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, 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.