Chairman addresses the question of Thomism in Franciscan University’s philosophy department

by John F. Crosby

I had not planned to enter the debate over the place of Thomism in Catholic philosophy. I prefer to listen in and learn from it. But Edy Morel de la Prada leaves me no alternative, for he makes certain public criticisms of the department I chair. He says, in effect, that the philosophy department, since it does not feature Thomism as strictly as he would, has a deficient relation to the teaching Church. He further alleges that, as a result, our department somehow collaborates with the forces of dissent in the post-conciliar Church.

It would not be right to reject such serious criticisms without first carefully considering them. Various popes have expressed great esteem for St. Thomas both as philosopher and theologian, and those expressions of esteem, as indeed all papal utterances, should be carefully listened to. If the leadership in the philosophy department has failed to listen closely enough, it should be willing to recognize this lack and to make the needed changes.

But after carefully reflecting on what Mr. Morel de la Prada is saying to us, I must say I find his interpretation of the mind of the Church with respect to Thomism is a rigid, “wooden” interpretation that would hinder intellectual growth and development in the Church. A fuller, freer, more imaginative interpretation yields a very different picture of the papal recommendations of Thomism. I also find that he shows himself to be surprisingly misinformed about the department he is so eager to reform. I begin with this last point.

Mr. Morel de la Prada suggests that the non-Thomists in the philosophy department hold “that a freedom unhindered by tradition is necessary for one to make a contribution” in philosophy. I suppose I am among those he has in mind. But in my book, The Selfhood of Human Persons, I write in the Introduction: “I stand in the philosophia perennis, in the broad tradition of Western philosophy originating with Plato and Aristotle, and passing through St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Suarez.” And his characterization not only fails to fit me, it fails to fit most of my colleagues as well.

From Mr. Morel de la Prada’s articles you would never know that the Department of Philosophy passed this resolution, drafted by me, on April 22, 1991: “St. Thomas Aquinas occupies a privileged position within this philosophical patrimony [of the philosophia perennis]. The professors of philosophy recognize, and gladly recognize, the unique stature and prestige of Aquinas, not only as a theologian but also as a philosopher; they gladly concur in the tradition of calling him ‘the Common Doctor.’”

Nor would you be able to tell from his picture of the department that all of us who teach in it would—I am so sure of this that I do not even bother to poll my colleagues—readily agree with what Dr. Waldstein said in his letter to the Concourse about the surpassing wisdom of St. Thomas and the importance of letting him be one of our teachers in philosophy.

Nor does he know that I for my part never identify myself as “a phenomenologist.” I have too many in-tellectual debts to non-phenomenologists such as Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Newman.

Of course, I do not claim that if Mr. Morel de la Prada knew our department better than he does, he would find it sufficiently Thomistic to satisfy him. But he would find vastly more respect for and study of St. Thomas than he had supposed. He would find that his notion about the a-historical approach of most of the faculty does not correspond to what we really are. Above all, he would find that he was not sufficiently informed about us to challenge us publicly to change our ways.

I turn now to my other main difficulty with Mr. Morel de la Prada’s articles. I do not think that he knows how to interpret with balance and precision the papal recommendations of St. Thomas.

I begin by going back to John Henry Cardinal Newman, about whom Mr. Morel de la Prada and Mr. Gordon were debating. I base my remarks on my lifelong immersion in his works, and I say: anyone who dwells in Newman’s intellectual world knows that Newman is in no way indebted to Thomas for his first principles, which he instead derives mainly from the Greek fathers of the Church. In fact, Newman holds any number of philosophical positions that are hardly consistent with those of St. Thomas. The pious references to St. Thomas that Mr. Morel de la Prada cites in Newman can also be found in abundance in von Hildebrand’s Ethics. It is one thing to quote Thomas with respect; it is another thing to take over his first principles in one’s philosophy, and it is just this that is so conspicuously missing in Newman.

In the most thorough study that has been made of Newman the philosopher we read: “It is true that he [Newman] often consulted St. Thomas and other Scholastic theologians… He consulted them as authorities, to be assured that what he had reasoned out for himself was in accordance with the mind of theologians whom he knew to have the approval of the Church, but he never attempted to follow their method, nor their lines of thinking on any theological or philosophical questions” (Sillem, General Introduction to the Study of Newman’s Philosophy, 238, my italics).

Now why do I make so much of Newman’s independence from Thomistic philosophy? Certainly not because I think that he is a model for us in this respect. I do not myself try to follow him in his non-Thomism, nor would I in any way recommend this to my students. I make so much of it because for all his non-Thomism Newman entirely belongs to the Catholic intellectual tradition, and in fact occupies a unique position in it. He is perhaps the most seminal Catholic thinker since the Reformation. He is called the “hidden Council father” of Vatican II, being commonly credited with doing more than any other single theologian to prepare the ground in the Church for Vatican II. The saying of Erich Pryzwara, S.J., has gained great currency in the Church: what St. Augustine was for the Church in the patristic era, and what St. Thomas was for the Church in the medieval era, that Newman is for the Church in the modern era. When in 1991 John Paul II took the first step toward canonizing Newman, the official declaration of the Church read in part: “John Henry Newman’s theological thought is of such stature and profundity that he is judged by many learned men to rank alongside the greatest Fathers of the Church.” But he has this stature and profundity without being a Thomist. Both Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI said that they looked forward to the day when Newman would be declared a doctor of the Church. This means that they looked forward to him being made an official model for Catholic philosophers and theologians even though he was not a Thomist.

