The Pre-Vatican II Decline of Theology

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If we want to address the problem of hyperüberultramontanism, we are going to need to talk about a decline in theology that occurred before Vatican II. We need to understand the roots of these issues and how they developed in our history of Catholicism in modernity. To do that, we have to cover some basics about theology.

Let me clear: I’m not a theologian. I’m a Catholic father and a layman trying to do my duty to catechise my children and fight against heresy in the public Catholic sphere. Theologians, by ancient definition, are holy men who know God and thus know wisdom and can bring forth that wisdom to the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.

My expertise and academic training, rather, is in history and linguistics. So I can look at history and the history of theology, as well as the public statements of the Magisterium and compare that with theology as it is done today.

You don’t have to be a theologian to understand what went wrong. But just to be clear: I’ve talked with respected theologians who agree with what I’m about to say.[1] I don’t want to be a theologian – I just want theologians to act like theologians. If that happened, as we will see, we’d be able to resolve issues I think.

Theologian: Man of Prayer

The office of theologian in the Church, as I said, was the same thing as a holy man, a saint. St. Anthony of the Desert was a theologian, even though he was illiterate. He was a holy man, and thus he communed with Wisdom Himself, and could bring forth this wisdom for the Church.

This came from the contemplation of God in unceasing prayer and the meditation of God in Holy Scripture. So the desert fathers were theologians par excellence, who prayed the entire Holy Psalter every day, as St. Benedict mentions in his rule.

Thus it is said that the office of bishop was reserved for a man who had memorised the entire Psalter – that proved he was a theologian, since he was a man of prayer. Other such theologians would memorise the entire Scripture as they were constantly praying the Scripture and contemplating God.

The Scholastic Way of Contemplation

The Church Fathers followed this model, and so did the Scholastics. In the days of St. Thomas Aquinas there had developed an academic method to prove a theologian. His prayer life was tested by writing a commentary on the most famous book of wisdom (after the Holy Scripture), The Sentences of Peter Lombard. This text was a string of Patristic commentary on Holy Scripture.

“Commentary” here means an act of wisdom based on Scripture which is the fruit of holy contemplation of God.

Theologians of St. Thomas’ day earned their stripes by writing their own commentaries on The Sentences as an act of wisdom. It was understood that this was not merely an academic discipline.

No.

Theology was the fruit of prayer. Theology was prayer.

St. Thomas writes how the gift of wisdom is the perfection of charity because charity unites us with God, Who gives wisdom to the saints who know Him (II-II q45). A theologian who was judged to be a man of prayer and wisdom, was given the title “Master of Scripture.” Thus could a theologian pray Sacred Scripture and know God and bring forth wisdom.

The Corruption of the Theologian as Merely Academic

Through the work of Ockham and especially Luther, however, “theology” lost its basis in prayer and became a merely academic exercise. It was then used by the power of rebellious princes to justify their revolt against the Magisterium. These false theologians were no longer “Masters of Scripture” but “Academics of Scripture,” used as pawns by the powers that be to further their own ends, as Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker show in an important work.

This eventually culminated in the suppression of the Jesuits (the first Masonic conspiracy of the Vatican in 1773) and the subsequent secularisation of Catholic education. Because the classical Jesuits (these were the good Jesuits, folks) controlled so many institutions of public education, the secularising state (Catholic or not) was able to steal whole libraries and public works of the Church, severely limiting its own ability to train its own theologians.

By the time Pius VII reversed this grievous Masonic conspiracy, the Jesuits and others of the 19th century were trying to play catch-up to a constant and bloody revolution through the 19th century. Countless libraries were looted, monasteries attacked and resources lost. The situation became so dire that Leo XIII had to write Aeterni Patris “on the restoration of Christian philosophy” to try to pick up the pieces after the Masons finally invaded the Vatican and took over the Papal states.

The theology of neo-Thomism was the fruit of this effort, which produced the greatest Thomist theologian of the twentieth century, Fr. Reginald Garrigiou-Lagrange. This was a man worthy of the title “theologian” – a man of prayer and wisdom, who could describe the Three Ages of the Interior Life because he himself was a holy man. Here was a Thomist who truly imitated St. Thomas. He was indeed a “Master of Scripture.”

The Excesses of Neo-Thomism

But because of the constant revolution and the lack of resources, neo-Thomism had some excesses in practice, and there were far too many theologians who were “Thomists in name only,” getting fast-food PhDs over the summer and reading from the manuals to their yawning students. These Thomists in name only were not “Masters of Scripture” but “Academics of Scholastic Philosophy.” In fact, many of them neglected the Holy Scripture itself, thinking they could be theologians without the Word of God. As a result, a certain rationalism crept in to this movement.

The heresy of Modernism produced not only a deserved condemnation from Pope St. Pius X, but also its own neo-Thomism excesses by way of reaction. Some of these bad Thomists started to target anyone who wasn’t a Thomist like them as being heretical, as Mr. Sire writes in his important text:

Pius X followed up his doctrinal condemnation [of Modernism] with a purging of the Catholic seminaries, in which, on the plea of rooting out Modernism, anything but the most conventional orthodoxy fell in danger of proscription.[2]

Mr. Sire notes how this ended up imposing a “strict school of integrism on the middle ground of the church” which was “western, clericalist, scholastic” “papalist” and “historically short sighted.”[3] This overreaction to Modernism ended up “hold[ing] to Thomism as the bastion of orthodoxy, to the extent of considering any lapse from the pure word of St. Thomas as inherently unsound.”[4]

These excesses led to treating the liturgy and the papacy as abstractions, isolated by philosophical distinctions from the realities of true pastoral necessity and the organic continuity in Tradition. It reduced the liturgy to the bare form and matter of the Sacrament, and the infallibility of the Church to the solemn decrees of the Sovereign Pontiff.

Kwasniewski calls this “neoscholastic reductionism”:

Unfortunately, since nearly everyone who came to Vatican II or who worked for the Consilium [which produced the Novus Ordo] had been brought up on this superficial neoscholastic reductionism, they felt free to rip apart and reconfigure the Roman Rite as long as they kept the words of consecration (more or less) intact. In this regard they were lab technicians committed all along to the result of a valid Mass but not feeling themselves ethically bound to any particular content or process.[5]

It was because of hyperpapalism that this neoscholastic excess did not feel itself “bound to any process.”

The decline of theology before Vatcan II produced another overreaction in the form of neo-Modernism masquerading as “resourcement” at and after Vatican II. But if we are to face the roots of our issue with hyperüberultramontanism, we have dig deeper to find excesses that were already present when Pius XII died.

In our next essay, we will delve deeper into the reaction of Vatican II and how this contributed to a collapse of the very basics of theology, which was a solution worse than the problem.

 

[1] For more on this, see T. S. Flanders, Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics.

[2] Henry Sire, Phoenix from the Ashes (Angelico, 2015), 139.

[3] Ibid., loc. cit.

[4] Ibid,

[5] Peter Kwasniewski, “The Long Shadow of Neoscholastic Reductionism,” New Liturgical Movement (July 3rd, 2017).

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