further agree this demonstrates that the kind of Catholic progressivism we saw in the post-conciliar era never really went away, as it remained the dominant theological mode of thought in the Catholic theological guild. And it remained in control for several reasons, most of which I think are cultural, since it is indeed difficult to swim against the current of contemporary opinion.
But, for our purposes here, suffice to say that a major contributing factor to the persistence of these deeply revisionist progressive theologies is the feud between differing versions of Catholic “traditionalism”. The internecine debates between Thomistic and Communio theologians, often engaged in with highly specialized theological arguments, thwarted any attempt to present a united theological front against these prevailing winds of cultural appeasement and accommodation.
Thus, while the progressives were speaking in the language of contemporary culture with a manner that was easily understood by average Catholics, the Thomist and Communio thinkers were often splitting hairs, and often each other’s heads, over the proper interpretation of some important (actually, very important) points of theology that were above the heads of the average Catholic—a category that includes many priests as well and not a few bishops.
Therefore, both Dr. Minerd and I agree that it is important for Thomists, Communio theologians, and other allied Catholic intellectuals to come together and create a new theological movement to respond to this challenge. This movement would retain the distinctive elements of the various theologies in play, but would now orient those elements more toward the threat posed by contemporary culture and its progressive theological acolytes rather than focusing on the more in-house debates amongst those who think in more tradition-minded ways.
I cannot speak for Dr. Minerd, but I hope he agrees that this new coalition would include not just the Thomists and Communio theologians. It should also include neo-con Catholics of the First Things variety, as well as post-liberal Catholics like Patrick Deneen, William Cavanaugh and the “New polity” thinkers. There are also the radical Catholics in a paleo-conservative register as we see in many of the younger Catholic Workers. And (dare I say it?) we should include in this list the saner voices within what has come to be known as radical traditionalism.
This would be a hard coalition to hold together since there are sharp and legitimate differences between them. For instance, I have little time for, or sympathy with, the neo-con thinkers or the radical traditionalists. But there is a common denominator that binds all of these disparate theologies together (with the exception of the neo-cons) and that is the realization that liberal modernity presents the Church with one of the gravest crises, if not the gravest crisis, she has ever faced. But even the neo-cons understand that if liberalism is to be salvaged for any kind of Christian political enterprise that it must be radically transformed from within and moved away from its secular “First Things” and toward foundational principles that are constitutively Christian.
This latter point is illustrative of some of the debates that have hurt our cause. Was America deeply flawed at its very origins (my view) or was it derailed later by cultural forces that caused it to deviate from its Christian roots? This is a legitimate conversation to have, but is it really the determinative one? Should we not instead focus on the fact that, regardless of its origins over two centuries ago now, that the current cultural and political situation is deeply toxic to the Faith? The question of origins has a bearing on how we retrieve the American project and, therefore, how we are to move forward, but the cultural moment we face transcends the American situation and is now global in its impact. Therefore, endless debates about whether America’s founding was crypto-Christian, or even crypto-Catholic, seem strangely anachronistic, if not irrelevant, at this point.
I think the same can be said for the endless debates over the theology of nature and grace in Thomas Aquinas. Did de Lubac get Aquinas right or wrong? Did the neo-scholastics get Aquinas right or wrong? But as important as Aquinas is, and therefore as important as this question is, it remains true that Aquinas, regardless of his views on the matter, could be wrong. In fact, it seems to me that Aquinas can be read in both ways, which is why the debate seems intractable at this point. I think de Lubac is correct about Aquinas, but I think that way because I antecedently agree with de Lubac’s theology of nature and grace in general and do not think his exegesis of Aquinas is central to that adjudication.
Therefore, as we move forward, the deeper question is, “What is the proper theology of nature and grace regardless of what Aquinas held?” And, even if the members of my fictitious coalition cannot fully agree on the answer to that question, perhaps they can at least agree that nature and grace are so deeply related to one another that in the order of salvation nature “needs” grace in order to be most properly itself as God intended it. And, while retaining our theological differences on the finer nuances of that, we then make common cause against progressive Catholicism’s extreme naturalization of grace that robs it of its Christological and eschatological provocation as in irruption from above.
