Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Dominance Of Personalism

If you've read any historical lead-up to the Second Vatican Council, you've probably heard a story something like the following, and yes, I'm paraphrasing:

There was a great blackness that had spread across the spectrum of Catholic theology in the 19th century. There was very little in the way of decent theological thinking. Leo XIII tried to fix this by lighting a fire under theologians and seminarians to study St. Thomas Aquinas. This worked for about 3 hours until St. Pius X became pope and declared war on modernism. After that, Thomism became this repressive, calcified system that stifled the genius of guys like Hans Kung, which in turn led to an even deeper crisis of good theological thinking. It wasn't until Vatican II downgraded Thomism that the Kungs of the world could fully share their awesomeness with the rest of us peons.

That's how the story goes. Like so many other such stories, it's mostly bullcrap.

Sure, Pope Leo did try to rejuvenate Thomism. I'd say it worked pretty well given the fact that we got guys like Garrigou-Lagrange and Maritain between then and the Council. Pius X's crackdown on Modernism was much-needed and, frankly, we could have used another one right after the Council.

Side note: If anyone expresses a hatred for Thomism, they are likely a Modernist. See the Kung example above.

Anyways, despite the emergence of guys who are heralded as great theologians who weren't under suspicion by the Holy Office, you had a backlash building against St. Thomas, especially by folks who liked to portray their opponents as idiots and themselves as the first guys who had ever read the Summa. Regardless of what you might think of Henri de Lubac, for example, he never seemed to do a lot to actually win arguments against Lagrange. Calling him names was much easier and actually much more effective.

Oh, and on that downgrading of Thomism, let's just ignore for a moment that St. Thomas's greatness is promoted by numerous popes to the point where he's known as both the Angelic Doctor and the Common Doctor. Let's look at what the Council really said:

The Church is concerned also with schools of a higher level, especially colleges and universities. In those schools dependent on her she intends that by their very constitution individual subjects be pursued according to their own principles, method, and liberty of scientific inquiry, in such a way that an ever deeper understanding in these fields may be obtained and that, as questions that are new and current are raised and investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, there may be a deeper realization of the harmony of faith and science.

Gravissimum Educationis, Declaration on Christian Education

And again:

Dogmatic theology should be so arranged that these biblical themes are proposed first of all. Next there should be opened up to the students what the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church have contributed to the faithful transmission and development of the individual truths of revelation. The further history of dogma should also be presented, account being taken of its relation to the general history of the Church. Next, in order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections.

Optatam Totius, Decree on Priestly Training

So basically, if by "downgrade" you mean that the Council wanted everyone in every Catholic institute of learning and every priest who is trained to be educated in Thomism, then yes, Thomism was downgraded.

So what does all this have to do with personalism?

It seems to me that personalism might soon find itself in the same arena that Thomism was at the time of the Council. I have a hard time seeing how it isn't the dominant framework in the Church today. You can't read 2 paragraphs in any Church document without seeing some personalist structures on human dignity and such. Let me say that I'm not one of these folks who thinks that personalism is a heresy. As much as I promote Dietrich von Hildebrand, I hope this is obvious. I do, however, think that personalist language has led to some of our current problems. When was the last time you heard somebody bother to mention that the soul in the state of grace is of a higher dignity than the soul in the state of sin? It just isn't brought up. Folks are too caught up emphasizing natural dignity to pay attention to supernatural destiny.

Again, this isn't directed at personalism in general. It's just an observation that it can be abused and is being abused. I'm just curious as to when and how we will see the backlash and criticisms begin to emerge. Thomism was an easy target for dissenters. It was endorsed by a number of Magisterial documents, including the Council itself. It's clarity and structure make Modernists have nightmares. It shatters the emotionalism and sentimentality that so many folks have raised to the highest pedestal of their consciences in order to avoid that nasty dogmatic stuff.

Personalism doesn't have these same vulnerabilities, but it's way too popular right now to continue unscathed.

Am I wrong here?

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