Tracey Rowland’s ‘Catholic Theology’

Bill Tighe sent me Tracey Rowland’s book Catholic Theology (Doing Theology) which arrived yesterday in the mail.

I am so thankful to have this book.  It kept me up late in the night and I look forward to reading more today.  It is already helping me understand why I have been intuitively drawn to, for shorthand purposes, the Communio school of theologians and not  to the Concilium school. And why I am not attracted to the systematized theology that preceded Vatican II, though I admit I need to learn more about it.

This books makes me all the more wistful I don’t have a round-trip ticket to the Patronal Festival of Our Lady of the Southern Cross Aug. 30-31 where Tracey Rowland is a keynote speaker.

Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Rowland from Catholic World Report:

Tracey Rowland: As a generalisation I believe this is true. There are definitely two branches of theologians who start from different approaches to principles in fundamental theology, different hermeneutical frameworks for interpreting the Conciliar documents and different judgments about the cultural phenomenon we call modernity. They have different understandings of the relationship between revelation and history, nature and grace, faith and reason and different approaches to scriptural hermeneutics. These base-line differences lead to different attitudes to ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology, spirituality, moral theology, sacramental theology, just about everything! The branches have their ‘trunk’ in the debates of the Second Vatican Council and the split in the trunk occurs almost the second the Council is over.

By the early 1970s the academic theologians who attended the Council had divided into two quite definite camps, known in academic short-hand by the names of their flagship journals: Concilium and Communio. I agree with Philip Trower that these two groups have been engaged in a ‘theological star-wars’ over the heads of the faithful. The fall-out from the stellar battles lands in parishes but Catholics who have not studied theology are unable to identify the origins of the bits of “space-junk” they encounter. By writing about the intellectual DNA of the two groups it was my hope that readers would be helped to identify the intellectual pedigree of the ideas with which they are presented in homilies, lectures, retreat addresses, etc.

Today, of course, in the midst of so much turmoil, there are scholars who want to return to the pre-Conciliar era when Thomism was regarded as the most authoritative form of Catholic theology. The Thomists could be said to represent a third branch and within this branch there are several significant sub-sections. The most significant division is between those who accept the criticisms of pre-Conciliar Thomism and are seeking to offer a Thomism free of the encrustations of the pre-Conciliar period and those who describe themselves as “Thomists of the Strict Observance” who want to warm up the pre-Conciliar brew without adding any new ingredients or removing some of the more unpalatable ones. This second type is often found in Traditionalist circles where people want to reboot the entire system to 1960 while the first type is usually found in Catholic academies where the mission of the institution is to offer students a theological education consistent with magisterial teaching.

Many boutique academies, funded by lay Catholics, have mushroomed in the past two decades because of the belief that the older prestigious Catholic universities have allowed themselves to become thoroughly secularised. Usually this occurs because they become dependent upon government funding and end up promoting curricula which are even more politically correct than the non-Catholic academies.

CWR: You clearly align with the Thomist/Communio approach(es) to theology. Do you consider yourself a Communio theologian with Thomistic sympathies? In what ways do the two agree and support one another?

Tracey Rowland: The founders of the Communio approach (Henri de LubacJoseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar) were all hostile to Suárezian Thomism which is also called “baroque Thomism” but they were not hostile to what is commonly called existential Thomism. Incidentally, Karl Rahner, one of the leaders of the Concilium camp, was also hostile to Suárezian Thomism. He described Francisco Suárez as the person who committed both the original and mortal sin of Jesuit theology. Suárez is regarded as a very serious “bad influence” by both Communio and Concilium types and thus the mutual opposition to Suárezian Thomism is a significant element in the Vatican II “trunk” out of which these two branches grew. De Lubac accused baroque era Thomism of opening the door to secularism, Balthasar found it so disagreeable he wore ear-plugs to his classes on this subject and Ratzinger almost failed his Habilitationsschrift (the thesis in European universities which is required for accreditation as a university lecturer) because he argued against the Suárezian account of revelation.

Nonetheless, baroque era Thomism is only one of the many appropriations of the work of St Thomas. Communio scholars usually have a strong affinity for the Thomism of Josef PieperEtienne Gilson, Alasdair MacIntyre, Karol Wojtyła, Servais Pinckaers and Olivier-Thomas Venard, among others. They regard St Thomas as a great Church doctor but not the last word on everything.

