If Aquinas Were Alive Today . . .

A Peeping Thomist Gazes on the Contemporary Crisis

The revival of Thomistic studies since Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris in 1879 has owed much to such laymen as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Charles DeKoninck, Anton Pegis, Vernon Bourke, James Collins, Vince Smith, and John Oesterle. Many but not all of these thinkers were converts. When they came into the Church and desired to take on the mind of the Church, they knew this meant turning to Thomas Aquinas. We see this in Thomas Merton’s conversion. We see it in Edith Stein. And we see it in such cradle Catholics as Flannery O’Connor, who described herself as a “hillbilly Thomist” and read a bit of the Summa every day.

Thomas Aquinas both stands for, and is a considerable component of, our intellectual patrimony as Catholics. The great minds of the past may be treated either as noble relics of long-gone eras or as sources of swift answers to questions they never dreamt of. Posterity by definition gets the last word. But surely there is elbow room between these two extremes.

In the case of Aquinas, a noble precedent was set by Dante who gave the Angelic Doctor several cantos in the Paradiso to speak words the Florentine wrote for him. Centuries after Dante, Catholics have had increasing reason to ask themselves what Aquinas might have made of this or that pressing problem. Thomas has been declared the Common Doctor of the Church — “his teaching the Church has made her own” —and, since Aeterni Patris, there has been a remarkable resurgence of interest in his thought. His role in the intellectual life of the Church is such that it is fitting that we should wonder what Thomas would have made of aspects of the current state of the Church.

I imagine a certain kind of Catholic smiling at my presumably pre-conciliar piety. Am I unaware that the hegemony of Thomism was broken by the Second Vatican Council, that we live in the bracing air of theological pluralism? Like many things attributed to the Council, the alleged demotion of Thomas is not borne out by the conciliar documents. Thomas is mentioned twice by name, which is a conciliar first, and the statements of Paul VI and John Paul II recommending Thomas are too numerous to mention. Some Catholics, it is true, have turned their backs on Thomas, but it is they who have done this, not the Church. What I propose to do is to suggest what Thomas would have thought of aspects of the present situation. I will quote him on the assumption that some truths (like “All things change”) never change.

Natural Law

If one sought something that Thomas explicitly says is immune to the ravages of time, natural law would leap to mind. He holds that there are several principles of the moral order which are absolute, that is, absolved of or free from contingent conditions and thus applicable to any and all relevant situations. “As for the first principles, natural law is in no way changeable” (Summa Theologiae, Iallae.94. 5).

Nonetheless, if there is one thing some Catholic moral theologians seem absolute about, it is that there are no moral absolutes. Or, if some room is found for them, it is as expressions of ideals we should hopelessly strive to imitate rather than as measures of our actions. Needless to say, it is an odd practical principle that has no practical application. But one reads that general or universal principles may be true on the level of universality yet fail to apply to this or that relevant situation. Indeed, Thomas’s own insistence on the primacy of prudence in the moral order is sometimes invoked as sanction for this view.

Thomas would acknowledge that most moral principles fall short of universality or necessity. Natural law is not the view that all principles are absolutes, but only that some are. Moral absolutes do not of course absolve the agent of the need to apply them. It may be difficult at times to identify a proposed course of action as immoral, but once it is judged to be such, it is immediately seen that it is not to be performed. If it is murder, it is wrong. Period. Direct killing of the innocent is wrong without qualification. Whether this or that act in time of war is an instance of direct killing of the innocent may be difficult to judge. But this difficulty does not entail that it is sometimes permissible directly to kill the innocent.

“The precepts of Decalogue, then, are immutable as to the note of justice they contain, but mutable as to determinations of them, as in applications to particular acts, such as that this or that is or is not homicide, theft, or adultery” (IaIIe.100.8.3).

That it may not always be easy to identify acts as of a given kind is very different from saying that there are kinds of acts which are sometimes permissible and at other times not. For example, not returning your Porsche when you ask for it is, by and large, indefensible morally, but should I be confronted by you when you are reeling with drink, my refusal to turn over the keys is morally praiseworthy, not an assault on the principle of private property.

