Do Historical Norms Alter Church Teachings? Should They? 

Do Historical Norms Alter Church Teachings? Should They? 

New Oxford Review, March 2018 – By James V. Schall

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at Georgetown Uni­versity. Among his many books are The Order of Things, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, The Modern Age, The Mind That Is Catholic, and, most recently, Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road Publishing). Fr. Schall’s last lecture at Georgetown, “A Final Gladness,” can be viewed on YouTube. 

“In the Anglophone world there is…a tendency for millennial generation students who survey the contemporary intellectual life of the Church and find it a mess to want to ‘reboot the system’ to 1961…. It [is] clear that even in 1961 there was no unified approach to the appropriation of medieval scholarship, although a unified approach was regarded as ideal.” — Tracey Rowland, Catholic Theology

“It has been a consistent Catholic teaching that all persons, of all classes, are born with a free will, and that the Divine distribution of grace, including the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, is not class dependent. A roll call of the martyred intellectuals and aristocrats who stood up to Adolf Hitler when the ‘people’ marched along to his tunes would provide ample counterexamples to the proposition that it is always the elite who have the oppressing ideas and the so-called ‘ordinary people’ who are reliable.” — Tracey Rowland, Catholic Theology

The question of what theologians “do” when they do what they claim to do has long been a topic of both controversy and amusement. Bloomsbury, a British publishing house, has been producing a series under its T&T Clark imprint on this very subject. Thus far, it has released six books in its “Doing Theology” series. Each treats the contemporary and historical theological concepts, controversies, and thinkers of a specific Christian tradition — Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed, Anglican, and, finally, Catholic, with Tracey Rowland’s recent edition. Rowland, an Australian theologian, was an excellent choice to present and clarify the Catholic ways of “doing theology.”

Rowland has previously written two books on the thought of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and another on the understanding of culture in the documents of Vatican II. She studied at the University of Cambridge in England with the Radical Orthodox group that includes John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. Rowland, who served as director of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, currently teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney. She holds two doctorates in theology and is a member of the International Theological Commission. This latter experience has provided her with an extraordinary number of direct dealings with contemporary Catholic theologians. The breadth of her reading and reflection is more than thorough.

“Doing Catholic theology” requires knowing with some accuracy what Catholics say they believe and why. Catholic theology claims to be a revelation that takes intelligence seriously. Indeed, Catholic theology maintains that its basic explanation of itself is, along with what reason can validly know, the truth of things. If it cannot stand this test of intelligence before reality, it cannot claim to be what it considers itself to be.

Rowland’s book is addressed to those who seek to work their way through what appears to be the maze, if not the chaos, of the differing views and opinions that arise in a Church that claims to speak the truth with a clear voice down the ages. That clarity, in the eyes of many, no longer appears obvious. Rowland writes in particular for those students, seminarians, clergy, academics, and interested laymen who are willing to devote the time and effort to understanding what is being argued and proposed in theological circles. We sense in her welcome book that what is at stake is the very possibility of a valid explication of both Catholicism and the world in a way that proves that they belong together without compromising any truth of thought or faith.

Catholic Theology, which has just over 200 pages of text, comes with four appendices, each designed in its own way to provide access to further sources and to recall what has officially been said about Catholic theology, who said it, and when. In them we find a chronological listing of major heresies, the documents of Vatican II, papal encyclicals, and the writings of the doctors of the Church. A good number of the texts referenced are available online; in this sense, the appendices provide access to an extended library.

Rowland’s book is essentially divided into four parts. The overarching issue concerns the Church’s account of herself and her relation to the world. In modern times, Vatican II became the central effort of the Church to present herself in public. The Church set out to explain herself to the world, but, evidently, the world was not overly impressed or interested in what the Church had to say. The question then became, Why not? Was there something in the Church’s way of “doing” theology that was problematic? Perhaps what Catholic theologians needed to examine was not the world but the Church and her way of understanding herself in the world.

From the beginning of her history, the Church preached the Good News to both Jews and Gentiles as something they needed to know. Though some effort was made to accommodate the different backgrounds of the two — e.g., Matthew’s Gospel was for Jews, Luke’s for Gentiles — the listeners either accepted or rejected it and the ways of life it implied. The early Church was primarily concerned with presenting a proper understanding of what she said and taught. After all, Christ commissioned her to “hand down” what He had given her, not to dream up something different. If anyone was reluctant or refused to accept this new teaching, it was the problem of the recipient, not the preacher. What is evident through Rowland’s book, however, is that many modern theologians suspect that the rejection of the Church’s teachings is the Church’s fault, not that of the recipients.

