Critical Responses to Tracey Rowland’s "Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II"

I had the opportunity recently to read Tracey Rowland’s Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II

Readers wholly unfamiliar with Rowland are encouraged to read her two-part interview with Zenit:

and a compact but substantial summary of the key themes and arguments of her book is provided in a review by Jason Paul Bourgeois.

I freely admit that my outlook as a new Catholic convert was largely shaped by Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak and George Weigel — appreciators of John Courtney Murray, SJ — and as such, participants in an ongoing debate with Dr. Rowland, David Schindler, Alisdair MacIntyre that has been characterized by Dr. Rowland herself a conflict between “Whig Thomists and Augustinian Thomists.”

According to Rowland, the Whig Thomists maintain that the Thomist tradition can be reconciled with the culture of modernity and that “liberalism is the logical outgrowth of the classical-theistic synthesis”, while Augustinian Thomists contend that “the liberal tradition represents its mutation and heretical reconstruction, and they tend to agree with Samuel Johnson that the devil — not Thomas Aquinas — was the first Whig.” (For a more substantial examination of the precise sense in which Thomas was heralded as the harbinger of “Catholic Whiggery”, see: Aquinas:”First Whig?” Religion and Liberty September 21, 2005).

So, as you can see, possessing this bias I was not predisposed to like Rowland. Nonetheless, I did find it to be stimulating reading and a text I’ll return to time and again in future explorations of this debate.

Unlike other more “scholarly” bloggers, I cannot boast a particular command of the subject — nor can I fall back on a resources and training of a graduate school education. My ‘continuing education’ is done piecemeal, largely on my own time, reading while commuting to/from work and in between fatherly duties.

And so, for my own personal benefit but perhaps for the edification of a few interested readers, I’d like to compile some criticisms of Rowland’s Culture and the Thomist Tradition culled from various reviews around the web — with which I found myself in agreement, and which I also would hope that Dr. Rowland might actually address in the future.

* * *

The first section of Rowland’s work is dedicated to an examination of Gaudium Et Spes, which (she charges) neglected to provide a sound basis for evaluating the relationship of religion and culture — that the document is ridden with a “terminological looseness” when speaking of “the modern world” and “modern man”. The lack of such a hermeneutic contributed to an overly-optimistic “opening of the windows” and a naive trust in the independence of temporal affairs (science, economics, political institutions, et al.) failing to also take into account the manner in which culture is shaped by sin and grace.

However, says Bernhard Blankenhorn OP, “Rowland’s critique of Gaudium et Spes seems inadequate and partly inaccurate.”:

She fails to consider the long and complex debates and redactions behind the final draft of that document. Instead, she focuses on the absence of clear definitions, the absence of a hermeneutical key that overcomes the tensions of the text, and the views of two Conciliar figures according to whom the Church has no place in the shaping of culture. Given the absence of clear definitions of terms like “culture” and “modernity,” Rowland could have turned to a painstaking yet most likely rewarding analysis of the different approaches to the contemporary society that emerge in the language of committee statements, interventions of Council Fathers, and theological advisors. Her conclusion is hard to accept, considering how nuanced and diverse the approaches to the notion of the “signs of the times” were at the Council, an idea that is intimately connected to that of culture. Rowland’s wish for a hermeneutical key that overcomes the tensions of the text and thus could have avoided harmful and radical interpretations after the Council seems to be asking the impossible: the Fathers could not provide such a unified interpretive key precisely because they disagreed in their approach to modernity, to modern culture, to modern developments. Instead, the way to read the text is with all of its tensions, and not by ignoring one type of statement in order to focus exclusively on others. It is precisely this hermeneutic of Vatican II, one which ignores some texts while overemphasizing others, that has lead to sinful divisions in the Church. Rowland’s decision to focus on the commentary of two Conciliar figures, who hardly seem representative of the 2000+ bishops and many theologians at the Council, seems to obscure the meaning of Gaudium et Spes.

* * *

In a review for First Things, Douglas A. Ollivant takes issue with Rowland’s “excessive hostility” and a “root-and-branch rejection of the modern era” that “does not seem to grasp that modernity—and the liberalism with which it is intertwined—has improved the human condition in certain respects, even while simultaneously (as Rowland documents) diminishing it in others.” (First Things May 2004):

It goes without saying that liberal democracy and democratic capitalism have a great many flaws, but Rowland’s presentation lacks a prudential assessment of the range of possible alternatives. One can be acutely aware of liberalism’s shortcomings and still find it the best of all practicable options. Rowland sometimes seems to imply that liberalism is so fundamentally flawed and hostile to the faith that any replacement would be an improvement. The bloody history of the last century stands in clear judgment against this claim.

