The more I think about it, the more I feel convinced that what is at the core of the recent USCCB report on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, is yet another example of the recent politicalization of theology. What I mean by this is that beneath what appears to be particular characteristics the bishop’s conference finds problematic in Johnson’s book is really a latent, but deeply rooted, fear of change. Not just any change, but change that comes with the development of theological language in light of contemporary correlative study. What might have sufficed for a reasonable theological expression of a Christian faith claim eight-hundred years ago, might not make sense today.

Take, for example, many of the explanations offered by Thomas Aquinas (or Bonaventure, or any other 13th Century theologian for that matter). Much of what is expressed in texts such as the Summa Theologica makes sense only within a hylomorphic worldview. With developments in philosophy and the natural sciences over the centuries, we cannot simply cut-and-paste medieval articulations into contemporary settings. There may be some exceptions to the rule, but each instance of blind reiteration usually requires heavy contextualization and explanation for the statement to make sense today (in order to explain what the theory of ‘transubstantiation’ means to modern person, you have to give a primer on Aristotle’s metaphysics).

Nevertheless, the faith claims or doctrine remains True today as it always has. Using the example of hylomorphism and the Eucharist again, the True Sacramental Presence of Christ in the Eucharist remains True today as it did in 1274 when Thomas died. Yet, how we articulate that doctrine in terms understandable today is another story.

I will say at this point that I see a great value in authoritative bodies like the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Their purpose is to maintain and safeguard the faith of the ecclesia kyrios. The faith claims, doctrines and dogmatic beliefs should be protected by such people who act in service of the entire Body of Christ. However, does one of these servants-of-the-Church overstep its boundaries when it claims that new attempts to articulate a Christian faith claim are untenable according to the Catholic theological tradition because of its novelty or contemporary relevance?

Sure, I don’t think the CDF or the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine would ever readily admit such a reasoning, but is this not what happens on occasion? I have this sense that something along these lines is what is happening with regard to Johnson’s book.

Since the early 1990s, coinciding as it were with John Milbank’s publication of Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, there has been a theological movement in the UK and North America that is strongly reactionary. This movement sees contemporary theological engagement with the social and natural sciences as suspect, distrusts modern (and postmodern) philosophical resourcing and seeks to re-appropriate medieval articulations and formulae for today’s usage. The central figure in this movement is Thomas Aquinas, whose fame has not received such ubiquitous attention since the late 19th Century when Pope Leo XIII got this Thomistic monopoly rolling with his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris (1879).

One can see the influence of this movement increasing in the United States in recent decades. One of the clearest signs of this attitudinal appropriation comes in the form of Cardinal Francis George’s recent book The Difference God Makes (2009). In the first chapter, George sets the stage for what follows by simply repeating what Milbank and others in the Radical Orthodoxy movement have already said about the origins of modernity and the culpability of John Duns Scotus (d. 1308).

The loss of the communio ontology in Western thought begins, perhaps surprisingly, just after Aquinas, in the writings of Duns Scotus. Scotus consciously repudiates the Thomistic analogy of being — predicated upon participation — and adopts a univocal concept of being. (10)

He goes on, citing no primary sources but only the work of Milbank and Catherine Pickstock of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. I wrote my master’s thesis on the errancy of this particular movement’s reading of Scotus’s work, following the seminal analyses of top Scotist scholars Richard Cross (of Notre Dame) and Thomas Williams (of University of South Florida). I will not rehearse here all the problems with Radical Orthodoxy’s reading of Scotus that George blindly adopts for his own use. Instead, I want to highlight that the USCCB, like Cardinal George some years earlier, is yet again proffering a theological hegemony that is not as concerned with doctrine as it is with expression.

I cannot understand why the Scotus doctrine of the possibility of a univocal concept of being is so threatening to these people. Perhaps it stems from the fact that nearly none of those who launch attacks against univocity have demonstrated that they actually understand Scotus’s original thought. At the same time, I think that there is something much more primal operating here. It’s not that Thomist analogia entis is more correct than Scotus’s assertion that in order to even have an analogical concept of being it must first be grounded in a univocal concept, but that there is fear that there may in fact be a multitude of ways to authentically express a Christian faith claim.

(By the way, to Cardinal George and others: Scotus does not “consciously repudiate the Thomistic analogy of being,” he is first and foremost concerned with the development of analogia entis in the generation after Thomas, most notably in the work of Henry of Ghent — not Thomas — to which Scotus directs his univocal critique).

It’s an issue of simplicity, which, in its forceful assertion, results in a type of theological fideism. “Believe this as it is said in this way and don’t ask questions!” There is, at some level, a fear of change that comes from, dare I say, a lack of faith. Faith in the continued working of the Holy Spirit to inspire theologians and philosophers today as the Spirit inspired those medievals centuries ago. George, Wuerl and others give the impression by their ostensibly myopic outlook that they do not believe the Spirit continues to illuminate the minds of faithful theologians engaged in contemporary correlative theology.

Don’t forget, Thomas got in trouble in his own life and was condemned by his own community shortly after his death (only to later be restored) because his theology drew heavily on the “new sciences” of the day, originating from Islamic commentaries of a “pagan philosopher” = Aristotle.

When will we learn?