Balthasar strongly endorsed the metaphysics of Aquinas but when it came to the issue of the best way to evangelise people he was of the view that it is counter-productive to start with metaphysics. Balthasar’s magnum opus addresses themes in theology from the perspective of the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, but significantly he starts with beauty and ends with truth. He was of the view that most people are first attracted to the beauty of the faith and it is only when they become immersed in its beauty that they are able to appreciate that it is true as well. Conversely, Thomists like to start with truth, which is fine if one is relating to people who are by nature intensely intellectually inclined, but the research of educationalists suggests that this is at best about 18% of any given population. It is therefore a typical trait of Communio types to be interested in beauty, aesthetics, liturgy, the human imagination and memory as well as mythopoesis in addition to issues like dogmatic history and metaphysics.

I see myself as a scholar in the Communio tradition who regards the Thomist section in the Catholic symphony as absolutely indispensable, but the Thomism of Pieper, Gilson, Pinckaers etc, not the typical neo-Thomism of the pre-Conciliar era or what is today called “Strict Observer” or “Rad Trad” Thomism. My absolute favourite contemporary Thomist is Alasdair MacIntyre.

4 thoughts on “Tracey Rowland’s ‘Catholic Theology’

  1. In Christian theology, we often encounter a lot of double entendre. The Word of God is both the text of sacred scripture and the second personum of the Trinity. The Body of Christ is both the consecrated bread of the eucharist and the Church, the People of God. And there are many more examples. Inevitably, the intended meaning is “both-and” rather than “either-or.”

    So, too, many legitimate schools of theologians gaze upon the same mysteries from different perspectives and thus emphasize different aspects of the sacred mysteries. And most often, the Truth is “both-and” rather than “either-or.” We deepen our faith by listening attentively to all of them.

    Of course, we also need to discern what is Truth and what is heresy, rejecting the latter.



  2. I cannot recommend highly enough Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP’s “Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought,” for a comprehensive and accessible introduction into the mind of the greatest 20th-century traditional “Thomist of the Strict Observance.” (Interestingly, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange was also one Fr. Karol Wojtyla’s dissertation advisor at the Angelicum.)

    Much like how we ought to read contemporary magisterial documents in the light of the totality of previous tradition (even Pope St. Leo’s Tome at Chalcedon had to be evaluated for its orthodoxy by comparing it to the work of St. Cyril of Alexandria!), I think there is a danger in “getting into” the “new theologians” (whether of the Communio or Concilium variety) without any grounding in the traditional, rigorous, systematic theological education that they themselves engaged and criticized (and perhaps, in retrospect, took for granted).

    Should it be at all surprising that we have so much hand-wringing over “inadequate catechesis” among vast swaths of the Church (laity and clergy alike), when our most fashionable theologians have constantly derided “manualist theology” for the last century or so?

    Think of it this way: certainly, the life and work of a doctor is so much more lively than what can be summarized in a medical textbook. But how can we make future doctors if we burn all our basic textbooks because they’re too “arid” and not as “vivid” as the work of an advanced, well-formed doctor who has worked for decades on the cutting edge of medicine (thanks in no small part to her grounding in basic “textbook biology and medicine” early on in life)?

    Without such a grounding, we can hardly presume to “discern what is Truth and what is heresy, rejecting the latter” (as Norm correctly observed we must do).


    • Once again, there’s truth on both sides.

      >> A relationship with our Lord, which is the essence of Christian faith, is not possible without clear doctrinal understanding of our relationship with our Lord and our relationship to one another in him.

      >> But on the other hand, mere memorization of doctrine does not constitute a relationship. Rather, it must translate into a way of life.

      A friend from my past often remarked that the foot between the head and the heart is the longest foot in the world. If knowledge of doctrine does not transform our hearts so that our faith becomes our way of life, something very fundamental is missing.

      When it comes to the catechetical programs of many Catholic parishes and schools, I find two major deficiencies.

      >> 1. Many fail to ensure that the students actually comprehend the doctrine that they purport to teach.

      >> 2. And many fail to ensure that the students develop a spiritual life rooted in a relationship with our Lord.

      We seriously need to fix both.



  3. Pingback: News on upcoming meeting in Australia | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

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