A Catholic Approach to Modernity

Cyril O'Regan is brilliant, and his essay "The 'Gift' of Modernity" is worth reading: http://churchlife.nd.edu/2018/03/20/the-gift-of-modernity/. I am very much with him in evaluating modernity as a "gift," taken in the Derridean manner, linking the word (via German) to the Greek pharmakon—which means both cure and poison. That is exactly the status of modernity. The council fathers take this stance in Gaudium et spes. It's the catholic stance: not nostalgic, not boosterish, but discerning—and always acknowledging the true, the good, the beautiful wherever it is.

Those who take this catholic stance towards modernity O'Regan calls "shadow-seers," as opposed to the "cheerers" (e.g., Habermas) and the "weepers" (e.g., Heidegger and Alasdair MacIntyre).

O'Regan's list of theologians providing support for the "shadow-seeing" approach to modernity is almost perfect: Popes Francis and Benedict, Metz, de Lubac, Balthasar. As O'Regan notes, though, these tend somewhat towards the "weeping" side. If he had included Pope Saint John Paul II, he would have had someone in between this group and Charles Taylor.

On Francis and Benedict:

"Francis is hardly a net declaimer of modernity and shows no signs of being willing to roll back basic human rights or downplay in any way modern concerns for human dignity and justice. But as is well-known, he decries unrestricted capitalism, the catastrophic damage done to nature in and through modern economic machine and the destruction of society consequent on the acquisitive mentality spawned in and by modernity. Francis justifies weeping, but also wishes to limit it. Critique is accompanied by recommendation. What he recommends, however, is the basic kerygma of the Gospel rather than the Church or the developed theological edifices generated within the history of Christianity. While hardly despising theological construction, we find no nostalgia for premodern world of Thomistic synthesis. For Francis, the Gospel is both persuasive and light enough to carry Christians through and beyond a secular modernity. Now Benedict says many of the things that we identify Francis with, and said them before him. Yet, it is fair to say the following three things: (a) Benedict is more concerned with the identity of the Church, its authority, and its teaching; (b) While Benedict is willing to ascribe value to modernity, his critique is broader in that it includes a critique of secular culture as an ideological system that functions hegemonically and his critique cuts deeper in that he brings out the antipathy that secular modernity has for religion; its neutrality is armed; and (c) although Benedict does not think that premodern Christianity can be retrieved wholescale, he does think not only that significant elements can survive, but ought to survive under pain of nominalism."

My love for Pope Benedict runs very deep, but I do think that his negative attitude towards the Enlightenment smacks too much of the early Frankfurt School. That said, as with those latter theorists, there is so much critical-theoretical heft in Pope Benedict's work—one cannot do without it. Pope Francis tightens the screws on capitalism that Benedict had already applied in his magnificent Caritas in veritate, written in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But it belongs to the main thrust of Catholic social doctrine to try to humanize the capitalist system. What Francis does most uniquely is attempt to exorcise Catholic jingoism, an essential operation for the integrity of the true religion.

Then O'Regan highlights Johann Baptist Metz. Metz is not as widely known as he ought to be, one of my great favorites. His placing the memory of suffering and of the victims at the center of theology is necessary for resisting the bourgeoisification of Christianity. And it is necessary for cultivating a pro-life subjectivity. O'Regan's summary of his thought is outstanding:

"Metz, who is influenced by Critical Theory as much as Karl Rahner, has, over a life-time of engaged theological production, critiqued secular modernity for the way in which it fosters amnesia of how history has turned out for considerable groups of people, moral apathy regarding the claims this suffering has on us, and the ideology of endless progress that sidelines critical scrutiny of the zero-sum game of the power dynamics of history with its winners and losers. Metz provides a reflective version and justification of the shadow-seer rather than the weeper. We can see this by attending to two absences in his thought: (a) He does not absolutely decry modern reason, but condemns what he regards as its shadow-side; (b) His works illustrate no penchant for returning to a premodern legislative and clerical Church, and a theology-heavy Christian conceptuality. Crucial for the opposing of amnesia, apathy, and dispelling the vacancy of modern ideal of progress is the recall of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is restorative of the devastated subject of history; such a restoration becomes the central task of the Church founded by the essential Christian message that is at a slant to modernity and apocalyptically interruptive with respect to it."

Finally, I wish to highlight O'Regan's judicious presentation of the thought of de Lubac and Balthasar:

"Famous as nouvelle théologie theologians, in each case over the course of over fifty years of writing, de Lubac and Balthasar drew attention both to the modernity that had unwrung the integral world of the medieval period and the hapless nature of Christianity’s response and in particular that of the Catholic Church. Neither was a net weeper regarding modernity: both welcomed the greater dialogical spirit of modernity and both embraced large swathes of modern culture. But from their point of view there was much in modernity that was askew, and much that was implicitly and explicitly hostile to Christianity, and that nothing was to be gained by ignoring it. For both of them the world was both world and “world.” This meant in both cases a kind of Augustinian comportment towards the world: the world was good enough such that it should come as no surprise that one could learn and benefit from it; at the same time the world was sufficiently distorted, sufficiently “world” in the Johannine sense one should not entirely cast aside suspicion or be unaware of the prospects of being co-opted by the secular. Both de Lubac and Balthasar lent their voice to this necessary balance in the post-Conciliar age. In addition, both have a thicker view of the Church that is to be saved from modernity than that of Metz, and are far more prescriptive and normative regarding the identity of Church. This means that the survival of the Church is much more in doubt since purely accommodating forms of Church would not count. To speak to survival of the Church is to speak to the survival of a Church that has a hierarchical structure, possesses a Creed, is confident in its declaration of precept, and is concerned with justice but not afraid to speak of the afterlife. This Church also is also ecumenical and multiply inflected in terms of spirituality, since tradition represents many, even if related, takes on the fundamental mystery of the incarnation. Nothing like a return of the Neo-Patristic synthesis is imagined in the future, since its value in the past, while considerable, is also relative."

The key is indeed the difference between the (good) saeculum and its deformation by an incurvatio in se ipsum (secularization), world and "world." To demonize modernity would be an act of ideological totalization, an ironic kind of secularization. Catholicity must resist all forms of totality, without becoming idealistic and disincarnate. In de Lubac and Balthasar, we have resistance to both gnostic ecclesiologies, as well as to Catholic jingoism. It is catholic Catholics who must cultivate the good world and the goodness in this age.