Original paper by Dr. Tracey Rowland in Omnes. Contemporary theology and culture

Omnes-April 20, 2021-Reading time: 15 minutes

The contemporary interest in the relationship between theology and culture goes back at least as far as the period of the Kulturkampf in nineteenth century Germany and the French Catholic literary renaissance of the first part of the twentieth century. In the 1870s the Prussian political leader, Otto von Bismarck, sought Prussian state control over education and episcopal appointments, effectively stifling the intellectual freedom of the Catholic Church. As so often happens in times of persecution Catholic scholars responded by defending Catholic culture and offering political resistance to Bismarck's quest for Prussian domination of all German-speaking provinces.  

In 1898 Carl Muth (1867-1944) published an articleon the subject of Catholic fiction in which he was highly critical of the ghetto culture of German literary Catholicism, one of the negative side effects of the Kulturkampf. Having spent some time in France where 'believing Catholics moved with great freedom in the intellectual elite of the country, taking part in the big discussions as equal partners who felt superior', Muth wanted the same situation to prevail in Germany.[1] His solution was to find the journal Hochland that was published between 1903 and 1971 with a five year closure between the years 1941-46 due to the Nazi opposition to its editorial line. 

Hochland was different from other Catholic journals in so far as it published articles across the whole spectrum of humanities subjects, not merely theology and philosophy essays, but papers on art, literature, history, politics and music. It was thus one of the earliest attempts to offer reflections on cultural life through the lens of theology and philosophy and other humanities' disciplines. Unlike the orientation of Leonine scholasticism then dominant in the Roman academies, and unlike the philosophy of German Idealism then dominant in the Prussian universities, Hochland was open to the integration of disciplines and to the concept of a Weltanschauung or world view composed of multidisciplinary elements. Given this strongly humanistic orientation, the translator Alexander Dru noted the similarities in outlook between Muth and leaders of the French Catholic literary renaissance of the same period - people like Maurice Blondel, Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, Henri Brémond, Paul Claudel and Charles Péguy. These authors attracted the attention of a young Hans Urs von Balthasar when he was a student in Lyon. Each of these authors examined theological themes in a literary context and Balthasar translated a number of these important French Catholic masterpieces into German.

Balthasar had also written his doctoral dissertation on the subject of eschatology in German literature and one of his mentors, Erich Przywara SJ, wrote a 903 page monograph titled Humanitas in which he trawled through the works of numerous writers, including literary names like Dostoevsky and Goethe, for insights into issues in theological anthropology. Such works set the precedent for the treatment of literature as a locus theologicusto use Melchior Cano's concept.

In 1972 Balthasar, Henri Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger founded the journal Communio: International Review published in some fifteen languages. The last editor of Hochland helped to found the German edition of Communio. One of the hallmarks of Communio scholarship is its attention to the relationship between faith and culture and the offer of theological analyses of contemporary cultural phenomena.

In the Anglophone theological world there is a close synergy between Communio scholarship and the scholarship of the British Radical Orthodoxy circles. The Radical Orthodoxy movement began in Cambridge in the 1990s with the publication of John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1993). In this work Milbank challenged the idea that social theory is theologically neutral and he championed the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences, the master discipline, as it were. Milbank's seminal work was followed by Catherine Pickstock's After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Theology (1998) in which the young Anglican defended the doctrine of transubstantiation and the superiority of what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Latin liturgy over that of modern approaches to liturgical theology, all in a dialogue with the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Pickstock's book exemplifies the Radical Orthodoxy "habit" of engaging with the ideas of post-modern philosophy but in such a way that the post-modern issues and questions and especially aporia are resolved by recourse to Christian theology, usually Christian theology of Augustinian provenance. At the time of the book's publication Pickstock received an email from then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressing his appreciation of the book and inviting the Anglican post-doctoral student for an academic conversation should she ever be in Rome.[2] The third "big name" in the early Radical Orthodoxy circle, Graham Ward, has described a key interest of the "RO" scholars as that of: 'unmasking the cultural idols, providing genealogical accounts of the assumptions, politics and hidden metaphysics of specific secular varieties of knowledge - with respect to the constructive, therapeutic project of disseminating the Gospel'.[3] As William L Portier from the US Communio circle has observed, both Communio types and Radical Orthodoxy types want to dialogue with culture but they 'refuse to dialogue with culture on non-theological terms'.[4] Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has argued that when it comes to thinking about the relationship between theology and culture the most fundamental issue is that of whether Christ positions culture or whether culture positions Christ. The Communio scholars and the Radical Orthodoxy scholars all believe that Christ must position culture.

