Lonergan (1904-84) took as his motto Pope Leo XIII’s phrase describing how the Church saw the ‘return’ to the resources of the scholastic tradition, ‘vetera novis augere et perficere’ – ‘to draw new things from the old in order to perfect the old.’ His aim was to appropriate the great tradition of Aristotle, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas in order to present this anew as illuminating the questions and problems of modern philosophy and theology. In doing so Lonergan also drew on thinkers such as Bl. John Henry Newman as he outlined an account of human thought and cognition which, he argued, one could verify in one’s own conscious experience. In doing so one could argue for fundamental philosophical positions in epistemology, metaphysics, natural theology and so on which are those of St Thomas, while also following the advice of the Popes (i.e. Leo XIII and St Pius X) in sifting out as no longer useful, elements in that tradition which were more bound up with Aristotelian physics rather than being essential to philosophy. Such self-appropriation, of one’s cognitive, ethical and affective consciousness can lead to the affirmation of, among other things, one’s objective knowledge of being and of metaphysics. We should understand, in a way Husserl does not seem to, that to know our own conscious activities is to know a part of being, part of reality; it is to use our intelligence and reason to know a part of reality –something about ourselves as conscious beings – just as we use our intelligence and reason to make judgments about the bus we took on the way to work.
There is no other Catholic theologian of the 20th century who has gone into such detail on the philosophical underpinnings of theology as has Lonergan. I can say something about my own experience here perhaps. I began my study of philosophy and theology in the late 70s in London and then Rome as a seminarian. I did not complete the course. When I came back to the UK I did a BA in another area, but then returned to philosophy to do a 2 year MA in Continental Philosophy at one of the very few UK universities at the time which specialized in continental thought. In fact my own preferences were for looking at the area of dialogue and debate between Lonergan’s thought and Analytical or Anglo-American philosophy, which is the area I publish in mostly today. But heeding Lonergan’s call to try ‘to be at the level of one’s times’, I wanted to understand further what the continental tradition had to offer. So for two years I immersed myself in the study of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Gadamer, Levinas, Derrida et al. Then I went on to spend 6 years in Canada and the US. I did my Ph.D. in a Canadian university that is strongly analytical in orientation; I taught at another such university for a year and then went on to Boston College for a Post-Doctoral year. It was only when I went to Boston that I left the secular and often anti-religious environments I had been in for some years.
Because of Lonergan’s approach to the tradition and my understanding of it, I found myself able to debate and discuss in those different and indeed opposed philosophical environments, while speaking a language they might understand. All the while this also served to increase my appreciation of the deficiencies of the two traditions and see the crying need they have for a philosophical approach that brings in the rich resources of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, but in a way that speaks to their concerns and starting points. Really one is also talking about apologetics here: because one is talking about arguing for, giving reasons for the whole Christian worldview on God, creation and the human person in what are potentially hostile or indifferent contexts.
In my current work I often find that in some section of Lonergan’s magnum opus Insight, that I have not appreciated in detail before, there are resources for throwing light on some specialized issue in current analytical philosophy. I really cannot think of any other recent Catholic theologian whose work could serve in that way. But this philosophy was put at the service of theology by Lonergan. Not only did he labour to produce a work on method in theology, but in his lecturing in Canada in the 1940s and then his teaching at the Gregorian in Rome in the 50s and early 60s he attempted to apply this philosophical work, which would enable modern minds to make the vision of St Thomas their own, to areas such as sacramental theology, Christology and the theology of the Trinity. If I may, I will quote something I wrote in my book Insight and Analysis here:
My belief is then, that Lonergan, also found new resources for these areas of theology in St Thomas and developed further lines of thinking found in the writings of the Saint, when other major Catholic theologians thought that one had to look elsewhere. I will mention here one or two theologians, whose work I admire, who draw out further this feature of Lonergan’s work in their own writing.
