I cannot remember any book review I have read in recent years that I found as stimulating, instructive and provocative as the review in the April 2022 issue of Commonweal, “Escaping the Straitjacket.” The review, written by Peter Steinfels, is of Sarah Shortall’s book, “Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth Century French Politics.” (Harvard University Press, $49.95, 352 pp.) I think that Steinfels is, and has been for several years, one of the most insightful Catholic journalists.
His book, “A People Adrift: the Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America,” is must reading for anyone interested in the future of the Church in America. I am justifiably proud that several years ago I was influential in arranging for Peter to have a chair at St. John’s University for a semester. I believed that having Peter on campus was a special blessing for the University. Peter begins his review with the following statement:
“Nouvelle Theologie is not exactly a household term, except in some Commonweal-reading households. A report on ‘new theological currents’ in France first appeared in L’Osservatore Romano in 1942. ‘New’ was not then a favorable adjective in theology, and the nouvelle theologie was soon under fullscale attack in Rome.”(p.56)
From 1953, my first year in college, until today, wherever I have lived, I guess has made my residence a Commonweal-reading household. Reading Commonweal regularly for more than 60 years has probably shaped how I think more than any school, college or university I have attended. I cannot mention in this short column the numerous experiences that reading Steinfels’ review has brought into my memory. For an excellent discussion of Shortall’s book I urge readers of this column to read Steinfels’ review. In the review Steinfels correctly points out that the new theology became not only respectable but was the theology that permeated the documents of Vatican 11. The following is Steinfels’ summary statement of how those who embraced the “new theology” thought of the neo-scholasticism that was widely accepted in the Church prior to Vatican II:
“In the eyes of these future theologians, it was ahistorical. Its almost Euclidean rationalism had no place for subjectivity and the active inquiring mind. It was closed to religious experience and mystery. And it unwittingly enforced the secularization it was meant to combat. The high wall of separation that neo-scholasticism erected between the natural realm of reason and the supernatural realm of grace may have been intended to protect the Church’s prerogative in matters of faith, but it did so at the cost of rendering Christian faith otherworldly, private, individualist, and increasingly evacuated from public life.”(p.57)
When the COVID pandemic passes and a priests’ discussion group that I moderate starts to meet regularly again, the first book that I am going to recommend that we read and discuss is Shortall’s. In this column I will confine myself to my experiences as a seminarian in the 1950’s and as a young priest in the early sixties prior to the Council. Though I did not know it at the time, I was struggling with some of the same questions that preoccupied the theologians in France.
For years as a seminarian and as a young priest I struggled with the relationship between the natural and supernatural “worlds.” What are they? Do they overlap? What is the natural order and what is the supernatural order and what is the relationship, if any, between the two? What is the secular world and what is the world in which grace is operative? Should religious faith enlighten our human experience? Can our human experience influence and enlighten our religious faith?
I had no idea that what I was grappling with were questions with which some eminent theologians were preoccupied, but when the documents of Vatican II appeared I felt as though many of my questions I could now answer because of insights in those documents. The approach of Vatican II to the world erased many of my questions and provided me with a vision that could be applied to just about every question that had preoccupied me.
I can recall vividly a statement by my friend theologian Michael Himes that helped me greatly. Michael said if by the secular world or the natural world you mean a world in which God‘s grace is not present and operative, there is no such world. Grace is everywhere. More recently I have been greatly helped by Pope Francis’ statement: “I am absolutely certain that God is part of everyone’s life.”
If I am ever tempted to think that theology is an otherworldy activity, excessively abstract and speculative, that has no practical consequences, I will remind myself of the history of the “new theology.”
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.