If one takes the theology of culture of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as an example of the Communio position one can say that Ratzinger argues for a complete Trinitarian transformation of culture, not merely a Christological transformation, but a Trinitarian transformation. One finds the fundamental principle of this transformation expressed in the document 'Faith and Inculturation', a publication of the International Theological Commission then under Ratzinger's leadership:

In the last times inaugurated at Pentecost, the risen Christ, Alpha and Omega, enters into the history of peoples: from that moment, the sense of history and thus of culture is unsealed and the Holy Spirit reveals it by actualizing and communicating it to all. The Church is the sacrament of this revelation and its communication. It recenters every culture into which Christ is received, placing it in the axis of the world which is coming, and restores the union broken by the Prince of this world. Culture is thus eschatologically situated; it tends towards its completion in Christ, but it cannot be saved except by associating itself with the repudiation of evil.[6] The Church is the sacrament of revelation and its communication.

This need for the repudiation of evil means that for Ratzinger evangelisation is not simply 'adaptation to a culture, along the lines of a superficial notion of inculturation that supposes that, with modified figures of speech and a few new elements in the liturgy, the job is done', but rather 'the Gospel is a slit, a purification that becomes maturation and healing' and such cuts must occur in the right place, 'at the right time and in the right way'.[7] Throughout Ratzinger/Benedict's publications on the theology of culture and the new evangelization it is common to find him using metaphors borrowed from the world of medicine such as healing, cleansing, and purifying.[8] The Gospel is a 'slit, a purification that becomes maturation and purification' and such cuts must occur in the right place, 'at the right time and in the right way'.

The English Ratzinger scholar Aidan Nichols OP has used the expression 'a Trinitarian cabs' to describe how the realms of culture might be appropriated to different Persons of the Trinity. He describes the Paterological dimension as a culture's transcendent origin and goal; the Christological dimension as the harmony, wholeness or interconnectedness of each of the elements as they relate to the whole and the Pneumatological dimension as the spirituality and vital health-giving character of the moral ethos of the culture.[9] Cultures can thus be analysed theologically by asking questions such as: what are the origins and goals of this culture? How are the component elements of the culture integrated or otherwise related to each other? And, what spirituality/ies governs the moral ethos of this culture?

In relation to the first question, that of a culture's transcendent origin and goal, two authors whose works are helpful for understanding this dimension are the English historian Christopher Dawson and the great German theologian Romano Guardini. Dawson has been described as a 'meta-historian' since his works show-case the effect of Christianity's engagements with pagan cultures.[10] They could be described as works that offer concrete examples of what a Trinitarian transformation of a culture looks like in practice. Guardini's works, especially his Letters from Lake Como, The End of the Modern Worldand Freedom, Grace and Destinyexplain how the culture of modernity has the form of the machine and how "mass man", disconnected from the culture of the Incarnation, has become culturally impoverished as his spiritual horizons are systematically lowered. In The End of the Modern Worldpublished in 1957, Guardini drew a connection between the character of 'mass man' and the problems of evangelization in the contemporary world. He described 'mass man' as having no desire for independence or originality in either the management or conduct of his life, making him vulnerable to ideological manipulation, and he identified the cause of this disposition as a causal relationship between the lack of a 'fruitful and lofty culture' that provides the sub-soil for a healthy nature, and a spiritual life that is 'numb and narrow' and develops along 'mawkish, perverted and unlawful lines'.[11] A fruitful and lofty culture is thus recognized as a kind of good of human flourishing, a medium through which grace might be dispensed.

In relation to the Christological dimension, works by Communio scholars such as David L Schindler, Antonio Lopez, Stratford Caldecott, and most recently Michael Dominic Taylor explain the difference between a mechanical metaphysics and what they call the metaphysics of gift. Taylor's recent work The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethic is a good example of how the metaphysics of gift can integrate the different dimensions of a culture in an an harmonious way in contrast to the non-integration of the culture of the machine.[12] The metaphysics of gift can integrate the different dimensions of a culture in a harmonious way in contrast to the non-integration of the culture of the machine.

In relation to the Pneumatological dimension, the moral theology of St. John Paul II, including his Catechesis on Human Love, is a central source of theological material for understanding how a transformation of the Pneumatological dimension is possible.

Underpinning the moral theology of St. John Paul II is his Trinitarian theological anthropology that was expressed in his suite of encyclicals: Redemptor Hominis (1979), Dives in Misericordia (1980) and Dominum et vivificantem (1986). This trilogy can be combined with Pope Benedict's suite of encyclicals on the theological virtues: Deus Caritas Est (2005), Spe Salvi (2007) and Lumen Fidei (2013) (drafted by Benedict but settled and promulgated by Francis). When the Trinitarian theological anthropology of this double trilogy is combined with the moral theology of St. John Paul II, one has the blue-print for the transformation of the pneumatological dimension of culture.

