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    Front Page
     Nov 6, 2007
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BOOK REVIEW
The inside story of the Western mind
Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians
by Fergus Kerr

Reviewed by Spengler

It may seem eccentric to hail a theological text by a Scots Dominican, ranked 133,692nd in recent Amazon sales, as the year's most important work on global strategy. Now that I have your attention, humor me for a paragraph or two.

To win a gunfight, first you have to bring a gun, and to win a



religious war, you had better know something about religion. America's "war on terror" proceeds from a political philosophy that treats radical Islam as if it were a political movement - "Islamo-fascism" - rather than a truly religious response to the West. If we are in a fourth world war, as Norman Podhoretz proclaims, it is a religious war. The West is not fighting individual criminals, as the left insists; it is not fighting a Soviet-style state, as the Iraqi disaster makes clear; nor is it fighting a political movement. It is fighting a religion, specifically a religion that arose in enraged reaction to the West.

None of the political leaders of the West, and few of the West's opinion leaders, comprehend this. We are left with the anomaly that the only effective leader of the West is a man wholly averse to war, a pope who took his name from the Benedict who interceded for peace during World War I. Benedict XVI, alone among the leaders of the Christian world, challenges Islam as a religion, as he did in his September 2006 Regensburg address. Who is Joseph Ratzinger, this decisive figure of our times, and what led the Catholic Church to elect him? Fr Kerr has opened the coulisses of Catholic debate such that outsiders can understand the changes in Church thinking that made possible Benedict's papacy. Because Benedict is the leader not only of the Catholics but - by default - of the West, all concerned with the West's future should read his book.

I do not view religion as an instrument for strategic ends. On the contrary: we are in a strategic crisis precisely because religion is not an instrument, but rather the expression of the existential requirements of humankind. Nonetheless, we are in a war, and war concentrates the mind wonderfully. Radical Islam threatens the West only because secular Europe, including the sad remnants of the former Soviet Union, is so desiccated by secular anomie that it no longer cares enough about its future to produce children. Muslims may form a majority in Russia by mid-century, and may dominate Western Europe 100 years hence. Without the demographic decay associated with the decline of religion, radical Islam would be a minor annoyance to the West rather than a deadly adversary.

The pope has no strategic agenda apart from reconciliation and peacemaking. His work is to shepherd souls, not soldiers. But Benedict is the first pope in the past century to draw a bright line between Islam on one hand and Judeo-Christian revealed religion on the other, and that may destine him "not to send peace, but a sword", like his predecessor. This makes Benedict the most indispensable man of our times, and the Catholic Church, the founding institution of the West, its still-indispensable institution. That outcome could not have been predicted from events of the first half of the 20th century. Nazi neo-paganism rolled over the Church during World War II, such that it could not prevent the mass slaughter of Polish priests, let alone genocide against the Jews. Yet under John Paul II, the Church emerged as the world's conscience in the face of communism, and the Polish Church opposed Moscow more effectively than the German Church opposed Berlin a generation earlier.

After the fall of communism, two concepts of humankind remain in contention. One regards the weak and powerless as special objects of God's love, and believes that every individual is sovereign by virtue of divine love. The other concept values strength and service, and requires submission to the collective effort of ordering the world. Christianity addresses a God who self-reveals through love, and whose loving nature must make a world that is amenable to human reason. The other concept entails worship of a despot who rules by caprice. I have addressed the theological issues at length in this publication[1] and elsewhere,[2] and do not need to repeat myself here, for the subject is how Catholic thinking came to be what it is today.

