Tuesday, July 07, 2015


A Revival Cut Short

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).

Ed. Note: The first installment of this two-part series appeared in our May issue [HERE].

We return to the question posed in Part I: How to explain the extraordinary collapse of the Thomistic renewal? I submit 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 these items do not provide a complete explanation, they do go some distance toward providing at least an adequate one.

The profound disruption suffered by the Thomistic renewal was a particular instance, a specific manifestation, of the widespread consequences of the disruptive forces at play within the Church at large in the period immediately following the Second Vatican Council — a period of prolonged disorientation and disorder, which at certain times and regarding certain matters, was quite severe. We might think of the situation in metaphorical terms, as if the Church experienced a massive spiritual and cultural earthquake. The edifice that was the Thomistic renewal was unable to withstand the violent tremors, and its walls came tumbling down.

The Thomistic renewal was not alone in this regard; there were other edifices that suffered damage extensive enough to warrant the word collapse: the ancient Latin liturgy, catechesis, religious orders, and, to one degree or another, Catholic education at every level. As to the broader picture, the Church before and after Vatican II is a study in dramatic contrasts. It is as if we were viewing two entirely different Churches. For someone for whom the “after” picture does not represent an improvement over the “before” picture, the question naturally arises: How is it possible that an institution that on one day appeared to be in a robust state of health was, on the very next day, in need of immediate therapeutic attention? A possible answer to this question, and one that is perhaps more obvious than we are prepared to admit, is that appearances can be deceptive. What looked like robust health was only seemingly so. Now, might it be that a comparable response could be made with regard to the state of the Thomistic renewal before its collapse? As it happens, a response of precisely that sort has been made, a point to which we will return presently.

In the wake of Vatican II, a veritable mania for change roared through the Church, and many Catholics were swept off their feet and lost a balanced perspective. It was as if change had become the supreme imperative for the Church, as if her principal mission in the world were to change, simply change, otherwise she would somehow not be acting according to a correct reading of “the signs of the times.” What was especially peculiar about this near obsessive concern with change is that it was, in many cases, indiscriminate to the point of mindlessness. It became a matter of change for the sake of change, as if virtue lay in pure process, never mind where the process might be leading us. Although there was little reasoned specificity as to what would be put in place by change, there was remarkable clarity of vision as to what had to be replaced by it: just about anything that had to do with the pre-Vatican II Church.

The “improper appeal to authority” fallacy was a prominent feature of this mania for change. The standard example of this fallacy is when we cling tenaciously to something only because it is customary, firmly set in place by habit, and on that account alone has commanding “authority,” regardless of its intrinsic value. But we likewise succumb to this fallacy when we reject something simply because it has a history behind it, taking the attitude that, if it is old it has to be discarded, regardless of its intrinsic value. When a people get caught up in a frenzy of indiscriminate change, tradition necessarily suffers; and when tradition suffers, the present becomes drained of a vivifying consciousness. A today cut off from yesterday is one whose sun still shines, but upon lands whose population is made up mainly of “hollow men.”

Philosophers, as a type, are usually not apt to be swept off their feet by a mania for change. But in this case, not a few Catholic philosophers, who would have identified as Thomists, showed that they too were not immune to the influence of this phenomenon. For many of them, the infection took the form of something like a philosophical identity crisis, a serious bout of professional embarrassment over the fact that they were Thomists, as if by being such they were awkwardly out of step with the rest of the philosophical world. They saw themselves as dully distant from the cutting edge. Was not Thomism, after all, a medieval philosophy, and therefore passé, obsolete, dissonantly out of tune with the main melodic line of modern thought? Distracted by such second thoughts about their intellectual commitments, not a few of them decided, for the sake of bringing themselves up to date with the brave new world of the 1960s, that they had better put Thomism on the shelf and turn their attention to what were supposedly more vital movements. Some drifted into analytical philosophy, which was then ruling the academic roost in English-speaking countries; others decided to take up one or another of the several versions of phenomenology; still others became engaged in attempts to forge a marriage between Thomism and a second philosophical system of one kind or another. Apropos this last option, Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil, in an address at the University of Chicago in 1974 marking the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of St. Thomas, effectively called for a combining of Thomism and Marxism! Just how many philosophers sitting in that distinguished audience had pass through their minds the thought that oil and water do not mix is impossible to say.