A further theological building block of a Trinitarian transformation of culture is the principle emphasised throughout the publications of Romano Guardini that Logos precedes ethos. Guardini associated the inverse principle, the priority of ethos over Logoswith the pathological dimensions of the culture of modernity. Dogmatic theology and moral theology and dogmatic theology and pastoral theology must always be intrinsically related. The severance of these intrinsic relationships is regarded as an error that arose in the works of William of Ockham and was "consummated" in the theology of Martin Luther.[13] Once one occludes or denies the importance of ontology there is no way of linking the faculties of the human soul such as the intellect, the memory, the will, the imagination and the heart understood as the point of integration of all of these faculties with the theological virtues (faith, hope and love) and the transcendental properties of being (truth, beauty, goodness and unity). If the human person is made in the image of God to grow into the likeness of Christ then Trinitarian theology is absolutely foundational for any theology of the human person and any theology of culture and there is no way to understand the Trinity without recourse to the doctrines of Chalcedon. It is for this reason that the abandonment of Trinitarian theology in post-Kantian ethics leads directly to what Aidan Nichols calls the fabrication of sub-theological ideologies.

While the theology of culture of Joseph Ratzinger and his Communio colleagues might be described as principles for a Trinitarian transformation of culture, and while there may be many aspects of this theology that is shared with scholars in the Radical Orthodoxy circles who come from Reformist ecclesial communities, there are nonetheless alternative and indeed, antithetical, approaches to the theology and culture relationship currently on the "market".

The most prominent alternative is that of correlationist theology which was strongly promoted by Edward Schillebeeckx. The general idea here is rather than transforming the culture one attempts to correlate the faith to elements of the Zeitgeist deemed to be Christian-friendly or originally of Christian provenance. Second generation Schillebeeckxians also use the language of re-contextualisation. While Schillebeeckx sought to correlate the faith to the culture of modernity, contemporary Schillebeeckians speak of re-contextualising the faith to the culture of post-modernity. In either case, in the language of Bishop Barron, it is the culture that positions Christ rather than Christ, and indeed the entire Trinity, that positions culture. Anyone influenced by the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar tends to find this approach highly problematic since, among other problems, it presupposes an extrinsicist relationship between Christ and the world. Balthasar, following Guardini, argued that it is the world that exists within the space of Christ, not Christ who is in the world or Christ who is juxtaposed to the world. In Balthasar's words: 'Christians do not need to reconcile Christ and the world to each other, or to mediate between Christ and the world: Christ himself is the single mediation and reconciliation'.[14]

Balthasar was also critical of another approach to the faith and culture relationship which is sometimes associated with correlationism but can stand on its own as another distinct approach. This is the "distillation of values" strategy. The idea is that one can "distill" so-called Christian values from the Christian kerygma and market the values to the world without burdening non-Christians with the theological beliefs from which the values were distilled. The values so distilled are usually correlated to fashionable political projects or values such as: tolerance, inclusivism, respect for difference, interest in the needs of the poor, the sick and the disabled, the socially marginalised persons of all types. In this context a typical Communio style argument is that once the "values", so-called, have been distilled from Christian doctrines they have a tendency to "mutate" and take on new meanings and serve anti-Christian ends. Numerous scholars have pointed to the fact that the most virulent forms of anti-Christian ideology are always parasitic upon Christian teaching.

Carl Muth offered an example of this in an essay published in Hochland in May of 1919 in which he described Donoso Cortés's engagement with 'the dissimilar civil brothers, liberalism and socialism' as a 'brilliant confrontation'. He concurred with Cortés's observation that although socialists do not want to be considered to be the heirs of Catholicism, but rather its antithesis, they are merely trying to achieve a universal brotherhood without Christ, without grace and thus are really just 'misshapen' Catholics. Moreover, Muth noted that Catholicism is not a thesis, but a synthesis, and the socialists, in spite of their efforts to break away, were still caught within its spiritual atmosphere.[15] According to Muth, the fundamental problem of the Socialists was that their 'movement proceeds from the premise that man emerges well from the hands of nature and only society makes him brutish; thus he does not need a saviour in the religious sense, but only the redemption of those ailments of his environment'.[16] Muth described this as 'that error of idealism which begins to grow into the worst utopia of the century, in which all other utopias of revolutionary socialism have their roots'.[17] Muth affirmed socialism's interest in improving the conditions of the working classes but thought that the political theory of socialism was operating with a flawed anthropology.[18] Muth also affirmed socialism's interest in improving the conditions of the working classes but thought that the political theory of socialism was operating with a flawed anthropology.[18

