Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Radical Orthodoxy

by Stratford Caldecott


Stratford Caldecott interviews Catherine Pickstock, an Anglican who co-founded the organization Radical Orthodoxy, concerning her views on liturgy and language in her book, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, which has drawn attention from many Catholics.

Publisher & Date

Original, 2001

The intellectual movement calling itself “Radical Orthodoxy” started among a group of Cambridge theologians – all Anglicans – gathered around John Milbank, but soon stirred interest, and considerable support, among Roman Catholics (as represented, for example, by the range of contributors to the 1998 anthology Radical Orthodoxy from Routledge, and the respectful attention accorded to it by both New Blackfriars and Communio).

Catherine Pickstock’s brilliance in defence of transubstantiation and the medieval Roman rite of Mass in After Writing: On The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1998) as central to the development of Western thought won her many admirers. Liturgical language, she argued, “is the only language that really makes sense” — because “language exists primarily, and in the end only has meaning as, the praise of the divine.” The Classical Catholic liturgy of the West in her view represents the most perfect expression of this divine praise, and the reform of the Roman Rite after the Second Vatican Council was an act of barbarism, representing a capitulation to the worst aspects of the Enlightenment. On this basis she suggests “directions for the restoration of the liturgical order” that have profound implications for the “reform of the reform”. Along the way she demolishes a whole range of modern philosophers from Descartes to Derrida, and establishes a new “doxological” reading of Plato.

In some ways radically traditional, in other ways radically postmodern, “Radical Orthodoxy” appears at times to be too radical to be truly orthodox. It has been criticized for lacking an “ecclesiology”: for, indeed, avoiding the whole issue of the Church as the legitimate context for theology. The movement seems more comfortable with the much looser notion of “Tradition”. This can hardly be unconnected from the fact that the Virgin Mary - the living heart of the Church - is so far missing from this theology. Yet the movement is non-homogeneous, and nothing if not creative in response to the intellectual challenges that it delights in provoking on every side. Anyone trying to come to grips for themselves with what Radical Orthodoxy represents will be assisted by a book that recently emerged from a conference at Heythrop College in London under the editorship of Laurence Paul Hemming, Radical Orthodoxy? - A Catholic Enquiry (Ashgate, 2000). It includes essays by Hemming himself, David Burrell CSC, John Milbank, Fergus Kerr OP, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Oliver Davies, Lucy Gardner and James Hanvey SJ.

According to Graham Ward, R.O. is really a form of Christian cultural criticism, clearing away the rubbish of the Enlightenment. It feels itself in continuity with Habermas, but also with the Catholic ressourcement of Blondel, de Lubac and Balthasar, and it seeks to go further still, as Fergus Kerr points out, in the direction of a “fully Christianized ontology” — like a kind of latter-day Cambridge Platonism. Is it then an extension of the Romantic movement, since it seems so redolent of nostalgia for the pre-modern? Graham Ward denies the accusation that it is simply a “theological adjunct to the heritage industry”. What makes the difference, perhaps, is an awareness of the tension between the cultural politics of theology as an activity of theologians (continuously “writing and rewriting the stories of the true”), and the transcendence of the revealed truth itself, which is not — despite everything, despite consumerism — “available as a commodity”.

In his introduction, Hemming suggests that Radical Orthodoxy achieve its “orthodox” position “by an entirely postmodern performance and citation.” In other words, it has learned from postmodernism the importance of performance — the enactment of a style, amusingly ironic and (in the popular sense) “cool”. It is no longer naive, hopefully not cynical, but definitely self-conscious. That is, in the very act of condemning the necrophiliac superficiality of modern consumerism, it poses for the camera. (It is particularly self-conscious about its Christian socialist slant. As Graham Ward says in this book, “There is no ideology-free zone”.)

Is this self-consciousness a strength or a weakness? Theology is not about theology. If it is about anything, it is about God (though “God” is not an “object” for theology, but the Logos unfolding itself in theology). As Hemming also states, theology must “deepen reflection for the sake of the lived life of faith, which means it must serve the faithful who strive for a deeper self-understanding and greater holiness.” But this means that theology must do more than posture. “Christ is not a style.” In its best moments, Radical Orthodoxy knows this, and so it is fair to say (with James Hanvey SJ) that it is “an adventure that has barely begun.”


