The State of Contemporary Catholic Theology

Catholic theology has entered into the laboratory of dialogue, and the testing it has been undergoing in the world of East-West dialogue is one of the principle challenges it faces today, as Part I has illustrated. But to fully understand why Catholic theology attempts to deal with these challenges the way it does we need to look at its history. In many ways today's Catholic theology is a reaction theology, a theology born out of its own immediate past.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris, which made the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas normative for the Church. This was a strong impetus for the renewal of Thomist studies that had already been going on. Thomism went on to spread throughout the Church, and was revitalized by a great deal of fine scholarship, and so this turn to St. Thomas could be read as a progressive attempt to renew philosophy and theology.

But soon a dark side to this renewal began to show itself. As an official doctrine, Thomism began to take on the color of the Church's institutional structures; it became both authoritative and defensive, both traits that were not intrinsic to Thomism, itself, or to St. Thomas. These two attitudes, mixed with the need to teach large numbers of students, led to the neo-scholasticism of the manuals, and it must be said that the old medieval forms of disputation and medieval scholasticism's inclinations to indulge in endless distinctions only added to the hyperlogical structure of so many philosophical and theological manuals used in the Church's seminaries. The result at its worst was a neo-scholastic doctrine shattered into a thousand pieces and welded back together in the form of syllogisms. The correct expression of verbal formulas gained the upper hand in the classroom and stifled insight and creativity. The concrete sense of life and intellectual activity was buried under the dust of a rabid conceptualism which had no use for the modern world and its ideas, which were reduced to straw men and destroyed in a few lines at the end of an article. This defensiveness did not end with the world outside the Church, but extended itself to pioneers within the Church who wished to make a greater use of modern philosophy or science, or non-Catholic biblical methods and scholarship, or even other traditional schools of philosophy and theology within the Church.

Thus, a narrow neo-scholasticism waged a campaign of denunciation and condemnation at the beginning of the 20th century against what became known as modernism. Undoubtedly some of the ideas of the so-called modernists were incomplete, or even incorrect, but they were not met with calm and open and charitable discussions. This neo-scholasticism was, of course, only one side of Thomism, and Thomism, itself, went on to an era of brilliant scholarship with the work of men like Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. But this doctrinaire and narrow-minded neo-scholasticism continued to be taught in many seminaries and colleges.

After World War II it came in conflict again with scholars in the Church who were following other philosophical and theological paths, for example, the transcendental Thomism opened up by Marechal, or those who were finding new theological riches in the fathers of the Church. A common thread of many of these new developments was the desire for a more positive relationship to the world outside the Church. These attempts loosely labeled the nouvelle theologie were not always as philosophically and theologically precise as one would wish - how could such pioneer efforts be born completely formed? But the response on the part of the Church authorities and the prevailing neo-scholasticism was not one of open discussion and conciliation, but the same kind of tactics used during the time of the modernists: silencings, denunciations to Rome, and so forth.

This struggle lasted until the Second Vatican Council and played itself out in the tension between the original schemas, which were written in the old scholastic style, and the desires for reform and openness that had been growing in the Church. But finally the forces of renewal were heard, and scored a decisive victory.

This led to an almost immediate collapse in large parts of the Catholic world of the old neo-scholasticism of the philosophical and theological manuals. Indeed, the speed of this collapse showed that it was propelled by the built-up pressure born of previous repressions. It also showed how little genuine Thomism had entered into the minds and hearts of its students. Authoritarianism, defensiveness and pitiful pedagogy had done their work all too well.


Concepts in themselves are an integral part of human reason, and the mysteries of Christianity can be expressed in a valid and irreplaceable way by concepts, but in conceptualism there is a tendency to focus too exclusively on the concepts, themselves. Then they become detached from the living fire of experience and insight that gave birth to them and must nourish them in each one of us if we are truly to understand what they mean. Even the great formulations of the Trinity and the Incarnation coming from the Church Councils can be passed on in a lifeless way.

In conceptualism concepts turn in upon themselves and pretend to be self-sufficient. They present themselves as a historical, living in some sort of Platonic heaven of the forms, or world of clear ideas. They forget the struggle and turmoil that originally gave birth to them. But to forget their own history is to begin a process of falsifying themselves. Then they forget that their whole purpose is to bring us into contact into Christian mysteries which far surpass them. In conceptualism concepts become mirrors that reflect each other endlessly, and the articulation of doctrine becomes amalgamated with law, and in that way it tries to defend itself from every challenge by insisting that its own concepts are the only true way, and that those who don't hold them are in error. Faith, itself, which St. Thomas says ends not in concepts but in the living mysteries, themselves, is treated unconsciously as a matter that is primarily about correct conceptual expressions, and anyone deviating from these expressions is deemed to be disloyal. This kind of deadening conceptualism had to go, and we cannot return to it without sacrificing much of the vitality of Church life. The new openness that is the hallmark of the post-Vatican II theology is essential. The dialogues it has entered into have the power to stimulate it to a higher degree of awareness of its own nature and the problems it should be dealing with.