Similarly, Cardinal Paul Cordes addressed the issue in the context of the practice of some Catholic charities deliberately separating the work of social welfare from the work of evangelisation. He wrote:

Sometimes Church discussion gives the impression that we could construct a just world through the consensus of men and women of good will and through common sense. Doing so would make faith appear as a beautiful ornament, like an extension on a building - decorative, but superfluous. And when we look deeper, we discover that the assent of reason and good will is always dubious and obstructed by original sin - not only does faith tell us this, but experience, too. So we come to the realization that Revelation is needed also for the Church's social directives: the source of our understanding for "justice" thus becomes the LOGOS made flesh.[19]

Consistent with Cordes, Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was declared:

A Christianity and a theology that reduce the core of Jesus's message, the 'kingdom of God', to the 'values of the kingdom', while identifying these values with the main watchwords of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, to be the synthesis of all religions - all the while forgetting about God, despite the fact that it is precisely He who is the subject and the cause of the kingdom of God...'...does not open the way to regeneration, it actually blocks it.[20]

By far the most colorful criticism of the distillation strategy however is that of the French author Georges Bernanos. Referring to what he called the "prostitution of ideas" he said that 'all the ideas one sends out into the world by themselves [ that is, disconnected from revelation] with their little pigtails on their back and a little basket in their hands like Little Red Riding Hood are raped at the next corner by some slogan in uniform'.[21]

In summary, fostering such distillation processes the object of which is to produce free-floating "values" that persons of all faiths and none might affirm has the habit of undermining the very teachings from which the "values" were initially distilled. 

A final dimension of the faith and culture problem is what Ratzinger calls the danger of 'iconoclasm'. This is the fear of affirming beauty and high culture. It takes a number of different forms. There is the attitude, common in puritan, especially Calvinist, forms of Christianity, that a love of beauty is a trap-door to idolatry. This idea has always been strong in Protestant theology where the Augustinian affirmation of beauty is perceived to be an unwise appropriation of a Greek idea that needs to be purged from the Christian intellectual tradition. The baroque culture of the Jesuit counter-reformation went in the opposite direction from the "iconoclasm" of the Calvinists. While Calvinist churches were noted for their austerity, Catholic churches of the baroque era were overflowing with ornamentation. After the Second Vatican Council the "iconoclast" mentality also entered the Catholic Church. Beauty and high culture were associated with baroque, counter-reformation Catholicism, and since baroque scholasticism was out of fashion, everything that went with baroque scholasticism became unfashionable. In some parts of the Catholic world this included solemn liturgy and its replacement by what Ratzinger calls 'parish tea-party liturgy'. In other parts of the Catholic world solemn liturgy and beautiful church furnishings and vestments and sacred vessels all came to be associated with the world of upper-class Catholicism and deemed to be inconsistent with the preferential option for the poor and other tropes in the field of liberation theology. Ratzinger/Benedict associated such mentalities with what he called a one-sided apophatic theology. Iconoclasm, he declared, is not a Christian option since the Incarnation means that the invisible God enters into the visible world, so that we, who are bound to matter, can know him. Nonetheless in contemporary theology one does find a conflict between an endorsement of mass culture and attempts by theologians and pastoral leaders to correlate the liturgical practices of the Church to the mass culture, and the belief that mass culture is toxic to virtue and resistant to grace. There is also a conflict between the conception of liturgy as necessarily embodying the aesthetic and linguistic norms of the mundane and a conception of liturgy as necessarily transcending the mundane.

With reference to the enthusiasm for the mundane orientation the Australian poet James McAuley noted the irony in the fact that 'while the Church seems to ride becalmed in a glucose sea, over which the sinking sun of the Enlightenment spreads is sentimental hues, the tide of secular taste is now flowing in a different direction: contemporary taste is looking with an awakened nostalgia towards the art that societies can produce when they are faithful to their sacred traditions'.[22] In McAuley's Captain Quiros - his epic poem about the quest of the Portuguese Captain Pedro Fernandes de Queirós (in Spanish: Pedro Fernández de Quirós) (1563-1614) to settle Australia in the name of the Spanish crown and thereby ensure that the "Land of the Holy Spirit" (as Australia was known by the Spaniards) would be Catholic - McAuley speaks of the differences between the culture of Christendom and that of modernity. Those who live within the culture of modernity he describes as the 'Children of the Second Syllable' - the first syllable being 'Christ', the second "tus" in the word "Christus'. "Tus", [Thus in Latin] he tells us, means incense, a substance we burn to purify. These children of the second syllable must live by faith without the aid of custom, stranged within the secular city. Their heroism consists in maintaining fidelity to the Trinity in circumstances where all eh social benefits which may once have flowed from this has been destroyed. Nonetheless, McAuley goes on to note that such "children of the second syllable" 'take the world from which they seemed estranged into love's workshop where it will be changed, though they themselves die wretched and alone'.

