A/Prof. John J Kinder, University of Western Australia
Delivered at The Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture Speakers Forum, Perth, 26 April 2017
Catholic Theology is a book in a series called ‘Doing Theology’, which introduces the major Christian traditions and their way of theological reflection. Professor Rowland’s book is in the latest in the series and follows earlier volumes on Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist Theology. It is obviously a good thing that the English-speaking world now has an up-to-date survey of Catholic theology.
The publisher’s blurb says the book is pitched at the level of first time students of theology who are trying to make sense of the key issues in different approaches to Catholic theology.
This is why I feel I am one kind of ‘ideal reader’ of this book. I have never studied theology formally, as an academic subject, never taken a course in theology. I have lived a lifetime of faith in Jesus Christ and along the way have read fairly widely and picked up, you might say, an amateur’s understanding of what theology is and what it offers the life of the Christian. Here is a book that in just 200 pages of text puts all that into a context that acts as a sort of map of the territory. The book describes the field, shows what are the major points of agreement and the major points of disagreement, what the historical reasons for them are and what are the implications of different choices and positions.
I have learned a lot from reading this book and I am delighted to be able to speak about it tonight. Having spent my professional life being a Professor of Italian language and culture in a secular university, there is something delightfully counter-cultural about me being here presenting a book on Catholic theology, in a pub. Which only goes to prove the first theological principle that Professor Rowland sets out in her book, that ‘the mystery exceeds any system’.
Professor Tracey Rowland is a distinguished academic colleague. At the University of Notre Dame Australia she holds the John Paul II Chair of Theology and is a Fellow of Campion College in Sydney. She was Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne for the sixteen years of life that that distinguished institution enjoyed. She is a member of the International Theological Commission. This body was established by Pope Paul VI and has the task of helping the Holy See and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining doctrinal questions of major importance. The Commission has thirty members [at the moment from about 25 countries], who are appointed for a period of five years. Professor Rowland is the only Australian member at present and she is one of the five women in the Commission. So we have in our guest this evening one of the most highly respected Catholic theologians in the world. In this book she has given us an authoritative guide to the state of Catholic theology today, looking back in particular to the Second Vatican Council and how theology has developed since then.
As I came to the end of reading this book, I found myself reminded of one of my favourites among the speeches of Pope Benedict, one that I was lucky enough to hear him give in person. It was in Sydney in 2008, during World Youth Day. The first time Benedict spoke to young people on Australian soil (and a few not so young people like me), he sailed through Sydney Harbour, under the bridge and round to Barangaroo. In his speech he began by reflecting on the many people who came from Europe to Australia, bringing their faith in Jesus Christ. Then he said:
Today, it is my turn. For some of us, it might seem like we have come to the end of the world! For people of your age, however, any flight is an exciting prospect. But for me, this one was somewhat daunting! [daunting? I remember thinking, Popes don’t find things daunting, surely, and then I realised of course I was listening to man, an old man – he was the same age as my father, speaking to me from the heart of his own experience.] Yet the views afforded of our planet from the air were truly wondrous. The sparkle of the Mediterranean, the grandeur of the north African desert, the lushness of Asia’s forestation, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the horizon upon which the sun rose and set, and the majestic splendour of Australia’s natural beauty which I have been able to enjoy these last couple of days; these all evoke a profound sense of awe. It is as though one catches glimpses of the Genesis creation story – light and darkness, the sun and the moon, the waters, the earth, and living creatures; all of which are ‘good’ in God’s eyes (cf. Gen 1:1 – 2:4). Immersed in such beauty, who could not echo the words of the Psalmist in praise of the Creator: ‘how majestic is your name in all the earth?’ (Ps 8:1).
I mention this because, as I say, it came to me spontaneously as I reached the end of the book, but for two other reasons. First, I found myself contemplating on the experience of ‘wonder’ many times throughout the book and the role of wonder in Christian experience and Catholic theology. And second, because Pope Benedict is a major figure, perhaps the major figure, in this story.
