Hutton on Feingold and Milbank - "Thomism goes Old School"

Writing in Nova et Vetera ("Desiderium Naturale Visionis Dei -- Est autem duplex hominis beatitudo sive felicitas: Some Observations about Lawrence Feingold’s and John Milbank’s Recent Interventions in the Debate over the Natural Desire to See God", pp. 81-131) Reinhard Hütter bristles at Milbank's sharply polemical criticism of Feingold:
In his recent opuscule, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate concerning the Supernatural, John Milbank characterizes Feingold’s work as “arch-reactionary,”“written to reinstate a Garrigou-Lagrange type position,” and his exegetical method as “much like that of the proof-texting of a Protestant fundamentalist,” hence representing the “die-hard,” “palaeolithic” neo-Thomism. Moreover, in a less than subtle form of invective, Milbank denies his interlocutor the honor of being named correctly by consistently misnaming him throughout as “Feinberg.” The readers of Milbank’s treatise -- most of whom in all likelihood are neither experts in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Henri de Lubac, or Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in particular nor of Catholic theology in general -- are thus invited to entertain the suspicion of some sinister right-wing ecclesiastical conspiracy. And since Feingold’s tome is, quite unfortunately, virtually impossible to lay hands on [not anymore? -- Christopher] as well as (should one succeed in getting hold of it) a much more demanding read than Milbank’s opuscule, very few of Milbank’s readers will be able to double-check the all too quick dismissal of a serious piece of theological scholarship the implications of which are, however, unsurprisingly, less than supportive of Milbank’s own project. But why should anyone care about the truth of the charge if one of the presently leading opinion formers of contemporary Anglo-American Protestant theology has sent out such weighty signals as “arch-reactionary, die-hard, palaeolithic neo-Thomism”?

On Milbank's embarassing mispelling of Feingold as "Feinberg", Hütter further adds: "The possibility, however, that the consistent use of the misnomer “Feinberg” simply reflects a neglect of contingent details, cannot be definitively excluded, since, after all, the reader has to recognize behind “Jacques Maintain” the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (25, note 9)." If John Milbank were to ever release a new edition of The Suspended Middle, it would undoubtedly benefit from a proofreader.

* * *

Hütter's lengthy review of Feingold and Milbank is well recommended. Like Hütter, I cannot say the same for The Suspended Middle, although with the caveat that I have personally only made my way through the first several chapters before deciding -- at least for the time being -- that it would be preferable to postpone Milbank and complete my objective of finishing Feingold's immensely more satisfying (and immensely more lucid) opus by the close of this year. Indeed, I found my subjective experience of reading Feingold contra Milbank to be in part aesthetically-motivated: the pleasure of reading the former as contrasted with the painful drudgery of the latter.

Feingold surveys the entire history of Catholic theology and the Thomist commentorial tradition on this particular subject, with the position of each author clearly formulated, substantially documented and laid out in detail such that one can grasp with relative ease where each stands on any given question: Scotus, Cajetan, Suarez, De Lubac, and a host of other Thomists, not to mention Aquinas himself. Feingold's text contains copious quotations from his source materials, and is exhaustively referenced and footnoted. Nothing is left to question. One cannot but be awed by the herculean effort it must have taken to read through, understand, meticulously assemble and publish this body of work. To call it a "magisterial" treatment in scope and substance is not an understatement.

Unfortunately, my experience of navigating Milbank's Suspended Middle is much akin to groping my way through a London fog after a night of pub-hopping. His work is as sparse on direct quotations as Feingold is indulgent, leaving the reader thirsty for validation beyond purported claims and wishing Milbank would deign to engage in what he denigrates as "Protestant proof-texting". For example, consider Milbank's blithe assertion that:

