Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

FAITH Magazine July-August 2009

We present below some reflections upon faith and culture from New York based First Things magazine. This syndicated column of the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus.


There is little doubt the mid-twentieth-century split between Communio theologians (then called followers of the nouvelle theologie) and the Thomistic theologians has caused no little trouble for the teaching office of the Catholic Church. This makes the present moment both hopeful and dangerous, as theologians seek ways to overcome the polarization and assist Rome in needed academic and theological renewal.

Both the hope and the danger are on display in the Fall 2008 issue of the journal Communio. Tracey Rowland, for instance, offers an overview of recent work on natural law, and she has in view the explicit possibility "of reconciling tensions between the younger generation of Catholic scholars working within the Thomist and Balthasarian traditions." She rightly points out that "the work of Servais-Theodore Pinckaers might stand as a bridge uniting the efforts of younger Thomists and Balthasarians because of its accent on the theo-dramatic nature of moral life," but she also at times indulges in such unhelpful labels as "Baroque Thomism" and "nuptial mysticism."

William Portier moves further in this unhelpful direction in his review of Fergus Kerr's Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians in the same issue of Communio. He seems to think such Thomists as Ralph Mclnerny and Romanus Cessario believe that "Henri de Lubac, and, by implication, Pope John Paul II, have ruptured and destabilised Catholic theology." Catholic theology is, of course, in a destabilised condition, as anyone familiar with what passes for theology in Catholic universities is well aware. But to suggest that Mclnerny and Cessario blame John Paul II is to replace their arguments

with the bogeyman of "Reactionary Thomists" still latent in the minds of academic theologians who otherwise know little about the debates involved.

There's no doubt Portier means it. He goes on to say that blaming de Lubac and John Paul is "the central claim of the Thomist resurgence," and he seems to have in view R.R. Reno's recommendation - in his review of Kerr's book in the May 2007 issue of FIRST THINGS - that neo-scholastic doctrinal teaching deserves to be revived, at least insofar as its goal was to offer a standard presentation of the Catholic doctrinal tradition. Portier's main point is to reject Kerr's critique of "nuptial mysticism" and the challenge Kerr offers to de Lubac. Along the way, however, he reads Kerr as simply offering a new version of the same old debate that bogged down twentieth-century theology. Tracey Rowland's suggestion that serious Catholic theologians can join in the renewal of academic theology'scommitment to magisterial teaching is both more hopeful and more helpful.

[See our Editorial 'Towards Realigning Thomism', Faith, Jan 2009, for our positive assessment of Reno's review.]


The circus came to town yesterday. At midnight on 23rd March, ten elephants walked through the Midtown Tunnel and along 34 Street, on their way to Madison Square Garden: the 139th annual Animal Walk of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey's Circus. The great grey legs of the pachyderms, their swinging trunks, that strangely rapid shuffle that they do: a simple pleasure to see. Except that the animal-rights activists were out in protest at the entrance to the tunnel. There are no simple pleasures remaining in our puritanical times; each human pleasure is

writers associated with the is a development upon that

run through the great fires of human guilt, where it must be consumed. Or perhaps I mean each small and innocent joy must be consumed. What strange days: the complex pleasures of human sexuality are declared simple and guilt-free, while the simple pleasures of a circus parade are rendered complex and guilty.


Back in February, Dr. Jeff Steinberg, director of Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles, announced that he would help couples choose the eye, hair and skin colour of their children using genetic embryo screening. "Genetic health is the wave of the future," he told the New York Daily News. "It's already happening and it's not going to go away. It's going to expand. So if they've got major problems with it, they need to sit down and really examine their own consciences, because there's nothing that's going to stop it."

As it happens, enough people did sit down, examine their consciences and then stood right back up again: the public outcry eventually forced Steinberg's clinic to suspend the service. In its news release, the Fertility Institutes admitted that, "though well intended, we remain sensitive to public perception and feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer are far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved". The clinic hasn't exactly stopped practicing eugenics. They still boast of a "100 percent sex-selection success rate" -meaning, of course, that embryos of the undesired sex are discarded. The clinic also screens embryos for "albinism or other ocular pigmentation disorders" as well as a range of genetic abnormalities such as Down syndrome and haemophilia.Eugenics is fine, as long as you don't alter eye and hair colour.

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