What is the State of Catholic
Philosophy and Theology Today?
Whatever Happened to Thomism?

I can't claim to have a ready answer to the question of "Whatever Happened to Thomism," but to find one is what this discussion area is all about.

Let's start with some impressions of the history of Western Catholic philosophy and theology in the 20th century - and I stress the word impressions for they may or may not hold up under more intense scrutiny.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris, which made the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas normative for the Church. This was a strong impetus for the renewal of Thomist studies that had already been going on. Thomism went on to spread throughout the Church, and was revitalized by a great deal of fine scholarship.

But soon a dark side to this renewal began to show itself. As an official doctrine, Thomism began to take on the color of the Church's institutional structures; it became both authoritative and defensive, both traits that were not intrinsic to Thomism, itself, or to St. Thomas. These two attitudes, mixed with the need to teach large numbers of students, led to the Thomism of the manuals, and it must be said that the old medieval forms of disputation and medieval scholasticism's inclinations to indulge in endless distinctions only added to the overlogical structure of so many philosophical and theological manuals used in the Church's seminaries. The result at its worst was a neo-scholastic doctrine shattered into a thousand pieces and welded back together in the form of syllogisms. The correct expression of verbal formulas gained the upper hand in the classroom and stifled insight and creativity. The concrete sense of life and intellectual activity was buried under the dust of a rabid conceptualism which had no use for the modern world and its ideas, which were reduced to straw men and destroyed in a few lines at the end of an article. This defensiveness did not end with the world outside the Church, but extended itself to pioneers within the Church who wished to make a greater use of modern philosophy or science, or non-Catholic biblical methods and scholarship, or even other traditional schools of philosophy and theology within the Church.

Thus, a narrow neo-scholasticism waged a campaign of denunciation and condemnation against what became known as modernism. Undoubtedly some of the ideas of the so-called modernists were incomplete, or even incorrect, but they were not met with calm and open and charitable discussions.

This was, of course, only one side of Thomism - in fact, let's not call it Thomism, but neo-scholasticism - and Thomism, itself, went on to an era of brilliant scholarship with the work of men like Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. But this doctrinaire and narrow-minded neo-scholasticism continued to be taught in many seminaries and colleges.

After World War II it came in conflict again with scholars in the Church who were following other philosophical and theological paths, for example, the transcendental Thomism opened up by Marechal, or those who were finding new theological riches in the fathers of the Church. A common thread of many of these new developments was the desire for a more positive relationship to the world outside the Church. These attempts loosely labeled the nouvelle theologie were not always as philosophically and theologically precise as one would wish - how could such pioneer efforts be born completely formed?

But the response on the part of the Church authorities and the prevailing scholasticism was not one of open discussion and conciliation, but the same kind of tactics used during the time of the modernists: silencings, denunciations to Rome, and so forth.

This struggle lasted until the Second Vatican Council and played itself out in the tension between the original schemas, which were written in the old scholastic style, and the desires for reform and openness that had been growing in the Church. But finally the forces of renewal were heard, and scored a decisive victory.

This led to an almost immediate collapse in large parts of the Catholic world of the old scholasticism of the philosophical and theological manuals. Indeed, the speed of this collapse showed that it was propelled by the built-up pressure born of previous repressions. It also showed how little genuine Thomism had entered into the minds and hearts of its students. Authoritarianism, defensiveness and pitiful pedagogy had done their work all too well.

This brings us to the post-conciliar world of Catholic philosophy and theology. It is a time of polarization. The old was swept away more by a long repressed desire for freedom than by a careful analysis that would have separated the wheat from the chaff. The old polarization between the more conservative neo-scholasticism and the more progressive Thomism became a polarization between the traditionalists and the progressives. The traditionalists often maintain roots in the neo-scholasticism, as well as the Thomism of the past, and so the limitations of this position are similar to the limitations that Thomism suffered under in the earlier part of the century. But the progressives are discovering that they have their own kinds of problems. It is not enough to sweep away the past. Something must be put in its place. Theology as an articulation and reflection on the Christian mysteries cannot be replaced by a loosely structured program of religious studies that eclecticly gathers bits and pieces from here and there without attempting the long, hard work of synthesis in order to see whether they are consistent with each other, or even compatible with Catholic doctrine. Not every philosophy  can serve as an instrument for doing theology, and not every philosophy is compatible with the Catholic faith. Has this progressive theology, even when it has avoided these kinds of problems, been subsisting on the riches of the past? Is it exhibiting a loss of direction?