Fr Giovanni Sala, SJ who died in 2011, was a very faithful servant of the Church. An Italian Jesuit he had however spent over forty years in Germany, lecturing and writing. Fr Sala met with many challenges a few years ago when he outspokenly defended the Vatican’s position on the way Catholic abortion counselling services in Germany could not refer women on for abortion. He was also a renowned scholar in the area of Kant studies and German idealism, as well as a Lonergan scholar. Lonergan criticises Kant for holding the self-destructive position that ‘we cannot know that we cannot know’, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems in Kant and German idealists. He valued the work of Giovanni Sala greatly (and referred to him in his late Third Collection) as a scholar respected in Kant circles, who could really show in detail how this critique applied to Kant and thus show the problems which resulted in German Idealism – a tradition which also began to have a damaging effect on Catholic theology. In the 1970s and 80s Fr Sala produced a string of academic articles in which, using Lonergan’s thought, he defended traditional Catholic positions in such areas as Christology, the Church and the doctrine of transubstantiation against theologians such as Küng and Schillebeeckx. These essays have been collected (in German) by Prof. Ulrich Lerhner into a volume with a preface by Cardinal Meissner. In the 1970s Lonergan was also arguing in support of the CDF against the confusions of the Dutch theologians in Christology (see the essay in his Third Collection).
When (then) Fr Philip Egan and I attended a conference in Mainz 2007 I had the pleasure of meeting Fr Sala. We had a chat in which we agreed we wanted to be Lonergan scholars in the service of the Church and her magisterium. He kindly wrote a review of my metaphysics book (Method in Metaphysics, University of Toronto Press, 2008), in PHILOSOPHISCHES JAHRBUCH, 117, Part 2 (2010), and we were in correspondence until his death.
I also had the pleasure of meeting, at a CIEL conference in 2000, the wonderful French Jesuit theologian Fr Bertrand de Magerie SJ, a great defender of Catholic orthodoxy and an advocate of what we now call the Extraordinary Form of Mass. As students of Catholic theology will know, one of Fr de Magerie’s outstanding contributions was his work on the Holy Trinity, two volumes from which appeared in English translation: The Christian Trinity in History (1982). In the final sections of this work de Magerie argues that Lonergan’s brilliant and subtle development of the psychological analogy for thinking about the dogma is the most satisfying and authentic development of St Thomas’ thought; it also accords better with the magisterium’s teaching than do other contemporary theories on offer. (Lonergan’s work also draws out the social and intersubjective aspects of this line of thinking for Trinitarian theology).
Like my good friend, the late Lonergan scholar Msgr Terry Tekippe, Fr de Magerie also makes use of Lonergan’s work in Christology in another book, to defend the magisterium’s teaching on Our Lord’s divine knowledge and possession of the beatific vision in this life. It gives one much satisfaction to see this doctrine, denied or downplayed my many, including Rahner, reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and most recently in the CDF censure of the Christology of Sobrino in 2006.
Another Lonergan influenced theologian who has defended this teaching and whose other work I admire is the American Benedictine Fr Guy Mansini, OSB. Fr Mansini, a regular contributor to journals such as Nova et Vetera, was the first theologian to alert me (through what he wrote about 20 years ago) to the massive differences between Lonergan and Rahner. Since then I have published essays on these differences and a critique of Rahner’s philosophy. Mention of Rahner brings to mind the great mistake that one still often sees repeated that ‘Lonergan is one of the transcendental Thomists’. This was an idea that Lonergan repudiated himself – for instance in an interview in 1982. A good number of Lonergan scholars have written to correct this idea; Lonergan preferred to talk of his work as a ‘generalized empirical method’ (I have an article with that title in the current number of Lonergan Studies (Seton Hall University NJ).
Fr Mansini has not only argued in articles that Rahner falls short of what we can find better expressed in Aquinas, but that Balthasar does so too. While there are many great and valuable lessons to be learnt from von Balthasar, I too share the concerns of Fr Mansini and other philosophical theologians that his work is philosophically problematic (see the collection of Fr Mansini’s articles in his book, The Word has Dwelt Among Us, Ave Maria University Press, 2008).
A further point relevant to this discussion is that Lonergan never signed up to the de Lubac
programme on the natural desire to see God. While he criticised many confused scholastic proposed resolutions of
this dilemma, Lonergan also thought that de Lubac had missed the point of Pope Pius XII’s Humani
generis on the issue. In a powerfully argued article on this debate in The Thomist, Fr Mansini has shown how this debate has had profound repercussions
on the life of the Church; and since the stimulating writing of Feingold and others we can see that the question
has not gone away. At worst the de Lubac approach, in exaggerated forms, can lead to a new pelagianism (de Lubac
of course did not want this, but Mansini argues that even de Lubac’s attempts to square his position with that
of Pius XII leave one dissatisfied). However, on this topic I would say that a paper by Brian Himes is even better
than Fr Mansini’s work in bringing out just how Lonergan’s analysis of finality as both ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’
can help in approaching the thorny issue of the natural desire and, at once, the gratuity of salvation through
Christ: see, http://www.lonerganresource.com/pdf/contributors/Himes%20-%20Lonergan's%20
In later years, Lonergan returned to a lifelong project he had underway to try to come up with a technically rigorous theory of economics which would really put the Church’s social teaching into operation in the market place of modern societies. A good number of writers with far more expertise in economics than I could ever achieve have now taken his work seriously. However, whatever one thinks of this work, in the final analysis, here again was a unique phenomenon: a late twentieth-century major Catholic theologian also producing a mathematically fine-tuned economic theory. It is no wonder then that Lonergan felt entitled to make some rather caustic remarks about the new ‘liberation theology’ as being so much rhetoric or that other Jesuits who were turning in the 70s to Marxism would only find a theory that was flawed not only philosophically but in terms of economic theory too.