There is a mirror side to conceptualism that we can call anti-conceptualism, which is an excessive fear of concepts, or the belief that they cannot serve as instruments to discover the truth. And we have to ask ourselves whether there is an element of this anit-conceptualism in modern Catholic theology and philosophy. We stand, more than 30 years after the Council, and it is certainly permissible and even essential to look at the results of this dialogical openness. Its initial stages enrich the Church with much valuable knowledge, but its later stages have been proceeding less smoothly, and philosophy and theology can truly be said to have entered into the crucible of dialogue where their weaknesses and structural faults become visible. To oversimplify, we might say that we have moved from a defensive over-conceptualized and inwardly focusing neo-scholasticism to an open dialogical theology. But now this open theology is faced with questions about its very self-identity.

Once the stranglehold of the neo-scholastic mentality was broken at the time of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic philosophers and theologians became much more open to outside currents of thought. That was good and long overdue. But this spirit of dialogue was propelled, in part, by the pent-up energy of long repression. Catholic philosophy and theology not only opened themselves up the world around them, but they did this, impelled by the distaste the official conceptualism inspired in them, and imagined, at times, that their whole Thomist past could be forgotten. While evoking history, they blotted out their own immediate history.

This is understandable, but the abandonment of neo-scholasticism, and with it, in large measure, the genuine achievements of 20th century Thomism, was to have many serious consequences. It left a philosophical and theological vacuum that had to be filled consciously or unconsciously. And to fill it it looked to many different contemporary philosophies and theologies. But what are we to do with a philosophy, for example, that in principle does not believe that concepts can truly mediate reality? Embracing it -while perhaps initially satisfying as a blow against the old neo-scholasticism - can eventually lead to intractable difficulties.

This leads us to the question of pluralism. There is a de facto, or existential, pluralism that exists today in contemporary Catholic philosophy and theology. No one can become an expert in all the various specialties that make up these disciplines. No one has the time to keep up in all these fields. Thus, we could say that there is a pluralism that will not be overcome. But it is quite another matter to go from a recognition of this existential pluralism and embrace a de jure or a theoretical pluralism that says that not only do different philosophies and theologies have different starting points and different ways of expressing themselves, but they can never be brought into relationship with each other. It is hard to see how such a theoretical pluralism is compatible with Christian faith.

There are certainly different conceptual pathways to express the same reality. For example, the Eastern and Western Christian churches have different theologies, liturgies and ecclesiologies, but we cannot say that these differences are irreducible in principle - which is quite a different question than asking whether they should be reduced in practice so that the entire Church, for example, would have the same liturgy.

A simple example might make this clearer. There are certain words or phrases in Spanish or French, for example, that do not translate readily into English. They have been born out of a particular history and culture, and a long process of linguistic formation, and so they do not readily find English equivalents. But this is not the same as saying that they are untranslatable in principle. The word untranslatable can have two distinct meanings. It can have an existential sense in which a line of Spanish poetry cannot be translated into a line of English poetry of equal size and equal beauty because of a variety of concrete circumstances such as the particular historical and emotional resonances of the words, their sound and length, the lack of poetic genius of the translator, and so forth.

But it is quite another matter to say that these Spanish words are intrinsically or essentially untranslatable, or mediate some reality inaccessible to English speakers, or don't mediate reality at all beyond the words, themselves, and so are unique and are unable to be rendered into any other language.

Another example will build on the first. A Biblical exegete is immersed in New Testament Greek, and discovers valuable things that we can all benefit from, but we don't need to be left with the impression that because we are not Greek scholars there are certain essential dimensions of the Scriptures that remain closed to us. There is a form of anti-conceptualism which fractures theology into a group of specialties that cannot in principle truly communicate with each other. Each scholar is locked in his or her own little world.

The transcendental Thomism of Rahner uses a very different vocabulary from the Thomism of Gilson, but in substance they can talk to each other. They each weave a distinctive web of concepts, but each web looks out upon a different aspect of the same reality. But there has to be something beyond these webs of concepts that allows us to tell when they are true and when they are false. Philosophy and theology cannot survive the attempt to embrace mutually contradictory positions. Catholic faith has always expressed itself in concepts with the assumption that they mediate some knowledge of the Christian mysteries themselves. We may, and should, have contextual theologies, theologies that grow out of a particular time and place and preoccupied with pressing social issues. Thus, we have a liberation theology, or a black or Asian theology, or a feminist or ecological theology, and each weaves its distinctive web of concepts, and in this sense is unique. But again, the purpose of the concepts are to be windows on the Christian mysteries. There can be no masculine theology that in principle is inaccessible to women, or Asian theology that in principle is closed to South Americans.

