Fr. Paul Gilbert S.J. Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical 'Fides et ratio' - 9

The Richness Of Scholasticism                                       

Fr Paul Gilbert, S.J.                                                                                    Reflections Index

Is it not provocative to speak today of the richness of scholasticism? Is that not a clear symptom of closed thought, having no future? When the Church's Magisterium asks us to take on that mentality, is it not pushing Christian reflection to the edges of culture, beyond the knowledge that our contemporaries judge worthy of being considered?

Scholasticism and the schools

According to most of the recent encyclopedias and dictionaries, the word "scholastic" evokes first of all the thought and teaching methods of the Middle Ages.1 But it is necessary to broaden this understanding. The word has an ancient origin: in Greek, it means "free time", "tranquillity", the otium of the Latins.2 Each of us has passed many years on school benches, where our teachers gave us their time and we used our time to grow. Even during the Middle Ages, formation did not consist primarily of repeating doctrines already fixed, but of being formed at length in the art of arguing and reflecting; the constant practice of the "disputation" proves this. The current titles of "Grandes Ecoles", of "Ecole Normale", of "Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes" (Paris), or again of "Scuola Normale" (Pisa), are within this tradition of naming institutions which exist to stimulate intellectual research.

Obviously, it is not common to compare "scholasticism" all schools" of our modern States. Why? Would it not be because the word "scholasticism", born at the dawn of modernity,3 indicates a way of teaching that today is considered passe? The Lessico Universale Italiano (vol. 20, 1979, p. 357) makes this point: "In its humanistic origins, the term 'scholastic' has a meaning which is tendentiously pejorative in that it refers to a philosophy found traditionally in the schools and bound to a metaphysical-theological mind-set". The Grande Dizionario Enciclopedico of the UTET (vol. 18, 1990, p. 398) precises: "Since the didactic method followed in them (the scholae) was rather uniform, the term easily came to signify also the method itself: that is, the rigorously deductive and syllogistic method which was prevalent in medieval times".

The epistemology presupposed by these definitions of scholasticism (supposing that they are exact) also presents some difficulty. Scholastic knowledge, based on metaphysical-theological affirmations which are not verifiable, would deduce other affirmations from them, but these also would be totally gratuitous, without real meaning. If, in addition, the Schools of the 13th century promoted the idea of a systematic knowledge, one thus reaches the point of judging scholasticism as both pretentious and suffocating.

But these critical views — are they not abstract, little heedful of what the historical reality was? Does not our current education depend on what was invented during the Middle Ages? The title of scholar in the Anglo-Saxon universities, does it not have something to do with "school"? The word "college", especially in English, does it not point to foundations which in the 12th century provided for the lodging and training of students? And consider this: in the Middle Ages, a teacher began his career by commenting on the authors; he could only propose his personal doctrines after he had developed during long years of this exercise; in our day, in many universities are not professors often content with reading and commenting on the masters of our time, for example Nietzsche or Heidegger? Are our schools so original compared to those of ancient times? Again: what is the origin of the form of teaching we call the "seminar", if not a pedagogical concept, truly seminal, developed during the Middle Ages? Has not our "defence" of a thesis inherited something from the "disputations" of a time which some often dismiss as passe?

Negative views on scholasticism

The negative reading given to our culture of scholasticism derives from and repeats without any verification what was said during the 15th and 16th centuries by scholars who wanted to break free from the tutelage of the Church. But already around 1366, in his De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia, Petrarch attacked scholasticism, more precisely the "Averroists" of Padua who prided themselves on their knowledge of natural philosophy with pedantic dogmatic pretense, while being prudent enough not to affirm anything in the first person, preferring to hide behind the abundance of their commentaries;4 such inflatedness on the part of scholars could only result in a loss of the sense of human reality as a whole. The same is true of Erasmus' In Praise of Folly, a text of 1511 in which scholastics are the most foolish of fools:5 they ask pointless questions and claim to make clear all the mysteries of thefaith by logic alone.

