Sunday, November 05, 2023

The Last Gasp of Our Akhenaten

Pope Francis's new motu proprio Ad Theologiam Promovendam has called for a "paradigm shift" in Catholic theology, citing the "profound cultural changes" of the modern world as the justification. The pope insisted on a "courageous cultural revolution" within Catholic thought, calling for our theology to become "fundamentally contextual." Among other things, he called for theology to be primarily "inductive," focused on "dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge, between different Christian confessions and different religions, openly engaging with everyone." He contrasted this new approach with "abstractly re-proposing formulas and themes from the past," which the pope characterized as "desk bound theology." 

Francis argued that his new approach to theology is appropriate for a synodal Church. A synodal, missionary, and ‘outgoing’ Church can only correspond to an ‘outgoing’ theology," he said. What are the characteristics of this "outgoing" theology? For one thing, it is "transdisciplinary," that is, part of a “web of relationships, first of all with other disciplines and other knowledge.” This engagement requires theologians to utilize “new categories developed by other knowledge” in order to “penetrate and communicate the truths of faith and transmit the teaching of Jesus in today’s languages, with originality and critical awareness.” Priority is to be given to "common sense," which Francis claims is a "theological source in which many images of God live." This is what he calls "popular theology" and wants this "pastoral stamp" to be impressed upon all Catholic theology.

Regarding theology's place within the Church, he said “Theology places itself at the service of the evangelization of the Church and the transmission of faith, so that faith becomes culture; that is, the wise ethos of the people of God, a proposal of human and humanizing beauty for all."

(As of the writing of this article, Ad Theologiam Promovendam is only available in Italian, so I am relying on snippets of the English translated and published by the Catholic News Agency. I have, however, read the entire document using Google Translate, though due to the imprecision of some of Google's renderings, I will be restricting myself to commenting only on the translated portions published by CNA)

I pondered these comments for several days, hoping to write something comprehensive on the matter, but there's so much stuffed into this document that I despaired of coming up with any cohesive essay that could tie it all together. Therefore, I am opting instead to present a miscellany of reflections occasioned by Ad Theologiam Promovendam

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First off, this is simply the worst papal document I have ever read. This is worse than reading John Paul II asking John the Baptist to bless Islam. This is worse than reading Benedict XVI gush about a one world government with coercive authority (see Caritas in Veritate, 67). I would venture to say it is even worse than the Vatican's 2009 "Ten Commandments for Drivers." Yes, Ad Theologiam Promovendam is worse than them all—the worst in its revolutionary import, in its shocking hubris, in its disregard for Catholic tradition, in the embarassing display of simping for modern culture.

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Yes, hubris I say, not only because Francis seeks to unilaterally revise how the Church has handled theology for two millennia (which is bad enough), but because he cites no authority to do this other than himself. The motu proprio cites only three texts, all from Francis: he cites Laudato Si', his 2018 Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudium, and a 2013 speech he gave to the Roman curia. This last text provides the cringey citation with which Francis opens his motu proprio: "What we are experiencing is not simply an era of change, but a change of era." How indicative of the Bergoglian approach to things!

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This is, indeed, a call for revising how the Church does theology, as it constitutes a profound shift from the objective to the subjective. Francis wants Catholic theology to be "fundamentally contextual" and "inductive." What does he mean by this? 

Theology is traditionally deductive; that is, we start with an objective body of truth (divine revelation, i.e., the "deposit of faith") and deduce applications from that body of truth. Theological development thus constitutes a kind of "clarification" or "deepening" of this primal deposit, such that theologians of later centuries have greater clarity on the truth, as each step of theological progress is deducted logically from the steps before it. Francis, however, wants an inductive method based on contextualization. Inductive reasoning means we construct theories based on concrete observations; in this case, Francis wants these theories contextualized based on "common sense,"  "popular theology," and "other disciplines"—in other words, the lived experience of individuals in the context of contemporary culture. This rotates the axis of theology 180 degrees, moving us from deductions derived from objective principles to theories constructed around the subjective experiences of people. It is a complete inversion of how theology has traditionally been done.

