Friday, May 27, 2011

'Augustinian Thomists' and 'Whig Thomists': Tracey Rowland and her critics

Christopher Blosser, in "Critical Responses to Tracey Rowland's 'Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II" (Against the Grain, May 22, 2011), offers an overview of the debate between Catholic "neoconservatives" and some of their critics (here, particularly, Rowland).

Freely admitting that his "outlook as a new Catholic convert [going on two decades ago] was largely shaped by Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak and George Weigel -- appreciators of John Courtney Murray, SJ -- and as such, participants in an ongoing debate with Dr. Rowland, David Schindler, Alisdair MacIntyre that has been characterized by Dr. Rowland herself a conflict between "Whig Thomists and Augustinian Thomists."

Helpfully, he encourages readers unfamiliar with Rowland to read her two-part interview with Zenit:The main discussion of Christopher Blosser's overview, however, turns on Tracey Rowland's much-discussed book, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (Routledge, 2003).

Blosser writes:
According to Rowland, the Whig Thomists maintain that the Thomist tradition can be reconciled with the culture of modernity and that "liberalism is the logical outgrowth of the classical-theistic synthesis", while Augustinian Thomists contend that "the liberal tradition represents its mutation and heretical reconstruction, and they tend to agree with Samuel Johnson that the devil -- not Thomas Aquinas -- was the first Whig." (For a more substantial examination of the precise sense in which Thomas was heralded as the harbinger of "Catholic Whiggery", see: Aquinas:"First Whig?" Religion and Liberty September 21, 2005).

So, as you can see, possessing this bias I was not predisposed to like Rowland. Nonetheless, I did find it to be stimulating reading and a text I'll return to time and again in future explorations of this debate.
Read more >



Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Bernard Blankenhorn OP says:

“Rowland's wish for a hermeneutical key that overcomes the tensions of the text and thus could have avoided harmful and radical interpretations after the Council seems to be asking the impossible: the Fathers could not provide such a unified interpretive key precisely because they disagreed in their approach to modernity, to modern culture, to modern developments. Instead, the way to read the text is with all of its tensions, and not by ignoring one type of statement in order to focus exclusively on others. It is precisely this hermeneutic of Vatican II, one which ignores some texts while overemphasizing others, that has lead to sinful divisions in the Church. Rowland's decision to focus on the commentary of two Conciliar figures, who hardly seem representative of the 2000+ bishops and many theologians at the Council, seems to obscure the meaning of Gaudium et Spes.”

Fr Blankenhorn’s statement is belied by the lopsided margins that typified council votes. If the disagreements were as profound as he insists, then those margins can only be explained by the acceding of the theologically ignorant majority to the claims and promises of the modernist bishops and periti who had grabbed control of council proceedings from the earliest days. I’m sure Fr Blankenhorn would be horrified by such a suggestion. But he cannot have his cake and eat it as well.

Nevertheless, let us give Fr Blankenhorn’s claims the benefit of the doubt for a moment.
He claims that “the way to read the text is with all of its tensions, and not by ignoring one type of statement in order to focus exclusively on others,” and declares, amazingly, that it is not the flawed and ambiguous document itself, but the tendency of its readers to expect, and to seek out, that single voice, that “unified interpretative key”, which has led to “sinful divisions in the Church.”

What an amazingly obtuse statement for a Catholic priest to make!

If anything, lack of agreement among council fathers should have precluded the releasing of any sort of declarative document. For pity’s sake, the whole idea of a council of church leaders is to speak with one voice, the Church’s voice, on complex and vitally important subjects! If there is no agreement, then the only prudent course is that of holy silence. Is this not the course of action urged upon the laity in such matters ? Would that these leaders had had the prudence and fortitude to refrain from grandiose pronouncements wrapped in deliberately ambiguous and unclear language. Their deficits in these cardinal virtues has cost the Church many souls, and many souls their redemptive graces.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

I am not convinced that this whig vs augustinian dichotomy advances us very far. It seems to be an attempt to exclude from the discussion those who feel that the problem lay in the V2 documents themselves, not in varying interpretations of them. Tracey Rowland is an interesting figure in this argument, and I have to read her work in order to be able to say much more.

Sheldon said...

Reading Ralph is always illuminating and sometimes an education.

Let me get this straight: so Fr. Blankenhorn is suggesting (a) that the Conciliar documents themselves reflect fundamental divisions within the Council, (b) that the proper way to read the Conciliar texts is by accepting, rather than ignoring, these fundamental divisions of perspective, and (c) that the tendency to seek out a "unified interpretive key" by ignoring one type of statement in the text in order to focus on another is what has led to "sinful divisions in the Church"?

If this is right, what does it mean for the Pope's "hermeneutic of continuity," then - that it would simply multiply "sinful divisions within the Church"?

