“The Invention of the Anti-Christ”: Notes on its Persistence in Catholic Moral Theology
In 1932 Karl Barth offered a scathing critique of theological modernism. Although much of his attacks were directed at liberal Protestantism, Barth equally condemned the Roman Catholic church for its doctrine of the analogia entis (analogy of being). For Barth this doctrine was the invention of the anti-Christ. Barth thought that Catholic theology followed a formal analogy wherein an analysis of nature or being was taken up first only to later be read into faith. In Barth’s view, this led to a wrongful legitimation of the secular order, which bracketed political and economic life out of the realm of Christ. In Barth’s perspective, the analogia entis in Catholic thought was symptomatic of a deeply rooted Christological problem found especially in Thomas Aquinas and affecting all of Catholicism. According to Barth, beginning from nature rather than grace implicitly suggests a sort of dualism in Christ’s two natures, which pits Christ’s humanity against his divinity and unacceptably bifurcates the person of Christ so that one nature can exist self-sufficiently without the other. Although Barth correctly locates this position in much of post-Tridentine Catholic thought, he wrongly accuses Thomas Aquinas of
holding such a bastardized notion of the analogia entis. As Henri de Lubac rightly argued, Aquinas never conceived of “pure nature” independent of God’s supernatural grace and therefore did not pit nature against Christology.
Despite Barth’s critiques of the analogia entis and de Lubac’s reinterpretation of Thomas Aquinas’ construal of the relationship between nature and grace, much of contemporary Catholic theology continues to treat nature as an ontological and epistemological category independent of grace. This understanding of nature can be found in Catholic moral theologians as diverse as Jean Porter, Gerard Hughes, and Timothy O’Connell. Each of these theologians maintain an understanding of the relationship between nature and grace that requires one to choose between either nature or Christology. The common assumption is that if one begins with Christology, then one’s work is not sufficiently universal. The effect of this, according to these Catholic moralists, is that such an approach lacks the ability to transcend confessional particularities, rendering moral theologians useless in finding common moral ground with other traditions.
It seems evident that the persistence of such an approach to moral theology is not just the result of a mere misinterpretation of Aquinas, for since Henri de Lubac and the Second Vatican Council this view has been under attack. Rather, such an approach arises out of a deep concern for common moral ground in the context of a radically diverse and pluralistic world. It is, indeed, a world that Aquinas could not have imagined. It is typically assumed that if we cannot appeal to some form of natural knowledge of the good, then we cannot speak to others outside of our tradition, at least not on any rational ground. The argument for a self-contained natural knowledge, however, presumes the ability to transcend all particularity. The attempt to transcend particularity, in part, is a fear rooted in the belief that too much particularity causes conflict and violence. Thus, there is the underlying assumption that such approaches are more “inclusive” and “world-affirming” and avoid “sectarianism” or “exclusivism.” Of course, the “common” approach of which I speak is not monolithic, nor is it peculiar to Catholicism. Obviously, Karl Rahner’s “anonymous” Christianity is different from the pluralism of a John Hick or Paul Knitter. Still, all seem to share a common mode of discourse, which presumes that one must choose between either being more or less “exclusive” or more or less “inclusive.”
Of course, the assertion that Christology is the proper starting point of theological and moral reflection has profound ecclesiological implications and it does, indeed, effect how we speak to people of other traditions. Despite the assumptions of some neo-Thomism, however, basing morality on Christological convictions does not condemn Christian convictions to sectarianism. Indeed, such a position is surely suspicious of claims to transcend particularity and confessional traditions, especially when such claims are proposed to stand alone or seen as more fundamental than faith convictions. For, as John Howard Yoder noted, claims to natural moral knowledge tend to not consider that “dominant moral views of any known world are oppressive, provincial, or (to say it theologically) ‘fallen’” (The Priestly Kingdom 40). In his view, “There is no “public” that is not just another particular province” (The Priestly Kingdom 40). In other words, claims to universality are always rooted, in some degree or another, in a particular tradition. Such a view does not entail a position of moral relativism, but instead it attempts to take seriously the universally salvific character of God’s unique self-revelation in Christ.