What Is The New Theology?

Corporations spend millions of dollars in disaster management. What smart business leaders have learned is that encountering bad news is a constant occurrence. In fact, it is considered a gross blunder if a CEO fails to acknowledge bad news, downplay it, blame it on someone else, or simply lie about it. One of the most egregious in recent history was former BP CEO’s Tony Hayward’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The BP public relations debacle has trained CEO’s to never ignore or delay in announcing distressing news. What these instances of market experts reveal is that to knowingly hide a crisis because it’s too depressing and will put a negative taste in people’s mouths is tantamount to an evil act. 

Imagine one day the CEO being exhausted from the persistent dire news insisted that he only wanted to focus on positive information. Everyone would interpret this “head in the sand” disposition as disastrous for the company. 

A similar scenario arises in our faith. Pressed with the reality of the faith one encounters two sides of the coin. There exists both persistent bad news with the state of sin within the human person and, with the advent of Jesus’ work, incredible good news. In simple terms, the faith presents both good news and bad news. But if we adopt the mindset to bracket the harsh news and only fixate on the pleasant news, problems will ensue. In fact, the whole reason the good news is, in fact, very good is that it is a solution to the dreaded bad news. So, in the faith if one ditches the severe news, they’ve necessarily watered-down the whole point of the good news. 

In his analysis of the human condition, theologian Blaise Pascal focuses on two apparently contradictory sides of human nature. Man is both noble and wretched. Noble, because he is created in God’s image; wretched, because he is fallen and alienated from God. In theology, these two realities cannot be stripped away ergo the whole picture becomes hazy. In fact, Catholic theologians stress that a candid recognition of the damaging news is needed for the entire faith to make sense. Yet, the decades that have preceded us have gradually eroded away those that display the distressing news in order to usher in positive, uplifting feelings.

We come today at a unique juncture in which the seismic shift of altering the bad news to emphasize the more pleasant news in the faith needs to be examined under a critical lens to see if this strategy works.

The gold-standard of Catholic theology has been Saint Thomas Aquinas. His writings were often the pillar for Catholic seminaries. But, over the years, many attempts have been made to tinker with Aquinas and traditional Catholic doctrine. Why? Because Aquinas’s theology paints the human picture in a negative light, hence, it becomes too depressing for modern ears to hear. Aquinas is not bashful in teaching that human beings are inclined to evil and repeatedly perform evil acts. The emphasis of the negative connotation of man coupled with Aquinas’s impersonal writing style caused prominent theologians to focus on the more upbeat areas in theology. In the 1940s there was a desire to swap out the depressing and dull aspect of Aquinas for the more exciting inspirational theological writers. While this move seems pleasing to the ears, it would be akin to the CEO skipping over the boring and depressing news in finance, OSHA, and tax law only wanting to fixate on the glitz and glamour in the marketing and sales departments. To casually ditch one facet of a phenomenon for the more flashy, positive aspect will inevitably lead to disaster for both the theologian, the CEO, or anyone for that matter.   

This theological shift from the bad news to the good news affected all walks in the Church. Pope Benedict XVI  was even swept up in this movement. In his book, Last Testament, Benedict stated, “I wanted out of classical Thomism [Aquinas] . . . . Thomas’ writings were textbooks, by and large, and impersonal somehow. . . . I didn’t want to operate only in a stagnant and closed philosophy but in a philosophy understood as a question.” Benedict went on to say, “The personal struggle which Augustine expresses really spoke to me.”

All the rage in the ’40s-’70s was to break from Aquinas and traditional theology and enter into the new contemporary philosophy. So much so that the recent renewal of tradition is viewed as “unhappy” by prominent Bishops

The story started as Pope Pius X condemned modernist philosophies in the 1900s. Then, modernism went underground and began to surface gradually in the ’40s. In 1946, the Thomist theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange wrote an article called, “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?” He was referring to this new theology which is ambiguous, anti-Thomistic, imprecise, emphasizing drama and inspirational language while claiming to be a return to the early fathers (but really they only incorporate some of the controversial elements of the early fathers). In short, Garrigou-Langrange saw the new theology as attempting to sugar coat human depravity through a theology of emotionally laced words.

The main crux of the “new theology” was a denial or watering down of original sin. Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was influential in the ’60s to this new theology. Yet, back in the ’40s Pope Pius XII referred to Teilhard’s work as a “cesspool of errors.” The reason Teihard was labeled with the heretic tag back in the ’40’s is because he denied original sin and proceeded to teach that sin and evil were merely a side effect of evolution. With Teilhard the change from focusing on the bad news to the good news took another dramatic swing to now remove the bad news altogether. Of course, when the unpleasant news is kicked to the curb suddenly everything in the new theology becomes rosy. So when the Second Vatican Council opened in 1963, Pope John XXIII echoed this enthusiasm as he said,  “The prophets of doom always talk as though the present in comparison to the past is becoming worse and worse. But I see mankind as entering upon a new order and perceive in this a divine plan.”

In short, the theology changed to the view that the world isn’t getting worse; it’s getting better and we should enter into a new order that teaches such. 

