Peter John McGregor is a lecturer in dogmatic theology and spirituality at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Australia. He and Tracey Rowland—who holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and was a recipient of the Ratzinger Prize in 2020—are co-editors of Healing Fractures in Contemporary Theology (Cascade Books, 2022).
McGregor recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the fracturing of theology, polarization in the Church, the importance and place of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, the tensions over liturgy, and related topics.
CWR: At the start, in the book’s title and in the introduction, you highlight the fractured nature of theology today. How is theology fractured? Is part of the problem a dispute, or disagreements, about the nature of theology itself?
McGregor: Fracture” is a metaphor. It is an image of a certain “dis-integration” in theology, one which, I think, has been going on since at least the Late Middle Ages, although perhaps one can identify the tendency all through the Church’s history.
By saying that theology is “fractured” I do not mean that there are different theological “schools”. The mystery of God and our relation to him is so great that there can be no one school, no perfect and complete theologian. The only two that can claim to be perfect “theologians” are Jesus and Mary. Jesus is the Theou Logos, the Word of God, theology incarnate, and Mary is the one who perfectly pondered all that God revealed to her. Everyone else, even great scholar-saints, are less than perfect theologians.
Having said this, I think that some “schools” have more problems than others, and that some are fatally flawed. I would place what I call the orthopractic schools of people like Edward Schillebeeckx in the latter category. On this point, I would repeat the saying that “All metaphors limp”. So, I agree with what Fr. Aidan Nichols said in his First Things review of the book that it is not just a question of “healing fractures”. Rather, if one changed the metaphor to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, some pieces of the puzzle are irreparably damaged.
I think that the fundamental theological question since Vatican II has been, “What is theology?” So, yes, this dispute is part of the problem, an exacerbation of the problem. But the problem is much older than Vatican II.
I would regard what some recent and contemporary theologians do as not being theology at all, but something else. For example, I am currently working on what I hope will be a book critiquing the theology of a certain “postmodern” theologian and have concluded that what this person is engaged in is not theology at all, but a kind of philosophy of language. The reasons for this are that, for him, all human problems, including the human-divine relationship, are reduced to linguistic problems, yet even more importantly, the Holy Spirit plays absolutely no role in either his method or content, that is, how he theologizes and what he theologizes about.
But how can one theologize without the Holy Spirt having something to do with it?
CWR: What are some of the major fractures today and what are some of the causes?
McGregor: In the book, the four fundamental fractures that are presented are between theology and spirituality, theology and philosophy, theology and liturgy, and theology and Sacred Scripture. Then there are what could be called more attendant fractures between theology and preaching, theology and apologetics, theology and ethics, and theology and social theory. Then an even more specific fracture, that between dogmatic theology and pastoral theology. Finally, there are what might be called “related” fractures, namely, between theology and the lived Christian life, “theologians” and “non-theologians”, and theologians and the magisterium. There is also an account of a “demographic” fracture between some older and younger Catholics, especially between Generation X and Millennial Catholics, a kind of Catholic “generation gap”.
I think that the fundamental cause is human hubris. After the great theological syntheses of people like Aquinas and Bonaventure, we have someone like William of Occam who, paradoxically, exalted faith over reason. Ultimately, this leads to two different kinds of theology, one which downplays the role of reason and the other which overplays it. This separation between faith and reason is a separation of the divine and human in theologizing. It is the Holy Spirit who can bring these two elements back unto harmony.
CWR: How did this book come about? What sort of readership is it meant for?
McGregor: For me, it really started with reading the work of David Fagerberg on the liturgical nature of theology. Then it was reinforced by writing a dissertation on Ratzinger’s Spiritual Christology. This taught me about the spiritual nature of theology. I also asked myself why we make a distinction between theology and biblical studies. Why are there associations for “theologians” and associations for “biblical scholars”? And from there it just grew. I started seeing all these “fault lines” in the way theology was often practiced. So, I gave a short paper at a conference on what I called these “fractures”. After my presentation, two colleagues independently suggested that I should write a book on this topic. I knew that, although I could identify various fractures, I was not any kind of expert on most of them, so Tracey Rowland and I hunted around for people whom we thought were.
It is written for theological scholars. So, it is for academics, doctoral, and master’s students. I think that even someone who is nearing the end of a bachelor’s degree in theology could benefit from it.
CWR: Who are the contributors and what are some of the connecting theological tissues and themes found in their contributions?
McGregor: I could call the book an Austro-American enterprise. About half are Australian and the other half are from the USA. There is a great range of experience. We have well established scholars like Tracey Rowland, who has been on the International Theological Commission and is a recipient of the Ratzinger Prize; David Fagerberg, who is a professor at Notre Dame; D. C. Schindler from the John Paul II Institute in Washington; and Leroy Huizenga from the University of Mary in Bismarck; all the way through to the very accomplished Helenka Mannering, who has just finished her doctorate where I teach at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. One thing that Tracey and I wanted to do was to hand out some “guernseys” to “emerging scholars” so that they could play on the team.
Reading the other contributions to the book helped me to realize more how the fractures I had identified are interconnected. I think that the next big task would be to elaborate on the interconnections. I think that the de-spiritualization of theology is the foundational fracture, and that other fractures, say between theology and biblical studies, between theology and philosophy, and between theology and liturgy, are outworking’s of it. By “de-spiritualization” I mean that there is a split between what is usually called fundamental and dogmatic theology and the one hand, and what is called spiritual or mystical theology on the other. It is a division that is unknown to the Church Fathers. Down to and including Aquinas and Bonaventure this division does not really exist.
CWR: There is much talk (for example, in the various synodal synthesis documents) and concern about polarization within the Church. How do you see and understand such polarization? Is it a cause or a symptom of the fracturing the book addresses?
