Sunday, May 04, 2014

Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac

Christopher Blosser, in "Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac" (Against the Grain, March 29, 2014), writes:
As noted by Edward Feser, "there is a growing wave of reaction against the Nouvelle Theologie’s reaction against the tradition of the commentators" -- specifically the proposal that "the centuries-old tradition of Aquinas commentators, and the Neo-Scholastics in particular, somehow all got Aquinas wrong on questions of nature and grace, natural and supernatural."

Among such recently published texts are: I have read and praised McInerney's book elsewhere on this blog -- one of the first of its kind and narrow in scope (focusing specifically on Etienne Gilson and De Lubac's error-ridden interpretation and criticism of Cajetan and Aquinas. My father gifted Feingold's Natural Desire to See God to me on my birthday. Comprehensive in scope and exhaustive in detail, it will likely take several years for me to digest but it is clearly an invaluable resource in this whole debate. Steven A. Long's shorter treatment is on my "to read" list (particularly interesting as it reportedly examines the work of Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI on the topic). Surnatural, likewise on my "to read" list is a collection of various papers pro and con, following a symposium held in 2000 on the controversy of de Lubac's surnaturel.

Having just completed my reading, I wish to commend Mulcahy's Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henry de Lubac, the publication of his doctoral thesis under the title "Not Everything is Grace" for the Australian Catholic University (full text of which can be found here). Here is the abstract:
Henri de Lubac argues that, in early modern times, a pernicious concept began to become commonplace in Roman Catholic theology: this concept is “pure nature.” Pure nature is human nature, considered without reference to grace or to the supernatural destiny of personal union with God. Further, de Lubac argues that Catholic theology, in assimilating this idea, has departed from the sound tradition represented by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. He holds that the notion of pure nature leads inevitably to the self-exclusion of Christianity from the affairs of the world -- when, in fact, the light of the Gospel ought to be shed on all aspects of human existence.

This dissertation tests de Lubac’s thesis concerning the history of the idea of pure nature, showing that this notion is not, in fact, a modern novelty. This study examines the role of the idea of pure nature in the Bible and early Church, in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, in the early modern Jansenist controversy, in the theology of Henri de Lubac, and in the theology of the contemporary Radical Orthodoxy movement, paying particular attention to the historical circumstances which made the repudiation of “pure nature” attractive.

Today, some theologians follow de Lubac in contending that Catholic doctrine must eschew the idea of pure nature in order to resist secularism and maintain Christianity’s relevance to all aspects of human life. This dissertation contends that the idea of pure nature is not only traditional, but necessary for Christian theology. It argues that a Christian “integralism” which refuses to prescind from grace when considering nature can do justice neither to nature nor to grace.
Further review by Reinhard Hutter, Duke Divinity School:
Characterized by acuity of analysis, fairness of judgment, and lucidity of thought and style, Matthew Bernard Mulcahy’s ‘Not Everything Is Grace’ is an indispensable reading for any serious student of theology with an interest in the recent renewal of the debate over ‘nature and grace’ and especially the idea of a ‘pure nature’.

Mulcahy convincingly demonstrates first that theologians of the patristic era were well familiar with a human nature and a common final human discernible apart from revelation and grace and, secondly and more extensively, that the idea, though not the term, of pure nature plays a significant role in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Furthermore, by showing that Henri de Lubac’s characterizations of Baianism and Jansenism occluded the political and historical contexts and impacts of these theological movements, Mulcahy successfully questions Henri de Lubac’s familiar, but historically unsubstantiated claim, that the modern scholastic use of ‘pure nature’ facilitated the rise of modern secularism and atheism.

Last but not least, Mulcahy offers an accurate and illuminating reading of the most recent radicalization of de Lubac’s vision into a comprehensive theological integralism - Radical Orthodoxy. Mulcahy’s perspicuous analysis of its central tenets constitutes a critique that is as charitable as it is devastating. Mulcahy makes a powerful case for the indispensability of the idea of pure nature for a Catholic theology that wants to account for the full scope of the complexity of creaturely existence. This is a ‘must’ on the reading list for every class that tackles the ‘nature-grace-debate’ in the 20th century. Its clarity and even-handedness make it a welcome contribution to a complicated and often heated debate. Tolle, lege!

[Hat tip to Anon.]


James Joseph said...

Could we have a series of posts explaining what and who you have written about here. Completely interested; utterly confused.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Nouvelle Theologie champion Henri de Lubac introduced the claim in 20th-century Catholic theology that the received Thomistic tradition of neo-scholastic theology was a corruption, and not an authentic reading of Thomism. The issue turned on how to understand the notion of "nature" and its relation to the "supernatural," and, thus, the relationships of nature/grace, reason/faith, philosophy/theology, etc. Of particular interest was the question whether man can have a "natural" desire for his "supernatural" end, or God.

According to de Lubac, authentic Thomism was corrupted by early modern scholastics and their reading of Thomas, under the influence of Cajetan, who introduced the (according to de Lubac) novel notion of "pure nature."

More recently, critics of de Lubac's thesis, like the authors of the bulleted volumes in the post, have contested his claims, arguing that his views muddle the relationship between nature and grace, the natural and supernatural. If de Lubac worried about a notion of "pure nature" understood as autonomous from the supernatural, there is no less reason to worry about a view that tries to encompass everything into supernatural grace.

The critics argue, apparently, that there has always been in authentic Thomism, and in Catholic sources well before St. Thomas, a notion of "pure nature" properly understood, and that only such an understanding can make proper sense of supernatural grace as well.

There are lots of treatments of the issue out there now, but not, unfortunately, the Cliff Notes version for which I've been waiting.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Brian Mullady, O.P., S.T.D. might be a good resource. He lectured extensively on these matters as a seminary professor (I had the privilege of taking several classes with him) and he may have commented in his EWTN series or at

JM said...

What I find fascinating is that the Nouvelle school is credited with saving 20th Century theology, when 1) no one can really put into plainspeak just what they are talking about and thus 2) there is not a single layman's theology book I can think of springing from it that can be recommended as a galvanizing guide to truth. I would love correction that prove me wrong. The closest I can think of is Sheed, who published some of DeLubac, but he really represented more a change of presentation/tone than any substantial change of content. Over at Mundabor's blog, there sits a combox remark that I think applies about as much to Nouvelle theology as to the Nouvelle popes. It reads,

"In recent years I have come to see that the-Conciliar popes on the whole were strong leaders and crystal clear doctrinally and the Church thrived under their solid papacies. Even now their encyclicals etc, are more and more referred to for an accurate presentation of Catholic doctrine. By comparison the post-Conciliar popes now seem to me to have been on the whole poor leaders who presided over a meltdown and for whatever reason, even when they recognised and admitted the tragedy, seemed unwilling or unable to rise to the challenge."

I think the older theology was sturdier. Granted, the Thomistic elaborations grew as over-the-top as hyper-Victorianized decorations in a French parlor dollhouse, but simplifying would have been more prudent than completely revamping. We are still in the swamp of vagueness and uncertainty from the project. I don't think we will ever see another non nonsense, not even mentioning as ex cathedra statement from Rome, which is odd considering the ongoing insistency of dissent. There is a hesitancy to put anything into the concrete with a haze of verbage and qualifications. Same true of Nouvelle Theology, which is why even a Cliff Notes version would probably mystify. There is an IVP book called "Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be." I am not sure what it is about, but contemporary Catholics can certainly relate.