Thursday, September 17, 2009

Le pari personnaliste

By E-Martin Meunier, 369 pages, Editions Fides.

Le pari personnaliste is an excellent and deep-running introduction to the theological and especially philosophical events leading up to Vatican II. For those of us used to the left-wing versus right-wing scorecard account of the Council, this book is a welcome analysis.

The author is an academic so the reading is demanding and presupposes some familiarity with philosophical terms and modern intellectual history. The book details things from the perspective of personalism, which we often associate with phenomenology.

The latter philosophy, begun by Edmund Husserl and continued by Saint Edith Stein among others, represented a reaction against the grandiose and increasingly atmospheric philosophies of post-Kantian Germany. Husserl called philosophy back “to the things themselves.” Personalism grew out of this, and advocated among other things the dignity of the person. It attracted many Catholic thinkers including Jacques Maritain and Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II.

The book's strongpoint is that it concentrates on one or up to a few significant thinkers at a time, including Emmanuel Mounier and Maritain. The author's scholarly bent makes each chapter an excellent, in-depth introduction to each of these writers, all of whom had significant impacts, direct or indirect, on the thought of Vatican II itself.

The author also situates these thinkers in the anti-Catholic, secular and scientist thought of the nineteenth century: “Of course, the office of the pope had already begun, at the end of the century [au mitan du siecle], a critique of the principles of liberalism and socialist doctrines, but for various reasons having as much to do with institutional structures as with political problems that occupied papal diplomacy, the magisterium had not yet taken the time to develop the outlines of a philosophy that could guide its positions when faced with the era's tendencies.” [my translation] (53)

Le pari personaliste ends with an analysis of the aftereffects of the liberal Catholic deconstruction of theology and tradition in the post-conciliar decades. In dealing with the counter-conversation to this deconstruction, Meunier defines Cardinal Ratzinger, as a “pessimist when it comes to the human condition, [who] sees the truth as something to receive as a whole, and not as something to create.” The Cardinal accused a renegade personalism of wrecking havoc to “the internal order of the church,” and to sexuality and marriage. (332)

The importance of Le pari personaliste comes from the fact that Catholics cannot understand a given theologian or theological stream without understanding the underlying philosophy. No one will understand Pope John Paul II or Vatican II without understanding not only neo-Thomism but also personalism.

Professor Meunier arrives at some negative conclusions about the Catholic future because of the baby-boom generation's failure to create true community and refusal to see employment in the federal government, for example, as service to the country rather than as a self-oriented career. His point is that this way of thinking has also infected the Church.

He concludes, however, by remarking on the hope that Catholics have in the clear-thinking of Pope Benedict XVI: “If post-Vatican II Catholicism focused on the primacy of the person, on the incarnation, and on engagement, the Ratzinger way [le style Ratzinger] focuses above all 'on the ancient mystery: creation, original sin, redemption.'”

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