Before I return briefly to the Humanae vitae topic, I should mention other Lonergan scholars who have used his thought in defence of the magisterium of the Church. Here I would draw attention Sr Prudence Allen and Dr. Deborah Savage, both Lonergan scholars, who argue in defence of the Church’s infallible teaching that women cannot be ordained priests.
In previous comments on Humanae vitae I agreed with Fr Purcell’s point that Lonergan’s reservations about an Aristotelian ‘biological’ position on contraception as problematic, were made in a private letter; a letter later made public by the executors having oversight of his legacy; I am sure they were quite entitled to do this. But perhaps one might also encourage publication of another long and quite famous letter by Lonergan in which he is highly critical of the directions the Jesuit order is beginning to take after Vatican II.
In my previous comments I drew attention to a section of my book Insight and Analysis in which I discuss this letter (on contraception) and the argument in it. I argue that if one makes such an objection to the proposed immorality of contraception in the way that the letter seems to do, then it does not constitute a cogent argument against the Church’s position. However, I also add towards the end of my comments that Lonergan’s work as a whole can point us in a more positive direction. In fact this is the way Fr Matthew Lamb comes at the issue.
Professor Lamb was a long time collaborator with Lonergan. He taught for many years at Boston College, where I first met in him 1992-3. Since then he has moved on to Ave Maria University; the move, I think, speaks for itself. Fr Lamb is certainly a theologian of renown in the US; with numerous publications to his name, Fr Lamb became increasingly concerned through the 1980s and 1990s that a proper formation in Catholic theology was dying out, and being replaced by a ‘religious studies’ eclectic amalgam. Without that knowledge, Lamb has argued, one cannot really understand where Lonergan is coming from, since that is the great tradition upon which he draws.
In his contribution to a collection of essays in honour of Fr Romanus Cessario O.P. (Ressourcement Thomism, Catholic University of America Press, 2010) Fr Lamb draws attention to the work of another Lonergan scholar, Dr. David Fleischacker, and to his yet unpublished paper ‘Lonergan and the Surd and Sin of Contraception’. Lamb and Fleischacker argue that Lonergan’s work on statistically emergent probability in natural processes can, when applied to the human sexual diversity of man and woman, in fact deepen our appreciation of the truth of the Church’s teaching against contraception. While the article is not yet out one can get a sense of Fleischacker’s work (I believe his wife is a biologist) from the online articles he has posted on this on the Washington DC Lonergan website of which he is one of the moderators: see, http://lonergan.org/?p=787
Of course it would have been better for Lonergan himself to have come out in defence of Pope Paul VI at the time of the encyclical. I am sorry that he didn’t. One can remember the rather confused days of the 1970s in the Church, a period which thanks to the Holy Spirit I believe we have moved beyond. In that period even folk like the (then) Fr Joseph Ratzinger aired in publications certain views on possible changes in the Church which they subsequently revised and retracted.
In conclusion I would like to return to some further lines I have at the end of my book mentioned before:
 ‘An Interview with Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J.’, in A Second Collection, p. 213.
Andrew Beards is Academic Director at the School of the Annunciation, a Higher Institute of Catholic Education based at Buckfast Abbey, Devon UK. He is author of Lonergan, Meaning and Method, (Bloomsbury, 2016), Insight and Analysis, (Continuum, 2010), Philosophy the Quest for Truth and Meaning, (Liturgical Press, 2010), Method in Metaphysics: Lonergan and the Future of Analytical Philosophy, (University of Toronto Press, 2008) and Objectivity and Historical Understanding (Ashgate, 1997).
Copyright © Andrew Beards 2012
Version: 24th November 2012