I don't know the answers to these questions. Do you?

Existential Thomism and the Future of Catholic Philosophy and Theology

One final point. Where does the future of Catholic philosophy and theology lie? Some suggest that it is to be found in the direction of the transcendental Thomism of Rahner, or the work of Lonergan. Others think that the theologians to look to in the future will be people like von Balthasar or Pannikar. I would like to take a good look at a renewed and reformulated existential Thomism with the flexibility to tackle new challenges without losing sight of the riches of the past.

What do you think?

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments: arraj@innerexplorations.com

"Molta teologia - poco Dio." (A lot of theology - a little bit of God.) Cardinal Konig

"Ce qu'il faut dire en premier lieu de la situation theologique actuelle est qu'elle n'est pas brillante." (In the first place it is necessary to say that the actual situation of theology is not brilliant.) Ch. Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna

"The way graduate students (of philosophy) were taught in the sixties was in part a reaction against the tradition of manual Scholasticism still in existence prior to Vatican II... In part as a remedy for the manual tradition's ahistoricism, the graduate education of Thomists preceding Vatican II usually focused on studying Aquinas's own texts. The professors were concerned to establish the correct interpretation of Aquinas's texts in their historical context, often in opposition to an incorrect interpretation of one of the classical commentators or of some modern Thomist.

This historical-textual approach to Thomism, however, was not the only alternative to the manual tradition. As we all know, the twentieth century produced many Thomists who were neither manualists nor textual commentators but thinkers who philosophized Thomistically... This philosophical approach to Thomism, however, was seriously neglected in the graduate education of thirty years ago... The fact is that in the second half of this century Thomists have produced far less literature of a creative philosophical character than in the first half." John C. Cahalan in "On the Training of Thomists" Visit John Cahalan at his site on pastoral theology http://world.std.com/~pastoral

A Response :Analytical Thomism

The relatively recent birth of "Analytical Thomism" should make many Thomists happy. Analytical Thomists (e.g., Kenny, Davies, Geach, McCabe, et al) have done an admireable job of presenting Thomas' thought in rigorous and clear language, which, in large part, has been done by stripping away all the obfuscations of traditional Thomism.

The term analytical thomism was coined by John Haldane, an analytical philosopher at the U. of Aberdeen (Scotland). Haldane came up with this term, "analytical thomism," to more accurately describe the work of a few Anglo-American philosophers who devoted their talents in philosophical analysis to the content of Aquinas' writing.  The founder of this thomistic school which is now called "analytical thomism" is Peter Geach. Geach is renown in analytical philosophy circles, particulary in logic, his specialty. As an adult convert to Roman Catholicism, Geach took up the Church's commendation of St.
Thomas, though Geach did this without putting aside his analytic knowledge and skills.

Geach's wife, Elizabeth Anscombe, also had written early analytical aristotelico-thomistic works (e.g., _Intention_). Anscombe has an even greater reputation in Anglo-American philosophical circles than her husband (most of her career was at Cambridge), and she, like her husband, is also an adult Roman Catholic convert (she and Geach met
coincidentally while both were taking lessons in the faith at Blackfriars, Oxford).

The unprecedented work done by Geach and Anscombe, in bringing analytic-linguistic techniques to bear on the content of Aquinas' philosophy, opened the door for others trained in Anglo-American philosophy who had an interest in what Aquinas had to say. As Oxford philosopher, and former Gregorianum Jesuit, Sir Anthony Kenny pointed
out, Geach showed him that an appreciation for Frege and Wittgenstein could go hand-in-hand with an appreciation of Aquinas.