The view that it is the Church’s fault has led to an ongoing controversy over just how to explain Catholicism to the “modern world.” Indeed, it has led to a controversy about what the modern world itself is. What, if anything, does the world want to know about Catholicism? What is it willing to hear? It seems to many theologians that the Church has more to learn from the world than the world has to learn from the Church. This leads to the question of whether the world has already received everything it needs to know from revelation. The “modern project,” as Leo Strauss called it in The City and Man (1964), endeavors to explain all things without the help of revelation. The Catholic position has always been that this sanitized explanation leaves out many of the basic things needed to understand both man and the world. Some things can be explained without God or revelation, but many things cannot.


In the first chapter, Rowland carefully goes through the major issues that need to be addressed in Catholic theology. First, she deals with mystery, a word that has come to mean what man does not know and implies that he probably cannot fully know what everything is about. Man has knowledge, but not the full knowledge that is proper to God. Thus, however systematically we organize the content of the faith so that it is intelligible to men, it will never result in a complete human understanding of God. Yet, the “mystery” that is proper to God is not conceived of in Catholicism as unknowable or irrational. It means just the opposite — namely, that it is wholly intelligible to the divine intellect, which is identified with the divine being. Nor does it mean that the things men can come to know are not true simply because men do not know everything about them. What we do know, and know truly, is never to be confused with everything that can be known by intellects of a higher level than ours.

Rowland then takes up the issue of pluralism, the delicate question of various ways to understand the world and revelation without denying that the core of belief is non-contradictory and universally true. Pluralism is not just a long list of the weird ideas found in theological and cultural journals and religious rites. Pluralism leads to the core consideration of the relation of reason and revelation. The basic Catholic position is that the two are not contradictory; they have the same origin and are both good. Reason is found in nature and human living; revelation is made known in Scripture. The information they offer might differ, but, when sorted out, all of it will be discovered to be part of the same whole. Reason seeks faith, and faith seeks reason, to recall the classical principle. As Rowland says, “Orthodoxy cannot be reduced to a system.” If it could, it would mean that man, with his own powers, could fully comprehend the divine mind.

A significant part of this book deals with the relation of faith and history. Medieval scholastic thinkers were usually said to be deficient here while modern thinkers, especially after Heidegger, bring time and being close together. Christianity is an historical religion, as opposed to one that sees time as a cyclical return of the same, generation after generation. The issue of history becomes especially important in the controversies over the meaning of Vatican II and revelation in general — that is, is the purpose of revelation primarily to keep present in all ages the life and death of Christ? Or are there new sources that arise over time that would modify, if not change, the clearly set-down issues found in both metaphysics and revelation? That the two sources need not be in contradiction with each other is closer to the central Catholic tradition. As Rowland sees it, keeping together these seemingly incompatible sources is one of the main tasks of Catholic theology.

Rowland then deals with familiar issues that seem to present incompatible notions as if they belonged together. Thus, we have Trinity and Christ, Christ and Mary, nature and grace, logos and ethos, Scripture and Tradition, and, finally, the relation of the Magisterium and theologians. Rowland treats each of these relationships deftly. It is clear that the Catholic tradition itself is in large part formed by its willingness to consider the evidence for or against the compatibility of these essential contrasts. The finest minds in the Church, and the not-so-fine ones too, have thought about most of these contrasts. How they fit together in a coherent whole is the burden of thought.


The second major section of Catholic Theology is a detailed examination of the various ways of understanding Thomas Aquinas, his relation to Augustine and Aristotle, and modern efforts to read him in light of philosophies that have appeared after his time. Gerald McCool, in his book From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism (1992), pointed out that in the late 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII called for a renewed study of St. Thomas, there were many varieties of Thomism. Rowland lists and explains 17 types! Most have to do with reading Aquinas in light of a philosopher after Descartes, Kant, and Hegel.

Following Rowland’s examination of Aquinas and the various Thomisms is a discussion of Vatican II and whether it intended to preserve and develop what had gone before it, or whether it intended to conform Christianity to the modern world in order to gain insights into what it is. Here the historical question reappears: Is it enough to base one’s theology on metaphysics, especially that of Aristotle, or does the discovery of modern and enlightenment thought, especially its relation to the physical sciences, alter the direction we need to go? Most people, rightly or wrongly, seem to agree that one of the main causes of modernity was the rigid scholastic thought that followed Scotus, Suarez, and interpretations of Aquinas that relied on this tradition. There seems to be little doubt that modern Western voluntarism did come from these nominalist roots. (Muslim voluntarism is similar but has different roots.)

