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Chapter IV -- 1

IV Western Christian Anthropologies

In what does the particular or peculiar character of Thomism consist?

It is often said that Orthodoxy is Platonist and that Catholicism—that is, Thomism—is Aristotelian. But we have already seen in Chapter II that St Gregory of Nyssa presents his sister St Macrina as adapting Aristotle’s psychology to the Genesis account of creation in order to explain the origin and nature of the passions.

St John of Damascus, that criterion of Orthodoxy to whom we shall refer in Chapter V, is Aristotelian in orientation. He is often quoted by St Thomas Aquinas. We discover, however, in an article in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘John of Damascus’ by L. Sweeney SJ, that St John is a ‘Christian Neoplatonist’:[1] perhaps labels like this are wrong.

St Maximos the Confessor is an Aristotelian in his philosophy, and St Maximos is a Father of the Orthodox Church.

Moreover, we will see that St Thomas Aquinas draws on the Augustinian tradition for his own anthropology. But St Augustine is clearly stated in the West to be a Neoplatonist, something surely borne out by even a cursory reading of Plotinus’ Enneads.[2] In fact, it seems to us that modern commentators often seem to misunderstand St Augustine because of a lack of familiarity with the Neoplatonism of Plotinus.

Perhaps the peculiar character of Thomism consists in the fact, then, that St Thomas Aquinas has five philosophical proofs for the existence of God?

But St Maximos the Confessor, seven hundred years before St Thomas, provides in the Ambigua (Peri Diaphoron Aporion) 10, 36,[3] St Thomas Aquinas’ preferred proof for the existence of God, that from motion. Of course, the proof is taken by each of these authors from Aristotle’s Physics.

Perhaps the peculiar character of Thomism, of Catholicism, consists, then, in the fact that Catholicism places a very great emphasis in moral theology on the concept of ‘natural law’?

But the concept of natural law has its roots in the Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Rom. 2, 14–16), and St John Chrysostom, that beacon of Orthodox interpretation, in his commentaries on the passage even exalts the natural law revealed to the Gentiles above the Mosaic Law. Of course, St John was a rhetorician. St Maximos the Confessor himself identifies the natural law with (second) natural contemplation, and states that it is equal in honour to the written Law of Scripture.[4]

Perhaps the peculiar character of Thomism, of Catholicism, consists, then, in the fact that St Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastic theologians were preoccupied with questions of philosophy? There is more truth to this. However, St Maximos the Confessor, has in the Ambigua (Peri Diaphoron Aporion) 10, 38[5] a discussion of time and place—quite astutely from the point of view of the general theory of relativity he asserts that being in a place necessarily implies being in time and vice versa—that demonstrates that he was a trained philosopher.

Moreover, St John of Damascus devotes one volume of the trilogy called the Fountain of Knowledge, the third volume of which is the famous Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, to an exposition of Aristotelian philosophy.

Perhaps the peculiar character of Thomism, of Catholicism, is that Orthodoxy is mystical whereas Catholicism is not? There is more truth to this. However, at least formally, St Thomas Aquinas adopts many of the positions of St Dionysios the Areopagite in his own systematic theology. And it would be difficult to say that there have been no mystics in the Roman Catholic Church since the time of St Thomas Aquinas.

In what, then, does the peculiar character of Thomism consist?

In our view, there are several salient characteristics of Thomism which have both given Thomism its peculiar character and shaped subsequent Catholic thought. But before we list them let us look at another question: is St Thomas Aquinas the norm of Catholic theology today?

When we were preparing this book, we asked a friend of ours to send us a modern handbook of Catholic theology, leaving it to him, who was married to a Catholic woman, to find the appropriate book. He sent us a book by the former Chairman of the Department of Theology at Notre Dame University of South Bend, Indiana, USA. This is one of the foremost Catholic universities in the United States of America. The book is said on the cover to have sold over 150,000 copies. It is a popular exposition for Catholic laymen and laywomen—and perhaps even for Catholic priests and theologians—of theological developments in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II. The book is useful in two ways: it has convenient brief summaries of major trends in theology, so that you can understand who some of the main theologians are and what their main positions are, not only in the Roman Catholic Church but even in the Protestant churches and even in the Orthodox Church (as the author understands it); and it gives you a feel for the temper of Roman Catholic theology in America today: the edition we have was published in 1994. The book can hardly be considered Thomist in orientation. The book is Catholicism by Fr R. P. McBrien.[6]

Fr McBrien, however, writes this about Thomism:

No theologian in the entire history of the Church has had such a decisive impact on Catholic thought and the shaping of the Catholic tradition as St Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologiae is the most comprehensive synthesis (that is what the word summa means) of the biblical, Patristic, and medieval understandings of the Christian faith, and has significantly shaped the interpretation and articulation of the faith ever since.[7]

We learn from the book the interesting fact that Pope John Paul II, the previous Pope, was a product of the Lublin School of Thomism.[8] This school of Thomism is characterized, according to Fr McBrien, by the retention of St Thomas Aquinas’ realist principles in philosophy as interpreted by J. Maritain and É. Gilson, two modern interpreters of St Thomas, and by the incorporation into that framework of the insights of such existentialists as G. Marcel, M. Heidegger, K. Jaspers and M. Buber, along with the phenomenology of M. Scheler and R. Imgarden. Notable is that Marcel’s philosophy is personalist in orientation, in a manner similar to that of Buber, but of independent origin and articulation.[9]

