Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Another brief note on theology and dogma

This brief series of three reflections began with my post last Saturday, resumed yesterday, and ends today. It sounds a bit like the old poem about Solomon Grundy, but anyway...

"The theological Fathers of dogma have almost without exception failed to escape being condemned by dogma, either because it went beyond them, or lagged behind their theology. The Apologists, Origen and Augustine may be cited in support of this." (Harnack, History of Dogma, Vol I, pg. 19). The same could be said of St. Thomas Aquinas. Closer to our day, prior to the Second Vatican Council, Henri DeLubac, and, to a lesser extent, Hans Urs Von Balthasar both ran afoul of the magisterium, the former being officially silenced from 1950-59. In 1960, just a year after having the ban lifted, in a move so typical of Papa Roncalli, who left his academic post and joined the Vatican diplomatic corps when, as a young priest, he fell under the suspicion of being a modernist, DeLubac was named by the Pontiff as a consultant to the Preparatory Theological Commission for the upcoming Vatican Council. He went on to serve as a peritus during the council and, after the council, was named by Pope Paul VI a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.

Closer to our own time, Edward Schillibeeckx, whose research, though deeply rooted in the history of dogma, sought to utilize the methods of contemporary theology, frequently found himself on the defensive, as he delightfully chronicled in his short book, I Am A Happy Theologian. All of this does not mean that everything is up-for-grabs, as some suppose. Rather, it means coming to know revelation more fully (it is properly discovered because it is already "there") is a long, slow process.

John Henry Cardinal Newman

Harnack goes on to point out that we want to ignore these facts "by hypostatizing the ecclesiastical principle or the common ecclesiastical spirit, and by this normal hypostasis, measuring, approving or condemning the doctrines of the theologians, unconcerned about the actual conditions and frequently following a hysteron-proteron" (pg. 19). By "hypostatizing" I take Harnack to mean that we seek to the routinize the charisma of these daring thinkers and bold synthesizers by co-opting their thought into "the common ecclesial spirit" by acting as though this is what was always believed and taught, when it demonstrably is not- it is for demonstrating these disparities that Schillibeeckx, for example, got into trouble, whereas "hysteron-proteron" means to putting the latter before, meaning to get things wrong way 'round.

Something like this is happening with the recent debate, which began with Benedict’s pontificate, dating to his first Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005 about whether Vatican II represented anything new in the history of the church, that is, any ruptures, or tectonic shifts in the ecclesial plates. John O’Malley, in his insightful and very accessible book, What Happened at Vatican II, deals with this very well from the perspective of those who contend new things flowed from the council. Sandro Magister, writing from Rome, chronicles this debate, more or less taking the opposite view, that of continuity, on his indispensable website Chiesa, like in his most recent post on the subject "Benedict XVI the 'Reformist.' The Prosecution Rests".


I think Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli, OP gives the best short response to the conundrum posed by Harnack when, in a response to a traditionalist critique by David Werling addressed to those, like Cavalcoli and historian Roberto de Mattei, in whose defense the friar is writing, who defend, not the much ballyhooed "hermeneutic of continuity," but what Pope Benedict actually called for in his Christmas 2005 speech, a "hermeneutic of renewal in continuity": "Analogical thought makes it possible to understand how a concept, while still remaining identical to itself, can however at the same time develop, progress, explicate and clarify itself. This is typical of all vital phenomena, from the biological level to the spiritual. Because of this, Blessed John Henry Newman compared dogmatic or theological progress to the development of a plant, which grows and develops while still remaining itself. A five-foot oak tree is still itself even when it has reached one hundred feet."

"Thus," Cavalcoli concludes, "the doctrines of Vatican II must not be viewed as a disowning or rupture with the previous magisterium, but as a confirmation and explication of them. In other words, with Vatican II we know better those same truths of faith that we knew before."

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