Do Historical Norms Alter Church Teachings? Should They?

March 2018By James V. Schall

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at Georgetown Uni­versity. Among his many books are The Order of Things, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, The Modern Age, The Mind That Is Catholic, and, most recently, Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road Publishing). Fr. Schall’s last lecture at Georgetown, “A Final Gladness,” can be viewed on YouTube.

“In the Anglophone world there is…a tendency for millennial generation students who survey the contemporary intellectual life of the Church and find it a mess to want to ‘reboot the system’ to 1961…. It [is] clear that even in 1961 there was no unified approach to the appropriation of medieval scholarship, although a unified approach was regarded as ideal.” — Tracey Rowland, Catholic Theology

“It has been a consistent Catholic teaching that all persons, of all classes, are born with a free will, and that the Divine distribution of grace, including the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, is not class dependent. A roll call of the martyred intellectuals and aristocrats who stood up to Adolf Hitler when the ‘people’ marched along to his tunes would provide ample counterexamples to the proposition that it is always the elite who have the oppressing ideas and the so-called ‘ordinary people’ who are reliable.” — Tracey Rowland, Catholic Theology

The question of what theologians “do” when they do what they claim to do has long been a topic of both controversy and amusement. Bloomsbury, a British publishing house, has been producing a series under its T&T Clark imprint on this very subject. Thus far, it has released six books in its “Doing Theology” series. Each treats the contemporary and historical theological concepts, controversies, and thinkers of a specific Christian tradition — Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed, Anglican, and, finally, Catholic, with Tracey Rowland’s recent edition. Rowland, an Australian theologian, was an excellent choice to present and clarify the Catholic ways of “doing theology.”

Rowland has previously written two books on the thought of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and another on the understanding of culture in the documents of Vatican II. She studied at the University of Cambridge in England with the Radical Orthodox group that includes John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. Rowland, who served as director of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, currently teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney. She holds two doctorates in theology and is a member of the International Theological Commission. This latter experience has provided her with an extraordinary number of direct dealings with contemporary Catholic theologians. The breadth of her reading and reflection is more than thorough.

“Doing Catholic theology” requires knowing with some accuracy what Catholics say they believe and why. Catholic theology claims to be a revelation that takes intelligence seriously. Indeed, Catholic theology maintains that its basic explanation of itself is, along with what reason can validly know, the truth of things. If it cannot stand this test of intelligence before reality, it cannot claim to be what it considers itself to be.

Rowland’s book is addressed to those who seek to work their way through what appears to be the maze, if not the chaos, of the differing views and opinions that arise in a Church that claims to speak the truth with a clear voice down the ages. That clarity, in the eyes of many, no longer appears obvious. Rowland writes in particular for those students, seminarians, clergy, academics, and interested laymen who are willing to devote the time and effort to understanding what is being argued and proposed in theological circles. We sense in her welcome book that what is at stake is the very possibility of a valid explication of both Catholicism and the world in a way that proves that they belong together without compromising any truth of thought or faith.

Catholic Theology, which has just over 200 pages of text, comes with four appendices, each designed in its own way to provide access to further sources and to recall what has officially been said about Catholic theology, who said it, and when. In them we find a chronological listing of major heresies, the documents of Vatican II, papal encyclicals, and the writings of the doctors of the Church. A good number of the texts referenced are available online; in this sense, the appendices provide access to an extended library.

Rowland’s book is essentially divided into four parts. The overarching issue concerns the Church’s account of herself and her relation to the world. In modern times, Vatican II became the central effort of the Church to present herself in public. The Church set out to explain herself to the world, but, evidently, the world was not overly impressed or interested in what the Church had to say. The question then became, Why not? Was there something in the Church’s way of “doing” theology that was problematic? Perhaps what Catholic theologians needed to examine was not the world but the Church and her way of understanding herself in the world.

From the beginning of her history, the Church preached the Good News to both Jews and Gentiles as something they needed to know. Though some effort was made to accommodate the different backgrounds of the two — e.g., Matthew’s Gospel was for Jews, Luke’s for Gentiles — the listeners either accepted or rejected it and the ways of life it implied. The early Church was primarily concerned with presenting a proper understanding of what she said and taught. After all, Christ commissioned her to “hand down” what He had given her, not to dream up something different. If anyone was reluctant or refused to accept this new teaching, it was the problem of the recipient, not the preacher. What is evident through Rowland’s book, however, is that many modern theologians suspect that the rejection of the Church’s teachings is the Church’s fault, not that of the recipients.

