Nature – Supernature – State

21 04 2009


Fr. Peter Bernardi, S.J. on Maurice Blondel, Charles Maurras, and the Future of the Past in Catholic Europe

Fr. Peter Bernardi, S.J. gave a talk on his book, Maurice Blondel, Social Catholicism, and Action Française: The Clash over the Church’s Role in Society During the Modernist Era at Loyola University in New Orleans last night. The talk did not just address the evolution of Catholic political movements in France in the early twentieth century, but also focused on the main theological problem that the Church struggled with in the 20th century: the divide between nature and supernature, the state of man in his “normal condition” and man under the influence of grace. According to Bernardi, Blondel and the pro-Action Française Jesuit Pedro Descoqs represented polar opposite approaches in addressing the role of supernature in the natural political order. While the Jesuit defended in the name of neo-scholastic extrinsicism the French theorist Charles Maurras’ theory of the union of Church and State , Blondel advocated “social Catholic” collaboration with the liberal state in the hope of being a Christian influence that could reverse the trend of an increasingly secularized society. For Bernardi, Blondel’s liberalism resulted from his philosophical principles in which nature was never sufficient unto itself and needed to be transformed by evangelical ideas of justice and love.

For those unfamiliar with the debates about supernature that took place last century, a brief summary is in order. I must warn the reader that my own understanding is a bit rusty, having studied this topic more than four years ago now in the form of reading the volumes of another Jesuit, Henri de Lubac. The best way to address the problem, for the sake of brevity, is to discuss the problem of the limbus infantium. When the fate of unbaptized infants was discussed by theologians after the Counter-Reformation, the Jansenists condemned limbo as a “Pelagian fable”, citing that there could be no “middle state” for people who committed no “actual sins”: babies who die without baptism burn in Hell, full stop. Those who defended limbo said that while such souls could never enjoy the Beatific Vision due to not having been born again in the water and the Spirit, they would be “naturally happy”; they would be in possession of the greatest joy possible without God. De Lubac comes along some centuries later and dismantles the idea of a “purely natural” end of man; a purely natural happiness. De Lubac and other theologians “restore” the Patristic idea that the only real end of man is God Himself; “pure nature” as a category is a ens rationis the existence of which is untenable in the Catholic cosmos.

Blondel works off of this idea many decades before, though not as explicitly as de Lubac. Particularly in his “Testis” essays released in the aftermath of St. Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi, he condemns the idea of a natural order separate from the workings of God; what has been known in Catholic thought as “natural law” and “natural theodicy”. According to Bernardi, Blondel affirmed that grace always intervenes into the workings of nature. This is because God is the end of all things, and all things have a tendency towards Him. In this sense, Blondel saw Christianity as the working of the “divine gift” within society. Coercion then would not be necessary for the task of the re-Christianization of France and the rest of Europe. God would inevitably bring people back to Himself through the all-powerful workings of His love in the hearts of men.

Blondel juxtaposed these ideas to the dry neo-scholasticism of Descoqs and the Catholic members of the Action Française, one in which the state of nature and the state of grace were governed by separate, rigorous laws. Since they wanted a confessional state, one in which Catholicism would be imposed by political power and coercion, he saw them as denying the workings of grace “from below”. Bernardi said that Blondel thought that these ideologues saw Christianity as “an oppression weighing on nature: full, solid, and sufficient”. In trying to make a united front with the agnostic Maurras in terms of the “natural order”, he perceived them as turning Christianity into a “war machine that suppresses the spontaneous movement of souls”. For Blondel, there could be no principles of the “purely natural” order on which to ground common action; the Gospel itself had to create new ways to re-evangelize society that went beyond theory and into pure life.

In the scope of one evening’s discourse, there are of course a lot of lacunae that cannot be breached when addressing such a complex subject. My own question, left unanswered by the evening, was why such speculations as Blondel’s could not lead to the exact opposite idea from the liberal option. If nature and supernature are not so separate, why not then have a form of Catholic sharia? The answer to my question, however, probably lies in the issue of coercion. For Blondel, nature does not have to be hammered by supernature (grace) into the correct form; since there is no barrier, it will emerge spontaneously. That, for Bernardi, was the key idea of the evening. Vatican II brought about a religion in which supernature was no longer a stranger, a foreign element imposed on a perfectly functioning machine of the natural world. This went off like a thermonuclear bomb in the Catholic consciousness in the latter half of last century. It was the real reason why nuns cast off their bulky habits, clerics updated their stuffy rituals, and Catholics could finally “relax” both in church and prayer. Such disciplines and codes had been seen as necessary tools to rein in the unruly tendencies of nature and bring them under the workings of other-worldly grace. In the political realm, this meant the dissolution of the few Catholic confessional states that were left in the world by the 1960’s (there were some) and the general turning towards optimism and progress when addressing the new, post-industrial, secularized societies.