When we come to the Scriptures and the solemn teachings of the Church, the concepts used have more than a merely human authority. It would not do for us to try to rewrite the Gospel of St. John, or the teaching of the early Christological Councils. This does not mean we cannot and should not find equivalent ways in which to express the Christian mysteries that might be more suitable for our contemporary mentalities. The whole point of these privileged concepts is to teach us something about the mysteries, themselves. But at the same time we can't put our theologizing on the level of the Scriptures or the solemn teachings of the Church.

This brings us back to the post-conciliar world of Catholic philosophy and theology. It is a time of polarization. The old was swept away more by a long repressed desire for freedom than by a careful analysis that would have separated the wheat from the chaff. The old polarization between the more conservative neo-scholasticism and the more progressive Thomism became a polarization between the traditionalists and the progressives. The traditionalists often maintain roots in the neo-scholasticism, as well as the Thomism of the past, and so the limitations of this position are similar to the limitations that Thomism suffered under in the earlier part of the century that we have been seeing. But the progressives are discovering that they have their own kinds of problems. It is not enough to sweep away the past. Something must be put in its place. Theology as an articulation and reflection on the Christian mysteries cannot be replaced by a loosely structured program of religious studies that eclectically gathers bits and pieces from here and there without attempting the long, hard work of synthesis in order to see whether they are consistent with each other, or even compatible with Catholic doctrine. Not every philosophy  can serve as an instrument for doing theology, and not every philosophy is compatible with the Catholic faith. Has this progressive theology, even when it has avoided these kinds of problems, been subsisting on the riches of the past? Is it exhibiting a loss of direction?

Theology after the Council has thrown up its own fair share of exaggerations, misconceptions and downright errors which are all grist for the mill of the old authoritarians waiting in the wings. A deep-rooted polarization has set in. The progressives take a certain adolescent glee in denying the demands of the old authorities, and proclaiming their freedom after so long a childhood, and the traditionalists hunker down and consider themselves a holy remnant fighting against the godless forces, and perhaps especially inside the Church. The progressives fear - and often with good reason - that Rome is trying to turn back the clock, and that the momentum that they received from the Council has greatly slowed down. A vocal minority among the conservatives applaud all Roman efforts in this direction and feel that they may be making a little bit of headway against the academic and media worlds that they consider dominated by their opponents. But in final analysis, this polarization is unhealthy. It directs too much energy into conflicts that reach no resolution, energy which could be better spent in genuine philosophical and theological activities.

Today's new era of pluralism has two faces. On the positive side there is a refreshing and vitalizing contact with the world in which we live. On the negative side there is a loss of a common conceptual language, and a synthetic or integrative view of theology as a whole. But with the collapse of the old philosophical and theological framework at the time of the Council we need to ask ourselves if we only gained in terms of a broader, more ecumenical and contemporary outlook, and didn't lose anything. Isn't it possible that the underlying assumption of the previous age that we somehow shared a common faith that we were trying to articulate has become overshadowed?

Let's see what that means from the point of view of philosophy. There has been a tremendous explosion in interest and expertise in philosophies and theologies from far beyond the borders of the Catholic Church. This interest is a valuable compensation for the narrow parochialism that so often marred Catholic life before the Council. But is every philosophy compatible with faith, or equally baptizable? Just because Plato and Aristotle made their way into the Church - with a great deal of trauma and deep structural changes - does that mean that all sorts of contemporary philosophies are capable of that journey? Can we, for example, take various forms of post-modern philosophies stemming from Heiddeger or Wittgenstein or Whitehead and create new theologies out of them? We can certainly make use of the insights they provide, but there will come a point when we need to make a judgment of whether these new post-modern inspired Catholic philosophies and theologies are compatible with the faith. Thomas Guarino, in an excellent article that appeared in Theological Studies which reviewed this question, concluded: "Without a foundationalist ontology of some sort, there is no possibility for logically sustaining the stability of textual meaning or a referential sense of truth which appears to be an essential principle for a traditional understanding of doctrine." (TS. 51 (1996) p. 660)

Even asking the question about the compatibility with faith of various modern philosophies and theologies can be read in certain circles as a reactionary desire to return to the safe but narrow and, indeed, even sterile confines of neo-scholasticism. It does not have to be. It can simply raise the larger question of whether we are proposing new ways to understand the Christian faith that stretches back through the centuries to the medieval theologians and the Fathers, and to the early Church and Jesus, Himself, or are we proposing a radical departure from this faith for various epistemological or metaphysical reasons that supposedly tell us that we cannot know the divine mysteries by faith, and therefore, hardly need to worry about the continuity of our faith with those who have gone before us. Actually, this issue extends far beyond the use of modern and post-modern philosophy, and can be seen in analogous ways in the dialogues with Eastern religions, depth psychology, the modern sciences, etc.

