Friday, March 26, 2010

Father William Most and Theology

I would like to recommend to everyone the works of Fr. William Most, many articles of which are available here.

I haven't read everything, so I can't say I completely agree with him on everything. But I like what I have read and I will say that I find his style of Theology very refreshing if only because it is so simple, though I know little about the man himself.

Recently (and by that I mean...since Scholasticism, pretty much, lol) Catholic theologians have had two major problematic methods, as I see it, that make them deviate from the relatively straight-talk of the Fathers.

The first is what I might call the "philosophizing" of Theology which occurs in Scholasticism. This is something to which the Orthodox very much object (though they have a tendency to "mysticize" their theology which can be problematic too). Philosophy is to be the handmaid of Theology, and yet too often in Scholastic schools it seems like Theology is being made just a branch of philosophy. Theology is made to fit philosophy instead of the other way around.

Theology is boxed into this or that philosophy, as if the philosophy itself were the objective Truth in itself, as opposed to just a convenient "language" for speaking the Truth. In this method, a lot of time seems to be spent fitting Theology into the framework of a given philosophy, with more or less successful results, than with actually resolving cruxes or answering questions (though the definition of terms can help clarify things sometimes).

You will also find theologians arguing over little details that are essentially philosophical (which is to say, semantical) points, rather than actual theological points with application to our belief and praxis. This got worse and worse as time went on. Whereas the Summa Theologica can be a very helpful explanation of Catholic doctrine, by the time you get to the Neo-Thomism of the 19th-century (which some people treat as practically de fide in itself) you start to see a certain desperation. The Deposit of Faith contains only a finite number of articles (almost all of which have now been defined) and the work of synthesizing Christian doctrine with Aristotle was pretty much...done. So what work was left for those theologians at that point except arguing arcane points over just what constitutes the act of esse, etc??

Which gives rise to the second problematic method, wherein (seemingly to justify their continued existence) "theologians" write these dense academic treatises that don't ever seem to reach a definitive conclusion, or argue over distinctions so subtle as to be ridiculous.
Much of theology today, unfortunately, seems to involve not even so much a discussion of theological questions in themselves and objectively answering them, but in a sort of history of theology, seeking to apply various methods of "criticism" to the writings of the Fathers or other theologians, complicating what they say by reading more into it than is there through complex "analysis" that doesn't ultimately even answer anything about reality, only about some vague little nuance in a given author's writings (without any ultimate judgment on the truth value of the author's conclusion).

This can be dangerous especially because, according to this methodology, the writings of heretics are just as "analyzable" as those of the orthodox, and that makes for strange intellectual bedfellows. In this way, a Catholic "theologian," can even be a "Luther scholar" or an "expert on Arius," because they're not really doing any theology or philosophy themselves, merely learning about the theology and philosophy of someone else (who they may or may not personally agree with). I would argue that this has lead to a certain indifferentism towards the question of heresy vs orthodoxy, for an academic who "works with" heretical texts internally, if only as an intellectual exercise allegedly free of value or truth judgments externally, is simply going to be a little more comfortable with said texts, somewhat more inclined to view them favorably or at least as having redeeming value.
And it makes theology into little less than just a specific category of humanities "literary criticism" with no difference in nature, just which body of texts is being analyzed.

Even theologians who claim to be actual systematic theologians in the sense we think of often act as if they can find the answer to theological questions by selectively quoting other theologians and drawing connections between those quotes. They refuse to answer questions in a concrete way, but rather hedge and hem and haw and obfuscate, and end up just writing a history of the question rather than an answer, or if they do put forth an answer, it is only the most subtle of points, and usually is simply drawn from contrasts or tensions between the positions of other theologians.