Invoking what Thomas says about moral principles which are only generally true in order to dismiss moral absolutes is at best disingenuous, to say nothing of citing his natura humana mutabilis est as meaning that our nature undergoes radical transformations. Thomas is referring to the historical circumstances in which men must work out their salvation.

That we live in an age when moral absolutes are out of style is of course an absurd suggestion. The present is almost characterized by moral posturing of an absolutist kind. The unrelenting glint in an anti-smoker’s eye, the firm jaw of the feminist, the raised fist of the “Disinvest Now” activist, all make it clear that moral absolutism is alive and well. Well, maybe not well. The point is that everyone holds that there are certain moral principles to which no exceptions are allowed. The task is to elucidate the criteria for distinguishing defensible from indefensible claims to moral absolutes. As it happens, Thomas is of enormous help here.

However turbulent and changing the times in which Thomas lived they seem light years distant from the pluralism of the present day. Natural law is the claim that there is a substantive common basis for moral discourse. The pluralism of modern liberal society is often portrayed — as during the Iran-Contra hearings last summer — as simply a procedure. The genius of America, more than one senator said unctuously to the TV cameras, is that our political system endorses no particular conception of the good. The rule of law is thus seen as protection against any substantive view of the good being imposed on society. What would Aquinas make of that?

Pretty much what we would if we thought about it. The procedural view allegedly excludes any substantive view of man. At the same time, it presupposes that each person is free and his freedom sacred. I am not free to reject your claim to be free. But why not? Clearly there is an assumption being made about the nature of the human agent. It is not possible to have a community without any substantive agreement on what it is to be a human being.

Chesterton said that the young man knocking on the brothel door is looking for God. No matter what anyone does, he is seeking his true good; this is the basis for conversation and community and discussion, such that disputes can be adjudicated (IaIIae.5.8).

But even if there is some true account, are we not free to do whatever we want? Of course man is free to do wrong even though he ought to act in conformity with moral principles. He is free to shirk his obligations. He is even free to try to bring about a situation in which others will be unable to exercise their freedom. But not every use of freedom is morally good. Nor are we free to make what is evil good, however free we are to act badly. In a situation of universal emotivism — our situation, according to Alasdair MacIntyre — the very terms good and bad become vacuous. And then we could not say, even in senatorial tones, that the rule of law is a good thing (IaIIae.10.2).

Religion and Politics

Modern liberal society was founded on commonly held moral principles. The First Amendment was intended not as insurance against morality, but against the establishment of a state religion. Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty stresses that the assent of faith must be free and uncoerced. Some are surprised that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that men are free to worship in ways that range from inadequate to heretical, but what is to be noticed is that it is only from a substantive point of view that one can argue for religious or political liberty. It is because religious truth is what it is, and assent to it what it is, that it would be wrong to seek to command belief. Thomas had no different view, needless to say. Those without faith are not to be compelled to believe; indeed, faith cannot be forced since “to believe is voluntary” (IIaIIae. 10.8).

What would have surprised him, I think, is the spectacle of Catholics insisting that their religious beliefs must have no public impact. We hear: procured abortion is morally wrong, to be sure, but it is permitted by law and the Catholic must abide by the law. The Catholic politician must implement the law, nay more, seek funding so that more and more citizens may avail themselves of the opportunity to abort their babies. Catholic congressmen and senators and governors thus become the willing accomplices and executors of policies they hold to be profoundly evil. This, it is said, is the American way.

If procured abortion is legal, the law or judicial decision that made it so is wrong and only legal in an extended sense. There are reasons for obeying an unjust law, just as there may be reasons for not overthrowing an unjust regime, but one may never collude with evil. In a society such as ours, the effort must be to overturn the law or decision. To hold beliefs as to what people ought and ought not do, and at the same time resolve never to undertake political actions which will implement those beliefs, is a way of not holding them, of repudiating them.

Is this to impose one’s religion? If procured abortion is wrong, as it is, its wrongness is not established by religious belief. We ought not liken it to making attendance at Mass obligatory for everyone. Religious belief may strengthen and sustain the conviction with which one holds the true moral judgment, but that does not make the moral judgment essentially religious. Thus it is not only one’s religious belief one agrees to privatize and render sterile, but one’s moral beliefs as well, beliefs as to what is and is not good for men living together in society.