"Cajetan and neo-scholasticism, by contrast [to De Lubac's ontological revisionism], leave philosophical ontology alone in its immanence: the being of human nature, as of everything else, can be specified without reference to God, or only God as ultimate efficient cause. On the other hand, cosmic and human beings in no way (as it does for De Lubac) anticipates grace. The structures of grace are without precedent: yet in practice scholasticism will have to speak of them in terms of analogues taken from an immanent univocal ontology. Since nothing in 'purely natural' being of itself participates in divine esse or by analogical ascent negates its own non-self-sufficiency, these analogues will be purely in terms of the quantitative extension of the range of an adequately "given" meaning. And what natural analogues to grace will be available in these terms save those of an anonymous and overwhelming force? or a nominal and invisible raising of status which yet commands visible jurisdiction? [p. 30]
How's that for a single paragraph? -- and I assure you it's characteristic of the whole lot. I'm embarrassed to say that, having read several hundred pages of Feingold (and in this year alone, reams of academic articles and book reviews on Aquinas) I've never experienced the cognitive difficulty I've encountered with Milbank. Does anybody else find him as impenetrable as I do? (Rhetorical question -- googling "John Milbank" and "dense" turns up 10,600 results with such descriptions of his works as "a dense read"; "Impressively dense"; "dense but quite profound"; "dense and exquisite"; "splendidly dense"; "characteristically dense"; "poetically dense"; "painfully dense"; "dense and difficult"; "dense, heady and bewildering"; "impossibly dense"; "dense, challenging and elusive"; "dense, frequently heady and inclined toward ornately convoluted prose"; "a dark, pith pit of dense propositions" -- and possessing a "dense, intellectual style that has prompted charges of elitism." I may not be traveling alone.

Moving on ... Hütter also offers the following intuition of why Milbank finds "Feinberg" -- sorry, Feingold -- so exasperating:

While Milbank’s project is neither guided nor framed by the norms and criteria of Catholic theology, his reaction is nevertheless indicative of how not a few contemporary Catholic theologians might react to Feingold’s book as well. For Feingold indeed challenges numerous assumptions received and settled in the first three decades after Vatican II. The first is methodological: In the wake of neo-Marxist sociology, the linguistic turn in Anglo-Saxon philosophy, and the hermeneutical and poststructuralist developments in continental philosophy, theology for many a contemporary Catholic theologian can only be conceived as defensible and intelligible in a thoroughly historical-contextualist and constructivist mode. Every theological claim must needs be advanced, read, and assessed in light of the historical, communal, and political context in which it is produced and to which it is addressed. The only way to forward arguments is by situating and out-narrating opponents as well as offering rhetorical and aesthetic appeals leading to the volitional as well as conceptual conversion of the interlocutor. Propositional discourse as informed by metaphysical realism and discursive, conceptual argumentation is therefore at present widely dismissed as a suspiciously disembodied and philosophically outdated mode of speculative theology, oblivious to the historical, pragmatic, and practice oriented nature of theology itself and thus vulnerable to being constantly co-opted by deeply entrenched as well as concealed discourses of power and interest. This wholesale rejection of what was seen as the ossified discourse of textbook neo-scholasticism was accompanied -- in the wake of Heidegger as well as Wittgenstein -- by hailing the "end of metaphysics" in general and the Aristotelian Thomist metaphysics in particular. And since -- on the basis of Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris -- Thomas Aquinas had again been instantiated as the loadstar of a renewed Catholic philosophy, according to an understanding that interpreted Vatican II as the license to break with that very tradition, he had to be put aside as outmoded too.

According to Hütter, Feingold distinguishes himself in that his mode of writing circumvents the "historical-contexualist and constructivist" expectations of postmodern scholarship by "entering into" the scholastic commentorial tradition, focusing exclusively on Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus (as well as some Scotists), the Thomist commentators (including Suárez) up to Garrigou-Lagrange and Henri de Lubac.

Feingold provokes by operating in a mode of discourse very unfamiliar to theological readers by now largely unaccustomed to the conceptual precision and rigor once cultivated by the “schoolmen.” Differently put, Feingold’s mode of discourse is highly mimetic of the virtually forgotten tradition of Thomist commentators. ...

What makes Feingold so provocative is that the form of his discourse -- in stark contrast to de Lubac’s way of reading the commentators -- is shaped not by a historical hermeneutic but by reconstructing and thus entering their own way of conducting a speculative theological enquiry, a mimetic exercise reconstructing and thus continuing the commentators’ discursive mimesis of Aquinas.