Fr. Most, however, seems to answer questions and provide explanations in a manner I would call more "popular," meaning accessible to people, without sinking to the level of the vapid "popular theology" of the Apologetics crowd and their cookie-cutter answers. He especially wrote a lot defending the doctrine of Mary as Co-Redemptrix against those who would seek to minimalize her role, a topic I would like to write about soon (I'm planning a whole Mariological post). I might draw a comparison between his style and the Baltimore Catechism (really all you need), and between modern "theology" and the verbose new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Fr. Most wrote in a style, and addressed topics, in a way that was very concrete and which did away with a lot of the endless talk with little content that has become Theology today. He cites sources when it's useful, but rather than "analyzing" picked-over texts to try to find "new" insight (academics will tell you it was there all along, just no one noticed!) he seems to realize that...if an idea makes sense, if it's a logical solution that seems to fit all the data...then it should stand on its own merits, you shouldn't need to write a whole dissertation to "prove" it, though he could when he needed to do so.

One such example is his book "Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God: New Answer to Old Questions" on the question of Predestination in Catholic thought. My next post is going to discuss the Catholic doctrine on Predestination and Justification in light of Fr. Most's solution.


Mark of the Vineyard said...

What's so special about the Baltimore Catechism? I'm not asking trying to be smug; I'm just not familiar with it. When I was a kid, and still living in the US, I never heard it mentioned in CCD; I've only heard about it in American Trad circles, but have never bothered to go look it up.

A Sinner said...

Oh, it's nothing particular about the Baltimore; I'm sure each country had it's own version of a "small catechism"...

It's just good because it summarized all the essential truths of the faith without getting into a lot of the "theological" complications, in a very concise and straightforward manner (in Q&A format).

It answered the questions in a concrete way without the wordiness that came to characterize elitist "theology"...

Tony said...

I am very intersted in what you have to write about grace in justification and predestination.

I'm nearly half-way through Fr. Louis Bouyer's Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, and I love it. Have you read it? I appreciate my original Protestant meandering all the more now that I'm reading this. I love it when he quotes Luther and Calvin's positive theology, which is so Catholic and which inspires me. I understand your concern about priests who study heresy all their lives...Its seductive. Calvin's Calvinism is seductive, even though I've been made to hate strict Calvinism as it had developed by his followers.

I'll look into this writer you spoke of too. But I think you need to describe better what exactly happened with neo-scholasticism, with examples and then, with more examples, show us how theology should in fact be distinct from philosophizing, or how the latter should be permitted handmaiden status and no the primary thrust of theologizing.

Daniel Smith said...

Afraid I can't recommend Fr. Most since he denies, against Catholic Dogma, that those who die in Original sin alone go to hell. He blatantly says that isn't true even though it was defined at the EC of Florence.

He says, quite critically of St Augustine:

"As we said above, from an allegorical interpretation of Romans 9, chiefly verses 19-24, Augustine said the whole race is as a mass of potters's clay from original sin—all could be sent to hell for that fact of original sin alone (infants dying without baptism are damned) . First, there was and is no support for such an allegorical interpretation. More importantly, he was sadly wrong. Original sin alone does not deserve hell. St. Thomas Aquinas knew that in teaching (De malo 5. 3. ad 4) that unbaptized infants suffer no pain at all, even have natural happiness. More important: Pius IX in Quanto conficiamur moerore (DS 2866) : "God . . . in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault." So original sin alone does not bring hell.

Daniel Smith said...

Clearly this is blatantly false. The ecumenical council of Florence infallibly defined:

"But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.

A Sinner said...

Well, his qualm may just be about distinguishing Limbo from Hell. But that's semantic, really.

Additionally, those who would defend the traditional conceptions have some problems too, as (ala Garrigou-Lagrange) they come up having to create a whole theory whereby no adult is actually able to die merely in original sin (there are no adults in any concept of the Limbo of the Infants; though Dante's concept of pagans who remained in the Limbo of the Fathers is an odd precedent), but "automatically" sin mortally upon reaching the age of reason (or, even more astoundingly, are justified immediately without baptism! What Pelagianism!)

The traditional thoughts on these matters reveal themselves pretty insufficient all around because you wind up either having to posit adults in the limbo of infants, or wind up positing a bizarre theory whereby adults can receive grace extra-sacramentally upon reaching the age of reason (but that for some reason infants can't for lack of free will, though grace is presumably free either way, and for some reason most adults wind up making the opposite "choice" instead).