Ressourcement Theology: A Personal Narrative

August 8, 2021
Ressourcement Theology

Blog Master’s note:  My apologies for the long time since my last post.  My travels to California for my interview with Bishop Barron have consumed my time and my energies.  That interview will be posted on here on August 24th.  

Sometimes you need to tell a story to avoid the denatured abstractions that can creep into intellectual discourse. I have been asked by many readers to explain what “ressourcement theology” is.  And I will. But first a story.  It is the story of my intellectual journey from a young firebrand “traditionalist” to a Communio/ressourcement theologian. And at the end of this narrative I will define ressourcement theology, but with an eye toward why I think it is as relevant today, even more so perhaps, than ever before.

When I was a very young man of nineteen years and heading off to minor seminary in Covington, Kentucky, I was an insufferable idiot.  An academically inclined idiot to be sure (a bookish nerd even when I was merely an embryo) but an idiot nonetheless.  The year was 1978 so the high silly season of post conciliar Catholicism was still in full vapor and this had an enormous influence upon my young mind.  My worldview, if you can even call it that, was a simple narrative of good guys versus bad guys. The bad guys were the liberal, dissenting Catholics with their low church, egalitarian, “fellowship” Catholicism of felt banners, denim vestments, pewter chalices, and the pill.  The good guys were the conservative Catholics who believed and upheld proper doctrine and discipline.  And my idiocy consisted in the fact that I thought that orthopraxy would flow from orthodoxy like morning from night.  How quaint.  

As I entered the seminary, I was full of piss and vinegar and spoiling for a fight with the liberal infidels. Like a “mini me” Torquemada I was ever vigilant to spy out the slightest whiff of heretical chicanery.  Unfortunately, my career as an inquisitor did not pan out since I was sent to a very conservative seminary where we were taught philosophy from the old neo-scholastic manuals, which I poured myself into with great vigor, confident that I was receiving “orthodox” Catholic philosophy.  However, over time my intellectual curiosity kicked in and I began to have serious philosophical and theological questions that my neo-scholastic manuals did not answer. I became intellectually restless and dissatisfied with the manuals, and indeed so much so, that my only defense was to dismiss it all as “temptations from el diablo.” Surely, I thought, it is the Devil who wants me to question the manifestly “Catholic” manuals and to abandon the path of orthodoxy.  

Nevertheless, my questions persisted and therefore on my own I began reading modern philosophers like Hegel, Kant, and Heidegger – – thinkers I scarcely understood – – and then brought the questions they raised, as far as I understood them, to my neo-scholastic texts seeking in vain for answers to the issues they raised.  There were no answers.  There weren’t even questions.  Just endless diatribes against “modernism, “subjectivism” and “historicism,” that only a steadfastly deductive “Thomistic” method could hold off, rooted in the certitudes of dogma as the first principles for all that then followed.  And that is what it was: a “holding off” of alleged errors in a defensive mode of thinking that was critical of any idea that did not arise from the scholastic tradition. Heck, we did not even read Thomas, lest we “misunderstand” him, and got instead a desiccated diet of arid commentaries.  It was fortress Catholicism contra mundum. And worst of all, it was so horrifically boring that no seminarian would ever remember a word of it out of pure self-defense. For me, it constituted a theodicy problem since I could not accept that an all good God would allow his Church to turn the exhilarating exuberance of the Gospel into the coma-inducing pottage I was being forced to read.

What I found attractive in the modern philosophers, despite their manifest errors, was their concern for the role played by human subjectivity in our knowing and the category of “history” as a constitutive metaphysical principle at the very core of human experience.  The neo-scholastics dismissed such topics as dangers to be overcome since their vagaries could undermine the “timeless” and “irreformable” dogmas of the faith, which stand astride, and above, history and subjectivity like blocs of immovable granite. This is of course a bit of a caricature, and there were some neo-scholastics who did indeed attempt to address these issues, but in my experience as a young student all I found were endless deflections concerning these deeper existential questions.  I also found it all profoundly propagandistic in favor of a peculiarly modern form of Catholicism – – ironic, considering their putative concern for “tradition” – – since I knew enough Church history to see through the mythology of “unchanging Catholicism” and its constant glossing over of the real history of doctrinal development.  It was also strangely silent on the ugly underbelly of the Tradition wherein, through papal bulls and so on, the Church countenanced not a few perfidies that we would deem today to be morally grotesque. But like the crazy, incestuous uncle hidden in the attic, the manuals preferred to treat such embarrassments as a sub rosa secret off limits to discussion.

