Friday 30 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.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben. Kerr is indeed excellent (from the same stable as Herbert McCabe, of course). His Theology after Wittgenstein is seminal. And his After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism is on the book pile beneath my desk. Looks like the pile will now grow by one!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

This should prove extremely helpful as a reference.

Anonymous said...

Your throwaway comment on Lonergan intrigued me. When I was in a Jesuit school in Canada, his name was always spoken with reverence and "Insight" considered to be a major work. I never did meet anyone who had actually read it, however... Ben , do you not consider his work important, or is it just too idiosyncratic to be made part of the general conversation?

W. Travis McMaken said...


Thanks for this great overview! One question: Did Yves Congar make it into the volume?

Ben Myers said...

Yes, WTM, there's a good chapter on Congar.

And thanks, Patrick -- I hope my comment doesn't offend any of my Canadian friends! I don't have any real problems with Lonergan, but I do wonder whether his philosophical work has much direct relevance for theology. In any case, it's hard (for me) to imagine that Lonergan really deserves a place alongside formative theological thinkers like Congar, de Lubac, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Balthasar, et al.

On a positive note, I actually think Lonergan's central epistemological insight is very profound: i.e., that knowledge is not like "taking a look" at an object. But of course this has already been pretty clear since Kant!

Anonymous said...

You bring to mind Fr. Lonergan’s notion of dramatic bias and his advertence to the rather obvious but seldom appreciated truth that judging what one does not understand is not an example of human knowing, but of human arrogance.

You first say you wish Lonergan had been “passed over in silence” and immediately add “but enough said of that,” as if to suggest that you could certainly say more to support the judgment that would explain the wish but that some delicacy of reticence prevents you. In other words, you get your dig in without having to back it up, and even try to give the impression that you are being considerate in not doing so.

You next say simply that it is hard for you to think Lonergan should be included with “formative” theological thinkers, again without offering anything to support the denigration, and then, to end on a “positive note,” you agree that what you consider to be Lonergan’s “central epistemological insight” is indeed profound, but is, after all, something we already know since Kant! Your suggestion here seems to be that Lonergan’s achievement amounts to no more that repeating an overheard slogan.

While it is quite true that “knowing is not like taking a look” - although it is also true that taking a look is one of the first steps in getting to know - it is absurd to suggest that Lonergan’s cognitional theory can be so tritely distilled to this “central epistemological insight” in order to be more easily dismissed as old hat.
One must actually read Lonergan if one is to understand him, and one must first understand him if one is to judge him with any degree of reasonableness and honesty. One of the beauties of Lonergan’s work is that he provides access to a critically objective means of evaluating reasonableness, especially when this has to do with discerning the distinction between formative and de-formative theologies.

Anonymous said...

I have been curious about this book ben-thanks for the review.

Do you think that it would be a good place to start when studying Rahner & Bal? They have intrigued me, and their names are frequently mentioned in conversation.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Derek -- yes, it offers an excellent introduction to these thinkers. The chapter on Rahner is particularly good; the one on Balthasar isn't as broad as it could have been, but it still gives you a good picture of some of Balthasar's main concerns.

Anonymous said...

it would seem that there is a latent inharmonicity in the Catholic Church that is there because of the Fall and at times it comes out in bold relief. but knowing this does not really heal the problem! there is no total comfort until heaven where we will witness the miracle of unified truth...

Anonymous said...

Maybe the newly released book (hundreds of pages) on the Trinity by Lonergan is relevant to theology.


Anonymous said...

I read the book and found it to be interesting but a little smug. There was a strong liberal bias which threatened the integrity of the text. When the later Ratz is mentioned distancing himself from certain currents in post-concilliar theology he is simply mocked by the author. It goes without saying that there was no attempt to engage the Suaurzean interlocutors or see what they were at.

Anonymous said...


I've been reading your blog for a while, and it now seems to me that you regularly make rash and theologically un-informed judgments about theologians of whom you have little knowledge. How can you manage to comment on the quality of Lonergan, Rahner, Jungel, Bultmann, and Barth with out ever holding a PhD or acknowleding their real and divisive differencers is itself a mystery! I love the blog, but it seems to hold more opinion than expertise.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anon — I'm sorry if my opinions are "rash and uninformed". I try to stay informed as much as possible, but no one's perfect! And of course this is only a blog, not a research seminar — if it's any consolation, I do proper research as well...

In any case, I appreciate your comment.

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