The freedom of Catholic philosophers: Why we need not necessarily give primacy to St. Thomas

by Richard Gordon

“...every understanding of reality—which does in fact correspond to reality—has every right to be accepted by the ‘philosophy of being’ no matter who is to be credited with such progress in understanding or to what philosophical school that person belongs. Hence, these other trends in philosophy…can and indeed should be treated as natural allies of the philosophy of St. Thomas, and as partners worthy of attention and respect in the dialogue that is carried on in the presence of reality. This is needed if truth is to be more than partial or one-sided.”1

Pope John Paul II refers specifically to the phenomenological method as just such an “ally” and “partner” to the philosophy of St. Thomas: a partner worthy of respect in man’s dialogue with reality. And so the debate continues.1

Certainly the Church has on numerous occasions proposed for her faithful, the study of Thomistic philosophy and theology as a safe and sure method of proceeding with one’s inquiry into reality. The question is whether Thomas’ way is the only way for Catholic philosophy to proceed. Does the Church not give a certain freedom to her philosophers as they inquire more deeply into the nature of things? If so, the Philosophy Department at FUS may have every right to give particular attention to the fruitfulness of the phenomenological method for the development of Christian philosophy.

My article is, in part, a response to the piece by Edy Morel de la Prada, which appeared in the last issue of the Concourse. I know Mr. de la Prada as a friend and an intelligent student of St. Thomas, yet I must take issue with his “magisterial survey,” for two reasons: 1) because the method is inappropriate in the philosophical domain, and 2) because his particular selection is misleading with respect to what the Church has to say about philosophy.

As to the first: Catholics should heed the voice of the Magisterium whenever she speaks, but not everything contained in magisterial documents is to be held as a matter of religious obligation. Not every utterance of a pope means “case closed”: “Roma locuta est, causa finata est.” When she speaks outside the area of faith and morals, she demands to be listened to attentively, but she does not cut off further thinking; she does not suffocate inquiry; rather, she encourages the cooperation of our own minds in efforts toward a deeper penetration into truth. The Church exults in the freedom of her children, who with a spirit of fidelity and obedience seek the truth in their respective disciplines, and hold fast to it with firmness and conviction. A Catholic philosopher need not scour the documents in order to learn what he should think; rather, the Church, respecting the integrity of his discipline, urges him to “interrogate” reality as he finds it.

If we want to know what Christian philosophy is, we should look, not only to papal pronouncements, but to Christian thinkers, who embody its principles. And if we do this, we will quickly find that the Church in no way requires her philosophers to be Thomists. Consider the example of John Henry Newman, who was not trained in Thomism, whose profound thought is in no way Thomistic, who even after becoming a Catholic felt no real need to study Thomas, and yet who is almost universally acknowledged to be among the greatest minds the Church has ever produced. Or consider Blessed Edith Stein, who was among the first Phenomenological Realists. After her conversion—perhaps with a false sense of religious obligation—she attempted to become more Thomistic, but after much struggle found she simply could not agree with various elements of the Thomistic schema (e.g. the notion that matter is the principle of individuation.) There can be no doubt that these two individuals, despite a lack of Thomistic influence in their thought, are Catholic philosophers of the highest order.

Further, to illustrate the unhelpful-ness of Mr. de la Prada’s “survey” method, we need only apply it to other issues addressed by various pontiffs. I can make a similar “magisterial survey,” for instance, regarding the question of religious liberty. Numerous pre-Vatican II popes addressed the question in encyclicals and elsewhere. In almost every instance they explicitly and forcefully oppose the notion that doctrines contrary to Catholic teaching have a right to exist and to be spread on the basis of a so called “liberty of conscience.” Gregory XVI calls this “indifferentism,” “insanity” and “the most contagious of errors.”2 Among the propositions condemned by Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors was the following: “that every man is free to embrace that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.”3 Leo XIII, St. Pius X and virtually every pope until the council follow suit in their unambiguous condemnations of such an understanding of religious freedom.

How are we to make sense of the apparent contradiction, then, when Vatican II declares that “Religious communities have the further right not to be prevented from publicly teaching and bearing witness to their beliefs by the spoken or written word…to deny man the free exercise of religion…is to do an injustice to the human person and to the very order established by God for men.”?4 If we had to rely on a “magisterial survey” to know the Church’s position on this matter, we would have to confess ourselves perplexed. Are the crafters of this document (one of whom was Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow—now Pope John Paul II) to be considered liberal innovators without respect for the constant teaching of popes and the Magisterium? Plainly the Church gives a certain degree of freedom to her philosophers and theologians, who act with living fidelity to the teaching authority of the Church and who wish to serve her by helping her come to a more profound awareness of truth in all areas—even in areas where she may have already spoken.

