Evangelising as well as Evaluating Modern Man

Editorial FAITH Magazine May-June 2008s


"I thank you Lord for revealing these things to mere children and hiding them from the learned and the clever." (Matthew 11:25)

“The evangelisation of modernity calls for a realist reclamation of the concept of human nature, fulfilled in Christ. ...The de-naturing of reality, which has sadly been a concomitant of the modern ‘turn to the subject’, has undermined the very fabric of human community as well as Christian soteriology.”

In a characteristically engaging commentary on the Heythrop study “On the Way to Life” by Frs James Hanvey and Anthony Carroll (OTWTL), Fr Timothy Radcliffe gives this story and related question:

I have had almost no contact with schools since I was a pupil myself. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who is a teacher in a non-denominational school, he suggested that I come over and have lunch with some of his pupils. It was enjoyable; we talked about films and novels, holidays and sport. I felt at ease in their company. After they had gone, my friend suggested that the next time I could talk to them about my faith. I had a feeling of panic. What words could I find that would engage with the experience of these bright young people?

This is an important question which needs to be carefully pondered. But the situation is not as hopeless as is implied. It is quite possible to go into a non-denominational school and speak about science and religion, about the nature of the human person from a Catholic perspective, about the historicity of the gospels, or indeed about why we venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. Many of us have engaged in just such an exercise with a gratifyingly positive reception, offering something that is both fresh and a challenge to the culture in which our young interlocutors are immersed. St Paul did something similar in Athens when he Christianised the Greek verse “In Him we live and move and have our being” with a result that is likely to be repeated: some mock, some areuninterested, and some wish to “hear more about these things.” (Acts 17:28 & 32)

We would see the need for some qualifications and corrections to the response to Radcliffe’s challenge offered by the Heythrop study. The study sets out to offer a framework for religious education and catechesis. As a serious sociological and philosophical analysis of modernity commissioned by the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales it is a significant project. Over recent decades this magazine has often attempted discernment and critique of the theology behind modern catechesis. The study brings out and develops such theology and so gives us a good opportunity to discuss ideas which have made and are likely to continue to make a big impact upon the Church. In this issue Fr David Barrett offers a “constructive critique” of such theology. We also carry a paper critical of OTWTL by FrWatson and others of the Maryvale Institute which Faith Magazine is happy to endorse.

A Careful Approach

Culture is a difficult term to pin down and OTWTL offers an engaging and thought-provoking attempt to analyse how best the Catholic community can respond to what it frequently calls “modernity”, now conceived in post-modernist terms as a society that has both privatised spirituality and championed the “needs” of the individual for such things as freedom, autonomy and self expression. Rightly, the study points out that religious education and catechesis take place within ecclesial, secular and personal contexts that intersect: religious education will not be successful if it ignores the language that pupils speak and the assumptions that they make, based on the world around them.

OTWTL takes great care not to fall into any of the pitfalls that await the unwary in this field. It looks at various ways in which the community of the Church can engage with modernity and dismisses none of them outright. There is a clear recognition of the possibility of a critique of modernity together with an intelligent assessment of how the culture of modernity interacts with the community of the Church which can itself be analysed in terms of its own changes of culture.

Nevertheless, some themes emerge which form part of the overall thrust of the study and its suggested responses to modernity with which Faith Magazine would not only wish to take issue but would also criticise as harmful to the project of the new evangelisation called for by Pope John Paul and addressed by Cardinal Ratzinger as a theologian and Pope Benedict XVI as the supreme Pastor.

The Culture Itself in Crisis

Overall, OTWTL examines the culture of modernity as a given phenomenon. Certainly the study is not uncritical; but we would say that it is far from critical enough. Key beliefs that are supposedly validated by modernity include “‘freedom’, ‘objectivity’, ‘rationality’, privacy, the authority of conscience, and freedom of self-expression.” (p.13). Peter Kreeft, Michael O’Brien, Richard John Neuhaus and others have eloquently addressed these “key beliefs” of modernity in terms of the “Culture Wars” that are more evident in North America because there are more Christians there willing to engage in the discussion with confidence.

