Thursday, 25 March 2010

Modernism and All That

Fr. Aidan Nichols has a new book out: “Criticising the Critics” from Family Publications.

It’s a collection of short essays, “a series of apologias” aimed at those critics of the Church who offer their criticisms “owing to a failure to grasp certain aspects of Catholic truth”. It’s an excellent little collection which I recommend thoroughly. In this bloglette I simply want to reflect on a comment made at the end of the first essay: ”For modernists”.

“I will leave readers with a paradox. On my definitions, Neo-Scholastic theology is itself to a degree guilty of negative Neo-Modernism [Which Nichols characterizes as “forms of thought in the Church that ignore Pius X’s therapy for Modernism and in this way reproduce Modernism’s lacunae.”] I say that on the ground of its poor record in including within its own corpus texts from the Fathers, references to the Liturgies, to iconography and to other instruments of tradition. In that sense, the movements of patristic and liturgical ressourcement which fed into the so-called Nouvelle Theologie of the 1940s and 50s belong properly to Pius X’s anti-Modernist reaction. Yet traditionalists remain suspicious of those movements as generating a theological culture that prepared the way for [various new forms of] Modernism. Something has gone seriously wrong there with their judgement. But then something went wrong with the development of Catholic thought itself. It is the task of Catholics now to put it right.”

After having read Fr. Aidan's’ book “Reason with Piety” about Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, I’m now having a fine time at the moment reading Garrigou-Lagrange’s “Reality” (and “God: His Existence & Nature” is lined up on the to-read pile), so I’m getting some first-hand exposure to the Neo-Scholastic method. From this exposure, I take Fr. Aidan to mean that the Neo-Scholastic method concentrated too much on building upon the interpretative “tradition” handed down to them and not enough time looking back to the primary sources for alternatives. There would appear to be some substance in this criticism; the Neo-Scholastics do seem to have been system-builders; piling their new bricks on those laid by their predecessors, perhaps not checking every so often that the foundations were as straight as they should be.

However, one of the most noticeable things about studying the history of Catholic doctrine is the almost complete lack (in English) of modern studies of the time of Trent to the beginning of the 20th century. One of the great achievements of the ressourcement is to have made available critical texts, translations and studies of the great Patristic writers; we really are spoiled for choice now! The high medieval period has always been well covered. But look for textbooks about the big names, or translations of their work, or of the important theological arguments in the Tridentine and post-Tridentine period and there is almost nothing! Without thinking too hard about it: no major studies on Cajetan, Suarez or Liguori; no translations of the Caletan’s summa commentary, or of Liguori’s theologia moralis. What about the de auxiliis controversy or Jansenism?

Similarly, Fr. Aidan’s “Reason with Piety” appears to be the first book length study of the theology of such a major figure as Garrigou-Lagrange himself (Richard Petticord’s "Sacred Monster of Thomism is more biographical).

Fr. Aidan says that: “But then something went wrong with the development of Catholic thought itself.” Perhaps we have here part of the reason: the ressourcement made available many ancient sources, but theologians in their enthusiasm for this new material forgot to take account of the tradition that was already under their noses. Fr. Aidan goes on to say: “It is the task of Catholics now to put it right.” Perhaps a fruitful approach would be to re-discover the work of the Neo-Scholastics and to attempt a new synthesis of patristic, medieval and post-Tridentine theology. Just from the small amount of Neo-Scholastic reading I’ve done, I get the distinct impression that to ignore their voice would be a profound mistake.

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