The Future of Thomism

I can predict some reactions to the above title: “What future?” After all, there are many outmoded elements in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. The chief problem is his dependence on Aristotelian science, which assumes a geocentric world, composed of “prime matter” rather than atoms, embedded eternally in concentric spheres moved by separate substances (the philosophical equivalent of angels), with life emerging by spontaneous generation.

There is no understanding of evolution or gravity. Biologically, females result from truncated gestational processes, and psychologically, and are deficient in rational powers. Diseases are caused by imbalances of hot, cold, wet, and dry. And so forth.

Trying to defend such a system today seems like “putting new wine into old wineskins,” to use a Biblical metaphor. But the Church, rather consistently, has supported Thomism.

When I was an undergraduate philosophy major at Loyola University in Los Angeles during the 1950s, a Thomistic approach prevailed within a scholastic curriculum – logic, cosmology, metaphysics, epistemology, general and special ethics. But courses in Kant, Hegel, and other modern philosophers were also offered.

During graduate studies at UCLA, the department chairman warned me that I would have difficulty because of my Thomistic background. In my second semester, I took a course from him, and received a “C.”  He called me in, told me that I would probably have to be put on probation. I pointed out, however, that my average grade was well above a “C.” He responded, “Oh, was I the only bastard?” He apparently presumed, without checking, that my grades in other courses would be similar.

The philosophy department at St. Louis University, where I did MA work, was also recognizably Thomistic, with noted scholars like Halloway, Burke, and Collins. My thesis was on the fascinating metaphysics of Thomistic angelology, which later became a book.

I subsequently did doctoral work at Duquesne, which, unlike most Catholic universities, focused on contemporary phenomenology. But almost as if on orders from on high, the curricula of most Catholic colleges began to change in the mid 1960s.

At Marquette University, where I ended up teaching, the Thomistic elements in the curriculum gave way to an emphasis on a new type of “tradition,” the “history of philosophy.” In my thirty-five years at Marquette, which included time on search committees, in hiring we advertised for candidates with a solid background in the history of philosophy.

But we would often find in interviews that a candidate had little or no knowledge of Aristotle or Kant, and complete ignorance of medieval philosophy. So changes in emphasis for hiring and curricula and specializations have followed suit. Most other Catholic colleges and universities have undergone similar metamorphoses.

In theology, almost the same general process has taken place. Attempts to incorporate Kantian epistemological principles were made by “transcendental Thomists” like Lonergan and periti at Vatican II like Karl Rahner. Pope John Paul II buttressed his theology with contemporary phenomenology and personalism.

     Thomas Aquinas by Ardith Starostka

So, after centuries of official Church support of Thomism, including explicit papal mandates regarding Thomistic theology, we are facing the obvious question: what is living and what is dead in Thomism? The clashes with contemporary science that I mentioned above are not relevant for the vast majority of Aquinas’ works.

I myself believe important elements in the writings of St. Thomas are still vital: his theory of natural law, the nature of faith, the interrelationship of faith and reason, the evidence of the existence of God, the relationship of nature and grace, the inner workings of conversion; and in philosophical anthropology, his analyses of the nature of love, the relationship of soul to body, the nature of rationality and the differences between humans and other animals.

Also, his commentaries on Scripture and on the works of Aristotle are magnificent exegetical accomplishments, still useful for scholars.

But there is one aspect of Thomism – concerning methodology – which I consider extremely important, and unduly ignored.

Aquinas lived in a university milieu in which the main source of excitement was intellectual – constant scholastic disputations on a plethora of philosophical and theological positions. For example: whether a person needs grace to prepare for grace; whether someone can confess sins in writing rather than orally; whether people were bound to believe in Christ even if He did not perform visible miracles; whether a seller is bound to tell a prospective buyer about defects in items he is selling, etc.

These disputations were attended by students and professors, who like contemporary academics at sporting events, took sides, and followed the arguments of their champions in the search for the truth.

This academic custom was in the spirit of Aristotle, who in his Topics proposed a dialectical analysis of opposite points of view for arriving at the truth, and followed this method religiously in his major works, always beginning with a distillation of the major positions and looking for rational solutions, which would incorporate any strong points of the opponents.

I can recall a few debates of this nature in my own university experiences: a debate on the existence of God at Loyola, which drew a standing-room-only audience from students at UCLA and elsewhere; and my own debate before a student audience during the 1980s on abortion, in the aftermath of which I unsuccessfully lobbied for debates as a regular feature in the Liberal Arts curriculum.

Aquinas systematized this “dialectical” approach in his Summa and elsewhere, always starting with a list of objections to a thesis, then some answers by authorities, then his “Respondeo dicendum quod…” – his reply, and finally replies to each specific objection.

A great way to preserve the spirit of Thomism in Catholic colleges and universities would be to drop all their massive investments (unlike European institutions of higher education) in sports, and reinstitute comprehensive disputations on contemporary cultural, ethical, and political issues as the sort of thing universities “do.”

