Catholicism: A New Synthesis - Forty Years On

Editorial FAITH Magazine September-October 2010

"I came that they may have life." John 10:10

A Seminal and Challenging Work

It is now forty years since Fr Edward Holloway, the founder of Faith movement and the first editor of this magazine, published Catholicism: A New Synthesis. This book is the most comprehensive statement of his ideas and the theological vision that inspired Faith movement, although his thinking was also elaborated, sometimes more accessibly, in his editorials for Faith. (The first volume of a selected collection of these articles is published as Perspectives in Theology: Christ The Sacrament of Creation).

Catholicism is not always an easy read. For most of his life Holloway was a busy parish priest. Although marked out as an exceptional student by his professors at the Gregorian University, he was denied the opportunity to pursue further studies, so he does not write in the academic style and precise terminology of the professional theologian. Nonetheless there can be no doubt that he was a truly original thinker with a penetrating intellect and an intense grasp of philosophical and theological principles, able to project their implications across multiple aspects of truth and life. His style is frequently poetic, his methodology like a painter sketching his vision onto a huge canvas.

Yet, perhaps for this very reason, he can be prone to lengthy digressions and at times he can appear repetitious as he is at pains to show the relevance and impact of his seminal insights on the whole of Catholic theology. Karl Rahner is notoriously difficult to read for similar reasons. Both Rahner and Holloway were attempting to synthesise the scholastic tradition with modern philosophical insights, these latter being much more established in Rahner's case - namely emerging from the Existentialist tradition. Yet Rahner's neologisms and convoluted sentence structures can be couched in mind numbingly technical terms. Holloway's occasionally idiosyncratic prose contains some insights which will be somewhat novel to most readers as well as being rooted in personal, pastoral and spiritualexperience.

Pastoral and Intellectual Inspiration

The whole thrust of Holloway's work was to move away from the perception of truth as abstract. A vital underlying theme of his thought was to make a synthesis between the essential and the existential. For him the development of doctrine does not simply derive from progress in thought and ideas, but is an aspect of deepening in being and communion of both mind and heart with God in Christ, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Much of the perceived challenge of reading his text comes from the fact that his ideas were, and perhaps still are, so much ahead of their time.

At the same time, Holloway is often, at least implicitly, in dialogue with his own neo-scholastic theological formation during the first half of the twentieth century. He was deeply familiar with the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine and of many other saints and fathers. He also possessed the works of most major post-scholastic philosophers -Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Bergson, Sartre et al - and modern philosophers of science like Heisenberg. He often expects his readers to share the same level of familiarity with the language and issues raised. All of this means that those who have grown up in the post-Conciliar Church may miss some nuances of his language at first.

Holloway also acknowledged that his thinking was a work in progress, the pioneering outlines of a new synthesis between the unchanging truths of the Catholic faith and the emerging scientific culture in which we now live. This is why those of us who are dedicated to continuing Holloway's project welcome debate.

The Ongoing Crisis

While recognising the limitations and the ongoing nature of Holloway's theology we believe that he has provided both a vital and illuminating road map out of the intellectual crisis that has engulfed the Church and the blueprint for a new apologetic that will prove indispensable for the much needed New Evangelisation so close to the hearts of recent popes.

There is no disputing that the last forty years have witnessed an unprecedented collapse of Catholicism in Western Europe and much of the developed world. The root cause of this collapse is an intellectual crisis that has affected every aspect of the Church's life. True and lasting reform will not come until the intellectual roots of the crisis are addressed and resolved. Any reform in the Church's life that fosters the fervour of her members is to be welcomed, but real cultural renewal will not come until the intellectual roots of the crisis are addressed and resolved.

Transcendence and Immanence

The question around which the crisis in most modern theology revolves can be summed up as that of immanence and transcendence, the historical and the timeless, the relative and the absolute. This could be put in a much more concrete form simply as: "how much is matter and how much is mind?" For if matter is all - or if there is only one fundamental energy which defines both the 'material' and 'spiritual' -then everything must be always evolving into some new and unknown form. All 'truth', therefore, is relative to our own minds, limited by our time in history and our particular culture. This presumption all but dominates the intellectual and social landscape of our times.

On the other hand, if we maintain a clear distinction between matter and spirit, but fail to relate them in any intrinsic way, then the criticism made by 'modernity' that the older world view was static and formalist, leaving an arbitrary dislocation between God 'up there' and historical and personal experience, can seem to hold some validity.

Matter and Mind

The working title of Catholicism: A New Synthesis was in fact 'Matter and Mind: A Christian Synthesis' (an earlier version with this title is soon to be published we hope). The published title came about because Holloway realised that this question underlies the whole contemporary interface of faith and culture. He by no means rejects the scholastic tradition of philosophy and theology, believing it to be the only sound basis on which to proceed, but he does present a comprehensive realignment of its details.