As Hütter points out, this distinction also applies to Feingold's critical engagement with De Lubac himself -- whereas De Lubac's writing "transposes the speculative theological discourse of the commentators into a historical-hermeneutical frame of inquiry", Feingold "[enters into] the commentatorial tradition with its propositional-discursive mode of operation" which is distinguished by its metaphysical realism (dismissed by Milbank as a "Garrigou-Langrange type position") p. 24 Suspended Middle). Thus:
Feingold provokes by returning to and, by implication, rehabilitating an older discursive tradition and submitting de Lubac’s theology to the conceptual rigor of this tradition. Feingold is so irritating because he picks up the ball where it was dropped -- with the broad acceptance of the theological approach advanced by Henri de Lubac and other representatives of the nouvelle théologie -- without signaling awareness of what has happened in Catholic theology since. [Hütter, pp. 93-94]

Christopher Smith: "Anglophone theologians engage De Lubac for the twenty first century"

Christopher Smith, graduate of the University of Navarra has made available online the sixth chapter of his doctoral thesis, "Surnaturel Revisited Henri De Lubac’s Theology of the Supernatural in Contemporary Theology" -- together with the introduction, contents and bibliography. The scope is impressive, covering everything from the original controversy over the publication of De Lubac's Surnaturel to revisitations of the subject from 1980-2010, including the groundbreaking publication of Feingold's The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and His Interpreters , the critical reaction of John Milbank, and the contributions of Reinhard Hutter and Stephen Long.
As the 2000 Colloquium at the Institut Catholique in Toulouse on de Lubac and the supernatural came to a successful conclusion, little did its participants know that the fraternal dialogue that characterized their conference would soon be followed by a debate the proportions of which can compare to what happened after the initial publication of Surnaturel. As the interventions were prepared for a double issue of Revue thomiste to appear the next year, an American student was preparing a doctoral defense that would spark this renewed debate. While many theologians had long cast the supernatural question and De Lubac into the dustbin, contemporary Thomists of the Toulousian School, and the heirs apparent of the nouvelle théologie in the so-called Communio school of theologians, had come to a modus vivendi which integrated much of De Lubac’s thought into mainstream Catholic theology. Lawrence Feingold, who prepared his thesis under Alfonso Chacón (b. 1952) and Stephen Brock (b. 1957), at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, was about to challenge the delicate status quo in a way which for many entered the stage of theological drama as a character foreign to the developing plot line, a ghost of theologies past, and irresistible to watch. … Read more

Read Chapter 6, Anglophone theologians engage De Lubac for the twenty first century.

Reflections on Steven Long's "Natura Pura"

Andrew Greenwell (of the blog Lex Christianorum) has been reading Steven Long and offers a number of posts on Steven Long's Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace (Fordham UP, 2010):
  • Natura Pura: Human Nature Unaided (02/16/11):
    Grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected."* So succinctly does St. Thomas distinguish grace and human nature so as to immediately recombine them. But there is a marked tendency among some contemporary theologians, those of la nouvelle théologie, to so emphasize grace as to virtually negate any meaning in the notion of human nature. Ultimately, this tendency is derived from a notion of "nature" which is bereft of any theonomic character,** and one far less ontologically dense than what St. Thomas had in mind by the concept of "nature." ...
  • Natura Pura: Misunderstanding St. Thomas: Source Texts (02/17/11):
    Renaissance or Cajetanian corruptions to the genuine teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas is how the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac interpreted the received Thomistic teaching on human nature and divine grace. In fact, it was not Renaissance or Cajetanian corruptions in the received teaching, but the "modern presumptions" in de Lubac's notions of nature that steered him wrong. ...
  • Natura Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part I (02/18/11).

  • Natura Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part II (02/19/11).

  • Balaam's Ass and Stained Glass: The Concept of Specific Obediential Potency:
    The notion of obendiential potency is a central concept to traditional Christian anthropology. Man's nature--that which defines him specifically--is in potency to supernatural grace, a potency which is actualized by the obedience of faith and all such obedience of faith entails (e.g., baptism). De Lubac appears to have limited his notion of obediential potency as "susceptibility to miracle," which is one manner in which the term was used by scholastics, including St. Thomas himself. But de Lubac seems to disregard, nay, in fact reject,* the concept in its other sense, that is as the conceptual carrier for "the fundamental question of the relation of nature to grace." Long, 28. (In this latter sense, to distinguish it from its former generic sense, it is often called "specific obediential potency.") According to Long, the same tendentiousness is found in the Thomist Etienne Gilson for whom the concept of obediential potency "was tantamount to the idea of a mere extrinsic and miraculous transmutation of nature." Long, 28.

