Culture and the Thomist Tradition : After Vatican II, by Tracey Rowland

Culture and the Thomist Tradition : After Vatican II, by Tracey Rowland

Fr Peter Joseph STD

New book analyses the basis of the Church's pastoral problems since Vatican II

by Tracey Rowland
Foreword by Fr Aidan Nichols OP

(Routledge, 2003, 226pp, $59.00. Available from the Central Catholic Bookshop in Melbourne (03) 9639 0844 and Gleebooks, Glebe, Sydney (02) 9660 2333)

This book, by the Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, begins with a study of the treatment of culture in part II of the Conciliar document Gaudium et Spes. The author argues that, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Thomist tradition lacked an adequate theological understanding of the realm of culture in all of its multifaceted dimensions; and further, that this lacuna has greatly contributed to the pastoral problems of the post-Conciliar Church.

Although work had begun in this territory prior to the Council, particularly in the scholarship of the English historian Christopher Dawson, and in the work of Erich Przywara SJ, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Romano Guardini, the sociological and theological insights of these scholars did not feed into the treatment of culture in part II of Gaudium et Spes.

In the absence of any such theology of culture, the Italian word aggiornamento (updating) became a slogan, widely interpreted as a call to accommodate the Church's teachings and practices to those of the modern world. The author argues that such an interpretation is responsible for many of the pastoral problems in the post-Conciliar Church. She quotes from a meeting between (Protestant theologian) Karl Barth and Paul VI in 1966 at which Barth asked the question, "What does aggiornamento mean - accommodation to what?"

The idea that aggiornamento might mean a development of theological resources to provide a coherent critique of the culture of modernity, rather than a simple accommodation to - that is, an interpretation which coupled the concept of aggiornamento to the pre-Conciliar Ressourcement project which sought to effect a richer synthesis of the Patristic and Scholastic heritage - never succeeded in influencing the spirit of the Council, as the accommodationist interpretation did.

This second interpretation has only come to the fore in the latter half of the papacy of John Paul II, following the 1985 Extraordinary Synod which sought to reflect upon interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.

The book has been published in the prestigious Routledge "Radical Orthodoxy" series. The term "Radical Orthodoxy" refers to the academic projects of an intellectual circle based in Cambridge, including both Anglican and Catholic scholars united in their opposition to the secularist and pragmatic currents which run through the theology and pastoral strategies of the 60s generation.

They do not, however, oppose these currents in the name of the late scholasticism which so typified the frameworks of the theological establishments in the pre-60s era, but in the development of themes initiated by scholars such as de Lubac and von Balthasar. In doing so, they acknowledge that in some cases the post-modern critiques of Enlightenment ideology are accurate and they further argue that Christians have nothing to lose by such an acknowledgement.

In this context, the author quotes Augustine De Noia's observation that "the post-Conciliar interpretation of John XXIII's vision of aggiornamento as updating theology is, from the perspective of post-modern eyes, a project which has never really caught up, while conceived more grandly as modernisation, it is already far behind." Those within the Church, who think that to be "modern" is to be avant-garde, are already almost 40 years out of date.

The author is therefore particularly critical of those pastoral strategies which seek to package and market Catholic principles in the idioms of the culture of modernity. She argues that a major problem with this strategy is that people assume that form and substance can be easily separated - that we can have a Catholic substance packaged in a form borrowed from a rival tradition such as liberalism, without any loss of meaning.

Here she draws upon the judgement of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago that cultural forms and linguistic expressions are, in fact, not distinguished from the thoughts and message they carry, in contrast to the way accidents are distinguished from substance in classical philosophy. Rather, "a change in form inevitably entails also some change in content. A change in words changes in some fashion the way we think."

Truth, beauty and goodness

A sub-theme within the work is that the process of "dumbing-down" the liturgy and the presentation of the Church's teachings so as to meet the intellectual and cultural standards of "mass man" is counter-productive. With reference to von Balthasar's analysis of the role of truth, beauty and goodness in the formation of the soul, Dr Rowland argues that the anti-beauty orientation of mass culture acts as a barrier to the reception of the theological virtue of hope, and ultimately fosters despair and atheism.

There are many such sub-themes within the book scattered throughout some seven chapters. They include the relationship between the virtue-ethics and new natural law projects, the relationship between the theological virtues and the transcendentals, the problem of the bureaucratic and pragmatist modes of judgement and principles for discerning when to "plunder the spoils of the Aegyptians", that is, when to adopt the concepts of rival intellectual traditions.

The treatment of these sub-themes draws attention to the fact that when it comes to the issue of re-evangelisation, scholars loyal to John Paul II have different and sometimes conflicting ideas about the most prudent ways to move forward and develop the Catholic intellectual tradition. Regardless of what positions readers take, this book will provide them with a clear account of where the divisions lie.

Fr Peter Joseph STD works in Sydney as Chancellor for the Maronite Diocese of Australia.

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