Why Read the Church Fathers? Because You Can’t Do Catholic Theology Without Them
Think we live in a world of confused theology and poor pastoral praxis? Go back and study the Fathers.
Many years ago, when I entered the college level seminary in Douglaston, New York, I was handed a copy of Christian Prayer, the one-volume version of the Liturgy of the Hours. As a freshman in college, this little book was a mystery to me. For starters, it had too many ribbons (I think that people who are first exposed to the Divine Office on an app are so spoiled, but I really appreciate the iBreviary!). And, at the end of my freshmen year of college, what a day was it when I bought my copy of the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours. For me, as a 19-year-old, it was a real sign of commitment to my vocation. I felt like I was entering the big leagues!
Together, as a small community living in the College House of Formation, we learned to pray Lauds, Vespers, and what quickly was to become my favorite, Compline. At this early stage in formation, praying Midday Prayer was not yet done in common, nor was the Office of Readings. However, in an adaptation to the rubrics of the Liturgy of the Hours, we would, when we prayed Lauds together, also read, as a community, the second reading from the Office of Readings. I immediately fell in love with the Office of Readings. It introduced me to a whole new world, a world populated by the heroes of the great Sacred Tradition of the Church, the Fathers of the Church.
Over that summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I found in a used book store a copy of a really great old book, published in 1958, that helped me to grow to know the Fathers of the Church even more: The Fathers Without Theology: The Lives and Legends of The Early Church Fathers by Marjorie Strachey. The Fathers of the Church quickly became trusted guides. I urge you to get to know these saints, pastors, and teachers, like Justin, Clement, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, the “Hammer of the Heretics” Athanasius, Maximus, Basil and the Gregorys, Hilary, Cyril of Alexandria (on whose feast day I was ordained a priest), the great Popes Leo and Gregory, Bede the Venerable, Cyprian of Carthage, and yes, even Origen! (As a help in getting to know the Fathers a bit better, may I suggest two fine books, one of which I had mentioned in this column before? The first is by Father Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers: Revised Edition (Paulist Press, 2012) and the second is Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998).
Another priest whom I really respect and who serves as a professor in a seminary told me many years ago: “All of the answers to the problems of theology today can be found in the first seven Ecumenical Councils. That’s where theology ends!”
I would not necessarily completely agree with his statement, but he’s not completely wrong. My own specialty in theology is in contemporary theology. I wrote my doctorate on the 20th century theologians John Courtney Murray and Bernard Lonergan. These are, to me, fascinating thinkers and I am very glad that I studied them. However, the older I get, the more I read and study, the more I realize that all theology is built on the firm foundation that is Divine Revelation’s fonts, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Theology. Even the thinkers that I ask my students to read in their introductory class to theology are mostly from the ressourcement period, men like de Lubac, Congar, Balthasar, Danielou, Ratzinger, all of whom are asking their readers to go back to the Fathers.
Getting to know the great Patristic era can help us understand the present age so well. In his introduction to Athansius’ The Incarnation, C.S. Lewis wrote:
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.
Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.
A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.
Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.
Yes, if we rely solely on theology written in the past few years, as good as some of it is, we will be no different than Lewis’ conversationalist chiming in at 11:00 PM. We would simply be rambling on and on, building our houses on sand, surely doomed to fail. I was a college seminarian when that true gift of Saint John Paul II that is the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released. I explicitly recall a theology professor bemoaning the fact that the new Catechism had no quotes from any 20th century theologians. I remember thinking, even as a young student, that these theologians have not stood the test of time. And, all of the truly great Catholic theologians of the 20th and 21st centuries, use the Fathers of the Church, along with Sacred Scripture, as the basis of their theology. You can’t really do Catholic theology without them.
We need to go back to the Fathers to learn from them. Think we have troubles today between the Church and culture? Think we live in a world of confused theology and poor pastoral praxis? Go back and study the Fathers. They lived through difficult times and they guided the Church as lights in an age of darkness. In my next article, I wish to offer ten gifts that a study of the Patristic era can offer our unsettled world today.