Second-Hand Straw

Dr. Ralph Mclnerny, the co-founder and publisher of Crisis, was selected to receive the 1993 Aquinas Medal, the highest honor of the American Catholic Philosophical Association (ACPA). The medal was conferred March 29, at the banquet of the Association’s Sixty-seventh Annual Meeting in Saint Louis, Missouri. Among the previous recipients of this award are Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. At the presentation banquet, Jude Dougherty, Dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, praised Mclnerny as “a man of common sense—clear-headed, witty, amusing, and profound all at once, he has touched the lives of many who without him may not have discovered the wisdom of Saint Thomas.” Dr. Mclnerny then gave the following address.

Saint Thomas, at an age younger than mine—some 15 years younger—decided to stop writing, saying that what he had written was no better than straw. As a disciple of Thomas I would have to describe my writings as secondhand straw. And we know that calls for a shovel.

In his writing days, when he was discussing that in which human happiness consists, Saint Thomas, like many before him, considered a number of candidates for the role, most of which he found wanting. Among them are praise and honor and glory. These cannot make us happy. They are not the purpose of life. Of course, Thomas would not have considered them at all if they had nothing to commend them. And I certainly feel happy to stand here now, recipient of this medal which is an honor indeed.

It was in 1950 that I first attended an ACPA convention. I took a street car from the Saint Paul Seminary to a downtown hotel where I sat in a crowded ballroom and witnessed for the first time this odd ritual of reading papers and being read at, of question and response, of doing philosophy. At the time I was what was called a First Philosopher. This did not mean that I was a metaphysician, but only that with the other seminarians in my class I had just embarked on the study of philosophy. At the time, I was the equivalent of a junior in college. Under Father William Baumgaertner, a product of Laval University, I was reading Aristotle and Saint Thomas, text and commentaries.

A few years later, having found that my vocation was not the priesthood, having received an M.A. in philosophy and classics from the University of Minnesota, where my chief mentors were Wilfrid Sellars and Paul Holmer, and the Ph.L and Ph.D. (“summa cum loud mouth,” as the Kingfish said) from Laval, where I had the enormous privilege of studying with Charles DeKoninck, I began teaching at Creighton. In 1955, I attended my first meeting of the Metaphysical Society and embarked upon regular attendance at the ACPA, the American Philosophical Association (APA) and the Metaphysical Society. Forty years have seen many changes in American philosophy in general and in American Catholic philosophy in particular. I want to take this occasion to reflect a bit upon those changes.

The years have seen the ACPA diminish while the APA has become a sprawling, polycephalous monster. Now when students approach the end of their graduate studies and set off in December for the APA meeting, I watch them go with fear and trembling. They return stunned, disillusioned, in the grips of what Plato called misology. I cannot help compare their reactions to my own of many years ago when I attended my first meeting of the ACPA. I had the feeling of coming among giants. The Catholic philosophical landscape was defined by such figures as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Charles DeKoninck, Yves Simon, James Collins, George Klubertanz, Robert Henle, Leo Ward, Mortimer Adler, Vernon Bourke, and in the wings were Joseph Owens, James Weisheipl, Norris Clark, William Wallace, Anton Pegis, Benedict Ashley—but I will not read on in the Book of Life. Giants. Catholic philosophers. More importantly, all of them, all, proudly thought of themselves as Thomists.

If I have a thesis tonight it is this: Catholic philosophy flourishes only when it is conducted in response to the Church’s reiterated directive that we take Thomas Aquinas for our principal guide. Catholic philosophy falters, and our organizations grow anemic, to the degree that Thomism becomes weak. We, our organizations and institutions, will flourish only when there is a renewed sense of the providential role that Thomas Aquinas is meant to play in the intellectual and cultural life, not only of the church, but of mankind generally.

The last 30 years and more have seen the progressive secularization of our colleges and universities. The pathology whereby Catholic and other Christian colleges transform themselves into the very thing they were founded to counter has received much attention of late. For me, it is not a possible object of research, but something I have witnessed close up. What went wrong?

How often has one heard and read of the dreadful days before Vatican II, of all those terrible textbooks, the required courses, the insularity and jargon, the quibbles over texts, the appeals to authority. One can of course depict any movement in terms of lesser, even tertiary figures, take its failures and flaws as its aim. But of course philosophy generally, not just Catholic philosophy, can be caricatured and parodied in that way. What a change when we consider the world of the giants I have mentioned. Let me put before you two figures, Jacques Maritain and Edith Stein. Both were converts to Catholicism, both were educated persons at the time of their conversion; indeed, Edith Stein had a doctorate in philosophy and was one of the most promising of Edmund Husserl’s students. With conversion to Catholicism came rather quickly an intellectual transformation, manifested in a turn to the study of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Maritain and Stein saw in Thomas what the Church told them they would find—the means to remedy the intellectual and cultural ills of the day.

That is what Aeterni Patris had maintained. Many must have been amused on that August day in 1879 when the frail Leo XIII announced urbi et orbi that only by a return to the Christian philosophy chiefly represented by Thomas Aquinas could mankind find its way out of the morass of the Enlightenment. People at the time might have been pardoned for thinking that things were going fairly well. They might have been pardoned for being amused by the Pope, now a prisoner in the Vatican, seemingly marginalized by the onward rush of progress, presuming to lecture not only his benighted flock but the world at large. What a prophet Leo XIII looks to us now. How the mighty have fallen.