Indeed when the Introduction of the book sets out the most pressing issue in theology, the heart of the crisis in twentieth century understandings of the faith, it does so by taking its definition of the crisis from Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was. The issue here is ‘coming to an understanding of the mediation of history in the realm of ontology’, the relationship between history and the faith, between the passing reality of this world and the revelation of the eternal truths. Then at the very end of the book, the Conclusion returns to that same question and re-examines it in the light of the preceding 200 pages. So the book is framed by this question, as articulated by Benedict XVI.
Before delving into that, however, the author devotes the first chapter to defining what Catholic theology is and what it is not. Rowland bases her definition and description of Catholic theology on two documents of the International Theological Commission (both were drawn up before she became a member). It is clear here that Catholic theology is not ‘theology done by people who call themselves Catholics’ but theology done by members of the community of believers, within the Church. This is an important departure point, since it establishes the Catholic experience of the Church as the body of Christ to which he gave the mission to be his presence, to spread the good news of his presence and to interpret revelation of his presence with authority.
At the end of this first chapter, Tracey notes that one of the distinguishing features of all Catholic theology is the ‘both/and’ principle: Catholic theologians resist and transcend dualisms by searching for the connections and the unity between different elements of the faith. Something other Christian traditions do not do. So there are beautiful sections on ‘Christ and the Trinity’, ‘Christ and Mary’, ‘nature and grace’, ‘Scripture and Tradition’, and so on.
With these basic principles clearly laid out, the book then moves to the heart of the matter. Chapter Two is about Thomism. Not so much St Thomas Aquinas himself but the way the theology of Thomas has been used, that is to say how different thinkers have read his work at different times, how they have read it through the lens of the time and place they are living.
This is a history of theology but it is also a history of theologians: Professor Rowland succeeds in making a history of ideas read also as a history of thinkers, of living breathing human beings who read those went before them, and corrected, refined, rejected, developed insights which would of course be read those that came after them and undergo the same fate. Nor is this all polite academic chit-chat. We read of ‘passionate debate’s that could reach ‘searing levels’, even developing into ‘fireworks’.
Now Thomas Aquinas was the crowning glory of the Scholastic style of philosophy and theology that developed in the church schools of the Middle Ages. Scholasticism is one of the triumphs of the medieval conviction that an intelligent God necessarily implies a rational universe, a conviction that produced among other things the birth of the universities in Italy and other countries. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Scholastic style of theology was revived as the official curriculum of seminaries and schools and the best defence against the assault on Christian world view from modernity. This was Neo-Scholasticism. By the mid-twentieth century, the Neo-Scholastic style had, in the opinion of many, reduced the faith to a set of logically impeccable statements of timeless philosophical truth. The book relates a quote from the young Joseph Ratzinger, that if God was simply the summum bonum, the ‘highest good’, he wouldn’t have needed a mother. One of the theological reasons why the Second Vatican Council happened when it did is because there was a widespread belief that Neo-Scholasticism had run its course, something new was needed.
It is worth noting here that the Neo-Scholastic mindset is still alive and well: I heard a radio interview recently with Rod Dreher, an American writer, who used to be Catholic. When he was working as a newspaper reporter. He was sent to investigate the cover-up scandals involving sexual violence against children in some cities in the US. He said he took on the assignment confident his faith would survive ‘because I had the arguments for the faith all straight in my head’. As it happened his faith did not survive and he abandoned the Church, though he eventually re-entered the Christian community as an Eastern Orthodox. I mention this because of the way Dreher relied on a kind of Neo-Scholastic defence – he ‘had the arguments straight in his head’ – but it failed him. It’s interesting that his latest book, The Benedict Option (not Benedict XVI but St Benedict of Norcia), is about how to survive the collapse of Christianity in Western societies: the subtitle of the book is A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Society. And the heart of his strategy is not getting the arguments straight in your head (this is helpful but it will not be enough) but learning how to live in community.