Those familiar with this blog will recognize in this an echo of Archbishop "Tucho" Fernández's "essentializing" approach to Sacred Scripture, which we discussed previously. In that article, I opined:

This is, of course, just a variation of process theology, the theological approach that emphasizes "event," "occurrence," or "becoming" over substance and being. And it absolutely eviscerates any concept of an objective divine revelation. According to this approach, revelation is something mankind continually discovers through the historical process.

This is precisely what Francis is talking about here: revelation understood in the context of cultural progress. Culture becomes the bellweather for the development of theology. Rather than seeking to apply "abstract formulas and themes" to culture, the process must be reversed; the discerning theologian will recognize the Spirit of the Lord moving through culture and develop theology appropriately. This is what they call "recognizing the signs of the times" (this language is used in Ad Theologiam Promovendam 8 where Francis says the theologian needs to let himself be challenged by reality, and thus discern the "segni dei tempi"). The reader is encouraged to review my article from 2013, "Pastoral Applications in Concrete Circumstances" for more on this approach.

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One thing that is clear from all this is the degree to which Francis and Fernández truly despise the discipline of theology. We have, of course, witnessed other attacks on specific branches of theology; for example, the gutting of the Pontifical Academy for Life (2016) and the systematic dismantling of St. John Paul II's Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family (2017), part of Francis's overthrow of John Paul II's legacy on family life and sexual ethics as encapsulated in Familiaris Consortio. But in Ad Theologiam Promovendam, Francis undermines not this or that branch of theology, but rather seeks to overhaul the entire discipline of theology itself. Francis's contextualist vision for Catholic theology fundamentally eviscerates the vocation of the theologian by turning him into little more than an intepreter of the popular will. In this "dialogic" theology, the theologian recognizes the movement of the Spirit in "profound cultural changes," and looking upon the works of men's hands, proclaims that they are good.

In case you think I exaggerate how offensive this is to authentic theology, let us recall that in 1990 Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that the theologian's role "is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith" (Donum Veritatis, 6). The source of theology, then, is divine revelation, as found in the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition. The vocation of the theologian is to deepen the Church's understanding of this revelation. But Francis says that "common sense" is itself is now a source of revelation; in Ad Theologiam Promovendam 8, we read that "common in fact a theological source" that theologians need to give primary attention to when doing theology. I can hardly think of a bigger afront to the entire discipline of theology than to tell theologians that common sense and "concrete situations" are now to be considered theological sources. This is akin to telling a PhD in math that he is no longer to teach math based on the fundamental principles of arithmetic, but based on feelings.

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The autonomy of theology is also eviscerated, as Francis insists that theology become a "transdisciplinary" science. By this, he explains that theology should be viewed as part of a "web of relationships, first of all with other disciplines and other knowledge," drawing on the insights of other branches of knowledge, most notably science. This undermines the autonomy of theology. While it has always been understood that theology may draw on secular learning for ancillary and illustrative purposes, it has never been asserted that theology itself need be understood as linked in a "web of relationships" with other disciplines, to which its conclusions are now subject. And should there ever be any incongruity between theology and one of these other sciences in the "web of relationships," I think we know which discipline will be expected to yield. In the days of the Schoolmen, philosophy was the handmaid of theology. But now theology must receive the input from every other science, not even as a handmaid, but as a whore, receiving deposits from every other branch of human learning while having minimal agency of its own. 

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Many people will no doubt say, "More modernist garbage!" While I understand the sentiment, I do think we need to stop using the words "modernist" and "modernism" to refer to this sort of thing. For all their heresy, the original Modernists were highly intelligent, precise thinkers. Fr. John Augustine Zahm was a sophisticated, complex thinker who wrote compellingly. Alfred Loisy was an erudite scholar whose theology, for all its errors, was systematic and articulate. The Modernists were a small coterie of intellectuals who were, if anything, too educated for their own good. The gobbledygook coming out of the Synod on Synodality is, by contrast, characterized by its banality, its vacuousness, and its sheer incoherency. The Synod even found it necessary to recommended forming committee to define what Synodality even means. This is not Modernism; Modernism is at least coherent. This is something worse, something even lower than Modernism. I'd call it Sub-Modernism.

One other interesting observation: the Modernists never proposed touching the liturgy. For them, the traditional liturgy retained its value as a symbol-system, where what evolved was not the rite itself, but the subjective meanings people derived from the ritual symbols. As we recently saw with our examination of the 1967 Dutch Catechism's teaching on the death penalty, we are living in a bizarro time when older erroneous documents nevertheless contain clearer expressions of truth than contemporary expositions of the Faith.

