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Modernist heretic on semimodernist?: Echevarria then continues with a line that honestly made me laugh out loud when I first read it: “In my view, Garrigou-Lagrange was mistaken about the nouvelle théologie, but he did raise an important question.” So, Blondel and the “new theologians” were existentialist and historically-minded enough to arouse Garrigou-Lagrange’s suspicions, but he was nevertheless wrong in his assessment that they were raging relativists and Modernists. Why Garrigou-Lagrange got it wrong, Echeverria doesn’t say. It never occurs to him that he might be wrong about Francis for the same reasons.

Pope Francis and the Paradigm Shift in Theology, Redux

A Response to Critics of Ad Theologiam Promovendam

In his treatise Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man?), the 11th-century theologian St. Anselm of Canterbury argued that the Son of God took on human flesh in the Incarnation because humankind owed God satisfaction for sin as a matter of justice but was incapable of adequately making satisfaction. Only God is capable of rendering satisfaction for our sin, and so the Son graciously took on human nature so that satisfaction could be made, restoring humankind to justice.

Many scholars have long argued that Anselm’s notion of satisfaction reflects the Germanic and feudal culture in which he lived, although others, such as Alister McGrath, have argued that other traditions were more important in shaping Anselm’s thought. Whatever the case, there’s little doubt that understanding Anselm’s intellectual, cultural, and social context is crucial to understanding his theology and its place in the tradition. Some argue that his understanding of the atonement was distorted by the influence of his cultural context, but even if so, it remains true that his engagement with the legal and ethical norms of his day contributed to his creative solution to a theological problem and to the ongoing development of the Church’s understanding of the atonement.

The idea that theologians are shaped by their cultural context, and that dialogue with their cultural context has in turn enriched the Church’s understanding of the faith, should not be controversial. For example, Tertullian and Origen were near contemporaries in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries who shared the same faith, and yet their distinct contexts—for Tertullian, North Africa, and for Origen, Alexandria—contributed to quite different theological styles. These divergences arguably profoundly shaped the development of the distinct Western and Eastern theological traditions, both of which have, of course, enriched the Church. Indeed, Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) famously (and controversially) argued that Christianity’s emergence in the context of Greco-Roman culture was in fact providential because it led to the development of the theology that bore fruit in the Christological councils beginning with Nicaea in 325.

As Gaudium et Spes teaches:

[T]he Church, living in various circumstances in the course of time, has used the discoveries of different cultures so that in her preaching she might spread and explain the message of Christ to all nations, that she might examine it and more deeply understand it, that she might give it better expression in liturgical celebration and in the varied life of the community of the faithful. (58, emphasis added)

As I said, this should not be controversial. The difficulty arises because humankind has achieved a certain level of self-consciousness of our historicity. It is one thing to interpret Anselm in light of his historical context, and another to recognize that we ourselves have a context that inevitably shapes us and our own theologizing. Figuring out how to make sense of this is one of the most important challenges facing theology today.

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Which brings me back to Ad Theologiam Promovendam, Pope Francis’s recent apostolic letter in which he uses the occasion of revising the statutes of the Pontifical Academy of Theology to lay out his vision for the discipline of theology. In it, Francis calls for a theology that is “contextual,” that is, a theology that is:

capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the everyday conditions in which men and women live, in different geographical, social and cultural environments, and having as its archetype the Incarnation of the eternal Logos, who entered into the culture, worldview, and religious tradition of a people. (4, my own translation)

I provided what I think is a pretty good commentary on the document a few weeks ago here in the newsletter. Around the same time, three theologians published responses to the letter more critical than mine: Larry Chapp, a theologian who formerly taught at DeSales University in Pennsylvania; Eduardo Echevarria, a professor of philosophy and theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan; and Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M.Cap., the former executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine. Chapp had earlier written a lengthier critique of Ad Theologiam Promovendam, which he later re-worked.

My earlier essay already anticipates some of the criticisms made by the trio, but I thought it would be helpful to respond more directly to the points they raise. I think their arguments can be reduced to three interconnected criticisms: 1) Pope Francis’s call for a “paradigm shift” in theology is ahistorical, ignoring the developments that have already taken place in modern theology; 2) Francis’s call for a contextual theology is ultimately relativistic; and 3) there is ambiguity regarding what Francis means that theology should be “contextual.”

Francis writes that to do theology today, “one cannot limit oneself to abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes from the past” (1). In response, Chapp writes:

[I]t is instructive to note the pope himself states quite explicitly that with this new Motu proprio, aimed at the reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, that he desires to initiate a new “paradigm shift” in theology which takes account of the massive cultural revolution we are undergoing. So he is, at least in his own mind, proposing that there is something deficient in the status quo of theology and that things need to change.