The view that it is the Church’s fault has led to an ongoing controversy over just how to explain Catholicism to the “modern world.” Indeed, it has led to a controversy about what the modern world itself is. What, if anything, does the world want to know about Catholicism? What is it willing to hear? It seems to many theologians that the Church has more to learn from the world than the world has to learn from the Church. This leads to the question of whether the world has already received everything it needs to know from revelation. The “modern project,” as Leo Strauss called it in The City and Man (1964), endeavors to explain all things without the help of revelation. The Catholic position has always been that this sanitized explanation leaves out many of the basic things needed to understand both man and the world. Some things can be explained without God or revelation, but many things cannot.


In the first chapter, Rowland carefully goes through the major issues that need to be addressed in Catholic theology. First, she deals with mystery, a word that has come to mean what man does not know and implies that he probably cannot fully know what everything is about. Man has knowledge, but not the full knowledge that is proper to God. Thus, however systematically we organize the content of the faith so that it is intelligible to men, it will never result in a complete human understanding of God. Yet, the “mystery” that is proper to God is not conceived of in Catholicism as unknowable or irrational. It means just the opposite — namely, that it is wholly intelligible to the divine intellect, which is identified with the divine being. Nor does it mean that the things men can come to know are not true simply because men do not know everything about them. What we do know, and know truly, is never to be confused with everything that can be known by intellects of a higher level than ours.

Rowland then takes up the issue of pluralism, the delicate question of various ways to understand the world and revelation without denying that the core of belief is non-contradictory and universally true. Pluralism is not just a long list of the weird ideas found in theological and cultural journals and religious rites. Pluralism leads to the core consideration of the relation of reason and revelation. The basic Catholic position is that the two are not contradictory; they have the same origin and are both good. Reason is found in nature and human living; revelation is made known in Scripture. The information they offer might differ, but, when sorted out, all of it will be discovered to be part of the same whole. Reason seeks faith, and faith seeks reason, to recall the classical principle. As Rowland says, “Orthodoxy cannot be reduced to a system.” If it could, it would mean that man, with his own powers, could fully comprehend the divine mind.

A significant part of this book deals with the relation of faith and history. Medieval scholastic thinkers were usually said to be deficient here while modern thinkers, especially after Heidegger, bring time and being close together. Christianity is an historical religion, as opposed to one that sees time as a cyclical return of the same, generation after generation. The issue of history becomes especially important in the controversies over the meaning of Vatican II and revelation in general — that is, is the purpose of revelation primarily to keep present in all ages the life and death of Christ? Or are there new sources that arise over time that would modify, if not change, the clearly set-down issues found in both metaphysics and revelation? That the two sources need not be in contradiction with each other is closer to the central Catholic tradition. As Rowland sees it, keeping together these seemingly incompatible sources is one of the main tasks of Catholic theology.

Rowland then deals with familiar issues that seem to present incompatible notions as if they belonged together. Thus, we have Trinity and Christ, Christ and Mary, nature and grace, logos and ethos, Scripture and Tradition, and, finally, the relation of the Magisterium and theologians. Rowland treats each of these relationships deftly. It is clear that the Catholic tradition itself is in large part formed by its willingness to consider the evidence for or against the compatibility of these essential contrasts. The finest minds in the Church, and the not-so-fine ones too, have thought about most of these contrasts. How they fit together in a coherent whole is the burden of thought.


The second major section of Catholic Theology is a detailed examination of the various ways of understanding Thomas Aquinas, his relation to Augustine and Aristotle, and modern efforts to read him in light of philosophies that have appeared after his time. Gerald McCool, in his book From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism (1992), pointed out that in the late 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII called for a renewed study of St. Thomas, there were many varieties of Thomism. Rowland lists and explains 17 types! Most have to do with reading Aquinas in light of a philosopher after Descartes, Kant, and Hegel.

Following Rowland’s examination of Aquinas and the various Thomisms is a discussion of Vatican II and whether it intended to preserve and develop what had gone before it, or whether it intended to conform Christianity to the modern world in order to gain insights into what it is. Here the historical question reappears: Is it enough to base one’s theology on metaphysics, especially that of Aristotle, or does the discovery of modern and enlightenment thought, especially its relation to the physical sciences, alter the direction we need to go? Most people, rightly or wrongly, seem to agree that one of the main causes of modernity was the rigid scholastic thought that followed Scotus, Suarez, and interpretations of Aquinas that relied on this tradition. There seems to be little doubt that modern Western voluntarism did come from these nominalist roots. (Muslim voluntarism is similar but has different roots.)

