Kerr's book does not pretend to be a full history of twentieth-century Catholic theology, but a focused analysis of ten figures who came to prominence in the decades surrounding Vatican II. These figures include Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Küng, Karl Wojtyla, and Joseph Ratzinger. Reno refers to these men as the leaders of what might be called the "Heroic Generation," because they fundamentally changed the way in which the Church thinks.
This generation -- the "Heroic Generation" -- was a diverse group. They cannot be said to have formed a unified school of thought. Yet, whatever their differences, Kerr agrees, for better or worse, with Walter Kasper's assessment that "there is no doubt that the outstanding event in Catholic theology of our century is the surmounting of neoscholasticism." What interests Kerr, however, is a paradox at the heart of this "Heroic Generation" -- a paradox that Reno says comes into view as Kerr works his way through some of the more interesting and important figures. The paradox, in Reno's words, is this: "The most creative members of the Heroic Generation are now strangely inaccessible to us. Their achievement has been hollowed out -- in part, at least, by its own success. Their revolution destroyed the theological culture that gave vitality and life to their theological projects." (FT, 16).
Reno illustrates this paradox by way of the work of several theologians treated by Kerr, including Bernard Longergan, Henri de Lubac, and Urs von Balthasar.
In Kerr's reading, Longergan was the most serious and disciplined philosophical thinker of the Heroic Generation. And yet what's most revealing is the fate of his work. In a series of articles published in the 1940s, Lonergan offered a brilliant solution to centuries-long debates about grace and freedom. Kerr observes that Longergan's reformulated Thomistic solution guides us away from the contrastive dualisms that have characterized so much of modern philosophy, political theory, and theology.Longergan was not the only member of the Heroic generation to suffer this fate. As Reno points out, the same fate was suffered by Henri de Lubac, well-known for his important contribution to Catholic theology in the form of a sustained analysis of the relation between nature and grace. When he claimed that the fundamental structure of neoscholasticism was a covert form of modernism, he was in effect directly criticizing the modes of theology that dominated the Church in the first half of the twentieth-century. When de Lubac was silenced by his Jesuit superiors as a result of this in 1950, it did not lead him to embrace the spirit of dissent and innovation following Vatican II, but, rather, sought to dispel what he regarded as a basic misunderstanding of his work by defending the core theological judgments of the neoscholastic tradition he spent his life criticizing. Reno observes:
But brilliant arguments are not the same as intellectual influence.... "Ironically," writes Kerr, "when the articles were reprinted, his reconstruction of Aquinas' theology of grace dropped into a post-Vatican II environment in which younger Catholic theologians barely understood what the debate was ever about." This is the paradox of which I spoke: Longergan was part of the Heroic Generation that rebelled against the limitations and failures of their teachers -- for the sake of the deep judgments about knowledge, freedom, and grace that they shared with their teachers. And the end result was perverse. After effecting a revolution against the limitations of neoscholasticism, Longergan seems to have contributed to the emergence of a new and impoverished theological culture in which his own commitments and insights are unintelligible. What he achieved could not be integrated into the contemporary theological scene.
The message is clear: Readers cannot understand Henri de Lubac's theology of nature and grace unless they know and accept the basic outlines of classical Thomistic theology. Thus the paradox, once again. By the 1980s, Henri de Lubac, the great critic of dry and dusty neoscholasticism, saw that the younger generation needed to be catechized into the standard, baseline commitments of Catholic theology. Ressourcement does not work if students have neither context nor framework in which to place the richness and depth of the tradition. Like Longeragan, de Lubac is characteristic of the Heroic Generation: He helped destroy the theological culture that, however inadequate, provided the context for a proper understanding of his generation's lasting achievements.At this point in his review of Kerr, Reno introduces a helpful distinction between exploratory and standard theologies. While in most cases the Church trusts in the faithfulness of theologians committed to serve her, She must have more than loyal theologians who undertake exciting new explorations. The Church isn't merely a community of independent speculative scholars, each pursuing his own research agenda. The Church needs teachers and priests to proclaim the Gospel, and in order to carry out this work effectively, She needs theologians, in Reno's words, "committed to developing and sustaining a standard theology, a common pattern of thought, a widely used framework for integrating and explaining doctrine." Otherwise, he says, "theological nuances become idiosyncrasies, and new proposals lack a context for reception." The distinction between exploratory and standardized forms of theology will be readily recognized by any historian of Christian theology:
The first type is creative and personal. It is born out of a loyalty to doctrine, but it is not ecclesially normative. This exploratory theology serves the Church in ways that leaven, extend, and enrich her theological culture -- often by criticizing and questioning the adequacy of the standard views....With this distinction between exploratory and standard theologies in view, we can begin to understand the paradox of the Heroic Generation in Kerr's account, says Reno. For the most part, the figures surveyed by Kerr exemplify the first, experimental type of theology, which still continues carry a pervasive influence among Catholics. Reno writes:
The second, or standard, type of theology necessarily appears as more pedestrian. It accepts the vocation of explaining and teaching a widely accepted approach, not innovating so much as improvising, not rejecting and beginning afresh but instead refining and renewing through careful additions, adjustments, and adumbrations of what has been long taught.
I think I am typical of my own generation in being trained during my graduate studies, to prize this kind of writing. Smitten by the poetic virtuosity of de Lubac and the conceptual innovations of Balthasar, I was and remain keenly aware of the enriching potential of their work.But as Reno observes, a Church can no more function like a debating society than a physics professor can turn over his classroom to endless student discussions. Catholic believers need a baseline, as Leo XIII recognized when he threw his authority behind the 19th century ascendancy of the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas in Aeterni Patris (1879). Such a baseline -- a communally received theology -- is necessary in order to have an intellectual grasp of the truth of the faith. Without it, Catholic believers will lack exactly the sort of internally coherent, pervasive theological culture needed for understanding and supporting bold new experiments and fruitful retrievals of past traditions. Reno writes:
What I was not trained to notice is the important role that a widely known, standard theology plays in a healthy theological culture -- and in this, too, I am typical of American academics. All of us tend to treat neoscholasticism, the standard theology of the early twentieth century, as part of the dead past, and we focus all our attention on mastering and continuing the work of the innovators.
But here we also encounter the great limitations of the Heroic Generation. They bitterly opposed the school theology of their day. In his accounts of Chenu, Congar, de Lubac, Rahner, and others, Kerr gives many examples of their dismissive comments, angry denunciations, and mocking characterizations of neoscholasticism.They viewed neoscholasticism -- the standard theology of their day -- as inept, spiritually bloodless, and hopelessly outmoded, and finally killed it so thoroughly that contemporary students of Catholic theology only know it, in Kerr's words, "as a spectral adversary" to the Heroic Generation they now dutifully study.
The problem, as both Kerr and Reno note, is that while there is much that may be legitimately criticized in neoscholasticism, few students know enough to be able to appreciate and absorb the insights of the Heroic Generation because they lack the necessary knowledge of the earlier standard theology which served as its foil. Without familiarity with the earlier standard theology, the exploratory theology of the Heroic Generation will remain eccentric and imponderable. Without a stable theological culture, innovations come unhinged, and real achievements degenerate into unfruitful posturing. As Reno observes:
The Heroic Generation regularly criticized neoscholasticism for its insensitivity to history. Unfortunately, an easy, reductive historicism is often retailed these days as their greatest insight. They denounced the neoscholastic textbooks as soulless exercises in empty logic -- and now we have a Catholic theology preoccupied with symbol and experience and almost devoid of careful arguments. They tried to reintegrate sacramental life into theology -- and today we are told that the essence of Catholicism is a sacramental imagination. They wanted to overcome a fortress mentality that closed the Church off from the world -- and this has been reduced to a contextualized method that encourages theology simply to restate secular ideas in theological terms.Reno suggests that the danger of destroying a standard theology without putting anything in its place is most poignant in the case of Hans Urs von Balthasar. As Kerr himself acknowledges, Balthasar is widely regarded as "the greatest Catholic theologian of the century" and clearly had a literary gift and genius of intellect that heightened the paradox of 20th century theology. His profound and abiding insights, by all accounts, should be integrated into the future of Catholic theology. Yet, Balthasar himself does little to provide a foundation for absorbing his contributions. Reno writes:
I remember my first encounters with Balthasar. As a young graduate student I was romanced by his lyrical prose and his extraordinary intellectual creativity....Reno admits to the existence of exceptions, and he points out that the third part of his book, The theology of Karl Barth, on "The Form and Structure of Catholics Thought," is particularly noteworthy. Balthasar there lays out and defends the underlying logic of Tridentine theology against what Reno calls "Barth's relentless reduction of Catholicism to the double-headed monster of Pelagianism and idolatry." Reno commends it as a tour de force, showing how the central categories of neoscholastic theology -- nature, grace, and the analogia entis -- can be creatively engaged to maximal effect. Whether or not one is interested in Barth, he says, a student of Catholic theology ought to read The Theology of Karl Barth to deepen his understanding of the pervasively soteriological structure and latent Christocentrism of the post-Reformation Catholic tradition that we overlook today. Yet, even here, the problem of the Heroic Generation surfaces, as Reno observes:
Balthasar's hyper-Cyrillian Christology and his whirlwind synopses of history, literature, and theology were heady stuff, but, as is always the case with exploratory theology that takes for granted the standard theology of the day, it did little to orient me to the main lines of Catholic theology. In the years leading up to Vatican II, Balthasar made common cause with Karl Rahner and others against the manual theology of the seminaries the the fortress mentality of the hierarchy. Yet, soon after the council, Balthasar published a harsh attack on what he saw as tendencies toward anthropomorphism and secularization in the new sorts of theologies then emerging, tendencies encouraged by Rahner's transcendental approach. What was I to make of this shift in theological alliances? I'm not altogether sure, because, like so much of what Balthasar wrote, the polemics against Rahner lacked the patient engagements with standard modes of theological analysis that are necessary for any work of scholarship to have a pointed and lasting effect.