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"Development of doctrine" is invoked so universally that it has become a phrase that means nothing. It has no definition, being used too euphemistically. The deposit of faith, of course, cannot develop; theological insights based on that deposit can and do develop, and this is typically what is meant by "development of doctrine." But we must recall that development of doctrine—as famously expounded by Newman—does not develop without direction. Rather, it develops in a specified pattern according to certain principles. But the current zeitgeist does not see doctrine developing towards a clearer understanding of the Faith, but rather devolving into states of ever greater confusion. This is not "development" at all. Development has ceased to mean the refinement and clarification of doctrine and instead means anything and everything the God of Surprises wants to foist upon us in current year.

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There certainly have been "paradigm shifts" within Catholicism, and it would be historically blind to deny this. It is not, therefore, prima facie incorrect to say that the Church can experience a paradigm shift. I would argue, for example, the Church experienced a paradigm shift between the 10th and 12th centuries when Catholicism decided it was no longer willing to tolerate lay administration to degree it had previously. These sorts of shifts are why Tridentine Catholicism looks different than medieval Catholicism, which in turn looks different than patristic Catholicism. Obviously core truths and practices remain unchanged, but there is still a wide degree of variability to how it all looks.

What is profoundly wrong, however, is to take the historical development of Catholicism and extrapolate that we can therefore manufacture development on the spot in whichever direction we choose. In all this talk about "contextualizing" the faith for the modern world, "development" of the religion, finding new ways to "appeal" to modern man, etc., there is never any acknowledgment that the historical development of the faith happened organically—that is, the most important developments in Catholicism were not top-down affairs resulting from bureaucratic diktat, but from the slow process of Catholic thinkers, religious, and laity responding to the needs of their times over many years, sometimes centuries. This is why you can't pinpoint one exact moment or place when the ancient orders of penitents were replaced by personalized penances assigned from penitential books, or when the pallium came to be seen as a grant of archepiscopal authority, or when servers started holding up the hem of the priest's chasuble at the elevation. That's because these developments all emerged organically over time, through incremental changes arising from the needs of the Church assessed across many years; they were not imposed based on someone's ideological vision of where the Church needed to be. There needs to be a realization that organic development takes a long time, and that there is a huge difference between observing that a paradigm shift happened in the past and calling for one in the present. In other words, organic development ≠ development by bureaucratic decree.

And you’d be hard pressed to show me any paradigm shift in the Church’s past that was pushed through by a single man. 

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I love ancient Egyptian history. The ancient Egyptian culture was so enduring, so remarkable, and so conservative that its always a joy to study. Truth be told, I often immerse myself in Egyptian studies when I am burned out on Church stuff or current events. There's something tranquil about studying 4,500 year old architecture or reading about the Abydos inscriptions that helps soothe the mind, like history ASMR for my brain.

Once there was a Pharaoh called Akhenaten, who reigned c. 1353-1334 B.C. during the New Kingdom. Though Akhenaten was a contemporary of the Old Testament Judges, Egyptian civilization was already very old in his time, having almost 2,000 years behind it. Over those long centuries the priesthoods of the various Egyptian gods had amassed considerable influence, not only in their prestige as religious leaders, but in lands, wealth, and political power. The most influential of these cults was the priesthood of Amun-Ra, centered in the city of Thebes, in Upper Egypt. The cult of Amun-Ra was so old and entrenched in Egyptian society that no pharaoh could expect to be successful without its support.

The pharoahs had always existed in a symbiotic relationship with the priesthoods, where pharoah supported the cults and the cults in turn lent divine gravitas to the pharonic office. Akhenaten, however, bristled under the oppressive weight of this tradition and sought instead to free himself from the religious hierarchy by reforming Egypt's religious structure. He moved his capital to the newly created city of Amarna, refusing to dwell in the traditional capital under the watchful gaze of the Amun-Ra priesthood. Once in Amarna, he overhauled the religious system by proclaiming a new god, Aten, who was declared superior to all other gods. Not content to merely rival the old ways, he proscribed the ancient gods entirely, ordering their names removed from monuments. He suppressed the other cults (especially the cult of Amun-Ra) and "demonetized" them by seizing lands and requisitioning their treasury. He even promoted a new style of art, known as the "Amarna style," which featured elongated, exaggerated caricatures. The Amarna style deviated considerably from the traditonal Egyptian canon of sculpture, demonstrating Akhenaten's desire to differentiate himself from the past aesthetically as well as doctrinally. As the pinnacle of his reform, Akhenaten centralized all religious power in himself by proclaiming the pharoah to be the only mediator between the Egyptian people and Aten. He thus undercut the traditional intercessory role of the priesthoods by making himself the sole oracle of the divinity.