    Restricted to the sense of susceptability to miracle, the concept of "obediential potentiality" is clearly deficient to explain the relationship between human nature and the supernatural life. There is a huge difference between Balaam's ass speaking (a miraculous transmutation of asinine nature) and man's capax Dei, his natural capacity to be receptive to, and elevated by the divine aid and "speak in tongues" so to speak. If kept to this denotation alone, it is an inadequate carrier of that relationship. If man were transmuted by grace, he would no longer be man. If man was not man until he was transmuted by grace, then he would not have been man before. But what is remarkable is the rejection of both Gilson and de Lubac of the term "obediential potency" as the concept of man's passive receptivity to divine grace. It was as if these two greats had never read St. Thomas!

  • The Plunder of Nature: Outside and Inside the Household (02/22/11).

  • Toward a Recapture of Nature in its Fullness (02/23/11).

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part I (02/25/11). "Even the redoubtable Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar,* unquestionably one of the great Catholic theologians of the 20th century, shared in de Lubac's error on the distinction between nature and grace."

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part II (02/26/11).
  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part III (02/27/11). "There is a tendency towards reductionism of nature in Hans Urs von Balthasar's understanding of nature within the greater question the nature/supernature complex."

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part IV (02/28/11). "Hans Urs von Balthasar appears to have been convinced that the concept of pure nature had to be abandoned as an inadequate theological concept. In his book on the theology of Karl Barth, he sets forth his understanding of the Catholic position on the nature/supernature complex, but his understanding of it appears to deviate from the inherited Thomistic synthesis."

  • Balthasar's Theological Vacuole, Part V (03/01/11). Balthasar ranks himself within the historical range of prior efforts at defining the relationship between nature and grace. He views himself as a within the moderate wing, but what is really telling is that he puts the traditional Thomistic teaching at the extreme."

  • Pura Natura Persona Non Grata Est: Unwanted Nature (03/02/11).

Rusty Reno: "Theology after the Revolution"

A trenchant observation from Rusty Reno, reviewing Fergus Kerr's Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians:
Henri de Lubac’s most important contribution to Catholic theology was a sustained analysis of the relation between nature and grace. In the 1930s he argued that standard theologies of the neoscholastic tradition used a metaphysically rigid, dualistic account of human destiny that ironically confirmed rather than overcame the modern suspicion that our everyday lives and concerns (nature) have no intrinsic contact with or need for the life of faith (grace). Instead of overcoming the dualisms that have tended to drive modern thought and life toward contrastive and fruitless antinomies, neoscholasticism unwittingly absorbed the tendency into itself.

When de Lubac claimed that the fundamental structure of neoscholasticism was a covert form of modernism, he was making a direct attack on the modes of theology that dominated the Church in the first half of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, he became a suspect character in the eyes of church authorities. In the 1950s he was silenced by his superiors in the Society of Jesus.

One would think that, as a result, de Lubac would have embraced the spirit of innovation that flourished after Vatican II. He did not. Near the end of his life he wrote a small and bitter book, Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace. In its pages he sought to address what he regarded as a fundamental misunderstanding of his basic insights, and its main thrust is a defense of the core theological judgments of the neoscholastic tradition he spent his life criticizing.

The message is clear: Readers cannot understand Henri de Lubac’s theology of nature and grace unless they know and accept the basic outlines of classical Thomistic theology. Thus the paradox, once again. By the 1980s, Henri de Lubac, the great critic of dry and dusty neoscholasticism, saw that the younger generation needed to be catechized into the standard, baseline commitments of Catholic theology. Ressourcement does not work if students have neither context nor framework in which to place the richness and depth of the tradition. Like Lonergan, de Lubac is characteristic of the Heroic Generation: He helped destroy the theological culture that, however inadequate, provided the context for a proper understanding of his generation’s lasting achievements.

"Theology after the Revolution" First Things May 2007.

