On 19th century Thomism

14 03 2011

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The book is Gerald McCool’s book, Nineteenth Century Scholasticism: The Search for a Unitary Method. I reviewed the sequel to this book, From Unity to Pluralism, previously on this blog.

The book is about the process of how neo-Thomist scholasticism became the “official philosophy” of the Church from the publication of Leo XIII’s encyclical, Aeterni Patris, in 1879, to the opening sessions of Vatican II in the 1960’s. In the process of describing how scholasticism became once again dominant in the Catholic Church, McCool describes the historical circumstances and rival philosophical approaches that scholasticism sought to replace. In this rare survey of Catholic thought in the 19th century, the author concludes, as in his sequel, that scholasticism ultimately unraveled due to its inability to analyze categories of thought within their proper historical context. In the end, neo- scholasticism could not be unified because the original scholasticism never was. Even the esteemed Baroque commentators on St. Thomas had deviated from their master on such key issues of the nature of being, knowledge, and grace.

The issue as to what philosophy would dominate at Catholic seminaries and universities had much to do with the political situation coming out of the French Revolution. Prior to the revolution, both Gallicanism and Febronianism determined the shape and structure of ecclesiastical training in the 18th century. While it may seem a foreign concept to us, in both France and the Holy Roman Empire, it was the State that determined the curriculum of the training of clerics. Throughout that century, there were real tensions between Rome and the thrones of those two countries regarding liturgy, ecclesiastical training, and Church discipline. It was only with the fall of the ancien regime that Rome began to assert its prerogatives in intervening more and more into Catholic life in the 19th century.

Virtually all philosophical schools in the early 19th century had to deal, on the one hand, with the growing secularization of society, and with the emergence of romanticist idealism on the other. Traditionalism was a significant school amongst Francophone philosophers which was quite pessimistic regarding the abilities of human knowledge. For the traditionalist school, human knowledge in general, and knowledge of the divine in particular, was passed down in some form through a primitive revelation still present in human speech and habits. Man could have no access to the truth outside the communal experience. The Tubingen school tried to view Catholic philosophy from the point of view of one Catholic “architectonic” doctrinal point, such as the Kingdom of God, and tried to create a philosophical system from that point. Ontologism, popular amongst many Italian ecclesiastics, used a more Augustinian approach of an absolute idea and an Absolute Being inherent in the human soul that was the ground and foundation of human knowing. All of these philosophies were in dialogue with post-Kantian romantic philosophies and deeply critical of traditional scholasticism’s ability to engage man in the modern context.

Traditional scholasticism had always been kept alive in some places, but was by no means the dominant philosophical approach even before the French Revolution. Even proficient scholastics versed in the philosophy of St. Thomas were far more eclectic than later Thomist militants would allow. According to McCool, one of the principal factors in the rise of scholasticism in the latter half of the 19th century were the revolutions of 1848 and the unification of Italy in their aftermath. With the attack on and subsequent dissolution of the Papal States, the seated Pontiff Pius IX became increasingly skeptical of modernity and any attempts at dialogue with the modern mind in philosophical, political, and theological questions. Advocates of scholasticism, such as Joseph Kleutgen, Matteo Liberatore, and the Jesuit writers at the journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, were seen as a bulwark against the ideological foundations of the modern revolution. They were also seen as defenders of the absolute distinction in Catholic thought between nature and the supernatural. According to their neo-scholastic detractors, the modern philosophies of the early 19th century could not adequately distinguish between nature as a perfect entity in its own order and supernatural grace as a free gift of God apart from that order. This dangerous lack of precision was in danger of bringing about pantheism in the Catholic mind, much as how someone like Hegel could say that the evolution of the State was the divine on earth.

For Catholic authority, then, it was only neo-scholasticism that could preserve the autonomy of the Church in relation to an increasingly hostile world. The concerns of romantic philosophy derived from Descartes were not just wrongheaded but outright perverse. In order to restore Catholic thought, institutions had to disregard the evolution of philosophy from Descartes onwards and return to the pristine philosophy of St. Thomas as interpreted through his authentic Baroque commentators such as Cajetan, John of St. Thomas, Suarez, and others. In the face of a hostile world, the Church had to close ranks and “clean house” ideologically. This process culminated in the publication of Leo XIII’s encyclical, Aeterni Patris, and the expulsion from Roman universities of professors who were not so enthusiastic about the new Thomism.

