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June/July 2004


A master philosopher-theologian weighs in to the
Ratzinger debate and cuts to a fundamental problem:

The Cartesian Factor

6 April 2004

Dear Editor

I read with great interest James Larsonís articles criticising the philosophical views of Cardinal Ratzinger. It may bring you and Christian Order a bit of flak, but the criticism was perfectly valid.

I had a lively interest in Thomistic Philosophy and the History of Philosophy when I began my studies in 1929. I taught both subjects from 1939 to 1954. When the Cardinal expounded his philosophical views he stepped into an arena, or battleground, where an argument that appeals to authority is, as St. Thomas writes, the weakest of all.

I would only disagree with Larson on two points - minor ones.

Firstly, I am sure that Cardinal Ratzinger, like the Pope, thinks that the Phenomenological Personalism of Husserl and Scheler is now the best weapon available to the Christian thinker in his battle against the Positivism that views the only source of true knowledge as that provided by the natural sciences.

The problem is that the Phenomenologist accepts as valid Descartesí postulate that the primary and direct object of intellectual knowledge is the famous "Cogito": we can doubt everything else but we cannot doubt that we are doubting.

St. Thomas disagrees. For him, the primary object of our intellectual knowledge is material substances, existing in themselves outside the mind and known in an actual way.

As Hume saw very clearly, if you accept Descartesí postulate, the only stance that is logically open to you is sceptical solipsism [the view that the self is all that can be known to exist – Ed.]. This prospect terrified Hume.

Kant accepted Descartesí postulate and so his theory, again, was grounded in the Cartesian view that our primary certitude is not, as St. Thomas held, that "Things Exist", but "Cogito" – I am thinking. (Not surprisingly, the philosophical errors of Kantís agnosticism helped inspire latter-19th century Modernism.)

Husserl and Scheler, who also accepted the Cartesian postulate, appealed to the undeniable fact that we know other persons. We can speak to them and they can reply. But St. Thomas disagrees. He replies that we can know them with certainty only because we can see bodies and we can bump into them in the dark.

The philosophy department of the Catholic University of Lublin of which the Pope was for some years a member and professor, claimed that it had made a successful synthesis of Phenomenology and the realist metaphysics of St. Thomas. Papal biographer George Weigel explains that with this synthesis, the Church will be able to navigate successfully as she confronts the errors of the 21st century. Weigel is wrong. For this acclaimed synthesis rests on a contradiction. The fact is that Husserlís epistemology [i.e. investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion – Ed.] cannot be combined with the metaphysics of St. Thomas, which is only compatible with Aristotleís epistemology of Natural Realism and this involves a total repudiation of the Cartesian postulate.

The second minor disagreement is with Larsonís assumption that Cardinal Ratzinger studied the philosophy of St. Thomas in his seminary days. This may not be the case. Karl Rahner has admitted that he never studied the teaching of St. Thomas. His mentors were Fr. J. Marechal, S.J., and also Martin Heidegger. (Marechal claimed that he had created a viable synthesis of the Transcendental Idealism of Kant and the Metaphysics of St. Thomas – an impossible feat as explained above).

Like all German Catholic intellectuals of his time, Cardinal Ratzinger will doubtless have been profoundly influenced by the views of Joseph Jungmann, S.J., (1830-1885), a Professor of Homiletics and Catechetics at the University of Innsbruck. Jungmann believed that scholastic theology, which though he may not have said so includes the theology of St. Thomas, no longer meets the intellectual needs of modern man. "Modern Man" really meant the intellectuals of his day, who were Kantians in most cases.

Fr. G. H. Duggan SM


* * * * *

Further revealing insights into the neo-conservative pillars of the noxious New Theology, their neophytes and fellow travellers. [See also Dr Anne Gardinerís critique of von Balthasar and von Speyr in this edition].

Cyanide or Morphine?

20 March 2004

Dear Editor

According to Communioís David Schindler, twentieth-century theology is largely a choice between Rahner and von Balthasar. While Rahner has been dismissed as an outright Modernist, serious Catholic theologians have increasingly turned
to Balthasar.

The Communio* group includes several talented clergy and laity. While orthodox in their theology, they are sometimes prone to making surprising observations. The gifted theologian Aidan Nichols, for instance, has a chapter on "Holy Innocents" in his book Christendom Awake, partly dedicated to theological reflections on the "locutions" of Patricia [de Menezez], the alleged visionary from Surbiton, England. It was Patricia who heard Mary sing the Te Deum - "O Lord... keep us without sin ... have mercy on us….let us not be condemned" [See "Alleged Apparitions and their Alleged Fruits", CO February 2000, and "Divine Innocence: Some Concerns", CO May 2002 - Ed.]

In his perceptive work on Tolkien entitled Secret Fire, Stratford Caldecott includes a section entitled "An Archetypal Journey: Tolkien and Jung". Although quite critical of the Jungian position from a Christian standpoint, Caldecott admits that "Jungís description of the therapeutic journey of the self can be helpful" in describing aspects of the spiritual journey. "Galadriel features in the Jungian reading of Lord of the Rings as a powerful positive symbol of the feminine archetype and Shelab as the negative feminine." This is a surprising concession as Jung was profoundly anti-Catholic. [See Dr. Thevathasonís article in this edition, pp. 65-70 – Ed.]

Central to the Communio vision remains the towering and cultured figure of von Balthasar. It was Balthasar who made the rather anti-Malthusian speculation that Hell may be under-populated – perhaps empty. He also wrote in his book on Mary that she is unlikely to have requested the consecration of Russia. A not so subtle dig at Fatima, perhaps?

It was Balthasar who also wrote that Jesus did not know who He really was. It would be against his human "dignity" to know the future. In his 1984 book Did Jesus Know He Was God, published by Mercier Press and translated from the French by New York priest Mgr Michael Wrenn, Father Francois Dreyfus OP, a Balthasar admirer quotes Balthasar at length as asserting:

"Jesus is a real man and the inalienable dignity of man is to be able and to want to project freely the plan of his existence into a future of which he is ignorant. If this man is a believer, the future into which he throws himself and projects himself is God in his liberty. To deprive Jesus of this chance and to have him advance towards an end known in advance would end up by depriving him of his dignity as a man" [p. 88].

If – as this quote appears to suggest – Balthasarís Christology is suspect, then a certain suspicion needs to be cast on other aspects of his theology.

Another emerging "orthodox" movement is the Radical Orthodoxy Movement. It attracts orthodox Christians as well as those who are Modernists. What is its vision? A woman priest saying the Tridentine Mass? To their credit, their writings are sufficiently obscure for anyone outside the Movement to comprehend.

Among Catholic theologians these days, Aquinas is read in the light of Kant, in the light of the phenomenologists or in the light of Balthasar. Why not read Aquinas in the light of Aquinas?

The great Thomist Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange asked so many years ago: where is the new theology heading? Straight back to Modernism.

So what should we choose? The vision of Rahner or the vision of von Balthasar? Cyanide or slow increments of morphine?

Pravin Thevathason

* Editors Note: Communio is a quarterly theological journal founded in 1972 by Cardinal Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and others. Now published in German, English and Spanish editions, it has become a leading and influential journal of Catholic thought. It’s stated mission is "to provide long-term resources for reflection, renewal and mission in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council as interpreted by the Pontificate of John Paul.