The question is whether the origin of modernity was a consequence of Thomas’s relation to Aristotle or an aberration based on its rejection. This, in fact, turned out to be the core issue after Vatican II regarding the Church’s relation to the modern world. How St. Thomas himself comes out of all this remains to be seen. But everyone agrees that he remains central to any classic understanding of Catholicism as a religion abiding over time with a coherent understanding of itself and how it relates to other religions, nations, and cultures. As Josef Pieper wrote some time ago, St. Thomas did not write a philosophical or theological “system.” He remained open to reality at all times and was willing to see and judge what came new into his ken. Everyone knows that it was characteristic of Aquinas to carefully uncover and praise what was good in any erroneous position. And he was able to put in order what was true about it.

In the next two chapters, Rowland explains the difference between two groups of scholars — those of the Communio school (Balthasar, Ratzinger, de Lubac, et al.), and those of the Concilium school (Rahner, Küng, Schillebeeckx, et al.). They did not always agree with one another — nor did those of the same school — but they were the thinkers who clarified what was at stake in the controversies that followed Vatican II, particularly the abidingness of revelation over time. Does modernity present such a new view of reality that nothing that went before it can be utilized? Or are classic philosophy and revelation to be kept central over time?

Rowland argues for the validity of the approach found among the Communiothinkers: The Church is to keep ever before mankind the essentials of realism and revelation as what is best and true for men in all ages and cultures. Yes, it is possible and necessary to examine new ideas and concepts of culture and science, but these are to be judged in light of what has been handed down. It is not that doctrine cannot develop, as John Henry Newman explained, but a development is not a radical change in that nothing remains of what was previously understood. The Concilium school was rightly concerned with the currents in modern thought, but in taking these newer views as normative, it was forced to reject one or another of what had been understood as revealed to us in revelation and nature as the proper outlines of our relation to reality and its causes.


The final section of Catholic Theology deals with Pope Francis and his intellectual and pastoral background. No one denies that Francis has little interest in the intellectual concerns of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. When he does explain his views, as he has in Amoris Laetitia, Evangelii Gaudium, and Laudato Si,’questions immediately arise about their origins and meaning. Rowland sees Francis as influenced by liberation theology, particularly as interpreted by Latin American thinkers. This approach is much closer to that of the Concilium school as more recently represented by Cardinals Walter Kasper and Christoph Schönborn. It turns out that the so-called orientation to practice before doctrine is itself an idea, as Louis Dupré noted, that tends to reformulate doctrine on the basis of what is done or permitted to be done.

As has occurred with the case of Holy Communion for divorced-and-“remarried” Catholics, this approach stirs up misgivings over whether Pope Francis is indeed proposing a radical change from what the Church has constantly taught throughout history. He justifies his approach in the name of taking norms from practice and current cultural history, even though doing so minimizes the need to uphold the constant teaching of Tradition. Rowland sees Francis as returning to ideas and movements that conceived of the post-Vatican II Church as something different from the traditional Church. The Pope sees himself as preaching the simple Gospel to the poor and marginalized, and, as such, he is relatively unconcerned with the ideas and thoughts of theologians. Francis never seems to ask the question that the late Michael Novak raised relative to liberation theology: Does it do what it claims to do? Francis’s inattention to what “liberates” seems to suggest something closer to a political ideology than to the realism of the tradition handed down from Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, and carried forward by the Communio school.


In conclusion, “doing theology today” means grappling with the question of how a revelation that presented itself as final and definitive some 20 centuries ago can still be normative, and how it relates to contemporary philosophic, historical, and scientific thought in such a way as to show itself to be still valid. Revelation was not designed primarily to explain how to make this world perfect, but to reveal how men in any time or place are each, through grace and his own freedom, to be saved in Christ in order to reach eternal life, that Trinitarian life that is not simply something discovered in the habits and concerns of the ongoing world.

“The attempt to adapt the doctrine of the Church to the mentality of an epoch implies that divine revelation is molded and fashioned according to the spirit of the times…. If the doctrine of the Church is not based on an immutable divine revelation, but can change with the age, if it is not the same Gospel that is proclaimed at every call of the Kairos throughout history, then the very justification of the apostolic mission of the Church (to go and teach all nations) collapses.”
— Dietrich von Hildebrand

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5 comments on “Do Historical Norms Alter Church Teachings? Should They? 

