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Changing Perspectives in Catholic Theology

Date of news: 14 May 2016

Changing Perspectives in Catholic Theology

On May 13th, the Center for Catholic Studies hosted an international conference dedicated to shifts and changes in Catholic Theology. On one hand, some major changes were highlighted that prepared the theology of the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, the conference raised the question about which conclusions might be drawn for shaping debates in contemporary Catholic Theology in light of these earlier transformations.

Changing Perspectives in Catholic TheologyIn the opening lecture, dr. Joshua Furnal (Radboud University) highlighted the enormous impact of the writings of Søren Kierkegaard on major ressourcement theologians like Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Cornelio Fabro. When we become more aware of this influence, Furnal pointed out that ressourcement theology can no longer be regarded as a mere return to biblical and patristic theology. It also had to build upon modern philosophy in order to find a way out of the impasse of Neo-Scholasticism. Furnal’s paper was meant not only as a historical sketch, but he also sought to provide some entry points for an ongoing reception of Kierkegaard’s philosophy in Catholic Theology. One of these entry points might be the quest for a more reliable account of human subjectivity.

In the second lecture, prof. Marcel Sarot (Tilburg University of Utrecht) sketched a Catholic approach to the problem of evil. First, he distinguished three accounts of suffering—that is, a Jewish, an early Christian, and a modern account. Whereas the distribution of suffering turned out to be the central problem for Jewish thinking, early Christianity explained suffering as a consequence of original sin, and therefore had to ask how humans can be redeemed from their sinfulness. In modernity, the problem shifted again. The concept of original sin no longer provided a satisfying answer, so that suffering itself was in need of a justification. This, then, inaugurated the advent of various theodicies. According to Sarot, however, theodicies can hardly be conceived of as a theological endeavor since they are employing a reductionist rationality and are not related to the Christ event. Instead of a theodicy, then, Sarot recommends an account of evil that refers to the cultural background and–if this is meant as a Catholic account–it must be rooted in the Catholic faith by interpreting suffering in the light of Christ’s passion.

The afternoon sessions were opened by a lecture given by dr. Judith Wolfe (University of St Andrews). She insightfully sketched Heidegger’s transition from an anti-modernist ‘catholic’ thinker to a methodological atheist in two steps. The first step was Heidegger’s rejection of scholastic analogical thinking. Heidegger replaced this thinking with the assumption of a radically external God so that divine grace was now considered to come from outside. Against this background, the philosopher’s task could hardly be more than giving an account of human existence. With the second step, Heidegger began to accept the futility of salvation. Now, authenticity simply meant to affirm the impossibility of a fully-fledged authenticity. Whereas Protestant theologians mainly criticized Heidegger’s second step, Catholic thinkers primarily criticized the first step. For example, Edith Stein praised Sein und Zeit as one of the greatest philosophical books ever, but nevertheless disapproved of Heidegger’s encapsulation over and against metaphysical openness. She found this seclusion neither necessary nor coherent. Instead, according to Stein, Heidegger could also have worked out an eschatological account.

Subsequently, prof. George Pattison (Glasgow University) unfolded some programmatic ideas about a phenomenology of the devout life. Contrary to early phenomenology of religion, which mainly focused on mystical experiences and sought to provide a taxonomy of religious phenomena, Pattison was of the opinion that the devout life is to be analyzed in terms of a more comprehensive practice. Furthermore, the metaphysical implications of such a practice must be taken into consideration. The main goal of this phenomenological undertaking is not to lay bare universal structures, but rather it serves an apologetic purpose by contributing to a theological anthropology. Eventually, the phenomenology of the devout life must reveal what it means to live a Christian life. For Pattison, a religious way of living will often be at odds with ordinary forms of life, nevertheless one can show that the devout life is at least as autonomous or holistic as non-religious forms of life.

The final lecture was given by prof. Lewis Ayres (Durham University). For him, there is an urgent need to rethink the theology of tradition against the background of modern historicism and the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council. In Ayres’ view, a theology of tradition must first acknowledge that the age of the Fathers was a formative period. If we employ a sacramental account of tradition, which means that the church’s history always emerges from an encounter between God and humans, then it was during the age of the Fathers that, under the guidance of the Spirit, essential forms of living, worshipping, and speaking were developed. Secondly, a theology of tradition must reconsider the concept of dogma that is inseparable from the debates in which definitions were achieved. In that respect, mainly the processes of making a decision have to be recalled, for only in this way the assistance of the Spirit can be discovered. Finally, Ayres argued that a theology of tradition entails that speculative theological reason must be informed by historical thinking.

All in all, the conference provided some valuable insights about significant changes in the history of Theology and Philosophy, and illuminated how these changes indicate a fruitful path forward for contemporary debates and the future of Catholic Theology.

The conference concluded with a book launch for Joshua Furnal’s recent monograph, Catholic Theology after Kierkegaard (Oxford University Press, 2016).

See more photos from the conference