Most of my fellow seminarians were intellectually uncurious (they were mostly dullards to be brutally honest) and of a pietistical bent, who didn’t give a fig for such questions, trusting, it would seem, that no future parishioners would ever have a crisis of faith while struggling with similar questions. There is nothing, evidently, that a good novena to the Little Flower can’t cure.  And I like the Little Flower.  And Novenas. (But I don’t like the Infant of Prague who freaks me out.)  But talking to these guys about philosophical matters was like mailing a letter to yourself and then expecting something novel when you opened it.  To make matters worse, many of them were also bona fide psychosexual weirdos riddled with all manner of fetishized obsessions. I am glad that I was a skinny and ugly library rat since that saved me from their advances. There was one exception, a guy who was apparently attracted to skinny, ugly, library rats, who I reported to the rector, only to be told that I was being “rigid and judgmental.”  I struggled mightily to repress the retort I had formed in my mind that in the encounter in question, I was not the rigid one.  I don’t think the rector actually believed what he was saying since he was actually a good man who I admired, but it was a convenient way to deflect the issue and to kick the can of responsibility down the road. Unfortunately, at that time, lots of rectors and bishops were doing the same thing, so we ended up with a lot of “kicked can” priests whose specialty was hiding their double life and their sexual crimes.

I bring the issue of sexual deviancy up, not for prurient purposes, but to highlight the fact that this is when it first began to dawn on me that orthodoxy was no guarantor of orthopraxy.  And that really rattled my confidence in my “good guys vs. bad guys” narrative.  It was the first shot across the bow of my tidy little thought world and unsettled me deeply.  Indeed, many, if not most, of the dysfunctional predators I knew were hyper traditional theologically and liturgically, and well formed in the path of holiness via contractual Catholicism and its various cathartic ablutions.  For them, Catholicism was a perfect world of indulgence followed by indulgences, where Kinsey and Cajetan lived peacefully together.  Indeed, it seemed to me that the few “liberal” seminarians that were there were far more “human” in a healthy way than the conservative ones were, and I found a rapport with them that surprised and shocked me.  To this day I find that I am often far more at home with my pot-smoking liberal friends, whose worldview is a total hot mess of secular/pagan, syncretistic drivel, than I am with the pinched-up fiddleback fussbudgets I know who strike me as closeted skeptics in search of something – – anything – – to hang the hat of certitude on.  There is nothing wrong, of course, with seeking after the deep certitude concerning ultimate things that faith in Christ brings.  But that is an altogether different thing from the invention of reactionary and romantic ecclesiological/ideological constructs that have the net effect of producing a thousand Vigano clones, all of them living under the umbrella of a false “orthodoxy” of role-playing inauthenticity. I was repulsed by the ecclesiastical cosplaying of so many of my traditionalist seminary classmates who, even before getting ordained, had closets full of the latest Tridentine drag, purchased from some shop in Rome at great cost.  One can indeed be a traditionalist priest in one’s heart, but, like Barbie, the public accoutrement are sold separately.

[Side note: I am reminded of the late, great Fr. Lorenzo Albacete who, while on the faculty of Dunwoodie seminary, was asked what his number one goal was as a seminary formator. His answer was simple and direct: to first make the young men “human” in a deeply authentic and Christian way, before worrying about their orthodoxy. If memory serves, I don’t think that went over well…]

And that brings me to the intellectual watershed moment of my life. I finally took all of my frustrations to my spiritual director, Fr. Anton Morgenroth, a German convert from Judaism whose family had fled Germany at the beginning of Hitler’s reign of terror. Father Morgenroth was a giant of an intellect who had known Balthasar. He listened to my tale of woe and, realizing that the time was right and that I was ready for it, gave me a copy of Balthasar’s “Love Alone” and ordered me to read it under pain of eternal damnation should I fail to do so.