Kerr's subtitle is, From Neo-Scholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism. By this he means something quite accessible to laymen and non-Catholics. Between the early years of the 20th century, and the papacies of Wojtila and Ratzinger, emphasis in Catholic theology shifted from attempting to prove the tenets of the faith by philosophical argument, to portraying God's self-revelation through love by reference to such Biblical texts as the "Song of Songs". The present pope's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love"), summarizes what Kerr calls "nuptial mysticism".[3]

He might well have written instead, "From the God of the Philosophers to the God of the Bible". Early in the century, under the influence of the First Vatican Council of 1871, the Church taught its seminarians that correct reasoning alone could prove correct the tenets of the faith. Reliance on reason rather than revelation and faith was associated with the greatest of Catholic theologians, the 12th-century Dominican St Thomas Aquinas. What was taught in the name of Thomism, though, bore little resemblance to the actual views of the "Angelic Doctor", Kerr avers. Instead, the Church had adopted a form of Enlightenment rationalism deriving from the 16th-century Jesuit Francisco Suarez. In the rationalist framework, God was something of an afterthought. That is a caricature of the "neo-Thomist" school that dominated Catholic theology during the first half of the century, to be sure, but an instructive one.

In Kerr's engaging account, the rationalistic mainstream was challenged by theologians at the margin of the Church, such as the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac and the Swiss Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar, now widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian of the century. They were encouraged by the research of medievalists such as Etienne Gilson and Marie-Dominique Chenu, who challenged the Enlightenment distortion of Thomas Aquinas These dissenters spent long and lonely years in the wilderness, sometimes forbidden to write or preach. Their day came with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

A Dominican, goes an old joke, takes a vow of poverty, whereas a Scots Dominican takes a vow of thrift. Kerr is profligate in detail, but parsimonious in providing context. Unclear is what motivated the great shift in emphasis. The Church did not so much revise its Vatican I-vintage teaching as change the subject. Lost among the refined portraits of individual theologians is the landscape they inhabited. A conjecture, though, would consider the difference between the established Church prior to the First World War, and the religion of personal conscience that Catholicism became after it ceased to function as an official religion.

As an official, Catholicism was the church one had to attend, not the church one chose to attend. Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-1878) and his successor Leo XIII (1878-1903) made the Enlightenment reading of Thomism official doctrine, partly in response to the secular challenge to the political role of the Church. Pius IX was deposed as ruler of the Papal States of central Italy in the 1848 Revolution, and the Church came to grips only slowly with its transition from a position of earthly power to a purely spiritual role. An institution with secular as well as spiritual aspirations will find amenable the argument that its earthly status simply expresses the "natural" ordering of the universe.

Decisive for the change in Catholic theology, I believe, was the two world wars. The Church could not dissuade Catholic countries, for example Austria and Italy, from slaughtering each other pointlessly in World War I, despite Benedict XV's attempt at peacemaking. The Church utterly lacked the power to oppose Nazism in Germany, and the Catholic political parties proved ineffective opponents. Although the papacy despised and preached against Nazism, elements of the German Church embraced Hitler, at least at the beginning of his rule.[4] War did not change the theological issues, which had been debated by the church fathers in the ancient world and again by the Scholastics in 1100-1500 (which is why De Lubac et al spoke of Ressourcement, a return to the sources). But the world must have looked quite different to the young Polish priest Karol Wojtila and the German soldier Joseph Ratzinger than to an earlier generation of seminarians. The grand edifice of the European Church lay in ruins, and had to be reconstructed with a refreshed theology.

I called the Catholic Church the indispensable institution of the West, but the new thinking in the Church drew deeply on Protestant and Jewish contributions. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth conducted two decades of dialogue with Hans Urs von Balthasar in the pubs of their resident city Basel. As Kerr reports, von Balthasar's formulation of "nuptial mysticism" adopted Barth's thinking more or less whole. Barth, for that matter, shared a Biblical view of revelation through love with the great Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig.[5] And Kerr reports of Ratzinger, "Reading the Jewish thinker Martin Buber was a 'spiritual experience that left an essential mark' which he later compared with reading Augustine's Confessions."

In a recent essay titled "National extinction and natural law", I quoted from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia the old definition of "natural law", namely, ""those instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring". How could this account for the

Continued 1 2 

 


1. Level 3 storm about to hit Wall Street

2. Crisis of opportunity for Iran and the US

3. The ticking of the oil clock

4. Roots of the Kurdish struggle run deep

5. Double-crossing in Kurdistan

6. Musharraf faces up to an emergency

7. China's balancing act: Guns vs rice

8. Leave, or we will behead you

9. The art of the possible

( Nov 2-4, 2007)

 
 



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