A visitor’s guide to the Catholic theological zoo

Aquinas: Thomism is arguably the most significant Catholic theological tradition

Catholic Theology
By Tracey Rowland, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, £14.99

Catholic Theology introduces the Catholic tradition by focusing on “foundations, key concepts, eminent thinkers and historical development”. Rowland, one of the finest Catholic theologians writing today, combines fundamental and historical theology, offers a wide range of insights into numerous theologians and movements, and provides an informative tour of the most significant schools of modern theology.

Meant for undergraduate students and study groups, Catholic Theology has plenty of academic qualities, diving into deep waters while employing substantial endnotes and several appendices. But Rowland wears her learning lightly, even when the topics at hand – schools of Thomism, intricate methodologies, gnoseological concupiscence – are dense and demanding. “The best an author can hope to achieve” in such an introductory text, she explains, is to provide “an overview of the most significant approaches and fault lines” and leave readers to “fill in the details and nuances in their studies”.

In September 2014, Rowland was named by Pope Francis to the International Theological Commission (ITC), a body of 30 theologians answering to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is not surprising, then, that the opening chapter on “fundamental issues and building blocks” delves into two ITC documents: “The Unity of the Faith and Theological Pluralism” (1972) and “Theology Today” (2012).

The first principle examined – “The mystery exceeds any system” – is especially important, for it maintains the essential balance and tension between “mystery” and “system”. No theological system can comprehensively explain the mystery of the faith; conversely, doctrine and dogma are indispensable and necessary. A section on the relationship between the Magisterium and theologians sets the stage for the next four chapters.

These examine Thomism, Communio, Concilium and liberation theology. Each masterfully balances the big picture with details about key theologians, developments and controversies. Especially helpful is how Rowland places all of this within the context of Church life and the secular realm. Thomism “is arguably the most significant” of the Catholic theological traditions, Rowland states, wryly asking: “if you are for Aquinas, do you want to take him neat or do you want to add other ingredients”?

The chapters on the Communio and Concilium approaches are essential for non-specialists trying to make sense of the past 60 years. Rowland is herself associated with the Communio movement, which was founded by Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and other Ressourcement theologians. Points of emphasis include a hermeneutic of continuity, a rejection of rationalism and secularism (especially its Kantian forms), the nuptial nature of divine revelation and a Communio ecclesiology.

The Concilium approach, headed by Hans Küng, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, is marked by an embrace of Enlightenment-era rationalism and modern secularism, and an emphasis on reading “the sign of the times” with an eye towards the Church conforming to said “times”.

“Whereas the Communio scholars tend to start with the Trinitarian dogmas and work on developing the territories of theological anthropology and moral theology with reference to Patristic-era Christology,” notes Rowland, “the Concilium scholars tend to start with contemporary social theory and work on what they can learn from sociologists about such topics as freedom and justice and equality.” Those in the Concilium school “manifest a strong desire for the Church to be accepted by the world and believe that the world is more likely to accept the Church if the Church retreats from her centuries-long practice of presenting the Catholic faith as the master narrative.” This is in direct contrast to the Communio approach, whose scholars believe that “Christianity makes no sense at all … unless it is the master narrative.”

The final chapter, “Liberation Theology and the Papacy of Francis”, offers many insights into the complicated realm of a theological system foreign to most Western readers. Situating Francis is difficult, in part because of the Pope’s well-known lack of interest in theological technicalities. However, he does have strong sympathy for the “people’s theology”, which usually places praxis over theory, posits that poverty endows a moral superiority, and has a Hegelian-laced belief that “unity will prevail” in time over any conflicts. The latter is notable in light of the ongoing controversies over Communion.

“If you want not just a guide to the taxonomy and genealogy of the Catholic theological zoo,” noted Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney, in helping launch Rowland’s book, “but also a way to understand the crises of Church and society and the therapies that might be offered, I strongly recommend to you Catholic Theology.” This layman concurs with that recommendation.

Carl E Olson is an author and editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight