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The Soul You Lose May Be Your Own: Historical Considerations on Theology and Culture.

I. Introductory Remarks

ABOUT TWENTY YEARS AGO when I was living in Bologna, Italy, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger came to speak at one of the "Evenings of St. Dominic," as they were called. You may remember that at that time he had become famous for the series of interviews published as the Ratzinger Report, which amounted to a fairly critical evaluation of the trajectory of Catholic life in the post-Vatican II period. The subject of his lecture, given in the grandiose Renaissance salon called the Sala del Cinquecento, was "The Office of the Theologian." In the talk, he described the theologian as mediating between the lived experience of Christians and the Church's ongoing tradition.

It was very much a reprise of the visions of the theologians who influenced the documents and spirit of the Council Fathers: De Lubac, Congar, Chenu, and others. There was little evidence that the cardinal was influenced by Karl Rahner, or had appropriated much modern philosophy in the mode of Edward Schillebeeckx or Bernard Lonergan. There was certainly no hint of liberation theology or "deconstruction" of a postmodern sort. It seemed to me a somewhat old-fashioned talk, and I do not mean that as negative, nor even faint praise.

I do not think it would be a caricature to summarize the cardinal's understanding of the theologian's office this way: the theologian's task is to interpret and articulate the Christian experience of God's action in the world, in the light of the Scriptures and the Church's tradition, under the corrective guidance of the magisterium. I would have supposed that the prominent role of Scripture and tradition in this formula, as well as the explicit inclusion of Vatican oversight in it, should have played well in the Bologna environment, where the Ratzinger Report was the current refectory reading. But I was wrong.

The next morning, after Lauds, when I found my way into the little nook where the friars usually stood around breakfasting on stale bread in bowls of caffe latte, I found a sizeable group of the Dominican faculty, perhaps the majority, and including the academic dean, Padre Alberto Galli, denouncing the cardinal's heresies of the night before. The consensus was that his understanding of the theological project simultaneously denuded it of objectivity by founding it on the shifting sands of personal experience, while rendering it authoritarian and fideistic through the institutionalization of what amounted to an oracular magisterium. I would not say that the cardinal was the object of the proverbial odium theologicum, but to say the friar professors were unhappy would be putting it mildly.

It seems I had chanced on what was perhaps the last sizeable group of neo-scholastics in charge of theological formation--at least it was the only one I can remember encountering. For Padre Galli and theologians like him, the objectivity of theology was founded on the objectivity of its first principles. Again, I do not think that it would be a parody to describe their understanding of the theologian's office this way: the theologian is responsible for defending and elaborating the "Deposit of the Faith," a series of propositions about God, Christ, and the Church, found in Scripture and tradition, and defined by the councils and popes as normative. This elaboration takes place by a logical method, whereby, through syllogistic arguments, new propositions are propounded, and then offered to the magisterium for canonization as articles of the Faith.

The magisterium does not exist without the theologians. Indeed, in the words of one Bolognese friar, the magisterium would have nothing to declare de fide if the theologians did not propound new propositions from old. Not only was this enterprise "objective," a nonbeliever could probably pursue it, fashioning new propositions, logically consistent with a set of first principles that he might very well reject. No shifting sand here. And frankly, whatever one might think of this kind of theology, the cardinal's version did look very subjective, impressionistic, and authoritarian in comparison. I say this even if I found it more attractive. In any case, I doubt the Bolognese option exists anymore; the neo-scholastics of this type have pretty much entered into the presence of the Formal Object of Theology, or have at least retired. Even Thomists do not generally think this way any more, or so I understand.

Even more than forty years ago, a wise priest who was then my spiritual director, on hearing that I would be returning to graduate studies, asked with a hint of concern in his voice, "Are they sending you to do a degree in theology?" No, I said, I would be returning to Berkeley to study medieval history. With obvious relief, he replied, "Thank God; those who do theology can lose their souls!" I have often thought about that remark, and over the years, it, along with my "Bologna experience," has provided food for thought. Frankly, and I have said this to a number of the distinguished members of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley faculty, I have not the vaguest idea how theology is supposed to work, and I am very glad that I do not have to do it.

