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Benedict XVI, Thomism, and Liberal Culture (Part 2 of 2)

7/26/2005 - 5:00 AM PST

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Tracey Rowland on the Church's Response to Modernity

MELBOURNE, Australia, JULY 26, 2005 (Zenit) - Is liberalism a positive and "liberating" intellectual development within Western history that can be both baptized and integrated into the life of the Church?

Or, is it a destructive cultural and political force that thwarts the desire for transcendence?

Theologian Tracey Rowland believes the latter description of liberalism -- an intellectual tradition derivative of the epistemology and moral, political and economic philosophy of the various European Enlightenments in the 18th century -- better understands the phenomenon, and believes Benedict XVI shares at least some elements of this diagnosis. The encounter with liberal culture, she says, may be one of the central themes of his papacy.

Rowland is dean and permanent fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family -- Melbourne and author of "Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II" (Routledge).

She shared with Catholic Online why two schools of Thomism have differing visions of how the Church should respond to, and interact with, liberal institutions and culture, without being subsumed by them.

Part of this interview appeared Monday on Catholic Online.

Q: You have said that the major intellectual and theological battle within the Church is between the "Augustinian Thomists" and the "Whig Thomists." What does this mean?

Rowland: First, let me define "Whig."

The expression "Whig Thomist" was coined by Michael Novak to describe his intellectual project. Originally the word "Whig" came from the Scottish word "Whiggamor" for a cattle driver -- though some sources say cattle thief and others say horse thief. It was initially applied to Scottish Presbyterians, mostly from the west coast of Scotland, who opposed the Stuart cause in the wars of the 17th century.

Their counterparts, the Tories -- a word derived from the Gaelic for "outlaw" -- consisted of some aristocrats, large landowners and agrarian peasants. They were mercantilist in economic policy, royalist in politics and tended to support the succession of James II [1633-1701].

Over time the term was used to refer to a faction in British politics. Although there was never anything like a strong doctrinal definition of the term, as a sociological generalization it can be said that the Whigs were the heirs of the Scottish Enlightenment, which emphasized economic and political liberty, or an emerging philosophy known as liberalism, which was often fused with a Puritan form of Protestantism.

In the 19th century Lord Acton popularized the idea that Thomas Aquinas was the first Whig, that is, the first proponent of a modern, post-Enlightenment concept of politics. Thus "Whig Thomism" refers to an intellectual project that seeks to locate the genesis of the liberal tradition in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and to synthesize elements of the Liberal tradition, particularly those provided by the Scottish Enlightenment, to classical Thomism.

The project of reading Aquinas as the first Whig or first Liberal has been criticized by a number of scholars.

For example, Robert Kraynak, in his work "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy," has written that "though intriguing, Acton's interpretation is misleading because Thomas defends power sharing and political participation, not as a right of the people to parliamentary consent nor as a means for protecting personal rights and liberties, but as the prudent application of natural law whose ends are best realized in a stable constitutional order dedicated to peace, virtue and Christian piety. This is medieval corporatism applied within the [Augustinian] doctrine of the Two Cities, rather than the first stirring of modern liberty."

Those who may loosely be classified as "Augustinian Thomists" follow such a Kraynak-style reading of Aquinas, rather than an Actonian.

What I argued in my book "Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II" is that there is a division between those who think that the Thomist tradition should accommodate itself to the culture of modernity, particularly the economic dimensions of this culture -- the self-described "Whig Thomists" -- and those who believe that modernity and its liberal tradition are really toxic to the flourishing of the faith.

Those who take the latter position do not want to supplement the Thomist tradition with doses of Enlightenment values. ...

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