We ought to interpret the recommendation of Thomism in the light of those whom the Church proposes to us as models. If a non-Thomist enjoys enormous prestige as a Catholic thinker, and if the popes confirm this prestige, and if none of them ever complains about his not being a Thomist, or expresses any regret about it, then we can only conclude: the recommendation of Thomism does not mean that each and every Catholic philosopher is encouraged to be a Thomist. Nor does it mean that a Catholic philosopher not a Thomist must have a deficient relation to the teaching Church and must be an accomplice to the confusion that presently wracks the Church.

There is something else that the recommendation of Thomism does not mean. It does not mean that all the philosophical theses, or even the fundamental theses of St. Thomas are guaranteed by the Church to be true. A Catholic philosopher, while he should consult the teaching of St. Thomas with the greatest respect, is at liberty to think St. Thomas sometimes errs. It would seem in fact that he has to think this in certain cases, as when St. Thomas takes over Aristotle’s teaching that the human female is a “deformed male,” or when he takes over Aristotle’s account of embryonic development including the theory of “mediate animation,” which has been a source of embarrassment to contemporary Catholic philosophers trying to defend the personhood of the embryo from the moment of conception. Even with regard to St. Thomas’s philosophical first principles it is possible to have serious reservations. The great Italian Thomist, Cornelio Fabro, thought that the account of freedom in St. Thomas, so far as it was based on Aristotle, was in many ways problematic.

And then there is the problem of conflicts between St. Thomas and other sainted doctors of the Church. St. Thomas thought that it is impossible to demonstrate rationally the beginning of the world in time; St. Bonaventure disagreed sharply, saying, that it is altogether possible to demonstrate it and that he in fact succeeded in demonstrating it. St. Thomas and Blessed Duns Scotus had some fundamentally different ideas about human willing and its object.

Once one faces up to the fact that the philosophia perennis is not as unified as it may appear from a distance, that it in fact contains many disagreements, one sees how unreal it is to say with Mr. Morel de la Prada that this philosophy is “as indestructible as truth.” “Truth” does not contain disagreements within itself; it is only among fallible human beings that we find disagreements. It seems to me that one should never say of any human philosophy that it is “indestructible as truth.” Any philosophy developed by Christians, even if developed by thinkers of the stature of St. Augustine, St. Thomas or St. Bonaventure, always shows itself to be “treasure in earthen vessels.” That is, for all the treasures of truth and wisdom to be found in such philosophy, there is always also in it no lack of historical conditioning, unclarified concepts, missing distinctions, doubtful inferences, regrettable lapses, etc. One should not venerate any Christian philosophy, not even the Thomistic philosophy, in such a way as to overlook, or to repress, this inevitably earthen side of it. Otherwise, one ends up canonizing all the historical contingencies and deficiencies of that philosophy.

All the papal recommendations quite leave open the possibility that some future philosopher or school of thought will develop a philosophy, which, while preserving all the truth in Thomas, will go beyond him. In the 13th century St. Augustine was the pre-eminent Christian philosopher; along came St. Thomas, who took over this position of pre-eminence. Why should this surpassing not happen again? There are weighty reasons for thinking that at least in certain points of philosophy, including certain fundamental points, Christian philosophers have already gone decisively beyond St. Thomas. I do not only speak of correcting St. Thomas, but also of their working toward a more comprehensive view of reality. Think of the way in which Karol Wojtyla has objected to what he calls the excessively “cosmological” approach of the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy; think of the more “personalist” approach that he himself takes. (See his short essay, “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in Man.”) He is of the opinion that with his personalism he is retrieving an important dimension of the human person that remained altogether undeveloped in the tradition. It is true that he wants to preserve the truth in the old cosmological view of man; and yet his own view, once systematically developed, could become a unified philosophy more perfectly congenial to Christian revelation than the Thomistic.

Mr. Morel de la Prada should take care not to turn Thomistic philosophy into an obstacle to this growth of which Christian philosophy is capable. He should beware of casting aspersions on the labors of Catholic philosophers, whose work might one day share in the prestige St. Thomas today enjoys. Above all, he really must abstain from the insinuation that the work undertaken by non-Thomists must be born of a grudging spirit that refuses to accept wholeheartedly the magisterium of the Church.

This is not the first time I have seen Thomism used in a way that cramps and constrains the freedom Catholic philosophers need to do their work. It is now widely recognized that in the century before Vatican II a rigid “manualistic” Thomism had become established in many Catholic seminaries and universities, and that, under the impact of the Council, Catholic philosophy cracked and came apart, becoming engulfed in confusion, in part because authentic philosophy had for too long been replaced by a kind of “Thomistic ideology.” Looked at from this perspective it is the Thomists of the strict observance who may be contributing to the continuing crisis in the Church; they may be absolutizing St. Thomas in such a way as to pervert authentic philosophy into ideology, which then inexorably calls forth reactions that do the Church great harm.

The Church since the Council seems to be aware of the danger of prescribing Thomism too strictly; in any case, the old recommendation of St. Thomas as philosopher has been significantly weakened. Just compare the old with the new Code of Law with respect to the philosophical formation of seminarians. The old code says: “let the professors deal with the study of rational philosophy and theology…entirely according to the thought, content, and principles of the Angelic Doctor and let them hold these things as sacred” (Canon 1366.2). The new code does not so much as mention St. Thomas; instead the well-known expression of Vatican II, “the ever valid philosophical patrimony,” is used (in Canon 251) to describe the philosophical education of seminarians.

It is not to the point to insist on the special place St. Thomas occupied in this philosophical patrimony; I quite recognize it. But we cannot fail to recognize the fact that the Church since the Council has taken a more inclusive approach to Christian philosophy. This is also the approach we take in the philosophy department at Franciscan University.

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

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