Cotton Fields and Latin Manuals

I remember paging through a book of collected photographs and articles about Johnny Cash (above right) which Rolling Stone issued shortly after the country music icon died in 2003.  One of the authors described how we shall never have another Johnny Cash because the cultural conditions that could create a Johnny Cash—hand-picking cotton in the Southern sun, cross-country train rides, rugged stone prisons—no longer exist.

That article came to mind as I recently read of the death of the Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx (above left).  To be sure, Schillebeeckx was not to twentieth-century Catholic theology what Cash was to twentieth-century country music (the argument for the Cash-equivalent would have to be between Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Schillebeeckx being more of a Merle Haggard-type).  Still, the Belgian Dominican’s death calls to mind the brilliant theologians of the twentieth century, whose collective theological sun stood at high noon in the heady and optimistic 1960’s.  It also reminds one that that sun has now all but set.

In a review of Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians, R. R. Reno labeled the theological giants of the last century the “Heroic Generation.”  Reno argues that in overcoming—destroying, even—the neoscholastic theology of their day, the theologians of the Heroic Generation disassembled the very foundations which allowed them to build their grand theological edifices.  The result, according to Reno: “The most creative members of the Heroic Generation are now strangely inaccessible to us. Their achievement has been hollowed out—in part, at least, by its own success. Their revolution destroyed the theological culture that gave vitality and life to their theological projects.” And thus, Reno asserts, “The collapse of neoscholasticism has not led to the new and fuller vision sought by the Heroic Generation. It has created a vacuum filled with simple-minded shibboleths.”  In conclusion, Reno argues for a “renewed standard theology,” saying that “We need to overcome the now old modern myth of new beginnings and recognize that the Heroic Generation achieved so much of permanent value because they were formed in a church culture already shaped by a refined, cogent, and considered standard theology.”

Reno is correct to point to a current dearth of theological savants.  Survey the contemporary Catholic intellectual scene: What theologian writing today rivals the caliber of a Balthasar or a Rahner, a Congar or a de Lubac?  (Since we allow comments on this blog, that need not be just a rhetorical question.  And while we are at it, I would be interested in hearing who you think are the best theologians writing today . . .)

The reason, I would like to suggest, such thinkers no longer exist is that the intellectual and cultural conditions capable of producing such high-level theologians no longer exist.  The classical education men in the Heroic Generation received from an early age is now almost non-existent.  Graduate students today—already well into their twenties and thirties—struggle to learn Latin and Greek when scholars of an early generation had a facility—and sometimes fluency—in these languages early in their youth.  Moreover, many theologians of the Heroic Generation emerged from a Catholic societal milieu in which the Faith was something one lived and breathed in all aspects of life—something which is helpful, even if not necessary, for grooming first-rate theologians.

To watch more than an isolated one or two theologians of the acumen of the Heroic Generation rise again will take far more than a renewal of a standard theology, even if that may be a step in the right direction.  It will take the creation of intellectual and cultural conditions in which potential theological genius can be nourished and given all that it needs to flourish.

The mission of the brilliant theologians of the past century was a glorious one of propelling the Church into uncharted theological waters and embarking on grand theological projects.  Ironically, the importance of those missions, in some cases, was the cause of their very defeat as they became crippled by hubris.  In contrast, perhaps the mission of ecclesial theologians today has something of a John-the-Baptist quality to it, that is, preparing the way for the work of future theological giants by quietly and humbly piecing together a fecund Catholic intellectual culture.  The humble nature and seeming insignificance of that task might be the very key to its success.

19 Responses to Cotton Fields and Latin Manuals

  1. Justin from Ohio says:

    Pope Benedict is a contemporary of some of these men and arguably, our Holy Father is right up there as a top-notch biblical theologian.

    Although you may disagree, I also think someone like Scott Hahn is a world-class Catholic theologian today. Hahn has a mastery of the original Greek and Hebrew and his work on topics of Covenant (old and new), the book of Revelation and the Liturgy, and Salvation history are quite renowned.

    I think a lot of modern theologians can never reach the heights of the giants of the past century because so many of them use the “historical-critical” method and reject the supernatural altogether. This is what the Pope has called the “hermeneutic of suspicion” and many of these theologians reject the historical facts of the biblical accounts, as well as rejecting the supernatural and the miracles that are reported in them. They must find a balance again and approach scripture with a “hermeneutic of trust and of faith.”