The theologian's task must be something more than manipulation of propositions, especially if Aquinas is correct that it has as its object God himself, and that true knowledge can only come by connaturality. But to characterize theology as reflection on something God has revealed in human experience, even Christian experience, seems very risky. I would think that the only experience worthy of theological consideration would be the graced experience of the saint, living to the full the life of the Church and manifesting the deification that comes from participation in the life of the Trinity. And I would think that only the saint could do it. The problem, however, is that, as John Calvin never ceased repeating, fallen human creatures have a disturbing tendency to replace the living God with idols of their own creation. Indeed, when the "Christian" experience considered by the theologian is nothing of the sort, but just another idol of the age, the theologian is on the road to hell. And I do not mean that metaphorically.

What can a historian provide for those engaged in this kind of risky business? Certainly not a method, since history itself deals with the most radically particular of objects, individual human actions and events--so much so that Aristotle declared that it was no science at all--but we can say something about the ways in which cultural realities conditioned and formed theologians' relation to what went on around them and provide, if not a method, a variety of real-world conditions in which the theologian had to perform his task.

I leave aside the peculiar situation that produced the theologizing that resulted in the composition of the books of the Old and New Testaments. Not merely because, unlike the sacred authors, later theologians did not enjoy divine inspiration (a fact that modern theologians seem occasionally to forget), but principally because their utterances, no matter how grave and weighty, are in no sense normative for the Church. The Scriptures are, since their canonization, normative, and so, however fashionable it has become to speak of the "theology of John" or the "theology of Paul," those theologies are in no way on par with the "theology of Rahner" or even that of the former Cardinal Ratzinger. Rahner and Ratzinger fade away; the Word of God remains.

II. Historical Situations of the First Thousand Years

I would like, then, not to begin with first-century Christians, but with their grandchildren. One might call them the post-Neronian Christians, because we find them mostly in the age of the pagan persecutions. They are that small group of Christian believers who first attracted the unappreciative attention of the dominant culture of the Greco-Roman world. My colleague Robert Wilken once wrote a book on this attention, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. In this work, he admitted that, although there was not much consensus among pagans as to what they thought Christians were, there was a consensus that these deviants were very, very bad. Perhaps dangerous. And for good reason. Subapostolic Christianity was, sociologically speaking, a sect. And people generally do not like sects, unless they seem genuinely harmless and totally uninterested in the dominant culture--thus the exemption for the Amish, who much to their own frustration have become a tourist attraction.

The post-Neronians were a persecuted sect. Not that this persecution was constant, but the near-possibility of becoming lunch for lions does have a tendency to focus the mind. With this community, we discover a world that, for whatever literary and cultural trapping they shared with the larger culture, essentially defined itself against it. Fustel de Coulanges, nearly two hundred years ago, correctly identified the ancient city, and ancient society generally, as a cultic entity. There was no "secular" realm for Christians, only an alternate sacrality; the sacrality of the pagan cosmos and social order, in which to participate in public life, and much of private life, involved overt acts of worshiping the gods. As one of the last great pagans said in reply to the intolerance of St. Ambrose, "We too are a religious people." One might choose one's favorite cult, but a preference for Asclepius did not invalidate another's preference for Diana of the Ephesians. Again, another great pagan, Praetextatus, sounding very American, said, "There are many roads to so great a mystery."

To be a Christian was to reject the sacral public order completely. Christians were bad citizens. Not only did they view the Greco-Roman world as steeped in what amounted to demon-worship, and so to be shunned; they were intent on converting their neighbors and making them, too, into bad citizens. And within the Church, at least that version of the Church that had staying power, what this alternate culture entailed was fairly clear. They took for granted certain moral attitudes: exclusion of abortion and infanticide, a sexual code that viewed even marital sex with a bit of suspicion, and had a tendency to limit social contact, in particular marriage, to those within the group. If a modern American suddenly found himself to be a secondcentury theologian and were required to "reflect on Christian experience," he would have encountered two central realities: profound alienation from the rest of the world and an apocalyptic anticipation that divine intervention would eventually end it.