Richard J. Neuhaus: "Odium theologicum"

From the late Richard J. Neuhaus, First Things (June 2007):
Odium theologicum — the ill-feeling and nasty polemics to which theological controversy can give rise—is in short supply. I don’t mean ordinary nastiness in disagreements over religion. I mean the high panache of distinguished theologians going at one another. Reinhard Hütter of Duke Divinity School offers a robust example in the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He is provoked by an attack by John Milbank, prefect of a school of thought self-dubbed Radical Orthodoxy, on a book by Lawrence Feingold in which Feingold defends traditional Thomist teaching on nature and grace. Milbank said Feingold’s argument is “arch-reactionary,” “paleolithic,” and dependent on exegetical methods “much like that of the proof-texting of a Protestant fundamentalist.” This gets Hütter up to speed: “The associations seem to be all too clear to leave any doubt about the purpose of such antecedent rhetorical disqualification. Anyone willing seriously to consider Feingold’s arguments (and for that matter Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s interpretation of Thomas Aquinas), by the sheer dynamic of the connotations entailed, must be a supporter of the Spanish Inquisition, a defender of the Papal States, and an admirer of the Franco, Vichy, and Pinochet regimes in addition to anything else implied by association as arch-reactionary. It is sad to see such an astute and critical mind as Milbank’s submit in such as unnuanced and uncritical way to the thoroughly modern political geography of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in order to situate and prejudice matters doctrinal and theological, a habit, surely by now as widespread in contemporary theology as it is thoughtless, and achieving nothing else than comfortably condemning matters of theological enquiry and discourse to the Procrustean bed of a policing political correctness and hence of the final domestication of matters ecclesial and theological under the extrinsically superimposed rubrics of political liberalism.” Whew, that felt good. In truth, Hütter’s article is substantive, incisive, and persuasive, and I recommend it to the theologically minded. What you will not learn from the article, and what he had no reason to mention, is that Hütter is a former Lutheran who became Catholic a few years ago, and what he does not come right out and say in the article is that the traditional understanding of Thomas Aquinas on nature and grace is essential to what the sixteenth-century Reformers, at their best, meant by sola gratia.


Reinhard Hütter. "Desiderium Naturale Visionis Dei—Est autem duplex hominis beatitudo sive felicitas: Some Observations about Lawrence Feingold’s and John Milbank’s Recent Interventions in the Debate over the Natural Desire to See God." 81-132. Nova Et Vetera Vol 5, Issue 1 - Winter 2007.

Mulcahy on Milbank

I particularly appreciate Mulcahy's Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac for its demonstration of how De Lubac's criticism of pure nature has, carried to its logical conclusions, culminated in the "integralist revolution" of John Milbank, leading proponent of Radical Orthodoxy.

Mulcahy begins with an examination of the political origins of Radical Orthodoxy in Marxist theory and anti-Thatcherism (its hostility refocusing on the "neoimperialist" and "relatively genocidal" United States of America post-9/11). Originally Marxist in tone, Mulcahy observes how Milbank's vision of society has become exclusively theological -- endorsing socialism as not only the creed of "all sane, rational human beings" but as the vehicle by which the peace of the Church [is going to be] mediated to and established in the entire human community."

Maculhy also demonstrates Milbank's increasing receptivity to theocracy -- or rather "democraticed, anarchic theocracy": small, self-sustaining communities "Eucharistic in form, with a liturgical rhythm and a spiritual motivation pervading its system of peaceful sharing." Granted, Milbank does not pretend to know how it would be established.

Maculhy then addresses Milbank's interpretation of De Lubac as the basis for the "integralist revolution" (the notion that Vatican II enacted a "new theology of grace", recognizing that “in concrete, historical humanity there is no such thing as a state of ‘pure nature’. ... with the consequence that one cannot analytically separate ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ contributions to this integral unity.”)

If "everything is grace", nothing is truly secular. To regard philosophy, politics, science and culture as non-theological or possessing "autonomous and immanent secular realms" is tantamount to heresy, against which RO marshals itself in resistance via engagement in radical Christian politics. (Indeed, Milbank indicts De Lubac and Balthasar for being deficient in their "aversion to the secular order" [photographic evidence!]):