After Writing, Being Interviewed:
Stratford Caldecott interviews Catherine Pickstock

Catherine Pickstock, a young Anglican research fellow at Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge, recently shot to fame with her remarkable first book, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1998). Liturgical language, she argues, is “the only language that really makes sense” — because “language exists primarily, and in the end only has meaning as, the praise of the divine”. The classical Catholic liturgy of the West in her view represents the most perfect expression of this divine praise, and the reform of the Roman Rite after the Second Vatican Council was by comparison a disastrous capitulation to the worst aspects of the Enlightenment. On this basis she suggests “directions for the restoration of the liturgical order” that have profound implications for the “reform of the reform”. Along the way, she demolishes a whole range of philosophers from Descartes to Derrida, in order to establish her new (doxological) reading of Plato.

The book has attracted wide and sympathetic attention in Catholic circles. It is brilliant, original, erudite, and shot through with a surprising lyricism. Pickstock’s love of language is very evident. (One can’t help wondering if she writes poetry. Or maybe the book is one long, highly polished prose-poem in praise of the divine.) But for all its unique qualities, this book is not an isolated firework in the intellectual firmament. Pickstock speaks of a growing movement among a new generation of Anglican theologians that calls itself “Radical Orthodoxy”, rediscovering the transcendent and the sacred through a denial of the nihilism of the fashionable academic culture, which according to Pickstock leads straight to “necrophilia”.

After Writing is not an easy book, but it is clearly of interest not only to academics, and not only to Anglicans, but also to Roman Catholics who love the classical liturgy. It also makes the very important connection between the correct understanding of liturgy and the renewal of philosophy — and especially of metaphysics — called for by Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio, which may be the crowning encyclical of his pontificate.

Catherine, tell us something about your own background. I assume you were brought up as an Anglican. Did you grow up entirely in England?
I was born in New York City, but brought up in Islington and later Highbury, North London, and I went to school in Highgate. I have no brothers or sisters. My religious lineage is complicated; according to Jewish convention, I am entirely Jewish. But on my father's side, I am descended from Derbyshire Methodist Socialists and Trades Unionists. My paternal grandparents introduced me to liturgy in the Anglican tradition from a very early age, and they also showed me the way in which liturgy is part of everyday life, and not simply a pristine enactment reserved for Sundays and Feast Days. A theoretical interest in liturgy and ritual was first inspired in me by reading Paul Connerton's book, How Societies Remember (C.U.P.), and also by reading Plato at school.

I have to confess that I can’t read more than a few pages of your book at a time - not only because it is difficult but also because I find it too exciting: I keep getting breathless and have to stop. Did you find it exciting to write?
Writing my book was a mixture of exhilaration and sometimes desperation. But it was written under the auspices of a doctoral dissertation, which added to the desperation!

Have you been surprised at the many appreciative reactions it has inspired among Roman Catholic readers?
The RC response, I suppose, was not entirely surprising, but I must say that its extent has surprised and delighted me very much indeed, and I am deeply grateful.

You situate your book in the context of a movement called “Radical Orthodoxy”. In a recent article in The Tablet, Margaret Hebblethwaite mentions that you were the one who first came up with the name. Can you explain the origins of this movement and how you became involved with it?
I cannot remember who came up with the term "Radical Orthodoxy", but the movement was instituted by myself, my supervisor John Milbank, and Graham Ward, at that time Dean of Peterhouse.

Do you see any significant parallels between Radical Orthodoxy and the Tractarians of the last century?
The three of us are certainly heirs of both the Anglican High Church and Oxford Movement traditions, and we see Radical Orthodoxy as an attempt to reinvigorate Anglo-Catholic thought, although in alliance with many Roman Catholics. Many of the themes of our work are in continuity with earlier trends in Anglo-Catholic theology. Sacramentalism, for example, and incarnationalism, an interest in Platonism, an insistence that salvation consists in belonging to the Church conceived of as the true society, and a commitment to socialist politics.