I read the book in one night and was immediately aware that there existed an entire world of theological discourse that was asking the same questions I was and was putting into words what I could only inchoately intuit.  My questions! It was as if a jar of unstable nitro had gone off in my head as I immediately saw that I was not crazy, that “el diablo” was not tempting me, and that my questions were legitimate.  It was a tough book to read, and yet strangely not boring, since the repristinated Christ presented in its pages was a burning and bracing challenge.  In point of fact, it was the road to Damascus moment of my early life.  

And from that point forward, and over the ensuing three years, Father Morgenroth gradually and gently tutored me with various ressourcement thinkers as our guide.   There they all were before me:  Blondel, Peguy, de Lubac, Guardini, Chenu, Bouyer, Ratzinger, von Hildebrand, Balthasar, and many others.  There were also literary figures like Bernanos and Mauriac, and philosophers like Pieper, Gilson, Maritain and Marcel.  In my intellectually immature state, it was like trying to get a sip of water from a firehose.  Nor did I agree with everything that I was reading (especially with Congar and Chenu.) But it was an introduction to a particular kind of theological pedagogy that altered my intellectual path from that moment forward.  And so … here I am, an unreconstructed pre-Vatican II “liberal.”

There are several points I want to draw from this personal narrative.  First, I tell my story because I do not think it is idiosyncratic but is rather broadly descriptive of the frustrations many ressourcement thinkers faced before the Council as they fought to be heard above the din of the debates between modernists and old-line traditionalists.  I also think that the sad binary of progressives vs traditionalists that I experienced is also the broad experience of most modern Catholics, many of whom can tell biographical stories eerily similar to my own.  The power of that binary is a perduring blight that has disfigured the conciliar reception and which now threatens to scuttle the heroic effort of Saint Pope John Paul to chart a theological course, rooted in ressourcement thought, that transcends the impasse.  The binary has once again returned with a vengeance, like a Covid variant eluding all vaccines, and with the battle lines even more pronounced, as both sides hunker-down in their hardened, ideological bunkers, hurling salvos at each other from afar over the no man’s land of a tired Church.  The center is not holding and the strong gods of tribal loyalties have returned.

This is deeply saddening to me since it is a disturbing recapitulation of a debate that I hoped was over. It is an interminable debate incapable of resolution since the war between the binaries is a civil war, a cage match between feuding backwoods cousins. The gravitationally locked binary stars of traditionalism and progressivism are both rationalistic in a bad, modernistic sense, (i.e., they both have an attenuated view of reason as something that pertains primarily to measurable things and strict logic) and are stuck in an Enlightenment model of the relation between the objective and subjective realms.  The progressives favor the subjective and the traditionalists the objective, but they both tend to treat the one as the subverter of the other.  There is no room at the Inn for viewing reason as most especially reasonable when it is a celebration of dappled things, as the effluence of the mind’s essentially poetic and symbolic landscape, and as the natural reaching out of the creature toward its one and single final end in the Triune God.  And like all modern thinkers smitten with “isms,” they are both utopian purists who read history as a justificatory narrative for their own ideological prejudices, which means that neither one has a proper view of what constitutes a “tradition.”  The traditionalists will scream at me for all of this and accuse me of attacking a straw man. But I have read their writings.  Ecce Homo.  

The hyper traditionalists romanticize and idealize a past that never was for the sake of terrorizing the present as they seek a field of wheat without tares.  They freeze frame post- medieval Catholicism, and especially Tridentine Catholicism, and hold it up as the only “true” form of the Church, and then, with anachronistic fervor, read the early Fathers through the lens of scholastic categories rather than the other way around, and then accuse ressourcement thinkers of introducing “novelties” as they seek to interpret the Tradition non-anachronistically.    