In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, we find the following in the article ‘St Thomas Aquinas’ by V. J. Bourke, compiler of and, in part, translator for, The Pocket Aquinas,[10] to which we shall have occasion to refer:

…Aquinas has been given a special position of respect in the field of Catholic scholarship, but this does not mean that all Catholic thinkers agree with him on all points. Within three years of his death [in 1274] a number of propositions closely resembling his philosophic views were condemned as errors by Bishop Tempier of Paris. This episcopal condemnation was formally revoked in 1325. Thomistic thought met much criticism in the later Middle Ages. Since the Renaissance, nearly all popes have praised Aquinas’ teaching; the one who provided for the first collected edition of his works (St. Pius V) also did the same for St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan, and proclaimed both Doctors of the Church. In the ecclesiastical law of the Catholic Church, revised in 1918, canon 589:1 states that students for the priesthood are required to study at least two years of philosophy and four of theology, “following the principles of St Thomas.” Further, canon 1366:2 directs professors in seminaries to organize their teaching “according to the method, teaching and principles of the Angelic Doctor.”

Actually, Thomism has never been the only kind of philosophy cultivated by Catholics, and from the fourteenth century to the Enlightenment, Thomism was rivaled and sometimes obscured by Scotism[11] and Ockhamism.[12]

In 1879, with the publication of the Encyclical Aeterni Patris by Pope Leo XIII, the modern revival of Thomism started. While this document praised Thomism throughout, Pope Leo added this noteworthy qualification: “If there be anything that ill agrees with the discoveries of a later age, or, in a word, improbable in whatever way—it does not enter Our mind to propose that for imitation to our age.” …

In 1914, a group of Catholic teachers drew up a set of 24 propositions which, they felt, embodied the essential points in the philosophy of Aquinas. The Sacred Congregation of Studies, with the approval of Pope Pius X, published these “Twenty-four Theses” as clear expressions of the thought of the holy Doctor. …

These 24 theses represent a rigid and conservative type of Thomism. Many modern Catholic philosophers, while recognizing that these propositions do express some of the basic themes in the speculative thought of Aquinas, doubt that it is possible to put the wisdom of any great philosopher into a few propositions and prefer to emphasize the open-minded spirit with which Aquinas searched for information among his predecessors and approached the problems of his own day. After all, it was Aquinas who remarked that arguments from authority are appropriate in sacred teaching but are the weakest sort of evidence in philosophic reasoning.[13]

What is clear, however, from the book, Catholicism, and from simple observation, is that today, in the generation following the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), there is a plethora of trends in Catholic theology. Today, in the United States of America or in Europe, it would be a mistake to equate Catholicism with Thomism. That may have been true for the period of the Twentieth Century leading up to Vatican II, but it is now no longer true. But it is also equally true that the Vatican is more conservative than large parts of Europe and the United States. Roman Catholicism no longer, ostensibly, speaks with the single voice that it once did. Nonetheless, Thomism still characterizes official pronouncements on bioethics that are issued by the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, clearly a philosophy of such historical importance cannot disappear overnight from the thought patterns of Catholic thinkers.

As regards issues in anthropology that are important for the study of Orthodox mysticism, the matter is somewhat more ambiguous: by and large the author of Catholicism himself manifests a modern post-Enlightenment philosophical orientation. It seems to us that the anthropology underlying many of his remarks is far removed from Orthodox anthropology.

Given the above considerations, in presenting our remarks on the anthropology and psychology of St Thomas Aquinas we are running the risk of describing a defunct theological interpretation of man, at least from the point of view of many Roman Catholic theologians today in Europe and America. However, we believe that Thomism will continue to be influential in the Vatican and in the seminaries of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, a presentation of St Thomas’ anthropology and psychology will help us to clarify certain points in our own Orthodox interpretation of man, both from the point of view of bioethics and from the point of view of the psychology of mental prayer in the heart. Let us now turn back to the question we raised.

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[1] Encyclopedia Volume 4, p. 279.

[2] Plotinus.

[3] Migne 91, cols. 1176D–7B.

[4] Ambigua (Peri Diaphoron Aporion) 10, 17: Migne 91, col. 1128C–D.

[5] Migne 91, col. 1180B–D.

[6] Catholicism.

[7] Catholicism p. 35.

[8] Lublin is a city in Poland.

[9] Catholicism p. 135.

[10] Bourke.

[11] The system of St John Duns Scotus (c.1266–1308), based on the tradition represented by St Augustine (354–430) and St Bonaventure (c.1217–74). (Our note.)

[12] The nominalist school represented by William of Ockham (c.1285–1349). (Our note.)

[13] Encyclopedia Volume 8, p. 113–14. It should be remarked that this article was published in 1967, very soon after the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), and that it is therefore somewhat dated. For example, the Roman Catholic code of canon law has since been revised, although we ourselves do not know the present status of Thomism under it for priestly studies. The passages given, however, do allow the reader to grasp the historical importance of the philosophy and theology of St Thomas Aquinas for the Roman Catholic tradition.


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