By Reno, R. R.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 173
Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Chenu to Ratzinger by Fergus Kerr Blackwell, 240 pages, $29.95
Over the last decade, a Scottish Dominican named Fergus Kerr has produced a series of books designed to orient readers to contemporary trends. In the 1997 Immortal Longings, he discussed a range of philosophers, teasing out the latent theological tendencies that bear out the truth of the Augustinian insight that our hearts are restless. In the 2002 After Aquinas, he introduced readers to contemporary strands of thought that draw on the Angelic Doctor. Now Kerr has produced Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians, a smartly done survey of the figures who reshaped Catholic theology before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council.
Kerr did not set out to write a full history of twentieth-century Catholic theology, and his book does not pretend to be comprehensive in scope. There is no discussion of liberation theology, for example, and no treatment of the many "theologies of--" that proliferated at the end of the century. Indeed, he gives only a summary account of the neoscholastic theology that dominated the Catholic world for the first half of the twentieth century. Instead of breadth, Kerr opts for a focused account of ten figures who came to prominence in the decades prior to and following the Second Vatican Council: Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Kung, Karl Wojtyla, and Joseph Ratzinger.
One can dispute the choices. I would drop Schillebeeckx and Kung. More representative than original, they are not important thinkers, and both are largely irrelevant to the future of Catholic theology. The role of Wojtyla and Ratzinger as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, leading the Church, complicates any assessment of their intellectual contributions, as Kerr notes (and as Ratzinger himself observed of his own work while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Disagreements and caveats aside, however, Kerr points us in the right direction. The men he discusses were leaders of what we might call the Heroic Generation. They fundamentally changed the way in which the Church thinks.
Kerr agrees with Walter Kasper's observation that "there is no doubt that the outstanding event in Catholic theology of our century is the surmounting of neoscholasticism." The change was dramatic. In 1950, Pius XII published Humani Generis. This papal encyclical was widely read as an unequivocal reaffirmation of the neoscholastic tradition that had come to dominate Catholic responses to modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1970, that tradition was utterly eclipsed and superseded by the new modes of Catholic theology developed and articulated by the theologians Kerr surveys. With fresh and informed readings of their work, Kerr charts many of the intellectual and personal factors in this revolution.
The Heroic Generation was a diverse group. They did not form a unified school of thought. They did not share the same concerns or interests, and, in retrospect, it is clear they did not make equal contributions. Fortunately, Kerr does not try to force these theologians into a single mold, nor does he advance a grand thesis about the fundamental achievement (or failure) of the revolution in twentieth-century Catholic theology.
But modesty does not preclude genuine insight. As Kerr works his way through some of the more interesting and important figures, a distinct reality comes into view. The most creative members of the Heroic Generation are now strangely inaccessible to us. Their achievement has been hollowed out--in part, at leash by its own success. Their revolution destroyed the theological culture that gave vitality and life to their theological projects.
This paradox may be the strangest and most significant feature of the Heroic Generation. …