Benedict XVI, Thomism, and Liberal Culture
by Circle or Line
Is liberalism a positive and “liberating” intellectual development within Western history that can be both baptized and integrated into the life of the Church?
Or, is it a destructive cultural and political force that thwarts the desire for transcendence?
Theologian Tracey Rowland believes the latter description of liberalism — an intellectual tradition derivative of the epistemology and moral, political and economic philosophy of the various European Enlightenments in the 18th century — better understands the phenomenon, and believes Benedict XVI shares at least some elements of this diagnosis. The encounter with liberal culture, she says, may be one of the central themes of his papacy.
Rowland is dean and permanent fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family — Melbourne and author of “Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II” (Routledge).
She shared with ZENIT why two schools of Thomism have differing visions of how the Church should respond to, and interact with, liberal institutions and culture, without being subsumed by them.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Sunday.
Q: You have said that the major intellectual and theological battle within the Church is between the “Augustinian Thomists” and the “Whig Thomists.” What does this mean?
Rowland: First, let me define “Whig.”
The expression “Whig Thomist” was coined by Michael Novak to describe his intellectual project. Originally the word “Whig” came from the Scottish word “Whiggamor” for a cattle driver — though some sources say cattle thief and others say horse thief. It was initially applied to Scottish Presbyterians, mostly from the west coast of Scotland, who opposed the Stuart cause in the wars of the 17th century.
Their counterparts, the Tories — a word derived from the Gaelic for “outlaw” — consisted of some aristocrats, large landowners and agrarian peasants. They were mercantilist in economic policy, royalist in politics and tended to support the succession of James II [1633-1701].
Over time the term was used to refer to a faction in British politics. Although there was never anything like a strong doctrinal definition of the term, as a sociological generalization it can be said that the Whigs were the heirs of the Scottish Enlightenment, which emphasized economic and political liberty, or an emerging philosophy known as liberalism, which was often fused with a Puritan form of Protestantism.
In the 19th century Lord Acton popularized the idea that Thomas Aquinas was the first Whig, that is, the first proponent of a modern, post-Enlightenment concept of politics. Thus “Whig Thomism” refers to an intellectual project that seeks to locate the genesis of the liberal tradition in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and to synthesize elements of the Liberal tradition, particularly those provided by the Scottish Enlightenment, to classical Thomism.
The project of reading Aquinas as the first Whig or first Liberal has been criticized by a number of scholars.
For example, Robert Kraynak, in his work “Christian Faith and Modern Democracy,” has written that “though intriguing, Acton’s interpretation is misleading because Thomas defends power sharing and political participation, not as a right of the people to parliamentary consent nor as a means for protecting personal rights and liberties, but as the prudent application of natural law whose ends are best realized in a stable constitutional order dedicated to peace, virtue and Christian piety. This is medieval corporatism applied within the [Augustinian] doctrine of the Two Cities, rather than the first stirring of modern liberty.”
Those who may loosely be classified as “Augustinian Thomists” follow such a Kraynak-style reading of Aquinas, rather than an Actonian.
What I argued in my book “Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II” is that there is a division between those who think that the Thomist tradition should accommodate itself to the culture of modernity, particularly the economic dimensions of this culture — the self-described “Whig Thomists” — and those who believe that modernity and its liberal tradition are really toxic to the flourishing of the faith.
Those who take the latter position do not want to supplement the Thomist tradition with doses of Enlightenment values. They are very broadly described as Augustinian Thomists for the want of a better label because, in a manner consistent with St. Augustine’s idea of the two cities, they reject the claim of the liberal tradition to be neutral toward competing perspectives of the good and competing theological claims.
While the Whigs argue that liberalism is the logical outgrowth of the classical-theistic synthesis, the Augustinian Thomists argue 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.
There are thus two different readings of modernity and with that, two different readings of how the Church should engage the contemporary world. While the Whigs want the Church to accommodate the culture of modernity, the Augustinians favor a much more critical stance.
