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.