Neo-Thomism and the Theology of Religions: A Case Study on Belgian and U.S. Textbooks (1870-1950) (1)

Article excerpt

THOMAS AQUINAS'S THEOLOGY OF RELIGIONS is currently being given serious thought. The entire January-June 2006 issue of Revue thomiste, for example, is devoted to this topic. In this light, it would seem of interest to explore the connection between Aquinas's thought on the subject and that of the Neo-Thomists of the 19th and 20th centuries. This I propose to do here. In pursuing this angle, my study will invoke some contemporary theological constructs such as "inclusivism" and "exclusivism" that lend themselves to the detection of Catholicism's theological attitude toward other religions.

Although one finds different meanings for these complex concepts in the scholarly literature, (2) I draw these two "sensitizing concepts" into the following working definition. By "inclusivistic" I mean the interreligious model that recognizes other religions as possibly possessing partial truth and a certain possibility of salvation, on the condition that Jesus Christ functions as the norm and constitutive element of such truth and salvation. By "exclusivistic" I mean the model that sees Christianity as holding the exclusive monopoly on truth and salvation. Using these two comprehensive theological concepts, I hope to contribute to the history of the theology of religions in the Catholic Church itself. In contemporary theological and historical literature, the majority of authors hold that exclusivism was the dominant interreligious paradigm in the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II, (3) while a minority of authors hold that "inclusivism" was the dominant paradigm. (4) My article argues for the minority position.

Why begin my research with textbooks? Few would doubt that textbooks are a crucial medium for reconstructing mentalities and realities in society, due to their comprehensive yet extremely selective character, and their usually concise or even superficial approach. (5) Textbooks constitute part of the microeducational level that is itself an intertwining of networks and structures stemming from the macro- and mesoeducational levels (policymaking directives from government and educational authorities, dominant educational and ideological objectives, etc.) of the entire educational system. (6) In addition to this, if in line with certain currents within historiography one defines an educational system as a "school culture" in the sense of an overall set of values, norms, and expectations that directs the shaping of the school and its members' activities, (7) then it is obvious that the textbook, as the nexus of the entire school culture, is a privileged source for detecting large "structures" or mentalities constitutive of a whole culture or subculture that surrounds the school culture. Starting from the analysis of textbooks, therefore, I hope to illuminate the theological structure that characterized Catholic culture in Belgium and the United States from 1870 to 1950. In looking for the continuity and discontinuity with Aquinas's thought, I want to enlarge the scope of the Catholic theology of religions to the Middle Ages.

I begin, therefore, by analyzing textbooks on apologetics used in Catholic secondary schools in Belgium and the United States from 1870 until 1950 (8) and comparing them first with their sources, namely, the Church's "great" and official apologetic tracts. Then I will look for parallels with and differences from Aquinas's teaching. I limit myself to apologetic textbooks for three reason: (1) Within the corpus of religion textbooks, those on apologetics and church history are the most suited to the kind of analysis carried out here. Other religion textbooks emphasize almost exclusively the internal aspects and development of the Church, whereas textbooks on apologetics and church history focus more on the external history and relations of the Catholic Church. (2) I do not include church history textbooks here because they do not explicitly refer to the underlying theology of religions. …