RO views any self-limiting theology—all liberal theology—as colluding in its own marginalisation. Radical Orthodoxy intends to reverse this marginalisation by proclaiming theology’s true scope, and by insisting on theology’s relevance in determining the validity of all modes of human discourse. The establishment of the commanding position of theology over all other modes of knowledge, and in regard to all other scholarly and scientific discourse, will thus be a step toward the building of a new Christian modernity. The hope of RO is that this new modernity will be one in which divine wisdom and peace reign over all.
But how, exactly, is the marginalization of theology to be countered? -- for while Pope Benedict might lament the "de-Hellenization" of academia (the attempt by scholars to separate Christianity from Greek philosophical thought), RO abandons reason and objective truth altogether, relinquishing itself to the postmodern depiction of Christianity as a "communal narrative", one among many, howbeit claiming to trump all others as "the narrative of The Word Incarnate":
Given such an exalted Christian claim, namely, that Christian discourse alone enacts and represents the divine Word, how are this discourse’s truth claims to be recognized as true in the Christian community of faith? The idea of objective verification or falsification has, in RO’s judgement, been discredited. The answer is that Christianity “out-narrates” any rival discourse. This is to imply that the Christian story, enacted in the community of faith, has a beauty and luminosity which other discourses lack. As a result, it exerts an aesthetic appeal on those touched by it. Once the attractiveness of the divine beauty is experienced, no other arguments or evidence need be considered. Rather, the very suggestion that such other forms of evidence could be considered is a relic of epistemological naïveté. The Christian story “claims no foundation for the truth of Christianity beyond the compelling vision of the story and of the vision it sustains.”
There is no question of apologetics, of natural law, of rational persuasion, of any marriage of reason and faith -- all that's left is the aesthetic appeal of Christianity.

There is no denying that "the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of" (Pascal); that converts have been won over by the beauty of Christianity, moved by the witness of its martyrs and the lives of its saints. And I can certainly get behind people like Gregory Wolfe, and his belief that "beauty will save the world" -- that art, literature and the fruits of imagination can become the wellsprings to cultural renewal, providing enrichment to public discourse and cultivating a receptiveness towards the truth where ideology and politics cannot. But Radical Orthodoxy doesn't appear to be proclaiming just that -- rather, it gives up on truth and reason altogether. Mulcahy again:

RO vigourously sets itself to reclaim a comprehensive, Christ-centred vision. But such a vision may also invite self deception. Its ostensible discrediting of correspondence theories of truth is, I would suggest, no more than apparent. Our personal vision may be tested against publicly known realities, against the truth not only of Scripture, ecclesial authority, and tradition, but also of wisdom and learning wherever these are to be found. Such an openness to truth cannot consist in collapsing everything into the doctrine of the incarnation, or into Christ’s Eucharistic presence. If it is to serve the world, and even if it is to save the world, doctrine must live with the distinctions between grace and nature, even if it refines them in new ways. If “everything is grace,” as RO would understand it, then Christianity departs for an enclave which must become ever more remote. If, on the other hand, “not everything is grace,” if there is room for the notion of pure nature, then there are vast possibilities for communication between Church and world, and between faith and all human disciplines—to the benefit of all concerned. Methodological arrogance is hardly a necessary quality of a genuinely incarnational theology.

* * *

Returning finally to the topic of Aquinas, Radical Orthodoxy purportedly adopts and expounds upon De Lubac's account of Thomism. However, if recent studies have indicated that De Lubac's understanding of Aquinas was found to be wanting, this defect is apparently by no means an impediment to Radical Orthodoxy. While Maculhy finds that "Milbank has not yet written in any detailed way on the history of Thomism, nor has he been engaged in a close reading of Thomistic texts", this has not deterred Milbank from co-authoring a book with Catherine Pitstock on Truth and Aquinas in which they expound on Aquinas' "theory of knowledge."

The impression is clearly given that for Mulcahy -- and I would imagine for most anybody who adheres to prevailing norms of academic scholarship, rational discourse and validation -- the very act of reading Milbank is itself a recipe for exasperation. Consider the following:

The word "interpretation" must be emphasised and explained when it comes to Milbank’s treatment of Aquinas. As one who rejects "accepted secular standards of scientific truth or normative rationality" and denies that truth is a correspondence between the intellect and extra-mental reality, Milbank insists that "the point [of theology] is not to represent ... externality, but just to join in its occurrence; not to know, but to intervene, originate." Accordingly, his recourse to Aquinas is not a work of exegesis, but a project of creative expression: “exegesis is easy; it is interpretation that is difficult, and Aquinas, more than most thinkers, requires interpretation." This explains why Milbank holds that, even if the actual text of St Thomas "appear[s] incontrovertibly to refute my reading," that reading itself should not be subjected to conventional scholarly critique. ...

