Duns Scotus, Paul VI and Michael Ramsey: Witness to Christian Unity

An Essay by Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFMConv.

Duns Scotus, Paul VI and Michael Ramsey: Witness to Christian Unity

At Vatican II (1962-65), a lasting and fruitful relationship sprung up between Pope Paul VI and Arthur Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974. Witness is a sign, not the end, that makes something known and understood, worthy of credence and belief. In Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, G. Rowell, K. Stevenson and R. Williams identify Ramsey as “a theologian in the Catholic tradition influenced by the biblical theology movement, with a deep concern for Christian unity, … and above all to commend the importance of contemplative prayer to all Christians” (OUP, 2003, 663). Paul VI, who was elected in 1963, was a theologian in his own right, steeped in the ressourcement, or return to the sources, spirit of Vatican II, patristic biblical theology, medieval theology, the French, English, and German Enlightenment, and the developing thought of modernity. Christian unity was a primary goal for both spiritual leaders by reconfiguring the universal call to holiness through prayer and contemplation. Cyril O’Regan has adroitly diagnosed the ambiguities of the gift of modernity as comprising cheerers, weepers, and shadow-seekers, or those able to make judgments about both cheerers and weepers fairly (Church Life Journal, March 20, 2018}.

It may be a surprise that Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter Alma Parens, recommended John Duns Scotus (d.1308) to assist modernity in understanding what I favor calling the critical question or entering into the heart. Paul VI discovered that the whole of Duns Scotus’ thought pivots on two biblical texts: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) and “God is love” (1 John 4:16). In Metaphysics IX, ch. 10 (1064b1), Aristotle called metaphysics the “divine science” – to discover what human reason unaided by faith can tell him of God. A wise person is one who knows the causes and reasons for things. Metaphysics is the knowledge of first principles and causes. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus agree that the first concept of the human mind is, what is, or being. “True being” expresses that God is being without qualification, without any imperfection, and every perfection is present in the highest possible degree. The fact that all persons by nature desire to know helps contextualize: “I am who I am” as a simple unqualified assertion of existence, what is, or of being, Aristotle’s divine science.

A critical question, or entering into the heart, is the step in a person that demonstrates metaphysical attributes as they are inferred by natural reason. I have found this to be incredibly important because it presupposes a continuity between natural religion and revealed religion. To the believer, revealed religion is not natural religion for it reveals the repair work done by God by vicarious atonement on our behalf. Natural religion has a darkness and revealed religion is continuous with the dark features but imbued with the gift of grace. Picking up on sanctification In the Anglican tradition, especially the Caroline period, Bishop Joseph Butler (d. 1752) summarized continuity in a phenomenological register: “revealed religion republished natural religion” (Analogy). Conscience and the propensities to stray from God are also presupposed. Butler was countering Locke and the rationalists which John Henry Newman amplified over a hundred years later. Butler and Newman’s target was John Locke and natural religion presuming it could be defined entirely by rationality.

“I am who am,” and “God is love,” reconfigures entering into the heart. Paul VI discovered that Duns Scotus, in fidelity to Aristotelian metaphysics, offers insight into contemporary questions in phenomenology and theology. With breathtaking clarity, Duns Scotus emphasizes the primacy of the will and charity, the integral role of the intellect, and indispensable gift of personal freedom. The thickness of Duns Scotus’ trinitarian theology is in the Prologue to the Ordinatio, p. III, qq. 1-3 (n.174). He writes: the adequate object (or center) of theology is not Christ, but something common (univocal) to the Word, about whom articles (of the Creed) primarily pertain, and to the Father and Holy Spirit, with whom the remaining theological truths deal.”

