Synthesis: The Answer to Crisis

By Mgr Patrick Burke
That the Catholic Church in the late twentieth century is facing some sort of crisis is a fact denied by scarcely anyone. The dismal statistics that are usually cited to substantiate this claim (widespread lapsation of young people, falling mass attendance, lack of vocations etc) are familiar to most people and do not need to be rehearsed yet again.
But the explanations proposed to explain this state of affairs vary radically. From the extreme left who argue that the decline of Catholic faith and practice is due to the reactionary and intransigent leadership of an over centralised Roman bureaucracy, to the extreme right who argue that the same phenomenon is caused by the left wing leanings and excessive tolerance of the same bureaucracy in the face of a liberal ideology at variance with the true faith.
There are even those who, bizarrely, try to see the decline as a sign of the Spirit somehow shaking out the dead wood from the church benches, opining not only that ‘we’ are better off without the struggling mass of half -hearted humanity, leaving a slimmer, fitter Church of the ‘authentically’ committed, but that ‘they’ are better off now without the old guilt trip about Sunday Mass obligation and so on. Deep down this is really just a thinly disguised policy of despair. It was certainly never Our Lord’s attitude to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. The lamentable polarisation and confusion which has developed as a consequence of these conflicting interpretations of our present situation is only too familiar to anyone involved in the life of the Church and has led all too often into destructive polemic rather than real dialogue about the best way forward for Catholic Christianity in the third millennium.
Deep theological roots of the current  crisis
The deeper and more subtle minds of this century, on the other hand, have always been aware that the real roots of our present crisis are far more complex and profound than any such superficial pseudo-political analysis. Recognising that the pastoral and spiritual life of the Church has always been rooted in her theological vision they realised from the beginning that the pastoral difficulties experienced by the Church were explicable only as the symptom of a deeper theological crisis.
They recognised further that this theological crisis had been caused by the gradual breakdown of what is known as “the neo-scholastic synthesis” which until the middle part of this century had formed the intellectual basis of Catholic belief and of a unified Catholic view of reality.
With its breakdown new and divergent views of reality emerged within the Church leading to divergent views on the nature of the Church itself. Inevitably the demise of a unified worldview has resulted in the current confusion and conflict among priests and people alike.
It is the breakdown of the “old synthesis”, therefore, more than any passing political factor which has lead the Church into her present crisis. For with its passing, the unifying matrix of Catholic theology also disappeared and therefore along with it the basis of her unified approach to pastoral work.
The result has been the emergence of disparate and often contradictory views on the present practice and future policy of the Church, lack of unity of purpose, mutual recriminations and so on. The pastoral chaos that has emerged at present has not, then, emerged suddenly and inexplicably from nowhere, it is the end result of the gradual breakdown of a whole system of thought.
If we are to emerge from this crisis we can do so only by painstakingly analysing the reasons for this development and attempting to come to some resolution or synthesis of its root intellectual causes.
Analysing the breakdown and the search for synthesis
The “old synthesis” broke down in the face of two overwhelming factors, namely the denial of objective truth, implicit in the philosophies of the enlightenment, and the emergence of a dynamic worldview, implicit in the discovery of evolution and the emergence of the new physics. These two intellectual movements, more than any others, seemed to undermine the Thomistic and Aristotelian basis of the old synthesis and thus seemed to threaten the whole coherence of the faith.
It is these two factors, we would argue, which have to be addressed and somehow synthesised with the traditional truths of the faith if Catholic theology is to emerge from the quagmire into which it has descended.
All the great theologians of our age, from Marechal and De Lubac to Rahner and von Balthasar, have recognised the significance of the breakdown of the “old synthesis”. And all, in one way or another, have worked towards a “new synthesis”, that is a new way of proposing the truths of the Catholic Faith which is both meaningful and accessible to the modern world.
Only by proposing such a theological development can we realistically hope to emerge from our present problems, regain that unity of purpose which is so urgently needed and which is a sign of the Spirit and renew the Church in preparation for a new evangelisation of the world in the coming century.
Fr. Edward Holloway, the founder of the Faith Movement, who died in March 1999, was amongst those deeper and subtler minds who early on recognised the passing of the “old synthesis” and the urgent need for a development of theology and doctrine to meet the needs of the times. He was not an academic, never having been given the opportunity to study at a postgraduate level, but he was an intellectual, a man who was passionately interested in the meaning of reality and possessed of an immense ability to see to the heart of a matter.
Edward Holloway’s contribution
His idea of a “new synthesis”, proposed mainly in his book Catholicism: A New Synthesis and developed in his many theological and philosophical essays, was an attempt to grapple precisely with the issues we have spoken of: the post-Cartesian ‘turn to the subject’ (that is: the loss of faith in the objectivity of knowledge and the subsequent exclusive concern of philosophy with the self and the subjective idea as the norm of ‘truth’) and the philosophy of evolution with its implications for a dynamic rather than a static universe.
By re-locating the starting point for epistemology and metaphysics firmly within a realistic cosmology Holloway was able to avoid the epistemological dead-end which has bedevilled so much philosophy this century, establish a moderate realism based on the idea of “cosmic inter-relativity”, and produce a compelling and scientifically reasonable argument for the existence of God.
Building on this foundation he was able to argue convincingly for the distinction of matter and spirit and the existence of the soul in man, thus avoiding the immanentism and panentheism so prevalent in the theology of our time.
By then defining “nature” in terms of relationship (instead of either static concept or unlimited dynamism) he was able to offer a solution to the old conundrum about the relationship between grace and nature, in a way which avoids the excessively arid and abstract terms with which this important debate has so often been carried on. He does so principally by reviving the Scotist perspective on the Incarnation, presenting Christ, the Church and the sacraments within a magnificent cosmic vision.
It is this vision which has fascinated and inspired so many people over the years and which has convinced people like myself to persevere with Holloway’s theology despite his difficult writing style and sometimes eccentric mode of argument.
It is true that Holloway did not write in a typically academic style, he did not have the time or the leisure to cross-reference his work with yards of footnotes, and it is true that he was “only” a parish priest but these factors alone surely do not justify the dismissal of his work. It is the opinion of many of us who are involved in Faith that he did indeed have something of importance to say and to offer to the Church and that his work does at least deserve to be taken seriously.
A vital legacy
In this special issue of Faith we offer a tribute to the life and work of Edward Holloway. We do not in any way wish to indulge in a form of personality cult, for those of us who knew and loved the man were only too aware of his faults and failings, not least his notoriously short temper !
We concentrate here on his intellectual legacy. The vision that he developed throughout his life is the foundation of the work of the Faith Movement, a vision that he offered humbly to the Church in obedience to the magisterium.
It is our belief that this vision is urgently needed by the Church in this time of crisis and we are committed to continue to promote and develop it through the movement in its many different spheres of influence and especially through this magazine.
Fr. Holloway would always say that the success and growth of the Faith Movement was due to its unique perspective on “Christ as the Master Key to the Meaning of the Universe” given by God precisely in view of the difficulties we now find ourselves in, and that its success has been achieved despite more than because of him.
However, this is only partially true, for without Fr Holloway’s single minded and dedicated life of service to the Church neither the movement nor the vision upon which it is based would have come into existence. As such we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. He was a good and faithful servant of the Church. May he rest in peace.