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    Hmmmmm….a theologian who rivals the caliber of a Balthasar or a Rahner, a Congar or a de Lubac? Let’s see, oh, I don’t know, maybe a chap by the name of Joseph Ratzinger? I’m really surprised you didn’t make the jump yourselves, given the close relationship de Lubac and Balthasar had with Pope Benedict (may God grant him 100 years!) during and after Vatican II when they co-authored Concilium; then all 3 having reached the same conclusions that it was being used as a tool for dissent, decided to leave and create Communio.

    On a theological level, I believe we couldn’t have a better Pope, specifically to right the wrongs that have gone unchecked under the last 4 Popes.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Qualis Rex,

      I agree that Joseph Ratzinger is among the best theologians writing today. I did not include him, however, because now for nearly thirty years, other ecclesial obligations have been demanded of him that have prevented him from working as a full-time theologian. As he himself has stated, these obligations prevented him from every pursuing his own comprehensive systematic project. His writings have been more occasional. As such, I do not think his corpus rivals that of the brighter lights of the Heroic Generation. Perhaps it would have if he had never been made a bishop.

      However as the Pope is now in his early eighties, he belongs, in some sense, to the earlier generation of theologians to which my post refers. Thus your point, it seems to me, only buttresses my main point. In fact, the first chapters of Ratzinger’s memoirs _Milestones_ well describe the type of intellectual and cultural conditions to which I am referring.

      • Qualis Rex says:

        Vincent – I guess I missed your point. From your question “What theologian writing today rivals the caliber…” I gathered you were making your assessment on quality and not quantity (corpus). And to be fair, there is a fair amount of Pope Benedict’s work from his free-wheeling theologian days to be squarely among the ranks of your aforementioned.

        But I’d also like to say this; the 1960’s were not the end-all-be-all of Catholic theology or culture. It was a blip in history which spilt into the church as a natural consequence of the times. In my opinion, there are certainly other points in history with equal amounts of upheaval which produced an equal if not greater callibre of theologians. The period in which Hilaire Belloc (one of my all time favorites) would be high on my list.

        I think all generations wax nostalgic about some perceived “golden age”. And I would absolutely agree that in our current VERY secular, modernist and overall religiously lethargic point in history, the formula for producing great theologians is not there–primarily due to lack of interest. But we must remember that the GOOD part of the equation is that as opposed to the 1960’s human civilization is flourishing, less people are starving, human rights are far more pervasive and the threat of total anihilation is a distant afterthought. My hope is that these trends will continue, and once we as humans get comfortable with this lack of massive turmoil, upheaval and constant threat, we will eventually turn out focus away from consumerism and back towards traditional values. This may indeed spark more interest in theology and produc the next great era of theologians. Who knows?

  3. Jean-Luc Marion, even though he is a philosopher. N.T. Wright, though not a systematic theologian. David Schindler. I like the first two because they are engaging in creative work. Not just regurgitating the old.

    But you’re right, because method has become such a problem in our post-modern climate, guys like Tracy spend all their time writing on method rather than constructing something new. Maybe we are in a time of setting new groundwork for something great to come forth again.

  4. Joe says:

    I got a chuckle out of the Edward Schillebeeckx-Merle Haggard analogy – makes me think of a conversation I had with a Dutch Jesuit who said that in the ’60s and ’70s people from outside the Low Countries learned Dutch so that they could read Schillebeeckx in the original, but no one does so anymore.

    I think that you’re correct in stating that the cultural and intellectual conditions that produced the “Heroic Generation” of Catholic theologians are no longer present. The decline of classical education and the loss of a certain kind of Catholic milieu are a part of this, but the diminished public profile of academic theology is also worth nothing – Rahner and Schillebeeckx and company managed to become public intellectuals in their time, routinely profiled in secular publications as well as in religious media and academic journals. The only theologians who get anything like that kind of attention today are those who also happen to be bishops (Rowan Williams and N. T. Wright come to mind) and get covered by the media because of their church leadership positions and not on account of their academic credentials.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Joe,

      You make a good point about the diminished public profile of theologians. I wonder if that says more about the surrounding culture or the ecclesial culture: probably something about both. Now it seems that there is a divorce between academic theologians and other “public theologians” who are the ones commenting on Church affairs on a popular level. Those roles used to belong, as you note, to the same people, who happened to be the brightest theologians. I think that was in general good for the Church. It became dangerous only when certain theologians allowed their own popularity and influence to lead to pride and to a forgetting of the joint, but in one way subordinate role, they have with/to the bishops and magisterium.

  5. There appears to be an underlying built-in
    epistemology in your question: that each Age is
    “supposed” to produce exceptional theological talent!

