A mediaevalist trying to be a philosopher and a philosopher trying to be a mediaevalist write about theology, philosophy, scholarship, books, the middle ages, and especially the life, times, and thought of the Doctor Subtilis, the Blessed John Duns Scotus.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Thomistic Meditations; Or, A Scotist Looks at Vatican II
This post will be of interest only to our catholic readers. On today's "The catholic thing" blog, Ralph McInerny wrote the following, about the publication of some letters of Maritain:
"In the post-Conciliar years bumptious readers of the Council documents have declared that the hegemony of Thomas Aquinas is over, that Thomism no longer plays a favored role for the Catholic philosopher and theologian. Nothing in the documents supports this claim, nor do the repeated endorsements of the popes, but that scarcely matters to a certain kind of Catholic. Having lived through the decades of this condescension toward Thomas, it is refreshing to turn to the letters of two men for whom Thomas Aquinas was the major inspiration and whose work developed ever new lines of relevance between the Thomistic text and modern times."
"The Church’s centuries old and reiterated preference for Thomas Aquinas is sometimes looked upon as an untested hypothesis, a promissory note that might or might not be redeemable. That is why the concrete efforts of those who followed the Church’s advice and produced work of lasting interest is important. Here is variegated proof of the fruitfulness of turning to Thomas Aquinas as one’s principal guide in philosophy and theology."
This is of course old hat. Thomists have long claimed that Thomas Aquinas enjoys a pre-eminence, is a higher authority, than other catholic thinkers. This goes for theology and philosophy. There are a number of things I have never understood about these sorts of claims. For example, does this mean knowledge of Thomas is necessary for salvation? Or at least to hold opinions contrary to Aquinas is to fall into heresy, say, to maintain Scotistic univocity in the church of today? Does the Church have the authority to dictate philosophy? I have seen some Thomists from pre vat. 2 days claim that Thomistic philosophy and theology is binding on the faithful, save in those areas where the thomistic commentary tradition itself is divided as to the meaning of Thomas.
That Thomas has been recommended by many Popes is not at issue (though the claim that the Summa theologiae sat next to the Bible on the altar at the council of Trent is a thomist myth). But Duns Scotus has also been recommended by many popes, as has the "old" franciscan school comprised of those who follow Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, etc. Indeed, representatives of both franciscan schools were present at Trent and the Tridentine decrees were worded so that franciscan theologian opinions would not be excluded.
But when we look around at the recent history of the church it is clear that these claims by thomists were given an appearance of truth by the fact that everyone prior to vatican two were thomists or neo-thomists (excepting the very few genuine modernists and other groups such as the Novelle theologie). One would expect then that this critical mass of thomists was the result of some victory of the thomist school in the past, some famous disputation in which the Augustinians, Scotists, old franciscans, Albertists, and the Nominalists were all present and clearly refuted. But the historical record does not contain evidence of such a momentous event. What we have instead is the apparent collapse of scholasticism as a force in the universities sometime around the beginning of the 18th century. In the church, there were all sorts of doctrinal factions, much like there was in the 13th century, and much like today. But some were opposed to this, and began studying Aquinas on their own, often discouraged by the church hierarchy. Eventually this movement culminated in Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris which initiated the neo-thomistic revival. Make no mistake; though Leo generally mutters out of the side of his mouth "...and the other great scholastics" he gives pride of place to Aquinas. They ruled for a time, times, and half a time, until they were overthrown after Vatican II. Now I agree here with McInerny; there is nothing in the council documents to support the upset. But it seems true de facto. It was just plain dropped as part of the general heady revolutionary fever of the times that produced also the travesty of the new mass (NB: I am not a SSPXer, and fully admit the validity of the new mass and the church's authority to promulgate it). The origins of this revolution seem easy to explain; the thomist hegemony ruled the church with an iron hand, suppressing a great deal of discussion and persecuting those who did not agree with them. The revolution was a revolution not against the tradition of the church, nor even against "post-tridentine" catholicism, but against the neo-thomistic revival.
According to hearsay, the "Vatican" Commission charged with editing Scotus' opera omnia thought Leo XIII's endorsement of Thomas to be a huge mistake, and that Scotus should have been proposed instead. Indeed, I largely agree with them, and would add that in my opinion, Aeterni Patris was the biggest mistake in the modern history of the church; if, however, there had been a Scotist party in existence at the time (there certainly was critical scholarship on Scotus, but that is not the same thing), I doubt they would have behaved much differently (I assume, then, as I see myself as a loyal son of the Church, that Aeterni Patris was not a magisterial declaration, but a disciplinary directive). No, the problem as I see it was giving power to any one of these traditional viae (ie., thomism, scotism, albertism, nominalism), as much of their traditional behavior during the middle ages was the defense of their own via against all comers, which in the 14th and 15th centuries often took the form of legislating each other out of existence at various universities (ie, by university statue one would have to hold nominalist positions; Cologne was unique in that the viae all existed side by side at the same university) that were then coming into being.
To return to McInerny's statements and the larger questions they bring, if we grant them, does this mean all of Thomas is authoritative? Even the part where he denies the immaculate conception, advances the Aristotelian embryology, or holds to geo-centrism? Clearly not. So there must be some common doctrine embedded within the thought of the common doctor; could we go so far as to say this doctrine is common to all the scholastics? Is the common doctrine those points where there is unanimous agreement? But what then do we do with the church recommending both Scotus and Aquinas? Can we tolerate, at least on the level of church politics or theological dialogue, or whatever, a sort of relativism in which both their opinions and say, Rahner and von Balthasar's are permitted while still affirming that there is only one Truth? Or will we rather, as Scotus says in his question on the Filioque, remain lovers of our own opinions?
[NB: I am fully aware that everything I have been trained in and the critical editions and scholarship I read owe their being directly to Aeterni Patris. It was the Thomists that first returned to manuscripts.]