Monday, September 23, 2013

Rationalism and Individualism in Catholic Theology

There are many tendencies in modern thought that are fatal to genuine Catholic theology, but, as a follow-up to my last article, I would like to look at two in particular—rationalism and individualism—and comment on how their subtle influence can be seen in the way we approach the question of the role of the liturgy in a school of theology (and therefore, more broadly, in how any of us understands what theology is and how we should go about studying and teaching it).

The more obvious form of rationalism consists in approaching the doctrines of the Faith as if human reason were adequate to grasp, demonstrate, or explain them—or, perhaps, critique them, if one were unfortunate enough to mistake the darkness of human understanding for a deficiency in revealed truth. Even if one approaches the doctrines with a correct spirit of obedience, with the proper submission of intellect and will to God the revealer or to the Church as teacher, one may still fall into rationalism if one thinks, speaks, or acts as if theology is primarily about studying or arguing over the doctrines rather than assimilating them as food and drink—literally feasting on the mysteries, consuming them, being consumed and transformed by them.

Obviously, one cannot eat a physical book, but one can consume the Word of God in the Eucharistic banquet He spreads for us on the altar of sacrifice, and in this way, one can prepare for, accompany, and bring to perfection the intellectual work of the theologian by the liturgical opus Dei of the baptized Christian. In this perspective, theology is not an esoteric exercise of academic speculation but a special path for the living out of the baptismal call to perfection in charity—a contemplative and apostolic vocation for the building up of the Body of Christ.

This brings me to my next point: the danger of individualism. For many centuries, Western Christians—Catholics first, in the devotio moderna of the late Middle Ages, and then Protestants heavily influenced by that same movement, who in turn reinforced Catholic habits—have been tempted to adopt an individualist, subjectivist piety, a mentality that reduces the life of prayer to “Jesus and me.”

Now, while it is certainly true that there can be no fruitful Christian life without a personal, interior foundation in mental prayer, it is no less true that the highest expression of Christian prayer is social and corporate: the public worship of the Mystical Body of Christ in the Sacred Liturgy, both the Mass and the Divine Office, as well as the other sacramental rites. These are the channels through which our Savior pours out His divine life into all His members, in a way that foreshadows the life of the blessed in the New Jerusalem. Personal prayer has an intrinsic orientation to the prayer of the Church, which in turn waters and fertilizes the interior life; one without the other is incomplete and even runs the risk of distortion or desiccation. It is the same as the relationship between lectio divina and the normative proclamation of the Word in the liturgy: each calls for the other.

What does this have to do with a school of theology? Here there is a subtle danger. Imagine the Dean of a (conservative) Theology faculty speaking thus: “Why, of course, theology must be done on one’s knees; it demands a life of faith and prayer; its life-giving atmosphere is charity. We must undertake the life of study as something proceeding from and returning to the charity shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” All that is profoundly true; who could disagree? And yet these very sentiments could be taken in an individualistic way, as if all we really need are, in one hand, the Summa theologiae of St. Thomas, and in the other hand, St. Teresa’s Interior Castle or St. John’s Living Flame of Love. In other words, one might begin to see theology as something the individual does individually, rather than a gift nourished in the individual as a common good received from the Church, our Mother, most of all through communion with the sacred mysteries present in her divine liturgy.

If, therefore, theology is to be done on one’s knees, this means most of all kneeling at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—kneeling to receive the Word and be united ineffably to the Word. A school of theology must be gathered around the altar in worship of the Word-made-flesh. In this act of being-gathered by the Word and for the Word, the school actually comes into being as an image of the Church, to serve the Church with the intellectus fidei and the propaganda fidei, the listening that is followed by the preaching, teaching, working, witnessing.

If a school’s vision and daily life are not ordered to the sacred liturgy as its source and summit, something essential and fundamental will be missing. And, as my earlier comments suggest, we are speaking of the liturgy precisely as it coheres with, sustains, and expresses the Catholic theological vision itself, that is to say, inasmuch as it retains continuity with Tradition. Many theologians, emboldened by the luminous teaching of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, are admitting and grappling with the fact that we are living in the aftermath of a determined effort to introduce a momentous rupture, a sharp discontinuity, with that Tradition. The massive crisis afflicting the Church today is, at root, nothing other than a crisis of identity precipitated by an unprecedented interference and experimentation with her most holy and tradition-bearing possession, the Mass. This crisis of identity spills over into everything else: the crisis in missionary work, the crisis in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the crisis in relations with political entities, the crisis in Catholic education in general and theology in particular.

Let us work and pray so that our commitment to passing on sacred doctrine according to the mind of St. Thomas will be utterly consistent with our commitment to the way of life and prayer he himself led—the life that all Catholic teachers and students should desire to lead, according to the same saint’s example.

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