Recognizing complementarity, in Alma Parens Paul VI identifies the principal and magnificent temple of Thomas and others that differ in ‘style and size’ from Duns Scotus and his ardent and contemplative genius. Alma Parens reveals his preference for Duns Scotus on the centerpiece of metaphysics (univocity of being). Some may erroneously miss the complementarity of Thomas (analogical concept of being) or vice versa. Both Doctors agree on the prior truth of the analogy of being, analogia entis. Complementarity between these Medieval giants avoids any agreement with the Kantian overtones of those who might identify metaphysics with analytic philosophy and might make the two scholastics look like predecessors of Hegel. Very simply, Paul VI confirms that Thomas and Duns Scotus express something transcending the logical or mental order, namely, the real.

Paul VI chose the Subtle Doctor also known as a Marian Doctor to explicate his convictions about how to implement the ecumenical thrust of Vatican II. His retrieval of Duns Scotus implies that the Subtle Doctor’s ecclesiology and Mariology has to be in contemporary English. John Henry Newman’s contribution here remains underdetermined for, in turn, he needs some transposing. Ample evidence is in his Grammar of Assent which develops his Oxford University Sermons and early Lectures on Justification. His historical masterpiece, Development of Doctrine, addresses systemic coherences, contributes to historiography, and demonstrates the intelligibility of development. The Idea of a University distinguishes inquiry that veils ideological complexities by demonstrating how knowledge is at the service of investigating the truth. His Apologia is forensic justificatory religious rhetoric which addresses the attenuation of Christianity and its rationalization.

Another underdetermined resource for the contemporary reader and researcher who links Duns Scotus with Newman is the late Geoffrey Rowell (d. 2017), Emeritus Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and Retired Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. I had the good fortune of meeting him and included his request to contribute: “The Scotist Doctrine of the Incarnation and the Anglican Tradition: Newman in Frame and Context” in The Newman-Scotus Reader which I was editing in 2015. Rowell is precise. Duns Scotus “cannot be said to be amongst earlier theologians who have had a major influence on Anglicanism, with one exception—his teaching that the Incarnation was implicit in God’s intentionality in creation and was not contingent upon the Fall” (429). Rowell traces the historical roots of this theological perspective in the Greek Fathers as more important for Anglicanism than Scotus’ own exposition. He identifies nineteenth century German theology with its limited influence in England, but with a similar incarnational stress with the Incarnation as the center of history. Rowell adds the thought of the Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovsky who said that the ultimate motive of the Incarnation was never discussed in the Patristic Age. Florovsky points to Maximus the Confessor about linking the Incarnation with the original purpose of God in creation. To Rowell, Hans Urs von Balthasar sees a resemblance to Duns Scotus but underscores Maximus’ distance from the scholastic debate.

In Love’s Redeeming Work, Stevenson, Williams and Rowell contextualize in a manner that offers significant ground work for revisiting the many scholars in the Victorian era in the Anglican Tradition. For example, Rowell thinks Newman on the purpose of the Incarnation and his preference for Scotism over what is generally classified as Thomism is rooted in the Greek Fathers and Athanasius. He underscores Michael Ramsey on the Incarnation and incarnationalism in Anglican theology as a fertile field for research. Ramsey’s From Gore to Temple: The Development of Anglican Theology between Lux Mundi and the Second World War, 1889-1939 is a key source. Rowell adds a significant exponent of the Scotist doctrine of the Incarnation, Charles Williams, one of “The Inklings” with C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Williams’ The Descent of the Dove is inspired by the Scotist opinion (also known as the opinio Minorum of the Franciscans) that the Incarnation would have happened had there been no fall. In sum, Rowell broadens the field of ecumenical studies with the ‘frame and context’ of Newman’s Scotist understanding as drawn from the Greek Fathers, particularly Athanasius, rather than Scotus in a sweep of Anglican reflection on the Incarnation and creation.