The major achievement of the system he offers is that it captures the truths of divine immanence and created relativity without compromising the transcendence of spirit and objectivity of truth. By the same token he can uphold the priority of the supernatural without making it distant or only arbitrarily related to historical reality. It is at this important level that Holloway's claim to offer a new synthesis stands at its most profound and fruitful.

Creation as One Wisdom, One Law

The principle which allows him to achieve this is termed "The Unity Law of Control and Direction". Creation is not all of one order and energy, and yet it is all ordered according to one principle of Wisdom, which means that nothing controls itself and nothing is its own fulfilment. In philosophical terms, the immanent and material must always find its principle of integration and identity in the transcendent and spiritual. Or to express this more concretely again: "Matter is that which is controlled and directed. Mind is that which controls and directs." That which is controlled and directed must also come into contact with that which controls and directs it, but the latter cannot thereby be controlled by the former. This requires much reflection to realise the powerand accuracy of the concept. It has many implications.

Far from evolution being random and open ended, the cosmos is a vast, ordered equation which unfolds according to a specific purpose under the creative concursus of the Mind of God. Each created entity also functions according to the same law of the principle of control and direction, seeking its proper good within the environmental influence of other creatures.

God the Environment of Man

The relationship between matter and mind naturally comes most sharply into focus when considering human nature. The spiritual soul does not evolve nor emerge from the potential of matter, but neither is it an arbitrary add-on to an otherwise complete creature. The principle of the Unity Law ensures the direct integration of the human body into its own personal spiritual power of control and direction. Thus Holloway is able to preserve the essential distinction between matter and spirit, body and soul, yet maintain the unity of the nature and personality of Man.

According to the same principle of control and direction, the organic/spiritual creature that is Man must look beyond himself for the answer to his own need for existential wisdom and fulfilment. God is to man, directly and personally, what the environment is to lower creatures. "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.28).

The revelation of The Word, the building up of the Church and the 'Covenant', or family bond of communion between heaven and earth, these are natural to the constitution of the universe. Yet they are works of grace, guaranteed not by material laws or human effort, but by the play of Divine wisdom and love on human hearts and minds through Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Christ at the Heart of Creation

Christ too comes to fulfill the Unity Law of Control and Direction which frames the whole creation. And yet he is not the product of evolution or of the human religious spirit. He is the Living Mind of God coming into his own things and gathering it to himself in order to complete their communion with the Father and, because of the Fall, also to buy back and restore his broken inheritance among men.

This conviction that the whole of the cosmos is not just oriented through Man to God, but rather is made through and oriented to God Made Man, is one of the pillars of Holloway's theological approach. It is here, above all, that the transcendent and the immanent integrate. The source and summit of Creation is not just the Word, but the Word made flesh.

A Welcome Debate

In order to mark the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Holloway's book, we invited some leading academics to write on this question of the primacy of Christ. Not all agree with Holloway's position, of course, but we are grateful for these generous contributions and happy to publish them in the hope of stimulating debate. In our next issue we will publish some philosophical responses.

The idea of the Incarnation theologically preceding the Fall of Adam can be found in many of the Fathers of the Church going right back to St Irenaeus, as Fr John Gavin SJ notes in his article. It finds its most classic formulation in the theology of Blessed John Duns Scotus, who argues: "I declare however that the fall was not the cause of Christ's predestination. In fact even if no man or angel had fallen [...] Christ would still have been so predestined."[1]

As yet the Church has made no official pronouncement on the issue and great saints and theologians do not always agree - St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, for example.[2] As Fr Swetnam points out in his article, some passages of Scripture do suggest the motive for the Incarnation is atonement for sin. However, other passages lend weight to a 'Scotist' interpretation, such as when Colossians 1:15 speaks of Christ as the "firstborn of all creation." (Our November-December issue last year presented the case more fully).

No Distraction From the Cross

Fr Gavin points out that the hypothetical terms in which Scotus' thesis is often expressed can be a distraction from the gritty reality of redemption under the present dispensation marred by sin. For Holloway it is not a question of theoretical speculation, but of filling out our understanding of the majesty and meaning of our Lord Jesus Christ as the "Master Key" who unlocks the meaning of all orders of creation, material as well as spiritual. This he regards as essential for presenting a convincing and coherent account of Christ to the modern world.

If the very laws of matter are aligned upon the Body of Christ and humanity finds its identity and fulfilment in the Incarnation, this does not distract from the drama of redemption but rather gives it a fuller context. By clarifying what it means for Christ to share our nature it clarifies our understanding of the cross. By the deliberate choice of evil, the first generation of human beings did not just lose "preternatural gifts", they tore themselves away from their true source of control and direction, damaging their own integration and ontological harmony as creatures of body and soul. The crucifying impact of sin on the whole human race will inevitably have a devastating impact upon the sacred humanity of Christ precisely because he is - by right, vocation and very ontology - ourfinal and plenary union with God. He now gives himself freely to apologise, reconcile, heal and refashion us from his own energy as both Son of God and Son of Man.

