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The world made fresh

NCR Staff

Tremors signaling a tectonic shift are underway as U.S. Catholic theology meets the post-modern world. Younger theologians are stepping into place with different guidebooks for their God-exploring from the ones their predecessors used.

To see how and where it’s different, NCR, in a series of interviews, will introduce younger writers and thinkers, scholars generally in their 30s to early 40s and often more traditional in outlook about some matters of faith than the previous generation.

To set the stage, NCR talked to two theologians half a step ahead of the newcomers: Villanova University theology professor Anthony Godzieba and Loyola University, Chicago, theology professor Susan Ross.

Godzieba admits that when his undergraduate students make references he doesn’t get, he watches MTV to catch up. Ross was in high school when the church was modernizing its theology and practice at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Yes, the newer theologians are more conservative than those of her generation, said Ross, who has taught at the University of Chicago for 15 years. “My sense is that people in their 30s have had a different experience from those of us 15 to 20 years older.”

Ross studied with Fr. David Tracy in the 1970s at the University of Chicago, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in theology. “A very heady time,” she recalls.

“With John Paul II, things have kind of made a U-turn. … I think younger people have seen -- as have many of us -- some of the downside of the post-Vatican II church and are really looking for things that offer more stability.”

That becomes problematic, she continued, because some of the younger scholars may not see what the post-Vatican II movement represented.

She is “sometimes amazed, sometimes appalled,” by the enthusiasm radical orthodoxy is generating among some people and the way they’re gravitating to it. But she understands: “There is not the anger of the Baby Boomer generation. I think there is a real longing for a tradition.”

As for the younger students in general from whose ranks these new scholars emerge, “they’re very into the devotions, especially young men.” She said she understands that, too.

She said “that when Vatican II put the Mass at the center you lost a lot of other devotions -- devotions in which lay piety has a role.” It’s a point she makes, too, in her 1998 book, Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (Continuum). “What is so problematic about the liturgy is that the priest is overly central. A good liturgy is when you have a good priest. That’s really kind of left a vacuum,” she said, “and some younger people are discovering this.”

The students see the wealth of the church’s social teaching, the strength in the tradition, and while they’re “uncomfortable with, unhappy with some aspects of the church’s teaching, they’re finding a way to stay linked to the church.”

As for women, many younger women who practice birth control, who think women should be ordained, still find a way to be Catholic, to be involved, she said.

Ross finds herself “quite moved” by students’ decisions “to do things like live in intentional communities, or to spend time in Central America.” Their social concern is pronounced, she said.

Godzieba, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy, a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America, offers a different lens for assessing the shifts.

“First the larger picture, then the story,” he said. In the popular realm, the poles of the theological debate within the Catholic church today are conservative and liberal. Godzieba’s view, though, holds that the church is “in the midst of a profound struggle between a return to an Augustinian approach with its more pessimistic outlook on the nature of the world, and the post-Vatican II more optimistic Thomistic way. I see that played out in just about every conference I go to.

“Now the story: One day I said to a younger colleague, Kevin Hughes [of Villanova], that it was not until I taught it that the confluence of Aquinas and Karl Rahner began to make sense to me. I felt it was liberating.” Godzieba explains that, during his research to be able to teach the two theologians, he discovered “that the grace of God was available to me within my everydayness, by means of the world, rather than in spite of the world.”

St. Thomas Aquinas had a fundamental optimism and argued that grace, of necessity, builds on nature, Godzieba said. Rahner insisted, “that by the very constitution of our humanity we are oriented toward the Holy Mystery.” For Godzieba, a Catholic from birth who felt all through elementary and high school that holiness was hopelessly “distant from my sin-ridden life,” the understanding prompted by research into Aquinas and Rahner was a true epiphany, “liberating, gladdening, even.”

To such news, his young colleague Hughes replied, “You know, when I got through high school I said to myself, ‘Is Catholicism really this wimpy? All this Jesus-is-my-friend business?’ ”

Kevin Hughes’ epiphany, Godzieba said, was of another kind, or at least in another theological direction. “By means of Augustine he discovered that Catholicism was actually about something, that it stood for something more than just good feelings and ‘Jesus is my friend,’ ” Godzeiba said. “It offered a framework for critique of the world and for seeing how God offers us something other than the world.”

To Godzieba, there is another stream among some younger theologians. They’re almost doing “Catholic Barthianism,” he said, referring to the Calvinist theologian Karl Barth. “The Word of God comes crashing in,” so that, from their point of view, “any attempt on our part to do ‘theology and’ -- theology and psychology, theology and culture, theology and literature, theology and social theory -- is selling theology out.”

Which means, said Godzieba, that John Milbank, Anglican theologian at the University of Virginia, and his “Radical Orthodoxy” are becoming more and more influential in Catholic circles. Radical orthodoxy holds, Godzieba said, “that if theology tries to answer the culture’s questions in the culture’s language, then theology is giving away the store. I find that attitude becoming more and more pervasive.”

Contrast that, he said, with “people who teach [Karl] Rahner, [Bernard] Lonergan and [Edward]Schillebeeckx” -- Catholicism’s contemporary liberal lights -- as if their theological perspective is self-evident.”

“It’s not self-evident any more,” said Godzieba. “We can’t take for granted the premises that most progressive Vatican II theology was built on.

“A number of younger theologians have taken the tack there’s something profoundly wrong with contemporary culture. That capitalist consumerism is really problematic, that we’ve got to do something as an alternative.

“That’s why,” he said, “a number of them really do like what the pope’s been saying,” in encyclicals such as Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. “And therefore, they really do like Karl Barth’s stance: the “Word of God over and against the world.” They are of the camp that American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic Christ and Culture labeled “Christ against culture.”

“There’s a pervasive Christ versus culture approach that really does get support out of the Vatican these days,” Godzieba said.

The newly minted scholars, he said, “are immersed in this [capitalist] culture up to their necks. They know it better than those of us pushing 50 because they’ve been watching more TV. They grew up during the Reagan years so they know about economic precariousness, and they also know about the boom times.

“And some of them don’t like the commodification they see, or the moral relativism that’s out there, and so their approach, I think, is to be more Augustinian -- pessimistic -- toward the world and toward human accomplishments.”

Now, on to meet the first two of the younger scholars: Michelle Lelwica and Tom Beaudoin.

Coming up in future issues: Theresa M. Sanders of Georgetown University followed by James T. Fisher of St. Louis University.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001