As I said, I cannot speak for Dr. Minerd on these points, but I do think he would at least agree with the broad outlines of what I am saying here. And, to be clear, I am not saying that our theological differences do not matter because that, ironically, would be to confirm the view of the progressives that ultimately theology is far less important than sociology and psychology and the politics of the moment. Ideas have consequences, and my own thinking, grounded in Communio analysis, is that it is precisely the neo-scholastic view of nature and grace that has led to the “secularizing” of nature and the eventual naturalization of grace.
Nevertheless, even if that is, in my view, a logical entailment of neo-scholastic theology, I freely acknowledge that it is an entailment rejected by the modern Thomistic thinkers with whom I am familiar. I know that their ultimate commitments are to Christ and his Church beyond all others. And those are the ties that bind. Those are the ties that link us all as brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, insofar as progressive Catholicism presents us with a Gospel message that is little more than a Rorschach Inkblot into which we can read all manner of modern mythologies of “progress”, the task before us comes into sharp relief and focus. Dr. Minerd’s love for some of the lost treasures of scholasticism and his efforts at their retrieval are therefore not only commendable, but part of this necessary focus. Otherwise, it is nothing more than antiquarianism with a quaint nostalgia for a lost form of discourse, which I think certain forms of traditionalism are guilty of.
But likewise, as Minerd notes, neither should Communio theologians continue to kick the dead corpse of scholasticism as if this is still 1955 and the Holy Office is still weaponizing scholasticism in oppressive ways. There are indeed lost scholastic treasures that need retrieving and I am glad that Dr. Minerd is engaging in this. And I know of many Communio theologians who have indeed utilized many of the insights from some of the scholastic thinkers who have largely been forgotten. The names of saintly scholastic theologians like Matthias Scheeben and Charles Journet come to mind as thinkers greatly appreciated by Communio theologians. Hans Urs von Balthasar quoted Thomas Aquinas more than any other author, and the entire structure of his theological trilogy is predicated upon a reinterpretation of the Thomistic ordering of the transcendental properties of Being (The True, Good, and the Beautiful).
Therefore—and here is my only criticism—I think Dr. Minerd exaggerates the alleged triumphalism of Communio thinkers who thump their chests in “victory” over the defeated scholastic dragon. I know of very few Communio theologians who think or speak in this manner, and so I think this is a bit of an exaggerated straw man pressed into service as a justification for his project of retrieving lost scholastic thinkers. In other words, I think his frequent complaints on this score are a bit thin-skinned and also tend to paper over the nasty atmosphere of ecclesial oppression created in the past by the total hegemony of neo-scholastic thought in the Church and its weaponization against any deviations from the approved theology.
There is a reason why Catholic thinkers of that era, in overwhelming numbers, chaffed against the Church of forbidden books, oaths against modernism, and “syllabus of errors” theologizing that were reactive and sclerotic. And it was precisely many of the scholastic theologians who were complicit in the construction of these intellectual straitjackets, a fact which led to the reaction against them.
I am not pointing all of this out in order to engage in polemics which, of course, would undermine the entire point of this essay. Rather, I mention these facts of history because I value Dr. Minerd’s project and I think it requires no justificatory narrative of a Communio triumphalism and stands on its own merits. Therefore, I hope Dr. Minerd takes his own irenic statements of cooperative theology seriously since a residual animosity toward Communio theologians as (in many ways) the villain in the narrative of scholasticism’s demise will only undermine his project. And it will undermine it by giving the impression that his ultimate goals are not cooperative but are in reality a simple and straightforward restorationism.
But I do not wish to end on that note. Rather, I want to commend Dr. Minerd on his project. I wish it well and I hope it can be an opening, however small, to an ongoing conversation about the crisis that is at hand and our response to it.
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