What is odd is that the Ante-Nicene Fathers do not really have all that much to say about alienation or the eschaton. They have a theology of experience, I guess, but it is about the experience of the martyrs, a very radical experience, indeed. Moderns who think about second- and third-century Christianity generally like to think of this as the age of the apologists, that little band who present themselves as writing to explain to the outside world that Christianity was really a good thing, a sort of Platonism for the masses. Emperors should call off the lions because Christians really were good citizens. They prayed for the army, after all. The problem with this view is that the apologists produced precious little in the way of apologies, with the exception of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. They produced a few letters supposedly to emperors, and a handful of risible treatises. And as one reads Justin and Clement, one wonders if they expected any pagan really to read their work. This is not Christianity for export to the pagans; it is more like an exercise in self-affirmation: to show to other Christians that How the Romans Saw Them was mistaken. I find it an in-house literature.

Apologetics was not the most common "theological" project of the age. The really big books, the ones that fill up the volumes of the Ante-Nicene Library are those "Against the Heresies," the real heavy lifting done by the likes of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian. And the heretics all start to look remarkably similar after a while (modern historians generally call them "Gnostics"). They want to damp down apocalyptic anticipation, and they build bridges with the pagan religious thought of the age: speculation about cosmic powers (Iamblichus), a mystical monism (Plotinus), with a dash of theurgy (the Hermetic Corpus). This, to us, strange brew was the Christian Gnostic alternative to the orthodox writers' more shocking dissent from Mediterranean religious orthodoxy in general. There is something marvelously ecumenical about the Gnostics, for all their odd ideas. In contrast, the idea that the human and the divine had met in a single person, whose accomplishment on the Cross rendered all other religious routes to the divine not merely wrong but evil, was not only cosmologically shocking but socially repugnant. No wonder more domesticated versions of the Gospel circulated. Indeed, since Baur, many have come to see the Gnostics as the majority of Christians --the ancient "mainline." The Catholics were a small sect in Asia Minor with some outposts in Rome and, eventually, North Africa. Could the Catholics survive? They really did not have a very good read of the "signs of the times" after all.

Those whom the Catholics called "heretics" seem to have taken a live-and-let-live attitude toward the larger culture--what difference does a little incense to the Emperor make: "I'm spiritual, not religious"? These were cultured, urbane Christians, not sectarians. Praetextatus might have enjoyed dinner with them, although Plotinus seems to have thought their cheap access to the One rather distasteful. To us the literature "Against the Heresies" seems rather negative, but to its readers it was a literature of experience, the experience of martyrdom. Survival could brook no compromises. The theological project of the post-Neronians was a project in self-policing. And given the survival needs of the persecuted sect of Christians, not a bad choice. Contrary to popular literature, The Da Vinci Code, and the History Channel, the Gnostics did not disappear because the Catholics persecuted them (they were too busy policing their internal orthodoxy and had no police force anyway).

The Gnostics mostly just evaporated into the culture because, I think, they refused the anti-assimilation vaccine developed by writers like Irenaeus. That Catholic theologians from Ignatius of Antioch to Lactantius did their job is proved by the fact that their Church is still around to read them. If modern Christianity in the industrialized West finds itself ever more a cultural enclave in a largely indifferent society, the sectarian theologians may have something to teach us. The Gnostic approach to culture seems to offer very little but extinction.

Contrary to the premillennial expectations of some Ante-Nicenes, the Antichrist did not arrive to be defeated by Christ, who would usher in a new age. What happened was perhaps more astounding, or at least more unexpected: an emperor converted and within a hundred years the persecuting empire was itself at least nominally Christian. Setting aside the massive catechetical challenge of Christianizing the Ancient City, it should give us pause to observe that outside of their sermons, the major theological agenda of the great Fathers was not evangelization, but, like that of the Ante-Nicenes, policing orthodoxy within the Church. And the Christological controversies were the working out of issues from the earlier period: how should one think about what God had accomplished in Christ? Patristic theology before and after Constantine is part of the same project.