How these sources may have been influencing Michael Ramsey is worthy of extensive research, as well as how they may have motivated him to join Paul VI in a joint declaration within three months of the close of Vatican II. The formal statement navigated together in light of Vatican Council is respectful of matters of practical difficulty felt on either side. Michael Ramsey and Paul VI must have felt the urgency to engage the consequences of what Nietzsche and his epigones were saying. “We killed God and have forgotten that we killed him. God has no longer any social or existential purpose and we have failed to be cognizant of our crime. Since we have displaced and replaced God, the only answer is to choose the self as the architect of meaning.” This was untenable for God is love and that love is inscrutable. Their sermons and teachings do more than suggest their response to that Nietzschean undertone which World War II tragically confirmed. In 1966 they perceived something that might be more revealing about what is constitutive to Christianity. As we search for ideas and forms of life essential to Christianity in the twenty-first century, Michael Ramsey and Paul VI guide us. They welcome us to use our imaginations including the foundations they discovered as we make our way through the twilight of modernity.

“God is love” permeates their Joint Declaration and mutual goal of substantive Ecumenical dialogue founded on the Gospels leading to Christian unity. Love’s Redeeming Work (2001, 2003) assists the effective rebooting of Anglican-Catholic Ecumenical dialogue. The range and depth of the historical documents is full of promise. Michael Ramsey wrote of contemplation for all Christians: “The prayer of Jesus the high priest is to intercede, to meet someone, to be with someone in relation to or on behalf of others. Jesus is with the Father for us. Prayer means being with God. … A Church which starves itself and its members in the contemplative life deserves whatever spiritual leanness it may experience” (Canterbury Pilgrim, 1974, 59-60).

In 1964, the newly elected Paul VI said: three things were in his heart. First, the Church has to deepen its consciousness of itself by meditating on that mystery which is peculiar to it, for its own enlightenment and development; second, the defects of the Church’s members need a wise way for a sweeping renovation; third, a new existential register for the Church and the world in which it lives, and labors is a sine qua non. He discovered Duns Scotus and the potential for a golden harvest to ripen in naturally fertile soil and from learned and broad discussions and agreed conclusions about “truth that lifts us so high” (Ord. III, d. 28, q. un., n. 2).

Paul VI was on to how Duns Scotus differs from Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. I take up his invitation for serious engagement in a new century with Duns Scotus and the univocal concept of being, the will as a pure perfection, formal distinction a parte rei (or apart from and prior to any particular theologizing), and personal act as incommunicable existence, as terms that bear upon the mystery and supreme grace of the Incarnation. Duns Scotus’ vocabulary does not defigure but refigures the Council as “irreplaceable.” Rather than feeding into a demise of Christianity by a false voluntarism, Paul VI discovers him as a model for the capability of human reason to make the great truths of faith accessible and convincing to the contemporary reader.

From the dawn of the Enlightenment, or modernity, one can map the development of culture from a Franciscan-Scotistic register. Human beings thirst for self-determination which Franciscans identity as the will oriented to the good and to love. Paul VI inherits this by not presenting metaphysics and experience as mutually exclusive opposites, but metaphysics as the study of the light by which we are able to understand the immediate object of experiences and what in the experience is trans-experiential and trans-conceptual. A simpler way to put it may be, there is a relation between metaphysics and experience centered in charity. In the light of charity, Vatican II is irreplaceable because it is integrated with the scotistic primacy of the will in the experience of the journey to God.

Duns Scotus carried the pattern of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into the entire world, to make the Christian option believable, in order to carry a huge part of the load of renewal with imagination. Paul VI does not shy from the metaphor of the “black cloud of atheism which hangs darkly over our age” and the toxism that gets in the way of true Christianity. He wants persons in touch with the world not to be holy fools, nor to be taken by any simulacrum. Paul VI employs correctly a Franciscan register which distinguishes secularism as making one’s own autonomy the heart of happiness, from secularity, which presupposes the inclusion of intense dialogue with God. It is not Nietzsche’s nihilism, or absolving oneself from any charge of mediocrity simply by choosing oneself as the architect of meaning. Nietzsche’s chilling thought remains: we killed God and have forgotten that we killed him.