Thomas distinguishes laws which are unjust because they are contrary to the human good from those contrary to the divine good (IaIIae.96.4). Procured abortion violates the human good. Nor is it the kind of unjust law Thomas says we nonetheless abide by in order to avoid scandal or turbulence. The moral obligation is (a) not to avail oneself of the permission of the unjust law, and (b) to pursue vigorously its removal.

Many Ways to God?

What would Thomas make of the notion that there is a plurality of theologies in the sense that there are various ways in which Catholic beliefs can be understood and explicated? In order to make the question interesting, we will simply bypass all the milder and noncontroversial forms of it, and go to what at least sometimes seems to be meant, namely, that there are twentieth-century accounts of the faith that have nothing in common with, say, fourth- and thirteenth-century accounts and may even indeed conflict with them. But this is only as it should be, because it is the task of each age to express the faith in terms intelligible to the times. Moreover, knowledge of the faith increases over time, but nothing we believe now was not implicit in the belief of the Fathers (IIaIIae.1.7).

I suspect that before Thomas would discuss a plurality of theologies, he would want to know what is meant by theologies one at a time. That is: What is theology? If he read around a bit in the writings of those who most breezily call for pluralism, I think Thomas would find it impossible to accept what they mean by theology.

In discussing the faith, he writes, we must consider both the discussant and the audience. The intention of the discussant is all important. “For if he disputes as one doubting the faith, not presupposing the truth of faith as certain, but meaning to subject it to argument, there is no doubt that he sins, is weak of faith, unfaithful.”

As for the audience, one discussing the faith even in an appropriate way before the uninstructed must exercise care, but under the assault of heresy and pagan morality it may be necessary to dispute about the faith in public. The refutation of error can strengthen the faith of the simple. By and large, responsible theologizing is not aimed at the faithful at large as the immediate audience (IIaIIae.10.7). It seems clear what Thomas would say of theologians whose first impulse is to contest the Magisterium.

What would most startle Thomas, I think, is the fitful appeal made to him to justify such phenomena as liberation theology. Thomas, it is said, made use of Aristotle to express religious belief; so too others make use of Karl Marx in order to express the Gospel message. Apart from this being a hilariously naive way of expressing Thomas’s relation to Aristotle — it was the truth of what Aristotle said (despite the then-widespread suspicion of him) that attracted Thomas to the great pagan — the suggestion that the truths of faith can be accommodated to any philosopher is absurd. Marx’s view of man is diametrically opposed to the Christian view.

Much talk about theological pluralism involves a remarkably superficial understanding of what philosophy is. Philosophies are not languages which can be used to express just any worldview. Many philosophies incorporate worldviews which are antithetical to Christianity. It is packaging and promotion, rather than theology, that would regard them otherwise.

The Bible and Science

Reminded of what Thomas meant by theology — the analysis of believed truths, relating them to one another, deriving their implications, with the pope as ultimate arbiter of disruptive disagreement — a certain kind of modern theologian will be gripped by condescension. For Thomas, the starting points of theology are given by revelation and a large component of revelation is Scripture. “My dear fellow,” the twentieth-century theologian might say to Thomas, “biblical studies have blown your assumptions out of the water. Scholars now assure us that the proof texts you took to underwrite truths of the faith mean something far different. Christ did not claim to be divine or the Messiah; he did not found a church, a priesthood, the sacraments. Nor, I am sorry to say, did he rise from the dead.”

That anyone who accepted these alleged results should go on being a Christian and theologian is the first absurdity Thomas would note. He would also, to the embarrassment of his interlocutor, want to take a look at this amazing scholarship, since his fellow Dominican Francois Dreyfus, a biblical scholar, would tell him something very different. It is pleasant to image that Thomas and Kierkegaard will already have discussed these matters and that the Dane would have told Thomas of Lichtenberg’s mot: The Scriptures are a mirror; if a monkey looks in, no apostle looks out.