Socialist? Do you mean you are against private property, or just against a globalized free market?
Socialists, with a few exceptions, have never been against all private property. Rather, they have been concerned to link ownership to entitlement in terms of responsible use for the public good, and they do not think that public interests should be entirely in private hands. So by “socialism” I mean something like opposition to economic exchange organized only for the maximization of production and profit. An envisaged socialist alternative would not be in terms of State control but of the reorganization of production and exchange on a cooperative basis, which might take many different forms. For me, socialism is only possible on the basis of some shared vision of the good.

Let’s get on to doxology, and to what I suppose is the heart of your work. Perhaps the most stunning claim in your book comes where you say that “the event of transubstantiation in the Eucharist is the condition of possibility for all human meaning” (xv). This would be a startling remark even for a Roman Catholic writer, let alone an Anglican, since although the Catholic Church strongly maintains the doctrine of the Real Presence, the word “transubstantiation” (and to some extent the philosophy behind it) has been marginalized in contemporary Catholic writing. Can we explore some of the aspects of this particular central claim of yours, before we look at related liturgical questions?
Obviously this is a very big question, and the only even remotely adequate answer is given already in the book and in a later article ("Aquinas and the Quest for the Eucharist", Modern Theology, April 1999). My argument is that in a fallen world, the secure reality of what appears is always potentially under a sceptical suspension. Paradoxically, the event of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine are seemingly reduced to accidents, is precisely the moment when we can be absolutely assured of the material truth of bread and wine, precisely because they entirely convey the reality of the divine body. Where we register that the material has become totally suffused by God, there alone we can be sure of material reality, and thus of the meaningfulness of our words which, as Aquinas asserted, always first of all denote the sensorily registered. But there is a lot more to be said on all this.

Your book starts with Plato, and is concerned pretty exclusively with Western Christendom. You see the Platonic philosophy as making sense only in the context of “doxology” or the praise of the gods. Philosophy needs religion in order to find its own completion or consummation - and so Platonic philosophy can eventually find its true home in the cosmic liturgy of the Catholic tradition. Actually this rather leaves out the Orthodox Church, which certainly has both doxology and the Real Presence (although it wouldn’t go along with transubstantiation). I’m not sure how Anglicans react to it. But to what extent does your remark about “human meaning” apply also to Jews, to Hindus, to Buddhists?
I freely admit that my investigation is limited, and would be improved by an examination of Orthodox liturgy. I’m not in a position to comment on whether there are equivalent experiences which secure meaning in other religious traditions. Sorry not to be of more use for this question.

As I understand it, you are saying that just as human beings can only be fulfilled in religious worship, because (as Henri de Lubac and Balthasar have argued) we have no merely “natural” destiny or purpose, so human thought is fulfilled in worship, and therefore must be somehow subordinated to the praise and revelation of God - that is, of Truth. If our thoughts are not directed towards God (which implies a whole spirituality of thinking) then they will serve some lower purpose, some lesser desire. Thought becomes a tool to manipulate the world instead of a light to illuminate the way things are. Am I on the right track?
Yes, you are. To stress that truth is doxological is to say that temporal things are only adequately known when they are received as gifts and offered back as praise of the divine. This contradicts the idea that truth is primarily a matter of mirroring inert objects.

How does this relate to the book’s title, After Writing? Does it imply that the spoken word is more important or more authentic than the written? And does that have something to do with the Incarnation?
I do not wish to assert that the spoken word is in any way more authentic than the written. On the contrary, I claim that liturgy exceeds the dichotomy, in various quite complicated ways. I think one should say that the Incarnation also exceeds this dichotomy. Briefly put, the Logos is only shown to us in a real and physcial body, but at the same time, in words which are both evanescent and yet iterable and persistent into later time.