Behind all of these abstract ideas of Blondel and his opponents, however, was a very concrete task that in the end proved a losing battle. What Blondel thought was the best way to re-Christianize society was precisely the path taken by the Church in its policy of aggiornamento at Vatican II. He wanted the Church to “witness” to society without the trappings of political power or ideology. In this way, he felt that the disaster of the Church collapsing into oblivion would be averted. This was also the hope of the fathers at the Second Vatican Council: if you could not cajole the masses with discipline, kill them with kindness. Bernardi was quite content with this strategy, and was convinced, like many in his generation, that it has worked. I, always eager to be the provocateur, called him on it in the question and answer section.

I prefaced my remarks citing the recent comments of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn that the end of Christianity is nigh in Europe. I then asked if such an outcome was inevitable. After all, the whole point of the polemic that Blondel and the resourcement theologians articulated against the integrist “reactionary” neo-scholastics was for the purpose of saving the Church. If the “good guys” won the day at Vatican II, what are we to make of the eclipse of the institutional Church in the battleground countries where the fight took place? Was it inevitable? And added to this, on a broader level, what are we to make of the problem of evil in this schema of the absolute interpenetration of nature and supernature? This was a major critique that Christophe Potworowski had in the book, Contemplation and incarnation : the theology of Marie-Dominique Chenu. If Chenu and others are so optimstic about the invincibility of God’s actions in the cosmos, then where is there room to fail in attaining the ultimate end? What is the role of sin, redemption, the Cross, and the rest of salvation history?

The presenter really did not have any good answers to my questions. He first of all said that it was “not that bad in Europe”, citing John Paul II’s record turn out for a World Youth Day some years ago now. He also said that there is far more going on than what the numbers say (?). Even though the pews are empty, that doesn’t mean that the Church is not still active in some way. (Again… ?) As for the problem of evil, he did say that this was “one critique”, but really didn’t respond to it. I, being a person of a non-combative disposition, just let it go.

In general, however, I thought that Fr. Bernardi’s presentation brought up more questions than it solved. Like de Lubac’s systematic dismantling of “neo-scholastic” pure nature, one is left hanging in the state of uncertainty as to what are the possible alternatives. For example, how do unbaptized babies not suffer because of their personal guiltlessness, yet not attain the Beatific Vision as we know from the testimony of Scripture and Tradition? These are not easy questions to answer, and the mental categories of “pure nature” and “created grace” may not have been perfect, but they seem far less problematic than the (non-existent?) alternatives. The only real consistent alternative for many, proposed by a faculty member there that night, is the typical “liberal” (or not so liberal) idea that everyone is saved in the end, and Catholics are only here to witness to that gift of God’s gratuitous salvation. The Cross is not redemptive, but rather demonstrative; a sign that God’s love conquers all things in the end.

Having bulldozed the line between nature and supernature, I think that what has emerged in the post-Vatican II era, on both sides of the polemical divide, is the idea of “realized eschatology”. This term has been used in other contexts, but the usage I would like to make of it would be to describe a tendency in the modern Catholic Church of assuming the presence of all of the benefits of the redemption, of the Cross, tomb, and Resurrection, in the here and now. In other words, because Christ has “already won”, we can already assume that the mystery of the Incarnation and Resurrection has already penetrated all things. Everything has already been redeemed, so we must treat all things as if they have already been transfigured. On the one hand, you have the “People of God” syndrome with a bunch of people singing in church,

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another.
We are promise to tomorrow,
while we are for him today.
We are sign, we are wonder,
we are sower, we are seed.
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.

The other side of “realized eschatology” is the whole movement towards the theology of the body, “holiness of the laity” and so on; a real forgetting of the ascetical traditions of the Church and the historical distrust the sensus catholicus had towards things of “this world”. One cannot really theologize upon this body of death (nascentes morimur), just as one cannot get too attached to this world that is yet to be judged by fire; one which will perish to make way for a “new heaven and new earth”. The Incarnation and Resurrection are truths that govern the fate of the cosmos, but on this side of death, we see them through a glass, darkly.

