Tuesday, July 07, 2015


The Revivification of Sound Christian Philosophy

By D.Q. McInerny  

D.Q. McInerny is a Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska. He holds B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy from the National University of Ireland, University College Cork. Among his latest published books are Natural Theology (2005), Epistemology (2007), An Introduction to Foundational Logic (2012), and The Philosophy of Nature (2014).

In 1879, the second year of his pontificate, Pope Leo XIII issued Aeterni Patris, an encyclical that launched what was to become a singularly important event in the modern history of the Catholic Church: the Thomistic renewal, also known as the Neo-Scholastic revival. A renewal, or revival, was very much in order, because at the time Pope Leo wrote his encyclical Thomistic philosophy was, by and large, in a rather sickly condition, and had been for a good many years. Though there had been periods in the past when Thomism had the status of a philosophy whose influence was both potent and pervasive, this was not the case in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. But that state of affairs was to change dramatically with the publication of Aeterni Patris. The encyclical had the salutary effect of restoring some sorely needed vitality to Thomism, and within the span of two decades the philosophy became the animating core of a movement whose repercussions were felt throughout the Church. Few encyclicals have elicited the kind of immediate, positive response from the faithful that Aeterni Patris did.

The Thomistic renewal spread like a prairie fire, igniting new and enthusiastic interest in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas among a wide range of Catholic philosophers and theologians, while at the same time giving encouraging support to a small but dedicated number of individuals who were already laboring to restore a vigorous Thomism to the Church. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and continuing through the first half of the twentieth century, Thomistic philosophy once again became a prominent and authoritative presence within the Church. The rise and rapid growth of a revivified Thomism would easily have given a thoughtful observer at the time good reason to believe that the Thomistic renewal was in every respect a sterling success. It is amazing, as we look back at it now, to see how quickly and surely everything seemed to come together, but our amazement becomes perfect astonishment when we reflect on how quickly everything fell apart. The collapse of the Thomistic renewal took place with eye-blinking suddenness in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. How is this singular happening to be explained? Before attempting to provide an answer to that question, it is well to look more closely at the Thomistic renewal itself.

Even otherwise well-informed Catholics can be excused for being surprised by the assertion that Thomism was, in the late nineteenth century, in a rather sorry state, and that there was thus a real need for a renewal. Has not Thomistic philosophy been, since the death of St. Thomas in 1274, more or less steadily in place as a large, universally accepted, and widely influential fact of Catholic thought and life? No. As a matter of fact, the history of Thomism — considered in terms of its influence within the Church over time — has been, since the fourteenth century, pretty much an up-and-down affair. By the eighteenth century, Thomism had arguably reached its nadir, having been adversely affected by the phenomenon called Decadent Scholasticism, the name given by historians to the culmination of the steady deterioration of Scholastic philosophy, a process whose origins can be traced back to the fourteenth century and the ascendency of nominalism. Thomism — one should really write “Thomism” — had reached an embarrassingly unbecoming condition; it had lost its focus and was no longer properly centered on the thought of St. Thomas himself.

In the nineteenth century, however, a genuine Thomism began to make a comeback, and though Aeterni Patris was the key factor, the renewal had its harbingers. Earlier in the century, before the publication of the encyclical, important work done by men such as Sanseverino, Signorelli, Cornoldi, and Zigliara in Italy, and by Kleutgen in Germany — all learned and dedicated scholars — prepared the way for the renewal.

Let’s pause here to define the term Thomism. What, precisely, is Thomism? We could start by saying it is simply the name given to the thought of St. Thomas, as set forth in his many and impressive works, principally in his two great “summaries,” the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae. The term has broader application, however, in that it also refers to the vast body of literature that has built up around the thought of St. Thomas over the course of centuries. The works of St. Thomas have inspired a richly variegated array of responses, in the form of explications, interpretations, embellishments, and proposed developments of the saint’s thought, written for the most part by philosophers and theologians who would identify themselves as Thomists, whose numbers have grown to such an extent as to constitute today a veritable army.

Earlier I referred to “genuine Thomism,” which was the only kind of Thomism Leo XIII was interested in and intent upon reviving. Genuine Thomism is the philosophy that is secundum mentem Sancti Thomae (“according to the mind of St. Thomas”) in the sense that, in every respect, it faithfully reflects the actual substance of Thomas’s thought, as well as the methodology he employed in developing that thought. A genuine Thomism is not merely reiteration; it incorporates creative extensions of the saint’s thought. A genuine Thomist, then, would be a philosopher who, among other virtues, has an operative awareness of the central importance of the argumentative spirit that animates the whole of Thomas’s thought. Seldom does the saint simply tell us that such and such is the case; invariably he tells us why it is the case. He argues, in other words, and the conclusions of his arguments are illuminating precisely because of the brilliance of the reasoning that undergirds them.

In Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo proposes St. Thomas as the appropriate guiding light for the successful re-establishment of a Christian philosophy, the one philosophy that would be capable of effectively confronting the various philosophies that had gained ascendency in modern times, systems of thought which, by distorting or denying so many fundamental truths, contributed substantially to the gradual de-Christianizing of European society. St. Thomas, for Pope Leo, is to be recognized as “the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith”; among philosophers he is “the chief and master of all.” The Pope points to his numerous predecessors who have taken pains to single out Thomas for special praise, and who have cited his thought as a standard to be followed by all. Recognizing it to be still quite timely, Leo gives his endorsement to a decree promulgated by Bl. Pope Urban V (1362-1370), in which that pontiff wrote, “It is our will, which we hereby enjoin upon you, that you follow the teaching of Blessed Thomas as the true and Catholic doctrine, and that you labor with all your force to profit by the same.” Pope Leo notes that a number of ecumenical councils have held Thomas “in singular honor,” and he calls attention to the striking fact that “the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of the conclave to lay upon the altar, together with the code of Sacred Scripture and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason and inspiration.”

Leo XIII assigns a special importance to philosophy as it relates to faith in general, and specifically as it relates to theology. He sees philosophy as representing a foundational role with respect to theology, and he argues that “a perpetual and varied service is further required of philosophy, in order that sacred theology may receive and assume the nature, form, and genius of a science.” If sacred theology is to live up to its critically important tasks within the Church — indeed, if it is to qualify as an authentic science — it must be supported and informed by a sound philosophy. What Leo is telling us, quite plainly, is that it is not possible to have a sound theology without a sound philosophy.

The English title of Aeterni Patris is “The Restoration of Christian Philosophy.” A genuinely Christian philosophy would of course be just that philosophy which would support and inform a sound theology, and the thought of St. Thomas, Pope Leo makes clear, should serve as its centerpiece or core. But it is well to note that, for all the emphasis he gives to St. Thomas, the Pope is not advocating a narrow or exclusive Thomism. He makes no simple equation between Christian philosophy and Thomistic philosophy. If Thomism can be said to function as the core of a Christian philosophy, that core should be thought of as packaged within a larger and more comprehensive philosophical system — Scholasticism — by which it is nourished, and divorced from which its very intelligibility becomes problematic. By the time St. Thomas arrived on the scene in the thirteenth century, a rich philosophical tradition was already in place, and Leo XIII clearly wanted to see the effective reconstitution of everything that was best in Scholasticism, especially because of its foundational realist orientation. But the pontiff’s vision included yet more; it was, so to speak, philosophically all-embracing. He was calling for a Christian philosophy that would be reflective of, and integral to, what he refers to as the perennial philosophy. What might that be? The perennial philosophy can be generally described as the most comprehensive of sound philosophies, the sound philosophy that takes into account, preserves, and transmits every intellectually sound proposition that has ever been formulated by any particular thinker or any particular philosophical system. Put another way, the perennial philosophy is simply the sum total, the treasury, of those foundational and timeless truths at which man has arrived, in the East and the West, over the entire course of human history. In his regard for the perennial philosophy, Leo reflects an attitude toward truth typical of Thomas himself. Friar Thomas, guided by the conviction that all truth has its ultimate source in God, believed therefore that the truth should be gratefully garnered wherever it might be found.

Apropos his advocacy of a philosophy that must be unqualifiedly inclusive with respect to the truth, Pope Leo, after acknowledging advances the pagan philosophers had made toward an understanding of the one, true God (Plato and Aristotle readily come to mind), then cites an array of Christian philosophers who have contributed substantially to the perennial philosophy, beginning with St. Justin Martyr, the first Christian philosopher. Among others, he mentions St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene, Boethius, St. Anselm, and St. Bonaventure.

Pope Leo did not content himself with simply writing an encyclical for the purpose of generating a movement that would restore a Christian philosophy with Thomism as its animating nucleus. Leo XIII was a devoted Thomist long before he became pope. Twenty years prior to his election to the papacy, Joachim Pecci, as bishop of Perugia, had founded in that city the Academy of St. Thomas. After his election to the pontificate, he quickly took steps to ensure that the serious study of the works of St. Thomas would be carried out in Rome. Further, he founded the Higher Institute of Philosophy at Louvain University in Belgium in 1891, which historian Joseph Perrier described as “the glory of neo-Thomism.” The Pope hand-picked Désiré Mercier, a young Belgian priest-philosopher, to be the first head of the institute. Fr. Mercier, later cardinal primate of Belgium, was to become a major figure in the Thomistic renewal, and the institute at Louvain served as something like the flagship institution for the movement. Over the years, it turned out a great number of Thomist philosophers of the first rank, a large percentage of whom were clerics. Among the many American priests trained at Louvain was a young man from the Diocese of Peoria by the name of Fulton J. Sheen, who earned his Ph.D. summa cum laude. A particularly fruitful act taken by Leo XIII, for the express purpose of ensuring the ongoing and seriously productive study of Thomistic thought, was the inauguration of what has come to be known as the Leonine Edition of the complete works of St. Thomas Aquinas. The goal of this monumental scholarly project, which continues to this day, is to provide for posterity a uniform set of all of the writings of the Angelic Doctor, as definitive as it is humanly possible to make it, based on meticulous examination of all available manuscripts. Fittingly enough, the Dominicans were given charge of the project.