The Thomist experiment would ultimately collapse due to the lack of unity in the Thomistic ideal itself. For example, for all of their defenses of Thomas in other areas, McCool states that most of the original neo-scholastic philosophers totally neglected Thomas’ idea of the act of being, preferring later definitions of this key concept from such interpreters as Francisco Suarez. Their views of Thomistic epistemology were overly simplistic and more Aristotelian than the original views of the Angelic Doctor, often neglecting the Neoplatonic notes in his thought. And most prominently and controversially, they were great defenders of the idea of pure nature, an idea which was totally discredited by Henri de Lubac in the mid-part of the next century, as a whole cloth invention of Baroque theologians. Etienne Gilson and other scholars would deliver the coup de grace to neo-scholasticism by proving that “scholasticism” in the High Middle Ages was never a unified school in the first place.

This is the historical refutation of neo-scholasticism as it evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries. The critical reader of this could beg the question, however, of whether the neo-scholastics were right in their metaphysical assumptions? After all, aren’t we in such a huge cultural and moral mess because the philosophies of Descartes, Kant, and Hegel ultimately lead to the dreaded relativism? To further discuss this, I would like to copy here a couple of lines from McCool’s book:

The Cartesian thinking subject was a mind. He was not a man. Subjectivism in epistemology led to dualism in metaphysics. Thomas’ thinking substance was a dynamic unity of sense and intellect. He was a man.

This is a key idea that may be in the minds of readers who have some sort of sympathy towards moderate realist metaphysics. Indeed, the dualism cited above was precisely what Maritain criticized in many of his books. On the other hand, let us look at the term, “man”, more closely. I would argue that official Catholic thought now feels the need to define the normative at all costs. But such an idea cannot be separated from the cultural, technological, and political evolution of human beings in the past two hundred years. The faceless, rootless, post-revolutionary citoyen is the foundation of our current ideological and political order, and the disembodied Cartesian mind best synthesizes this philosophical construct. Neo-Thomist philosophy and the trends in Catholic thought that it influenced (personalist phenomenology popularized in such movements as the “theology of the body”) try to draw truth out of a stable and well-defined idea of what is normal: a human being should think like this, feel like this, believe like this, and so on. It is no wonder, then, that Thomism was often aligned with far right wing movements such as Action Française, Franco’s fascism, and nationalist movements in Latin America: when what is “truly human’ is at stake, violence will inevitably follow.

With greater means of mass communication and an ever-expanding base of knowledge, these reactionary thinkers seek to give modern people some sort of moral compass based on an ill-defined concept of man and the natural law. The only problem is that in doing so the Church is repeating over and over again the mistakes of the Church of Pius IX: when faced with hostility, pretend the concerns of the rest of the world do not exist, that they are entirely perverse, and so on. While Vatican II sought to counter these reactionary prophecies of doom at least rhetorically, it seems that the institution could not truly define itself outside of this opposition. If the Church does not violently oppose the world, it will lapse into a functional pantheism and increasing irrelevancy.

For me, there is no use in trying to resolve our problems through a sort of “creeping magisterialism”, and perhaps the Church had no business intervening in the shape of philosophy in the first place. As mentioned before, in many places it was the State that determined what was and what was not allowed in terms of philosophical teaching. The Vatican has no real expertise in being able to determine what works and what doesn’t work in the modern context. At the same time, the Vatican also has to accept that plurality and opposition are not always such bad things. The genius of Catholic culture has always been in how much plurality it could maintain in the midst of unity. The idea of being “up in the air” on many questions is what is truly normative in the historical sense. While the naysayers would argue that the lack of institutional supervision would destroy the Church as a mass phenomenon, such supervision can only create a superficial unity, such as the mediocre neo-scholasticism that reigned in the Roman schools up to the middle of last century. The search for a real unity in an increasingly plural world continues.



7 responses

17 03 2011
lee faber

Thanks for this interesting post. I’m curious, however, why McCool thinks it was recognition of the historical fact that there was no doctrinal unity in the original scholasticism that led to neo-scholasticism’s fall. AFter all, the original scholasticism lasted from the 12th century to the 18th without this unity, so why would it dissolve in the 20th century simply by having plurality pointed out? And though there were plenty of independent scholastics like Auriol, or Bacon, and major schools such as Thomists, Nominalists, Scotists, and Albertists (and the neoplatonists in the albertist orbit), they all basically agreed on a method, which was the use of Aristotelian-inspired dialectic and syllogistic in the service of truth. So it’s hard to see the “history” of scholsaticim as the cause rather than sociological factors: the neo-scholastics ruled the church with an iron fist and banished any and all non-thomists to minor seminaries, which led to the curious formation of thinkers holding “Scotist Thomism” and Suarezian Thomism.