Another point I made in my book is that those who think that the liberal tradition is avant-garde are about 40 years behind the times. Liberalism ceased being the hegemonic intellectual tradition in the Western world in 1968. At least since then the intellectual battlefront has been three-cornered.
First of all there are theists — Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, etc.; secondly, there are believers in Enlightenment-style rationality, that is, different varieties of liberals who sever reason from faith; and thirdly, there are the postmoderns who think that the Enlightenment was a very oppressive social experiment and that all versions of rationality are in some way related to theological or mythological presuppositions, although they do not accept that we can use our reason to judge between those competing theological presuppositions.
On some fronts Catholic scholars may do better to work with the postmoderns than those who insist on a strict severance of faith and reason, or at least not nail their colors irrevocably to a liberal mast.
The point at which the Whigs and Augustinians come into conflict is over the issue of the moral quality of what is called the “culture of America,” which is not of course confined to the geographical boundaries of the United States. It is, as Alasdair MacIntyre says, a theoretical construct.
The Whigs want to baptize the current international economic order, while the Augustinians take a more critical approach, arguing that there are economic practices characteristic of this order that cannot be squared with the social teaching of the Church.
Moreover, the Augustinians are more likely to point out that most people do not sit down and develop a worldview for themselves from hours of philosophical and theological reflection. They tacitly pick up values and ideas from the institutions in which they work.
The Augustinians argue that there are aspects of the culture of modernity that act as barriers to the flourishing of Christian practice and belief, and unless the culture is changed, no amount of intellectual gymnastics on the part of the Church’s scholars will be of help to those 1 billion Catholics who have to make a living within the world.
In other words, if one has to be a saint not to be morally compromised by the culture in which one works, then there is something wrong with that culture.
I don’t think that this is the major intellectual battlefront within the Church, but it is an important one.
Q: In what sense is Pope Benedict an Augustinian? In what sense is he a Thomist?
Rowland: I would say that Pope Benedict is a Thomist insofar as he would probably agree with most of what St. Thomas wrote. However, he is not a Thomist in the sense of appealing to the authority of St. Thomas in his defense of the faith, focusing his scholarly endeavors upon the works of Aquinas or in the sense of using a scholastic methodology.
Rather, Pope Benedict is one of the many members of his generation who, while not disagreeing with the content of Thomist thought, believed that the scholastic presentation of the faith doesn’t exactly set souls on fire unless they happen to be a particular type of soul with a passion for intellectual disputation. He has said that “scholasticism has its greatness, but everything is impersonal.”
In contrast, with Augustine “the passionate, suffering, questioning man is always right there, and you can identify with him.”
Benedict has also been strongly influenced by the Augustinian principle that faith is the door to understanding. He has said that he believes that a kind of memory, of recollection of God, is etched in man, though it needs to be awakened.
His Augustinian pedigree is also manifest in his interest in the transcendental of beauty and his understanding of the catechetical importance of language and symbols and the relationship between matters of form and substance.
So much of the liturgical mess of the last 30 years has been brought about by philistines who want to dumb down the language of the liturgy, replace symbolic gestures by lay people explaining what Father is doing — as if we are all uncatechized Martians — and gutting liturgical language of its poetic dimensions.
Even secular linguistic philosophers argue that form and substance are inseparable — that if we change language, we also in some sense change the way that people think. Pope Benedict is onto this, along with Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, and liturgical scholars such Aidan Nichols, OP, Monsignor Peter Elliott, Stratford Caldecott of the Center for Faith and Culture in Oxford, and Alcuin Reid, OSB.
Q: How does Pope Benedict XVI’s “Augustinian Thomism” shape the way he views the phenomenon of liberal democracy?
Rowland: From an Augustinian point of view, the biggest problem with liberalism is its claim to be theologically neutral or indifferent toward different religious traditions. Quite a long list of scholars are coming to the view that the liberal claim to theological neutrality is bogus. This list includes Anglicans associated with the radical orthodoxy circle and scholars with a more Baptist-oriented theological background.