Furthermore, they separate nature and grace into principles extrinsic to each other in order to preserve the idea that God owes us precisely nothing, all the while ignoring the fact that God actually wants to give us – – all of us – – everything.  Theirs is a misinterpreted and hypertrophic Pauline world of undeserved grace which causes them to posit the absurd idea that God did not create us as constitutively oriented to divine life as our natural final end and that, therefore, salvation is some kind of “add on” to our nature that we can, in theory, live happily without (limbo.)  Well… except of course that in their scheme if you don’t get the “add on” God is not going to just leave you in a state of natural happiness, but is going to send you to Hell for all eternity.  This emphasis on “souls are at stake!” and the “deserved punishments of Hell!” is actually a backhanded way of saying that the question of God is indeed of decisive importance for our nature as such. Because even if I reject the gravy of theosis, why can’t I still have the potatoes of limbo?  Unless of course our inclusion in the life of the triune God is the only true fulfillment of our nature qua nature, the rejection of which constitutes our own self-destruction. It’s gravy all the way down.

And in all of this they miss the deeper Pauline inflection that only Christ fulfills our deepest nature precisely as nature, and is the very “Word” of creation as such, in which we “move and have our being.” In other words, for Paul the gratuity of grace is to our nature what the New Covenant is to the Old: an unmerited and superabundant fulfillment that was not “owed” to anyone but, paradoxically, is the only possible fulfillment that does justice to God’s creative intentions. They ignore the fact that grace is a “second” gift, the first being God creating us in the first place as beings fundamentally oriented to the divine life as our one and only final end.  

But the hyper traditionalists see grave danger in this since it might imply that God is so profligate in His dispensing of salvific grace that the Church and her sacraments are now superfluous. By contrast, theirs is a dangerously narrow view of “extra ecclesiam” and they turn the Church into the grand gatekeeper of gratuity, preaching a message of God’s parsimoniousness towards those who are “outside,” so you better get “inside,” and do so quickly. It is a religious vision larded with threats and contains a not so veiled spiritual violence toward human nature as such, viewed as something so corrupted that not even God can find a way to redeem it outside of explicit affiliation with the Church.  Christ and his Church are indeed necessary for salvation, but not in the manner that the traditionalists envision which is really a kind of sacramental protection racket: embrace the truth of Catholicism right now or else the God of love is going to break your legs.

I will blog on the topic of the absolute necessity of the Church for salvation in future posts, but to belabor the issue here will derail my main point. And that point is this:  ressourcement theology, through a retrieval of Scripture and the Church fathers (a return to the sources) sought a more expansive view of the relationship between nature and grace as well as the related issue of the relationship between the Church and the world. And they did so precisely in order to widen the Church’s eschatological horizon beyond the narrow confines of the anathematizing of errors (necessary as those were) and into a vision of the Church as the sacramental locus of a cosmic liturgy marked by our participation in Christ’s vicarious suffering for the life of the world.  Ours is a mediatory and intercessory vocation, and the ressourcement theologians returned to the Fathers and their notion of theosis for a more wholistic understanding of the corporate and cosmic nature of what it means to be “saved.”