In the UK, we are less fitted to engage with these key beliefs because, as the Pope recently said to the Pontifical Council for Culture, “Secularisation ... has been manifest for some time in the heart of the Church herself.” We have allowed these beliefs to corrode the Church’s ability to define her own key beliefs and to offer a rational critique of the counterfeit versions of such things as human nature, autonomy and objectivity which are part of the culture in which we live. This inability is particularly lamentable because it is evident that the culture itself is in crisis. Now, more than ever, our world needs the Church to articulate its own key beliefs in a frank dialogue with those of the culture which have not proved adequate to task of fostering humanity. As our Road fromRegensburg column in this issue brings out, the Pope’s recent Easter Vigil baptism of a prominent Muslim has been a symbolic expression of such an approach.

It is true that the Church has not been successful in influencing public policy. This is at least partly due to her uncertain voice concerning key beliefs which go to the heart of the cultural malaise. Humanae Vitae, widely rejected both within and outside the Church, is undoubtedly the key to reaffirming the place of the family at the heart of the culture and yet few Catholic catechists or teachers are equipped to give a positive account of its teaching. OTWTL mentions the widespread dissent from the teaching only as an example of the modern crisis in authority. As the Maryvale critique observes, not only is Humanae Vitaeleft “hanging in the air” but the relevant magisterial teaching of Pope John Paul II is simply not mentioned.

The Turn to the Subject

The major philosophical trend within the culture of modernity discerned and described by OTWTL is the “turn to the subject”. It is well captured but, we think, ineffectively qualified by Christian revelation.
OTWTL speaks of an “epistemological shift” since Vatican II which, if harnessed appropriately, can Christianise the modern ‘turn’. In this context it praises Paddy Purnell’s Our Faith Story as well as arguing for a more explicit re-positioning of the human subject in the context of the transcendent and the Church (e.g. p.27) to avoid the “danger that values and presuppositions of secular modernity predominate” (footnote 79, p.35). It completes this proposed inculturation through a sacramental vision of creation inspired by Karl Rahner’s theology of nature and grace.

The assumption of OTWTL that “grace is integral to nature (such that) all nature has in some way the capacity to disclose grace and be a vehicle of it” (p.40) has been a part of school religious education for some time now. The pedagogy of the Here I Am programme, based on the philosophy and theology of Our Faith Story, is to begin with the child’s experience of, for example, journeys or ‘special people’ and then engage with this experience by a process of “Recognise, Reflect, Respect, Relate, Rejoice, Remember and Renew. ” Faith Magazine(Sept. 1992) carried a critique of Here I Amshortly after its publication. A Vatican official at the time offered the opinion that the critique’s negative remarks about the theology of Karl Rahner were akin to“attacking granny.” Fifteen years on perhaps granny may now be open to polite criticism, especially in the context of the reappraisal taking place under Pope Benedict. Fr Barrett takes up the challenge in this issue.

Philosophical Foundations

The turning away from the objective truth of words (and from authority) which has been so much part of the modern ‘turn to the subject’ is caused by, among other things, a particular idea with a long intellectual pedigree. This idea is that there is a dichotomy between the supposedly non-conceptual experience of the individual subject and its universal, conceptual articulation. This dualistic epistemology has in various forms been present in Indo-European thought, from before its particular formalisation by Plato. It came to prominence in post-Enlightenment existentialist philosophy, through which it has had a particular influence upon twentieth century German theology. In this context it affirms a dialectical opposition between personal experience and objective intelligibility whichis anti-realist and so undermines the essential and enduring validity of propositional doctrinal teaching. It also fatally undermines the concept of universal human nature. It means that the subject is ultimately a stranger to the world in which he seems to find himself. For all these reasons it is not in harmony with Catholic teaching.

