Finding common ground between Thomists and non-Thomists in Catholic philosophy

by John F. Crosby

‘Come, let us reason together.’ Surely there is more common ground between me and Mr. Morel de la Prada than appears so far in our exchange. Let us look for it.

Perhaps we can find it if I speak as concretely as possible. I am convinced, for reasons I cannot develop here, that certain distinctions about “good” made for the first time by Dietrich von Hildebrand enable the Christian philosopher to explain deliberate wrongdoing better than one can explain it on Thomistic principles. Thomas affirms, of course, the fact of deliberate wrongdoing, but I find certain deficiencies in his way of explaining how such wrongdoing is possible at all; at this level of explanation von Hildebrand has, I think, made a breakthrough by means of which Christian philosophers can raise their understanding of deliberate evil to a higher level. This is not the only respect in which it seems to me necessary to go beyond St. Thomas; it is a concrete example offered for the sake of focussing the discussion.

If I present this contribution of von Hildebrand in my teaching and writing, will Mr. Morel de la Prada warn me ominously that the Church has not yet approved it, that the Church directives speak only of Thomas and not of von Hildebrand, and that all real sons of the Church should prefer what the Church prefers? His articles lead me to think that this is just the vein in which he would advise me. But I ask him to reconsider.

How can there possibly be any lack of filial relation to the Church in following one’s own best philosophical judgment beyond St. Thomas in this way? What could possibly be the mischief of trying to establish St. Thomas’ own conclusions on a firmer basis than he himself did? How could it be wrong to develop today an idea that might one day receive some official recognition from the Church? Is it not by means of just such a critical testing of St. Thomas and others that Christian philosophy grows, develops, deepens? Can it grow, develop, deepen in any other way? Would St. Thomas himself, were he still alive, want me to repress any insight that leads beyond him? Perhaps Mr. Morel de la Prada and I could at least agree on this limitation of the papal recommendations of Thomism: they cannot possibly mean that I should deny my own mind in a matter like this question of deliberate wrongdoing and that I should make myself feel guilty for deviating in this way from a point in St. Thomas.

Aristotle expressed something profound when, before venturing to criticize his revered master, Plato, he said: Plato is dear, but truth is dearer. There is a sense in which the Christian has to say the same thing of every human teacher, St. Thomas included. St. Thomas would no doubt be the very first to admonish his followers like this: if you say that Thomas is dear, never forget that truth is dearer. The papal recommendations, which establish a certain primacy of St. Thomas, cannot revoke the much greater primacy of truth itself. Here, surely, Mr. Morel de la Prada and I will agree.

There is another point to which I would hope our agreement would extend. I take it for granted that there is no philosophy without self-criticism, without testing arguments and seeing where they lead, without pressing all plausible objections, without struggling to understand reality ever more deeply. And then I say: if all such critical examination becomes impious when directed to St. Thomas—if the papal recommendations mean that you call a teaching of St. Thomas into question at your peril—if I have to withdraw my critical questions about his teaching on deliberate wrongdoing—then Thomism ceases to be authentic philosophy. It becomes an extension of Catholic doctrine. Thomism will not be taken seriously by philosophers, who will doubt whether the Church leaves Catholics enough breathing room to practice genuine philosophy. St. Thomas was a real philosopher, and was glad to be treated as one by others; but those followers of him who invest his philosophy with massive authority run the risk of putting themselves out of commission as philosophers. They resemble David in Saul’s armor—encumbered by that which was meant to help them.

Remember that St. Thomas himself affirmed, far more clearly than most of his predecessors, a certain limited autonomy of philosophy; he is the last one who would want his authority invoked in such a way as to destroy this autonomy of philosophy. In this respect the Church has indeed made his teaching her own; she has no desire to interfere with the integrity of philosophy. It follows that any reading of the papal recommendations of Thomism that has the effect of compromising the integrity of philosophy must be a wrong reading.

This is why I would say that if I engage Thomas respectfully but truly philosophically, then, however often I may disagree with him, I am more of a Thomistic philosopher than the one who holds fast to every Thomistic opinion but does not know how to hold it in a properly philosophical way.

I hope that Mr. Morel de la Prada can agree with this, too. But suppose he does not. Suppose that he thinks that I exaggerate the freedom of philosophy, or dare to improve on Aquinas when I ought not. The question then becomes: can he not at least recognize my relation to Thomism, and my reading of the papal recommendations of it, as a legitimate Catholic position—as a position not indeed his own, but one that a Catholic philosopher can reasonably and responsibly take?