To get back to the Second Vatican Council, most of the important theological work in the Council, and since, starts from a rebellion against this way of living Christianity as a ‘philosophical straight-jacket’ of eternal, almost unworldly, truths. Since the Council, ‘doing theology’ means ‘doing history’.
Tracey Rowland is very clear about her understanding of what this means, and let me quote one of the reviewers of the book, off the back cover: ‘Rowland offers a double gift, insofar as this work [as well as being the best introduction to Catholic Theology] is itself a most interesting work of theology’. In her own theological thinking, Rowland often writes the word ‘tradition’ with a capital ‘T’. This means, I think, that, if it is true that Revelation has happened once and for all in the person of Jesus, it is equally true that the unfolding of our understandings of that revealed truth through time are part of the communication of Divinity to humankind, thanks to the Christ-given authority of the Christian community under the successor of Peter. Tracey makes it clear that Tradition does not mean repeating the forms of the past but embracing the challenge of rediscovering the essence of the origin through contemporary eyes. As Pope Francis once put it: ‘faithfulness to tradition is not to worship the ashes but to pass on the flame’.
To make sense of the vast variety of theological developments that have followed the Council, Professor Rowland defines two main approaches: the Communio approach and the Concilium approach. These two terms are a kind of shorthand, and are actually the title of two journals, founded shortly after the Council. Concilium means ‘Council’ in Latin, while Communio means ‘Communion’. The difference between these two approaches to theology is the major fault line running through Catholic thinking about the Christian event.
Briefly, and at the risk of over-simplifying, the Communio approach sees Vatican II as a moment of reform or continuity, whereas the Concilium approach describes the Council as a moment of rupture. Communio thinkers consider the growing secularism of the Christian West as a bad thing, the result of some wrong theological moves in the fairly distant past and of course the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. For Concilium theologians secularization is a good thing: now we can see the world as it really it is, and the Church can really engage with the world, in a free and productive dialogue. When Communio scholars approach the faith they begin with the Scriptures and the theology of the following 2000 years, which may of course may need correction by a deeper understanding of the Tradition. In the Concilium world-view, theological thinking begins with reading the ‘signs of the times’ and dialoguing with the way the world is here and now. The Concilium approach also produced, in Latin America, the various ‘Liberation Theologies’ and, while much of that work lies outside Catholic orthodoxy, this book recognises the contribution Liberation Theology made to the church in pointing out the risks of a faith that is purely vertical while ignoring the Christian’s responsibilities to the world and also of a faith that is over horizontal while ignoring the transcendental relationship with the Creator.
One stark difference between the Communio and Concilium approaches is how they assessed the years after the Second Vatican Council. Many leading Concilium figures, especially Karl Rahner, spoke of a winter time gripping the life of the Church, freezing out the new life that had blossomed in the Council. But Pope John Paul II called a great assembly of ecclesial movements that took place in Rome in 1998, on Pentecost Sunday. There, both he and his future successor, Cardinal Ratzinger, stated that they saw the Church was experiencing a ‘new springtime brought forth by the Spirit’.
This has certainly been my own experience of the Church of the last few decades, particularly through the new movements and ecclesial realities in the Church. Let me get personal now at the end of these brief remarks.
As I said earlier, this book is a work of theology in itself. It is certainly a guide to what the author calls the ‘theological zoo’, but it is not one of those travel guidebooks that is just a list of what, who, when, why, how. No, this is more like one of those really enjoyable guides (that sometimes come under the heading of ‘travel literature’), where the author makes no bones about the fact that they are giving their reader their experience of the place. What you get is the place through the eyes of the writer. And not just the eyes, but all the senses, so before you even get there you have an idea of what the place looks like, what it sounds and smells like, what the local food tastes like, where the best wine bars are, what parts of town you might want to avoid, and so on. Of course, when you do get there, you experience it all yourself and then you compare your impressions with the advice you received from the writer of the guide.
