Questions about Bernard Lonergan
I sent an email to Brendan Purcell asking him various questions about Bernard Lonergan
and the following is his reply
Thanks for your message and questions re Bernard Lonergan, most of whose writings I've read over
the years. Let's start with moral theology, because that's where there's most obviously something missing. He wrote
an essay in the 40s (it's in his Collection), 'Finality, Love and Marriage' where there's a discussion of the primary
and secondary ends of marriage—which is how the procreative and unitive aspects of the marital act used to be discussed.
It's ages since I've read it, but I think even there he's going in the direction of a guy I think called Doms,
who (again I think) regarded both ends as of equivalent value. Perhaps this underlay his attitude towards the contraceptive
Lonergan wasn't a moral, but a dogmatic, theologian, but as the most prominent Anglophone Canadian theologian,
he was asked by the Canadian episcopal conference for his opinion on the contraceptive pill, I think after Humanae Vitae, but maybe a bit earlier. As you know, theologians are allowed
room to dissent up to a point regarding some theological issues, provided they keep it in the private arena, and
Lonergan wrote an opinion on the contrac. pill (and/or) Humanae Vitae for the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, with the strict understanding that it wasn't to be made public.
His objection was something like: the fertility of the marital act is of a statistical rather than a classic (that
is, clearly predictable) nature (where he saw that classic approach as expressing an Aristotelian rather than a
modern approach to events), so no particular act in itself can be required to be open to conception. I won't go
into why I regard this as mistaken, but anyway, the Canadian Bishops' statement on Humanae
Vitae was in my view the worst episcopal response I've read from anywhere, certainly
the worst English language response (there's a book containing a big selection of episcopal responses, going from
ok to pretty bad).
That opinion was published in the Lonergan Newsletter as far as I remember, some years after Lonergan's death,
but many of his closest followers repeated his line of argument, so you didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce
they'd all seen his opinion.
A second less than satisfactory expression of his orthodoxy (given the first was private and he made no attempt
to gain what would have been the kind of media notoriety folk like Hans Küng, Schillebeeckx, and others got,
you could say this was his first less than orthodox writing) was the weak style of Method
in Theology, which never (surely not unaffected by his own Humanae
Vitaestance) dealt with the obvious question of the Church’s magisterial authority, using
the vague expression of 'the Christian Church,' perhaps to cover this gap. This doesn’t take from Method in Theology’s enormous value, as a working example of how to apply his
four-levelled understanding of human consciousness to the listening and speaking aspects of theology, the best
presentation in accessible language of his theory of knowledge, and so on. Just because the book doesn’t get everything
right doesn’t mean anyone interested in theology (I’d add, or in the human sciences generally) couldn’t learn a
lot, as I hope I have, from it.
Then there are a few remarks in articles post 1968 where he sounds a bit critical of the Curia or whatever.
On the other hand, as a dogmatic theologian, his main work finished with the final versions of De Deo Trino and De Verbo Incarnato, and these are, in my opinion, not only 100% orthodox, but among the finest contributions to 20th century
Catholic theology. Take one issue, much discussed during the late 50s, then 60s, the consciousness of Christ. Here
he takes as given Pius XII's teaching that Christ as man possessed the beatific vision from the moment of conception.
He doesn't explain this away, but develops an understanding of it in the light of his own ‘understanding of understanding’
brilliantly explored in Insight—if you haven’t time, at least
his rousing article in Collection, ‘Christ as Subject: A Reply’, should be read. It’s a hilariously successful
polemic against an unwitting fellow-Jesuit who’s clearly out of his depth in his review of another Lonergan masterpiece,
De constitutione Christi ontologica et psychological, now available
So, I think there'd be a big loss to theology if his tiny output in moral theology was allowed to eclipse his huge
contribution to the theology of grace (Grace and Freedom, his PhD thesis, and other very careful writings), to
Christology and to the theology of God and of the Trinity. Not to mention Insight—which reminds me of a remark he made re his Verbum
articles (published as Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas): I'm
only writing on Aquinas for people who are prepared to work as hard on him as I am. When I was reading those articles
way back, I always had to have on the table (I counted them!) no less than 18 or 19 of Aquinas's writings, just
to check the quotes. And Insight points up just why the Thomist
revival initiated by Leo XIII has had a more limited effect than it deserved—too many Thomist scholars were happy
to work away on the history of St Thomas' work, but not so bothered to actually apply his principals to the problems
of their own time. Lonergan, in my view, was one of the few who, having done the historical work, then laboured
to bring Aquinas' thought into the modern context, most energetically in Insight and in the two theological masterworks on the Incarnate Word and the Trinity.
Hope that's a help, very best, Brendan
Copyright ©; Dr Brendan Purcell 2012
Version: 11th October 2012