Can There be a Christian Philosophy?

This raises the question of whether we can talk of a Christian philosophy. If we mean by this a philosophy that is particularly Christian because it receives its principles, method and conclusions from Christian faith, then the answer is no. Such a philosophy would no longer be a philosophy at all, for if philosophy is to be anything, it has to be the free creative exercise of the intellect which tackles the deepest questions that face all human beings regardless of their religious convictions. Thomas Aquinas, for example, never suggests that Aristotle or Avicenna were not philosophers because they were not Christians.

But our inquiry has to go beyond this necessary assertion. The real question is whether Christian faith, itself, implies certain philosophical positions. Again, it is not a question of it containing a ready-made philosophy which it dispenses to those who believe, but rather, whether believing in the central mysteries of Christianity like the Trinity and Incarnation imply certain philosophical positions. I think that it does, both in terms of a realist epistemology, however much we need to nuance our ability to know, and a certain view of God and God’s relationship to the universe, and especially to us.

Therefore, whatever philosophy that during the course of the history of Christianity, was taken into the Church, was also modified and developed so that it would be in line with these implied positions. This was often a long and arduous process, as witnessed with Greek philosophy in the early centuries of the Church, and in the Middle Ages. If this appropriation and transformation of a philosophy was so difficult, why did the Church do it at all? It is simply because we need to think about our faith as deeply as possible, and this demands the best philosophy we can get. It might be objected that I am contradicting myself. On one hand, I propose philosophy as the free exercise of the mind, but on the other, I say that faith implies certain philosophical positions. Don’t the latter make the former impossible? I don’t think so. By faith we assent to the divine mysteries, which we would believe transcend what reason can fathom, but do not contradict it. Faith can be a nourishing context in which philosophy can grow, and even be guided without losing its essential nature or method. We need to distinguish between the essential nature of things – in this case philosophy – and the existential context in which they are lived out, which here is inside the Christian community of faith.

As theologians, we need to cultivate a radical openness to good philosophy wherever we find it, but we don't philosophize in a vacuum. We philosophize in the context of the faith, a faith that has a definite content, a content which is, in principle in some limited degree, knowable to us on the pain of there being no faith at all. However transcendent the mysteries of Christianity are, they are in principle revealable, for if they were not, there could be no Christianity at all. Both the content of the faith and its implicit epistemology sets up a dialectic with any philosophy. If we give philosophy the absolute right to judge faith, then our faith will change with the prevailing philosophical fashions and might disappear altogether. From a Christian perspective this is unacceptable. Faith has a definite content which creates its own philosophical context which, in turn, makes demands on any philosophy we may care to use.

We are faced with a spectrum of choices. On the one extreme we can insist that neo-scholasticism, precisely as it was expressed in the past, is the only way to express Christian faith. In the long run this approach can degenerate into a narrow conceptualism which becomes more and more content to repeat past formulations. At the other extreme, we are caught up and even intoxicated with a new philosophy which begins to impose itself on the faith, and then trim faith to fit itself. Neither one will work. The first ends in an immobilism that squeezes the life out of living faith. The second can lead to conclusions that are fundamentally incompatible with Christian faith.

This brings us to contemporary Catholic theology. I suppose I could call myself a Thomist and a disciple of Jacques Maritain were it not for the fact that the very word Thomist is freighted with all sorts of unfortunate connotations. Better to say that as a philosopher I am willing to make use of whatever good philosophy I can find, whether inside the Church or far beyond it. But as a Christian I can’t help asking whether these philosophies are compatible with my faith. So if I call myself a Thomist, I don’t mean I can’t make use of Clement of Alexandria, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Augustine, but only Thomas, or if I am inspired by Maritain that I can’t enjoy Gilson and Rahner. Or going farther afield, I can’t be enriched by reading Mulla Sadra, the great Islamic metaphysician, or the Zen master, Dogen, or various modern philosophers. Rather, what it means is that in final analysis I want a philosophy that is compatible with my faith and nourishes it.

Up until the Vatican Council Thomism in the narrow neo-scholastic sense had held sway more by being imposed from above than by demonstrating its intrinsic worth. Once the external pressure to conform was removed, this kind of Thomism immediately collapsed. It had already been undermined from within by the recognition of diversity of medieval thought by a better historical understanding of Thomas, himself, by the development of transcendental Thomism, by the renewal of scriptural and patristic studies, and so forth, all of which had demonstrated that the intellectual life of the Church was far more diverse and far richer than one version of one man’s ideas reduced to syllogisms. But it is worth remarking being a Christian is not synonymous with being a Thomist.

