Archbishop Victor Fernández and ‘Setting Limits’ to Theology

There has been a lot of coverage in Catholic circles of recent remarks made by Archbishop Victor Fernández, the newly named but not yet appointed head of the Holy See’s doctrinal office, the DDF (previously known as the CDF, and the Holy Office, and the Roman Inquisition).

See here and here for samples of the coverage.

The quote most commented upon from the Archbishop is this one, speaking of a very important encyclical on moral doctrine promulgated by Pope John Paul II:

Veritatis splendor is a great document, powerfully solid. Obviously, it denotes a particular concern – to set certain limits. For this reason it is not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology. In fact, over the last decades, tell me how many theologians can we name with the stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar or Von Balthasar? Not even that which they call “liberation theology” has theologians at the level of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Something has gone wrong. [Emphasis added.]

In these words, the soon-to-be prefect seems to be saying that setting limits to theological inquiry based upon Church teaching (which is what Veritatis Splendor did in condemning certain errors in contemporary moral theology) is something that is in tension with the “development of theology,” as if we are confronted with a problematic either-or dilemma: either orthodoxy or theological development.

Granting for the purpose of argument that the theologians Archbishop Fernández named are great theologians (a contestable point), his reasoning seems to be that the exaggerated emphasis on “setting limits” has prevented the rise of similar greats in recent years, a claim that strikes me as anachronistic. All of them were formed during a comparatively much stricter time, when “setting limits” was very much in vogue. All of them had to swear the Oath against Modernism before being ordained to the subdiaconate — unless, that is, the ordaining bishops violated Church law.

Worse than the anachronism is the false dichotomy that is foundational to the message: that safeguarding orthodoxy and theological development are an either-or choice. None of the great theologians — and I have in mind especially the Doctors of the Church, but also such luminaries as Hugh of St. Victor, Francisco Suarez, Cajetan, and Garrigou-Lagrange — none of them would consider orthodoxy to be an impediment to the practice of their science. Not one. Rather, they would say that orthodoxy is absolutely integral to that science, as orthodoxy provides its very principles.

A Science, Not an Art

I am tempted to say that orthodoxy is no more an impediment to good theology than the sonnet form is to good poetry or the sonata form is to good musical composition. But I am mindful of the fact that even the Bard himself “cheated” at the sonnet form occasionally, bending the rules a bit. Beethoven, for his part, did some violence to the sonata form. That is exactly the kind of comparison the Modernist will want to make in order to illustrate how great innovators pushed beyond the previous limits of the art and created new art forms.

The comparison limps heavily because theology is a science that draws conclusions from principles that are undeniable — in this case the data of divine revelation and self-evident philosophical principles (e.g., non-contradiction, sufficient reason, etc.); it is, strictly speaking, not an art. (As much as I appreciate art and aesthetics, I strongly suspect that one of the problems with the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar is his inversion of the order of the transcendentals, putting the primacy on beauty.)

If orthodoxy is synonymous with truth in matters of revealed religion, then the “limits” of orthodoxy are simply the limits of truth in religious matters. Let us not forget that truth is the conformity of the mind to reality — to what is. Yes, that is a limit, but its alternative is error, which is an actual defect, i.e., the absence of a perfection which ought to be there. It is one of the ironies of existence that certain limits are liberating, which is, incidentally, a point beautifully made in Veritatis Splendor 17 with the help of an exquisite passage from Saint Augustine’s  Tractate 41 on the Gospel of Saint John (10).

In all matters, the mind has to be humble enough to receive reality and not attempt to manufacture it. This is especially so in theology, where pride is a particularly vexing temptation.

An example to illustrate the contrast between art and science may help. If a fantasy fiction writer undertook the task of writing nothing that was not true in the strictest sense, narrating only things that had actually happened, he would not be a fantasy fiction writer but an historian. (I say “true in the strictest sense” to allow for the fact that good fiction can explore certain truths of the human condition in a useful and even profound way, but within the context of a story that is fiction. Poetry can do the same.) Theology, on the other hand, is a science that is carefully delimited by its fundamental principles (derived from faith and reason) as well as its subject matter (God). Such a science demands strict adherence to its own principles if it is to be undertaken well. Any “theology” that seeks to be untethered from these restrictions is simply not worthy of the name. It’s something else.

Although there is an aspect of art (recta ratio factibilium) in the “doing” of theology — which is why the competent academic theologian or theological writer gets better with practice, having cultivated the habitus — it still remains a science and must be treated as such. When theology is practiced as if it were a creative art, things can and do go sideways fast.

Anyone who engages in a science is limited by the principles of that science and its subject matter. The physicist who denies the laws of gravity or entropy, the logician who denies the principles of non-contradiction or sufficient reason, or the mathematician who denies that the sum of all three interior angles in a triangle is 180∘ are not men to be trusted. They are not true to their respective sciences.

And neither is the theologian who departs from Catholic orthodoxy.

Nobody here thought that orthodoxy impeded theology. Image: Disputation on the Holy Sacrament by Raphael (1483–1520). Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.