As to the content of Mr. de la Prada’s survey. In one place, he identifies the philosophia perennis with “the method, doctrine and principles of the Angelic Doctor.” He is astute in his citations on this point—referring back to Humani Generis, which itself refers back to the Code of Canon Law of 1917. There the language is as explicit as Mr. de la Prada says. In the new Code of Canon Law, however, it is significant that explicit mention is no longer made exclusively to the philosophy of Aquinas. Canon 251, concerning priestly formation, simply refers to “the heritage of philosophy which is perennially valid,” suggesting a broader understanding of the philosophia perennis than a strict equation with Thomism. There can be no question that the philosophy of St. Thomas forms “a notable part”5 of the perennial philosophical heritage, but a part is not the whole, as we might be led to believe by reading Mr. de la Prada’s article. Nor is the philosophia perennis a thing limited to our study of the past. I would maintain that there are certain principles which when followed even today constitute, in our own time, a new and fruitful stage of the philosophia perennis. Phenomenological Realism, I believe, constitutes a “notable part” of this new and fruitful stage.

What is it about the philosophy of St. Thomas that warrants the praise it has so often received? As Mr. de la Prada points out, John Paul II says its greatness “is to be found in its realism and objectivity: it is a philosophy of what is, not of what appears.”6 As such it is wonderfully apt to be the handmaid of faith. Again following John Paul, Mr. de la Prada points to Thomas’s “openness” and “universalism” as reasons for recommending his thought. All of this is undeniably true of St. Thomas and his philosophy. However, one can object that realism and objectivity, the grounding of an objective moral order, an openness to and a constant pursuit of truth are attributes which are not exclusive to Thomism and which can equally well be applied to the phenomenological method. These, I believe, are the basic principles recognized by the philosophia perennis; principles which validate any contemporary and any future philosophical pursuit that seeks to live in accordance with so noble and rich a philosophical heritage. In this broader sense, then, we would all rightly be called Thomists, as would the entire faculty of philosophy at Franciscan University.

Note, too, that the Church documents which most aggressively called for a return to Thomistic and Scholastic philosophy were principally concerned with dispelling certain trends in modern thought which notably lacked a realistic and objective approach and as such threatened to undermine certain doctrines of the Faith (e.g. skepticism, empiricism and materialism.) When the documents are attentively studied one must conclude that the Church has never imposed the system of St. Thomas or any of his theories upon the faithful. Leo XIII expressly recognizes the freedom of the Catholic philosopher when in Aeterni Patris he writes: “We ordain that any wise doctrine or useful discovery or reflection, no matter who be its author, is to be freely and gratefully accepted… And if anything is treated by Scholastic doctors with excessive subtilty or taught with too little reflection, if anything is inconsistent with discoveries of a later age or is in some way improbable, it is by no means to be proposed for acceptance in our times.”7

Two interesting situations pertaining to religious orders serve to further illustrate the freedom which Catholics are permitted to be other-than-Thomistic in their philosophizing. Mr. de la Prada mentioned the “24 Theses” formulated in 1914 which contain the major propositions and principles of the Angelic Doctor. One of the theses puts forth the real distinction between essence and existence in created things. The then Superior General of the Jesuit order wrote to Pope Benedict XV asking whether this thesis could be discussed freely by the Society and “whether all twenty-four philosophic theses ..must be imposed in Catholic schools as theses to be held.” The Congregation responded by saying that these theses were not “imposed” but “proposed,” not as “theses to be held” but rather as “safe directive norms.” The wording signifies that the Congregation is not judging on the plane of philosophical truth. It maintains that in adhering to the 24 theses, one takes a safe road which will not conflict with the dogmatic teachings of the Church, but it does not impose upon the faithful assent to the truth of the theses.

Something still more pertinent to our work at Franciscan University is found in the General Constitutions of the Friars Minor, which were approved by the Congregation of Religious on August 22, 1921. Rule 277 states: “In philosophical and theological doctrines let them strive to follow the Franciscan School wholeheartedly; let them respect other Scholastics, especially the Angelic Doctor.” Mr. de la Prada concludes his paper by calling upon FUS not to fear in giving St. Thomas the primacy the Church gives him. Rule 277 of these statutes, however, clearly gives primacy to the Franciscan tradition in philosophy and only secondarily to the teachings of the Angelic Doctor. Mr. de la Prada’s recommendation would seem to put some Franciscans in the awkward position of having to obey either the voice of the Magisterium or the statutes of their order, but certainly not both.

