Contemporary Theology and Culture. Dr. Rowland's presentation at the Omnes Forum.

Full paper, translated into English, by Professor Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger Prize 2020, on the occasion of the Forum organized by Omnes on April 14, 2021. You can watch the forum here.

Tracey Rowland-April 20, 2021-Reading time: 16 minutes
contemporary theology and culture

Read here the Original paper in English

Contemporary interest in the relationship between theology and culture goes back at least to the period of the Kulturkampf in nineteenth-century Germany and the French Catholic literary revival of the early part of the twentieth century. In the 1870s, Prussian political leader Otto von Bismarck attempted to have the Prussian state control education and episcopal appointments, effectively stifling the intellectual freedom of the Catholic Church. As is often the case in times of persecution, Catholic scholars responded by defending Catholic culture and offering political resistance to Bismarck's attempt to achieve Prussian domination of all German-speaking provinces. 

In 1898, Carl Muth (1867-1944) published an article on the subject of Catholic fiction in which he harshly criticized the ghetto culture of German literary Catholicism, one of the negative side-effects of the Kulturkampf. Having spent time in France, where "believing Catholics moved with great freedom in the intellectual elite of the country, participating in the great discussions as equal partners who felt themselves superior," Muth wanted the same situation in Germany.[1]. His solution was to found the magazine Hochland, which was published between 1903 and 1971, with a five-year closure between 1941-46 due to Nazi opposition to its editorial line. 

Hochland differed from other Catholic journals in that it published articles from across the spectrum of the humanities, not only essays on theology and philosophy, but works on art, literature, history, politics and music. It was thus one of the first attempts to offer reflections on cultural life through the lens of theology and philosophy, and other disciplines of the humanities. Unlike the orientation of the 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 an Weltanschauung or worldview integrated by multidisciplinary elements. Given this strongly humanistic orientation, translator Alexander Dru pointed out the similarities of perspective between Muth and the 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 several of these important masterpieces of French Catholicism into German.

Balthasar had also written his doctoral dissertation on the topic of eschatology in German literature, and one of his mentors, Erich Przywara SJ, wrote a 903-page monograph entitled. Humanitasin which he went through the works of numerous writers, including literary names such as Dostoevsky and Goethe, in search of insights into questions of theological anthropology. These works set the precedent for the treatment of literature as locus theologicusto use Melchor Cano's concept.

In 1972 Balthasar, Henri Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger founded the magazine Communio: International Reviewpublished in some fifteen languages. The last publisher of Hochland helped found the German edition of Communio. One of the distinguishing features of the orientation of Communio is its attention to the relationship between faith and culture and its theological analysis of contemporary cultural phenomena.

In the English-speaking theological world, there is a close synergy between the orientation of Communio and that of the British circles of Radical Orthodoxy. The movement of Radical Orthodoxy began in Cambridge in the 1990s with the publication of Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1993), by John Milbank. In this work, Milbank challenged the idea that social theory is theologically neutral and defended the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences, the master discipline, so to speak. Milbank's initial work was followed by After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of TheologyCatherine Pickstock (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 dialogue with the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Pickstock's book exemplifies the "habit" of Radical Orthodoxy to engage with the insights of postmodern philosophy, but in such a way that postmodern issues and questions-and especially aporias-are resolved by recourse to Christian theology, usually Christian theology of Augustinian provenance. At the time of the book's publication, Pickstock received an e-mail from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in which he expressed his appreciation for the book and invited the Anglican postdoctoral student to an academic conversation if she ever found herself in Rome[2]. The third "big name" of the first circle of Radical Orthodoxy, Graham Ward, has pointed to a key interest of Radical Orthodoxy scholars: that of "unmasking cultural idols, providing genealogical accounts of the presuppositions, politics and hidden metaphysics of the concrete secular varieties of knowledge - with respect to the constructive and therapeutic project of spreading the Gospel."[3]. As noted by William L. Portier, of the circle of Communio in the United States, both the rates of Communio how those of Radical Orthodoxy want to dialogue with culture, but "refuse to dialogue with culture in 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 fundamental question is whether Christ "positions" culture or whether culture "positions" Christ. Both scholars of Communio as those of Radical Orthodoxy believe that Christ must position the culture of the[5].

