24 11 2019

I have been an inconstant seeker of the transcendent. Part of this is due to vague childhood memories of beauty. There were my grandmother’s peacocks. There was the idyllic countryside where I grew up. And there was the church. The Catholic rites were updated over a decade before my birth, but old practices and vessels take a while to get rid of. The devotions of the elderly women never left. My grandmother continued to veil her weary and withered head with a mantilla. There was that old priest or two who chanted a chunk of the Mass in Latin. But most of all, there was the building itself. I grew up in old churches, and no matter how much they wanted to alter everything right away, renovations are costly and can’t be done overnight. In my childhood parish, it took a massive earthquake for them to finally get around to gutting the sanctuary. The actual damage, however, had already been done. The shadows of the past were already cast in my mind. Read the rest of this entry »

On fasting

12 03 2019

I heard a homily recently at a Roman Catholic church I do not frequent wherein the priest was talking about fasting. He stated that what you eat doesn’t really matter, as in giving up chocolate or meat or whatever. Rather, he said it was simpler if you just eat half of what you normally eat, perhaps by using a smaller plate. Having experience in other traditions with strict limitations on the types of food one can eat while fasting, I found this attitude intensely problematic. The typical Eastern Christian fast is one from most animal products, and the term “carnival,” the period before Lent in the Western Church, means “saying farewell to meat.” Is this simply impractical in our age when meat is often less expensive than (good) plant-based products? Read the rest of this entry »

The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism – part III

22 04 2010

Personal Neoplatonism and when tradition really isn’t tradition

We left off yesterday with the dissolution of Thomism as the “official” philosophy of the Church. In McCool’s telling of the story, Thomism collapsed under its own scholarly weight. Either people were too concerned with dialoguing with modern philosophers (Marechal and Rousselot) or they wanted to make Thomism into a bulwark of liberal modernity (Maritain), or they were too concerned with finding “real Thomism” (Gilson), for all of this to last as a monolithic system. Even though Thomas is still respected, he is far from the sole source of Catholic philosophy and theology.

I suppose the personal lesson that I took away from McCool’s book is that there is really no such thing as “Thomism”. Even in the time of Aquinas, philosophy was too fluid for one approach to be defined as “the” correct approach. Of course, this type of realization has come to me at many points in my life. As a Marxist, once I began to dig more in depth into revolutionary theory, I found that what was at its heart was vulgar authoritarianism. Once you begin to peal the Thomist onion, you will find a hodge-podge of Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, and Patristic concerns. Simply put, Thomas did not know that he was a Thomist; he was not obsessed with the epistemological and theological concerns that plague Catholics in the context of postmodernity.
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The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism – part II

21 04 2010

Maritain – Gilson – Resourcement – VII

In our last segment, we spoke both of the rise of “orthodox” Neo-Thomism, and the rise of a transcendental Thomism more concerned with dialogue with the modern world. Following the line of Fr. McCool’s book, From Unity to Pluralism, we continue with the discussion of Thomist philosophers, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, as well as the scholarship that led to the decline of the Thomist movement. In closing, I will give the reader a sense of my own philosophical sympathies, as well as a brief word on why philosophy matters.

Jacques Maritain needs almost no introduction, but I think it is useful to point out his liberal background and his brief discipleship under the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. Like many in the Thomist movement, he was seeking a way out of the conundrum of modern philosophical skepticism. Because of this, Maritain’s critique was quite blunt and to the point. Philosophy that begins in thought (such as the idealism of Kant) can only end in thought, and that is essentially nowhere. Real philosophy, the philosophy of the Angelic Doctor, is grounded in being. The human mind does not grasp phenomena, but the firmness of being itself. The mind abstracts universal form from the individual matter of the concrete. For Maritain, this was a foundational principle in reinstalling the hierarchy, or degrees, of knowledge, in which metaphysics would retake its primacy over the natural sciences, both informing and augmenting them within a system of integral humanism. For Maritain, the restoration of Thomist epistemology would serve as the cornerstone for the fulfillment of liberal aspirations.
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The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism – part I

19 04 2010

Leo XIII to transcendental Thomism

In my life as a Catholic, it has veritably all been a game of “the more you know, the less you know”. You go through most of your life thinking that such-and-such is traditional, only to find out that it is less than a hundred years old: a drop in the bucket in the vast well of human history. The obsession of the Catholic Church, even prior to Vatican II, was an obsession for novelty, which was often compensation for the shame Catholic scholarship felt before that bitch goddess we know today as “historical scholarship”. Having not paid attention to what was really thought and believed, we found that what we had been doing and saying for centuries was all the fruit of novelty. And the only anecdote for novelty was more novelty. God forbid that we should actually stay the course.

In my own life, nothing has more tormented me in this regard than the all-too-modern Catholic obsession with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Like a finicky child told to eat his vegetables, I was made quite scrupulous through finding that, for me, understanding the thought of the Angelic Doctor was work, but not in the good sense. Years in the local town library slaving through the thick volumes of the Summa and hours suffering through seminary classes on the difference between the agent and possible intellects made Aquinas no more palatable to me. But surely, the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII in the encyclical Aeterni Patris was not wrong in officially making the Doctor of the Church’s moderate realism the “official” Catholic philosophy? In true quixotic fashion, I failed to realize that the rest of the Church had moved on, primarily because that which Leo XIII had seen as a bulwark against the “dictatorship of relativism” (to use another phrase preferred by a Vicar of Christ) really wasn’t very “Thomistic” at all.
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