This brings me back to the ‘starting gate in 1966. Paul VI was on to the Scotistic discussion of univocity of being, ens infinitum [infinite being], and contemplation of being as the point of departure for metaphysics. A key theological problem since Vatican II has been to take some aspect of conscious experience as point of departure for Christian metaphysics with the result that the spirit of Vatican II and tradition is presumed to be left by the side of the road in favor of “future novelty. Alma Parens contains the hermeneutic of reform and adaptation of Vatican II in continuity with tradition which is based on and critiqued by being, not what is coming to be or experienced. (See W. Hoeres, Kritik der transzendentalphilosophischen Erkenntnistheorie, Stuttgart, 1969). This contains a kernel of the research to be done.

This essay brings the memory of the Joint Declaration of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI as prescient conversation partners willing to engage challenges. Paul VI followed the Declaration with Alma Parens to make what appears to have been several strategic points to engage what he saw was imperiling Christianity. I discovered how critical the debate about the absolute character of metaphysical truth was in Alma Parens. While I have had discussions with interested participants, they are a tissue of the lead of Archbishop Ramsey in the Anglican Communion. May scholars join the vision of Paul VI and the Archbishop. As a Franciscan, this essay takes the form of a plea to take up the substance of their Joint Declaration as a witness, a sign that makes the power of Christian Unity known and understood in bringing nobility and civility.

John Paul II reiterated what Paul VI found constitutive in Duns Scotus as a pillar of Catholic theology, an original Teacher and full of ideas and incentives to demonstrate the non-contradictory nature of human reason and faith (February 2002). Dwarfed in the context of the flurry of activity after Vatican II and its history, to some the Joint Declaration and Alma Parens may appear an opportunity long gone. To others, how the Anglican Church and Catholic Church interpret their inflections and developments since Vatican II’s call for ecumenical engagement that is in touch with the Church and World now belongs to a new century and there are signs that it will be continued and brought forward as Michael Ramsey and Paul VI outlined. Genuine Christian Unity leaves no Christian out, nor caring for any human being in charity because the dignity of each person is paramount.

From a twenty-first century perspective, theology and theological reflection is far larger than any individual or event. We may ask: are the inflections and developments a defiguration and derangement, or a refiguration? Is Vatican II “irreplaceable?” What are the gifts worth holding on to? Michael Ramsey and Paul VI wanted legitimate questions raised and researched answers. Earlier classical forms of Anglicanism fostered the sacraments and prayer with emphasis on sanctification, holiness, and growth in faith in distinction to any effort to proscribe them. John Henry Newman’s accumulation of arguments on development in 1845 remains a historical resource poised to make the close correlation between the biblical text and revelation without a one to one identity. The process of development is to move from a first to a second order of reflection.

The on-going hermeneutic of the Vatican Council is not a denial of development or growth in spiritual-personal including theological matters, but such development rests on the eternal character of truth. It includes the ability to discriminate a developing simulacrum in the 21st century vis a vis what is unchanging and unchangeable. The visible challenges and agonism are caused by complexities associated with globalization, issues based on race, sexuality, gender, or fanaticism apparently fueled by the proliferation of arms. Agonism make ours a dangerous world. Conversation partners to Christian Unity have to be diagnostic of their experiences along with the sense of responsibility together not to exclude anyone. Paul VI and Michael Ramsey were prescient and knew the outcome rests on prayer and awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit with cumulative diagnostic analysis. Without understanding what is signified when Jesus prays that all may be one, the world will sideline and retire sin effectively and make grace effectively inoperative. Should Christians misremember that Jesus atones for our sins and that we cannot save ourselves, there is a risk to misdiagnose his message. Paul VI and Michael Ramsey call out the importance of a holy life and to critique what has been proscribed because they saw that what is prescribed could represent a fatal substitution for Christianity. They imply that the substitution may well be far more dangerous to Christianity because in some lights a secular version looks just like it.

Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
Research Fellow Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure, Rome
Visiting Scholar, McGrath Institute for Church Life
University of Notre Dame
Easter Sunday, 2019

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