If one takes the theology of culture of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as an example of the position of CommunioRatzinger can be said to advocate a complete Trinitarian transformation of culture; not only a Christological transformation, but a Trinitarian transformation. The fundamental principle of this transformation can be found expressed in the document "Faith and Inculturation", a publication of the International Theological Commission then under Ratzinger's direction: "In the last times inaugurated at Pentecost, the risen Christ, Alpha and Omega, enters into the history of peoples: from that moment the meaning of history and, therefore, of culture is revealed, and the Holy Spirit reveals it by actualizing it and communicating it to all. The Church is the sacrament of this revelation and its communication. She re-centers every culture in which Christ is received, situating it on the axis of the world to come, and re-establishes the union broken by the Prince of this world. Culture is thus eschatologically situated; it tends to its culmination in Christ, but it cannot be saved except by associating itself with the repudiation of evil."[6].

This need to repudiate evil means that for Ratzinger evangelization is not a simple "adaptation to a culture, along the lines of a superficial notion of inculturation that assumes that the work is done with modified discursive figures and some new elements in the liturgy", but that "the Gospel is a cleavage, a purification that becomes maturation and healing", and these 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 taken from the world of medicine such as healing, cleansing and purifying.[8].

The English Ratzinger scholar Aidan Nichols OP has used the expression "a Trinitarian cabs" to describe how the realms of culture can be appropriated by the different Persons of the Trinity. He describes the paterological dimension as the transcendent origin and goal of a culture; the Christological dimension as the harmony, integrity or interconnectedness of each of the elements in their relationship to the whole; and the pneumatological dimension as the spirituality and the vital, wholesome character of the moral ethos of the culture[9]. Thus, cultures can be analyzed theologically by asking questions such as: what are the origins and objectives of this culture, how are the elements that make up the culture integrated or related to each other, and what spirituality/ies governs the moral ethos of this culture?

In relation to the first question, that of the transcendent origin and purpose of a culture, two authors whose works are useful in understanding this dimension are the English historian Christopher Dawson and the great German theologian Romano Guardini. Dawson has been described as a "metahistorian," since his works show the effect of Christianity's engagements with pagan cultures[10]. They could be described as works that offer concrete examples of what the Trinitarian transformation of a culture looks like in practice. Guardini's works, especially his Letters from Lake Como, The end of the modern world y Freedom, grace and destinyThey explain how the culture of modernity has the form of the machine and how the "mass man," disconnected from the culture of the Incarnation, has become culturally impoverished by systematically lowering his spiritual horizons. At The end of the modern worldpublished in 1957, Guardini established a connection between the character of the "mass man" and the problems of evangelization in the contemporary world. He described the "mass man" as a person without a will to independence or originality in both the management and conduct of his life, which makes him vulnerable to ideological manipulation, and identified the cause of this disposition as a causal relationship between the lack of a "fruitful and elevated culture" that provides the subsoil for a healthy nature and a spiritual life that is "insensitive and narrow" and develops along "maudlin, perverted and illicit lines."[11]. A fruitful and elevated culture is thus recognized as a kind of good of human flourishing, a means through which grace could be dispensed.

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

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.

At the basis of St. John Paul II's moral theology is his Trinitarian theological anthropology, expressed in his series of encyclicals: Redemptor Hominis (1979), Dives in Misericordia (1980) y Dominum et vivificantem (1986). This trilogy can be combined with Pope Benedict's set of encyclicals on the theological virtues: Deus Caritas Est (2005), Spe Salvi (2007) y Lumen Fidei (2013) (drafted by Benedict, but finalized and promulgated by Francis). When the Trinitarian theological anthropology of this double trilogy is combined with the moral theology of St. John Paul II, we have the project for the transformation of the pneumatological dimension of culture.

Another theological element of the Trinitarian transformation of culture is the principle, which is emphasized in all of Romano Guardini's publications, that the Logos precedes ethos. Guardini associated the inverse principle, that of the priority of ethos over Logos, with 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 rupture of these intrinsic relationships is considered an error that arose in the works of William of Ockham and was "consummated" in the theology of Martin Luther.[13]. Once the importance of ontology is excluded or denied there is no way to link the faculties of the human soul, such as intellect, memory, will, imagination and the heart understood as the point of integration of all 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 in Christlikeness, then Trinitarian theology is absolutely foundational to 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. For this reason, the abandonment of Trinitarian theology in post-Kantian ethics leads directly to what Aidan Nichols calls the fabrication of sub-theological ideologies.