So the real issue is not Thomism precisely as such, but what could be called the living continuity of the Christian faith. The great figures of the Second Vatican Council, rooted in Thomism or not, were deeply immersed in the rich heritage of the Church’s philosophical and theological traditions. They shared a common language rooted in a common understanding of the Christian faith that transcends our various attempts to articulate it. They shared a sense of a common faith with the early Church, the Fathers, the great Christological Councils, the medieval saints and scholars, and so forth, all the way up until their own day. Let us say there was a living context in which they did philosophy and theology.

The central issue that we face today is whether Catholic philosophers and theologians share that same context. Does the collapse of the old philosophical and theological common language – much of which needed to go – leave us facing a serious crisis?

The history of the last 100 years or so in Catholic theology can therefore be seen as a drama in which a defensive establishment, fortifying itself with a neo-scholasticism, fights against open dialogue with the world outside of the Catholic Church. It succeeds in repressing the attempts of the modernists and hindering the nouvelle theologie, but cannot control what happens at the Second Vatican Council. It does, however, continue to fight a rear-guard action so that the Catholic theological climate becomes progressively one of polarization and attempts at repression.

But the valuable openness gained at the Council poses a challenge for Catholic identity. By identity I have in mind not so much a relatively superficial euro-centric cultural identity which needs to give way to a truly global church, but an identity based on the essentials of the faith. This crisis of identity is found throughout contemporary Catholic theology, and is mirrored in different ways in Catholic university departments of philosophy and theology, major seminaries, and so forth. If we ask whether the openness that was born at the time of the Council has led to examples of a loss of a central Catholic identity, in some cases we have to say that it appears to have done so. But these examples, as well as many lesser examples that center not so much on the faith itself, but its conceptual expression, have been taken up by Rome as proof that they were right in their suspicions about the danger of dialogue with the world throughout the course of the 20th century. The result is an interplay of action and reaction that has more to do with psychology and political attitudes than theology, itself, and is worth looking at in more detail. A defensive Roman bureaucracy kept the upper hand until the time of the Council, but after the Council, it was not as if it had a change of heart, but rather, in many instances it seems to have bided its time, hoping for the opportunities to bring things back into the proper order. But this kind of controlling mentality always give rise to the desire for greater freedom which is sometimes driven by such a charge of repressed energy that it can scarcely stop and distinguish the accidentals of the faith from the essentials. And both are rejected. This destructive spiral of move and counter-move is like a marriage gone bad. Both sides talk at cross purposes. The conservatives feel that almost everything they are talking about belongs to the substance of the faith, while the progressives stop listening to what Rome is saying and only hear how it is saying it. Each looks to the failure of the other to reinforce its own position. Each begins to fortify itself with its own preferred reviews, congresses, and correct people. On the conservative side, there is a certain intransigence fortified with power and its willingness to use its power to enforce its view of things. On the progressive side, there is a certain anti-institutionalization, and more dangerously, an anti-dogmatic bias. For the conservatives, a tendency to uphold doctrines even at the price of people's rights and freedoms, and for the progressives, an exultation of freedom as if all discussion of right or wrong, good or bad, was somehow a repression of individual liberty.

The old defensiveness must go. Dialogue must continue and deepen. At the same time, the question of the essential nature of the faith must be confronted.

The Nature of Theology

Theology is meant to be a deep reflection on the Christian mysteries in order to understand them in themselves and in their relationships to each other. As such, it demands the forceful and disciplined use of the human mind through the use of philosophy, history, linguistics, psychology, etc. These disciplines provide different lights that can help us see into the meaning of Christian revelation. The deficiencies of the neo-scholasticism of the manuals vividly points to what happens when we fail to truly think and truly enrich and stimulate our thinking with the best of the sciences. But the reaction to this narrow conceptualism has been an openness that sometimes fails to recognize its legitimate limits and begins to lead to a loss of the faith, itself. Theology is not philosophy or history or psychology. The historical method, in and by itself, will not lead to the Christ of faith. Various forms of modern and post-modern philosophies, or even Eastern religions, cannot become the ultimate norms by which we interpret the Christian mysteries. There has to be more to theology than the various disciplines we make use of in it. It has to have something distinctive in itself, or otherwise it will simply be history or psychology applied to religious themes.

What makes theology different is that it is rooted in and ultimately sees by means of the light of faith. The lights of these other disciplines are taken up and employed in a new way by the light of faith in order to explore the Christian mysteries.

