Over the past couple of years, I have been privileged to have numerous conversations and written exchanges with Dr. Larry Chapp and Dr. Matthew Minerd. I have benefited greatly from these interactions, and I consider both to be among my most favored interlocutors. In their recent exchanges here on The Catholic World Report, the issue of past and present relations between ressourcement and Communio theologians, on the one hand, and Thomist scholars, on the other, was raised. [Editor’s note: The essays by Dr. Chapp and Dr. Minerd are listed with links at the end of this essay.]
That topic is something I have spoken about with both of these admirable Churchmen. I would now like to offer some of my own reflections on this theme in the hopes of furthering the discussion towards a fruitful collaboration between Communio and Thomist thinkers over against the progressivist and radical traditionalist projects.
I recently encouraged such a rapprochement at the American Maritain Association Conference in Dallas. There, I noted how ressourcement-minded theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger were dissatisfied with what they saw as the regnant neo-Scholasticism. Accordingly, they found themselves at odds with prevalent scholars of the Thomist tradition, including members of the Roman Curia. In response, the ressourcement crowd allied with other figures during the Council who could at least now be described as progressives.
In the wake of the Council, however, the Communio theologians became dismayed by misappropriations of the Council precisely by the progressives they had collaborated with during the Council. The allies became adversaries.
For the younger generation of Communio-minded thinkers, such as myself, this history is lamentable. Perhaps because we were not embroiled in personal conflicts with the Thomists of the day the way that earlier ressourcement scholars were, we do not carry the same overarching vitriol towards the (neo-)Scholastic tradition. In fact, there is a growing recognition that the state of theology following the Council has largely—although not universally—been much worse than the displaced Scholasticism. As Fr. Romanus Cessario has written, “the critics of the Thomist commentatorial tradition, who, no matter how well-intentioned they may have been, contributed to the destabilization of Catholic theology.”i
That assertion might be a bit hyperbolic, since the real blame for such destabilization belongs on the side of the progressives first and foremost. Nevertheless, while maintaining sympathies with the ressourcement school’s (if it can be so called) intentions, one ought to take seriously the accuracy of Fr. Cessario’s words with respect to the concrete results in higher education following the Council. Accordingly, there are a growing number of Communio-friendly scholars who wish that the ressourcement theologians would have collaborated with the Scholastics over against the progressives rather than the other way around.
The past cannot be undone, but this impulse can be harnessed for the future of the Communio, ressourcement movement. Such a project would require Communio theologians to reconsider the concerns—and in some cases prescient warnings—of the early to mid-twentieth century Scholastics and incorporate their works among the sources to be retrieved. Dr. Matthew Levering’s push for Ressourcement Thomismii is a welcome contribution to such a project.
Here, I would like to take seriously Dr. Minerd’s appeal to Communio thinkers to not over-simplistically present a narrative insisting that ressourcement won at the Council over-against the Scholastics. Certainly, the ressourcement periti made important and concrete contributions to the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In particular, they helped tremendously in generating the literary style of the texts, avoiding an overly Scholastic tone, which was not deemed appropriate for the Council’s intentions.
But style and doctrinal content are not interchangeable. It is one thing to say that the documents avoided a Scholastic style. It would be quite another to assert that the Council rejected Scholastic positions as such. Yes, there were certain assertions made by some Scholastics in preparatory documents that were removed (such as the desire in De fontibus revelationis to settle the disputed question over whether Tradition added any content to revealed truth in addition to Scripture). But that is not to say that the Council taught against Scholastic theology per se. In that sense, it would be misleading to hold that the Scholastics lost at the Council, and it would be grossly mistaken to say they offered no positive contributions to the final documents. Dr. Minerd rightly pointed to Sebastian Tromp, SJ’s contribution to Mystici Corporis. There is strong evidence that he was also the one who suggested the important ‘subsistit in’ terminology of Lumen Gentium. That was a profound contribution to one of the Council’s central doctrines.
Ratzinger thought it would be inappropriate for any one theological school—in this case Scholasticism—to use the Council as a means of eradicating another—presumably his own school of thought—from academia.iii Ought we not admit that the reverse would also be inappropriate?