Although the theology of culture of Joseph Ratzinger and his colleagues from Communio could be described as principles for a Trinitarian transformation of culture, and while there may be many aspects of this theology shared with scholars in Radical Orthodoxy circles who come from Reformed ecclesial communities, there are, nevertheless, alternative and, indeed, antithetical approaches to the relationship between theology and culture currently in the "marketplace."

The most prominent alternative is that of correlationist theology, much promoted by Edward Schillebeeckx. Here the general idea is that, instead of transforming culture, an attempt is made to correlate faith with the elements of the Zeitgeist that are considered to be favorable to Christianity or of originally Christian provenance. The second generation of Schillebeeckxs followers also uses the language of recontextualization. Whereas Schillebeeckx tried to correlate faith with the culture of modernity, his contemporary followers speak of re-contextualizing faith with the culture of postmodernity. In any case, in Bishop Barron's language, it is culture that positions Christ, rather than Christ, and indeed the whole Trinity, that positions culture. Anyone influenced by the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar tends to find this approach very problematic since, among other problems, it presupposes an extrinsic 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 need not reconcile Christ and the world with each other, nor mediate between Christ and the world: Christ himself is the only mediation and reconciliation."[14].

Balthasar was also critical of another approach to the relationship between faith and culture that is sometimes associated with correlationism, but which can stand on its own as a distinct approach. This is the "value distillation" 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 thus distilled are often correlated with fashionable political projects or values such as: tolerance, inclusivism, respect for difference, concern for the needs of the poor, the sick and disabled, the socially marginalized of all kinds. In this context, a typical argument in the style of Communio is that once the so-called "values" 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 on Christian teaching.

Carl Muth offered an example of this in an essay published in Hochland in May 1919, in which he described as a "brilliant confrontation" Donoso Cortés' engagement with "the different civil brothers, liberalism and socialism." He concurred with Cortes' observation that, although socialists do not want to be considered heirs of Catholicism but rather its antithesis, they are only trying to achieve a universal brotherhood without Christ, without grace, and are therefore nothing more than 'disfigured' Catholics. Moreover, Muth pointed out that Catholicism is not a thesis, but a synthesis, and the socialists, despite their efforts to separate themselves, were still trapped in its spiritual atmosphere....[15]. According to Muth, the fundamental problem of the socialists was that their "movement starts from the premise that man comes well out of the hands of nature and is only brutalized by society; therefore, he does not need a savior in the religious sense, but only redemption from the evils 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 the other utopias of revolutionary socialism have their roots."[17]. Muth affirmed socialism's interest in improving the conditions of the working classes, but he thought that the political theory of socialism operated with a flawed anthropology[18].

Similarly, Cardinal Paul Cordes addressed the issue in the context of the practice of some Catholic charities that deliberately separate the work of social assistance from the work of evangelization. He wrote: "Sometimes the discussion in the Church gives the impression that we could build a just world through the consensus of men and women of good will and through common sense. This would make faith appear like a beautiful ornament, like an extension of a building: decorative, but superfluous. And when we look deeper, we discover that the assent of reason and good will is always doubtful and hindered by original sin - not only faith tells us this, but also experience. Thus we come to the conclusion that Revelation is necessary also for the social directives of the Church: the LOGOS made flesh thus becomes the source of our understanding of 'justice'"[19].

In agreement with Cordes, Cardinal Ratzinger declared: "A Christianity and a theology that reduce the core of Jesus' message, the "kingdom of God", to the "values of the kingdom", while identifying these values with the main slogans of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, as the synthesis of all religions - all this while forgetting God, even though He is precisely the subject and cause of the kingdom of God"... do not open the path of regeneration, but rather block it.[20].

By far the most colorful critique of the distillation strategy, however, is that of French author Georges Bernanos. Referring to what he called the "prostitution of ideas," he said that "all ideas that are sent out into the world on their own [i.e., disconnected from revelation] with their little pigtails behind their backs 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 short, the encouragement of such distillation processes, intended to produce free-floating "values" that can be affirmed by people of all faiths and none, has a habit of undermining the very teachings from which the "values" were initially distilled.