But traditional theology usually just gave a nod in that direction, and then moved on to do theology. The exercise of human reason was in the forefront and left what we could call the deeply mystical nature of theology unexamined. Indeed, it often seemed to conceive of theology as a higher form of philosophy with the difference that the basic axioms, or postulates, came from revelation, were accepted by faith, and then human reason tried to make something out of them. It created various conceptual constructs. Another nod might be given to the piety of theologians, but the strongly rational character of theology was what was emphasized.

There is no doubt that the theology that was done in this way was genuine theology because the light of faith was operative, if unexamined. But it can be wondered whether the nature of theology can remain unexamined today. We can sum up the question before us like this: what is the distinctive nature of theology? It has a distinctive nature, or else it is identical to philosophy, or history, etc., and then is no longer theology.

Someone once asked Karl Rahner what he thought his most important writings were. He responded that it was not this or that book, but certain ideas that were very important to him. Along with his transcendental theology, itself, he singled out what he called "the logic of the concrete individual knowledge in Ignatius Loyola," which is an answer that one could hardly have anticipated. And he goes on to comment, "Such matters are important, I believe; they are new to a certain extent and really could have consequences for questions and groups of problems, even where people do not yet see this so clearly." (p. 195 (Karl Rahner in Dialogue)) Even Jesuit theologians "propose some sort of essential and rational theory of knowledge as the only possible one and didn't realize that Ignatius had taught them something entirely different." They didn't "fertilize their theology" with this kind of knowledge. (p. 196)

There is more to what he is saying than first meets the eye. I believe he is pointing to the issues that surround the question of what kind of knowledge faith is. In traditional theology it was accepted that the act of faith was a supernatural act that took place under the impetus of grace so that the assent of faith was not simply the result of affirming a conclusion made evident by human reason. But the implications of this for doing theology were rarely brought out. Again, it was as if it were simply enough to say this, and then act as if theology was a matter of the rational elaboration of the propositions accepted by faith. What was overlooked was that the light of faith that was seen to be operative in the initial act of faith had to remain operative throughout the entire process of doing theology. In short, as theologians theoretically asserted, the light of faith allowed us to make contact with the Christian mysteries, themselves, and elevates the disciplines of reason so that they could be employed by this light of faith to explore these mysteries. This was not a common topic of meditation in an era when theology wanted to show how rational and reasonable it was.

Rahner's concrete knowledge of the individual is a particular instance of what could be called the kinds of knowing that operate by faith which embrace on the personal level the act of faith, itself, the doing of theology, and Christian mystical experience, and on the ecclesial level, Biblical inspiration, canonicity and doctrinal development and the exercise of the magisterium. None of these forms of knowing can be truly or adequately understood as purely rational forms of knowing, and therefore, equivalent in their own way to the human disciplines of history or philosophy or psychology. These kinds of knowing by faith do not operate solely in a rational mode, but by a mysterious connaturality which involves the heart as well as the mind. It would take us too far afield to examine this issue. I have done that elsewhere in The Inner Nature of Faith. But we have to note that these kinds of supernatural knowing find natural analogues in the arts and poetry, and have interesting affinities with the kinds of connatural knowing found in Eastern forms of meditation.

The old neo-scholasticism was cast in a narrow, rational mold. The propositions accepted by faith were accepted much like the postulates of geometry, and the real work of theology was seen in their logical development. Modern Catholic theology has broadened the base upon which it does theological work, but we can certainly wonder if it has truly broken with the old rationalistic forms. Does it not now appear to practice theology after the models and patterns of the human sciences that it is employing.

The exercise of human reason, as vital as it is in theological activity, is not ultimately adequate to explain faith and our reflections on our faith. Faith allows us to come into a living contact with the Christian mysteries which, after all is said and done, are persons, and love is essential for this. This contact is not broken so that we can begin the properly rational work of theological collaboration, but rather, it guides the process of theological reflection, itself. Even on a purely natural plane we cannot imagine the creative process taking place in an orderly consciousness where clear ideas are laid out in rows, and their manipulation takes place by the rules of formal logic. Creativity emerges out of the depths of the soul, and ideas are born out of the rich fertile matrix of the unconscious. In an analogous way in theology, it must remain in intimate contact with the Christian mysteries, and it is faith animated by love that allows us to do so. There is, in this sense, a theological instinct that guides and inspires the theologian, not in the sense of supplying in some miraculous way for the necessary process of reflection, or for the effort that we need to master the human disciplines employed, but by directing theological activities to this or that aspect of the mystery we are considering, and helping us find a way to penetrate within that mystery.

Let's look at two concrete examples of the tensions that exist in contemporary theology to see what is at stake.

