As the squabbling continues over the at-times contradictory policy-suggestions contained in Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, there’s a risk that the deeper – and more important – theological themes of the text will be overlooked. It’s also possible some of the wider implications for the Catholic Church’s own self-understanding and the way it consequently approaches questions of justice will be neglected.
For historical perspective, we should recall that before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council there was – and remains – an intense theological debate within the Catholic Church about, firstly, how it renews itself in order to spread the Good News contained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ more efficaciously; and secondly, what this means for the Church’s engagement with modernity.
Putting the matter somewhat simplistically, one group of twentieth-century Catholic theologians – including Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, S.J., and Jorge Medina Estévez – maintained that the Church could only authentically renew itself by going back to the basic sources of Christian inspiration: most notably the Sacred Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church Fathers. It was on this basis that they thought the Church should speak to the modern world about, for example, justice issues. They were certainly not disinterested in the insights offered, for example, by modern sciences such as physics or economics. They were, however, convinced that unless the Catholic Church spoke in distinctly Christian terms, the uniqueness of Christ’s message was bound to be lost.
Another cluster of theologians, however, had a different starting-point. They argued that Church renewal meant looking to the modern world for guidance. It included figures such as Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and Hans Küng. On one level, they were concerned with making the Christian message comprehensible to self-consciously “modern” people. But most eventually went further and argued that the modern world itself contained the hermeneutic for how Christians should engage the earthly city, and even defined what it meant to be Christian.
The problem with the second approach is that it quickly degenerates into a set of circular propositions such as the following: the modern world (as defined by, for example, Hans Küng) says that equality à la John Rawls or Karl Marx is the content of justice; the modern world defines Christian self-understanding; therefore the Christian concern for justice should be Rawlsian or Marxist in nature.
In this schema of reasoning, there’s no obvious way of testing whether a particular modern proposition accords with Divine Revelation because the modern world itself is regarded as somehow summarizing the content of Revelation. In effect, whatever is considered to be modern – and whoever sets himself up as defining the content of modernity – becomes the arbiter of what is and is not Christian. (more…)