  1. Interesting points.
    Obviously I cannot speak for millennials but 1961 is not the dividing line. The critique of modernism and the spirit of Vatican II is not contingent upon whether there was a “unified approach” to medieval scholarship or Thomism or Neo-Scholasticism before 1962. The fallacy that since there were multiple varieties of Thomism before the conclusion of Vatican II that all post-conciliar forms of modernism must be accepted as progress is not exactly a strong argument for an anti-traditionalist position. The identification of fallacies in reasoning was still being taught in certain Catholic institutions after Vatican II, so that cannot be relegated to some pre-1961 dividing line.

    As long as dates and years are part of this discussion, just for the record, the academic year of 1965-1966 was the fault line with respect to Thomism and what came afterwards. See Ralph McInerny’s book and articles on that controversy. The travesty of Land O’Lakes followed in 1967. The 1969 academic year saw the complete overhaul of theological formation in the Society of Jesus. By the 1980s Michael Novak was pointing out that there was no one teaching Aquinas or Thomism at Holy Cross, just as an example (“Firing Line” interview with William F. Buckley, Jr.). That’s hardly progress or some kind of higher wisdom of post-conciliar modernism.

  2. This article is just another sad example of how even the “conservative” and well-intentioned of Modern Catholics are terribly lacking in the sensus Catholicus — and often in sensus communis.
    “As Josef Pieper wrote some time ago, St. Thomas did not write a philosophical or theological “system.” He remained open to reality at all times and was willing to see and judge what came new into his ken. Everyone knows that it was characteristic of Aquinas to carefully uncover and praise what was good in any erroneous position. And he was able to put in order what was true about it.”
    If Pieper really said this, he is an idiot.
    1) St. Thomas used Aristotelian logic in all of his investigations. That logic itself is nothing if not a *system* of rules of thinking.
    2) In the Summa alone, St. Thomas, with very few exceptions (such as his treatment of the question of the Immaculate Conception), used that systematic logic to come to *definitive* answers to hundreds upon hundreds of questions. Moreover, there is an incredible consistency in his conclusions; none of them contradict any others, but on the contrary they mutually support each other, like lower layers of stone in a massive cathedral support those above, or like a multitude of chemical and biological processes work together to create, say, the human nervous system. Obviously, the human nervous system is called a ‘system’ for the very same reason that Aristotelian logic, or St. Thomas’ theology, should be called systems; each is an organized arrangement of things that are mutually dependent and supportive of one another.
    3) The implied notion that one cannot remain open to reality if one thinks from a system is just a filthy stain leaching from dyed-in-the-wool Modernism, which holds that truth is always in flux, because truth is not agreement of the mind with reality, but agreement of the mind with “life”.
    4) It’s absolutely true that St. Thomas was “willing to see and *judge*” things new to him; was able to “uncover what was good in an erroneous position”; to “put in order what was true about it”.
    And this was PRECISELY and ONLY possible because he had a *systematic* way of thinking.
    “In conclusion, “doing theology today” means grappling with the question of how a revelation that presented itself as final and definitive some 20 centuries ago can still be normative”
    No, Fr. Schall, it doesn’t mean that. Not even close.
    Doing theology today — IF YOU ARE CATHOLIC — means just accepting that Jesus Christ was God, that therefore He knows all things, that He is the Way and the Truth and the Life, that because He is God, that Way and Truth and Life are *immutable*.
    It means accepting that when He says that He will be with His Church unto the consummation of the world, and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, He means what He says.
    It means accepting that when His apostle, St. Paul, says “But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach a gospel to you besides that which we have [already] preached to you, let him be anathema.”
    It means accepting the dogmatic definition of Vatican I (Dz 1818, cf. 1800):
    “If anyone shall have said that that it is possible that to the dogmas declared by the Church a meaning must sometimes be attributed according to the progress of science — [N.B.: that includes philosophical or theological science] — [which is] different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”
    So there can be no “*grappling* with the question of how a revelation that presented itself as final and definitive some 20 centuries ago can still be normative”.
    That question was SETTLED at the very beginning of the Church, and settled forever.
    The question is how to get it through thick Modernist skulls that the dogmas of the Church are infallible and immutable, because they come from an infallible and immutable God.
    It is depressing to see such blindness in people who think they are defending Church doctrine.
    Ah well. Just another proof of the dogma of original sin.

  3. There needs to be a more coherent discussion of the meaning of the term “modern” in the context of Gaudium et spes and Vatican II. Most of the modernist jargon about “the Church in the modern world” coming from that exhibits a very naïve and utopian notion of modernity from the 1960s which is passé and outdated now, so the persistence of such rhetoric under the Bergoglian pontificate is quite comical and absurd. One would assume that most Catholic institutions have some familiarity with electricity, indoor toilets, how television and radio work, and that most of the modernist clergy are familiar with secular casual attire and social work. If any of them are still pushing the ideology of progress and think that the Church needs to adjust itself more thoroughly to modern culture and modern manners, they need therapy. Talking about adjusting the Church to the modern world and modern culture without ever defining modernity is incoherent and absurd.