Ivone Gebara

Ivone Gebara is a Brazilian Sister of Our Lady who is well versed in traditional theology and philosophy. In her Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation she gives us the example of a contemporary theology trying to be more relevant to modern needs. This is a theology which reacts against the old tradition of conceptualism, but in doing so, puts itself in a problematic relationship with essential Christian doctrines.

She contrasts a patriarchal epistemology that informed the traditional theology with an ecofeminist epistemology that she wants to infuse the new theology. The old was based on an ahistorical metaphysics that put the center of life outside the cares of struggles of daily existence, and outside of history, itself. It focused on immutable doctrine and eternal truths at the price of human beings and their concrete needs. These revealed truths took on a life of their own, and could not be questioned in the light of the "Christian communities' history lived and experience. This situation also leads to teachings that sanction the power invested in male Church authorities to act as the guardians of fidelity to these doctrines. These authorities exercise control over what the faithful can and should believe, claiming that their power comes from Jesus Christ…" (p. 43)

Read as a sociological critique of the old theology and its attendant power structures, this kind of analysis has much to recommend it. We may say that it gives us another valuable perspective on the old conceptualism and the uses and abuses of power that often went with it.

Her remedy is to propose an ecofeminist epistemology more in line with the meaningful experiences of our lives. Here the duality of the old theology between body and mind will be overcome, and we will "live the oneness of the matter and energy that are our very makeup without knowing what that oneness really is… We will welcome the transformation of our individual bodies into the mystery of our Sacred Body." (p. 57) If we take these sentiments as expressions of a desire for a more wholistic spirituality, conscious of its feminine and ecological nature, all well and good. But Sr. Gebara is led to create a new theology that not only reacts against the ills of the old, but seems to empty out the faith of its distinctive Christian content.

In it, relatedness is seen as the most basic characteristic of the human person. "Relatedness is the primary and ultimate ground of all that exists." (p. 103) God is relatedness, we are told, but we are also told that "relatedness is not an entity apart from other beings; rather, it is a mystery that is associated with all that exists. Relatedness is utterance, word, attraction, flux, energy and passion… We are all both created within and creators of this relatedness." (p. 103)

In this way she hopes to overcome the dualism of the old theology which treated the material and spiritual as if they were separate substances. "…God is not a pure essence existing in itself; rather, God is relationship." (p. 104) "…We no longer speak of God existing before creation, but, in a way, as concomitant with it." (p. 105) It is easy to sympathize with the feelings that drive this project which embrace a compassion for the poor and marginalized and a keen sense of the limitations of the old theology. But we have to ask whether we are seeing the beginnings of a new philosophy and theology, or the loss of the distinctive nature of the Catholic faith.

Sr. Gebara goes on to say things like: "Prayer has to be rediscovered as a human need." (p. 119) "We pray because we need contact with ourselves, with our community, and with the entire universe." (p. 119) And she feels that we must ask about the concrete human needs that lead us to talk about the Trinity. "To what human experience is the Trinity related?" (p. 146) She answers that the experience is one of human multiplicity and fragility. "This multiple divergence is Trinity." (p. 147) ""Trinity" is the name we give ourselves…" (p. 148)

The old theology "petrified language" and went on "to condemn or declare among the saved those who are unfaithful or faithful to their formal institutions and their discourse…" (p. 151) This is a good point, but is the proper response to it what we have been seeing? She states the problem: "The Trinity has been presented as the absolute, the totally different, the altogether superior, independent, and perfect Being." (p. 152) But her response is: "The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not of divine stuff as opposed to our human stuff; rather, they are relationships - relationships we human beings experience and express in metaphorical rather than metaphysical terms." (p. 153)

Her treatment of Jesus is much the same. While Jesus still enjoys a special place, He is "no longer the absolute reference in a dogmatic sense, that is, in the way it was presented in the metaphysical Christology..." She honors Jesus, but free of dogmatic refinements because "the christological dogmatics that has come down to us from Nicaea and Chalcedon, along with their later "refinements," took away the good flavor of the Jesus-words…" (p. 178)

Sr. Gebara calls herself not a post-Christian, but a "post-dogmatic and post-patriarchal" Christian. Even the most solemn dogmatic formulas of the Church councils no longer speak to her. Rather, we must "dare to free Jesus from the hierarchical and dogmatic apparel in which the church has clothed him for so long." (p. 183)

She makes some reflections on an issue that we will have to look at in more detail, which is the role that Jesus plays in the salvation of the human race. "…If we no longer speak of the salvific uniqueness of Jesus, the Christ, many feel we give up the power and uniqueness of our faith… I believe that to affirm the incarnation, or the bodiliness, of the divine does not necessarily require that Jesus have some unique metaphysical character." (p. 184) Do we really need to say, though, that Jesus "is not the savior of all humanity" or "not the powerful son of God," but rather the "symbol of the vulnerability of love" and who "as an individual person is not superior to any other human being." (p. 190)