These critiques of scholasticism are descended from those who since the llth century, refuse to confine faith within the limits of logical reason. One could mention here the Epistola de Incarnatione Verbi of St Anselm (1094), or the condemnations of Abelard by St Bernard (1140). In Petrarch and Erasmus, one can find echoes of these ancient concerns, manifesting the classical opposition between scholasticus and monachus (of St Bernard), sancti doctores and scholastici doctores (sic, of Lombard, // Sent., XXX, 6,1), etc. The same opposition between faith and reason is certainly still alive in our time: many believers reject the exalted claims of reason and extol the affectus fidei.

In 1620, in his Novum Organum (II,74), Francis Bacon similarly criticizes scholasticism, but in a way different from, if not contrary to, what we have just seen. According to him, scholasticism does not inflate reason; rather it lacks reason; it discusses words; its verbal games and the inconsistency of its categories (substance, matter, form) are incapable of making reality known. So the problem for the Middle Ages, for the modern period and still for us, is to appreciate the epistemological value of scholasticism. How is it related to the faith? Does it make reality known?

Definition of scholasticism

It is not hard to ironize about the apparently sterile discussions of scholasticism, but it is more fruitful to ask whether these discussions correspond to an unavoidable requirement of rationality. The definition of scholasticism given by Maurice de Wulf6 is along these lines: "During the age of its maturity, scholasticism is a synthesis, where all the questions put to philosophy are considered, where all the answers are harmonized, hold together and relate to each other".

This definition of scholasticism sees in it something new and something abiding. Something new, because it allows the conjoining of scholasticism and contemporary axiomatics. Something abiding, because it underlines that scholasticism is part of the ancient efforts of man who a priori recognizes as coherent all that appears to his sensible and intellectual experience and who seeks to express the principles of this coherence. By axiomatics is understood a rational system of a mathematical kind, based, on some principles which, when they are combined, makes it possible to extend knowledge and to discover, by their mere impetus, certain realities which otherwise would remain unknown7 When scholasticism poses some questions which are apparently useless and frivolous, for example regarding the knowledge which the angels have, it is working as axiomatics; it "tests" reason to its ultimate possibilities. But is this not a permanent trait of the reasonable man? Man has always searched for the principle of coherence of his own existence. But this coherence does not mean that one can deduce life from an idea of it, because ideas follow from reflection on life; coherence has a sapiential form, as the Encyclical often points out.8

Every effort to understand human experience in a coherent way can lead to what the word "scholastic" indicates. In this sense there are Hegelian, Marxist, Heideggerian scholastics, who trace back the totality of human experience to some principles expressed by the founders of these currents. Yet the word "scholastic" is usually reserved for a particular state of Christian thought present in the intellectual cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the Summas which interpret the whole of human experience in the light of faith, finding in faith the principle which unifies our lives. In fact, it is not merely rational coherence which the word "scholastic" evokes, but also attention to the one who engages, beyond words, in an act of faith. When the Encyclical Fides et ratio uses the word "scholastic," it means thinkers like St Anselm (n. 42), St Thomas (nn. 43-44), or St Bonaventure (n. 82, note), whose intellectual work was animated by faith, without reason thereby abandoning its responsibility.

Scholasticism is not something merely of the Middle Ages. It consists of all the efforts reason has made to recognize the dignity of man in the light of faith. Faith does not ignore reason. But it is necessary to distinguish, as in the Middle Ages, ratio and intellectus, or the Verstand and the Vernunft of Kant. It is not, calculating ratio which can reach what unifies our lives, but intellectus which, being made for truth, accompanies faith. Classically, truth is defined as adaequatio rei et intellectus; the intellectus (from intelligere, which means to "read interiorly") is here more penetrating than analytical; as for the res, this is not a sensible "thing" (even if one translates the word res as "thing"), but a "knowable reality" (n. 82) of life. The intellectus knows the res and speaks of it in a metaphysical discourse which espouses the desire and the attention of faith. Such an intellectus belongs to all time. The scholasticism of the Middle Ages does not have a monopoly on the truth, which is transmitted by "the great tradition which, beginning with the ancients, passes through the Fathers of the Church and the masters of Scholasticism and includes the fundamental achievements of modern and contemporary thought" (n. 85). Christian thought welcomes the efforts of every age when these underscore the forms of transcendence which animate our lives, the power of the intellectus. This is the case with the hermeneutic of tradition proposed by Gadamer (the Encyclical does not cite him but does allude to him in n. 85, beginning of the third paragraph), and is the case also with Blondel's reflection.9