Another explanation for the collapse of the Thomistic renewal has to do with the resurgence of modernism within the Church, which occurred in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Pope St. Pius X famously described modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies”; he gave it a detailed exposition in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), and an embellished treatment three years later in his motu proprio, Sacrorum Antistitum. These documents had the beneficial effect of alerting Catholics to the fact that modernism was a clear and present danger to the Church, but although the documents put a damper on the movement, they did not succeed in suppressing it. Modernists’ response was to take the practical expedient of going underground, and for four decades they functioned as something like a fifth column within the Church. Their modus operandi was to work behind the scenes.

That Rome recognized the movement as a continuing, operative presence within the Church well after the publication of Pascendi is attested to by Pope Pius XII’s promulgation of Humani Generis (1950), an encyclical in which he echoes the various warnings against the movement that had been sounded by his saintly predecessor in the first decade of the century. Reading Humani Generis today is a sobering experience; it makes one aware that just about all the problems that plagued the Church in 1950 are still with us, and are still to be contended with, sixty-five years later.

Modernism, as is true of most “isms,” is a complex phenomenon with any number of facets, as Pascendi makes clear, but the particular feature of the movement that has direct application to our discussion is the fact, pointed out and given special emphasis by both Pius X and Pius XII, that modernists have shown themselves to have a deep-seated and abiding antipathy toward Scholasticism in general and Thomism in particular. When modernists emerged from their underground bunkers right after the adjournment of Vatican II, as vigorous and feisty as ever, they reasserted their two-pronged philosophic prejudice in a bold and open way. Their uninhibited expression of antipathy toward Scholasticism/Thomism was an important factor in the collapse of the Thomistic renewal. Of this and the previous two explanations given for the collapse, we can say that, from an historical point of view, they all played a part, each in a peculiar way, in bringing it about.

Returning to a point brought up earlier: Conjecture has it that an additional (and possibly the best) explanation for the collapse of the Thomistic renewal is that it was due not so much to external factors as to internal ones. The basic idea is that the renewal was not what it seemed to be, with regard to its perceived vitality and strength, that it was beset by any number of in-house problems, and these eventually caught up with it and account for its eventual dissolution. In other words, the peculiar circumstances that prevailed in the Church after Vatican II brought about an event that would have happened even had there not been a Council.

In 1966, one year after the close of Vatican II, Doubleday published Thomism in an Age of Renewal by the Thomist philosopher Ralph McInerny, in which he assumes an attitude toward the Thomistic renewal that, in part at least, reflects this latter explanation for its demise. What his book reveals, given that it is a response to what was already a clearly detectable spirit of anti-Thomism, is how quickly that spirit had made itself known and was demanding attention.

McInerny, who earned his licentiate and doctoral degrees at Laval University in Quebec under the direction of Charles De Koninck, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, the philosophy department of which was, at the time, thoroughly Thomistic. The principal task McInerny set out for himself in his book was to lay out the particulars of what could qualify as a genuinely Christian philosophy — a task he accomplished with his typical clarity, cogency, and stylistic verve. Following closely the thought of Pope Leo XIII as articulated in Aeterni Patris (1879; the encyclical that launched the Thomistic renewal), McInerny argues that a genuine Christian philosophy would be one based on the thought and methods of St. Thomas Aquinas. But he takes the position that the restoration called for by Pope Leo was less than successful because the Thomism that had gained ascendancy in the Church after the publication of the encyclical was not the real thing. Therefore, he did not regard the negative criticisms leveled against the kind of Thomism produced by the renewal to be entirely unjustified.

McInerny quotes a pointed statement made by the eminent Dominican philosopher and biographer of St. Thomas, Fr. James Weisheipl, in his book Thomism as a Perennial Philosophy (1956): “It is a social historical fact that the hope of Leo XIII has never been universally realized in Catholic colleges, universities and seminaries. Not even the ardent efforts of St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, or Pius XII were able to effect anything more than a closed, safe, and sterile Thomism, imposed by legislative authority. Legislation did not stimulate a return to the true thought and spirit of St. Thomas relevant to our day.” A bit further on, Fr. Weisheipl writes, “Until the program of Leo XIII is seriously attempted in a thorough and spontaneous manner, there will always be zealous priests and laymen who react to what they only half understand. Reactions against Thomism in the past half-century have been, in fact, to a pseudo-Thomism, a half-understood Thomism.”

