The Role of St Thomas in Catholic Studies

Author: Raimondo Spiazzi


Raimondo Spiazzi

A special issue (3, 1977) of the review "Seminarium", published, as is known, by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, has come out. It is dedicated to St Thomas Aquinas, almost as a commentary on the Letter "Ecclesiae Lumen" written by Paul VI on the occasion of the Seventh Centenary of the great Doctor's death (20 November 1974). The collection of studies which it contains is not of a historico-critical or speculative nature nor of apologetical or hagiographical tone, but of what could be defined as a methodological approach for the use of the doctrine of St Thomas in Catholic schools according to the indications of the Magisterium of the Church, confirmed, summarized and updated in Paul VI's above-mentioned Letter.

The reason for a collection

As soon as this statement has been made, it can be foreseen that in some readers, perhaps many, there will arise questions which express surprise and astonishment even more than curiosity. But then, "Are we back to this again?", it will be said. Or even, "Are we going back to the Middle Ages? Are Catholic schools to be burdened with authoritarian impositions again? Is it desired to suppress the freedom of research proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council?"

But the assurance can at once be given thatthere is no reason to get excited: these questions are already summed up in the question with which the issue opens: Pourquoi ce cahier? And the answer to this question is given in the extremely clear-sighted and penetrating pages of the introduction, from the authoritative pen of Cardinal Gabriel-Marie Garrone, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation which desired the issue.

Having raised that question, in fact, the author hastens to reply with a first clarification: "Let us say at once and bluntly that this issue is an act of faithfulness. Not of faithfulness in the darkness or reluctantly, as will be seen.... Rut certainly of faithfulness. The Church, in fact, asks formally, with a tranquil perseverance, of which the recent Council is the latest testimony, that the formation of her future priests should take place in the light and on the lines of St Thomas. It is natural that one should want to see and know why. But in the first place it is necessary to acknowledge a requirement, the firmness of which cannot be doubted, in a field in which the Church commits herself with full awareness of her responsibilities and of the guarantee of grace conferred on her mission, because what is at stake is a serious matter. Systematic refusal of a minimum of interior docility would not be justifiable and would prevent one from grasping the reasons which are not at all humiliating for reason...".

And here is the successive articulation of the initial question and the relative answers.

Does appeal to St Thomas close the way to real philosophical reflection? It would be paradoxical, considering that the historic and scientific figure of Thomas Aquinas stands out as ever open to the pursuit of every particle of truth wherever it can be found. On the other hand his work is that of a theologian, for whom even philosophy, though respected in its autonomy and epistemological dignity, must be considered in its relationship with faith. And the Church aims at this objective when she chooses this "teacher" for the formation of those who will have to be educators to faith...

"A genius is always worthy of interest. But he is not necessarily a teacher in whose hands one can put oneself without danger". In St Thomas, on the contrary, the Church has found a genius worthy of becoming a teacher, for objective reasons, evaluated in the light of the faith and confirmed by history, which can be seen from his philosophical and theological work.

They are, above all, soundness of thought and enjoyment in being, scientific precision of procedure, clear philosophical awareness, radical rejection of all intellectual fraud and, it can be said, heroism in the practical elimination of self before the requirements of truth: the attitude of a servant, as Father Congar writes in the last article.

The meaning of Scholasticism

Here there occurs the problem of the type of formation and information to be imparted. Identifying, as, after all, is right, "Thomistic" formation with "Scholastic" formation, there crop up here the objections against that form of thought and method forged in the medieval Universities, a form so distant and incompatible—it is said—with the mentality of our time. But it is necessary to make oneself clear and avoid being caught up in ambiguities.

Scholasticism was a way of thinking, analysing and arranging ideas. When this way is rejected, inevitably another one is sought, as has, in fact, happened. Thus theology has been given another Scholasticism. "Time will tell what it is worth. But, for the moment, it exists and beats the first one in complexity, difficulty and esotericism".

The first Scholasticism was primarily a language (in the full sense in which the word is understood today), bound up with common use in everyday life, of popular origin, open to a universal communication. (It was the fundamental link of the only European and we can say Western culture that has existed so far). The new Scholasticism creates a vocabulary that is always changing, made up of artificial, often incomprehensible words, quite often absurd. This vocabulary corresponds, perhaps, to the new way of thinking; but it must be said that lack ofcommunicative capacity, that hermeneutical difficulty, those narrow frontiers, that obscurity, signify an under-development, if not even a blocking of thought, and, moreover, do not give faith those fundamental concepts universally admitted and admissible, which it had received from the first Scholasticism.