Truth and Language

The perennial paradox of existentialist epistemology is to be definitively against the realism of definitive statements. In OTWTL it comes out as “The rhetoric of either/or is the rhetoric of power that divides and falsifies... For Catholicism, truth is no teither/or …” (p.49, our emphasis). Moreover we are told that the “Christian understanding of truth is not something that can be reduced to propositions” (p.64). This emphasis upon propositions as mere ‘reductions’ which fail accurately to refer to their object, is supported by a quotation from Thomas Aquinas to the effect that “all our speech, even those elements which are normative and binding, is in some sense always incomplete” (p.62). As we attempt to show in our Appendix St Thomas was actually arguing in theother direction, namely for our need of propositions which express “an indivisible truth concerning God, binding us to believe”.

The modern affirmation of a dialectical relationship between conceptual proposition and existential experience which Fr. Hanvey and colleagues are championing represents, they claim, “a significant and hard won movement from scholastic rationalism which for all its virtues of clarity, precision and structure, was difficult to translate into the culture of modernity.” (p.38) Whilst we do not doubt the need for some such “movement” we do not accept the loss of that central scholastic virtue, realism, which loss is entailed by the OTWTL implicitly existentialist vision.

Truth and Authority

In this context OTWTL rules out the apparent pre-Vatican II predilection for labelling people as either “obedient” and “faithful” or unfaithfully “satisfying oneself” (p.49). If such distinction is never acceptable with regard to particular actions or beliefs then little room is left for the concept of disobedience. As Fr Watson powerfully brings out in his response the study refuses even to dally with the concept of formal dissent when considering the negative reaction to Humanae Vitae.

The magisterium of the Church is relegated through OTWTL’s too easy adoption of modernity’s ‘turn to the subject’ as well as through the paucity of their reference to relevant magisterial documents. They seem to be trying too hard to balance ecclesial magisterium and subjective authority in order to avoid the (‘pre-Vatican II’ again) ultramontanist “attempt to conjure certitude out of doubt by the assertion of an ecclesial authority” (pp.43 and 38).

It is from this perspective that OTWTL, in footnote 79, supports the relegation of ecclesial magisterium below that of subjective “authority” which is found in the influential catechetical text Our Faith Story. The Maryvale critique powerfully challenges this endorsement. In trying to develop upon the emphasis of Our Faith Story the most that OTWTL can affirm of the Church’s role is this: “conversion is essentially a response to an encounter with Christ as truth mediated in the community of witness, that is the Church …(such that ) we are ‘re-narrated’ as we take on an identity which is conferred by grace. This will also have an ecclesial character, so that the deeper conversion does not turn upon one’s own self-understanding but the way in which the community comes tonarrate one’s identity.”(p. 27 and cf. p67)
It is not clear whether, in the dialectic between subject and ‘community with ecclesial character’, when say papal teaching does not ‘speak to me’, there is a place for Vatican II’s call for the human subject to offer a “religious assent … of mind and will … according to (the Pope’s) manifest mind and will” (Lumen Gentium, 25). Nor is it at all clear that this new vision would be enough to turn around the modern catechetical approach that has now produced two generations largely ignorant of basic doctrine.
The study rightly highlights the importance of reclaiming the proper value and place of authority in the light of the cultural ‘turn to the subject’ and the wise post – 1968 preference for teaching which is “persuasive not just declarative”. It attempts to reposition the post-modern subject within a community that defines his identity. But this is hamstrung by its inability to redefine this subject as by nature in real self-conscious contact with objective, intelligible reality.

Another way the Concept of Environment

The Maryvale critique points out that there is no acknowledgement of Catholic attempts at keeping the ‘turn to the subject’ realist through Bernard Lonergan and John Paul II. As ever we would give Edward Holloway an important place on this list. We think he takes account of the ‘turn to the subject’ and the need to develop our understanding of the relationship of nature and grace in a uniquely coherent and integrally Catholic manner. Holloway suggests that the concept of environment is a helpful way in which to preserve the relevance of the subject without losing its realistic objectivity because a subject is inherently related to its environment whilst at the same time distinct from it.

I am by very definition, that which is related to an objective environment. And ‘my environment’ has the existential relationship of impacting upon me. An object is that which has the relationship of being known by a subject- which Knower in the final analysis is the Mind of God, in whose image our own minds are made.