The next figure in the founding and/or development of anaytical thomism is the aforementioned Anthony Kenny. Kenny was trained in traditional thomism as a Jesuit at the Gregorianum in Rome, but later developed a keen interest in analytical philosophy. The result was that his writings tend to be thomistic in subject matter while being analytic in style.

Today, analytical thomism tends to be British, though this appears to be changing. To give a clear-cut defintion of analytical thomism would be impossible, for what it means to be analytical (wasn't Thomas analytical?) or thomist (is Transcendental Thomism thomist?), is not clear. If pressed, one could accept the definition that "analytical
thomism" combines the tricks of philosophical analysis (using symbolic logic, reducing key points to propositions, etc.) with the content of thomism.

Before ending, it should be pointed out that analytical thomism has its critics (see Stephon Theron, _The Monist_, Oct. 1997). Traditionalists like Theron believe that Aquinas' philosophy cannot be put in a Fregean framework/categories. The result of this patronage of Frege/Wittgenstein and Aquinas is not Thomistic, but Fregean-Wittgensteinian.

The criticism by Theron and others is understandable, for if analytic philosophy is primarily devoted to checking the correct mailing address on the envelope of a letter, traditional philosophy is primarily concerned with the content of the letter.

The Oct. 97 issue of the Monist was devoted to "Analytical Thomism" (and see the response to this issue by Fr. Brian Shanley, O.P. in The Thomist-- April 98?)

Also, see the (March?) 99 issue of the New Blackfriars-- the whole issue is devoted to "analytical thomism" with contributions by Catholic philosophers in both secular and Catholic schools, including: Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame), Bas Van Fraassen (Princeton), Bonnie Kent (Columbia), John Greco (Fordham), among others notable Catholic philosophers.

As for analytical thomist authors one could mention: Peter Geach (Leeds, Birmingham), Anthony Kenny (Oxford), David Braine (Aberdeen), Christopher Martin (Glasgow), Fr. Brian Davies, O.P. (Oxford and Fordham), Linda Zagzebski (Loyola Marymount), Fr. Gerald Hughes, S.J. (London), Elizabeth Anscombe (Oxford, Cambridge).

Note: All authors mentioned above are Catholic except for Kenny (a former Jesuit, now agnostic). Still, Kenny is partial to Aquinas-- which is good, cause Kenny is a very good (i.e., understandable) writer. Anscombe and Geach are renown in analytic philosophy circles, but both converted to Roman Catholicism after "coming down" (graduating) from
Oxford, hence turned some of their talents to Aquinas and other Catholic stuff (Anscombe made one of the earliest and most powerful defenses of Humanae Vitae, and has followed strict Catholic moral teaching in her writings. Also, as a young woman she took on C.S. Lewis at the Socratic Club at Oxford and trounced and humiliated him in a debate he would never get over-- see a biog. of Lewis for this event).

Sincerely, Dan Hilburn,  dhilburn@webtv.net

Editor: Tom Kreitzberg called my attention to the following quote by Brian Shanley from The Thomist-- April 98?

"There is cause for optimism then about the stimulus to Thomism that could come from Analytical Thomism. As noted in this discussion, however, the major cause for concern is metaphysical. At the heart of Aquinas's philosophy is his understanding of being as ultimately rooted in esse as actus essendi. This does not fit with analytical metaphysical dogmas. Here then is where the ultimate test of allegiance lies. It is possible, of course, to be an analytic philosopher who offers interesting readings of Aquinas without any commitment to his doctrine of being. But I would not call such a one a Thomist, nor, I presume, would he call himself one. What I am arguing is that to be a Thomist of any stripe requires some primary commitment to Thomas's metaphysics; without that commitment, one may be an interpreter or even a specialist, but one is not a Thomist. It is a matter of debate, of course, what other doctrines of St. Thomas one must adhere to in order to be a Thomist and surely the items are broader than the metaphysics of esse. But however one draws the Thomistic circle, the core must be esse in St. Thomas's sense, not Frege's."

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