Dr Pravin Thevathasan reviews

Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II,
by Tracey Rowland

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Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II, by Tracey Rowland, Routledge, 2003

The author of this important work is Dean of the John Paul II institute in Melbourne, Australia. An underlying theme is that the pre-conciliar Thomist tradition was unable to appropriately inform Gaudiem et Spes, the Vatican II document that covered the Catholic response to contemporary culture. Important pre-conciliar contributions on culture by Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini, and, surely, Gilson and the early Maritain, were largely ignored. In consequence, the document contains certain ambiguities and, as Cardinal Ratzinger observed some years ago, an unduly optimistic view of man.

Of course, “culture” has changed since Vatican II. The backstreet abortionists and pornographers have gone mainstream, and the rock star rebels of yesteryear are now noble Lords and Ladies. Even a Rahnerian optimist would find it difficult to see what is “naturally” Christian about contemporary “culture.”

Our post-Christian culture is deeply hostile to Christian practices and beliefs and our choice is stark: either the culture of life of the culture of death—either Nietzsche or Aquinas. And, perhaps more problematic for this reviewer, either Rahner or von Balthasar.

There are splits within the Thomist tradition. For a “post-modern Augustinian Thomist,” there are irreconcilable differences between “the culture of modernity and the classical Christian worldview.” Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, notes that when Thomists and secular humanists talk of human rights, they are frequently talking at cross purposes.

In contrast, “Whig Thomists,” like George Weigel and Michael Novak see a certain consistency between liberalism and Christianity.

The author succeeds admirably in presenting the differences between Augustinian Thomists and the proponents of the New Natural Law Theory (Grisez, Finnis, Boyle):

1. MacIntyre allows for some arguments from “is” to “ought.”

2. MacIntyre's notion of a narrative tradition has no equivalent within the New Natural Law Project.

3. For MacIntyre, the good of religion may be seen as the primary good. For proponents of the New Natural Law Theory, it is one of seven “incommensurable” goods.

4. MacIntyre rejects the Liberal tradition. Proponents of the New Natural Law Theory pick “certain fruits of modernity, such as human rights, and make them a part of one's intellectual framework”—but ultimately condemn the philosophical roots.

Like all good intellectual works, Culture and the Thomist Tradition, is profoundly relevant. It gives coherent answers as to why Humanae Vitae was rejected and why our once glorious liturgy is now in shambles.

This reviewer would have appreciated an analysis of the tensions between “Traditionalists” like Garrigou-Lagrange on the one hand, and “progressives” like De Lubac and von Balthasar, who were accused of modernism, on the other. One wonders what the great French Thomist would have made of the project of reading Aquinas in the light of von Balthasar rather than Kant?

Dr Pravin Thevathasan


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