He goes on:

The first thing to note is that as it stands the text sets up a ridiculous straw-man caricature of the current state of Catholic academic theology.  Ever since the eclipse of neo-scholastic approaches to theology in the post-conciliar era, there have been almost no mainstream theologians, of any theological persuasion, who have done theology in a rationalistic and deductive manner.

Weinandy makes much the same point:

To read Francis, one would think that previous Catholic theology was abstract, formulistic, and non-pastoral.  And that only now, because of Francis’s encouragement, will theologians and theology make a change for the better.  This characterization of past Catholic theology, however, is absolutely erroneous.

But the truth is, nowhere in the document does Francis claim that he is initiating this paradigm shift or that theology is shifting only now, because of him. As I noted in my earlier article, it’s clear that Francis is drawing on the work of contemporary theologians to help articulate his vision of what theology should be. The more logical reading of the letter is that Francis recognizes that over the past century or so there have been profound developments in how theology is practiced, albeit highly contested, and as the Supreme Pontiff he wants to put the weight of the Church’s Magisterium behind these developments so that they truly represent a paradigm shift in how the Church does theology. The pope’s recommendations also suggest that, despite the developments in modern theology, there remains the risk of falling back into formulaic, overly abstract methods of doing theology, even without reproducing the neo-scholastic theology of the early 20th century. As we will see, the example of his critics show that this concern is not unfounded.

Chapp argues that Ad Theologiam Promovendam should be read as an attack on the legacy of the Communio school of Catholic theology—the post-conciliar circle that included theologians such as Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Louis Bouyer, among others, and that likewise included Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He goes so far as to say that lurking behind the letter’s proposals is “the clear desire to utterly dismantle the theological legacy of Pope John Paul II.”

This accusation is somewhat ironic, since Chapp insists that the work of these theologians is consistent with the guidelines laid out by Francis: “Theologians, for many decades, have already been doing many of the things this document says they should do.” If that’s the case, why does Chapp perceive the letter as an attack on the Communio school? In part, it’s because he believes, mistakenly, as I argued above, that Ad Theologiam Promovendam is dismissive of all prior theology. But even setting that aside, I think Chapp is right that the issues raised in the document do, indirectly, concern the legacy of the Communio school, and the nouvelle théologie movement of which it was an outgrowth.

The work of the “new theologians,” alongside that of the philosopher Maurice Blondel, arguably lays at the root of the “paradigm shift” noted by Pope Francis. By recognizing that the experience of faith is a subjective or existential encounter with the person of Jesus Christ in history, they rejected the regnant neo-scholasticism of their day, which understood theology as deductive elaboration of timeless abstractions and whose adherents dismissed the “new theologians” as relativists and Modernists.

The “new theologians” and others who had raised criticisms of neo-scholasticism, like Karl Rahner, S.J. and Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., split into two opposing camps in the aftermath of Vatican II, reflecting tensions already latent in the nouvelle théologie. Although not speaking directly about nouvelle théologie, I think Stephen Bevans’s definition of “contextual theology” (which I likewise cited in my earlier essay on Ad Theologiam Promovendam) provides a good summary of the method introduced by the “new theologians” and their allies, but also helps explain their eventual split. Bevans writes:

[It’s] a way of doing theology that takes into account two things. First, it takes into account the experience of the past, that is, the experience of our ancestors in the faith recorded in Scripture and the doctrinal Tradition both as a source and as a parameter of our Christian life and Christian theologizing. Second, it takes into account the experience of the present or, in other words, the context in which Christians of a concrete time and place find themselves. (An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective, p. 166)

Those theologians who formed the Communio group, such as de Lubac, Balthasar, and Ratzinger put more emphasis on the normative role of Tradition as a “parameter” for theology, whereas those associated with the opposing Concilium school, like Rahner, Schillebeeckx, and Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., put greater emphasis on how present-day experience can shed new light on our understanding of the Gospel.

The reason it’s worth recalling this history is because Chapp interprets Ad Theologiam Promovendam in light of this decades-old dispute. He argues that the letter ought to be read as an attack on the Communio school in favor of the more progressive side in the post-Vatican II debate. As I already noted, Chapp believes the text of the letter is consistent with the insights of the Communio school, and indeed he describes the text itself as “perfectly fine” and elsewhere as “rather unproblematic.” He summarizes it thusly:

There can be no going back to the days of theology engaging in lifeless and overly rationalistic deductive methods that begin with the truths of Revelation and then work their way down to concrete conclusions. Rather, theology must work inductively and begin with the concrete experiences of believers and even nonbelievers and then work its way upward toward Revelation, to view it in a new and more creative light.

He goes on to say, however, that it was the particular insight of the Communio school, and especially Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to insist that these concrete experiences need to be assessed in light of the truths of Revelation:

. . . “Communio” theologians (to which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI belonged) argued that culture and subjective experience must be paid attention to and used as templates for doing theology. But both needed to be “sifted” and “tested” by the truths of Revelation as interpreted by the perennial teaching of the Church in order to adjudicate between elements that are true manifestations of genuine faith and elements that are distortions of that faith.