    Reality says that it is always a function of
    Personnel Administration theory: the Attraction
    Principle rules every and any career domain,
    and funds the talent pool which produces anything of
    significanse for the area a personage so choses to

    And so it would appear to be more the case that
    each Age is at the mercy of whatever talent happens
    to come along and contribute to the accomplishments
    for that respective Age and culture and academic
    discipline….and it is not just the culture that
    is its causation!

    Simultaneously, what also impacts this question
    is that talent does happen along every few
    generations, adding to the cumulative growth in
    knoledge acquisition that underpins our “Tradition”
    for the continuity of our Pilgrim Church status….

    And so, we can’t automatically expect, in the vein
    of the Secular Age’s errant Expectations Syndrome,
    to have a “Rahner” or a “Chardin” for each and
    every Age! We will never again have one of those:
    they were, and remain, unique. Future generations
    will produce their own intellectual-giant
    equivalents, but not equivalent like-type result!

    Add to this also our dual-state mystical makeup:
    we are not of this world! The unknown Mystery
    behind much of what goes on, blind to our senses,
    has a hand in such matters, too! After all, we will
    for all time, have only “one” Adam, one Moses,
    one….. !!! Neither of whom chose their career:
    they were “appointed” and anointed! With Jesus
    a subject onto Himself!

    And so I end with my recollection that it was
    America magazine (Jesuit, for those of you not
    familiar with the name!), just a few decades ago,
    that told my memory that it is Rahner who is the
    greatest Catholic theologian for the past century,
    and that it is Reinhold Niebhur who is the geatest
    Protestant theologian of the past century.

    To raise the question of those in position power
    is to confuse the question with personal agendas:
    few Popes were ever “great” theologians! And no
    pope was a theologian for Vat. II !

    To be a great theologian is to produce great
    theology: period! Anybody who does not understand
    that does not understand the academic field of
    theology!!! So today, yes, there are numerous
    significant theological “names,” but few are
    “exceptional,” like a Rahner, and next to none,
    like a Chardin!!!

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Mr. Kaulius,

      Thanks for the comment. I address some of your points in my reply to Henry below.

  6. Hi Vince,

    I think culture is one aspect of what you describe, but I don’t think it is so much that the culture was a “producer” as it was an “enabler,” or perhaps the best word for what I’m trying to express would be “catalyst,” that is, not so much an incubator, but a reactive substance, an opposing force that caused something to happen.

    A common trend in history seems to be that tremendous progress in any discipline is always made by a small group of men that act in opposition to the status quo. For example, think of the Impressionist painters that surrounded Monet (e.g. Manet, Cezanne, Emile Zola, and Renoir), or the scientists that backed Einstein, or even the social climate that produced the great singer-songwriters of the mid-1900’s. Certainly culture produced these effects, but not in a way that you seem to describe.

    What all these share in common is that the culture of the time wasn’t set up to cater to their disciplines. In fact the opposite is true. These great leaps were made, in the midst of great opposition, by the urgency with which a few dedicated individuals worked.

    I understand scholasticism and theology are in a slightly different realm, but nonetheless, I worry that a push toward standardization and such “redundancy” may produce a negative effect. Is theology the goal? Or were these ideas in response to social happenings? It just seems like progress and the turnover of languages is natural and good and won’t be halted no matter how hard we try, so maybe we should seek a “controlled demolition,” so to speak, where we preserve the main points. And use the rubble to produce a firm foundation to start building again.

    Could there be just as much creative theological insight in the languages of HTML, JavaScript, or PHP as from Greek or Latin?

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Mr. Bretl,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Great theology often has arisen out of controversy when there was a need to clarify the Church’s position on an important matter, e.g., the Trinity or Christ. I think I am using culture differently than you and describing what might be a subculture (although I do not like using that word) which may serve as a garden out which good theology can grow. But to be sure, such a garden is not absolutely necessary: the early Church produced some good theology in what was at times a surrounding hostile culture.

      Regarding language: The reason Latin and Greek are crucial is because they are the languages that connect us to the Tradition. If we, as a Church, forget those languages, we have severed our connection with the past. We lose access to some of the greatest theology ever written and we step out of our narrative. I am not saying that theology today needs to be written in Latin or Greek. At the same time, I think a language such as HTML or PHP could not support a good theology, because they are aesthetically ugly and artificial languages compared to more beautiful and organic classical languages. Theology is something beautiful and must be expressed in beautiful language since form is closely linked to content.

  7. Henry says:


    You are absolutely right that the “foundation” that existed then is long gone but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    However, permit me to ask a few unasked questions (even though Virgilijus alludes to them):

    1) why do we need theological giants? After all, we don’t follow theologians do we?

    2) What’s the criterion used to determine who is or isn’t a theological giant? Is it “originality/ novelty” as it is in contemporary modern art?