During the sessions of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII insinuated that the Church doesn’t need to condemn people because the future is much brighter. Under this new theology, when sin arises the Church takes a gentler more hands-off approach. Given this guise, a shift was made from asserting that one needs to be guided from error to truth to rather indicate we need to “accompany” people from brokenness to healing. While this might seem like a subtle tweak, the implications suggest that sin and error are no big deal as they get hidden by a vague therapeutic healing process liken to a counseling session. In this setting, the person’s flawed actions are justified because the patient experienced a past trauma. We should recall that Jesus didn’t excuse the behavior of the adulterous woman because she was “wounded,” rather even in her woundedness, he told her to “sin no more.”

Of course, this new soft approach misses the obvious connection that error leads to brokenness while truth leads to healing (see John 8:31-32). Therefore, to really “heal” a person you need to remove error by teaching truth. But, as we’ve suggested, the reason teaching truth needs to be minimized is because, alas, just like Aquinas the truth is too harsh, uninteresting, and lacks the positive spin that dialogue and counseling provide.

While it seems gloomy to declare that humans are inclined to evil, Catholicism asserts this sober reality with brutal candor precisely because this is what Jesus alluded to. Notice that Jesus’s statement, “if you who are evil” (Matt. 7:11) goes beyond being inclined to evil and describes his well-meaning disciples as being entrenched in evil. Just because we don’t want to hear about our fallen nature, doesn’t make it go away.

All this modifying of Catholic theology was built around this spirit of great optimism that declared that the Church move from instead of challenging sinners to an “ecumenical dialogue” to find a solution. What is insinuated with this approach is a denial of original sin. Original sin means your intellect is darkened, your will is weakened, and you are inclined to evil (see CCC 418). Therefore, you can’t merely “talk it out” by exchanging ideas with one who is inclined to evil (to not worship God). They won’t get it. You need to challenge them to move out of their current mindset. Jesus was approachable and met each person where they were but also bluntly challenged them to come to Him.

The optimism that encircled the Second Vatican Council is contrasted with the dire revelation of Fatima in which the vision showed people falling into hell like snowflakes in a snowstorm. 

Another prominent theologian who cultivated the new theology was Henri de Lubac. In 1946, De Lubac’s book, Surenaturel, claimed that human nature is naturally ordered to supernatural fulfillment in the beatific vision and that the prior teaching of Aquinas on man’s warped nature is false. Pope Pius XII had to address De Lubac’s errors in his encyclical Humani Generis in which the pope rightly taught that rational persons are not per se naturally ordered to supernatural beatitude. 

De Lubac’s view was a fissure that ushered in a new theology with drastic consequences.  

Once you make this distinction that everyone is oriented to the beatific vision (i.e. heaven), it changes the whole outlook on theology, liturgy, and how you view the human condition. Here, the human condition is not warped or flawed rather, the human condition is viewed as “I’m okay; you’re okay.” With this move, the authentic Catholic faith becomes convoluted and unrecognizable. 

Traditional Catholicism realizes the harsh limits of man without grace and the need for redemption through the Church’s Sacraments while the modern view looks at man’s end and announces, “it’s not that bad.” Here, we come to assess which of man’s finality that we need to address. Thomas Aquinas looked at a two-fold end of man. That is man has a natural end and a supernatural end while De Lubac only looks at the supernatural end. In philosophy, anything that has a natural end is innate and made to successfully reach that end. For example, a squirrel intuitively wants to eat nuts and mate with another squirrel. This natural end is where the squirrel moves to instinctively. You don’t have to teach or train a young squirrel about eating a nut or how to mate. Therefore, eating nuts and mating is innate in the squirrel. 

We humans also have a finality – a natural end. We are moved to eat food and drink water. You don’t have to teach eating food to a child; they naturally know this. Humans also like to mate and perpetuate the species. Now, you can freely choose to act against this natural end but chances are you will move to the natural end and successfully receive it. If you’ve eaten a meal, you’ve achieved a portion of your natural end. While we share having a natural end with animals, we have an end that animals don’t – a supernatural end. Unlike the natural end being a slam dunk to receive, the supernatural end requires God’s graces so we can achieve it. 

But the new theology strips out the natural end of the human and then creates a confusing picture in which the innate drive in human nature is fulfilled under the finality of the beatific vision. Here, the supernatural end must be achieved as creation guarantees that the instinctive desires are ultimately satisfied. In other words, by ripping out the natural end, the new theology places the innate drive towards the finality of that drive to be achieved with God in heaven. What this means is that every single baby is pre-programmed not with original sin, but with its compass squarely pointed to God with a practical guarantee to reach that end.

It is correct that we are partakers of the divine essence, made in the image and likeness of God, and have a supernatural end to be face to face with God. But this finality is not innate in that it is hard-wired into human nature from the beginning much like the natural end is. What the modernists do is steal humans being “made in the image of God” and apply that to being born with a compass pointed sharply in the direction of heaven.

