Back in the day Conservative Blog Rorate Caeli often had some postings worth the time to read. That was before they brought on Richard Cippola and Peter Kwasniewski and Benedict Constable as “contributors” and level of rational analysis and critical thinking nose-dived. I like to read things that make me think and re-think my positions—especially if they contain new information I had not previously considered. Rare to find that, however, these days on Rorate Cael which is usually as insightful as yesterday’s toast. However, I did see a posting last week entitled “The Condemnation of Action Française and the Birth of Vatican II” and was excited to read it. The title held some possibility that it might be a significant article, or at least give me some more background on the current ever-widening schism between those of us who embrace the Council and those who reject it. Unfortunately, I ear-marked it for later and by the time I got back to it, it had been taken down.
Action Française was a Catholic right-wing political movement in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century France. It was monarchist and it was deeply anti-Semitic, playing a significant role in the infamous Dreyfus affair. (The family of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre were tied to Action Française.) The Third French Republic, The French government from the end of the Franco-Prussian War until France’s collapse in the face of Nazi expansion in 1940, was plagued by a lack of social cohesion that polarized French society and Action Française offered an agenda of national unity rooted in France’s historical Catholic culture. This was opposed—and successfully—by the secularists on the Government’s political left but the rightists were able to offer an effective resistance to the much of the more extreme program of the left, or at least to block some of their proposed anti-clerical legislation. However not all in the Church were willing to sell their Catholicity to Action Française. In 1927 Action Française members were officially denied the sacraments and two years later Pope Pius XI condemned the movement in an effort for rapprochement with the secularist government. The Pope felt that certain right-wing politicians were using the Church for their own political ends rather than acting in good faith. (The condemnation was lifted by Pius XII at the beginning of the Second World War.)
The nouvelle théolgie was a movement among theologians—mostly French but also Belgian, Dutch, and Germans—that began about the same time as Action Française fell into disrepute with the Church. The liturgical renewal (some would call it a “revolution”) being born in the Abbeys of Maria Laach, Chevetogne, and Beuron was developing simultaneously as scholars began to study the ancient liturgical texts and better understand the relationship between Patristic theology and pre-13th century rites. The nouvelle théolgie movement was a reaction against the neo-Thomism promoted by Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris that was so foreign to the ways the Church of the first millennium expressed its faith. Advocates of the nouvelle théolgie looked not to Saint Thomas Aquinas for their theological models but to the older Tradition, to the Fathers of the Church.
Let me back up for a moment. From the sub-Apostolic age (approximately 100AD until “The Twelfth-Century Renaissance” the theological foundations of our Catholic faith were set out by a series of bishops and theologians collectively referred to as “The Fathers of the Church.” The earliest of these is probably Ignatius of Antioch, the final father is Saint Bernard of Claivaux. The list includes Iranaeus of Lyons, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory Nazianzus, and several dozen other early writers of the Eastern and Western Churches. These “Fathers” all expressed their teachings in neo-Platonic philosophical terms because in both the Eastern and the Western Christian worlds the dominant way of thinking was neo-Platonism. Neo-Platonism was a “take” on Plato as he was understood and interpreted by Plotinus, a third century philosopher from Greek Egypt. His philosophy shaped the way people in the Mediterranean world thought and expressed themselves for almost a thousand years.
In the 12th century, mostly through contact with the world of Arab Philosophy, the West rediscovered Aristotle. Aristotle had been a disciple of Plato in ancient Athens, but developed his own philosophical methods which depended on logical syllogisms. Aristotle’s works had been lost in the Western world for centuries but were rediscovered by Arab philosophers in the tenth and eleventh century. Most prominent among these philosophers was Ibn Sīnā (or, as we in the West call him, Avicenna). The cultural exchanges between Islam and the West in the 11th and 12th century led to Catholic philosophers becoming very excited about this new way of thinking. Early Aristotelian thinkers like Peter Abelard were condemned by the Church, but Saint Thomas Aquinas successfully reinterpreted the teachings of the Fathers in this new Aristotelian method and it eventually won the favor of the hierarchy. Gradually from the thirteenth through the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church abandoned the old neo-Platonic thought and replaced it with Aristotelian, or more commonly called today, Scholastic thought. In the process, however, Catholic theologians depended less and less on the Fathers of the Church, replacing them with Saint Thomas and his disciples. It proved to be a serious disruption in Catholic intellectual life as the Fathers retreated (or were shoved) off to the sidelines of Catholic thought.
In the mid-twentieth century advocates of the nouvelle théolgie urged a return to the Fathers as the basis of theological reflection. An entire generation of theologians: Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Louis Bouyer, and Jean Daniélou embraced the new methodology. Several of them suffered at the hands of the Holy Office (today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and previously known as the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition) under the indomitable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani because of their abandonment of neo-Scholasticism but the new way of thinking was to prevail. These were the men who shaped the thought of the Second Vatican Council.
A challenge has arisen in as much as the Councils of Trent and Vatican I drew on the neo-Scholastic way of thinking whereas Vatican II is shaped by the Patristic heritage. The ideas of each sound strange, even heretical, to the other. The neatly packaged syllogisms of Scholastic Theology are clear and precise but lack the mystical depth of the Patristic Tradition. The theology of the nouvelle théolgie writers is not nearly as sharply delineated and narrowly defined as the work of the Neo-Scholastics but have the antiquity of Tradition to their defense. As a result the Church has lost the intellectual cohesion of the pre-Conciliar days. Some of us can live with that ambiguity; others struggle. Much of the conflict in the Church today is rooted in this theological diversity.