Balthasar never followed up on his profound defense of the Christian genius of Tridentine judgments and categories with a disciplined engagement with neoscholasticism, the tradition that carried those judgments and categories forward into the twentieth century. On the contrary, he was one of the Young Turks in the decade prior to Vatican II who offered only criticism, much of it bitter and dismissive, and he launched out in new directions with little regard for the official, mainstream theologies of the day."Because of this, Reno says that it would never occur to him to assign one of Balthasar's books to a student who wanted an introduction to Catholic theology, any more than one written by Chenu, Congar, de Lubac, or Lonergan. This is not to deny the seminal insights of their work or the profound ways in which it has changed the way in which the Church now views various issues.
But a student today will have a difficult time seeing the importance of their ideas, because the grand exploratory theologies of the Heroic Generation require fluency in neoscholasticism to see and absorb their significance. Or the theories introduce so many new concepts and advance so many novel formulations that, to come alive for students, they require the formation of an almost hermetic school of followers. The cult of Lonerganians is perhaps the clearest example of this type.The greatest failure of the Heroic Generation, thus, was not any particular theological error or set of errors. Rather, their failure was a culture one that was most likely utterly unanticipated.
Today English-speaking theology is an aimless affair. The post-Vatican II professors who are now retiring and who trained so many of us were themselves students of the Heroic Generation. They perpetuated the myth that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Catholic theology is a vast desert of dry and dusty theology empty of spiritual significance. Who assigns Joseph Kleutgen, Johann Baptist Franzelin, or Matthias Scheeban; Charles Journet, Cardinal Mercier, or Garrigou-Lagrange? Because of this neglect, the old theological culture of the Church has largely been destroyed, while the Heroic Generation did not, perhaps could not, formulate a workable, teachable alternative to take its place.The one exception, according to Kerr, is Karl Rahner, who patiently and carefully sought to integrate -- some would say insinuate -- his novel ideas into the standard frameworks of the day. Kerr observes of Rahner, "Whatever revision or innovation he proposed, he wanted to expound in continuity with neoscholasticism, die Schultheologie, which he so often lambasted." Balthasar and others may have criticized the emerging Rahnerian consensus after Vatican II, but the vacuum they created, says Reno, ensured its triumph of his misbegotten, post-Kantian faux scholasticism.
Our current situation, says Reno, is absurd. "Unlike professors in most disciplines, America's theology faculties offer almost no introduction to the basic logic of their subject." Instead, they socialize their students into all the innovations and complexities of the Heroic Generation. But precisely because of the insights offered by the Heroic Generation, Catholic theology cannot afford do without stabilizing baseline of a standard theology. We can profit from the Heroic Generation "only if contemporary Catholic theologians stop idealizing them and teaching their insights as the sum total of Catholic theology -- to say nothing of renouncing the jejune ideal of perpetual exploration and permanent revolution." We need to surmount the now old myth of new beginnings and realize that the Heroic Generation itself achieved so much of permanent value only because its members were formed in a theological culture already defined by a refined, cogent, and considered standard theology. Reno says the he cannot say what a renewed standard theology will look like.
But this much is clear: Instead of current, misguided dismissal of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century figures, we need a cogent account of the basic shape and structure of the nineteenth-century theologies that gave rise to and were enriched by the first great council of the modern era, Vatican I, and informed the remarkable resistance of Catholicism to so many destructive trends in the modern era.What is called for in order to overcome the poverty of the present, says Reno, is for our generation to "base its theological vision on a fuller, deeper form of ressourcement, one that discerns the essential continuity of the last two hundered years of Catholic theology." After the rupture with the past created by the Heroic Generation's creativity and exploration -- as necessary and fruitful as some of it may have been -- what we need is a period of consolidation allowing us to integrate its lasting achievements into a renewed standard theology.
We need to recover the systematic clarity and comprehensiveness of the neoscholastic synthesis, rightly modified and altered by the insights of the Heroic Generation and their desire for a more scriptural, more patristic, and more liturgical vision of the unity and truth of the Christian faith. We need good textbooks -- however much they might not satisfy a literary genius like Hans Urs von Balthasar and the soul of a poet like Henri de Lubac -- in order to develop an intellectually sophisticated faith.