What is oddly lacking, with one exception, is any attempt to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in a "Christianized" society. Indeed, the general approach seems rather Ante-Nicene: theologians continue to write and preach as if their hearers were still somewhat pagan, albeit of a more harmless type--no lions. The one exception is Augustine, whose most singular contribution to theology is not his speculation on predestination and grace, nor the exercise in self-analysis that is the Confessions, but the idea of the Two Cities presented in his City of God. This is a theology founded on experience, Augustine's experience of Christianity in a post-persecution world, where the sectarian experience no longer ensured a faithful sense of identity and behavior, because Christians were no longer, perhaps unfortunately, a sect.

From Adam to the end times, Augustine tells us, there have always been and always will be Two Cities, and both are invisible. Membership in each is determined by the hidden movement of the heart. Members of one city have quiet hearts, which seek and find near to hand what they truly love: wealth, power, pleasure, but also family, community, and country. The other city is composed of those with restless hearts, who are satisfied with nothing here, and love God alone as their only good. No one but God can know who is a member of which city because only God can read the heart --perhaps even the individual cannot know his own heart, we are so given to self-deception.

This theology profoundly alienates the believer from all around him, perhaps even from himself. The payoff of Augustine's revolution is a radical turn within. The sectarianism of the post-Neronian Christians has returned with a vengeance. Opposition to the non-Christian world has now become an alienation from everything, save God. Whether the Christian Empire survives or collapses becomes a matter of consummate indifference. "Puppies fighting over a bone," Augustine calls it. And since the visible Church itself cannot be identified with the City of God (for it contains many wayward hearts), its worldly success and respectability is ultimately insignificant. A remarkable solution to the Christian predicament of later antiquity. One wonders how many could have lived by it.

But Christians did not have to. Within a hundred years, authentic Christian experience seemed possible only to a group even more exclusive than the small sect of the post-Neronians. By the seventh century, at least in the West, Roman control had collapsed and the Latin West had become a collection of at least nominally Christian warrior chiefdoms. While it is common to speak of early medieval theology as "Augustinian," its project was so different that this label is profoundly misleading. Without exception, after the death of Boethius in 525 until the age of Peter Abelard, who died in the mid-1100s, there is not a single significant Latin theologian who was not a monk. If there were ever a theology founded on experience, if not at the service of experience, it was that of the monastic theologians. In the view of some moderns, this age produced a theology that was derivative and repetitive, endless, often plagiarized, biblical commentaries and the occasional fabulous saint's life. To take this approach is profoundly to misunderstand the purpose of this literature.

The monastic and eremitical project of the early Middle Ages was, for those who undertook it, to remake the individual completely, producing not merely saints, but holy communities where the doxological character of Christian living, its single-minded liturgical glorification of God, controlled and ordered every element of life. If Augustine wanted Christians to live in the world as if only God mattered, the monks wanted to create a space in the world where only God mattered. The Protestant reformers, who lumped the monks together with Anabaptists as "sectarians," were profoundly right. Monastic Christianity was as alienated from the dominant, surrounding, mostly pagan culture as the Ante-Nicenes were from the persecuting Roman Empire.

The monastic theology is, above all, a theology at the service of the liturgy. Its biblical commentaries made it possible for the monks to enter contemplatively into the texts they sang. The task of the monk was to mourn, we are told, but mostly their job was to sing. Their hagiography celebrated the saints who populated and shaped the monastic calendar, and the commentaries on Benedict's Rule formed as practice the measured asceticism of the Father of Monks. Admired as it was by the Germanic warriors who supported the monasteries, no life could have been more opposed to theirs. In place of heroic bravado, humble submission; in place of the heavily liquored conviviality, the endless sober chanting of psalms; in place of military exploits, the service of the guesthouse and the scullery.