It is not a position limited to so-called conservative or ultra-montanist Catholics. Indeed most postmoderns would agree with this criticism of the liberal tradition. Pope Benedict has made it clear that Catholics should not be persuaded by the liberal rhetoric to believe that in order to be good citizens they must bifurcate themselves into public and private halves.
He has observed that secularism is itself an ideology, a kind of religious position that presents itself as the only voice of rationality. He sees these views as posing a challenge to the dominant political cultures of contemporary liberal democracies.
To say this, however, is not to say that he is against constitutionalism. He is not saying that the Church should run the state. He would probably agree with the saying of Martin Luther King that the Church is neither the master of the state, nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.
Q: Pope Benedict XVI has been described as a “man of culture,” and suspect of theologians who do not have an appreciation for great art, music or beauty. What role does culture play in theology and political life?
Rowland: One of my favorite Ratzinger quotations is that “A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous!” It comes in a close second behind his observation that in some ways he prefers the Italian spirit to the German because the saints were all people with imagination — not functionaries of apparatuses.
In other words, beware the person with no interest in literature, music, art, poetry and nature but who has a big interest in keeping the machinery operating. I haven’t heard what he has said to the Vatican bureaucrats who reportedly wanted to ban his cats from the papal apartments, but they sound dangerous, too — the bureaucrats, that is.
But to answer your question about culture and theology, the territory of the theology of culture is very broad. It ranges from the morality of different institutional and social practices, including practices within political institutions, to questions about the propriety of different types of music for liturgical use and questions about the role of language in the process of evangelization.
For example, should we adopt the language of hostile intellectual traditions when presenting the Church’s teachings? And what principles should be applied when discerning which of the “spoils of the Egyptians” to plunder?
Pope Benedict has observed that the Church is its own cultural subject for the faithful, which is a further indication that he is not inclined to follow the pastoral strategy of accommodating the Church’s culture to whatever happens to be fashionable in the contemporary Western world.
In a recent address to the Knights of Columbus, Cardinal Stafford said that every world religion is trembling before the advances of American pop culture. I think that Pope Benedict would agree with this assessment and that he understands that the Church, in a sense, needs to be the mother of culture. She needs to put life back into culture, so that people can be edified and experience self-transcendence.
Q: By what standards is the health of a culture measured according to Pope Benedict?
Rowland: In his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Benedict made the point that the sole purpose — not the major purpose, but the sole purpose — for the liberation of the Jews from Pharaoh was that God wanted them to be able to worship according to his prescriptions.
Thus, I would say that for Benedict the most important question about any culture is, where does liturgy stand within this culture? Is it the highest good? Are we dealing with a liturgical city? Or are we dealing with a culture which is driven by economic factors? Who are the gods of this culture? What is the dominant vision of the human person? How are the sick and vulnerable treated?
Concretely, it is of little benefit to Christians to live in a culture where any kind of liturgical expression is permitted, if, like the Jews under Pharaoh, they are being forced to work like slaves just to provide shelter and food for their families and have no time for prayer and leisure, that is, no time for God, in lives dominated by the quest for physical survival.
In the same work, Benedict said that law and ethics do not hold together when they are not anchored in the liturgical center and inspired by it.
He also made the point that every society has its cults; even the decidedly atheistic, materialistic systems create their own forms of cult. He comes very close to the position of scholars such as Catherine Pickstock and William T. Cavanaugh who have argued that in contemporary Western society the market has replaced the Eucharist as our object of adoration.
This is not to say that he is against the idea of a market per se, but my judgment is that he is against making market competition the underlying, infrastructural dynamic of a culture.
Karl Polanyi expressed the position well when he wrote that a “natural order” is one in which the economy is embedded in social relations, rather than one in which social relations are embedded in the economic system, making society a mere adjunct to the market.
By making the test that of the place and nature of liturgy within a culture Benedict is also taking a very Augustinian position. Augustine would say that what we adore is a sign of what we love, and what we love is a declaration of our membership card of one of the two cities — the city of God or the city of Man.