Saturday, August 25, 2007

Scotus, Trent and Penance

In a recent post, "e" raised objections to Scotus's orthodoxy based on the following passages in Cross's book on Duns Scotus. The view that Cross attributes to Scotus, that the sacrament of penance causes no real change in the sinner, "e" maintains to have been censured by the council of Trent. So in this entry I shall try to examine Cross's interpretation, Scotus's own position, and the possibility that it has been censured. I confess my prior claims as to no thesis of Scotus's thought ever being censured to be based on the authority of 19th and early 20th century scholarship. But if it does turn out that Trent went after a Scotistic position, then what? So he got something wrong. It may be due to an erroneous principle or erroneous conclusion, but either way, no one (hopefully) would claim that he got everything right or should be followed in all things. As Scotus himself once wrote, glossing Gregory the Great, "In the process of human generation, knowledge of the truth grows." Thomas Aquinas erred most embarassingly on the Immaculate conception, and he is today a saint and doctor of the Church.

Richard Cross, Duns Scotus, pp. 108-9:

"The gain and loss of this spiritual quality [grace] are real changes in a person."

"Scotus argues, first, that a change from injustice to justification can only occur if God brings about a real change in the sinner."

"...Scotus's understanding of sinfulness is wholly forensic; we are sinners just if God decides to hold us liable to punishment. Scotus's understanding of the remission of sins is likewise forensic. The remission of sins does not involve the removal of any quality or real relation in the sinner. It consists merely of a divine decision not to punish the sinner" [footnot referencing Ord. 4.16.2, nn. 6,9-12]. Thus, God's one will-act involves willing punishment for a person at t1 and non-punishment at t2, without any corresponding real change in the person at all. [footnote to ibid. 10-12]. This does not mean that God does not usually require that we perform acts of penance in the process of the remission of post-baptismal sin...This penance does not, however, cause a real change in the sinner; it is merely a requirement contingently made by God for the remission of post-baptismal sin."

To summarize Cross,

1. The gain and loss of grace are real changes.

2. Justification requires a real change in the sinner.

3. The remission of sins does not involve the loss of any real quality (and therefore does not entail a real change?)

4. Acts of penance undertaken in reparation for sin do not involve real changes.

As for Trent, the fear is that Scotus falls afoul of the following, Canon 9 of Trent’s 14th Session: “If anyone says that sacramental absolution by a priest is not a judicial act, but a mere ministry of pronouncing and declaring to the penitent that his sins are forgiven. . . let him be anathema.”

From #1 above we can see that this does not apply to Scotus. Grace, by means of a real change (though Trent does not use this scholastic terminology), are infused into the penitent who partakes of this sacrament.

From what I've been able to find on Scotus and Trent, it seems that there were some disagreements between various council fathers who espoused Scotistic doctrine; but these disputes were on the proper interpretation of Scotus. In particular was mentioned a dispute on what he had to say about the assurance of salvation, about which he made only a few remarks in passing. This did involve the sacrament of Penance, but only contrition vs. attrition.

What, then, does Scotus have to say?

Cross refers us to book IV of the Ordinatio, to d.16 q.2, "Whether the remission or expulsion of fault, and the infusion of grace, are simpliciter one change."

I haven't had much time lately to work on this, and will have less in the future so i'll post it anyway. I skimmed through the Scotus and it seems that Cross is accurate here. At least, Scotus does posit that the infusion of grace is a real change, while the accompanying remission of sins is distinguishable only by reason, ie., a distinction of reason. From the four arguments Scotus makes at the beginning of the question it seems as if this is due to his use of Aristotle. Grace is a form in the will. sin corrupts this form in a real change. In the sacrament of penance, grace is infused again, in a real change. As sin seems to be a privation of grace (this would bear further investigation; I didn't see this spelled out explictly by Scotus), it cannot be corrupted by a real change like grace can. Privations aren't forms in the category of quality.

That's it for now. As for Cross, he seems to have all the right pieces, but hides the bit about grace at the end of one paragraph, and then spends the next two pages emphasizing the remission of sin without a real change. The net result is to make Scotus sound like a proto-protestant if one has missed the bit about grace. It is somewhat distorted and I do not know why Cross put it that way. But he had a lot on his plate in that book and so perhaps can be forgiven. The question would bear more looking into, however, as this is a long question in Scotus, with even lengthier commentary by the 16th century scotist. Trent is mentioned left, right, and center. But, it does not seem to be relevant to the issue at hand, ie, did Trent censure this alleged protestant teaching of the subtle doctor. The answer is no. The Council wasn't looking to settle longstanding scholastic disputes.


Anonymous said...


I've been gone for a while, but now I am back and ready to party.

Though your post was clear and helpful, I am still left wondering what to make of the the distinction between the corruption of sin in a person (which cannot literally happen, since sin is only a privation) and the addition of grace to a soul. Perhaps it is because I don't fully understand what Scotus means by a "distinction of reason".

On a different note: Recently I talked with a man I know, a fellow canine of the Lord, who took a Scotus class with Cross in Oxford and discussed theology with him outside of the formal setting. From those occasions, he concluded a few things: 1) Cross is very familiar with certain medieval writers, Scotus among them 2) Cross does not believe most of what the medievals taught--especially regarding dogmas of the Catholic faith, 3) due to #2, Cross often misrepresents authors to make them sound like the agnostic quasi-Protestant he is. Incidentally, my canine friend says, there are few Scotists like Noone: most Catholics he has known who have studied the Subtle Doctor at great length ended up saying things like "well, I believe in the doctrine of Transsubstantiation, but Consubstantiation is more reasonable and credible," or live a voluntaristic-motivated morality. Sure, this is anecdotal, and these are damaging generalizations, but I thought it worth sharing.

