- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

One That Got Away

Venice, years ago, off season. Jude Dougherty and I had slipped away from a meeting in Padua to spend a day in this fabled city, going from church to church, from masterpiece to masterpiece, trying not to confuse the Bellinis, and now, surfeited, we came along a narrow crepuscular street onto which light spilled from a shop window. It might have been another painting. It was a book dealer. We entered.

My eye was drawn to a magnificent Renaissance volume, yellowing leather, huge, its formatted pages when I eased it open a hymn to moveable type. Simply as an artifact it was gorgeous. But it was an edition of Cardinal Cajetan’s commentary on the psalms! Bibliolatry is not one of my vices, but as director of the Medieval Institute I coveted this book for our library. Negotiations began.

The asking price was risibly low, five hundred dollars. I nodded, feigned indifference, looked at other things. Would travelers checks do? The purchase would wipe me out, but I was flying home the following day. Where was I staying? Padua! The dealer wanted cash. This was before ATMs. Jude and I conferred. We could come close to the asking price, but that would leave us with little but lint in our pockets. The dealer shrugged.

We left the shop, walked a short way, then I had to go back. If the dealer had been inclined to bargain, that settled it. He knew he had me. Unfortunately, I was still unable to meet his price. The suggestion of a credit card amused him. If he had been a man of sentiment he would not have been a bookman. Would he have taken a pound of flesh? When I left the shop again it was without Cajetan. I felt like a rejected suitor.

As all the world knows, to use a Trollope trope, Thomas de Vio Cardinal Cajetan was the delegate the pope sent north to talk sense to Martin Luther. Cajetan had one of the keenest minds of the day. As a young Dominican he had taught in Padua, defending Thomas Aquinas against the Scotists. His commentary on the Summa theologiae is included in the definitive Leonine edition of that work, to the delight of many and the dismay of some. His meeting with Martin Luther did not have the desired result. It is a scene that calls for an historian like Marvin O’Connell to describe. The diminutive Dominican, the already meaty Augustinian, the calm scholastic, the fiery zealot. The whole future of Europe, of Christendom, hung on the outcome of their discussion. If Cajetan on the psalms got away from me, Martin Luther got away from Cajetan.

From my student days, I had been reading Cajetan, one of the great Thomistic commentators, perhaps the greatest. But I had read none of his Biblical commentaries. Of course the theologian was a “master of the sacred page,” Biblical studies were the foundation of sacred science, but the meeting with Luther had a noticeable effect on Cajetan. Master General of the Order of Preachers, a cardinal, Cajetan retired to Gaeta where he devoted himself to commenting on the scriptures, now influenced by some of the new Renaissance techniques.

Like Suarez, Cajetan was a saintly, ascetic man, capable of enormous and sustained intellectual labor. Among the things he wrote at Gaeta were commentaries on all St. Paul’s epistles. From his youth, he had the practice of dating a work when he finished it. Thus we can see the swiftness with which he finished one epistle and went on to the next. (So too my wife would sign and date a book when she finished it, and I can track her reading of the novels of Edith Wharton throughout 1986.)

Once at a meeting in Rome, I asked Father Francois Dreyfus about Cajetan as a commentator. Dreyfus – from that Dreyfus family – was a convert, a Dominican, who taught in Jerusalem. He had written a book asking if Jesus knew he was God. He was not without criticism of his fellow biblicists. He wrote a series of articles contrasting academic with church exegesis. Dei verbum was his vademecum. He pondered my question, then whispered, “He was the Raymond Brown of his day.”

Cajetan did say some odd things about canonical works, seeming to doubt that some deserved that status. That was hardly an open question. My first book was a critique of Cajetan on analogy. I knew that Cajetan, like Homer, sometimes nodded. I still regretted not being able to buy that lovely edition of his commentary on the Psalms. Eventually we got them, on microfilm. Not the same thing, of course.

These memories come as I write on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a master who never nods. A Master of the Sacred Page. His commentaries on Scripture have not always received the attention they deserve from his disciples, but that is changing now. Like any good commentator he makes the Word of God sing in our inner ear. Saint Thomas, pray for us.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.