Tissa Balasuriya

Tissa Balasuriya is a Sri Lankan theologian and member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who rocketed to notice in the world of theology when he was excommunicated for the views presented in his Mary and Human Liberation. He can be said to be well versed in traditional theology in virtue of his training, i.e., licentiate in both philosophy and theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, and in contemporary theology in virtue of his interest in Asian liberation theology and feminist theology. The controversy that surrounded his book after his condemnation illustrates two of the prevailing themes in today's theological activity. Progressives around the world rallied to his defense, but what motivated them was their outrage at the Roman procedures which led to his excommunication and which seemed to be grossly deficient in terms of due process. What was hardly ever the focus of attention was his theology, itself, and whether he was or was not saying things that conflicted with fundamental teachings of the Church. The lack of due process is certainly a vital issue, but it is worth examining Balasuriya's theological thought, for it brings out some of the disturbing aspects of a contemporary Catholic theology of reaction.

Balasuriya's general argument runs like this: the old classical theology, as Edmund Hill sums up Balasuriya's position in his introduction to the book and the ensuing controversy, is "patriarchal, male dominated, and governed by Western, Greco-Roman cultural presuppositions." And so we ought to turn to a "new feminist, liberation, inculturation dialogue theologies." (p. 6) There is certainly a sense in which it is easy to agree with this, but of course, the issue is to determine just what that sense is. Balasuriya eloquently argues that Mary needs to be seen in solidarity with the human race, to be seen as a real woman, a woman of the Gospels, and not just raised above everyone else. But the road he takes to do this is fraught with difficulties. He argues that at the heart of devotion to Mary are qualities attributed to her, like the Immaculate Conception, but these qualities are, in turn, based on the qualities we attribute to Christ, especially in terms of redeeming us from sin, and in this way he is led to deal with the question of original sin.

This is a doctrine that he thinks lacks internal coherence, and "is based on unproved and unprovable assumptions." (p. 140) But such a comment immediately raises a red theological flag. In just what way can we expect the Christian mysteries to be provable? Are they provable in some historically verifiable way? Or are they provable because they are found in full form in the Scriptures? Or are they provable because they psychologically resonate with us, or say something how we should treat others that we agree with?

There is no doubt that the question of original sin poses a great challenge for contemporary theology, and Balasuriya touches on some of the elements of this question that need to be examined: the traditional link between original sin and sexuality, the injustice of punishing all people for the sins of our first parents, the apparent injustice of God towards the unbaptized, and so forth. But he doesn't really deal with them. He will say: "the whole doctrine of original sin is built on the assumptions of a particular medieval Western European philosophical understanding of the human person, nature and the supernatural, which is not necessarily valid for all times and places." (p. 140-141) If he had said that the Church's teaching on original sin was heavily conditioned by the historical circumstances within it arose, one could only agree with him, but there is an overemphasis here that is disturbing.

The question of original sin becomes a springboard to the issue of the role of Jesus in the salvation of the human race, an issue which is at the heart of the East-West dialogue. "Such dogma of original sin implied that Jesus, the universal savior, conferred the graces merited by him, through the Church which he founded." (p. 142) But Balasuriya, apparently motivated by a desire to enter more deeply into dialogue with other religions, questions this. Even if salvation came through Christ, he tells us, that does not mean "…Jesus Christ wanted a Church - say the Catholic Church - to be the mediator of that salvation." (p. 143) This, to his mind, reduces the chance for salvation of people of other religions, or no religion at all, and is therefore unacceptable. What he is going to do is remove this problem by transforming basic Christian doctrine. It is as if he does not see the basic Christian mysteries as the foundation for all theological activity, but rather, as humanly conceived doctrines that can be altered. He will write: "Traditional theology has defined Jesus as one person having two natures: the divine and the human. This is the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon." (p. 158) But then he comments: "Yet, who is able to know these things with any degree of acceptable certitude?" (p. 158)

A final example highlights this misunderstanding of the nature of theology. "If the doctrine of original sin and its consequences are questioned, then the concept of redemption is also questioned. If we do not understand human nature as essentially fallen, then there is no need of an ontological redemption by Jesus Christ…" (p. 159) And Balasuriya appears not to shrink from accepting such a line of reasoning under the guise that it is necessary for interreligious dialogue: "The traditional understanding of redemption, in which Jesus Christ is considered the unique, universal and necessary redeemer in an ontological sense which transforms fallen human nature, is one which it is not possible to use in our multi-faith context, as well as among secular people." (p. 160)

What is taking place here is that a genuine desire for openness in dialogue is obscuring the true nature of theology and leading to unacceptable transformations of the Christian mysteries. Do we really need to do this?