Scholasticism is to be praised because it recognizes for man all the breadth of his humanity, which is to be open to God. If it encloses itself in a purely logical analysis of the data of faith, then no more today than at the time of Anselm's dispute with Roscelin does it satisfy the conditions of Christian reflection.10The Encyclical Fides et ratio, which certainly insists on the rational rigour of scholasticism, is not praising a ratio which would adhere only to its own proofs. It is not just any logical or deductive rigour which is to be praised, certainly not a purely logical rigour from "below", which would ignore the "above", the transcendence which, surpassing all immanence, makes reason rise above its forms. We must see now, historically, how scholasticism has been faithful to intellectus.

The first two scholasticisms

The first scholasticism, that of the 13th century, had a synthetic ambition. Yet its research was carried out in various ways: the works of St Bonaventure and of St Thomas cannot be confused, each of these authors having his own variety of synthesis.11 It would be fruitless to try to systematize the efforts of the 13th-century masters, to reduce them to a dreary generalization. On the other hand, in favour of the recognition of the autonomy of reason, which is responsible for itself and knows how it must verity its arguments, some heterodox masters, more or less inspired by Averroes, decided that reason was not only autonomous but also independent12 of the faith, thus proclaiming the possibility of a double truth, that of science and of faith. The harmony between faith and reason thus appeared to be a very difficult requirement to achieve. The 13th century already knew that intellectual effort is stretched between nature and grace, logic and reality; that a synthesis is not immediately achieved; that an understanding of the faith is totally different from a frivolous, useless and irresponsible repetition of ready-made formulas.

The second scholasticism took shape in the 16th century, at the same time as modernity.13 It was less desirous than the first of harmonizing fields of knowledge; the era of the Summas had passed and left the field open to deductive systems. Thus scholasticism took a new turn, attentive to modern tastes, more formal, more fixed on definitions and clearly expressed axiomatic structures. Certainly, commentaries on the first scholasticism were not lacking: those of Cajetan on the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas are particularly important, but Cajetan, among the ecclesiastics, was the most capable of speaking to the moderns in their own language, as can be seen in his thesis on the analogy of proper proportionality, more marked by mathematics than by the power of being in act. Shortly after Cajetan, Sears initiated a reflection attentive to the dynamism of intelligence and to its a priori forms, thus opening a path that would lead to Kant; the Spanish theologian was also the first Catholic protagonist14of a systematic metaphysics.15 Thus the second scholasticism took up the intellectual movements of its time in order to garner from them their most promising elements. However, it steered the basic insights of the 13th century in the direction of a systematic essentialism from which the philosophers and theologians of our time find difficulty in freeing themselves.

The third scholasticism

The third scholasticism, or "neo-scholasticism", arose from the revival of philology in the universities of the last century and from the impulse given to Thomistic studies by the Encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879. Its style is different from that of the other two scholasticisms. It did not produce works comparable to the Summas of the Middle Ages and it did not try to harmonize the various sectors of contemporary knowledge; rather it tried to show the meaning and importance for reason of its journey in the 13th century: in this sense, it gave to the reason of their day its traditional roots, its history. It was also different from the second scholasticism because, even while saying it was capable of arriving at principles, it did not lead to an intellectual movement similar to what began with Suarez and the systematic manuals of the 16th century.

It is not easy to make a judgement about neo-scholasticism; no doubt it is still too close to us. Its masters knew some fierce battles, divisions and mutual condemnations, in which we can see an identity crisis and some panic that intellectuals were distancing themselves more and more from the Church. But there was in the neo-scholastic effort more than the response to an identity crisis: it was a question of ensuring the Church's cultural mission.

