Heroic theology.

Author:Straley, Adrian
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the editor

Thank God that someone of R.R. Reno's learning and reputation has finally put his finger on the crying need for a new, standardized "textbook" theology in the Catholic Church ("Theology After the Revolution," May). In a vain quest to educate myself, I have been looking for credible presentations of such a theology for years. The available books seem to fall within two categories: Either they are modernist-triumphalist accounts celebrating late-twentieth-century developments and implying that Catholic theology first emerged as a serious discipline during the 1930s after 1,900 years of pious, premodern naivete; or they are vintage reprints with antique-looking typography and seventy-year-old imprimaturs. We do have, of course, the documents of Vatican Council II and an amazing body of profound papal encyclicals, especially those of Pope John Paul II, but these do not amount to a systematic presentation of Catholic theology.

It is as if the theologians of the so-called Heroic Generation, finding the Church clad in a sturdy and tightly woven, but unstylish and ill-fitting dress, had thrown away the dress and proceeded to fashion attractive accessories. Now the Church seems to be going about wearing stylish accessories--but no dress at all: a rather embarrassing state of dishabille.

Prof. Reno says that "we need a period of consolidation that allows us to integrate the lasting achievements of the Heroic Generation into a renewed standard theology." That sounds a bit too leisurely, given the urgency of the need. While bringing such a standard theology to maturity might take a while, the initial attempts should be taken in hand immediately while there are still some wise old heads around, such as Ralph McInerny and Avery Cardinal Dulles, who can still remember a time when the Church had a coherent theology.

If it is true, as Reno says, that "the genuinely creative members of the Heroic Generation" retained a commitment to "the basic outlines of classical Thomistic theology," then the integration he calls for might not be so difficult after all. Surely it would entail articulating a revised neoscholasticism (neo-neoscholasticism?) purified of its dualisms and other former errors (but also correcting some of the more faddish and ephemeral notions of our latter-day "heroes"). Or, to return to my graphic simile, the Church's old dress should be retrieved from the dumpster, dry-cleaned, and retailored a bit. Wearing such a dress might not win the Church any fashion awards, but it would be better than walking around in a state of chicly accessorized seminudity.

Adrian Straley

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

In his long review of Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Chenu to Ratzinger by Fergus Kerr, Russell Reno's thesis seems to be this: Balthasar, de Lubac, Danielou, et. al. did a great job showing the deficiencies of neoscholasticism--in fact, they did such a great job that they've rendered themselves irrelevant--but they did nothing to replace the void they created. In other words, as deficient as it was, neoscholasticism offered us an ecclesially normative theology. Now what do we have?

But there are several problems with this argument. First, apparently Kerr, but also then Reno, lumps the ressourcement and transcendental schools into one "Heroic Generation." This is a controversial move insofar as it allows him then to downplay the positive contribution made by the ressourcement school. Reno expresses wonder over Balthasar's split with Rahner after the Second Vatican Council, but this presupposes that they were entirely on the same page before it. One only needs to read Balthasar's 1939 review of Rahner's Geist in Welt to see that that was not the case. (In fact, his essential critique did not change over the years.)

The differences between these two schools are to be found not in their common dissatisfaction with neoscholasticism...

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