Though he does not endorse this rather harsh assessment without qualification, McInerny, in the main, agrees with it. Referring to the brand of philosophy he saw as the all-too-typical outcome of the renewal, which he describes as a “rigid, catechetical Thomism” and a “sterile Thomism,” he remarks, “It is not meaningless to say, therefore, that a rejection of such Thomism has little or nothing to do with the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.” Given his view that the restoration of a genuine Christian philosophy had not taken place, due to the quality of the Thomism sustaining it, McInerny ends his book by calling for a renewal based on and animated by an authentic Thomism, a philosophy that faithfully reflects the mind and the manner of the Universal Doctor.

Perhaps at the time, such a proposal seemed a real possibility rather than mere wishful thinking, but subsequent events proved otherwise. In retrospect, we can see that Thomism in an Age of Renewal was a response to what were only the first relatively mild rumblings that would develop into a major quake, in the wake of which Thomism, whatever might be said of its quality, no longer held a governing role in Catholic higher education.

Three pertinent questions remain: (1) How thorough was the devastation wrought by the anti-Thomistic upheaval? (2) Was the Thomistic renewal as complete a flop as Fr. Weisheipl would have us believe? (3) What is the status of Thomism today?

Without question, the anti-Thomistic movement that followed hard upon the Second Vatican Council had generally calamitous consequences. In virtually all U.S. Catholic colleges, universities, and seminaries, Thomism ceased to be a significant presence. Philosophy departments, once plainly identifiable as Thomistic, became indeterminate and amorphous, lacking integrating ideological centers; a smorgasbord approach to the discipline of philosophy was commonly adverted to. Although Thomism was widely abandoned at the institutional level, there nonetheless remained, within just about every Catholic institution, at least for a time, individual philosophers who retained their loyalty to Thomism and who continued to fight the good fight on its behalf. And that circumstance isn’t entirely a thing of the past. Today one can find Thomists of the first rank at certain institutions, such as at the University of Notre Dame, for example, the faculty of which includes David Solomon, Alfred Fredosso, and Alasdair MacIntyre. And while most colleges and universities have abandoned an institutional commitment to Thomism, a few have managed to keep their philosophic wits about them. One can point to the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, which maintained a steady, sane course through troubled times under the able leadership of its dean, Prof. Jude Dougherty. Two Texas schools also come to mind: the University of St. Thomas in Houston and the University of Dallas. Mention should also be made of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., under the aegis of the Province of St. Joseph.

It would be careless to reject out of hand the general assessment of the Thomistic renewal as found in books like Thomism in an Age of Renewal. One may concede the point that the movement was not the sparkling success it appeared, on the surface, to be. However, it is possible to denigrate the movement to the point where one does not sufficiently credit its distinctly positive aspects. It was, after all, a complex and highly variegated phenomenon, with a lifespan of better than eight decades. Bearing this in mind, it would not do to contend that it was an unrelieved failure, or to argue that it represented a uniform betrayal of the thought of St. Thomas.

While granting that the movement was not in every respect what it could and should have been, and that it did not evolve into the transforming force for philosophic good within the Church that Pope Leo had envisioned, we should nonetheless recognize, with wonder, that something extraordinary happened in the Church between the publication of Aeterni Patris and the close of Vatican II. The Church today is better for its having happened, and worse for its having suffered cessation.

While some Catholics (those, doubtless, infected by modernism) might have regarded the effort to restore a vibrant Thomism as unfortunate, the eminent American philosopher Josiah Royce thought otherwise, and even expressed fears that the effort might not succeed. On the occasion of the death of Pope Leo XIII in 1903, he wrote, “Many students of philosophy, of theology, and even of the natural sciences — students, I mean, who have no direct concern with any of the internal affairs of Leo’s own religious body — are still forced, although outsiders, to recognize how important, for the general intellectual progress of our time, the future outcome of the whole Neo-Scholastic movement in the Catholic Church may prove.” He goes on to remark, “But what an admirable opportunity for a genuine spiritual growth will be lost if Leo’s revival of Catholic philosophy has even its first fruits cut off, and is not permitted to bear the still richer fruit that, in case it is unhindered, it will some day surely bring forth.”