Neo-scholasticism sought to make itself understood in a world which, after the emergence of the secular States, no longer gave much credit to voluntary witnesses or to the ancien regime. Certainly it gave itself an identity by referring to St Thomas, but it studied him according to the canons of the time, that is, by submitting itself to the rules of historical criticism. The works of Mandonnet ("Des ecrits authentiques de saint Thomas" in 1909-1910), Rousselot (1908: L'intellectualisme de saint Thomas) and surely those of Chenu were decisive from this standpoint, as was the creation of reviews such as the Revue Thomiste (1893) or the Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Theologiques (1907). To the credit of these enterprises, the speculative power of Thomism was restored to honour, for example, by Garrigou-Lagrange in France and Rome (Dieu, son existence, sa nature in 1914) or, in a completely different direction, by Marechal in Belgium (Le point de depart de la metaphysique,fivevolumes starting in 1923), to say nothing of Maritain, Gilson, Forest, Finance, or of the Louvain School (Mercier, De Raeymaeker, Van Steenberghen), or of Siewerth, Lotz, Pieper, Lonergan, d'Olgiati, Bontadini, Fabro, etc.

But the reference to St Thomas was not the sum total ofneo-scholasticism. The theological renewal and speculative research in fact expanded the culture of the entire Church, as evidenced by the dictionaries since the beginning of the 20th century: the Dictionnaire de TheologieCatholique waspublished starting in 1899, that of Archeologie Chretienne et de Liturgie starting in 1903, etc.16 Scholasticism also showed its missionary aspect in reviews intended for the public universities such as the Revue Neo-Scolastique dePhilosophie (1894), the Bulletin de Litterature Ecclesiastique (1899), the Rivista di Filosofia Neo-scolastica (1909), Recherches de Sciences Religieuses (1910), the Archives de Philosophie (1923) and Scholastik (1926).17 Who could seriously deny the intellectual quality of neo-scholasticism and its cultural breadth, without showing ignorance of the historical facts?


According to some commentators, St Anselm was the founder of scholasticism because he began theological reflection sola ratione; from this viewpoint, which would have to be very nuanced in the case of the "Magnificent Doctor", scholasticism was characterized by rationalism. But many other authors throughout the Christian tradition have suspected that rationalism did not respect the real meaning of the God event: it "immanentized" it to human dimensions. This risk was already part of thesecond scholasticism, which espoused the modern mentality in order to centred on "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" (cf. n. 14), escapes this absolutely. Pure, rationalizing intellectualism is no longer tenable with St Thomas, nor indeed with St Bonaventure. The first scholasticism is not equivalent to the second.

Neo-scholasticism, disturbed by the power of our laboratories, wrestled with the problems of articulating truth and action. To struggle against the pragmatism of the sciences18 and their opportunism, it sometimes took up modern scholasticism en bloc, with the result of accentuating formal truth, but at the expense of what is the life of intellectus more than of logical knowing, of ratio. It is not that man can make truth, but he "does the truth" (Jn 3:21), and can do so only by acting. Action, as contemporary philosophy has shown, has a richness that hermeneutics can unfold, provided it does not disdain the metaphysical dimension of rationality. The Encyclical insists on this point: Christian reflection today ought to turn its attention to the "relationship between meaning and truth" (n. 94). The task of scholasticism today is to show how human action, including scientific action, has human dignity by being oriented to the whole truth, whose premises the Christian enjoys in faith and which enlivens, in a way ignored by the positive sciences and by those who would claim an a priori without God, a hope-filled knowledge capable of paying homage to the Living Eternal One.


1. On the history of the word "scholasticism", see H. M. Schmidinger, "Scholastik und Neuscholastik Geschichte zweiter Begriffe", in E. Coreth, W. Neidl, G. Pfligersdorffer (ed.), Christliche Philosophie im katholischen Denken des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, vol. 2,Vienna, 1988, 23-53. The entire volume considers neo-scholasticism.

