Saturday, 31 March 2007

Fergus Kerr: Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians

Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 230 pp. (review copy courtesy of Blackwell)

In this book, the brilliant Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr surveys of some of the leading Catholic thinkers of the past century. The book opens with Walter Kasper’s remark that “the outstanding event in the Catholic theology of our century is the surmounting of neo-scholasticism” (p. vii) – a remark that sets the tone for the whole volume. Throughout the book, Kerr’s main interest is in the different attempts of modern Catholic theologians to overcome their unwelcome heritage of neoscholastic Thomism.

The story thus begins with Marie-Dominique Chenu, who developed a new historical and existential approach to the study of Thomas Aquinas. Chenu critiqued the neoscholastic Thomists for preferring “a philosophy of essences” over “the problems of existence, action, the individual, becoming, and time” (p. 23). Coming from very different directions, theologians like Rahner, Lonergan, Schillebeeckx and Karol Wojtyla engaged in epistemological work as a way of subverting the rigid conceptualism of neoscholasticism. And Henri de Lubac’s brilliant theory of the “supernatural” was a radical attempt both to “undermine neoscholastic dogmatic theology” and to “destroy standard natural theology” (p. 75). Again, in contrast to neoscholastic metaphysics, Karl Rahner forged a theology which “could not be more radically embedded in the historical existence of Jesus Christ” (p. 91).

Interestingly, the Jesuit theologians Rahner, de Lubac, Lonergan and Balthasar all agreed that the Thomism they had been taught as students was in fact Suárezian metaphysics. The most explicit critique of this Suárezianism came from Balthasar, who condemned its “apologetic all-knowingness,” its lack of “feeling,” and its tendency to “annul the experience of reality and [to enclose] thought in a sphere which is characterized by bare, essential predications” (p. 126). For Balthasar himself, it was especially Karl Barth’s doctrine of the divine beauty that provided the means to dethrone this “sawdust Thomism” (p. 131).

In any survey like this, there will, of course, be regrettable omissions. It’s surely unfortunate that Kerr excludes from his treatment all Catholic theologians writing in Italian and Spanish – so that liberation theology, for example, is scarcely mentioned. But there’s no point complaining. The book is really an introduction to European Catholic theology (centred around Vatican II), and it makes no pretence of being global in scope. (Incidentally, the only non-European included is Bernard Lonergan; and I couldn’t help wondering whether the book might have been even better if Lonergan had been passed over in silence – but enough said about that.)

The book is peppered with humorous and memorable insights, thanks to Kerr’s alert sense of irony. We discover, for instance, that scholars of immense learning like Schillebeeckx and de Lubac were effectively self-taught, relying only on their own voracious reading; while Hans Küng, on the other hand, “is the only one of the theologians we are considering in this book who completed the seven-year course in neoscholastic philosophy and theology at a Roman university” (p. 145). Some other examples: after years of marginalisation, de Lubac learned that he had been summoned to help draft the texts for Vatican II only while casually reading a newspaper; Rahner failed his first attempt at a doctoral dissertation (on Thomas Aquinas); the young Ratzinger was forced to rewrite his postdoctoral dissertation because of its “modernist” tendencies; and when Karol Wojtyla became pope (John Paul II), the Vatican tried to stop publication of his book on The Acting Person – until the book’s translator threatened to sue the Vatican!

There is plenty to chuckle over in incidents like this. But the best thing about the book is the sheer patience and sympathy with which Kerr discusses controversial figures like Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Küng. For instance, he defends Rahner’s theory of “anonymous Christianity” against misunderstanding; he highlights the unsurpassed scope of Schillebeeckx’s exegetical-theological synthesis; and he observes that Küng’s work is, like it or not, essential “for beginning to understand what happened at Vatican II” (p. 151). The only thing that really ruffles Kerr’s feathers is the recent move towards “nuptial mysticism” and the (Barthian) anthropology of sexual differentiation – themes that have become influential through the work of Balthasar, John Paul II and Ratzinger.

The book concludes with the observation that, since Vatican II, the Church has been characterised by confusion, by “deep divisions and intractable rifts” (p. 222). This is not a criticism of Vatican II, of course – indeed, it highlights something important about the nature of the Catholic Church itself. As Kerr points out, the Catholic Church “is not the monolithic entity that her enemies and her most zealous members believe” (p. 203). And if the aftermath of Vatican II has been widespread confusion, this should not detract from the fact that the Council was a great and decisive moment in the history of the church. After all, as Newman himself observed back in 1870, “there has seldom been a Council without great confusion after it.”

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