In other words, the truth of Christ leads the way and comes first and must be the only metric for judging the viability of modern “experience” as a vehicle for an ongoing development of doctrine.

Francis, however, according to Chapp, “seems to think that this theology is still too wedded to a model that begins with the truths of Revelation and works its way downward.” Francis’s call for a “contextual theology” reflects a pedigree that is “decidedly progressive in a liberal Rahnerian register,” a “runaway Rahnerian theology of grace” that “began with modern culture and experience and granted to it a normativity hitherto unheard of in Catholic theology.”

Chapp is right to criticize a one-sided emphasis on the normativity of experience or context, but there are likewise valid criticisms of the Communio approach as he presents it (and I say this as someone deeply indebted to, and sympathetic to, the Communio school). Likewise, raising those criticisms does not necessarily imply that one adheres to a “runaway Rahnerian theology of grace.” Chapp’s stark either/or suggests Catholic theology has been frozen in place since 1972 (the year the journal Communio was founded by de Lubac, Balthasar, and Ratzinger), which is far from true. For example, the work of the contemporary Belgian theologian Lieven Boeve incorporates insights from both sides of the debate in a way that I find mostly compelling. Indeed, Boeve argues that both progressive and more conservative theologies were limited by their shared late modern context, making their disagreements irresolvable, while our emerging postmodern context provides insights into how to overcome the impasse. Likewise, Chapp ignores the work of recent theologians from Asia and Africa who have sought to contextualize the faith in their respective cultures, deepening the global Church’s theological understanding, but without neatly fitting into Chapp’s dichotomous categories.

As I already noted, Chapp, following the line laid out by thinkers like Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, argues that our experiences, both personal and cultural, must be “sifted” and “tested” in light of the truths of Revelation. The difficulty here is that this assumes that we have unmediated access to Revelation, independent of experience. Yet the truths of Revelation come to us as passed on through Tradition, which means they are mediated through the cultural and historical contexts of our forebears in faith, as my example of St. Anselm with which I opened this essay illustrates. This doesn’t mean we don’t have access to the truths of Revelation; it simply means that Tradition itself must be “sifted” and “tested” for us to discern what it communicates to us about Revelation, a process in which the Magisterium has an authoritative, although not exclusive, role. Second, we necessarily encounter the truths of faith within the horizon of our own personal and cultural context. Of course, in a certain sense, the truth of Christ must come first, relative to experience or culture, but this can’t mean that we somehow have access to that truth prior to, or independently of, our historical and cultural existence. We encounter the truth of Christ through a dialogical process, first entering into dialogue with those who have passed on the faith to us, seeking to understand them and their testimony in their context, and then engaging in dialogue with our own cultural context, drawing upon it to better understand how we can live out our faith but likewise rejecting those aspects of our context that run counter to the Gospel. This is precisely the method proposed by Pope Francis.

These were key insights of the nouvelle théologie, and yet later theologians like Ratzinger, in my view, did not adequately wrestle with their implications. Likewise, although Ratzinger clearly affirms that, for example, the Church’s teaching on religious freedom at Vatican II was a development born from the experience of modern political life, particularly the American experience of religious freedom and the negative experience of totalitarianism, I don’t think he gives an adequate theological account of how the Church can deepen its understanding of the faith through its encounter with the world. At least in these areas, theologians like Rahner and Chenu, not to mention later theologians, provide a better account of conciliar teaching.

Several times, Chapp accuses Francis of creating a strawman in his attacks, raising criticisms that were necessary when lodged against early 20th-century neo-scholasticism but hardly valid in regards the past several decades of Catholic theology. The irony is that in his criticisms of Francis, Chapp manages to recapitulate the worst aspects of 20th-century neo-scholasticism. As I already noted, his interpretation of Communio theology is indeed “still too wedded to a model that begins with the truths of Revelation and works its way downward.” But Chapp likewise seems to believe that Communio theology is entitled to a sort of institutional authority analogous to the authority Thomism held for the neo-scholastics. He bristles at the fact that Francis updated the mission of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome and replaced the “JPII/Benedict-type Communio theologians” who taught there. Just as neo-scholastics like Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. accused the “new theologians” and other critics of Thomism of being “Modernists,” Chapp waves away challenges to the Communio school as “runaway Rahnerianism.”