Certainly, the ethos of the Benedictine centuries seems, for moderns, to fall short of certain aspects of "authentic Christianity," with its aristocratic elitism, its willingness to let professionals perform vicarious service to God, and its seeming indifference to the miserable poverty, social problems, violence, and oppression that surrounded it. Nevertheless, there is no question that the monastic project and its theology stands in absolute contradiction to the non-Christian world outside the monastery walls. In her book Rhinoceros Bound, Barbara Rosenwein describes the liturgical project of the Cluniacs as an active subversion and subjugation of the warrior ethos of its host society. And in the end, the monks prevailed. This was one of the two great missionary periods of the Christian Church (second only to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries); it was the age in which preaching hermits like Robert of Arbrissel and the better-known Norbert of Xanten began the conversion of the peasants of the countryside. They were the commandos of the monastic war--I mean prayer --machine.

If theology is ultimately sterile unless it bears fruit in sanctification and conversion of life, then the monks have much to teach us. And I, for one, cannot imagine a genuine theology that does not arise out of the act of praising God, which arises out of the Church's liturgical life, and is its servant. When that life is compromised and its focus strays from God, the theological reflection it fosters is nothing but idolatry, worship of self or of the group.

III. Historical Situations of the Second Thousand Years

In my own theological training, I was encouraged to look to the accomplishment of the great Scholastics, in particular the Angelic Doctor. And indeed their accomplishment was great. Yet much as I admire Thomas and his school, I always had harbored a nagging anxiety about their intellectual forebears, those who replaced the monks as the intellectual trendsetters of Latin Christendom in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. I remember a conversation with an older student, now a theological school president, during which I remarked that my heart was with St. Bernard and not with the early Aristotelians at Paris and, in particular, not with Abelard. He looked at me and said, "Well, as for me, Abelard is the beginning of real theology." Or something to that effect. I later published an article that had as one purpose attacking the Abelard cult.

One advantage enjoyed by the early Scholastics was that they could, thanks to the monks and hermit-missionaries, to a great extent, take the Christian identity of their society for granted. I do not mean that the people of their age were all saints, or even particularly good Christians, but their "public square" was informed by a dense network of Catholic symbols and practices that formed perceptions. Unlike the Ante-Nicenes and the monks, the early Scholastics did not have to practice theology within a hostile pagan environment or a tribal world of Germanic warriors. They could read and appropriate Aristotle, employ the rigor of syllogistic logic, and enjoy an expansiveness of the vision impossible for sectarians. Nevertheless, the establishment of theology as a "science" among other sciences, even as the Queen of the Sciences, brought with it a potential objectification of knowledge that could imply a realm of autonomous reason that could be very seductive.

I do not mean that the Scholastics were more prone to heresy than their predecessors; they were probably far better at self-policing than the Fathers, thanks to their more rigorous forms of argument, but it was now possible to do theology outside of a doxological context. It was possible to be a leading theologian even if no one could mistake you for a saint. It became possible for theology to become an academic job, an exercise in scholarly competition, with no necessary connection to holiness of life, and no clear responsibility to the Faith. This could undermine its ecclesial nature. I do not think such a dreadful result describes Scholasticism as a whole, but I am not so sure about Peter Abelard.

Aquinas, like all the Paris doctors, was a "Master of the Sacred Page." To that extent, they inherited the Scriptures as the normative Christian language and they were still absolutely bound by the Scriptural norms, stabilized by centuries of normative reading. And, as Beryl Smalley long ago noticed, they participated in something like a primitive historical-critical method. The determination of the meaning of the biblical text was no longer found in its liturgical use or its service as a foundation for contemplation, as with the Victorines, but in a philological and historical enterprise of determining the "literal sense." As postmoderns like my former colleague John Milbank, the founder of the movement called "Radical Orthodoxy," have been saying, a text only preserves a stable and normative meaning within the context of an ongoing community of readers: this is what medievals meant by Scripture being able to speak only within the context of tradition. Not as two sources of truth, but because Scripture only has a voice through tradition. Furthermore, and this is central, that meaning might be discovered by a pagan or atheist, so long as he had the proper philological and historical training. The Bible could, in a positivistic way, become a black box of propositions independent of its readership.

