End Notes: The Doctor of Common Sense

The transfer of the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas from March 7, the anniversary of his death, to January 28, whatever the official explanation, had the appearance of a demotion. Leo XIII, in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni patris had singled Thomas out as the special mentor of both the Catholic philosopher and theologian. With the single exception of John Paul I, every Pope since Leo has reaffirmed Thomas’s special role. Vatican II did the same. Nonetheless, there is a widespread view that the so-called Thomistic Revival was brought to a precipitous halt by the Council. It certainly looks that way.

The response to Leo’s encyclical was phenomenal. When John Henry Newman went to Rome after his conversion, he expected to find the field thick with Thomists. But, as Ian Ker says, “In general, Newman was shocked by the poor state of both philosophy and theology. There was no study of Aristotle, nor of St. Thomas Aquinas.” This was in 1846. Things began to get better before 1879, but Leo gave force and focus to a revival. The response to Aeterni patris took the form of new schools, colleges, universities, of editions of Thomas’s writings and books about him, of conferences and journals and societies devoted to his thought. There has been nothing like it before or since.

Once every graduate of a Catholic college had at least a rudimentary grasp of the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. Thomism and Catholic thought seemed all but identical. It is no longer so. Why?

Some would say that Leo’s embrace of Thomas was part of the reactionary hostility to modernity that began with Pius IX and would crest in the even more reactionary papacy of Pius X, whose battle against Modernism is now, like the battler himself, only of happy memory. Vatican II, it is said, is the vindication of the Modernists. And, since Pius X was one of the strongest champions of Thomas Aquinas, the eclipse of the one is the eclipse of the other.

There is another way to interpret all this. The right way. Leo XIII was indeed turning to Thomas as to an intellectual bulwark against the currents of modernity. With a prescience shared by few, he saw what was happening to civil society as a result of the espousal of Enlightenment principles. Social and moral evils have their sources in false theory and Leo wisely saw that only by restoring sound philosophy and theology could the moral future be better than the past.

The Modernists, like their latter day champions, have a penchant for lost causes. A museum could be filled with the fads and novelties the Church has been urged to embrace on penalty of becoming irrelevant. But the conflict is between the true and the false, not the new and the old. In any case, the Church is both, nova et vetera, bringing the good news into every age, aggiornamento.

Such disputes may seem esoteric to ordinary Catholics, a luxury of academics and other underemployed types. But this is far from being the case. Thomas Aquinas was recognized as a defender of the faith because he is also a defender of reason, of common sense.

It is not sufficiently noticed that the modern turn in philosophy was a revolt against common sense, that is, against the notion that every human being already knows some things for sure. Philosophy became a method which alone insured belief was true knowledge. Prior to acquiring and applying this method, one could not really know anything. The appropriate attitude toward prephilosophical lore was doubt and skepticism. That this led to rationalism in theology — measuring truths of faith by the canons of reason alone — is true enough, but Leo saw that it would eventually subvert knowledge itself.

And so it has. The illuminati of our time dismiss the idea that there is some reality independent of thought which is the measure of truth and falsity. We have passed rapidly from universal emotivism to universal nihilism.

Dr. Johnson was a Thomistic type who resonded to the claim that “to be is to be thought” by kicking a rock. That does not prove the reality of the rock. It makes clear that no such a proof is needed. This is not a denial that rocks are marvelous things, but more marvelous still is the fact that we can know them.

It is the link between thought and the things that are that has been severed. Leo XIII could see where the inner logic of modernity would lead, and he saw what this would do to the faith. Faith needs reason, it presupposes it as the supernatural must always presuppose the natural. So it is that the Church becomes the defender of reason itself.

Modernists wish to sign on to some phase or other of the philosophical movement that leads eventually to nihilism. But there is no philosophical alternative to the Realism represented by Thomas Aquinas. Bad philosophy generates bad theology. The next phase of the Thomistic Revival is long overdue.

On January 28th, we will pray that we might not only understand what Thomas taught but also imitate the way he lived. This is not a prayer for the victory of Thomism over its rivals; it is the prayer that the Thomist in everyone might emerge from the mist and fog of Modernism by keeping in touch with that common sense that has the enormous advantage of being common.


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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