McGregor: For me, the polarization is not between what is inaccurately called the “right” and the “left”, or “conservatives” and “progressives”, but between those who live and think “in the Spirit” and those who live and think “in the flesh”, that is, between those who conform to the Holy Spirit and those who conform to the Zeitgeist. What this means it that “polarization” is not just between people but also within people. Inasmuch as I am still carrying out the “works of the flesh”, I am “polarized”. Conformism to the Zeitgeist can include those who are sometimes called “traditionalists”, or “trads”, as well as those who are usually called “liberals” or “progressives”. For me, some ultra-traditionalists have a “Protestant mindset”. Rather than engage in the private interpretation of Sacred Scripture, they engage in the private interpretation of Sacred Tradition. In both cases, the people concerned are their own ultimate authority, since they are the ones who decide which interpretation is correct.
I think that the fracturing, be it contemporary or historical, is a symptom of this basic division between the Spirit and the flesh, but, in turn, it may also exacerbate it. So, it may be a kind of vicious circle.
CWR: There are, of course, many theologians discussed in the book, but the work and thought of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI appears quite often. How essential is his theological work in understanding and addressing the various fractures today? What are some examples of this?
McGregor: Ratzinger is certainly one theologian who is very aware of the de-spiritualization of theology, and its attendant fractures. The best place to find his “theory” for a truly spiritual theology is in his Behold the Pierced One, and the best place to see it being put into practice is in his Jesus of Nazareth. For him, the basis of theology and theologizing is koinonia with the Triune God and with each other in the Church. One could say that we are called to be not just “theologians” but “Christologians”, always remembering that “Christ” is a Trinitarian term. Jesus is the Christ, the one sent by the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit. Another way of putting this is that one needs to theologize “in Christ”, or allow Christ to theologize in one. What Ratzinger calls for is the integration of a “theology of reason” with a “theology of the heart”, in more traditional terms, dogmatic theology with mystical theology. But he is certainly not the only one. It is also strong in Von Balthasar. Generally speaking, I think that the ressourcement or communio theologians of the twentieth century were more aware of the need for this reconciliation, but I can also see it in so-called ressourcement Thomists like Matthew Levering. In fact, after Ratzinger, Levering is the contemporary theologian that I love reading most.
CWR: For decades there has been a tension, or even a clash, between dogmatic theology and pastoral theology. Why is that? Has it gotten worse in recent years? How can it be addressed?
McGregor: Tracey would be the best person to answer these questions, so I will quote my outline of her chapter.
In seeking a restoration of unity between dogmatic and pastoral theology, Tracey Rowland argues that “the Incarnation, the Sacraments, the external order of the Church and the internal working of sanctifying grace” are all parts of one organic unity that has been undermined by a quintet of “villains”—William of Ockham, Francisco Suárez, Martin Luther, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Hegel. She argues that they in particular are responsible for the severance of the relationship between dogmatic and pastoral theology. She also agrees with Livio Melina that the idea of using prudence, or practical reason, rather than revelation, as a foundation for social ethics, is an idea of Lutheran provenance. For her, the prescription for healing the fracture contains a number of ingredients. These are the Christocentric Trinitarian theological anthropology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a return to the priority of logos over ethos favored by Romano Guardini and Benedict XVI, the need to keep revealed truth, history, and kerygma together, and an eschatological understanding of “the signs of the times.”
I will chime in on the question of whether it has gotten worse. At present, I think that we are going through a “back to the future” moment, a belief of some that we can return to a pre-John Paul II Church. For one thing, there seems to be a resurgence of “Proportionalism”. But I regard it as a kind of “Waterloo Old Guard” phenomenon. And even if the Guard never surrenders, eventually it will die. I do not see that it is gaining much traction amongst serious young Catholics.
CWR: Liturgy has become a contentious issue within the Church, especially with the release of Pope Francis’s Motu proprio “Traditionis custodes” this past summer. What solutions are realistic? Where do you think these “liturgy wars” are in, say, a decade from now?
McGregor: I am still very much of the opinion that the great liturgical need of the Church is for the integration of the Novus Ordo with the Liturgy of 1962. I think that this is what Pope Benedict XVI hoped for when he allowed for the celebration of what is now called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, that there would be a kind of cross-fertilization. Having participated in many lack lustre liturgies, I am sympathetic towards Catholics who desire greater reverence, silence, and a sense of the sacredness of what is happening in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. Can this cross-fertilization occur? As a matter of fact, earlier this year I was present at what I regard as my “dream” celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. It was the funeral Mass of a friend of mine. The priest faced ad orientem, but most of the Mass was in English. Some of the common parts were beautifully sung in Latin and in plainsong, and kneelers were placed for those who wished to receive communion on the tongue. The rubrics were followed faithfully. Even the homily was excellent. For me, it was a little like a vision of the New Jerusalem from afar.
As someone who teaches diocesan seminarians, given what I see of them, I am hopeful that we will see more of this kind of Eucharistic celebration. Gradually, “loosey-goosey” liturgies will become a thing of the past. What I am really waiting for is the arrival of some millennial generation bishops, which should be in the next ten years or so. Then I hope to see much more of my “dream” celebration. However, I think that it will happen incrementally, both in time and location.
CWR: Any final thoughts?
McGregor: Just a couple of points. First, both Tracey and I regard this book as a “first word”, not a “last word”. We hope that it will encourage the development of a conversation about how those who theologize can contribute to building up the life and mission of the Church. Second, we are not advocating a mere return to a thirteenth century synthesis of faith and reason, head and heart, human spirit and Holy Spirit, but the forging of a new twenty-first century synthesis.
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