While such an austere path to eternity may be the cross of contemporary generations, the theological vision of those in the Communio circles is that the alternative is not to capitulate to the zeitgeist, not to lower the horizons of the faith to the dimensions of mass culture or to enter upon a counter-productive process of distilling Christian values from Christian doctrine, but to work for a new Trinitarian transformation of all the dimensions of our culture.

[1]Josef Schöningh, 'Carl Muth: Ein europäisches Vermächtnis', Hochland (1946-7), pp. 1-19 at p. 2.

[2] For an account of the Radical Orthodoxy movement and its relationship to the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI see: Tracey Rowland, 'Joseph Ratzinger and the Healing of the Reformationwas divisionsRadical Orthodoxy as a Case Study in Re-weaving the Tapestry' in  Joseph Ratzinger and the Healing of the Reformation-Era Divisions, Emory de Gaál and Matthew Levering (eds), (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2019).

[3] Graham Ward, 'Radical Orthodoxy/and as Cultural Politics' in Laurence Paul Hemming (ed), Radical Orthodoxy: A Catholic Enquiry (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p. 104.

[4] William L Portier, 'Does Systematic Theology have a Future?' in W. J. Collinge (ed), Faith in Public Life (New York: Orbis, 2007), 137.

[5] Due to the fact that the leading members of the Radical Orthodoxy circle are members of the Church of England they tend to take a different position on some issues of ecclesiology and sacramental and moral theology than the Catholic scholars in the Communio circles. They do however agree with the base-line issue about the primacy of Christ and thus the priority of theology over social theory.

[6]International Theological Commission, 'Faith and Inculturation, Origins 18 (1989), pp. 800-7.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), p. 46.

[8] For more extensive treatments of Ratzinger's theology of culture see: Tracey Rowland, The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays on the Theology of Culture. (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2017) and 'Joseph Ratzinger as Doctor of Incarnate Beauty'. Church, Communication and Culture Vol. 5 (2), (2020), pp. 235-247.

[9] Aidan Nichols, Christendom Awake (London: Gracewing, 1999), pp. 16-17.

[10] Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rose of Western Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2001); The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2002); The Judgment of the Nations (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011); and Religion and Culture (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

[11] Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World(London: Sheed & Ward, 1957), p.78.

[12]Michael Dominic Taylor, The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethic (Eugene: Veritas, 2020); David L Schindler, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); Stratford Caldecott, Not as the World Gives: the Way of Creative Justice (New York: Angelico Press, 2014); and Antonio Lopez, Gift and the Unity of Being (Eugene: Veritas, 2014).

[13] See Peter McGregor and Tracey Rowland (eds); Healing Fractures in Fundamental Theology (Eugene: Cascade, 2021) and Livio Melina, Sharing in Christ's Virtues: For the Renewal of Moral Theology in the Light of Veritatis Splendor (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001).

[14] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), p. 332.

[15] Carl Muth, 'Die neuen "Barbaren" und das Christentum', Hochland (May 1919), pp. 385-596 at p. 596.

[16] Ibid., p. 590. Cited in Josef Schöningh, 'Carl Muth: Ein europäisches Vermächtnis', Hochland(1946-7), pp.1-19 at p. 14.

[17] Ibid., p. 590.

[18] For a more extensive analysis of this see: Tracey Rowland, Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (London: Bloomsbury, 2021). Chapter 1.

[19] Paul Cordes, Address delivered at the Australian Catholic University Sydney to mark the release of the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, 2009.

[20] Joseph Ratzinger, 'Europe in the Crisis of Cultures, Communio: International Catholic Review, 32 (2005), 345-56 at 346-7.

[21] Georges Bernanos, Bernanos, Georges. 1953. La Liberté, Pourquoi Faire? Paris: Gallimard, 1953), p. 208. quoted by Balthasar in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Life (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996). Note: "Little Red Riding Hood" is a character in a fairy-tale who is eaten by a wolf.

[22] James McAuley, The End of Modernity: Essays on Literature, Art and Culture (Sydney: Angus and Robinson, 1959).

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