Finally, given Rowland’s familiarity with the wide range of Catholic-influenced political thought, her omission of two prominent writers is disappointing. The first of these thinkers is Pierre Manent, who would challenge Rowland’s assertion, borrowed from David Schindler, that the only moments of significance in human history are creation, incarnation, and the eschaton. In The City of Man, Manent makes a strong case that “modern man” is something qualitatively different from “man” simpliciter. If Manent is correct, Rowland’s analysis must deal with this fact. The second thinker whom she unaccountably passes by is Peter Augustine Lawler, who might question why Rowland feels the need to be “at home” in this world. In Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought, Lawler, echoing Pascal, challenges readers to accept the human destiny of being a wondering wanderer, or a wandering wonderer, in this world, and he might ask Rowland why she believes that any culture will ever be compatible with the transcendent focus of Catholicism.

Ollivant expresses a frustration which I can certainly relate to, also while reading David Schindler.

Rowland, Schindler and company are rightly skeptical about liberalism’s severance of the sacred and the secular (practically speaking, the separation of ‘church’ and ‘state’), our liberal institutions predicated on a “false neutrality” with respect to religious claims which culminate in a “practical atheism” and the wholesale privatization of religion.

As Rowland puts it:

From an Augustinian point of view, the biggest problem with liberalism is its claim to be theologically neutral or indifferent toward different religious traditions. Quite a long list of scholars are coming to the view that the liberal claim to theological neutrality is bogus. This list includes Anglicans associated with the radical orthodoxy circle and scholars with a more Baptist-oriented theological background.

It is not a position limited to so-called conservative or ultra-montanist Catholics. Indeed most postmoderns would agree with this criticism of the liberal tradition. Pope Benedict has made it clear that Catholics should not be persuaded by the liberal rhetoric to believe that in order to be good citizens they must bifurcate themselves into public and private halves.

He has observed that secularism is itself an ideology, a kind of religious position that presents itself as the only voice of rationality. He sees these views as posing a challenge to the dominant political cultures of contemporary liberal democracies.

To say this, however, is not to say that he is against constitutionalism. He is not saying that the Church should run the state. He would probably agree with the saying of Martin Luther King that the Church is neither the master of the state, nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.

It is one thing to identify this trend as a problem — and another to propose a solution. This is where the Catholic neoconservatives (or “Whigs”) and the self-described “Augustinian Thomists” part company. Whereas individuals like the late Richard J. Neuhaus might speak of “two liberalisms”:

In the latter half of the 1960s, this began to change with the advent of the debate over what was then called “liberalized” abortion law. By 1967 I was writing about the “two liberalisms”—one, like that earlier civil rights movement, inclusive of the vulnerable and driven by a transcendent order of justice, the other exclusive and recognizing no law higher than individual willfulness. My argument was that, by embracing the cause of abortion, liberals were abandoning the first liberalism that has sustained all that is hopeful in the American experiment.

That is my argument still today. It is, I believe, crucially important that that argument prevail in the years ahead. There is no going back to reconstitute the American order on a foundation other than the liberal tradition. A great chasm has opened between the liberal tradition and what today is called liberalism. That is why some of us are called conservatives. Conservatism that is authentically and constructively American conservatism is conservatism in the cause of reappropriating and revitalizing the liberal tradition.

or while someone like Michael Novak might set about writing On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding to counter the secular-liberal narrative of a founding wholly antagonistic toward religion, the Rowland-Schindler-Macintyre school considers such a fool’s errand. For them, there is nothing within “the liberal tradition” worth recovering — reading them, you get the impression that the “American experiment” in constitutional democracy, in “ordered liberty”, was doomed from the start. It has no basis in, no compatability with, the natural law as supposed by Fr. John Courtney Murray (We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, 1960).

And so we can say with Tracey Rowland that “the devil — not Thomas Aquinas — was the first Whig”. Or we can adopt the “pox on both our houses” approach, and concur with Dr. Macintyre that “The way to vote against the system is not to vote.”

But this begs the question: if not a struggle for the reconstitution of the liberal tradition rightly understood (Fr. Neuhaus), then what? — and is the absention from participation in the electoral process itself a statement of principled opposition or a complacent acceptance (from the ivory tower of academia) of whoever emerges the victor?