This trajectory eventually resulted in the proof-texting biblicism of the Protestant Reformers, to which Catholics replied with their own proof-texting, both claiming to have found the "original intention" of the sacred authors. To say that the result was religiously unfortunate is to be generous. I do not intend to go there. Those who no longer sing the Bible together and experience as one the sanctification produced by Christian worship will not know Scripture's meaning. The doxological quality of the text will be replaced by moral didacticism, or even worse, by autonomous academic controversy. A plague on the humanists who thought they could get truly authentic Christianity if only they had the best manuscripts, in the original languages, of course. And on their later successors who discovered by this method an alien two- to three-thousand-year-old document totally out of touch with "contemporary" realities and needs. That reading of Scripture making it a dead historical artifact is the Sin against the Holy Ghost.

I do not want to trace out the unfortunate legacy of bug-hunting literalism. It did have its positive side. At least the post-Reformation apologists understood heresy when they saw it and, in their own way, sought to tend and protect the faithful from movements that could compromise their experience of God in Christ through the sacraments, moral development, and prayer. Theology came more and more to focus on theological issues joined by little more that the fact they had become the subject of academic dispute. For Protestants, the historically retrieved "original meaning" of the Bible was to serve as the determinant for these controversies. Catholics would reply in kind. Interdenominational polemic, perhaps the predominant idiom of post-Reformation theology, did at least place the theological enterprise at the service of the Church. It served to protect and reinforce Catholic identity and so carve out an intellectual space for the tradition.

In the case of the Protestants, at least, a supposedly autonomous means for resolving doubts seemed ready to hand. In spite of Calvin's assertion that a reader can only know the meaning of the inspired text if the Spirit inspires him as it did the sacred author--in short the theologian must be to some extent a saint--there is nothing about biblical foundationalism that would require holiness in the practitioner, much less membership in a worshiping community. Like the realm of autonomous reason discovered by the early modern philosophers, Philip Melanchthon's gift to the Protestant tradition was a realm of autonomous theology, not merely distinct from tradition, but also distinct from union with God. In 1521, Melanchthon, the disciple of Martin Luther, produced one of the most important theological books of modern times, the Loci Communes Theologici. In it, he reorganized theology according to a series of theological topics that were generating controversy. This move was to have major consequences.

In 1563, the Spanish Dominican theologian, Melchior Cano, published a Catholic corrective to this misadventure, his De Locis Theologicis. In it, he systematized not topics of theological dispute, but the authorities through which the theologian reached conclusions. Needless to say, for Catholics this determination could not be made by consulting Scripture alone. His loci were: Scripture, conciliar decrees, and determinations of the Roman pontiffs, in that order. These were normative. But such de fide propositions could only be understood within the context of the opinions of the patristic doctors, the ongoing reflections of the Scholastic theologians (which includes canon law), natural reason, sound philosophy (which includes what we would call natural science), and the testimony of history (which included for him civil jurisprudence). In short, doctrinal theology can only function within what Alasdair MacIntyre has called a "tradition of discourse." Finally, he proposed norms for interpreting, weighing, and reconciling these loci in theological argument. His accomplishment lies behind the labels de fide, sententia certa, opinio communis, and so on, of the old manuals. But that is not why his accomplishment is important; rather it is important in spite of that product. After all, traditions of discourse are just human creations: you pay your money and you take your choice.

What Cano accomplished was to reintegrate theology into Catholic experience, which is not some merely subjective experience, but graced human experience. The experience that counts is that of the saints, the experience of the Church. That tradition is normative because we know by faith that it is guided by, and subordinate to, the Holy Spirit. The vapid if rigorous logical virtuosity of the late medieval nominalists, like the proof-texting biblicism of the Reformers, had both turned theology into a mind game, albeit a mind game with ecclesio-political payoffs. Theology as rethought by Cano, at least in theory and for the time being, was subordinated to the living Church's experience as guide and sanctifier. And not merely the Church's contemporary experience. Cano's vision of theology was historical, because authentic Christian life is transmitted to us through time, from the Incarnation of the Word and the inspiration of Scripture to the perceptions and acts of the saints through the ages. If Christ came in history and remains with us, all true theology is historical theology. As Chesterton said, Catholicism is the only true universal democracy because it is the only one that gives the franchise to the dead.