This vision draws out the very semantic of the fundamental concepts of identity and distinction from this undeniable, primary fact, that the human subject exists in a complimentary environment. Objective intelligibility is something known immediately and actively by the spiritual mind – in the image of God’s creative fiat. Upon this Holloway develops a relational metaphysics that uses contemporary scientific observation (upon which Aristotle and Aquinas based their metaphysics) and rebuilds the universal concept of ‘the nature’.

In grounding the universal concept in the individual subject’s immediate experience Holloway’s approach offers a way through to a harmony between modernity’s ‘turn to the subject’ and traditional ‘Catholic realism’. It involves a relational and hierarchical vision of matter as that which, in its very being, is known and organised, controlled and directed, by spiritual mind.

We would propose it as a sort of medium between OTWTL’s adoption of the post-modern subject and what it calls “scholastic rationalism”, as well as between Lonergan’s recognition of the importance of reflecting upon the a priori knowing subject and Gilson’s counter-affirmation of the necessity of maintaining the knower’s immediate grasp of being.

If then we further understand the human person as being within a personal environment, that of the living God, we can understand the autonomy of human nature without depicting grace and nature as in a “dualistic opposition” of the sort feared by OTWTL (p.40). We can affirm that human nature is intrinsically ordered to God, and that there is a dynamic interaction between grace and nature without having to say at the same time that we can never think of human nature independently of grace. We can think of a creature independently of its environment because the two are distinct. Yet the creature always exists within its environment. In the case of the human person and God, the relationship is a personal and fundamental one implying that grace is given gratuitously and is somethingsupernatural: that is to say, it is not something that is constitutive of human nature but transcendent whilst at the same time being what human nature was made for. This vision is centred upon the “Word made flesh”, “In Whom we live and move and have our being”.

Revealing to Mere Children: Not a Dialectical Tension

Authoritative propositional revelation has an inherent and privileged place in this vision of God as the personal ‘Environer’ who takes flesh in order to ‘environ’ us. This does not deny the metaphysically foundational place of the subject’s experience in his grasp of any meaning, and in his hunger for the Bread of Life.

We can understand authority in terms of the family model of the Church in which the heavenly Father’s divine authority is mediated through the priesthood which is true to itself insofar as it faithfully lives up to its own fatherly character in teaching and sanctifying. Such a role is complementary to the questionings and yearnings of the minds and hearts of the children – that is of the human subject.

The Key: Articulating Human Nature

The evangelisation of modernity calls for a realist reclamation of the concept of human nature, fulfilled in Christ. The reduction of the traditional concept of human nature was at the heart of the nominalist rationalism which characterised the Enlightenment, with roots at least as far back as the Reformation’s exaltation of the individual and of fideism. Post-modernism, for all its powerful puncturing of the messianic rationalist conceit, has the same deracinated view of the human subject at its heart. The de-naturing of reality which has sadly been a concomitant of the modern ‘turn to the subject’, has undermined the very fabric of human community as well as Christian soteriology.

The supplement to OTWTL actually gives what we would consider to be an excellent account of how the “modern sciences ... took over from theological accounts of nature and the universe and gradually pushed religion into the non-cognitive sphere” (note 155). The body of the study seems to accept these limits to natural knowledge as established. The supplement itself goes immediately on to miss the key point by emphasising Lyotard’s suggestion that the Enlightenment project “died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz” (p.76-7). In reality the enlightened man stripped of his nature lives on in the atomised community that produces the anarchic teenagers taking over our town centres each Saturday night and the busy abortuaries of our state of the art hospitals.

The study makes an attempt at reclaiming the concept of human nature, through relating it to grace, which is seen as “constitutive of” and “integral to” human nature. We are told that this “analogical relationship” “grounds human freedom” and that “the metaphysical form of the relationship” is not “established” without it. The nature-grace dynamic is thus “framed within a Christological context rather thandrawing upon metaphysical categories developed in independent philosophical systems.” (pp.63 & 40, our emphasis). In this context OTWTL proposes “Sacramental Imagination” as the key to Catholicising the philosophy and culture of modernity.