One of the interesting themes in your book is mathesis (spatialization), or the modern attempt to subsume time into space. You see this as linked to a loss of the sense of eternity, which had previously kept the two in balance. It seems to be related to the predominance of the written over the spoken word, because the written word is the act of communciation frozen in space and displayed for the Cartesian “subject”, the modern “self”, to analyse and manipulate. Computers carry this process to its logical conclusion. Can you say more about the process and its cultural significance?
Your summary of my position is accurate. But it is important to stress that just as I do not demonize writing, nor do I demonize space. Pure spatialization in modernity is sometimes countered by a will for pure temporality or pure flux, although I argue that these are dialectically identical. Nor do I want to demonize computers; it is much more a question of how we deploy them. There is certainly a danger that we can misuse them, by deluding ourselves that knowledge reduces to data and emplotment. I might also add, as an aside, that I think email is potentially Thomist, as it compensates for the discreteness of things!

But spatialization leads to necrophilia, in your view?
Yes, because spatialization attempts to bring an end to death by embalming life and time, but of course a deathless and atemporal life is all the more deathly, hence, necrophilia.

Is it legitimate to compare your critique of necrophilia with John Paul II’s critique of the “culture of death”? Do you see the Pope as “radically orthodox”?
There may be some points of contact between my analysis of necrophilia and John Paul II's analysis of the culture of death, although I don't think they are exactly the same. I would share a suspicion of certain technoscientific tendencies instrumentally to subordinate some life for the interest of other life, for example; and I would agree that we need to regard all life as a gift, even if this realization does not automatically provide a clear resolution of complex moral dilemmas arising from new human capacities.

Let’s look finally at the question of liturgical reform. I didn’t want to bring it up before because I thought it was necessary to look at aspects of the cultural critique first. What happened in the 1960s and 70s can only really be understood in that context. Maybe we could concentrate on two things that the Vatican Council (and those, such as Bugnini, who took over the implementation process) tried to do with the liturgy. One of them was to simplify: the aim was “noble simplicity”. It meant trimming away all unnecessary repetition, clarifying the structure of the Mass, and so on. The other - related to this - was the aim of encouraging participation by the people: “active participation”. Can you comment on these?
I think that the trimming away of repetition was based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the very character of ritual in general, and of the theological reasons for repetition in the Mass in particular. However, I would support the aim of encouraging participation by the people, and I am quite prepared to say that even mediaeval practice was deficient in this respect. There is room for debate, however, as to whether Vatican II did not in certain respects augment the separation of laity and clergy by celebration facing the people and the practice of concelebration. The situation within Anglicanism is comparable, although some Anglo-Catholic parishes preserve celebration facing east in the context of a modernized liturgy. Even the latter sometimes seems highly compatible with a recovery of the apophatic dimension of liturgy and its mediaeval calendrical and other festical articulations.

Does all of this make you doubt the wisdom of the Council? Do you see this as a legitimate obstacle for many on the “road to Rome”? Should the Catholic Church as a whole remove all remaining restrictions on the Old Rite, in your view?
As an Anglican, I certainly have no belief in the infallibility of the Council, although I respect its authority in the sense that it represents a considered reflection on the part of a huge section of Christendom. I am by no means in support of the position of Archbishop Lefebvre, who is loyal to the traditions of the Counter-Reformation and politically very conservative.

Then would you say the new Mass is redeemable, given perhaps an improved vernacular translation and some “re-Catholicization” (as has been argued by Msgr Mannion)? And Fr Aidan Nichols has suggested that the Church should attempt a kind of compromise: a new and better version of the reform, maybe retaining the present Rite as an ordo simplex: adapting it for use in other cultures or ecumenical gatherings. What do you think of this?
I would not want to take a position as to what the RC Church should authorise regarding the Latin Rite, though I very much side with Msgr Mannion and Fr Nichols.

Our readers would be interested in your views about Latin, and the importance of retaining it in the liturgy. People say it would help maintain a sense of the sacred, or at least of universality.
I would agree that Latin bears a certain sense of the sacred peculiar to Western Christian tradition (not the sacred in general), because one cannot ever dissociate such a thing from particular linguistic forms. Therefore, it is a vital legacy, but at the same time, this sense of the sacred is not dependent upon the use of Latin at all times.