If one brings to the study of Scripture the assumption that they cannot mean what the Church takes them to mean, this is also the assumption with which study will end. To expect that a skeptical and demythologizing method will produce anything other than skepticism is naive. It is the Church that is the guarantor of the Scriptural canon which is presented to us as the Word of God. “God is the author of Sacred Scripture” (Ia.1.10).

Does this mean that Thomas is contemptuous of science? Hardly. But a little less credulity with respect to the wide-ranging implications of the current state of science seems advisable. Imagine an earlier time when the question would have been: Does Thomas have the temerity to question the advances of science in this year of grace —1938? 1838? 1738? Altering the date a bit enables us to imagine what the science of 1988 will look like in 2038 and feel appropriately chastened. That being said, we may be sure that Thomas would regard the current quest for knowledge of the universe with avid interest and eagerness to learn from it.

But just as he would be censorious of theologians who invoke for destructive purposes “biblical scholarship,” so Thomas would be wary of those who derive all kinds of conclusions of a moral and philosophical kind from the current state of science.

Creationism or evolution? However well intended, Thomas would probably regard this dispute as unfortunate. The biblical account is not meant to be a scientific account and to see it as competing with science is to invite derision. On the other hand, the assumption that science precludes creation, as if scientific accounts were rivals of the truth that all things owe their being to God, is equally risible.

The Via Thomistica

If we can thus easily imagine Thomas casting a cold eye on certain trends in the contemporary Church, we would not of course want to reduce him to the status of a negative measure. What is needed more than ever today is the fundamental confidence of Thomas that faith and human learning are compatible and complementary. Nothing could be less Thomistic than an unwelcoming and negative attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge by our natural powers. Equally, nothing could be less Thomistic than an apologetic attitude toward the faith, as if revealed truth were somehow an embarrassment and the faith, to be rewritten so as to coincide with secular learning, even when secular learning is construed as inimical to the faith.

What could be more schizophrenic than the suggestion that “scientific” biblical scholarship teaches us that none of the basic truths of Christianity has scriptural grounding, while at the same time professing to believe and thus to accept the Church’s claim that Her basic doctrines have scriptural grounding? This is redolent of the Two Truth theory of Latin Averroism and of it we may say what Thomas said.

The believer, told that science refutes creation, will wonder what has gone wrong in science. The believer, told that science tells us that freedom and moral responsibility are illusions, will want to examine the supposed proofs for this in the certainty that they are faulty. The believer, told that our minds are such that we cannot know the world as it is, will not try to rewrite the faith in terms of this claim, but to show it is incoherent. In the theoretical order, the faith is a powerful sustainer of natural truths, a guard against skepticism and relativism, a goad to the pursuit of truth.

In the practical order, Thomas can assist us in the task Cardinal Ratzinger set forth at the outset of the Instruction on Respect for Human Life. Nowadays, a false conception of human beings, of moral agents, gains ever wider currency, and from it stem bogus answers to the kinds of medical-ethical questions the Instruction addresses. That this remarkable document should have been greeted by some moral theologians as an embarrassment is itself an embarrassment.

Among philosophers now, Catholic and non-Catholic, there is a rebirth of interest in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. It would be difficult to find someone more often cited in the philosophy of religion, in moral and political philosophy, in metaphysics, than St. Thomas Aquinas. It is an ironic fact that those who deserted Thomas for the supposedly more nourishing fleshpots of analytic philosophy or phenomenology now find themselves among apocalyptic deconstructionists who have all but given up on reason. Perhaps, aware that Thomas is once more coming into vogue, they will return with equal superficiality to their old mentor. Welcome back, I say, but this time let’s do it right.

A fundamental feature of Christian theology is captured in the Augustinian slogan fides quaerens intellectum and Thomas exhibits this same project. But there is another and complementary project Thomas never forgets: intellectus quaerens fidem. The truth God revealed is meant for all because it is the only thing that can slake our intellectual thirst. Our minds are restless until they rest in that truth. It is because he can help us in our quest that Thomas is given us as our guide by the Church. Chesterton’s judgment still applies: “Now nobody will begin to understand the Thomist philosophy, or indeed the Catholic philosophy, who does not realize that the primary and fundamental part of it is entirely the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.”


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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