Conflict in Current Roman Catholic Systematic Theology: A Diagnosis and Response

By Pambrun, James R. | Theological Studies, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Conflict in Current Roman Catholic Systematic Theology: A Diagnosis and Response


Pambrun, James R., Theological Studies


Naming and addressing the abiding sense of conflict in Roman Catholic theology remains a matter of some concern. (1) With a view toward diagnosing and responding to conflicts within current Roman Catholic systematic theology, scholars such as Joseph Komonchak and Kevin Hughes have drawn Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure into the fray. (2) Komonchak points out how the distinct theological approaches of Augustine and Aquinas manifest different attitudes toward the world. He argues that Augustinian and Bonaventurian influences on the theological preferences of Benedict XVI lead to a less receptive and less positive attitude toward the world than do the attitudes promoted by theologians and theological developments after Vatican II that are more influenced by a Thomistic tradition. (3)

More recently, Hughes disagrees with using Bonaventure and Aquinas to explain current divisions in theology, especially where these divisions are defined by opposing theological views toward the world. (4) The problem, he maintains, cannot be placed on the shoulders of these doctors of the church. Rather, the problem lies closer to home: the fragmentation of disciplines resulting from a turn to modernity. Along with this turn, Hughes contends, a misunderstanding has crept into our current mode of theological reasoning--a misunderstanding that centers on how such figures as Aquinas and Bonaventure constructed quite sophisticated Summas of Christian faith. Seeing the difference between them is a matter of understanding their distinct modes of reasoning. Hughes contends that greater attention to these modes and how they complement each other would greatly enrich our own current modes of theological reasoning--in these ways: First, an effort on our part to understand how Aquinas's and Bonaventure's modes of reasoning actually complement each other could teach us how to develop ways of thinking that do not capitulate to the fragmentary character of current human discourse. Second, seeing how Aquinas's and Bonaventure's modes are complementary could teach us how distinct theological perspectives can be held together to better comprehend the Christian faith and promote the integration of a systematic form that draws from biblical texts and tradition.

Adverting to such thinkers as Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure on behalf of either diagnosing or responding to current difficulties constitutes only part of a response. In the first place, Hughes and Komonchak are both correct. Komonchak is right to identify two distinct influences and to show how they play out in current theological debates. For example, on the one hand, the writings of such scholars as Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI show a marked resonance with an Augustinian or Bonaventurian line because of the aesthetic character of their mode of reasoning. On the other hand, scholars influenced by a Thomistic approach, such as Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, and Karl Rahner, (5) resonate more closely with an intellectualist orientation. But Hughes is also correct: such an analysis need not lead to an oppositional approach--and I think Komonchak would agree. Instead, greater effort should be made to see how the Augustinian/Bonaventurean and Thomistic approaches are complementary.

Second, neither Komonchak's nor Hughes's analysis really helps us understand how communication is possible between these two great lines of theological achievement. Komonchak's historical and hermeneutical reading illuminates distinct approaches and their foundations, showing how the differences can lead to conflict. But he has not addressed the other side of his own diagnosis, namely, how to work at overcoming potential impasses, or how to craft a strategy for positive communication. That remains an open invitation.

Hughes argues that the ways Aquinas and Bonaventure developed their respective Summas of Christian faith continue to stand out as exemplary models of theological reasoning. …

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