06 March 2010

Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II

Since I'm taking only two classes at this point in the semester, I've actually been able to find time for some leisure reading on the side. I've just finished Tracey Rowland's Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (2003).

Her work basically contrasts the respective approaches taken by "Postmodern Augustinian Thomists" and "Whig Thomists" to the dominant Western culture of Liberalism. She aligns herself with the former group, who view Catholicism and Liberalism as essentially incompatible, against the latter group, who want to effect a synthesis between them.

I won't suggest that it is the main point of her work, but the one that I found most interesting is her critique of the attempt to "baptize" elements of Liberal thought as Aquinas did for Aristotelian thought. Here she argues the essential difference between a pre-Christian paganism open to transcendence and the Incarnation, and a post-Christian atheism or agnosticism that has deliberately shut the door against Christianity.

The most interesting case in point that she takes up is the language of "natural rights." That's right, believe it or not, the Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne, Austrialia), argues that the adoption of "natural rights" rhetoric (which presumably includes the idea of a "right to life") by the conciliar and post-conciliar magisterium and theologians at large, actually inadvertently undermines their own efforts to correct errant aspects of the culture and jurisprudence of modernity.

This aspect of her argument resonated with me rather strongly because of the frustrations that I regularly encounter in my Catholic Social Teaching class, the most recent example of which was the fact that the magisterium has adopted as one of the four main principles of her social doctrine the principle of "solidarity." Now, what is the problem here? Nothing, if you understand the word to mean "friendship" in the classical Aristotelian / Ciceronian sense, and this is what John Paul II says he means by the word in Centesimus Annus (1991). In fact, he says that he means the same thing by "solidarity" that Pope Leo XIII meant by "friendship" and Pope Pius XI by "social charity".

Here is the problem: the word "solidarity" is not a vacuous string of letters just waiting to be filled with content by whoever wants to use it. It was coined in the 18th century French Encyclopaedia, written by such men as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, et al. It was a massive compilation of Enlightenment thought, theory, and argumentation, and contributed directly to the intellectual ferment which erupted in the French Revolution (1789). The word was then first translated into English in the 19th century Chartist movement in England, with which Karl Marx was peripherally involved, and which was tied to the 1848 revolutions that shook London, Paris, Vienna, and Italy (the Communist Manifesto was published in early 1848). "Solidarity" was then adopted as the central ethic of the First International (with Marx more or less at its head), from its founding Congress in Geneva in 1864 (or 1866 - I forget). In short, the term "solidarity" concretely refers to the cooperation of poor men in all countries which is necessary for the overthrow of oppressive regimes.

Is it really possible in the 1960s -1980s, when Marxism was still very current, to simply inject the term with different meaning? In other words, in this historical context, was it prudent for John Paul II to say that one of the most important things that secular society needs to implement is solidarity? Given what he meant by the word, his teaching was undoubtedly true. But was it prudent? The positive argument for using such an essentially Liberal / Marxist term is that it has such currency that people will readily understand it, whereas words like "charity" are somewhat lost on modern men. The negative argument is also that it has such currency that people will readily understand it... but in the way in which they already understand it.

My question, therefore, is whether this kind of strategy may have contributed to or at least enabled post-conciliar phenomena such as liberation theology, which essentially posits that the Gospel and the Church are really calling the poor to rise up in Marxist revolutions. Another example could be the movement to "democratize" the Church. If those who hear the magisterium of the Church stressing the need for "solidarity" understand that term in the manner in which they are accustomed to understand it, is it any surprise that they charge the Church with inconsistency for attempting to maintain her own hierarchical structure?

Something to chew on, anyways, and a book much to be recommended. Oh, and in the interests of all fairness and all that, I'll link a review of the book from the Journal First Things, which is one of the flagship publications for the strain of thought in Catholicism that Rowland calls "Whig Thomism".

Vive le Roi!


Somebody Calls Me Nana said...

Hmmmm-This is quite interesting. The Marxism in the Church in America is certainly very frustrating ...liberalism and Catholicism are most incompatible.

The World of Our Concern said...


I never thought I would see you aligning yourself with anything calling itself "postmodern"! Also: I love the juxtaposition of "postmodern augustinian" and "vive le roi" in the same post ;)

Have you read anything else from the Radical Orthodoxy series? Radical Orthodoxy/Postmodern Augustinianism is a very interesting theological movement, in my opinion. I'd be interested to hear your views on it, if you have.

Sic semper tyrannis,


John said...

Well, let's not be too hasty there, Mark. The world isn't as upside-down as all that. Let me reassure you that the Pope is still Catholic, the sun still revolves around the earth, and I'm still a monarchist ;)

My interest in Rowland's book lies in her arguments against the possibility of a synthesis between Enlightenment Liberalism and Catholicism, a position which I'm happy to hold even if I must share it with those who call themselves "post-modernist."

I can also add for your sake that I was uncomfortable throughout with her self-labeled "Balthasarianism," who, as you remember, is one of my favorite theological nemeses.

It's the first I've read from the Radical Orthodoxy group, though, so I'm afraid I cannot comment very much on the movement. What can you tell me about it?

Gott erhalte den Kaiser!

Craig said...

I'm getting the least bit of a chuckle from the notion of First Things as a 'liberal rag'. . .


John said...

Yeah, "liberalism" is a slippery term. I can think of at least 4 broad categories of usage:

1. Classical liberalism: the 18th century philosophical / political movement that led (in different ways) to the American and French Revolutions. I think this would be the kind of "liberalism" that Rowland associates with First Things.

2. Modern political liberalism: often closely tied with socialism, which is also a bit of a slippery term.

3. Theological liberalism: a.k.a. heresy.

4. Ecclesiological liberalism: the word is almost never used in this sense, but should be. That is, Catholics who are normally called liberals should just be called heretics; those who are orthodox in their faith, yet push for greater loosening of ecclesiastical law would more properly be called liberal.