During his reign, of course, Akhenaten was obeyed as throngs of bureaucratic sycophants fanned out across Egypt to chisel the name of Amun off a thousand obelisks and see that the pharaoh's will was enforced, for this was to be a revolution that would last a thousand years. Were we able to query Akhenaten, he doubtless would have told us that "there's no turning back," that the dusty formulae of the past had been shorn of their power, that the future was with Aten. The pharoah even gave the name of the new deity to his son and heir, Tutankaten, that there should be no doubt about the destiny of Egypt.

Eventually Akhenaten went the way of all flesh. His body had scarcely been embalmed when the old cults were reestablished. Their lands, wealth, and prerogatives were restored. The army of scribes who had busied themselves defacing the old monuments were now employed doing the opposite, striking the names of Akhenaten and his god from the Two Lands (he would be remembered as the "Heretic Pharaoh"). The new captial of Amarna was quietly abandoned, the hastily created priests of Aten skulked back to their previous occupations, and even the Amarna style of art was chucked in a return to sculptural orthodoxy. As for the heir Tutankaten, he removed Aten from his name and replaced it with with the traditional Amun, becoming the famous Tutankhamun. Within a few years, the "paradigm shift" Akhenaten had worked so hard pushing was naught but a fading memory, a bad dream, so thoroughly rejected that the very location of Amarna was forgotten and soon buried beneath the sand where it would remain undisturbed,  unremembered, and unmissed for three thousand years.

Pope Francis has been compared to many characters from history; my friend Kevin Tierney has made a compelling case that he resembles Maximilien Robespierre. I, however, am inclined to consider him as our own Catholic Ahkenaten in the last gasp of a legacy already sinking beneath the sands of time, a man whose quixotic crusade to remake Catholicism in his own image and likeness will, in the end, face the same fate as Akhenaten, and the same obscurity as Amarna. The only difference is, three thousand years from now, people will still be interested in Akhenaten.


Anonymous said...

I remember reading about Ahkenakten in a Art History class.

Anonymous said...

You do understand that Akhneaton invented monotheism and made possible Judaism and Christianism?

Boniface said...

@Anon 11:32,

Um...I don't think serious Egyptologists believe Akhenaton "invented" monotheism, even if he was a monotheist of sorts. Most Egyptologists I read see him as a kind of proto-monotheist, more like a syncretist who wanted all the cults of the gods summed up in the worshop of the Aten-Disk, but without necessarily denying the existence of the other gods. The Aten-Disk was representative of the fullness of divine power;the other gods were like personalized reflections of that one power, who nevertheless retained their own individuality. You see this sort of thing a lot in Egyptian religion, where various gods are merged into one another, similar yet distinct. Anyhow, he's certainly not monotheist in the Christian-Jewish-Islamic sense.

As for "making Christianity and Judaism possible," I have no idea what you're referring to; perhaps the widely discredit theory that Moses borrowed his ideas from Akhenaten?

Even if Akhenaten "invented" monotheism, as you say, I fail to see how that's relevant in any way to this article or the argument relating to Pope Francis.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Re Newman and his thesis of doctrinal development. I think he suggests that virtually everything we know about ensue d His Church is a development.

That is hard to square with #290 in Denzinger.

Boniface said...

@Mick Jagger,

Can you quote the Denzinger passage in question? I am looking up 290 but it seems to be about Nestorianism (older numbering) and I am assuming you are using the different numbering system? said...

Ancient Egyptians also invented censorship. They simply chiseled off mention of their unpopular predecessors on the various monuments. As far as Pope Francis, many who are displeased with some of his antics simply ignore him and pray for God's blessing on the next conclave.