Lee Faber said...

A distinction of reason is one that is mind-dependant, caused by the operation of the intellect. Not by the thing. A real distinction implies that one or both of the things so distinct can exist without the other in reality (though I think Scotus might qualify it in some cases, at least so far as the separability criterion is concerned; like the common opinion of the 13th century, he thinks the persons of the Trinity are really distinct...but perhaps that muddies the waters).

the corruption of sin can "literally" happen; privations aren't being but privations of it. in this case, privations of grace, a form inhering in the will (which is contra the common opinion of the 13th cen.).

In my current reading I have entered the section in ord. II on sin, and will report back.

as for your other comments, many dominicans are fat and the dominican table often seems to groan beneath the weight of butter (i'm thinking more of the central province here, i confess); should I assume that this reflects poorly on St. Dominic?

Pini once began an article with a reference to the 'now discredited doctrine of substantiation". big deal. This has nothing to do with Scotus, dominican prejudice to the contrary. Your quote about Consubstantiation is a genuine Scotistic position. However, the ultimate point of it is to show that God is not bound by a parsimony principle; so it is an affirmation of the freedom of God's will.

I have no idea what "voluntaristic-motivated morality" is supposed to be. Just because I think there are better metaphysical arguments for assigning priority of the will over the intellect doesn't mean I think its okay to sleep with every skank who crosses my path. Sokolowski in his book on the eucharist seems to use the term as synonymous with modern individualism, which is bad, and so scotus is bad, but none of you jokers ever bother to go and oh, actually read Scotus and find out what is meant by "voluntarism" in the franciscan school in general or Scotus in particular. If you were to do so, you would run smack into Scotus's notion of essentially-ordered causality taken over from AVicenna (i know, it's hard, and it automatically sounds wrong because thomas didn't say it so explicitly that even 700 years of thomistic commentators couldn't be confused), which, if anything does, merits to be at the "foundations" of Scotistic philosophy. If you were to look at how this relates to the will, why, you would find Scotus actually criticizing henry of ghent for being too voluntaristic in positing the intellect influencing the will only as a sine qua non cause. Instead, Scotus puts the intellect and will in an essentially ordered relationship with respect to the act of willing. The will simply needs the intellect; it's not an apprehensive power like the intellect. The examples Scotus gives of this kind of causality is the co-activity of human parents in human generation, among others (such a shockingly modern position for a man who destroyed philosophy), and NOT the co-causality of two people rowing a boat.

anyway, my blog is only useful if gets people to actually read some Scotus. I don't have the time to explain everything myself; come take my class if I ever get a job.

Lee Faber said...

The info on Cross was interesting; it confirms what I had heard from my boss who was in communication with him regarding the atmosphere at ND.

Anonymous said...


I think you might have misunderstood the intention of my comment about a "voluntaristic motivated morality", for two reasons. First, I intended to provide a context for the dog-lover's comments on Cross: he said something negative about Cross and other Scotus scholars--maybe his judgment is not entirely trustworthy. But I wanted to share his anecdotes in any case to see if it matches with anything you've heard about Cross. It seems that it does. Secondly, a voluntaristic-motivated morality can end up giving, whether rightly or wrongly, two principles by which people regulate their lives. On the one hand, they could begin to think that morality is not intrinsically tied to reason, but only accidentally due to God's will. That being the case, they could begin to think that any particular moral action ultimately isn't tied to reason, and thus may not be the best thing as far as our natures are concerned but only best because it has been declared to be so. On the other hand, people in this mind-set could also begin to lead a life based exclusively on law; not that law is bad, but that virtue is better, and virtue is tied to our nature as well as the supernatural gift of charity.

As for philosophic issues, I'll try to keep my mouth shut until I do more reading, because you're right--I shouldn't speak out of my ignorance.

Lee Faber said...

Neither of those consequences is necessarily related to Scotism and in any case is a huge over-simplification. There are exceptions to natural law (which i assume you're talking about here) ordered by God: Abraham ordered to kill Isaac, the prophet ordered to marry a prostitute, the Israelites commanded to annihilate whole tribes. Hearing aquinas say "well, God is the God of marriage so it's ok" just doesn't cut it for some people.

Anyway, I don't know what you mean by "voluntaristic motivated morality." Simply because I may think the divine will is metaphysically prior to the divine intellect, and that natural law or the sacramental system is so by potentia ordinata doesn't mean I'll be obssessed with law and ignore virtue. i really don't see the connection.

Strider said...

I would like to ask one of the Smithy bloggers to write a piece summarizing Scotus's view on the sacrament of Penance: What constitutes the sacrament? What is the role of contrition and its relationship to absolution? etc. I understand that Scotus's understanding was quite different from Aquinas's, but it's unclear to me what precisely that difference is. TIA.

Lee Faber said...

I've been meaning to for a while, but the realities of grad school life have prevented me so far. The soonest I can promise is over the summer, unless my fellow contributor wants to make an effort. Fellow contributor? I don't know of any recent scholarship to point you towards either; most of the articles I've seen are in german from the ninteteen-tweensd. There is some treatment of sacramental theology in Irene Rosier-catach's book "La parole efficace" but it's mainly on sacramental causality if i remember correctly.

Summa Theologiae said...

I'm not sure where the moral law or ten commandments say that you can't marry a prostitute. I'm assuming this refers to Hosea right? He took his wife back who had become a prostitute in a supreme act of forgiveness.

As for Abraham, one the issues in murder is the matter of authority. Because we are dealing with beings with immortal souls we have no right to take their life on our own accord. Killing and murder are not identical concepts (or else to kill an animal would be "murder"). Nor is capital punishment contrary to the commandment (for the state has the authority from God).

I'm reading John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor right now and he is very insistent that there are no exceptions to the natural law at all.