I am reminded of the debates that Newman had with the English Ultramontanes of his day. They went much farther than he did on the question of papal infallibility. Newman thought that this theological difference between himself and them was fairly minor, being just the kind of difference that is bound to exist at all times in the Church. But the Ultramontanes refused to be so conciliatory; they questioned the Catholic faith of those who did not go the full distance with them on papal infallibility. This provoked a severe rebuke from Newman, an example of which is a famous letter written to Ward: “I protest then again, not against your tenets, but against what I must call your schismatical spirit.”

So the question is, does Mr. Morel de la Prada think that his own reading of the recommendations of Thomism completely coincides with the mind of the Church, so that any other reading of it is foreign to the mind of the Church? He seems to suggest this in the opening of his response to me. For he has me saying that the Church’s recommendation of Thomas is wooden and rigid, when in fact I only said that his interpretation of this recommendation seems to me wooden and rigid. He does not seem to mark any distinction between the mind of the Church and his own reading of the mind of the Church. But it is all important for him to make this distinction. For then it becomes possible for him to say that, as there are legitimately diverse interpretations of infallibility, so there are legitimately diverse interpretations of the recommendations of Thomism. And then he can say that these recommendations fully leave a place for Catholic philosophers who, while approaching Thomas with the greatest respect and studying him as a master from whom one has much to learn, can still not adhere to every point in Thomas with the strictness with which he personally adheres to every point.

I think that it is important to practice this tolerance precisely at Franciscan University. Much as I admire the ardent Catholic faith of most of our students, I cannot deny that it happens all too often that they rely on magisterial teachings in such a way as to lose a certain curiosity, a certain passion for understanding. They are sometimes content just to know the “doctrinal bottom line,” to find out just what the Church teaches; they do not go on to ask the questions, to do the wondering, to engage in the critical reflection, that belongs to the serious study of philosophy and theology. It is important to bear in mind this vulnerability of our students in your way of reminding them of the papal recommendations of Thomism. If you do not remind them with due nuance and discrimination, you will set off in some of them a kind of intellectual short-circuit, and will produce “Thomists” of the kind that would have mortified St. Thomas.

In this matter of due nuance I would urge Mr. Morel de la Prada to take greater care with his use of papal documents. In his response to me I think that he trims rather too tendentiously his quotations from John Paul’s address of September 29, 1990. He omitted these words from the passage he quoted, words in which John Paul explains why the direct references to St. Thomas were dropped at Vatican II and in the new Code of Canon Law: “without doubt the Council wanted to encourage the development of theological studies and allow their followers a legitimate pluralism and a healthy freedom of research…” The recommendation of Thomism has to be qualified by the necessity of this “legitimate pluralism.” The Church is teaching this today more emphatically than she taught it before.

Without the legitimacy of a certain pluralism you cannot make sense of the place of Newman in the Catholic tradition. Mr. Morel de la Prada speaks too quickly, perhaps with too little knowledge of his own, when he says that all the philosophy in Newman’s Grammar of Assent is compatible with St. Thomas. I think I could show him that this statement is just not true. But the main point is that it does not have to be true; once we accept the legitimate pluralism of which John Paul II speaks, we see that there is no scandal in it not being true. We see that there is as much a place in the intellectual realm of the Church for Newman and Blondel and von Balthasar as for Garrigou-Lagrange and Maritain and Gilson, and that it would in fact be a great loss for the Church if she had only the latter.

Whoever understands this will also understand my vision for the department of philosophy, and will understand why I see no ecclesial imperative to establish a predominantly Thomistic department. It is certainly a good thing that some universities have centers of Thomistic thought, but in the age of legitimate pluralism this is by no means the only Catholic way to do philosophy. As for us at Franciscan University I think it is important to have some in the department who do their own work in philosophy as Thomists (I personally hired one of our Thomists). The others should always consult Thomas respectfully wherever his teaching is relevant to their work. As for the future of our department we should to my mind first of all strengthen the presence in it of the Franciscan tradition of philosophy.

I still owe Mr. Morel de la Prada a clarification with respect to perennial philosophy. He is of course right that in a philosophy called perennially valid there can be no inner contradiction and no error. When I spoke of such contradictions in the philosophia perennis, I was speaking of the body formed by all the teachings of the greatest thinkers in the Catholic tradition; in this body there are undeniably not a few contradictions. But if we pick out the perennially valid core of truth in this body, then the sense of philosophia perennis changes and there can of course be no contradictions.

And if Mr. Morel de la Prada understands the valid core more in terms of St. Thomas than I do, and if I see more of it in Augustine and Scotus and Newman than he does, we should discuss each other’s position on its merits, resisting the temptation to declare that the other is only a half-hearted son of the Church. We should, as Newman said with his wonderful frankness in another letter to Ward, “relax, and take it easy.”

Dr. Crosby is chairman of the philosophy department at FUS.

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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 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 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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