"If Catholics take on fads, they become mere 'children of their times'."

The Omnes forum held under the title "Contemporary Theology and Culture". The event was followed by a lively colloquium in which interesting questions arose, such as the role of the Church's Magisterium, Küng's proposal for a world ethic and the influence of the media on Christian thought.

Maria José Atienza-April 19, 2021-Reading time: 7 minutes
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Photo:©Mauro Mora / Unsplash

The questions addressed to the Ratzinger Prize for Theology dealt with various aspects of those dealt with in the presentation of this Forum.

-You have said that some authors, along the lines of Schillebeeckx, propose the need to "re-contextualize" faith in the culture of postmodernity; the cultural positions of this time would end up outlining what should be believed. 

I am thinking of a recent situation: the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith saying that no blessing should be given to unions between homosexuals. 

Some people have rejected it saying, for example, that this document gathers the official Magisterium, but that the doctrine should be developed "on the basis of the fundamental truths of faith and morals, progressive theological reflection and, also, in openness to the most recent results of human sciences and to the life situations of today's people". 

I would like to ask him what he thinks. I will tell you that what I have just quoted is a sentence of the president of the German episcopate, in his reaction to the document on that subject.

After the Second Vatican Council, Karl Rahner said that the theological work of the Church was in a position to see many different philosophies as part of Theology, that they had become its interlocutors. I don't think he thought that was a bad thing, but it is a good explanation for what happened after the Second Vatican Council.

I think in many cases what happened is that, instead of seeing in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle as the primary partner of Catholic theology, in Holland and in Belgium, and also in parts of Germany, social theory became a partner of theology, and the dominant social theory at that time was the critical theory of the Frankfurt School of social theorists. So, we had a whole movement of Catholic theologians very much influenced by the Frankfurt School of philosophy and other social theories, and an attempt to relate Theology to that world of contemporary social theory. One result of that has been that if some theologians decide that social theory does not fit with magisterial teachings, then it would be a mistake of those teachings, not of social theories. I think that's why what Professor John Milbank wrote in "Beyond secular reason" was so important for that time. He argues that social theory is not theologically neutral, there are always theological presuppositions "embedded," shall we say, in that social theory. So you have to be very careful, if you are a Catholic theologian, when you get into the subject of social theories.

Of course, we want to emphasize these theories and pay attention to them. We do not want to be like the ostrich, with its head under the sand, and ignore the books people read; but in studying social theories we should not set aside the whole tradition of faith, or put everything in parentheses and think that everything is being questioned if a person disagrees with social theories. "The intellectual fashion of the decade is very seldom the truth of the century," it is said; and if the Catholic intellectual elite simply assume some fashionable beliefs, the end result would be that Catholics would become children of their age, and nothing more. They would lose their connection with the truth, and that would be a terrible tragedy. The Catholic faith is not measured by secularized people. It would be a terrible tragedy for the young generations, the new generations. We must have the courage to explain the faith. We have to explain it in an intelligent way, but without being intimidated by the Zeitgeist.

A few days ago, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng passed away. He defended a project he called "Welt-ethos", World or Global Ethics, and had set up a foundation to promote it. Could it be an example of an attempt to "distill values", in the sense he has explained; that is, a pretension to unite faith and culture that has failed at its roots?

Actually, I agree with the analysis of Professor Robert Spaemann, a great philosopher, who wrote about the "Welt-ethos as a project" in the German magazine Merkur. In that article he stated... if I can remember the quote... that the Catholic Church is not just another kiosk in the amusement park (not a "vanity fair") of modernity. No. In a fair or amusement park, different people sell different things. The Catholic tradition cannot be treated as just another intellectual product in the marketplace.

One of the fundamental problems that postmodern philosophies have with the Catholic faith is that they claim to be true. Postmodern philosophies present themselves as a "master" narrative, capable of explaining all the most important questions we can ask. Precisely because of this claim to have the truth, there is so much hostility toward the Church in these postmodern philosophers. It is true, of course, that there are values and ideas shared by different religious traditions. For example, the Confucian tradition thinks about respect for one's parents, respect for oneself and one's family, and one's traditions. We can see the relationship with the Ten Commandments, which command us to honor our mother and father.

We see these ideas in common among the various religions, and it is all right to investigate these correlations with each other and to explain the basic agreement on many points. But if one begins to think that that is all that needs to be done, we have a problem. For Christ gave his disciples the task of changing and converting all the people of the world.

