Let’s examine someone whose theology has stood the test of time.

There are certain theologians whom even those who are just beginning their studies know like Saints Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. There are some whom students of theology get to know at least the name pretty quickly, like Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar. And there are those whom you discover years and years later, those who have influenced some great theologians whom you have studied and whose theology you have adapted into your own understanding of the world and whom you kind of heard about in passing but never ever read, and, when you finally get around to doing it, you realize just how great they are. One such theologian is Fr. Matthias Joseph Scheeben (1835-1888).

For me, as a diocesan priest and someone who teaches and studies theology, there is just so much to love about Scheeben. I was introduced to Scheeben when I was doing my own doctoral work, but only in passing, as the subject of my own doctorate, Fr. John Courtney Murray, had written his doctorate on Scheeben in the 1930s at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Scheeben studied at the German national seminary in Rome and the Pontifical Gregorian University as a young man and taught for a number of years in the diocesan seminary in Cologne. It’s kind of hard to place Scheeben into one “school” of thought. As he was described to me by one of my own students, he really is his own thing.

What I find most fascinating about Scheeben is that not only was a diocesan priest and a premiere theologian, but was also a mystic who stated that the purpose of his theology was “to make the Christian feel happy about his faith. Because the beauty and eminence of our faith consist in this: that through the mysteries of grace it raises our nature to an immeasurably high plane and presents to us an inexpressibly intimate union with God.” His text, The Mysteries of Christianity, presents a manual of understanding the Catholic faith that has influenced successive thinkers of all types from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange to Hans Urs von Balthasar to Pope Benedict XVI. Scheeben writes: “A truth that is easily discovered and quickly grasped can neither enchant nor hold. To enchant and hold us it must surprise us by its novelty, it must overpower us with its magnificence; its wealth and profundity must exhibit ever new splendors, ever deeper abysses to the exploring eye.” Pope Pius XI, in an address to the seminarians of the German College in Rome, described Scheeben as a “man of genius,” stating: "He was a model of theology, and a model of spirited defense of the Church, the Holy See and the Pope. Above all, he was a model of saintly Christian life.” (L’Osservatore Romano, March 11-12, 1935).

Bruce D. Marshall in First Things laments the state of dogmatic theology in the world today and writes:

Catholics in the last 50 years or so have almost completely ceased to do dogmatic theology. Save for a handful of admirable holdouts, we have practically given up the fruitful enterprise of a millennium: the believing mind’s effort to understand the Christian mysteries. The deep things of God, the mysteries of his own life opened up to us in Christ, we now think we need not, or fear we cannot, search out. Unless this development is reversed, the consequences of this unwelcome development for the Church and for Catholic life are likely to be grave. Whether dogmatic theology fares better in the Protestant world I will leave for others to say. For Catholics, Matthias Joseph Scheeben, more than any modern theologian, can show us how to get started again. 

For Scheeben, all is connected in life. His understanding of the great mysteries of the faith is vast and deep. All the doctrines of the Church make sense because they are all part of the whole system. Scheeben writes:

The light derived from the consideration of each separate mystery spreads automatically far and wide over the inner relationship and the wonderful harmony pervading them all, and thus the individual pictures take their places in an orderly gallery, which comprises everything magnificent and sublime that theology possesses far in excess of all the other sciences, including even philosophy. (The Mysteries of Christianity, St. Louis: B. Herder Books, 1946, 21.)

When reading Scheeben’s text, The Mysteries of Christianity, I was brought back to a moment that had occurred in my own life and studies. I was a third-year seminarian at the Pontifical Gregorian University and was sitting in a class, listening to the professor rattle on in Italian, when all of the sudden that “Eureka!” moment occurred. I understood that each of the moments in salvation history — from the creation to the world, to the fall of man, to the struggles of the Chosen People, to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to the coming of the Messiah in the Incarnation, to the Paschal Mystery of Christ to the Eschaton — all of them, every single one of them, was connected.

And then, all at once, like a flash of insight, I realized that all of the moral teachings of the Church on every single issue make logical sense, if we take seriously the fact that everything is created, freely and gratuitously by God out his love; that the human being was created in God’s image and likeness, and, despite the very real effects of the fall, in original and actual sin, we never lose that fundamental goodness and dignity; that we cannot save ourselves and that we need a Redeemer, one like us in all things but sin and that man is Christ; that the Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, and she continues in the world, especially in and through the Sacraments, as his presence in the world and that, in order to truly be a member of his Mystical Body, I need to conform my life and will to his teachings, which come to us in the fonts of Divine Revelation (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition) and are clarified in the Church’s Magisterium.

It may sound like this simple act of recognizing the importance of theology to my prayer and life and the unity of the Church’s teachings came rather late in my seminary formation, but I am grateful it did. Theology was not simply a rote subject to pass in order to be ordained a priest, but an invitation to explore a whole new world of meaning. (Please note that I do not claim to grasp the meanings of the mysteries of the faith completely or to be able to completely discern all of the wonderful interconnectedness of them. I pray that, please God, if I make it to the Beatific Vision, I will understand more.)

I get this same feeling when I read the works of Scheeben. He described dogmatic theology as “speculative theology,” seeing it as a theology that looks deeply into the truths of the faith. His theology is one of solid, clear rationality combined with what Marshall describes as a “God-intoxication,” searching always for the harmony, the interconnectedness of all this thought, none of which is random. Scheeben’s work on Mariology (the historical, spiritual, and systematic study of the Blessed Mother), Christ’s Beatific Vision, and the reality of God’s grace, all done with such academic precision in the midst of a prayerful life, prove a basic truth: holiness of life must precede good, orthodox theology.