What is more: classical Scholasticism incarnated the natural metaphysics of the human spirit, geared to the objectivity of being. The other Scholasticism, which has its first roots in Descartes, but goes far beyond his philosophical premise on subjective thought as a starting point to elude doubt about the reality of things, expresses the new attitude of the spirit which withdraws into itself and makes itself the only object of its own thought: absolute subjectivism.

Even disregarding, here, discussion regarding the philosophical validity of this position, and the difficulty of vocabulary derived from it, it must be said that the type of formation that this new Scholasticism would give is radically opposed to the requirements of faith.

Moreover, the present development of human sciences, especially of depth psychology and sociology, which seem to declass philosophy itself, also entails new problems ofdefinition, communicability, language: in a word, a Scholasticism. A choice is, therefore, reproposed: one Scholasticism or the other. The Church, with regard to faith, cannot but demand that the formation of her priests should take place along a line of clarity and conceptual certainty, without closing the door on the new contributions of any scientific and philosophical system, provided they are proved valid. That is why she maintains the choice of St Thomas made by Leo XIII, the heir of a whole tradition of magisterium and thought, obscured in the times of the Encyclopédie and revived by him with the encyclical Aeterni Patris, just a century ago (1879). Therefore the Church, "as in the past, so also today does not cease officially to propose St Thomas as teacher and guide for ecclesiastical studies" (as can be read in the introduction to the issue of "Seminarium").

A problem of cultural renewal

It is understandable that the Congregation, which promoted this collection of studies and orientations should aim mainly at the ecclesiastical schools. But according to indications of the popes, the same thing can be said of all Catholic schools. In fact, it is valid, today especially, on a far wider plane: that of Catholic culture, as is said, and let us say so without hesitating, of culture tout court.

For some time there have been discussions in books, reviews and meetings about the possibility of a "Catholic" culture of relevance today. To many people it seems necessary for the men of today who, as is shown by unmistakable testimonies or confessions of "lay" culture, are caught up between a culture derived from Enlightenment and Marxism, which is in full crisis, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a contesting and subversive radicalism which is seen to be shallow on the cultural plane. Here and there in "lay" environments, new allusions, if not actually new appeals to Christianity are raised. In "Catholic" environments the attempt is being made, therefore, to pick out the ways of a new cultural integration.

Now, on this point, too, it is necessary to be clear. Christianity is essentially a faith, as the Gospel is a Kerygma. This is an important recovery of contemporary pastoral science. Whether it is a question of St Paul or Apollo, of the Curé d'Ars or of Lacordaire, what counts principally, at the different levels and in a great variety of ways, is to proclaim the Word of God, as Barth stressed.

But the meeting between faith and reason is inevitable and inescapable, and we know to what problems it gives rise, as Paul VI emphasized in the Letter "Ecclesiae Lumen", and various articles of "Seminarium" explain with regard to the various fields of knowledge: theology, philosophy, science, methodology.

In this connection it is necessary to point out at once, with Martindale, that St Thomas, in his time, deemed and proved that faith has no reason to fear reason, and that reason loses nothing in the confrontation—or rather in the synthesis—with faith: on the contrary, it acquires a new capacity of discovery, a new innovating, and, if you like, creative force.

In our times the problem is reproposed in terms of the relationship between faith and theology, on the one hand, and especially, the sciences of man and of nature on the other hand; even if, for the purposes of comparison, sciences are brought back into the sphere of a vision of universal principles, which cannot do without a metaphysics.

The role of St Thomas

It is sufficient to have referred to this subject here, going on to say that St Thomas was the one who restored their autonomous value to earthly things, to secondary causes, to the "causa materialis" itself (in the world and in man), without setting them in opposition to, but on the contrary actually in the light of, "supreme reasons", eternal values.

For the purposes of real and active integration of "Catholics" (or Christians) in culture (like yeast in dough), it would therefore be very useful to know St Thomas (before writing him off as outdated), to penetrate beyond the Scholastic exterior to perceive his living thought, and thus get the hang of his mens,translate his doctrine (which is the synthesis of the classical philosophical and theological tradition) without betraying it, and update it without emptying it of meaning.

There are promising signs of a resumption of good work in this direction. Among the most recent ones are the steps taken lately to set up an International Thomistic Society, following upon the memorable Congress in 1974; and also this issue of "Seminarium", intended, as has been said, to offer orientation and guidance on theological and philosophical studies in Catholic schools as well as in wider circles.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 June 1978, page 10

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