Monday, January 25, 2010

Thomism and Freedom in Theology

The following is from the manual Sacrae theologiae summa, by M. Nicolau, S.J. and I. Salaverri, S.J. (BAC, 1962), 4-5:

Porro in quaestionibus, quae inter catholicos bonae notae Theologos libere controvertuntur, omni cura sectari conati sumus aureum illud Pii XI criterium, quo edixit: "Inter amatores Sti. Thomae . . . honestam illam quidem cupimus iusta in libertate aemulationem, unde studia progrediuntur, intercedere, at obtrectationem nullam, quae nec veritati suffragatur et unice ad dissolvenda valet vincula caritatis. Sanctum igitur unicuique eorum esto, quod in Codice Iuris Canonici praecipitur . . . At ne quid eo amplius alii ab aliis exigant, quam quod ab omnibus exigit omnium Magistra et mater Ecclesia: neque enim in iis rebus, de quibus in scholis catholicis inter melioris notae auctores in contrarias partes disputari solet, quisquam prohibendus est eam sequi sententiam, quae sibi verisimilior videatur". Quae sane paterna monita hortationesque, ad proficuam nempe aemulationem, conciliatricem moderationem et ligitimam in studiis libertatem, eo libentius adimplenda curavimus, quod sua etiam fecerit Pius XII atque ipsis sacrorum alumnis servanda commendaverit.

"And then as for those questions which are freely disputed among Catholic theologians of good repute, we have tried with all diligence to follow that golden criterion of Pius XI, where he said "Among the lovers of St Thomas . . . we desire that honest emulation in proper liberty, whereby studies progress, to intervene, but with none of that disparagement which does not help the truth and is good only for dissolving the bonds of charity. . . . for neither, in those things about which the authors of better reputation are accustomed to dispute on opposite sides in the Catholic schools, should anyone be prohibited from following the opinion which seems more true to him". And we have the more willingly taken care to fulfill this sane, paternal admonition and exhortation, very suitable for emulation, conciliating moderation and liberty in studies, because Pius XII has made it his own and has commended it to be kept by the pupils of sacred things."

It should not be forgotten, then, that even as the Church has commended "the principles and doctrine" of St Thomas to be taught in seminaries and held by theologians, She has also defended the legitimacy of scholastic opinions other than those insisted on by Thomism. Even good Thomists should recognize this! Thomas is a sure guide for avoiding heterodoxy and defeating Modernism; let this be fully granted without reservation. Does this mean that we as good Catholic Scotists are not to argue that the formal distinction allows for a more rigorous and coherent articulation of Trinitarian doctrine, or cannot in good conscience suggest that St Bonaventure and Bl Scotus might be better adapted to reconciling the Latin and the Greek traditions than St Thomas? Not, I think, if we are allowed to insist that they are Catholic theologians of good repute, and that in certain (compared to the moderns, very minor) points are on opposite sides in the Catholic schools from St Thomas. Being a Scotist, and disagreeing with Thomas on certain points on universals or individuation or existence as an extrinsic principle, does not make one a nominalist or a modernist! In fact I'm not sure it even makes one a non-Thomist, taking Thomism to mean the exemplar of the scholastic doctrine which the Church prescribes as normative.

Most important to recognize, I think, is that in the matter of theological doctrine Scotism and Thomism are essentially identical, and that this is what the Church prescribes. The differences largely lie in the philosophical (and especially metaphysical) categories and structures in which the theological doctrine is expressed and explained; but as far as this is concerned the Church appears to leave us in perfect freedom, within a general scholastic framework. It's another matter entirely to jettison all scholastic terminology and methods, as modern theologians have done. Another way to express this: the theological disagreements between Thomism, Bonaventureansim, Scotism etc., are only even possible and intelligible because of the vast shared body of doctrine and similarity of method between them. How would a modern Liberation Theologian or someone raised on Heidegger adjudicate between them when he may not share any of their common premises?


Brandon said...

I think one can go even farther and say that the health of philosophy under the guidance of theology depends crucially on cultivating these sorts of disagreements, each reasoning out the disagreement to the best of their ability, because it is through such disagreement, properly guided by Church doctrine, that philosophy becomes better suited to theology. That is how Thomism and Scotism themselves developed so as to become as excellently conformed as they are, and there is still infinite room for further refinement along both lines, because the Christian mysteries are precisely mysteries, and therefore inexhaustible.

X-Cathedra said...

But if St. Thomas and Bl. John are so close, how are we going to uphold all of the intellectual and cultural narratives in which Aquinas is the hero and Scotus the single greatest enemy of all that is right in the world? We need a villain, don't we!?!?!?


Pax Christi,

Michael Sullivan said...


that's what Ockham is for!

Michael Sullivan said...


I just followed your profile to your blog and read your post "8 rules for grand narratives", so I see you agree with me!