2. "Schola, la scuola, conserva nel suo etimo la concezione antica dello studio come otium, esercizio di liberta contrapposto alla schiavitu del lavoro" (R. Quinto, "Scolastica. Contributo alla storia di un concetto" in Medioevo 17 [1991] 1-82, 19 [1993] 67-165 and 22 [1996] 335-451; the citation is taken from the 1991article, p. 15, which refers to Forcellini's Lexicon).

3. The substantive "scholasticism", as signifying a rational form of work, is a creation of the 15th century. Cf. R. Quinto [1993] 86, who comments on a text of Gerson.

4. Cf. R. Quinto [1993] 89-90.

5. Erasmus of Rotterdam, In Praise of Folly, ch. 52-53, a text of 1511.

6. M. de Wulf, Histoire de la philosophie medievale, 5th ed., vol. 1, Louvain, 1925, 30. The author's thought has evolved on the point we are considering, but it is not our intention to discuss this here (cf. F. Van Steenberghen, Introduction a l'etude de la philosophie medievale, Louvain, 1974, 301-11.

7. For example, Mendeleev, in composing his periodic classification of the elements, posited some elements unknown in his time but discovered later.

8. "I wish to reaffirm strongly the conviction that the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge.... This sapiential task ..." (n. 85).

9. Cf. n. 59: "Others again produced a philosophy which, starting with an analysis of immanence, opened the way to the transcendent". Regarding Blondel, one could read the letter which Pope John Paul wrote to Archbishop Panafieu on the occasion of the Blondel Congress held in Aix-en-Provence in 1993, for example: "Expressing my wish that the example of Maurice Blondel, a believer and philosopher who draws his desire for Truth from his intimacy with the Teacher, may inspire the Christian philosophers of our day ..." (in M. J. Coutagne [ed.], L’Action. Une Dialectique du Salut, Paris, 1994, p. 7).

10. "The intellectusfidei expoundsthis truth, not only in grasping the logical and conceptual structure of the propositions in which the Church's teaching is framed ..." (n. 66, first par.).

11. Thomas' two Summas, Summa contra Gentiles and Summa Theologiae, both have their own validity.

12. The Encyclical Fides et ratio likewise distinguishes "autonomy" and "self-sufficiency" (n. 75). The autonomy of reason conditions the universality of philosophical reflection, a universality which is a necessary good for proclaiming the Word of God and for theology.

13. See the classic work of C. Giacon, La seconda scolastica, 3 vols., Milan, 1943-1950.

14. Cf. J. F. Courtine, Suarez et le systeme de la metaphysique, Paris, 1990, 419.

15. Among the most famous commentators on scholasticism must be included M. Grabmann, Geschichte der scholastichen Methode, Freiburg i. Br., 1909, but his theses reflect rather the second scholasticism, as seen from this description of the scholastic method: "Die scholastische Methode will durch Anwendung der Vernunft, der Philosophie auf die Offenbarungswahrheiten moglichste Einsicht in den Glaubensinhalt gewinnen, um so die ubernaturliche Wahrheit dem denkenden Menschengeiste inhaltlich naher zu bringen, eine systematische, organisch zusammenfassende Gesamtdarstellung der Heilswahrheit zu ermoglichen und die gegen den Offenbarungsinhalt vom Vernunftstandpunkte aus erhobenen Einwande losen zu konnen" (vol. 1, 36-37).

16. One could speak also of the Dictionnaire d'Histoire et de Geographie Ecclesiastique (1905), the Dictionnaire Apologetique de la Foi Catholique (1928), the Dictionnaire de Spiritualite (1932). And would it not also be necessary to mention the great collections such as Texte und Untersuchungen (1883) and Sources Chretiennes (1942)? There is no lack of evidence of the involvement of Catholics in learned culture after the Encyclical Aeterni Patris.

17. We mention here only some "scholastic" reviews which still exist, though sometimes under different names.

18. It is necessary to distinguish modern sciences from contemporary sciences: the latter are much more empiricist than the former, which were very marked by the search for a system of the real. The current idea of "chaos" is at the opposite extreme of the modern systems; faith reflection thus cannot confront today's sciences as it did in the modern period.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 March 1999, page 9

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