Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Chenu to Ratzinger by Fergus Kerr Blackwell, 240 pages, $29.95
Over the last decade, a Scottish Dominican named Fergus Kerr has produced a series of books designed to orient readers to contemporary trends. In the 1997 Immortal Longings, he discussed a range of philosophers, teasing out the latent theological tendencies that bear out the truth of the Augustinian insight that our hearts are restless. In the 2002 After Aquinas, he introduced readers to contemporary strands of thought that draw on the Angelic Doctor. Now Kerr has produced Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians, a smartly done survey of the figures who reshaped Catholic theology before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council.
Kerr did not set out to write a full history of twentieth-century Catholic theology, and his book does not pretend to be comprehensive in scope. There is no discussion of liberation theology, for example, and no treatment of the many "theologies of--" that proliferated at the end of the century. Indeed, he gives only a summary account of the neoscholastic theology that dominated the Catholic world for the first half of the twentieth century. Instead of breadth, Kerr opts for a focused account of ten figures who came to prominence in the decades prior to and following the Second Vatican Council: Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Kung, Karl Wojtyla, and Joseph Ratzinger.
One can dispute the choices. I would drop Schillebeeckx and Kung. More representative than original, they are not important thinkers, and both are largely irrelevant to the future of Catholic theology. The role of Wojtyla and Ratzinger as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, leading the Church, complicates any assessment of their intellectual contributions, as Kerr notes (and as Ratzinger himself observed of his own work while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Disagreements and caveats aside, however, Kerr points us in the right direction. The men he discusses were leaders of what we might call the Heroic Generation. They fundamentally changed the way in which the Church thinks.
Kerr agrees with Walter Kasper's observation that "there is no doubt that the outstanding event in Catholic theology of our century is the surmounting of neoscholasticism." The change was dramatic. In 1950, Pius XII published Humani Generis. This papal encyclical was widely read as an unequivocal reaffirmation of the neoscholastic tradition that had come to dominate Catholic responses to modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1970, that tradition was utterly eclipsed and superseded by the new modes of Catholic theology developed and articulated by the theologians Kerr surveys. With fresh and informed readings of their work, Kerr charts many of the intellectual and personal factors in this revolution.
The Heroic Generation was a diverse group. They did not form a unified school of thought. They did not share the same concerns or interests, and, in retrospect, it is clear they did not make equal contributions. Fortunately, Kerr does not try to force these theologians into a single mold, nor does he advance a grand thesis about the fundamental achievement (or failure) of the revolution in twentieth-century Catholic theology.
But modesty does not preclude genuine insight. As Kerr works his way through some of the more interesting and important figures, a distinct reality comes into view. The most creative members of the Heroic Generation are now strangely inaccessible to us. Their achievement has been hollowed out--in part, at leash by its own success. Their revolution destroyed the theological culture that gave vitality and life to their theological projects.
This paradox may be the strangest and most significant feature of the Heroic Generation. Kerr's appreciative treatment of Bernard Lonergan illustrates what I mean. It is commonplace to observe that Enlightenment philosophy works with contrastive dualisms that lead to intractable problems. In early modern theories of knowledge, the obvious importance of concepts tended to push such figures as Descartes and Leibniz toward various forms of rationalism, while the seemingly equal importance of data and facts encouraged Locke and Hume toward empiricism. A similar dualism emerged in political and moral philosophy. On the one hand, authority seems a necessary force to guide us toward truth and justice. On the other hand, freedom seems necessary for any genuine embrace of truth or experience of justice.
The defining feature of Catholic thought from 1850 through 1950 was the considered and well-argued judgment that all modern solutions--from Descartes to Locke, from Kant to Comte, from Rousseau to Mill, from Schleiermacher to Hegel--had failed. Instead, the Catholic tradition argued, the basic structure of the Thomistic theory of knowledge and the Thomistic account of nature and grace provided a lasting solution. This reasoned judgment--and not some amorphous "fear of modernity" that contemporary church historians too often adduce--animates the notorious (and to my mind accurate and prescient) Syllabus of Errors of 1864, with its lists of mistaken "isms." The same judgment about modernity shaped the documents of Vatican I and gave intellectual confidence to the anti-modernist campaign in the early twentieth century.
Like the other genuinely creative members of the Heroic Generation, Lonergan fundamentally accepted the nineteenth-century Catholic judgment against typical modern solutions in favor of a Thomistic approach. But like the rest of the Heroic Generation, Lonergan was influenced by emerging tends in twentieth-century European philosophy that was itself rebelling against the usual modern solutions (most characteristically phenomenology but, in Lonergan's case, also philosophy of science). The effect of this influence was to refine and deepen Lonergan's insights into the problems and implications of a contrastive relationship between concept and fact, between authority and freedom, and between nature and grace. With perceptions sharpened, he returned to the typical nineteenth-century Catholic accounts of the Thomistic solution. Again, like the other members of the Heroic Generation, he analyzed the standard formulations and found them covertly dependent on the very modern dualisms they purported to overcome. Finally, again like his comrades, he set about to draw on some contemporary resources to reformulate and perfect the Thomistic solution.
In Kerr's reading, Lonergan was the most serious and disciplined philosophical thinker of the Heroic Generation. And yet what's most revealing is the fate of his...