Home > Christology, Ecclesiology, Ecumenism, Henri de Lubac, John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth, Natural Theology, Roman Catholicism, Theological Scholarship > “The Invention of the Anti-Christ”: Notes on its Persistence in Catholic Moral Theology

“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.

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  1. Jonathan
    September 2, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Ry, I’ll preface this by admitting I read this rather quickly, and pretty much the entirety of the second half of this post is quite far above my head (my fault, not yours). Nevertheless, I’d be inclined to blame John Calvin (and particularly his Institutes) as being the catalyst for any contemporary dualism between the corporeal and supernatural. To pin that on Aquinas is absolutely ridiculous. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I’d venture to think Barth never read Aquinas! I believe Arians and Gnostics were early proponents of such a dualism, and they were viewed by the Catholic Church as dangerous heretics. As far as I know, this is still a position the Catholic Church still vehemently holds in theory, if not in practice.

  2. September 3, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Great post.

  3. roger flyer
    September 6, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    I’ve always wondered what St. Thomas looked like. Quite a good looking modern soul…and looking away from the camera…like a rock star!

  4. QuotidianDelights
    September 9, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    First of all, Barth most certainly read Thomas, I believe he lectured on the Prima Pars in Gottingen and later in Munster. Second, the Thomas that Barth is objecting to is not the hisotrical Thomas of the 13th century, as we know so much more about today, but the Thomas of neo-Thomism which reads him, for obvious modernist reasons, as a philosophical apologist. On that score, Barth certainly understands that Thomas’ natural theology stands “with both feet in revelation” as he says in the Gottingen Dogmatics, even as Barth tends to assume a modernist interpretation of the Angelic Doctor. Persistence on the analogia entis, by the way, stems from a Kantian reading of Thomas, which is anachronistic. Thomas never saw an analogy of being as the foundation for our knowledge of God…good grief! Rather, he always saw Jesus Christ as the true and proper analogy of being.

  5. September 9, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    QuotidianDelights, I’m not really sure how any of what you say is a challenge to my post. I never suggested that Barth didn’t read Aquinas nor did I suggest that Aquinas held to the sort of analogy of being that I’m criticizing. In this post I am criticizing strands of neo-Thomism that, as you correctly point out, are thoroughly modernist. I really just have no idea what you are challenging me on. Did you read the post?

  6. Al Stakhanov
    September 10, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    M. Flyer, I believe QuotidianDelights was addressing a comment by Jonathan.

  7. Darren
    September 19, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks for this post, I’ve just come across your page (and I’ll be adding it to my Google Reader). This post is very much in line with some of what I have been thinking about lately. Currently I am working on Yoder, particularly what he might say regarding the ascension and the powers. But one of the things I’ve been challenged by the most is what a thorough repudiation of “natural” theology really means. It is hard to not fear when it seems like so much would have to be given up by not going with the epistemological flow of the world. Part of what I want to know is whether a recovery of the New Testament cosmology (minus the Ptolemy and such) would aid in helping the Church to understand that there is no neutral ground. Now, I am very interested in Catholic social thought, though I am only beginning to learn it. I also see the value in Yoder/Barth’s disavowal of natural theology. So a question I have, which I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on, given this post, is: What is the remainder of Catholic social teaching were one to remove the “natural” theology underpinnings? Of course, I assume these are present, but they may not be, or they may be minimal. Thoughts?

  8. September 24, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Darren, sorry for the delayed response, I’ve been out of town. Your question is a good one, and one that occupies much of my time. Indeed, at least some form of “natural theology” pervades Catholic social thought. Catholic social thought is, of course, a very very diverse thing — and so it is quite a mixed bag. There is no one consistent methodology or approach, not in the papal social encyclicals nor in lay social thought.

    Also, I think we would do well to remember that “natural theology” is difficult to pin down. Are we talking about “natural theology” when we see attempts to talk about God or the good apart from Christology? When the Catholic church talks about knowledge that is accessible to “people of good will” -is this a statement of “natural theology”?

    I guess my point is that I think we need to be careful in thinking through all of this.

  9. Darren
    September 28, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    No doubt, being careful in these questions is essential. The questions you respond with, I’m not sure I can answer, which is part of the problem. But I will give a quick shot at one of them. “Are we talking about ‘natural theology’ when we see attempts to talk about God or the good apart from Christology?”

    I suppose that insofar as the attempts lead to conclusions that are not in line with who God reveals Godself to be in Christ, then this would be a type of natural theology. If Christ is the definitive revelation of what God is like and what God wants for humanity, then theological discourse, if it is to be faithful to God, must proceed from the work and words of Christ. Moreover, knowledge that is accessible to people of good will, it is a statement of natural theology depending upon how one sees the means by which that knowledge becomes accessible.

    These are my initial thoughts, but I’m sure they are inadequate as I’ve only begun to think about these issues. You wrote that my question (or one like it) occupies much of your time. If you don’t mind, where has this question taken you, what theologians or streams of thought? How do you answer the questions you posed?

    No worries on getting back to me late, I think I’ve done the same thing.

  10. September 29, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    I’m convinced that “natural theology” in Catholicism is, at least in part, rooted in a particular reception of Aquinas and a particular response to pluralist modernity. The hope is that Aquinas can provide us with the theological resources to speak to those who differ from us. This is what I’m trying to get at in this post. My point is that such a reading of Aquinas is a misconstrual of his thought. I was deeply influenced by Henri de Lubac, John Milbank, and Eugene Rogers’ Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth on this point. As I alluded to in this post, I think the problem hinges on a misusage of the doctrine of the analogia entis, the analogy of being. What I’m particularly interested in, as of late, is whether Hans Urs von Balthasar offers us a way forward in this debate.

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