Rowland would like to claim Benedict XVI as well as John Paul II for the Augustinian-Thomist / “Communio” school and proponents of “Radical Orthodoxy”, of which she is a part. However, I’m not persuaded that Benedict is aligned with her (and MacIntyre’s) wholesale denunciation of the liberal tradition. Consider for example, the Holy Father’s own praise of the American founding and the principles which guided it during his 2008 visit to the United States.

Likewise, to reiterate Ollivant, the impression given by Rowland (and Schindler, and MacIntyre) that “liberalism is so fundamentally flawed and hostile to the faith that any replacement would be an improvement”. We can rightly criticize the privatization of religion that is the consequence of a secular liberalism. On the other hand, the integration of sacred and secular, the longing for a ‘pure’ Christianity and Christendom, the ‘Social Reign of Christ the King on Earth’, carries with it many dangers as well. Ratzinger in Jesus of Nazareth:

Let us return to the third temptation. Its true content becomes apparent when throughout history we realize that it is constantly taking on new forms. The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of Christ was not expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendour. The powerlessness of faith, the early powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. The temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria. [p. 40]

* * *

Finally, in the Fellowship of Catholic Schalars Quarterly (November 1: Spring 2005), Daniel MacInerny makes the following observations concerning ambiguities in “her account of the role of nature and of philosophy in cultural formation” that merits further development:

To begin with what is clear: Rowland believes there is an intrinsic relationship between nature and grace, between philosophy and theology. Each member of these pairs is to be distinguished, though not separated, from the other. Hence Rowland’s claim that the realm of culture, however outside the reach of direct ecclesial governance, is never completely autonomous from specifically Christian formation.

What is less clear, however, is to what extent Rowland thinks that nature can effectively be appealed to philosophically, i.e., independently of appeals to Christian revelation. Within the debates of our present cultural institutions and practices, whether religious, political, economic, artistic, can nature serve as a source of common ground—indeed, as a source of transcendent principle—for those approaching issues from a plurality of often conflicting viewpoints?

In certain passages Rowland’s understanding of the grace-nature distinction seems to diminish the importance of the purely philosophical approach to the transcendent. She invokes, for example, de Lubac’s criticism of the neo-scholastic conception of the relationship between nature and grace, “according to which the natural and the supernatural each constituted a complete and distinct order” (p. 102). The point of the neo-scholastic construal of the distinction was undoubtedly noble. It was to “facilitate general agreement between theists and atheists about the natural order.
The two could work together on the front of ‘natural’ or ‘humanist’ projects, while the more socially contentious supernatural aspirations could be relegated to the privacy of the individual soul.” But Rowland finally agrees with de Lubac that the cumulative effect of the neo-scholastic construal of the nature-grace distinction is “‘a total secularization that would banish God not
only from social life but from culture and even from the relationships of private life’” (p. 102).

This is not the place to get into the niceties of de Lubac’s criticisms of neo-scholasticism on the grace-nature distinction. But it is the place to question how, on the cultural level, the forces of secularism can be contained if we do not have a language to speak to liberal secularists that they actually have ears to hear. To smudge the boundaries between philosophy and theology, as Rowland likes to put it, would seem to demand that secular interlocutors assent to propositions of faith: no doubt a conversation stopper in most instances.

And later:

… The issue of nature arises again, finally, in Rowland’s discussion of natural law. Here she approvingly quotes Ernest Fortin’s view that “a Thomist theory of natural law requires ‘not only that the content of the natural law be naturally known to all human beings,’ but that it be known precisely as ‘belonging to a law which is both promulgated and enforced by God as the author of nature’” (p. 144). Does this mean that in order to grasp the obligatory reasonableness of an elemental rule of justice, such as the rule against not physically harming an innocent person, one must also have an understanding of God as a providential lawgiver, which is to say, a revealed understanding of God? If so, then Rowland’s argument undermines the force of natural law as a common ground for rational discussion between Christian believers and non-believers.

The ambiguity remains when Rowland later quotes David Schindler to the effect that “there can be a universal appeal to ethics in the sense of natural law; however, any such universal appeal must be oriented, in its beginning and all along the way, to the concrete form that the universal takes in the personal life of Christ and the sacramental life of the Church” (p. 146). Again, if the point of the passage is to confirm the point that the ultimate telos of the natural law is to be found in living the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, then it is an appropriate confirmation of the intrinsic relationship between nature and grace. But if the point of the passage is to say that the natural law cannot be appealed to without reference to the sacramental life of the Church, then the natural law as a force for cultural formation, at least within the pluralist cultures of the West, is neutralized.

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