    Lastly, if I take your beautiful statement – “the mission of ecclesial theologians today has something of a John-the-Baptist quality to it, that is, preparing the way for the work of future theological giants by quietly and humbly piecing together a fecund Catholic intellectual culture. The humble nature and seeming insignificance of that task might be the very key to its success.” – then I nominate Msgr. Luigi Giussani. Van Balthasar who dedicated his book “Engagement with God” to Msgr. Luigi Giussani (this dedication was omitted from the Ignatius Press Edition) certainly held him in high esteem as do the current pope, Angelo Sala, Lorenzo Albacete, and many others including me.



    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Henry,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      In response to your first point, why do we need theological giants? The 1990 CDF document Donum Veritatis states:

      “In the Christian faith, knowledge and life, truth and existence are intrinsically connected. Assuredly, the truth given in God’s revelation exceeds the capacity of human knowledge, but it is not opposed to human reason. Revelation in fact penetrates human reason, elevates it, and calls it to give an account of itself (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). For this reason, from the very beginning of the Church, the “standard of teaching” (cf. Rom 6:17) has been linked with baptism to entrance into the mystery of Christ. The service of doctrine, implying as it does the believer’s search for an understanding of the faith, i.e., theology, is therefore something indispensable for the Church.Theology has importance for the Church in every age so that it can respond to the plan of God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). In times of great spiritual and cultural change, theology is all the more important.”

      Every age, it is true, does not need theological “giants.” I think God gives the true greats (e.g., the Cappadocians, Augustine, Aquinas) when the Church needed them most. At the same time, brilliant and holy theologians can provide a great service to the Church in any age, ours included.

      There is much more I could say on this point, but let me stop there and recommend, if you want to pursue the question more, that you take a glance at Donum Veritatis, especially section II, “The Vocation of the Theologian.”

      Your second point, the criteria by which one judges who is a theological giant, is a loaded question which I intentionally avoided in my post. There are many criteria. Some that come to mind quickly: grasp of the Tradition, speculative power, subsequent positive impact on the Church.

      Concerning originality in theology, in general, I agree with Avery Cardinal Dulles who wrote,
      “I do not aim at originality, a quality frequently overrated in theology. Practiced without regard for continuity, originality creates confusion and doubt in the Church, rather than clarity and conviction. Tradition attunes us to the greatest religious thinkers of the past and, when creatively retrieved, serves to correct the biases of our day.” Still, Dulles notes that we should try to avoid an unhealthy traditionalism and try “to make the adaptations necessary to render the wisdom of the past ages applicable to the world in which we live.” I think the great theologians had the proper blend of being anchored in the tradition while at the same time being creative. In fact, it was that very anchoring in the tradition that allowed them to be creative, which is an implicit point I was trying to make in my post.

      Lastly, Henry, I appreciate you mentioning Fr. Giussani. I know many people who have found great inspiration in his writings. I must confess, I have tried reading him several times but his writing never clicked with me. But I’ll try again. Just two days ago I listened to Stanley Hauerwas, Fr. Julian Carrón, and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete discuss Giussani’s book on charity and I was quite moved.

      Thanks again for your comments. Keep reading.

      • Henry says:

        Thanks for the reply Vincent. As you rightly intuited, I was not implying that we don’t need theologians – because we certainly do. The Dulles quote is perfect and clearly demonstrates what I call a “holistic” creativity.

        I wish I had known you were going to be at the talk because I would have looked for you so we could chat. I also could have introduced you to the speakers.

        Regarding Fr. Giussanis books, I will send you a private e-mail about that. Lastly, the text of the talks will be on Crossroads website in a few weeks.



  8. Henry says:

    Vincent, there’s a book that you might be interested in because it’s a great introduction to the works of Fr. Giussani – A Generative Thought – with essays by Angelo Scola, Lorenzo Albacete, Michael Waldstein, J. Francis Stafford, David Schindler, etc.



  9. Giovanni says:

    Schillebeeckx is to theology what Bugnini was to the Liturgy.

    I think you are correct in asserting that it was their great success that prompted the demise of the system that made them successful, however it seems that you do not appreciate the damage that people like this man have done to the Church and Catholicism in general.

    This is no spring time of the Church it is a nuclear winter.

    The reason you do not see these “great” theologians is because dissent is sterile.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      I don’t know if I would put Schillebeeckx on par with Bugnini, but as per my previous response, your point is well taken. Once again, luckily we have a Pope who seems strong enough to correct the course the barq of Peter has taken.

  10. Tom Piatak says:

    An outstanding post. The demise of classical education portends the demise of Western thought, which has been nurtured by classical education.

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