Friday, January 03, 2014

William L. Portier on the nouvelles and neo-scholasticism

A remarkable review from from a 2008 issue of Communio we missed seeing until a reader called it to our attention. It's a PDF file: William L. Portier, "Thomist Resurgence" ("Notes and Comments," Communio, 35, 2008): A Review Essay of Twentieth-Century Catholic Theolgians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism by Fergus Kerr. Malden, Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 230pp.

[Hat tip to Sir Anthony S.]


Ralph Roister-Doister


It took me awhile to realize that I had read this article before: the note about Lawrence Feingold’s “virtually impossible to lay hands on volume” is what finally clicked.

I can see where the Communio crew would be somewhat alarmed by a new (2008) book by Fergus Kerr on the subject of twentieth century Catholic theologians. After all, modern Catholic theology – the kind, at least, that contemporary seminarians are allowed to read -- consists almost totally of deliberately pamphlet sized volumes of nouvelles of various stripes.

Not that Portier’s article isn’t fair, or at least fair enough. No complaints there. But he is certainly aware that something is afoot with Kerr, and his review is, among other things, a heads-up to the Schindlers and Schindlerettes, that shots have been fired in the direction of several of their icons, particularly Henri de Lubac.

Portier also realizes that Kerr’s book, far from being simply an examination of the leading ideas of certain Catholic theologians, is a subtle and sly attack on one of the chief vehicles of those ideas: what Portier calls “nuptial mysticism.” (I would phrase it a little differently, more of a subjugation of dpctrine to the demands of intricate symbolism, which always threatens to be more constitutive than regulative – and which amounts in the end to a kind of free form gnostic ritualism grounded in thin air -- but hey, that's me).

Portier summarizes Kerr’s case against De Lubac this way:

In addition to being a valuable survey, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians combines its sustained critique of nuptial mysticism with a critique of de Lubac that credits him with making it possible for Balthasar, John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI to establish nuptial mysticism as quasiofficial Catholic theology. Kerr’s case against de Lubac is threefold. First, by destroying neoscholasticism he dangerously destabilized Catholic theology, leaving it without a center and
prey to all manner of deviations and eccentric innovations. Chief among them is nuptial mysticism. Second, by filling the resulting hole at the heart of the tradition with Origen and other idiosyncratic figures, he legitimates the pre-modern, insufficiently differentiated way of reading Scripture that
we find in John Paul II’s Wednesday conferences and in the “browsings” that are de Lubac’s historical retrieval of patristic and medieval exegesis. It was de Lubac who reintroduced “this high theology of the epithalamic relationship between the believer and Christ” (83). Balthasar and Wojtyla would run with it. Central to Kerr’s critique of nuptial theology is the intent to show that de Lubac, Balthasar, Wojtyla, and Ratzinger are not Thomists in any sense that Garrigou-Lagrange—and Kerr as well?—would recognize.

In fact, the chapters about our last two popes (particularly Benedict) are among the most illuminating. But it is fascinating to watch a master vivisect each of these modern icons and strip from them a good many of the assumptions and commonplaces still floating around about them – assumptions and commonplaces floated and maintained by many of their Communio acolytes.

Twentieth Century American Theologians remains a book everyone with doubts about the nouvelles should read and re-read. Whatever the nature of Kerr's thomism, he is clearly onto something with today's Catholic theological Ozymandiases.