The first response to Aeterni Patris was good; the second chapter was truly amazing. The foundation of new colleges and universities, societies, journals, scholarly projects, the reform of seminary education and, yes, the writing of textbooks and the devising of undergraduate curricula. It was into this flourishing Thomistic culture that Maritain and Stein came when they converted. When people my age came upon the scene, there was a veritable golden age in the Catholic Church. Pre-conciliar Catholic culture, not least in the United States, was lively, vigorous, exciting.

What happened? We have been poor custodians of our birthright. We have misinterpreted Vatican II’s call for renewal as an invitation to pitch out of windows—quite literally—a vast intellectual, cultural, and spiritual patrimony. Aggiornamento, incredibly, was taken to mean that we should join the enemy, adopt intellectual fashions and modes which were by intent and definition incompatible with the faith. Catholic education and culture has described a great Yuppie curve; we have witnessed the pell-mell pursuit of assimilation into a secular culture and a pathetic desire for condescending acceptance by those who disdain our faith. And we have earned the rightful contempt of those whose favor we curried.

A contrast: Years ago, when Robert Hutchens and Mortimer Adler and Stringfellow Barr and others set out to reform American higher education, to recover the liberal arts, they were able to look about them and see something of the ideal instantiated in Catholic colleges and universities. A few years ago, when Allan Bloom wrote his indictment of American higher education, any sense of a Catholic alternative to the bleak picture he painted was absent. Why? Catholic institutions had tried, were still trying, are still trying, to become more and more like what is a failed form of education. Not only have we failed ourselves, disdained our birthright, but by hankering after the fleshpots of Egypt, we are also failing the wider culture at the very moment when it most needs what it, and we, have lost. Shame on us. Shame on us for regarding the guidance of the Church in intellectual matters as an embarrassment. Shame on us for trying to adopt a secularized notion of philosophy, without presuppositions, skeptical toward what ordinary people think, hostile to any suggestion that there are truths beyond the comprehensive reach of reason. We have met the enemy and he is us. We have become what we were warned against. We have failed to carry on the great work taken up again at the instigation of Leo XIII, continued by the giants I mentioned earlier, and then entrusted to us.

Any glance at higher education in the United States today reveals a disaster area. Moral relativism and intellectual skepticism—the triumph of anti-realism—are everywhere. The oppressive atmosphere, the crimes committed in the name of academic freedom, the sheer comic idiocy of so many disciplines, are inescapable. Yet, that is what Catholic colleges and universities continue to emulate, to lust after, to want to be.

Shame on us.

What is the remedy? Return to Thomas Aquinas. Take up again the task laid out in Aeterni Patris and all the documents since, papal and conciliar; recover our patrimony.

Thomas as we all know was not a Thomist. He was not interested in holding positions that were personal, idiosyncratically his own. The Thomism of the Thomistic Revival is not the thought of one man. Thomas saw himself as the heir of a vast effort that had preceded him; he confronted new issues, new authors, new problems, but his task was the same as Boethius’s: show that faith and reason complement one another. Chesterton went unerringly to the heart of Thomas’s achievement. Faith is the acceptance of truths on the warrant of divine revelation; such truths complement and aid in the pursuit of truths achieved by the use of our God-given reason. This is first of all a policy. Any other policy would be irrational. The gift of faith is an assent to truths, to the First Truth. No truth is alien to the believer.

If the truths of faith are a gift—truths the human mind could never on its own have known—they are compatible with those truths, theoretical and practical, accessible to all. As at the time of Aeterni Patris, it is those natural truths which are being rejected. Various kinds of anti-realism deny that the human mind can attain being. Skepticism about the capacity of human beings to know reality and grasp the fundamental principles of morality makes the philosophical task of recovery of natural principles a service to mankind in general as well as to the faith.

What are the prospects before us?

We see all around us a turning to Thomas. We see converts who have experienced from within the inadequacy and incoherence of its rivals turn to Thomism. They bear testimony to the wisdom of Leo XIII.

This is a time when the great institutional expressions of Thomism have all but disappeared. But they came into being as a result of the achievements of individual students of Thomas. Etienne Gilson was not a product of a program but he went on to found the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. Jacques Maritain had his mentors but he was almost an autodidact so far as Thomism went, as was Edith Stein. The next phase of the Thomistic Revival is preparing itself in the work and writings of still scattered individuals. Now is a time of Thomism in diaspora. What will come next only God knows.

Charles DeKoninck once wrote—and it could serve as the motto of his life—Car je n’espere que d’être un disciple qui croit en son maitre (“I only hope to be a disciple who believes in his master”). And Jacques Maritain, working a variation on Saint Paul, exclaimed: Vae mihi si non thomistazavero. That might be loosely rendered as “Poor me, if I fail to be a Thomist.”

Poor all of us, when you come to think of it. The prayer from the Feast of Thomas says it all:

Deus, qui Ecclesiam tuam beati

Thomae Confessoris tui mira

eruditione clarificas, et sancta

operatione foecundas: da nobis,

quaesumus, et quae docuit,

intellectu conspicere, et quae

egit, imitatione complere.

As the prayer says, may we understand what he taught and imitate what he did.

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