15 03 2011

This account leans too much on historicism to be plausible or, at the very least, its operating assumptions strike me as deeply problematic. One can be agnostic about the ultimate rightness (“truthiness”) of Thomism/neo-Thomism without foregoing the possibility of its rightness. To speak of an “evolution of philosophy” implies that one has pre-philosophical knowledge that philosophy, indeed, “evolves” rather than, say, human thought has a tendency to go one direction here, another direction there, and never once coming within the orbit of truth. The Catholic intellectual reaction against modern philosophy wasn’t spurred by a concern that it had “evolved,” but rather that philosophy per se had degenerated. Why? Because from the Catholic perspective, the pre-modern synthesis of reason and revelation which, arguably, culminated in the work of Aquinas had been abandoned. And any abandonment of this philosophy, regardless of the larger socio-political changes occurring at the time, could only be adjudged as an abandonment of truth.

As for whether or not modern intellectual trends which parade under the title “philosophy” better captures our ideological assumptions about “man” is a point I won’t dispute, but it’s ultimately a circular point because the ideology itself is a byproduct of that degenerated modern “philosophical” approach. It’s no wonder they dovetail so well. What’s missing is a full-scale refutation, at the level of thought and not the history of ideas, of the Thomistic/neo-Thomistic understanding of “man.” Again, perhaps they were wrong; perhaps modern philosophy has exposed its wrongness in a full and fundamental way. But that’s of a different order altogether than saying that since Thomism/neo-Thomism has dropped out of the “mainstream,” it has been overcome.

The Catholic Church, to the extent it wishes to remain what it says it is, will always oppose modernity because modernity is fundamentally at odds with it. This shouldn’t surprise anyone for, I dare say, Aristotle will always oppose Hobbes (and vice versa) Maimonides will never agree with Martin Buber. The gulf is too wide.

With that said, I wholeheartedly agree that when the Catholic Church intervenes to rule out certain trends in thinking in favor of other models, there is at least the appearance of obscurantism and reactionary behavior. But on the other hand, how do you avoid the problem—which has certainly been a problem—of opening up the door to pure relativism, namely that all lines of thought are, presumably, equal and can lead to the “the truth” (whatever that is), etc.? And while I think we’re still a century or more away from this assessment, there is plenty of room to question whether the so-called “advances” provided by Catholicism’s 20th C. luminaries in any way constitutes a substantial advancement over what Thomas achieved.

14 03 2011
Henry Karlson

Lonergan is boring reading; and what is good in Method could have been put down in 30 pages at most. If one has any background in scientific reasoning, which is most people raised today, the insights of Lonergan are rather — old hat. But what I do like to do is show to some who follow scientism with a false understanding of theology that theology works like their empirical science, with an allowance for development, etc.

14 03 2011

“Everybody go read Insight, then get back to me.”

Method in Theology might be a better place to start with Lonergan. Insight is a nightmare.

14 03 2011

On a historical level, I agree that those figures are obscure. I only meant to offer a possible response to your criticism of human normativity/theology of the body/Thomism/fascism (with which I agree).

14 03 2011
Arturo Vasquez

Rahner and Lonergan get a lot of play towards the end of this book, and while I have to say that I haven’t read them, I also have to say that I am in no hurry to do so. I think the point of this post was relating philosophy to the greater social and intellectual trends going on inside and outside the Church. In that case, both Rahner and Lonergan are off the radar. While they continue the tradition started by Rousselot and Marechal of a transcendental Thomism in dialogue with post-Kantian philosophy, the impact that they have had on history compared to, say, Gilson and Maritain, is negligible, and that’s being generous. Unless one is Catholic or interested in Catholic thought, one will not know who these people are, and fewer will read them. Maybe you can say that that is an intellectual cop-out, that the world “doesn’t know what it’s missing”, but that will be little consolation when these figures fall into obscurity like the early Neo-Thomists, or the followers of the French traditionalist and Tubingen schools. Really, Rahner et. al. were part of the movement to get out of the Catholic intellectual ghetto, and perhaps their falling into obscurity is their Pyrrhic victory.

14 03 2011

I hate to be the “But what about Lonergan?” didact around here, but I do think that his grounding of human normativity in human cognitional processes is far more rigorous than the “theology of the body”-type of aspiration toward human normativity that you rightly denounce. I admit that I find Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism” spiel sickeningly shallow as well (even though he is partly right, that spiel is too simplistic to offer anything worthwhile). But Lonergan offers a way out (I think) precisely because he acknowledges cultural plurality and the inseparability of subjectivity and objectivity (in a departure from what he calls “naive realism” or “the myth of the already-out-there-now” or “the ocular fallacy” that knowing is nothing more than clearly seeing an “object”). Still, he contends that there is an invariant process of cognition that transpires within all the cultural variety and subjective rooting of human existence. So is “critical” realism as dead as “naive” realism truly is? Everybody go read Insight, then get back to me.

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