My own opinion is that, while the institutional collapse of the Church in France and the rest of Europe was perhaps inevitable, it was the policies of Blondel and Co. that hastened and worsened it. This is all just speculation, but I think it is quite true. You cannot water down Catholicism on the pretense of “going with the flow” and expect things to come out better. If you make the Church more like “the world” (under the pretense of making it more “incarnational”, etc.), people in the world are inevitably going to ask themselves why they even bother getting out of bed on Sunday morning to trod off to Mass. And once they start doing that, how are you going to preach to them? How are you going to compete with the thousands of other entertainments and distractions that vie for their attention? If you eliminate everything in Catholicism that conflicts with the popular culture (Latin, the smell ‘n bells, etc.), then why should people not stick to the real thing instead of switching to your Catholic pop culture-lite? It is notable that, at this lecture, AG and I were among the only five of about twenty five people who were under fifty years of age. And this was on a Catholic university campus.

For all of the talk of the “Incarnation” in the last sixty years in the Church, most thinking Catholics have treated man in a very disembodied, Cartesian way. Nuns, monks, and priests need their habits to let them constantly know who they are and what they are doing. People need to be told when to stand, sit, kneel, etc. Sign and symbols are important since they remind us all-too-forgetful humans how to behave in front of God. Rules are not contrary to freedom, and law is not contrary to Spirit; they are, rather, the foundation of these things, especially in our corporeal state. And even if it may shock us to say it, a confessional state, a state that upholds the true religion to the detriment of error (and to the “rights” of those who uphold that error) is not absolutely speaking a bad thing, though it be an imprudent thing in this day and age. It may look less idealistic than the spontaneous motions of the Spirit in Blondel, but again, our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil is not complete on this side of death, and we can use all the help we can get, no matter how “archaic”, “outdated”, and “authoritarian” it all looks. Once again, the wisdom of the past may trump the unsteady presumptions of the present.



5 responses

17 01 2014

Greetings! I know this is kinda off topic
but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for ths site?
I’m gettng tired of WordPress because I’ve had problems with hackers
andd I’m looking at alternatives for another platform.
I would be fantastic if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

1 05 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I received this correspondence in my email, which I wish to put as an addendum to this post:

“Dear Arturo, greetings–I came across your blog account of
my recent lecture at Loyola. I remembered the questions you
posed after the lecture. I think your account omits my
criticism of Blondel’s understanding of the nature-grace
relationship. I do hope you read the final chapter of my
book where my criticism of Blondel is highlighted. While I
think he was right to criticize a Catholic political
alliance with A.F., on the theological issue, I don’t think
he got it quite right. Sincerely, Fr. Bernardi, SJ.”

Noted, and the reader of this blog is directed to Fr. Bernardi’s book for further reference on this issue.

23 04 2009

I think You guys should seriously consider making a difference between secularism and not practicing one’s religion (nominalism): the two are NOT the same, and the later out-dates the former by centuries (no pun intended).

22 04 2009

Determining the roots of secularization in Europe as a whole can be tricky. In the German context, it’s pretty clear that by the Weimar Republic, most people, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, weren’t religious. For many in the middle and upper classes, adherance to Bildungsreligion, that celebrated the values of the German Englightenment (e.g.,reason, skepticism, classical liberalism) was very popular. Among the working classes, trade unionism, communism, and sundry nationalist creeds became replacement religions. The only holdout was the traditional religious hold-out of Bavaria. The strong empiricist tradition in Great Britain, combined with the horrors of the Industrial Age, seem to be the primary culprits in that context.

Essentially, my questions have less to do with the relative merits or downsides to a confessional state, but what happens when the citizens and rulers of said state become secularized (I think this is what happened in Spain). Once that happens, religion essentially just becomes an interesting though largely irrelevent part of one’s ethnic background, not unlike those colorful Eastern European folk dances that showcase clothes nobody actually wears anymore.

21 04 2009

our Churches are full, but everybody’s Orthodox, and if ALL of them would come to Church, then it would look like Easter every Sunday morning. (Build smaller Churches, I guess!). So, Church attendance is very low, and, at the same time, the Churches are full. And no-one is super-religious, but they all believe in God. Nominalism has always been a problem for us; don’t quite understand why people are noticing it only now, and make such a big fuss about it. Neither Islam nor atheism are choices people really take into consideration (at max New Age, Buddhism, paranormal, Protestantism, etc). Well, whatever…

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