Therefore, an academic work that only looked at the values of different religious groups and which ones have a relationship with each other would not be a bad thing, but it is not what Jesus Christ asked us to do. He asked us to evangelize the world; in the words of the Second Vatican Council, we are talking about the second sacrament of salvation, and we cannot reject that statement. Many people who move to this ethos philosophy are not interested in this big focus, in the main focus.

In the relationship between faith and culture, the media play an important role, or can play an important role, as Carl Muth saw it. Carl Muth, who founded the magazine "Hochland" for this purpose, saw it this way. How do you see this role today in the Catholic media, both "intellectual" and "informative"? I am Alfonso Riobó, the director of "Omnes", the multiplatform media that convenes this colloquium, so I address this question to you knowing that your opinion will be very useful to us.

I think one thing that is needed is to help the younger generations to have a real experience of beauty and high culture, because many of them are in social networks, immersed in popular culture; a culture can be popular, but right now our popular culture is a very low culture. A key sign is that idolatry of celebrities, and these many times are people who are a narrative. They are people without integrity, people who have to spend their lives with coaches who tell them what they should have, what their plans should be, what their goal in life should be. They are the heroes of our young people, and that is something very sad.

I believe that the Catholic media have to offer young people an alternative. At the very least, we have to create for young people an oasis where they can find an experience of high culture. It has to be, let's say, "user-friendly", accessible; it has to be understandable. We have to look for alternatives for young people.

I also believe that the intellectual life of the Church is very important, and that we should not have these dualisms in our way of thinking: we have the intellectual approach and the social approach, and we cannot integrate them with each other; they are two different things. It may be more important to feed humanity than to write books. These are complicated dichotomies.

Throughout history, the Catholic Church has been a defender of truth, beauty and goodness. The Catholic Church has built the universities of Europe: we would not have the Sorbonne, Oxford, the University of Salamanca, the University of Bologna, Cambridge... The great universities of Europe were built only by bishops, Catholics and others, and by monarchs who were also Catholic. The Church has been the defender of learning, of studies, because human beings are made in the likeness of God, and we are not just people who respond to stimuli. We can think, and that is a gift from God. That's why the Church is on the side of the academic world, of academic development. In this period of history, when people hear these sound bites on social media, they are not thinking. I think the Church should make an extra effort, to give that alternative to people. Thank you.

In most countries, inculturation of the faith is a challenge. What would you stress so that we can work harder to make the world more in line with the values of the Gospel? How does inculturation involve Catholics, so that the faith becomes culture, as St. John Paul II said, in each of the different cultures that emerge and that the Church encounters?

I believe that the most important essay on this topic is Cardinal Ratzinger's speech to the bishops of Asia, I think I remember in 1993, on the theme of inculturation. Elsewhere Raztinger has also referred to the ideas of St. Basil the Great. When the Church encounters a new culture for the first time, there has to be what is called a "cut" in the culture, so that Jesus Christ can be inserted into that culture. There is a whole analysis of how difficult it is and how careful you have to be in this process. There is a book by a German scholar, Gnilka, who considers how these issues have been dealt with in the early centuries of the life of the Church, when the Church was encountering pagan cultures, and the principles that were adopted at that time. It is quite an in-depth analysis. Ratzinger constantly emphasizes that inculturation and evangelization is not simply changing clothes, dressing in a new style or adopting some new cultural traditions. It is a much deeper process.

Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State, has recently pointed out that divisions and internal oppositions in the Church harm the bride of Christ. What can we do to seek and promote unity, and to grow in that communion which Christ has given to his Church and which makes us like the Trinity?

Well, I usually tell people: read Ratinzger. I also recommend the Rosary: you have to use the Rosary. And go to Mass.

Part of the division in the Church now is a continuation of the interpretations of the Second Vatican Council; I believe that these divisions will continue until they are resolved. What St. John Paul II has said, and what Pope Benedict has tried to do during those years has been to offer a "hermeneutic of continuity," which explains that there are issues that needed to be addressed at the Council and reforms that needed to take place, but those reforms were not a matter of the whole tradition of the Church. I think we have to adopt those ideas of the hermeneutic of continuity, and that we have to pray and develop our spiritual life, and relate to other people in the Church in a new, different way.

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