Preaching Christ in an Age of Science

The Scotist thesis is in fact, as Fr Gavin remarks, the predominant perspective in contemporary theology. Moreover, as Cardinal Pell notes, it is to be found at the heart of some of the key pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict, in his audience of 7 July this year, commented upon Scotus' "great Christocentric vision" in which "the Incarnate Word appears as the centre of history and the cosmos".

However, the importance of this perspective is only now beginning to come to light as modern science has revealed a dynamic and developing universe, which some scientists recognise in the "anthropic principle". In its strong form, this affirms that the laws of matter are framed precisely to produce human nature. Holloway's perspective of the Unity Law of creation centred on Christ unveils the coherence and meaning of that dynamism. The material order makes no sense without the spiritual order. The spiritual order finds its fulfillment in the supernatural order of God's self-giving to his creatures, which culminates in the Incarnation.

This "one magnificent sweep of creation", to use Holloway's words, re-founds and renews the Church's theology of creation as well as filling out our insight into the very identity of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful and meaningful apologetic for our scientific age. It offers the Church a way out of the impasse of subjective apologetics, which has so damaged the life of the Church. To use Professor Rowland's term, it is "a master narrative" that convincingly vindicates the centrality of Christ in our world.

New Theological Horizons, e.g. the Theology of Gender

In Catholicism Holloway explores a range of implications of his Christ-centred vision of the Universe for ecclesiology, sacramental theology, moral theology and social teaching. Among other controversial teachings of the Church, he developed a much needed line of thought about the sacramentality of the sexes in the plan of God (more fully outlined in Sexual Order and Holy Order, Faith Pamphlets).

"If the consummation of the material creation is man, and the consummation of man is to be found in the adoption of the sons of God in Himself, then the expectation of the Incarnation should be fundamental to the developmental plan of the universe. The natural means by which creation can co-operate with God in the consummation of the Unity-Law should exist in physical nature. There ought to be a vehicle, at once natural and supernaturally aligned, through which the Heir of all the Ages may come into His own. The means is there, and that means is the womb of woman. Catholics at least will not be surprised if we write at once that the means is the Womb of the Woman.

"It is not possible that God should take flesh through the mutual vocation and intercourse of man and woman. For this, even when sacrilegiously exercised outside the holy sacrament, is an office of nature and an office of grace. It is the determination through the human will of the coming into being of a new, created personality. God, however, cannot be determined to exist through the will of the creature. Nor in becoming a man does the Word of God become a human person, a human being. He is always God.

"What is required for the Incarnation is that the vehicle of human nature should exist which can be determined directly by the Will of God, and that the individual concerned should be given the office in nature and in grace to co-operate with God in a unique manner for the doing of that work."[3]

We cannot develop this at length here, yet this insight has quite spectacular ramifications in the field of the theology of the sexes. It offers a rationale that could underpin an explanation of the reservation of the priesthood to men only, and that could develop an orthodox and fruitful understanding of the role of women in the Church.

Only a Beginning
Holloway's "Unity Law" perspective subsumes the Scotist perspective, or better say the Primacy of Christ in creation - but considerably expands it by making the dynamic laws of the material cosmos aligned on the coming of Christ. The horizons and possibilities thus opened up are vast and exhilarating to contemplate.

We have not tried to answer exhaustively all of the issues raised by the articles in this edition. Our intention is to stimulate debate and reflection. In the closing chapter of Catholicism: A New Synthesis Holloway stressed that his ideas needed to be further developed. He exhorted his readers to do so. It is fitting then that we leave the final words of this editorial to this magazine's first editor:

"This book, and its guiding principles, is offered to all men of sincere goodwill, in the belief that it does, in principle, at least, and whatever may be the human errors it contains, indicate the guiding lines of a true, indeed unique development of Christian and Catholic theology for the needs of the age. It is for men of goodwill, theologians and scientists, Christians and non-Christians, to add, correct, deepen and enrich. For his own part the writer yearns to listen and exchange more than expound. Long years as a busy curate and parish priest, for all their joy and fulfilment, nevertheless have not afforded the time or the status needed to meet many deep scholars and deep hearts who were also deep scientists or theologians. There have been some of course but not as many as could bedesired. It is certain that better scholars and deeper, holier men could much improve and further refine on what is written in this thesis. God grant that they may do so and quickly!"[4]


[1] Cf. John Duns Scotus, Opus Parisiensis. 3.7.4.

[2] Cf. St. Augustine, Sermon 174, 2.

[3] Holloway. E. Catholicism: A New Synthesis, Surrey 1976. p.149.

[4] Holloway. E. Catholicism: A New Synthesis, Surrey 1976. p.503.

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