(Photo: Rainhard Wiesinger, Unsplash)

This curious recapitulation of neo-scholasticism is even more apparent in Echevarria’s criticisms of Ad Theologiam Promovendam. Like Chapp, Echevarria argues that Francis does not provide an adequate account of how the truths of faith stand in judgment over our experience and context; indeed, Echevarria claims that Francis’s call for a “contextual theology” means the latter believes that context determines the truth, a claim the former believes is relativistic. To support this contention, Echevarria cites Garrigou-Lagrange’s essay “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?”, the Dominican theologian’s most pointed critique of Blondel and the nouvelle théologie for their supposed historicism and relativism:

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, put before the nouveaux théologiens . . . the choice between different accounts of truth: “[D]oes truth depend on its conformity with the measure of human knowledge in a given day” or “on its conformity to the reality of things as they are.” The former is contextual and hence entails a relativist view of truth; the latter is a realist view of truth, also known as a correspondence view.

Echevarria then continues with a line that honestly made me laugh out loud when I first read it: “In my view, Garrigou-Lagrange was mistaken about the nouvelle théologie, but he did raise an important question.” So, Blondel and the “new theologians” were existentialist and historically-minded enough to arouse Garrigou-Lagrange’s suspicions, but he was nevertheless wrong in his assessment that they were raging relativists and Modernists. Why Garrigou-Lagrange got it wrong, Echeverria doesn’t say. It never occurs to him that he might be wrong about Francis for the same reasons.

But getting to the substance of Echeverria’s argument, he states:

On the “old” paradigm, the truth-status of these propositions [i.e., the truths of faith] are, if true, such that they will be true always and everywhere. It is not the context that determines the truth-status of their propositional content; rather, reality itself determines the truth or falsity of a proposition. A doctrinal proposition is true, if and only if, what that proposition asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, the proposition is false. (emphasis in original)

Although Echeverria is getting at an important truth here, in several ways, however, this argument is obviously false. First, and here I’m being a bit facetious, “Christ will come again” is a true proposition, but it will not always and everywhere be true; once Christ comes again, it will no longer be true that “Christ will come again.” But more seriously, as Christians we believe Revelation is something that has unfolded in history, and so to insist that truth is timeless and independent of context is misleading; there’s a certain sense in which the truth develops over time. After all, the statement “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14) was, for most of human history, not true (of course, God eternally willed the Incarnation, but that’s not the same thing).

Second, Echeverria’s argument misses an important way context does determine the truth. For example, both St. Augustine and Pelagius could agree with the proposition “we are saved by grace, which is a gift from God”; and yet in the context of Augustine’s thought, the statement is orthodox, while in the context of Pelagius’s thought, it is heretical (for Pelagius, “grace” referred to our free will, the Commandments, and the teachings and example of Christ).

More importantly, however, Echeverria’s formulation is not very helpful because it presumes we have unmediated access to reality by which we could check and see if a propositional statement is true or not, but that’s not really the case. It’s especially not the case when we are talking about God’s revelation in the person Jesus Christ. Our faith is based on the testimony of what the disciples experienced in their encounter with Christ, as well as on our own experience of Christ as mediated through Tradition. As I mentioned before, we experience Revelation within the horizon of our context. We can’t peak behind our context to get a glimpse of “reality” to see if what we believe is true, although we can enter into dialogue with Tradition and with the experiences of others from different contexts to put our own understanding to the test. None of this means, however, that our context determines the truth, in the relativistic sense that Echeverria criticizes.

In Ad Theologiam Promovendam, Pope Francis insists that theology must have a “pastoral stamp,” responding to the concrete situations of the People of God (8). Weinandy, under the assumption that Francis is criticizing everything that has come before, responds that the great theologians have always been pastoral:

From the time of the apostolic father, Ignatius of Antioch, Catholic theology has been pastorally academic.  Irenaeus, the Apologists, Cyril of Jerusalem, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria, Catholic theologians have addressed the theological issues of the day, and they have done so to further the spiritual and moral life of their flocks.  The same is true of Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and the entire scholastic tradition.  Numerous contemporary theologians have continued this tradition – such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

I think this is based on a misunderstanding, however. Of course, theologians have always been pastoral in the sense of expounding the faith in a way that responds to the spiritual and practical needs of the faithful. In that sense, theology has always been “contextual.”

As we have seen, what Pope Francis is proposing is that we can deepen this pastoral dimension of theology by adopting a methodology that more self-consciously and systematically recognizes that we are shaped by our context, that the members of the Church respond to the Gospel from within their particular context, and that the Church can deepen its understanding of the faith through dialogical engagement with the various contexts in which it finds itself. He is suggesting we need to solidify the paradigm shift inaugurated by the nouvelle théologie and further developed in the post-conciliar period. None of this, contrary to Francis’s critics, entails relativism or a denial that Revelation provides the parameters for theology and the Christian life. Francis only provides an outline of his vision of theology, an outline that needs to be fleshed out in the work of theologians, and this fact can certainly lead to misunderstandings or confusion about what Francis means. But the arguments raised by Francis’s critics are ultimately unwarranted, even if they raise important questions regarding what a properly contextual theology should look like.


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