Who was it that called for a New Syllabus of Errors? Perhaps he was right.

Dan said...

If Jaques Barzun is right in his assessment of Western thought since the enlightenment in "From Dawn to Dacadence" liberal thinking has run its course and has no where to turn. From this standpoint, if VII was an attempt to come to terms with the enlightenment it was, in a sense, an attempt to get on board after the ship had run aground. If it was an attempt to exert Catholic thought on the culture, it would make more sense.

It would also seem that to try to go back to a purer liberalism would be to say that its natural development should, and could have been, cut off.

Anyway, the Whig Thomists would be the losers in this scenario.

Just a thought, and maybe I did not understand Barzun.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Somewhere in Fr Blankenhorn's argument is an implicit assumption of understanding as an hegelian dialectical process. Which would explain a lot.

I apologize for taking the spotlight off of Rowland. Fr Blankenhorn's statements were quoted on Christopher Blosser's blog piece, which PP refers to in his own blog piece.

Peter said...

You would think from reading this post that none of the 19th century popes had said a word about "liberalism."

Why are their teachings never referenced in these debates?

The Church has said something about this before 1962. Doesn't this matter?

Very, very strange.

Sheldon said...


Strange? Perverse, maybe, but not really so strange. Don't most Catholics today behave as though the founding documents of the Church today were those of Vatican II? Whatever came before this is buried in the mists of antiquity in terra incognita.

Have you read any Cathoic books published in the past couple of decades that quote encyclicals prior to Vatican II? Most don't even quote the documents of Vatican II!! Wake up, buddy! This is America! Pius the who?? Pius the schmius!! WE ARE CHURCH!!

Tom said...

Ok. So I read the piece by the late Fr. Neuhaus. I would like to state my concerns as gently as possible but without ambiguity, observing all due respect for his memory and good work.

Here is my question. Could the following proposition, defended by Fr. Neuhaus in the article and by neoconservatives in general, be condemned as heretical: “It is not necessary for the state to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.” It would depend upon the meaning the author of the article gives to “necessary.” Every Catholic must hold that it is morally necessary that the state, as a creature of God, acknowledge not only the existence of God as the Author of Nature, but also that it acknowledge Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church as Lord and the true religion respectively. In my opinion, this is certainly the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium and could therefore be defined. If all Fr. Neuhaus means is that it is possible to tolerate a non-Catholic state in order to achieve a greater good, such as the salvation of souls, then he has said nothing interesting. But he seems to be making a claim at the level of first principles (hence it is a form of “liberalism”) that cannot be reconciled with Catholic doctrine. As he wrote in the very next sentence, “[n]or, at least in the American circumstance and any foreseeable reconfiguration of that circumstance, is it desirable that the state declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

How could a Catholic not desire that the country of which he is a citizen fulfill its moral obligation—an obligation from which no state is morally exempt—to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and the Catholic Church as the true religion? This is my problem with neoconservative political philosophy. Neocons seem not to want to acknowledge that political communities are morally obligated to acknowledge the true (supernaturally revealed religion) and that this failure is the principal source of their moral and political disorder. It is naturalism applied to politics.

The remote goal of political activity for Catholics must be the very thing the neoconservatives do not want to come about. We can all acknowledge that this is not an intermediate or proximate goal but no one can deny that it is necessarily a long term goal. Neoconservatives seem to deny this.

From my point of view (and, I think, the Church’s), their teaching, like every form of liberalism, is the cause of our social and political problems, not the cure. More liberalism, of any kind, will only make things worse.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

In "Culture and the Thomist Tradition" (which I am in the process of reading), Rowland paraphrases Rahner as asserting "that any kind of Christian countercultural offensive is futile, because the culture of modernity is a 'must be' in the sense that the Cross was a 'must be' and that the perennial problem of poverty is a 'must be'" (p. 31). Although Rowland is right to criticize Rahner for vagueness in the matter of "discerning when a state of affairs should be judged, from a theological perspective, a 'must be', to be endured, rather than a challenge to be met," I have to say that I tend to agree with Rahner on this point, because I cannot conceive of any circumstances where the United States and its culture of marketplace individualism could be successfully transformed into a truly Christian culture.

The real question, then, is what can Catholics in such a culture do to prevent themselves from being swallowed in it. This is where everyone seems to be short of useful answers, "augustinians" and "whigs" alike. From "Gaudium et spes" we get giddy sophistry. From the whigs we get the kind of neo-con, neo-Cath lacunae which Tom was discussing above. From augustinians we get harebrained nouvelle theologie excursions into nuptial metaphor based, in the case of Balthazar, on the ululations of a pseudo-theosophical "mystic" he adopted as his muse.

But Rowland is a fine writer and a clear thinker (if not always a convincing one). Maybe I need to be more patient in my reading of her.