Your work seems to me to contribute to a better understanding of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and what might be wrong or misguided about that. On this basis it is possible to see almost for the first time what was so sad about the rationalization of the liturgy that took place after the Council. But there are other aspects of this, even in the strictly liturgical field, that we haven’t yet touched on. What about the role of women? Does your analysis help us to think about questions like the ordination of women, or the use of altar girls? I noticed that in the “Manifesto” of Radical Orthodoxy (presumably tongue in cheek), Thesis 22 states: “As to feminism: it is crucial that liturgical processions be led by women carrying flowers.”
I am in favour of womens’ ordination, and their full participation in every aspect of the liturgy.

Now that is one point where I disagree with you: on priesthood, that is, not participation. Participation in the sense of full, conscious, interior involvement is equally important for men and women, obviously. But I would have thought that your own arguments would have led you to agree with the Catholic Church's decision against the ordination of women. You are against the "evacuation of the body". So why evacuate gender? Why remove it from the symbolics of the Incarnation (and therefore the liturgy)?
First of all, it seems to me that the ordination of women is an open question in the Roman Catholic Church, unless one takes a view of hierarchical authority which I do not share. Allowing womens’ ordination does not remove gender from the symbolics of the Incarnation and the liturgy. On the contrary, one can think of the relation between Christ and his Bride, the Church, as echoing the relation between the Logos and the Spirit.

How do you mean?
Something along the lines, as indicated by Balthasar, of a sense that the Spirit is incarnate in the Church (at least eschatologically). This allows one to think of the male-female symbolism of Christ and the Church in a much more egalitarian fashion on a Trinitarian basis. It certainly implies also more equality within differentiated roles between the clergy and the laity, assuming that the clergy plays something of Christological role.

This might still suggest that women should not be ordained.
Yes, but the Priest as much represents the Church to God as God to the Church, and an over-Christological reading of the Priesthood is actually a modern deviation. In mediaeval times, it was often considered to be a Marian function with the Priest offering the Eucharistic elements as Mary bore Christ in her womb. And secondly, the Church as Bride is also the Body of Christ. This suggests that the female bride can also represent Christ as much as any male. Therefore, I want to argue for female ordination without suppressing the mystery of sexual difference; for me, however, this is not a hierarchical difference, and I believe that Christianity has always been moving towards this realization.

You don’t see such a conclusion as “untraditional”?
Arguments as to the essential symbolic character of a male priesthood are actually modern and novel, so there is no question of either side in this debate having a prior claim to the authentic tradition. We cannot escape thinking this issue through for ourselves.

Finally (almost), may I ask what you think of the contemporary liturgical debate in general, especially in the Catholic Church? Is it healthy, necessary, overdue? Is it leading in any particular direction, or just going around in circles? Do you get the impression that Rome is listening: that perhaps some grand new policy is in the making? Will we need a new Ecumenical Council to address these questions?
I am not well informed about the internal deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church. It would be good if questions of future liturgical practice could be approached on an ecumenical basis.

Where does Radical Orthodoxy go next?
Its current projects include several forthcoming books, for example, on the theme of theology and economics, truth in Aquinas, the metaphysics of participation, and a critique of globalization.

And what about you? Can we look forward to another book in the near future?
I am currently completing a book on Plato (A Short Guide to Plato) and co-writing a book with John Milbank, as I mentioned, entitled Truth in Aquinas (Routledge). My longer-term project concerns the metaphysics of participation in relation to doxology.

Thank you for spending time answering these questions. Personally, I think that the controversies that the book generates will have a healthy effect on debate in Roman Catholic circles for some time to come. As you say, we need to think these things through, and your work is a real stimulus to that.

Stratford Caldecott directs the Oxford office of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture, and edits its journal Second Spring (along with the associated web site, He is also on the editorial boards of The Chesterton Review and the American edition of Communio. The author of Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (DLT) and Catholic Social Teaching: A Way In (CTS), he has also edited books on the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson and on the liturgical reform movement in the Catholic Church.

Date of original interview: 2001. An earlier and slightly inaccurate version of the interview appeared in Inside the Vatican magazine that year.

For further reading on Radical Orthodoxy see: The Radical Orthodoxy Project

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