Indeed, the ressourcement theologians achieved the goal of pushing for greater emphasis on biblical and Patristic scholarship in Catholic higher education. However, the Council nowhere called for Scholasticism to be ubiquitously dismantled. Quite the contrary, it called precisely for the sort of complementarity that I am advocating for here. The Decree on Priestly Training, Optatam Totius, specifically insists that: “Dogmatic theology should be so arranged that these biblical themes are proposed first of all. Next there should be opened up to the students what the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church have contributed to the faithful transmission and development of the individual truths of revelation. The further history of dogma should also be presented, account being taken of its relation to the general history of the Church,” thus supporting the ressourcement project, but then immediately adding that “in order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections.”iv Yes, the Second Vatican Council explicitly called for seminaries to teach Thomistic speculative theology. When talking about failures to implement the Council, ought not this be on the list?
Furthermore, the Communio school frequently appeals to the distinction between doctrine and theology to justify its own position as a valid and licit approach to theology that remains faithful to the magisterium. That is appropriate and correct. It must be said, however, that the Scholastics of the day were equally—and in some cases even more—faithful to the magisterium and hence have an equal right to persist, even if as a “rival” school. While it was lamentable that certain Scholastics may have been overly authoritarian in trying to get other theologians’ works censured prematurely, they cannot themselves be accused of heterodoxy. Thus, their voices are equally valid and have a rightful place in Catholic theology.
To that end, I am grateful for Dr. Minerd’s painstaking work to translate and re-present the works of great twentieth century Thomists. I have myself already benefited from this effort. I was likewise pleased to see Dr. Minerd’s defense of the Council over against tendencies of radical traditionalists. I, for one, would like to see more Thomists arguing against the radical traditionalists (who style themselves as Thomists) and their rejection of Vatican II.
In truth, Communio and Thomist theologians and philosophers alike—despite past animosities—have common enemies today: progressives and radical traditionalists. Thomists and Communio theologians are both committed to orthodoxy and lament the ways the Church’s teaching is being distorted by both of those other camps. It is imperative that they join forces against such falsifications of the faith. Additionally, the academy can only benefit from both approaches to theology being widely presented in the classroom.
Sadly, in my experience, it seems as though Thomism is either hardly presented at all or is the sole form of instruction. I studied theology at three different Catholic institutions (one undergraduate and two graduate). In none of them did St. Thomas Aquinas figure prominently, except in one doctoral seminar elective. (I have reason to believe things are different now at two of the institutions, of which I am proud to be an alum.) Other schools proudly proclaim that they teach according to the Thomist tradition, which is preferable to the alternative, but could be equally unbalanced.
It seems to me that, in a holistic Catholic theological education, St. Thomas and his commentators should be accorded a significant—though not exclusive—role. I believe that it is precisely the intention of the Second Vatican Council that ressourcement and Thomist approaches to theology complement one another. In that sense, neither camp won to the exclusion of the other, at least not as far as the Council is concerned regarding the future of Catholic theology, in distinction from the style of the documents.
I concur with Dr. Chapp’s diagnosis of the dangerous emergence of both progressive and radical traditionalist tendencies. I also concur with him that the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI are guiding lights for the appropriate interpretation of the Council. To this extent, the ressourcement school has a great deal to contribute to the cause. I also concur with Dr. Minerd that the Thomists need to be afforded more credit for their own contributions to the Council and to theology as a whole. In the current Catholic culture, it is imperative that the two camps ally with one another to combat erroneous progressivism and radical traditionalism alike. It is time to make common cause.
• “The progressive revolution’s continued control of the ecclesial narrative” (May 18, 2023) by Dr. Larry Chapp
• “Catholic theology yesterday and today: A Thomist’s response to Dr. Larry Chapp” (May 25, 2023) by Dr. Matthew Minerd
• “Catholic alliances today and tomorrow: A response to Dr. Matthew Minerd” (May 30, 2023) by Dr. Larry Chapp
i Romanus Cessario, OP, “Neo-Neo-Thomism,” First Things (May 2007), online edition; review of Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006).
ii As one example, see Reinhard Hütter and Matthew Levering eds., Ressourcement Thomism: Sacred Doctrine, the Sacraments, and the Moral Life: Essays in Honor of Romanus Cessario, O.P. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010).
iii See Joseph Ratzinger, “Observations on the Schema,” in Jared Wicks, “Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as Peritus before and during Vatican Council II,” Gregorianum 89:2 (2008): 284.
iv Second Vatican Council, Optatam Totius, §16, October 28, 1965 (emphasis added). It is worth noting that some Scholastics also recognized the need for better historical theology, including Fr. Reginald Schultes, Fr. Michel Labourdette, and Cardinal Charles Journet.
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