Perrier published a well-balanced and informative volume entitled The Renewal of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century (1908) that provides a thoroughgoing account of the early stages of the Thomistic renewal, covering the two decades following the publication of Aeterni Patris. “The influence of the pope’s encyclical was simply immense,” Perrier writes. “The revival of Thomism, which had been limited to some isolated efforts, was then taken seriously by most of the Catholic thinkers.” Perrier offers an abundance of pertinent details regarding the beginning stages of the Thomistic renewal as they took shape in various countries throughout the world, and he introduces us to the principal figures of the movement in each locale.

The movement continued to grow and become increasingly influential over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, with Louvain as the major international center for Thomistic studies. Several other universities, in Europe and North America, also had distinguished programs in Thomistic philosophy, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Special mention might be made of Laval University in Quebec, which had an excellent philosophy department, staffed by men like Fr. Maurice Dionne, Fr. Jasmin Boulay, and Prof. Charles De Koninck, dean of the faculty of philosophy. De Koninck, one of the luminaries of the Thomistic renewal, was an extraordinary individual in many ways. He held two doctoral degrees, one in philosophy (from Louvain), the other in theology, was the father of twelve children, and was a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, assisting Maurice Cardinal Roy of Montreal. Though Laval’s influence was limited for the most part to North America, for years it enjoyed a status and influence in many ways comparable to Louvain’s.

By the mid-twentieth century, Thomism could be said to be the defining philosophy — the “official” philosophy, if you will — of well-nigh all the major Catholic seminaries and Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. While the quality of the Thomism being taught varied, sometimes widely, from institution to institution, every institution, even the smaller ones with limited resources and sparse philosophical talent, could be said to be making earnest efforts to respond productively to Aeterni Patris. On an autobiographical note, the college in this country where I did my undergraduate work — an all-male institution named after St. Thomas Aquinas with some two thousand students — had a philosophy department that was unambiguously Thomistic in orientation and commitment, a goodly portion of whose members had received their doctorates from Laval. Students who majored in philosophy there received a good grounding in Thomistic thought and were well prepared for graduates studies, should they choose to pursue them. But all students at the college, whatever their major field, got a significant taste of Thomism, for they were required to take at least four courses in philosophy: logic, philosophical psychology, metaphysics, and ethics. By comparison, students at most of the country’s twenty-eight Jesuit institutions, no matter what their major field, had as part of their academic credentials what was effectively a minor in philosophy.

The Jesuits, it should be recognized, played a major role in the Thomistic renewal, and some of the best Thomists of the twentieth century were members of the Society of Jesus. This is to take nothing away from the Dominicans, who, needless to say, also made large contributions to the cause. In addition, there were a number of individuals from various other orders and congregations who figured prominently in the movement, such as Fr. Joseph Owens, a Redemptorist, Fr. Henry Koren of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, and Br. Benignus of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Lay philosophers, however, arguably made the greatest contribution to the Thomistic renewal, perhaps in good part simply on account of their numbers. Well-schooled and dedicated scholars, many of them were also outstanding teachers. And there were also many accomplished writers among them, to whom we credit many books of lasting quality; they published articles in reputable journals like The Thomist, The New Scholasticism, and The Modern Schoolman. A plethora of good to very good textbooks in Scholastic philosophy were readily available when the renewal was at its height, and many were published by major houses such as Macmillan, Prentice-Hall, and Harper & Brothers. This was also the heyday of Catholic publishing, led by houses like Herder in St. Louis and The Bruce Publishing Company in Milwaukee, both of which had impressive lists. Among the happier “problems” for philosophy teachers in those days was settling on a textbook for a particular course, say in ethics or metaphysics, when there were a half dozen, if not more, inviting titles from which to choose. Authors like Msgr. Paul J. Glenn and Fr. Celestine Bittle, O.F.M. Cap., produced entire series of textbooks in Scholastic philosophy. In all, it was an exciting time. Thomism seemed to be vibrantly alive, and the future looked quite bright.

And then the Thomistic renewal collapsed. To speak of a collapse is not to indulge in hyperbole, for the term is just the one needed to convey the sense of what actually happened — the astonishing suddenness with which Thomism ceased to be the governing and guiding philosophy in Catholic higher education. It was as if, overnight, the bottom had dropped out. So, we return to the question posed earlier: How to explain this extraordinary event of recent Church history? I offer the following: First, the collapse was a particular expression of a larger phenomenon of which it was but a part; second, it was the result of a pervasive mania for change; third, it was the targeted victim of a resurgent modernism. While I would not claim that these items provide a complete explanation for the event, they do go some distance, I believe, toward providing at least an adequate one, to which we will attend in Part II.

Ed. Note: The second and final installment of this two-part series will appear in our June issue [HERE].

The foregoing article, "The Revivification of Sound Christian Philosophy" was originally published in the New Oxford Review (May 2015), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706. 




Very nice overview; thank you!