A final dimension of the problem of faith and culture is what Ratzinger calls the danger of "iconoclasm." This is the fear of affirming beauty and high culture. It takes various forms. There is the attitude, common in Puritan forms of Christianity especially in Calvinist ones, that the love of beauty is an open door to idolatry. This idea has always been strong in Protestant theology, where the Augustinian affirmation of beauty is perceived as a reckless appropriation of a Greek idea that must be expunged from the Christian intellectual tradition. The baroque culture of the Jesuit Counter-Reformation went in the opposite direction to the "iconoclasm" of the Calvinists. While Calvinist churches were known for their austerity, Catholic churches of the Baroque era were overflowing with ornamentation. After the Second Vatican Council, the "iconoclastic" mentality also entered the Catholic Church. Beauty and high culture became associated with Baroque and 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 the solemn liturgy and its replacement by what Ratzinger calls "tea party parish liturgy." In other parts of the Catholic world, solemn liturgy and beautiful church furnishings and beautiful vestments and sacred vessels were associated with the world of upper-class Catholicism and were seen as incompatible with the preferential option for the poor and other tropes in the realm of liberation theology. Ratzinger/Benedict associated these 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 the visible world, so that we who are bound to matter can know him. However, in contemporary theology there is a conflict between endorsement of mass culture and attempts by theologians and pastoral leaders to correlate the Church's liturgical practices with mass culture, and the belief that mass culture is toxic to virtue and resistant to grace. There is also a conflict between a conception of liturgy as a necessary incorporation of the aesthetic and linguistic norms of the mundane and a conception of liturgy as necessarily transcending the mundane.

In relation to the enthusiasm for worldly orientation, Australian poet James McAuley noted the irony that "while the Church seems to ride on a sea of glucose, over which the setting sun of the Enlightenment spreads its sentimental hues, the tide of secular taste now flows in a different direction: contemporary taste looks with renewed nostalgia towards the art that societies can produce when they are true to their sacred traditions."[22]. In the Captain Quirós McAuley's epic poem about the quest of the Portuguese captain Pedro Fernandes de Queirós (Spanish: Pedro Fernández de Quirós) (1563-1614) to colonize Australia on behalf of the Spanish crown to ensure that the "Land of the Holy Spirit" (as the Spanish knew Australia) was Catholic - McAuley speaks of the differences between the culture of Christianity and that of modernity. Those who live within the culture of modernity he describes as the "Sons of the second syllable" - in the word "Christ" the first syllable is "Cris", and the second "tus". "Tus", [Thus in Latin] he tells us, means incense, a substance that we burn to purify. These children of the second syllable must live by faith without the help of custom, strangers in the secular city. Their heroism consists in maintaining fidelity to the Trinity in circumstances where all the social benefits that could be derived from it have been destroyed. Nevertheless, McAuley points out that these "children of the second syllable" "bring the world from which they seemed strangers into the workshop of love where it will be changed, though they themselves die wretched and alone."

While such an austere path to eternity may be the bane of contemporary generations, the theological vision of those in the circles of Communio is that the alternative is not to capitulate to the Zeitgeistis not to lower the horizons of faith to the dimensions of mass culture, nor to enter into a counterproductive process of distilling Christian values from Christian doctrine, but to work for a new Trinitarian transformation of all dimensions of our culture.

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

[2] For information on the Radical Orthodoxy movement and its relationship to the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI see Tracey Rowland, 'Joseph Ratzinger and the Theology of Benedict XVI Ratzinger and the Healing of the Reformationwas divisions: Radical 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 Radical Orthodoxy are members of the Church of England, on some points of ecclesiology and sacramental and moral theology they tend to adopt a different position from that of Catholic academics in the circles of Communio. However, they agree on the starting point of the primacy of Christ, and therefore on 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] 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. Quoted by 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 point see: Tracey Rowland, Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (London: Bloomsbury, 2021). Chapter 1.

[19] Paul Cordes, Address to the Australian Catholic University Sydney on the occasion of the publication 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. Cited by Balthasar in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Life (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996). Note: "Little Red Riding Hood" is the 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).

The authorTracey Rowland

Theologian and professor at the University of Notre Dame in Australia. Ratzinger Prize 2020.

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