Alas, “Leo’s revival of Catholic philosophy” did not go unhindered, and the production of the still richer fruit that the “outsider” Royce had hoped for from the movement did not materialize. Royce showed uncanny perspicacity in seeing the Thomistic renewal, still in its incipient stages when he wrote, as an important contribution to “the general intellectual progress of our time,” and as providing “an admirable opportunity for a genuine spiritual growth.” He saw Scholasticism for what it essentially is: a philosophy totally dedicated to truth and consistently concentrated on “the deepest deep down things.”

The Thomistic philosophy being taught in some institutions in the first half of the twentieth century might have been less than completely desirable, but the fact is that a number of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities had philosophy faculties whose quality was pronouncedly superior, and the students in those institutions were very well served in their philosophical education. Even in those institutions (very likely the major portion of the total) in which the overall quality of the Thomism being taught was wanting, all those students who took the required philosophy courses, typically at least four, need not be classified as victims; they were not on the receiving end of an experience entirely devoid of positive effects for their intellectual and moral development. An imperfect exposure to a sound philosophy is better than a full exposure to an unsound one.

Among the teachers of those students, the philosophers themselves, of whatever Thomistic stripe, there were surely some who, for a variety of reasons, were not what they should have been, as philosophers or as teachers; but just as surely there were philosophers and teachers who were not meanly possessed of talent, whose dedication was not in the least bit flaccid.

And let us not forget those truly exceptional philosophers, men of gigantic intellectual stature, who were part and parcel of the movement. It is impossible to imagine that, had there never been a Thomistic renewal, we would now have available to us the priceless works of such luminaries as Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, Charles De Koninck, Cornelio Fabro, and Josef Pieper.

What is the status of Thomism today? We can begin by noting the obvious, that Thomistic philosophy, whatever the particulars of its form, is not a large and pervasively influential fact of Catholic intellectual life as it was, say, in 1955. The tempest has taken its toll; the landscape has been rudely roughed up, but — here is the heartening news — what we gaze out upon now is not a picture of complete and irremediable desolation. Something is astir; there are hopeful signs of new growth. I subtitled this article series “The Rise & Fall of the Thomistic Renewal,” but perhaps it would have been more apt, in light of what I am about to note, to have called it “The Ascent & Descent of the Thomistic Renewal.” The term fall has too final a ring to it, suggesting a state that is not only unhappy but permanent, and therefore beyond repair. Descent, on the other hand, has more generously open-ended connotations and does not preclude the possibility of subsequent ascent — a rising again, a regaining of lost altitude, and perhaps even the attainment of yet higher altitudes than those hitherto gained. That imagery better describes what I take to be the current state of affairs. It may be overly optimistic to think that we are on the verge of witnessing a brilliant resurrection of the renewal that was so rudely interrupted a half century ago, but there is reason for being cautiously optimistic about the possibility of such an eventuality. Why? Because Thomism is in fact beginning to show signs of recovery, and it may indeed be moving toward re-establishing itself as a significant presence in the life of the Church.

If Thomism is ever to be re-established as a vibrant philosophical force within the Church, what will be required are the dedicated labors of philosophers themselves — philosophers who have a principled and whole-hearted commitment to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. There are promising indications that this requirement is beginning to be met. There is today a growing number of philosophers, definitely Thomistic in direction, most of them quite young, who hold influential faculty positions in premier academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. A new wave of Thomists has washed upon our desiccated shores, and they are showing themselves to be formidable scholars, as attested to by the number of weighty publications they have turned out in recent years. A brief sample includes: Holy Teaching: Introducing the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (2005) by Frederick Bauerschmidt, Understanding Our Being (2008) by John W. Carlson, God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Thomas Aquinas (2006) by Fulvio Di Blasi, Trinity in Aquinas (2003) and Trinity, Church, and the Human Person: Thomistic Essays (2007) by Gilles Emery, O.P., The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion (2011) by Nicholas E. Lombardo, O.P., Discovering Aquinas (2002) by Aidan Nichols, O.P., The Ethics of Aquinas (2002; Stephen J. Pope, ed.), Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law (2005) by Jean Porter, The Perspective of the Acting Person: Essays in the Renewal of Thomistic Moral Philosophy (2008) by Martin Rhonheimer, By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (2011) by Michael S. Sherwin, O.P.