The question is whether the origin of modernity was a consequence of Thomas’s relation to Aristotle or an aberration based on its rejection. This, in fact, turned out to be the core issue after Vatican II regarding the Church’s relation to the modern world. How St. Thomas himself comes out of all this remains to be seen. But everyone agrees that he remains central to any classic understanding of Catholicism as a religion abiding over time with a coherent understanding of itself and how it relates to other religions, nations, and cultures. As Josef Pieper wrote some time ago, St. Thomas did not write a philosophical or theological “system.” He remained open to reality at all times and was willing to see and judge what came new into his ken. Everyone knows that it was characteristic of Aquinas to carefully uncover and praise what was good in any erroneous position. And he was able to put in order what was true about it.

In the next two chapters, Rowland explains the difference between two groups of scholars — those of the Communio school (Balthasar, Ratzinger, de Lubac, et al.), and those of the Concilium school (Rahner, Küng, Schillebeeckx, et al.). They did not always agree with one another — nor did those of the same school — but they were the thinkers who clarified what was at stake in the controversies that followed Vatican II, particularly the abidingness of revelation over time. Does modernity present such a new view of reality that nothing that went before it can be utilized? Or are classic philosophy and revelation to be kept central over time?

Rowland argues for the validity of the approach found among the Communio thinkers: The Church is to keep ever before mankind the essentials of realism and revelation as what is best and true for men in all ages and cultures. Yes, it is possible and necessary to examine new ideas and concepts of culture and science, but these are to be judged in light of what has been handed down. It is not that doctrine cannot develop, as John Henry Newman explained, but a development is not a radical change in that nothing remains of what was previously understood. The Concilium school was rightly concerned with the currents in modern thought, but in taking these newer views as normative, it was forced to reject one or another of what had been understood as revealed to us in revelation and nature as the proper outlines of our relation to reality and its causes.


The final section of Catholic Theology deals with Pope Francis and his intellectual and pastoral background. No one denies that Francis has little interest in the intellectual concerns of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. When he does explain his views, as he has in Amoris Laetitia, Evangelii Gaudium, and Laudato Si,’ questions immediately arise about their origins and meaning. Rowland sees Francis as influenced by liberation theology, particularly as interpreted by Latin American thinkers. This approach is much closer to that of the Concilium school as more recently represented by Cardinals Walter Kasper and Christoph Schönborn. It turns out that the so-called orientation to practice before doctrine is itself an idea, as Louis Dupré noted, that tends to reformulate doctrine on the basis of what is done or permitted to be done.

As has occurred with the case of Holy Communion for divorced-and-“remarried” Catholics, this approach stirs up misgivings over whether Pope Francis is indeed proposing a radical change from what the Church has constantly taught throughout history. He justifies his approach in the name of taking norms from practice and current cultural history, even though doing so minimizes the need to uphold the constant teaching of Tradition. Rowland sees Francis as returning to ideas and movements that conceived of the post-Vatican II Church as something different from the traditional Church. The Pope sees himself as preaching the simple Gospel to the poor and marginalized, and, as such, he is relatively unconcerned with the ideas and thoughts of theologians. Francis never seems to ask the question that the late Michael Novak raised relative to liberation theology: Does it do what it claims to do? Francis’s inattention to what “liberates” seems to suggest something closer to a political ideology than to the realism of the tradition handed down from Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, and carried forward by the Communio school.


In conclusion, “doing theology today” means grappling with the question of how a revelation that presented itself as final and definitive some 20 centuries ago can still be normative, and how it relates to contemporary philosophic, historical, and scientific thought in such a way as to show itself to be still valid. Revelation was not designed primarily to explain how to make this world perfect, but to reveal how men in any time or place are each, through grace and his own freedom, to be saved in Christ in order to reach eternal life, that Trinitarian life that is not simply something discovered in the habits and concerns of the ongoing world.

“The attempt to adapt the doctrine of the Church to the mentality of an epoch implies that divine revelation is molded and fashioned according to the spirit of the times…. If the doctrine of the Church is not based on an immutable divine revelation, but can change with the age, if it is not the same Gospel that is proclaimed at every call of the Kairos throughout history, then the very justification of the apostolic mission of the Church (to go and teach all nations) collapses.”
Dietrich von Hildebrand

DOSSIER: Thomas Aquinas & Thomism

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Fr. Schall provides a cogent and precise summary of the issue and a response to the question re. the Church and historical norms. I believe von Hildebrand's observation points to the correct answer as well. If anyone has any doubt about the complete eradication of all Church teaching-as well as Christianity itself-then they are either fully committed secularists or woefully ignorant. Posted by: pescher
March 09, 2018 01:03 PM EST
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