Signs of renewal in the study of Catholic theology
An interview with theology professor Dr. Thomas Harmon about the legacy of Father Matthew Lamb, who died earlier this month
Editor’s Note: The Cardinal Newman Society. originally published this article on Nov. 30, 2016. We reprint it in tribute to Fr. Matthew Lamb, who died on Jan. 12, two weeks ago today.
Over 20 years ago, concerned about the state of his academic discipline, then-Boston College theology professor Father Matthew Lamb posed the question in America magazine: “Will there be a Catholic theology in the United States?” A new book compiled by his former students looks to answer that question in the affirmative.
Fr. Lamb left Boston College in 2004 to help establish the graduate theology program at the Newman Guide–recommended Ave Maria University in Florida. Last year, Ave Maria and his former students honored Fr. Lamb with a tribute for his contributions to theology and to the university. The presentations given at that event are the basis of the recently published book Wisdom and the Renewal of Catholic Theology: Essays in Honor of Matthew L. Lamb.
Among Fr. Lamb’s concerns about the study of Catholic theology at Catholic colleges were that a disproportionate number of doctoral faculty received their degrees from non-Catholic programs and were taking a Protestant approach to their teaching, that faculty lacked necessary linguistic abilities to read primary texts, and the pitting of faith against reason. He asserted, “There is no doctoral program in North America with a rigorous ratio studiorum that offers an integral formation in the doctrinal and theoretical traditions of Catholic teaching.”
Fr. Lamb’s vision for the new theology program at Ave Maria “included a return to sources ancient and modern in order to recapture a sapiential reading of philosophy and theology throughout the Catholic ecclesial tradition. He knew that to renew Catholic theology in America was first to give a solid education to those men and women who would be teaching the next generation.”
Those men and women are now teaching the next generation at Catholic colleges and seminaries across the country. Their scholarly work represents “grounds for hope that Fr. Lamb’s question might be answered in the positive” according to Dr. Thomas Harmon, professor of theology and culture at the Newman Guide–recommended John Paul the Great Catholic University.
Harmon, who received his Ph.D. in theology from Ave Maria, is one of the editors of Wisdom and the Renewal of Catholic Theology. He spoke with The Cardinal Newman Society recently about the new book.
Newman Society: Let’s start with a couple of obvious questions. The book is called Wisdom and the Renewal of Catholic Theology: Essays in Honor of Matthew L. Lamb. So first, what is the wisdom of Catholic theology that is focused on?
Harmon: The wisdom of Catholic theology is that the order of creation is most wise, the disorders we find within it are a result of the abuse of free choice in sin, and the Blessed Trinity has acted decisively to heal the wounds of sin and to open the way toward communion with him.
Catholic theology goes off the rails when it loses that sense of God’s wise acts of creation and redemption and reduces both divine and human action to movements of power. The implication of the wisdom approach to theology is humility in the presence of revelation as taught in the Church and the Scriptures, an understanding of the harmony of faith and reason, and the recognition that theology requires a metaphysics adequate to understanding the world as intelligible along with an appreciation for the imperfections in creation due to human sinfulness.
A wisdom approach to theology pushes back against historicism—the understanding of human thought as radically conditioned by its historical period—which makes us orphans to our own tradition and cuts us off from the great theologians of the past, who have so much to teach us.
And what can be learned from the essays that make up the book about the renewal of Catholic theology? Why does it need to be renewed?
The essays in the book were chosen on the basis of whether they were able to express Fr. Lamb’s vision for theology. They are examples, in other words, of theology done sapientially. They are non-historicist: They regard great theologians of the past, especially the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, to be invaluable guides in the contemplation of truth.
Matthew Levering’s essay [“Augustine on Creation: An Exercise in the Dialectical Retrieval of the Ancients”], for instance, shows what modern physicists might be able to learn about the creation of the world from St. Augustine. David Tamisiea’s chapter [“Vatican II, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Sensus Fidelium”] applies Pope Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of reform within tradition to shed the light of the theological tradition on the vexed question of what the sensus fidelium is. The essays are faithful to and respectful of Scriptural and Magisterial teaching without shying away from difficult topics in either.
Matthew J. Ramage’s chapter [“Biblical Inspiration in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and Fr. Matthew Lamb”] talks about the dark passages of the Bible, the parts that most offend us nowadays, where God seems to command terrible crimes. My own contribution examines the phrase, “scrutinizing the signs of the times,” and its place in recent Magisterial teaching, sounding a few cautionary notes about the ease with which that phrases can be suborned by historicists. They take the role of philosophy and especially metaphysics seriously.
John Froula’s chapter [“God’s Self-Gift and the Created Supernatural: Matthew Lamb’s Lonerganian Account”] is a very high-level examination of an important aspect of Christology that focuses on the manner of Christ’s existence and has huge implications for how we understand how God makes a gift of Himself—which could not be understood without the precise and careful understanding of certain aspects of metaphysics. These are just a few examples.
Talk a little bit about these essays and how they honor Fr. Lamb?
These essays were selected for inclusion in the volume in part to show the breadth of Fr. Lamb’s own teaching and scholarship and how he has transmitted that breadth to his students through the graduate programs in theology at Ave Maria University. There are essays about the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, the medieval Doctors, and themes from 20th-century theology.
There are essays on systematic and dogmatic theology, moral theology, and Biblical theology. There are essays that demonstrate close reading of texts, the key place of philosophy in theology, the harmony of faith and reason, original-language theological research, and a love for St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Fr. Lamb’s own teacher, Bernard Lonergan, S.J. There are also essays that demonstrate the link between theology and spirituality. These are all hallmarks of Fr. Lamb’s own scholarship and what he has tried to pass on to us.
You write in the introduction that the book’s contributors hope it “provides empirical evidence” of a positive answer to the question posed by Fr. Lamb over 20 years ago: “Will there be a Catholic theology in the United States?” Expand on that.
Fr. Lamb originally left Boston College in order to shape and direct a graduate school in theology that would produce graduates fully formed in the Catholic theological tradition, which he found was not being done anywhere in the United States at the time he wrote the article, “Will there Be Catholic Theology in the United States?” in America in 1990. The contributors to the volume were all Fr. Lamb’s students. Most were his students from Ave Maria University, but we also wanted to feature a few of his students from his previous institutions, as well.
The Ave Maria students are all junior scholars who now occupy full-time teaching positions in colleges, universities or seminaries in the United States. As a matter of fact, Ave Maria has a 100-percent success rate of placing its graduates in full-time teaching positions—a remarkable statistic. So what I was meaning is that these contributors found in the book are now grounds for hope that Fr. Lamb’s question might be answered in the positive.
What would your advice be for students who are looking to study Catholic theology and for their parents as they are considering enrollment at a Catholic college? What should they look for in assessing the program?
I would say that they should look for programs that avoid the latest academic fads. The curriculum should focus on teaching the greatest themes and the most important theologians from the entire tradition, hopefully as freely as possible from ideological filters. The program should emphasize the necessity to know philosophy, especially metaphysics and political philosophy.
Theology is also ideally studied out of a broad education in the liberal arts. The theology curriculum needs to be well integrated with a robust undergraduate curriculum in the liberal arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Finally, there should be no embarrassment in evidence that theology is an unabashedly ecclesial science that gains its freedom and rigor from its close relationship to Christ and the Church, and is especially benefited from the Church’s Magisterium.
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