But this seems to have a fideistic tendency, using a non-metaphysically founded theology of the Incarnation to plug the holes of nominalist philosophy. It is certainly not the renewal of reason to which Pope Benedict is calling all, including those who do not accept the Incarnation whether secularists or Muslims.

It is this nominalistic individualism that must urgently be challenged. This means a reaffirmation of the holistic and intelligible nature of matter and of man, matter and spirit, made in the image of God, and a concomitant defence of the perennial validity of propositional expressions of faith, not least in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Proclaiming Christ and the Call to Conversion

We could agree that the “analogical relationship” created by God “finds its complete expression in the Incarnation and the gift of the Spirit, whereby all things are reconciled in God without ceasing to be themselves” and “that through participation in the grace of Christ and the Spirit all things are reordered to their own essence: they can genuinely become that which they are created to be by being ordered to that for whom they exist” (p.63). Properly founded this does indeed provide the foundation on which the Church can speak with genuine authority to the modern world.

Her voice will be heard by some and rejected by others. OTWTL poses a choice between dialectical and dialogical strategies for survival in the culture of modernity. In modern Britain we will need both. Dialogue, particularly with people of other faiths, holds out the possibility of conversion in many ways: conversion of others to the fullness of the faith, conversion of ourselves to a deeper living of our own baptismal grace, conversion of the culture to a nobler vision of the human person encouraged by the many examples of virtue to be found within and outside the Church.
But the call to such conversion can never abandon dialectical strategies. They have not been made redundant by Vatican II. We should not expect to escape the intensifying of the persecution that has already begun in various low-level ways through legislation and social policy. The Catholic sacramental imagination can indeed mediate between faith and culture but we should not always expect to find the process, nor the words which must be used, affirming or soothing.

APPENDIX: On The Way to Life's quotation of St Thomas on propositions and truth

There is a telling quotation from the works of St Thomas Aquinas which is used by On the Way to Life(OTWTL) to hint at a certain approach to religious truth: “As Aquinas says, we tend towards the truth itself but we do not capture it in all its fullness.” This is used to support the statement that “all our speech, even those elements which are normative and binding, is in some sense always incomplete.”[1]
The citation is from St Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences where he discusses the definition of “articulus”[2] and, in particular, whether “Richard of St Victor” was correct to define it as “an indivisible truth concerning God, binding us to believe.”[3] Among the objections to this is one which cites the definition of St Isidore of Seville quoted in OTWTL which is translated more precisely by the Dominicans as: “an article is a taking hold of divine truth that leads us to that truth in itself.”[4]

In the Commentary on the Sentences, St Thomas accepts the first definition as etymologically correct and does not allow that St Isidore’s definition will disprove it. In the Summa Theologica, however, the same quotations are used for a different purpose, in answering the question whether matters of faith shouldbe divided into different articles.[5] The answer of St Thomas to this question is important. He points out that things that are one in God are made plural in our minds – he illustrates this by referring to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

St Thomas therefore offers an excellent answer to the assertion that “the Christian understanding of Truth ... is ultimately not something that can be reduced to propositions because it is God’s self and our knowledge of all things in Him.”[6] Although “ultimately”, Christian truth is partial and incomplete in comparison with the fullness of the truth which is God himself, it would be wrong to consider propositions or articles of faith as a failure, a mere “reduction” because that is the way that God has condescended to provide for us in the limitation of our human minds. We know “indivisible truths” and in the image of the way God knows, but still in a creaturely manner. As St Thomas says, those things that are to be believed should beexpressed as articles or propositions -and precisely because we are human and God provides for us as human persons.

[1]OTWTL page 62
[2]St Thomas Aquinas Scriptum super sententiislib. 3 d. 25 q. 1 a. 1 qc. 1
[3]articulus est indivisibilis veritas de Deo, arctans nos ad credendum(St Thomas is mistaken in attributing the quotation to Richard of St Victor.)
[4]articulus est perceptio divinae veritatis tendens in ipsam
[5]St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae2a 2ae q.1 art.6
[6]OTWTL page 64

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