As an instance of the proverbial truth that good can be born of evil, not long after most Catholic institutions of higher learning turned their backs on Thomism, a number of entirely new colleges sprung up across the land. To be sure, these new colleges were established principally in reaction to the fact that so many of the long-established institutions had embarked upon vigorous projects that involved a wholesale watering down, not to say effective obliteration, of their Catholic identity. However, the establishment of these new institutions was also a response to what had happened to Thomism, and their founders were motivated by the desire to restore it to its proper place in Catholic higher education. And this is precisely what is taking place right now at schools like Christendom College in Virginia, Thomas Aquinas College in California, Thomas More College in New Hampshire, and Wyoming Catholic College, where young men and women are receiving an education which is structured according to those principles that serve as the pillars of our Catholic philosophical heritage. The graduates of these institutions will not be ignorant of the Thomistic tradition, and it would not be unreasonable to expect that some of them will be numbered among the Thomistic philosophers of the future.

Another reason to think that we are witnessing what appears to be a resurgence of Thomism relates to a recent reminder the Church has given us of the special esteem in which she has consistently held the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 2011 the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education released its “Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy.” After noting that the Church “has always cared deeply about philosophy,” the decree echoes what Pope Leo XIII pointed out in Aeterni Patris, that “philosophy is indispensable for theological formation.” The decree acknowledges the “crisis of postconciliar theology,” which it rightly identifies as “in large part, the crisis of philosophical foundations.” Unsound theology follows upon unsound philosophy. And the remedy for an unsound philosophy is the eminently sound philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, a philosophy that is “important both for the acquisition of intellectual ‘habitus’ and for the mature assimilation of the philosophical heritage.” St. Thomas, the decree asserts, is to be recognized as the “apostle of truth,” and though the Church’s preference for his method is not exclusive, his method is to be regarded as exemplary — that is, it should serve as a guiding model. The philosophy that is to be taught to young men studying for the priesthood, the decree mandates, “must be rooted in the ‘philosophical patrimony which is perennially valid,’ which has been developed throughout history, with special attention being given to the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas.”

This recent Vatican decree, emphasizing the unique place the thought of St. Thomas is to have in philosophical studies, is but the latest in a long list of such documents, dating back to the fourteenth century. “Rome has spoken” on this particular subject, again and again, and with the utmost clarity. We would be seriously remiss if we were to assume a cavalier attitude toward what the Church’s highest authorities have so often reiterated. Pope Leo XIII, having a particularly keen sense of the array of negative ramifications of modern philosophy, knew that, for the sake of the Church and the world, modern philosophy had to be opposed, and he saw, in a Scholastic philosophy centered on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the one philosophy that could effectively stand up to it. Only a decisively Christian philosophy can counter an essentially godless philosophy. Unfortunately, his grand plan for the restoration of such a philosophy, though impressively launched, was not to see its proper culmination.

It is imperative that what Pope Leo began be begun anew — for the simple reason that there is a pressing need for the restoration of Christian philosophy. That need was admittedly great in the late nineteenth century; it is appreciably greater in the early twenty-first century. The steady failing of the light, since Pope Leo’s day, has reached the point where it is positively alarming. We must take up again this critically important task, with renewed earnestness of purpose. If it was gotten wrong the first time, or at least only imperfectly right, this time around it must be gotten unqualifiedly right. That we can do with confidence if we heed the very precise advice given us by Pope Leo in Aeterni Patris: Ite ad Thomam, “Go to Thomas!” In the philosophy of the Common Doctor we have the kind of luminous guidance that will not fail us.

The foregoing article, "A Revival Cut Short" 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. 


Robert Kraynak


It would be helpful if the author tried to give some content to his terms, like authentic Thomism or Decadent Scholasticism -- it is a bit vague on what exactly was falling into decline or why. The article is useful as a kind of historical sociology of the ups and downs of Thomism, but we need to know something about the content of the debates. Elaborate please. Thanks.