It must be obvious that I admire Friar Melchior's accomplishment. On the other hand, I am pained to notice that he made no place for the Church's liturgical expression of Truth. The doxological element is sadly missing. This is risky. One could reconfigure his hermeneutic to create yet another academic exercise: a more complex and sophisticated mind game. This is an accusation sometimes leveled against Radical Orthodoxy, with which I think Cano has many points of contact, something that was not the case in the great Scholastics like Thomas, who often clinches an argument by citing liturgical practice or the texts of prayers. Lex orandi est lex credendi, not the dangerous reverse in which theological ideas that might have no foundation in prayer are allowed to deform prayer itself. And the resulting deformed worship is very close to idolatry. I do not think I have to trace, in the face of Cartesian rationalism, how some neoscholastics seem to have reduced Cano's expansive project into an autonomous philosophical system.

IV. The Contemporary Situation

I began this article with a story confronting an unfortunate propositionalism with the attempt to resituate experience into theology by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is now time to return to that contrast and say something on the current predicament of Catholic theology, as I, an outsider, see it. It was regrettable that the retrieval of a more organic vision of theology in the movement known as Nouvelle Theologie, was almost immediately followed by the 1960s. This is so on two levels. First, the individualistic focus on the self during that period tended to rule out of court any previous age's experience. "Christian Experience" came often to mean little more than "my personal proclivities in the here and now," which is what it seems to mean when "theologians" argue that Church teachings need to be revised because some large percentage of the "Catholic" population either rejects them or does not find them meaningful. Neither did the pagans. The Catholic enfranchising of the saints has been repealed. And in the hands of some practitioners, the historical-critical approach to the Scriptures has paid off by making them a two-millennia-old artifact representing an obsolete cosmological and social worldview. What kind of norm could such a piece of dated debris provide? As a theological norm, Scripture follows tradition into the dustbin.

These unfortunate cultural developments would not matter much, if we could be certain that the experiences of contemporary Christians in their local churches were, on the whole, ones that flowed from a true participation in grace. That, of course, would presuppose the cultivation of the spiritual faculties that has been of concern to theologians since the Ante-Nicenes. The hothouse community of the persecuted Church and all-encompassing doxological environment of monastic theology could do without Cano's recourse to historical Catholic experience because the chances of compromise with the truly diabolical aspects of the host culture (pagan cult, violence, and bloodlust) were so foreign to the self-understanding of the community. The much-maligned "Catholic Ghetto" of the manualist age at least provided some buffer against wholesale assimilation to the alien elements of modernity, even if the theology of the period was often a rarified academic exercise.

In contrast, individual perceptions and experiences in the postindustrial West, our spiritual sensitivities are formed, or malformed, mostly, not by a lived Christian tradition, but by an individualistic consumerist culture that defines the person by what he consumes, and preaches personal autonomy and base gratifications as worthy pursuits. It is no surprise that the usual long litany of contemporary complaints against the Church usually boils down to a complaint about how it thwarts gonadal expression and limits choices. Contemporary society is very effective at its catechesis, and its does this in the most effective way: by ritualizing materialistic consumption and increasing its glamor. As for the doxological quality of Christian worship: well, "It's all about me."

This is a bleak picture. But lest one think that I am pitching for a neosectarian Christianity, a kind of monasticized merger of the Catholic Worker movement and homeschooling, I would like to emphasize in closing that as a historian, I do not claim to have solutions, theological or cultural, for contemporary problems. All I can do is point out the other ways that past Christians have understood the task of theology. What this all means for theology today is a question for the theologians and pastors of the Church. I am just a historian, and so the answer to that question is "beyond my pay grade."


(1.) This essay was originally delivered by Father Thompson on November 15, 2008, as his "Inaugural Lecture" on the occasion of his reception of the title Master of Sacred Theology, the highest academic honor bestowed by the Order of Preachers.

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Author:Thompson, Augustine
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Personal account
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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