Human observation shows that there is an obvious distinction between the natural and supernatural end. A person’s hard-wired awareness that he needs to eat coupled with the reality of people eating to achieve that end doesn’t match the spiritual finality. People often don’t realize they have a deep spiritual longing within and then move to meet that desire by worshiping God. Because of sin, people go out of their way to come up with excuses to not worship God. Therefore, the desire to eat food is completely different from the desire to worship God. The former is hard-wired and obvious while the latter needs to be drawn out by that person working through God’s providence. In fact, people often misconstrue their spiritual desire by working to quench this desire with the world’s solutions (money, pleasure, etc.).  

But, under the modern theology, at conception, one is pre-programmed to know God much like a person knows they have to eat. So, every Hindu or atheist on earth has his compass pointed to the one true God. However, Aquinas shows that unlike the natural being pre-programmed, the supernatural is extracted out by God. Therefore, the supernatural has to be reasoned or experienced through much like when a teenager asks the pressing questions: Is there a God? What is God? Here, the quest begins of one’s supernatural journey (hopefully) to its end. This journey includes many encounters as one hears the Gospel, believes in the Gospel, receives the Sacraments, lives a life of virtue, goes through purgatory, and then the final end – the beatific vision. Therefore, God draws the supernatural end out of us through a spiritual drama intertwined with our free choice and doesn’t merely hardwire it into us in which we are assured to casually receive it.  

God’s mining of a healthy soul is similar to the molding a healthy body. An athletic body is extracted out from a person over a period of time through outside instruments such as a gym, personal trainer, diet, etc. But, notice our physical bodies left to themselves don’t naturally get better, they, in fact, get worse. Indeed, the potential well-crafted physique that exists in a body is not hard-wired into us and not achieved by many. So it is with our soul. We have God’s image and likeness in our soul, but our supernatural end is extracted out over time often through many trials – much like a healthy body. 

To remove the difference between natural and supernatural realms is to muddy up God’s order and usher in a dark cloud of perplexity on a person. As Catholic theologian, Dr. Taylor Marshall wrote on the modern theologians, “They obliterated the traditional Catholic distinction between grace and nature. They sought to make everything grace, and by doing so, they, in fact, reduced everything to the natural, so that the natural longings of every human became the means of salvation. Hence, all human nature itself is ‘open’ to attaining salvation.”

Once you are baptized there is an openness to the transcendence that can lead you to the beatific vision. But, until that happens your supernatural gas tank is running on empty. At this stage, you are cloaked in original sin – tattooed to the serpent as Adam and Eve were in Genesis.

In Catholic theology, God draws out of us our spiritual dignity but it is not planted innately. What is innate in the spiritual life right off the bat is to sin – to act against our human dignity. Original sin is prominently displayed in children. In my four-year-old playdates inevitably the kids will drift into misbehaving, manipulating, envy, bickering, and deliberately making a mess. The ensuing chaos from a child’s play date displays our default setting in this fallen world. Unfortunate news as it is, yet if we dismiss this bad news, then we necessarily dilute Jesus as the prominent solution to our dilemma.

The errors of the new theology keep accumulating. Another result of “naturally” having everyone achieve heaven is eliminating God’s gratuity. Under the modernist view, if God orients you to the beatific vision, then you must achieve that end no matter how bad you are. If God pre-programs people to heaven, that means God is obliged to give them that end. Why is that? Imagine God says, “I’m going to pre-program squirrels to love nuts, but, in creation, I’m not going to provide them any nuts.” This would be a cruel God. If God is loving, then it follows that if God orients your nature toward a thing, he would need to make that thing a reality for you. Here, God has to give it to us. Hence, the gratuity of God’s gift falls away. The modernists’ belief takes away the Catholic concept that God owes us nothing for it implies God owes us something. Yet, God created us without us doing anything and he gives us heaven without us deserving heaven in any way. To tinker with this doctrine is tantamount to destroy God’s attributes.

The new theology of the modernists was so off-kilter that Pope Pius XII declared that “others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order since God they say cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and holding them to the beatific vision.” What the pope is saying is that these modernists are destroying the free gift of God. God giving human beings access to the beatific vision is a super-abundance of love to make us united in his divine essence by grace. God didn’t have to give us this amazing gift. But, the new theology asserts that God’s creation requires us to receive heaven. This makes God a debtor to humans.

It should be apparent that the new theology caused a ripple effect in which authentic Catholic theology was ruptured which, in turn, resulted in a lackluster catechesis and left the practice of the faith in tatters. After all, if everyone is pre-programmed to God and will eventually get to heaven, then what is the whole point in living out our Catholic faith? This new theology obliterates the true faith and crushes any sense of urgency to evangelize others.

While yes, at first Catholic theology is depressing to hear, it inevitably leads one to dive into the wonders of faith and receive the graces we so desperately need. The “new” theology, on the other hand, may at first sound enticing, yet lurking in the background is a dark spiritual trap that causes people to opt-out of the spiritual life, thus, causing Mass attendance and confession lines to plummet. Much like the CEO has been trained to transparently announce the bad news to lead his people to the light at the end of the tunnel, let us do the same with Catholic theology. In this setting, our faith will once again blossom and lead many back to that sacred road less traveled.

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