Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Y. Congar and C. Fab bro

Elliot Milco

I became aware of Cornelio Fabro’s existence a few years ago through a lecture given by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, at a conference on the Renewal of Thomism. In his lecture (available here), Fr. White identifies two different paths open to Thomists after the Second Vatican Council, which he associates with the French Dominican Yves Congar (1904–1995) on the one hand, and the Italian Stigmatine Cornelio Fabro (1911–1995) on the other. A year or so ago I read a good deal of Congar's diary from Vatican II. Lately I've been thinking more about Fabro, and started reading his book God in Exile. In light of this, I'd like to revisit the distinction drawn by Fr. White, with some of my own thoughts.

Yves Congar’s Thomism was characterized by a broad optimism about the Ecumenical movement, the relations between the Church and the modern secular world, and the malleability of ecclesiastical institutions to meet the needs of the day. He was more concerned with the abstract methodsand intellectual style of St. Thomas than his particular views. He saw the task of modern Thomists as one, not necessarily of preserving the doctrines of the Angelic Doctor, but of doing with modern philosophy what St. Thomas did with the new Aristotelianism and Islamic philosophies of his day. Thomas reached outside the Church to embrace the philosophical riches of humanity, and incorporated them into his own language and ways of thinking. So too, thought Congar, we ought to embrace the riches of other world religions, of modern existentialism and phenomenology, of the separated brethren, and create a new language and conceptual apparatus that would enable the Church to draw closer to (and eventually embrace) all the people and groups outside it. For Congar, the Thomist project is about dialogueand incorporation, best expressed in the ancient adage found in Origen’s letter to St. Gregory Thaumaturgus: As the Israelites took the spoils of Egypt with them into Sinai to build the Ark, so we should despoil the pagan philosophers and turn their ideas to divine use.

Cornelio Fabro was less sanguine about the Church’s prospects in the rising tide of secularism. For Fabro, the tendency of the modern world and the rise of modern atheism can be traced back to a single principle, which he calls “immanentism.” Immanentism is the reduction of the truth to states of subjective consciousness—the abstraction of truth from being, the rejection of realism. This rejection, according to Fabro, means that the philosophical tradition descended from Descartes, even in its ostensibly theological activity, will always tend toward atheism. In fact, he goes so far to say that modern philosophy is “radically and constitutively atheistic,” precisely because of its prioritization of the reality of states of consciousness over the objective being of things. (Interestingly, this diagnosis of “immanentism” as a primary undercurrent in modern philosophy and theology was masterfully explained in Pope Pius X’s 1907 encyclical on “modernism,” Pascendi Dominici Gregis.)

Because of the nuclear atheism of modern philosophy, possibilities for authentically Catholic dialogue with and appropriation of modern thought are limited. Dialogue happens on the basis of some underlying agreement—between subjectivism and realism there is little to go on. Furthermore, the theologians who adopt modern habits of thinking and philosophical principles tend (however good their intentions may be) to fall into confusion about the meaning of their words. Language about God ends up becoming merely descriptive of human experience; theological mystery is transformed into anthropological allegory; and, in the end, conversations arise in which one party talks about the nature of the Divinity, while the other is talking, in nearly the same language, about the human community’s collective experience of “the new.”

None of this is meant to suggest that Fabro rejected Origen’s dictum about the “spoils of Egypt.” He studied modern philosophy in great depth, and with great care. His corpus includes books on Marx, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and other modern thinkers, as well as an enormous survey of atheism in modern philosophy, God in Exile: Modern Atheism. But, unlike Congar, Fabro’s researches were colored less by a desire for universal peace and human brotherhood (and certainly not by resentment over the strictures of Pius XII’s pontificate) than by a desire to understand, with reference to eternal Truth.

Congar’s approach carried the day. His optimism was enshrined in the documents of Vatican II and became programmatic in the adoption of the “new theology” in Catholic seminaries across the world. For my part, looking over the trajectory of modern thought since 1960, I can’t help but conclude that Fabro’s desire for the truth did greater justice to the inner tendencies of the modern world than Congar’s starry-eyed hopes for universal brotherhood. The past half-century of endless calls for dialogue and inclusivity seems to have given us little more than tide after tide of confusion and fragmentation in Catholic theology. Thomism has been broadly abandoned in favor of a series of faddish, increasingly anthropocentric theologies, and our clergy (poorly trained by “new theologians”) are barely capable of presenting Catholic doctrine to their flocks, much less defending it. Congar's yearning for unity found its principle in Origen’s “spoils of Egypt.” But perhaps this principle, while sound, should be supplemented by a more medieval principle: that the identification of real differences between things is prerequisite to their unification. Distinguish to unite. Where there is disagreement, or failure, or error, let it be acknowledged, so that an earnest confrontation of the difference can help lead those who differ toward greater unity—not on the basis of their shared humanitarianism or abstract “respect,” but through their common participation and friendship in the Truth.

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