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Theology and the Modern Man

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

The reason why faithful modern theologians are not just interesting reading companions but indispensable interlocutors, is that they are “modern.” This term creates unease precisely because we live in an era which has renounced the virtues of the past. This leads us to equate “modern” with “the evils of modernity.” But this does a disservice to the deeper truth about man and about theology. A more nuanced position needs to be considered. Joseph Ratzinger, as one such faithful “modern” theologian, is interested in speaking to “modern man.” Now, that term “modern man” needs to be defined and understood properly. Too often, when people read the Church’s writings in the latest council or in the documents of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they understand “modern man” as “the man of modernity.” And by “modernity” they have in mind the categories of secular liberalism, consumerist egotism, nihilistic atheism, transhumanist self-hatred, the destruction of gender disguised as a pseudo-divine autonomy over nature and our own bodies, and the self-determination of meaning stemming from a nature-denying existentialism à la Sartre and de Beauvoir.

No, what Ratzinger means when he says “modern man” is the man of history, the man of this particular historical moment. For Ratzinger this is a question concerning the relationship between history and ontology. Ontology without history becomes rationalism; it becomes an irrelevant theorizing which does not speak to us. History without ontology becomes relativism and cannot speak to us, period. It cannot ground us in any meaning since it is, by the very logic of relegating ontology to contingency, its nullification. What comes to the fore is that history mediates being. What does this mean?

The activity of memory is the precondition for the intellect's ability qua intellect to ascend to what is transtemporal (what is beyond “change”), and to therefore discover ontology. In other words, memory is the precondition for man's engagement with interlocutors, and, therefore, the precondition for apprehending both himself and the truth. This is what is meant by Tradition. For Tradition to have objective content it cannot be relegated to the merely historical: it must have a transtemporal dimension, which means it must be grounded in ontology. A few consequences follow from this: (1) Tradition is not merely the past, and (2) Tradition is not merely the future (at the expense of the past). Thus, Tradition is lived in the present only when it is engaged in conversation with the past, through memory, and the future, through duty.

A further observation follows: transtemporal does not mean ahistorical. The very etymology of the word “transtemporal” refers to “across” time, not “apart” from time. Thus, the excellence of the whole resides in its capacity to be taken up and made present by the parts, and the nobility of the parts resides in their ability to participate in and mediate the whole. This is what Ratzinger means by “modern man:” the man of this part, which uniquely mediates the whole hic et nunc in its objective content. Now, the distinctiveness of the part, in contrast to the whole, is precisely found in the fact that it is a part and not the whole; one particular part and not another. This is the logic of participation and mediation. Thus, “this time” is relevant in reaching the truth. Were we to seek to attain the truth apart from our historical circumstances, the truth would cease to be the truth. Indeed, it would be a denial of the objective content of the truth since by denying its applicability—in this current particularity—we would be denying its transtemporality, and therefore its integrity, its wholeness.

Thus, modern man is man hic et nunc. And man hic et nunc is not man tunc et illic. But both are nonetheless man because the contingency of history mediates the objectivity of ontology. And so, the modern theologian’s task it to understand how the contingency of his particularity can properly mediate the wholeness of truth for his contemporaries. Sensitivity to the particularity of man in his current setting is a prerequisite for the proper mediation of the truth to which he seeks to be in right relation. Man’s preoccupations, predilections, and socio-political circumstances ought to be spoken to, taken up, purified, engaged with, and taken seriously. This is why theology is always necessary and can never be relegated to stagnancy. This is a difficult task in every age, and one which always faces dangers; but it is not an optional task: it is necessary if genuine fidelity to truth is sought.

And so, in conclusion, the task of theology today is to speak to modern man. Not to speak in a secular and relativistic way to the man of secular modernity, but to speak in a dynamic and faithful way to the man that is my neighbor, my family member, my coworker. This is why theology is always a conversation; one which first and foremost takes place between God and man, and then God and neighbor through the catechist, the evangelist, the theologian. Here, theology is understood as a personal science, it weds piety and study, contemplation and activity. And thus, an interpersonal dynamism shines forth; one which begins in the Godhead, spills forth in scripture and sacrament, and reaches out to modern man in order to offer him the meaning which he yearns for.

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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