I’m not predicting the future, just saying what would be faithful to and reinvigorate the rich Catholic tradition of faith and reason.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • pgk

    I was an undergraduate philosophy major (at a non-Catholic university) and my initial history of philosophy sequence skipped right over the middle ages. We did read Plato and Aristotle of course and even the pre-Socratics, but for some reason the middle ages weren’t considered relevant… Perhaps the pendulum is starting to swing back though, with books like “God’s Philosophers” generally receiving positive reviews… One can hope.

  • bill bannon

    I read virtually the entire Summa T. after reading the whole Bible and most of Augustine. I should have started with him in that Aquinas is order and clarity about the other two. The Church however should put out a guide to reading him so that the young could know where he has been corrected so that they do not follow him into an error which were not seen as errors at his time: affirmed execution for heretics which is corrected by sect.80 of Splendor Veritatis; affirmed asking for the marriage debt as venial sin if procreation unwilled (ST/Suppl./Quest.49/art.5 which repeats Augustine’s ” Good of Marriage” sect.6….both rejected when the Church later explicitly accepted the use of the infertile times).

  • Craig Payne

    For those interested (and who would not be?) I highly recommend the Aquinas Conference series at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, NY, which is usually in early June. The upcoming conference will be the fourth.

    On dropping all the “massive investments in sports”: Good luck with that.

  • ROB

    Professor, on what planet do you see Notre Dame tearing down it’s football stadium and Georgetown sending it’s basketball team packing? And in this alternate universe students and alummni replace the revenue lost by purchasing tickets to hear philosophers like yourself dispute life’s weightier issues. Hate to burst your bubble, just ain’t gonna happen.

  • Ernest Miller

    ROB…that alternate universe might well be the Second Coming accompanied by the separation of sheep and goats. Tickets may already be sold out.

  • Athanasius

    First, let me state what should be obvious: The deposit of faith comes from revelation as preserved and interpreted by the Magisterium. As such, no one saint or theologian was always 100% correct, and so we need to look to the Magisterium to sort out what was orthodox from the teaching of each of these great saints. There is a danger when people will base their faith almost exclusively on the writings of one particular person, or even on one particular apparition. We must always look to the Church in her magisterium for the complete source of truth.

    Having said that, it seems to me that the Catechism that was just released in the 1990s very heavily leans in a Thomistic direction, and so I still consider much of Aquinas taught to be very relevant. I especially agree with Howard on the methodology of Thomas as being very effective, and we should use it today to correct both Statism and Islam. There is a reason St. Thomas is called the “Angelic Doctor”.

    Of course, we are fortunate today to have the vast writings of JPII and BXVI. Both of these men have had the advantage of time to digest Aquinas as well as other teachers, and offer us a rich deepness of the Church’s theology. But I still see in both of them a good share of Thomism, particularly in their teachings on the necessary consistency between faith and reason.

  • jan

    Great idea, professor. We lament the loss of the Catholic voice, and respect for the same, in the public square. The prospect of an environment of vigorous intellectual debate will attract the best minds to apply to admission to, and attend, a University offering such an environment.

    People ask how to invigorate the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic culture. The former stimulates the creation of, and desire to participate in, the latter.

  • Mack Hall

    Is there some sort of rule that every Catholic ‘blog must incorporate some variation on “When I was in graduate school…”?

  • Q

    You are correct. Most only care about sports. That is their god. It is a shame.

  • Peccator Humilis

    Yes, that’s a rule; you got a problem with that?

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    As for prime matter being what are now called atoms, it is not the case. Prime matter is a metaphical principle, not pysical as we assume atoms are. The official Church endorsement St. Thomas came with Pope Leo XIII and the Encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879. The Council of Trent, for instance, was careful not to endorse or define any matter in dispute among schools of theology. Several theological schools were represented at the Council, besides Thomists, there were Scotists, and Augustinians, the latter well represented by the General of the Augustinian order, who did his best to rescue what was positive in Luther. The scholastic method has its origin in the early 12th century especially in Anselm of Laon and Peter Abelard. So, Thomas should not be studied in a vacuum as it is not possible to understand him without going back to the 12th century and before that also.
    I also think that one of the most important aspects of St. Thomas’s effort is his capacity for synthesis. Just like we do biblical exegesis and exegesis of the Fathers and the Councils, exegesis of St. Thomas is also necessary. In fact, the importance of hermeneutics is one something very positive in the 20th century.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Thomas J. Hennigan: You may be right about Prime Matter. As you know, this is still a controversial issue among Aristotelians. For Aristotle, the basic building blocks are the four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — but these exist in a formless substratum which is called prime matter. At the edges of physics, we arrive at the metaphysical. In contemporary cosmology, string theory, for example, seems to be going beyond the physical. Anyway, with regard to Aquinas, I agree that a scholar trying to understand Aquinas and the scholastic method would have to go into a lot of historical currents; but my question was what in Aquinas is relevant today — and in my books I have found much relevant — especially the most recent book concerning the faith-instinct, a Thomistic theory deserving of reconsideration and exegesis.