The Church clearly allows certain schools and faculties of philosophy to proceed without having to give pride of place to St. Thomas. Rather, the place of primacy was reserved for other notable parts, in this case the Franciscan part, of the philosophia perennis.

This brings me to another point, important to mention. Mr. de la Prada makes reference to the fact that the crisis we are experiencing within the Church today is due to failure to keep pre-eminent what the Church has declared pre-eminent. I agree with him if he means that much of the crisis is caused by a failure on the part of many Catholics to trust and obey the teaching authority of the Magisterium. But I am shocked and dismayed that he would count the failure of a philosopher or a school of philosophy to give primacy to St. Thomas as just such an act of infidelity which contributes to the aforementioned crisis! This seems to me a failure on the part of Mr. de la Prada to make the crucial distinction between areas which are morally binding on the consciences of believers and areas within which the Church allows a certain freedom. Catholic philosophers are free not to be Thomists without having to endure censure for being a contributing cause to the moral crisis in the Church.

More contemporary documents continue to place in high esteem the teachings and method of Thomas, but gofurther than the old in safeguarding the legitimate freedom of her philosophers and theologians. In Gravissimum Educationis, regarding universities, we read: “the Church endeavors systematically to ensure that the treatment of the individual disciplines is consonant with their own principles, their own methods, and with a true liberty of scientific enquiry.”8

Let me conclude with a plea for a permanent end to the unfounded charges that Catholic phenomenologists are, as such, disloyal to their Faith or to the intellectual traditions of the Church. The authentic Catholicity of the Philosophy Department at FUS ought never to be measured by a “counting of heads.” (I have heard on more than one occasion such statements as: “Only 40% of the undergraduate faculty and 33% of the graduate faculty are Thomists, therefore, St. Thomas clearly does not have the primacy the Church intends for him.”)

Catholic philosophers live out their vocation most truly when they philosophize in the same spirit and according to the same principles by which St. Thomas philosophized, that is, by investigating “things in themselves” with an openness to all truth, no matter what or who its source. If the Church had restricted Thomas by the weight of a magisterial survey—unduly limiting his freedom to analyze and speculate, he would never have become the “heavenly patron of Catholic schools.” The same is true today. Let us seek the truth wherever it can be found, without prejudice toward the person who speaks it, holding fast with an ultimate and unfailing allegiance to that which is true. It is this, and nothing else, that ultimately characterizes Catholic and Christian philosophy.

Richard Gordon is a student in the MA Philosophy program and Contributing Editor of the Concourse.

  1. Pope John Paul II - ‘The perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas for the Youth of our Times’ Nov. 17, 1979 ↑
  2. Pope Gregory XVI - encyclical Mirari vos (1832) ↑
  3. Pope Pius IX - Syllabus of Errors #15 ↑
  4. Vatican II - Dignitatis Humanae #‘s 3 and 4 ↑
  5. Pope John Paul II - ‘The perennial philosophy of St. Thomas for the Youth of our Times’ ↑
  6. Pope John Paul II - ‘The perennial philosophy of St. Thomas for the Youth of our Times’ ↑
  7. Leo XIII - Aeterni Patris ↑
  8. Vatican II - Gravissimum Educationis #1 ↑

issue cover

Related articles:

Same issue

Same topic: st. thomas & catholic philosophy

I,1 To Systematize or not to Systematize: Philosophy at a Catholic University, Rebecca Bratten I,2 Why the Church gives St. Thomas primacy of place in Catholic education, Edy Morel de la Prada I,4 St. Thomas and freedom: a reply to Richard Gordon, Edy Morel de la Prada I,4 St. Thomas and Catholic connaturality, Michael Waldstein I,5 Thomism and intellectual freedom, Kathleen van Schaijik I,6 Chairman addresses the question of Thomism in Franciscan University’s philosophy department, John F. Crosby I,6 Thomism, Courtney Scharfe I,7 A respectful reply to Dr. Crosby, Edy Morel de la Prada I,7 Finding common ground between Thomists and non-Thomists in Catholic philosophy, John F. Crosby II,3 On dwarfs, giants and little boys, Jules van Schaijik II,4 Why the little boy is more apt than the dwarf, Richard W. Cross II,5 Thomas not just a doctor, but a saint, Jim Fox

Same author