Put in the simplest of terms ressourcement theology is an attempt to retrieve elements of the Catholic Tradition that had been a bit ignored and eclipsed by the hegemony that neo-scholastic theology and philosophy had over the intellectual life of the Church.  Philosophically, Thomas would still remain supreme, but would now be placed in conversation with modern philosophy as a true interlocutor. The goal was to move beyond the “refutation of errors Thomism” of that era and into creative pathways for retrieving Thomas anew.  To that end, several new schools of Thomistic thought emerged in the 20th century with ressourcement thinkers leaning toward the “existential Thomism” of philosophers like Etienne Gilson, with some exceptions. Therefore, it is wrong in the extreme to view ressourcement approaches as “anti-Thomas,” as is often alleged, and more accurate to say that they were actually a part of a grand revival of Thomas as a patristic and even platonic thinker.  Traditionalists often dismiss ressourcement theology as just “modernism” in a different guise.  But this only betrays their ignorance of how profoundly Thomistic ressourcement theology is. It also betrays their ignorance of Thomas. The ressourcement theologian Tracey Rowland, in her wonderful book, “Catholic Theology,” identifies at least seventeen different kinds of Thomistic schools of thought.  Therefore, for traditionalists to dismiss ressourcement thinkers as “modernists” simply because their version of Thomism differed from that of someone like Garrigou Lagrange (who I like) is simply flat-footed nonsense. In fact, borrowing a phrase from David Bentley Hart, it scarcely rises to the level of nonsense.

I will not speak to the distortions introduced by progressive Catholic thinkers beyond repeating what I have said frequently in previous blogs: it is a dead end.  Theirs is the path of relativism and appeasement to the zeitgeist.  Many of the causes they champion are praiseworthy and they are not altogether worthless or wrong.  But theirs is not a specifically Catholic vision and so the fact that they dismiss ressourcement thinkers as hopelessly “traditional” does not surprise me.  Anything to the Right of Tom Reese is too traditional for them.  And they need to get over Rahner.  Nobody cares about Rahner anymore. Well, at least I don’t.  And that should be the last word on that since, as my long suffering wife Carrie points out, it is at the end of the day, a “Larry-centric” universe.

Finally, ressourcement theology is timelier than ever as we see in the recent dust-up over Traditionis Custodes, which wasn’t as much about liturgy as it was about the ongoing relevance of Vatican II and the proper manner of its retrieval.  Shaun Blanchard has written the best analysis of the motu proprio in this regard (which you can read here) as he makes the same point with great persuasive force.  I swore I was done writing about the radical traditionalists but needed to do so in this post in order to drive home this very point.  Their mild to radical rejection of Vatican II as the source of our current woes is a classic example of post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking and betrays a deep historical ignorance of the fact that all truly great Councils left turmoil in their wake.  Just ask Athanasius if he thought Nicaea created ecclesial peace owing to its great “clarity.”  The traditionalist claim that Vatican II contains fatal “ambiguities” also seems blissfully unaware of the many ambiguities in the terminology of the early Councils – – ambiguities that we are still arguing about 1600 years later. Turmoil and ambiguity are not necessarily the marks of a failed Council but rather can be an indication of the power of its assertions and the deep, ongoing, significance of the questions it addresses.

To that end, ressourcement theology is the key to unlocking the conciliar project since it was that theology that won the day and framed the discussions.  The takeaway in the personal story I narrated above is my own discovery of this hermeneutic and how liberating it was to me to realize that I did not need to choose between progressivism and neo-scholastic traditionalism.  The other takeaway is the rejection of any notion that the key to ending the current scandals in the Church is to double-down on the Tridentine form of the Church since it is by now quite clear that traditionalism is no hedge against personal sin and clerical skullduggery of a grave nature. Latin is not going to save the world. Holiness is going to save the world.

Therefore, in the renewed struggle to retrieve Vatican II properly we must retrieve the retrieval begun by the ressourcement theologians and carry forward their unfinished project.  For me, this is just a no-brainer and I hope it becomes so for everyone else as well. Because if we don’t carry forward this project we are going to be stuck in the ecclesial mud spinning our wheels for many decades to come. And there are great signs that this is happening, most especially in the rapprochement that is developing between ressourcement and Thomistic theologians.  Intellectual history is often characterized by the swinging of the pendulum and it is true that ressourcement thinkers, in their desire to overcome the neo-scholastic hegemony, ignored many of the latter’s manifest strengths.  But the pendulum is swinging back and theologians like Matthew Levering and Matthew Minerd are seeking to bring together the best of the Thomistic thinkers and to place them in conversation with ressourcement theologians.  This, it seems to me, is the only viable path out of the mud.  

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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