This ostensibly post-modern approach to sources has predictably occasioned intense criticism. Informed scholars have described Radical Orthodoxy’s interpretations as "gnostic idealism," "blithely imprecise, ideologically driven historical revisionism," "free-floating, self-perpetuating insularity", "opaque [sentences] drifting [in] conceptual murkiness", "sophistical legerdemain," "blatant misreading ... that ignores the ordinary canons of scholarly enquiry," and "[not] just wrong, [but] laughable, though not amusing." Milbank’s vague and sometimes even inaccurate footnotes do not help his cause.

In Milbank’s defence, one can say only that RO had disclaimed the canons of scholarly objectivity and verifiable accuracy right from the beginning. Radical Orthodoxy sets itself to challenge all settled theological opinion, and pretends no dialogical relationship with other views or types of rationality. When considering Milbank’s interpretation of St Thomas, the best approach, one might suggest, is to recognise it as something akin to an interpretive dance. It displays an inherently subjective approach, and, in effect, purports to be nothing else. Scholarship of an objective kind must be sought elsewhere.

Cessario on Cajetan and the Communio School

The Communio school of theology, taken globally, and not as it plays out under the influence of the American edition, is more difficult to define than Thomism. Thomists are those who read Aquinas, and so may be distinguished from those who read and adhere to other major Christian thinkers such as Scotus or St. Bonaventure or Ockham. Partisans of the Communio school, on the other hand, study many authors; their return to the sources embraces a wide range of both ancient and recent theologians and philosophers, and even includes consulting social scientists.

[Tracey] Rowland identifies many of these figures in her chapters. Suffice it to remark that a common feature of Communio school theology is that its adherents subscribe without hesitation to a viewpoint that lately has been set forth by Nicholas M. Healy in his Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life: “In his commentary on the Summa theologiae, Cajetan so separates nature from grace that humanity now has two ends, natural and supernatural. . . .” Healy of course repeats an assertion that was set forth with remarkable success in the twentieth century by Jesuit Father Henri de Lubac, later Cardinal of the Roman Church.

It has always struck me as odd that so many good-willed theologians accept the view that a twentieth-century French Jesuit whose intellectual interests were wide-ranging occupied a better position to understand what St.Thomas Aquinas taught about the finalities of the human person than did a sixteenth-century Italian humanist, who had represented Catholic doctrine in person to no less imposing a figure than Martin Luther and whose commentary on the entire Summa theologiae appears by order of Pope Leo XIII in the critical edition of Aquinas’s opera omnia that bears that Pope’s name, the still incomplete Leonine edition. But they do. Many sincere people, including Tracey Rowland, accept the proposition that de Lubac laid bare a huge historical mistake about how to construe the relationship between nature and grace, and they seemingly consider his critique of Cardinal Cajetan and the Thomists who follow him a non-gainsayable principle of all future Catholic theology. What Cajetan obscured, de Lubac grasped with clarté. Nicholas Healy illustrates this conviction:“[T]he influence of the two-tier conception of reality became widespread and was understood by many theologians as a reasonable development of Thomas’s thought.” One could infer from remarks such as these that Tommaso De Vio, Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534) should be known as the great betrayer of Aquinas instead of his papal approved interpreter. Prima facie, the proposition seems primitive.

Those who want to understand more about this golden apple of twentieth-century theological discord should consult the work of Professor Steven A. Long. His essays on topics such as the obediential potency and other related theological theses repay careful study. Long’s articles reveal the way that theologians have attempted to handle the difficult question of describing adequately the differentiation of finalities that the gratuitous bestowal of divine friendship on the members of the human race introduces into Catholic theology. Because of the centrality that this issue holds in the thought of many of the theologians that Rowland presents to her readers, I think it is important to alert those who will read her book, especially beginners in the discipline, that they should make up their own minds about de Lubac’s critique, and not assume that one eminent French Jesuit and 100,000 Communio followers can’t be wrong. The fact of the matter is that the differentiation of finalities that a Catholic theologian must consider in the human person remains a topic that has been ill served during the period after the Second Vatican Council.

Let me conclude this section with a word of advice to beginners: You can embrace Gaudium et Spes 22 and still follow Cardinal Cajetan.

Romanus Cessario, OP.
Nova et Vetera Vol. 2, No. 2 (2004).

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Incidentally, today is Romanus Cessario's 73rd birthday. You may view more of his articles online here, his full CV here.