    Just because there are multiple interpretations of Thomism does not mean that pre-Vatican II Catholic theology is irrelevant. Modernism also has a pre-Vatican II history. Should modernists abandon Teilhardism because it was invented before Vatican II? Are St. Francis of Assisi and St. Augustine irrelevant because they lived before Vatican II? Which essential church doctrines were changed after 1961? Cardinal Newman never heard of modernist theology of the body or phenomenology. Should all of his writings be placed on some ash heap of history no?

    Just because there may be some value to Polish or European writings about Max Scheler after 1961 does not mean that all pre-Vatican II liturgical styles or prayers are irrelevant or that the modernist folk guitar Novus Ordo is correct. The Pater Noster is from the first century A.D. in the days of the Roman Empire. Is it irrelevant now because some modernist read Edmund Husserl after 1961? Come on. This whole utopian and progressive narrative of the modernist Spirit of Vatican II has to be questioned and challenged. It is getting rather silly. Who really thought that what the Church needed now was a Bergoglian return to 1970s Argentina? I mean, that misses all of the fundamental developments of phenomenology and Guardini scholarship in the 1980s. [nudge, nudge, wink, wink]

    • It would seem that your observations, among other things, help to prove that Modernism, just as every form of Liberalism, is first and foremost a vile pretentious hypocrisy.
      It pretends to be broadminded, and tolerant — but it never tolerates claims as to the objective fixedness of truth. And worse, it in practice if not in theory really thinks that its belief in the changeability of truth is unchangeably true.
      (Yeah, if that paragraph is hard to wrap your brain around, dear reader, just be thankful you’re not a Modernist, and move on).
      Modernism supposedly entails a broadminded openness to the future; the willingness to cast off old taboos for the sake of “new paradigms” that result from the supposed spiritual (and probably also physical) evolution of man, which occur at such a fundamental level that they allow us to see things we could never see before; things that *essentially* change our perception of reality.
      But as you point out, the fact is that we are faced with the contradiction which is the clash between Old School Modernism and Neo-Modernism.
      Old School Modernists such as Bergoglio, for instance, still think and operate from a 1960s mindset. Which proves they were never Modernists in the first place.
      The Neo-Modernists are now forwarding gay “rights” and other perversions in a way that the Old School, at best, merely assents to by silence.
      One day the Neo-Modernists will prove themselves hypocrites also, when they reject the right of adults to rape children, which the Neo-Neo-Modernists will begin to clamor for.
      The bottom line is this:
      There is no new heresy under the sun.
      Modernism had, and has, only *one* new thing to “contribute”; that is, that truth is conformity of the mind to “life”. Combine this with the old heresy that we, along with all life, are evolving, and you have the excuse for the Church Of What’s Happening Now.

  4. The reason why many younger Catholics of the so-called millennial generation have a yearning for Catholic tradition from the pre-Vatican II past is because for quite a long time that has been suppressed and was not being taught (thanks to the Land O’Lakes conference quest for secular status and prestige). See the Michael Novak reference above with respect to Thomism.

    Moreover, there have actually been some rather interesting anti-modernist developments since Vatican II. Indeed, Catholic culture and all of Western civilization is based on pre-Vatican II Catholicism and its achievements. However, as far as I can tell, there has NOT been an exhaustive or comprehensive study of the rearguard anti-modernist developments, research, institutions, and personalities. Either the neo-Catholic modernist scholars pontificating on such matters have an amazing lack of curiosity or their priorities should be checked.
    Maybe Philip Jenkins could look into it.

    There is still no comprehensive study of the implosion of Irish-American Catholic culture after Vatican II and the JFK era (which deals with the internal battles within the Society of Jesus precisely on these matters relating to modernism vs. traditional Catholic orthodoxy). James Hitchcock scratched the surface a bit with The Pope and the Jesuits. Perhaps Father Pacwa could look into it.

    What this means is that the more flamboyant and noisy neo-Catholic converts and lapsed former converts are often pontificating on a topic which they have not investigated thoroughly. Is it a lack of curiosity or something else? How can someone write about Catholic controversies and NOT identify modernism and the modernist movement as the source of much of the heretical agitation? Somewhere in the mix between Father Hesburgh, Richard McBrien, Carroll Quigley, and Robert Drinan, there’s some ‘splainin’ to do.

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