So, in conclusion, I would like to share two impressions I gained, among the many riches of this book, as I compared it to my own thinking and especially my own experience.
My first comment is on wonder. Wonder as the origin of all philosophy. Some have claimed that death is the beginning of all philosophy, because of the inevitability of our own physical undoing. Yet that cannot be true, because humans only see death as a negative because we see life as a positive. At the origin of human reflection on itself is not death, nor (as we have been told ever more loudly during the last three centuries) systematic doubt, but rather wonder at the fact that reality, including my own I, exist at all. This is the message Pope Benedict gave in his World Youth Day speech I quoted from at the beginning.
There is a warning at the beginning of Tracey Rowland’s book about the danger of ‘condensing Christian faith to a basket of formulas’, which is a danger lurking not just in Neo-Scholasticism but in our modern secular culture. The book is clear in making its choice between seeing life as a set of problems to be solved or experience reality as mystery to be lived.
Again our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI suggests a way to understand this. His recent book, Last Testament (also published by Bloomsbury), contains this brief comment on ‘the profession of a theologian’:
‘That seemed to me finally to be the very definition of the profession of a theologian, that he, when he has been touched by this truth, when truth has caught sight of him, is now ready to let it take him into service to work on it and for it.’ This reminds us that Benedict’s episcopal motto was ‘Co-workers of the truth’, (cf. 3 John 8). The implication of this relationship – for theologians but for us all – are spelled in a passage of Lumen Fidei, the encyclical drafted by Benedict and completed by Francis: ‘One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all’.
My second and final observation about the way this book presents Catholic theology to us is about friendship. This is already hinted at in both words Communio ‘communion’ and Concilium ‘council’, which literally means ‘called together’. In the Concilium approach, friendship is part of the vision of humanity that the Church must work towards, a kind of ‘brotherhood of man’ that will be fully realised in the Kingdom, in this world and in the next. In the Communio style, friendship appears as a part of the Christian method itself and therefore part of their way of doing theology. We recall that during the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples, ‘I do not call you servants, but I have called you friends’. And when Jesus wanted to describe the greatest love humans can have – ‘Greater love has no one than this…’ – the proof of the greatest human love is to ‘lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.
The theme of friendship floats just beneath the surface of many pages in this book and emerges quietly in a comment the author makes to conclude the chapter on the Communio approach. In a style reminiscent of the ‘both/and’ principle, the Communio approach to theology rejects secularism because it cannot imagine ‘a rationality without God, a morality without Christ [or] truth separated from beauty and goodness’. It sees all the activities of the soul as being integrated, in the heart, in the Biblical sense, meaning the inner core of the human person, that unites all our human faculties. If you start out from the heart, then doing theology correctly means having ‘all the faculties of the soul […] in good operational order. This includes their nourishment by the theological virtues – faith, hope, love – and the “help along the way” given in friendship through the mediation of saints both living and in eternity’. (p. 137)
I find this a deeply human vision of the journey of faith and the responsibility of theology.
These last observations are my own personal reaction to this fascinating and not-uncontroversial book. You will have your own reactions, and that’s when we begin to have some interesting conversations. To get started, I warmly recommend you buy and read Tracey Rowland’s latest book Catholic Theology.
 ‘The Benedict Option’, ABC Religion and Ethics Report, 12 April 2017.
 Conor Cunningham, from back cover of Catholic Theology.
 For St John Paul II, see http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1998/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_31051998.html; for Cardinal Ratzinger, see https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/theological-locus-of-ecclesial-movements-joseph-cardinal-ratzinger/ and http://www.laici.va/content/laici/en/pubblicazioni/collana-laici-oggi/i-movimenti-nella-chiesa.html
 Benedict XVI, Last Testament, Bloomsbury, 2016, p. 241.
 Lumen Fidei, 34.
 John 15.