As I said above, one way to read the report on Johnson’s book is to see another iteration of the Radical Orthodoxy movement’s concerns articulated as: contemporary theological engagement with the social and natural sciences as suspect, distrusts modern (and postmodern) philosophical resourcing and seeks to re-appropriate medieval articulations and formulae for today’s usage.

The committee doesn’t like the place of evolution and science in Johnson’s theology, finds the Kantian qualities of Johnson’s modern theological project problematic and seeks to reiterate Thomas (notice the report’s only footnotes are from the Summa). This is not about the problems with Elizabeth Johnson’s theology, this is about problems with the entire purpose of theology and what a certain group of people in the last twenty or so years thinks theology should look like.

Photos: University of Dayton; CNS; Stock


  1. I read this recently. It may relate to what you said. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Jaroslav Pelikan. Blessings, and thanks for your thoughts on this matter.

  2. I could not have agreed more that neither hylemorphism nor Aquinas can provide answers for today’s theological problems. But I am not sure the latest fashion in the philosophical market place like postmodernism (which is more a reflection of the fragmentation of Western society than a word of wisdom to cure it -philo-sophia-) is the solution either. The solution, surely, must come from something like Aquinas did (not what he said) –modifying available forms of thought to suit the faith he lived. Radical orthodoxy needs to be seen in the context of the willingness of many to make faith subservient to the fashion of the day. So is Vatican’s attempts to bring back Aquinas. These seem to be more the defensive moves of frightened soldiers than anything else.

    1. The notion that we should “do what Aquinas did (or tried to do), not what he said” is great. Would you care to discuss this privately?

  3. The bishops are mostly administrators and bureaucrats. They have not been ordained bishops for their theological acumen. They probably don’t understand Johnson’s book. Moreover, they resent that she did not seek an imprimatur.

  4. Yikes, yikes. Despite your thesis on Scotus you clearly do not understand the analogia entis. And current arguments are certainly NOT all based on Radical Orthodoxy! Please, work your way through Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, through David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, the work at the JPII Institute in DC (especially Nicholas Healy’s book on the eschatology of Balthasar), and…well, it’s just endless. NONE – NOT ONE of these people is merely “cutting and pasting” medieval theology. The changes have been ENORMOUS! Read Edith Stein, Wojtyla’s The Acting Person, etc. just for some old, old stuff on the entry of phenomenolgy into Thomism. Seriously – I have spent 30 years studying postmodern philosophy from the inside and it is just wrong, wrong, wrong to say that some of the world’s best theologians “distrust” science or REAL evolution (as opposed to “evolutionism”). This whole trope you’ve set up, about the enlightened current thinkers you like and the poor beknighted souls who still think Aquinas has something to say, expresses HIMALAYAH ignorance of the theology going on right now. Why not attend a conference, say the Radical Theology one in June 2011 in Krakow, and see what is REALLY being said? As for Kant — please, that ship has sailed. The smackdown in complete (again, try Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite). If you want to continue to hold the position you do now, at least you won’t just be preaching tp choir of like-minded blog-readers who have no clue as to what cutting edge theology is doing, and who are still wallowing in Kant et al.

    I could go on and on and on. No disrespect, but you seem like a smart person and what you wrote is just embarrassing. NO ONE is afraid of “change” (or if anyone is, it is those sad people who still see the old, outdated side-by-sideness of univocity and cannot grasp the depth and complexity of analogy. Seriously, again – subscribe to the journal COMMUNIO and read some cutting edge stuff, don;t just rely on Radical Orhtodoxy.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, S. Quinn. I’m afraid that your assessment of my position and the valid critique I present (although it is perhaps not as clear as it could be given the abbreviated space and necessary brevity of a blog post) is really quite unfounded. Having read much of Balthasar’s aesthetics and being familiar with much of the pseudo-ressourcement of folks like Hart and likewise sympathetic theologians of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, I stand by my statements. Having written and defended a thesis and presented conference papers on precisely this subnarrative of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, I believe that I am quite qualified to make these claims.

      As for Stein and Wojyla — neither were theologians, but very poor phenomenologists (saints though they both may have been) — and those who are re-mining the Thomist vein, I don’t think I need to repeat myself. Hegemonic repetition is hardly “cutting edge stuff” as you claim. Feel free to read my published work, including some forthcoming monographs, to get a better sense of what “cutting edge theology is doing” as well as those I have referenced. Or perhaps you would like to attend one of my public lectures or conference presentations to get a fuller sense of my theological enterprise.

      The difference, it would seem, between you and I is that not only do I read Communio and LOGOS, but I also subscribe to and read Theological Studies, Modern Theology and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion; do you? I hardly believe you are in a position to be offering such advise about choice reading, particularly because — as best I can tell — you don’t know me. I am not sure what you mean by “studying postmodern philosophy from the inside,” but like Aristotelian philosophy in the 13th Century, continental philosophy today is both a blessing and a curse — but it is hardly “wrong, wrong, wrong” as you suggest. On the contrary, there is very much “right, right, right” about it.

      Best of luck to you. We’ll see in twenty years who’s reading what.

      1. Dan, My casket will be wired for Light? Actually, I will have the correct answer, providing I have won Pascal’s wager!

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