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.]


Scott Williams said...

Wow. The love of Aquinas in the Catholic world is analogous to the love of CS Lewis among various protestants, as for example in the new 'CS Lewis study bible': http://www.asbury.edu/press/lewisbible09 . There isn't a Thomas Aquinas study bible, is there?

Michael Sullivan said...


It's funny that you mention CS Lewis, since just this morning I was contemplating composing a scathing post against his "Letters to Malcolm", which I just read: perhaps his worst book. All his worst faults are on display, the Protestantism (as distinct from his "mere Christianity", in itself a figment), skepticism, Kantishness (it wouldn't be accurate to call him a Kantian since he doesn't have enough philosophy for that), Barfieldism, deference to what he very vaguely understands modern science to claim, etc. Every time he says "matter" I cringe. Anyway, the post will probably go unwritten.


Your most eloquent post in a while. I take the opportunity here to repeat what I've said before, that the preference for Thomas was not merely due to political or historical accidents, but was grounded in real qualities which Thomas has more of than do the other scholastics. Not truth or insight. But it's undeniable that the Thomistic corpus forms a more complete cursus in philosophy and theology than almost any other doctor, and that this "system" is far more systematic, i.e. easier to consult, than that of other doctors. The Summa is just easier to use than the Sentences Commentaries, and in avoiding repetition, multiplication of questions, and longeurs, it fulfills the objectives set out in its preface. Add to this the undeniable usefulness of the series of Aristotelian and other commentaries and the Contra Gentiles. Most importantly, Thomas is nearly always clear, concise, and simple compared with many others, especially Scotus. He's just easier to understand. This doesn't make him any more right, but it's easy to see why he would be preferred for seminaries. Can you see undergraduates trying to read the Ordinatio as an intro. to theology textbook? Of course not.

Sadly Thomas came to be exalted not simply for his pedagogical efficacy, but as the arbiter of all wisdom. Read because he's among the easiest of the scholastics, he was taken for generations as the deepest and most profound of thinkers, which is all very well if you're comparing him to Descartes and Hume, or even Aristotle. But then he became scholasticism incarnate, which is ridiculous. To mangle Chesterton a bit, Scotus was not read and found wanting; he was found difficult and left unread.

Brandon said...

Unfortunately Catholics are not such distinctive Bible readers that there's much of a (perceived) market for a Thomas Aquinas study bible. I sort of wish there were; then people who claim to read St. Thomas would actually read his scriptural commentaries.

I agree with most of what you write in the post, although I would add that one reason for the temporary Thomist dominance was an advantage that Thomas has over every other scholastic (with the possible exception of Bonaventure): the sort of accessibility represented in the Summa. If you were trying to read scholastic theology after the collapse, the beginning-textbook character of the Summa was hard to beat as a place to dive in. (A similar sort of advantage has been the reason that Damascene has historically been so much more pervasive in the West than most of the other Eastern Fathers.) There's a reason why the return of scholastic thought began with Thomas. But that, of course, is still a historical contingency; it doesn't reflect anything about the relative merits of the thought itself (and certainly not on the relative merits of the thought of the Subtle Doctor or St. Bonaventure or anyone else).

It's not actually uncommon at all for the Church to exercise its magisterium by deliberately avoiding making a decision and instead making both sides go to their separate corners until they recognize that the other side has something to contribute, regardless of what the Church tends to favor, or decides later. That's not surprising. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus are not sacred doctrine but teachers of it; and inexhaustible mysteries are inexhaustible, so there's always more to be said. But I think for scholastics it should be taken as a sort of admonition to catch up and do what they should have been doing all along. Time has moved on since any of the major scholastic doctors wrote; the collapse of scholasticism means that scholastics have had to catch up with addressing new issues and problems that did not exist before, or did not exist before in the precise form they currently have. There are new heresies that need to be fought, new philosophical ideas that need to be examined, and new interactions with the East (e.g., Palamism) and other religions (e.g., the philosophy of Mullah Sadra) that need to be explored, in exactly the same way Aquinas, Scotus, and others explored the ones they faced. It should be considered a call for Thomists who wish to be faithful to Thomas to be more like Thomas himself than like parrots on his shoulder, and ditto for Scotus and others. The Church doesn't need Thomism and Scotism; sacred doctrine is enough. It needs Thomases and Scotuses. And if scholasticism is to fulfill its promise, Scotists need to find a way to be faithful to Scotus that extends him, and Thomists need to find a way to be faithful to Aquinas that extends him, in the way that, for instance, both were faithful to their predecessors but extended them. It doesn't require relativism; it requires taking Aquinas more seriously than summae and Scotus more seriously than syllogisms, because what the Church has most commended in both is not their summae or syllogisms but the fact that these things came, as a sort of natural expression, from their love of Christ and His Church.

Brandon said...

Ha, I see Michael managed to slide in and make my entire second paragraph redundant. I was scooped!

Lee Faber said...

Michal and Brandon: I fully agree; I neglected this as I wrote in a hurry, suffering from the delusion I could whip something out in five minutes and start work on the dissertation.

Anonymous said...

Gentlemen: If I might put forward a request, would you kindly format the font for this post in the same used in previous posts?

For one, the preface is too tremendously large while the subsequent paragraphs are too tremendously small.

If you could have both in their regular format, consistent with the font used in previous posts, that would be greatly appreciated.

Glad to know though that you have returned to your regular posting.

Much obliged

Anonymous said...

Pax et Bonum,

How may I contact you?