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Why Thomism? Why now?

Before answering the two questions in the title, it is first of all necessary to briefly meet a possible objection to what I am proposing here, and to introduce "Thomism."

I am not proposing a kind of 'paleothomism,' a return to an archaic outmoded style of thinking. I am not trying to turn back the clock to the so called 'dark ages' that some people seem to think existed in the Church up until Vatican II. What I am proposing is a creative retrieval of a distinctively Catholic approach to the cultivation of an integral intellectual and moral life.


Thomism, as you know, gets its name from St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic philosopher, theologian, poet, and saint who was a prototypical model of what it means to be a Catholic intellectual and teacher. Thomists are philosophers and theologians who like to think along with St. Thomas, using his conceptual framework as a heuristic structure, an interpretive tool, for getting at the truth of all that there is to be known and thought about.

Although Aquinas' system is fairly elaborate, architectural in its vastness, it can, for simplicity sake be reduced to two underlying principles or convictions. One is that the Real, or Being, is intelligible, that it can be understood, that it makes sense, that it can be known, and that we can make true judgments about it. Two, that its intelligibility cannot be grasped by a finite intellect; that is to say, that the Real, or Being, is "inexhaustible in its knowability," there is no end to its ability to be known, nor is there an end to the questions that we can ask about it. These two convictions define in a nutshell the spirit of Thomism. They are also the reason that Thomism is such a fruitful framework for thinking through the things that call for thought in our own times.

To be sure, St. Thomas also has a certain understanding of what it means to be a human being (philosophical anthropology); namely, embodied intellect, will, and affectivity; and a certain view of the basic structure, pattern, and nature of reality; in other words, a metaphysics. And what is his metaphysics? That Being (Esse) is existence, that everything that exists participates in Being (the act of existence), in such a way that each entity, thing, existent is trying to max out its participation according to the kind of being that it is. St. Thomas discussed this in terms of the potency, act distinction which is so central to his thinking. God is the only pure act, without potentiality, God is the letting-be-of-beings. All other beings are by participation; you could say that theirs is a borrowed but nevertheless real existence.

What is the point?

All of this may seem totally obscure to us. We may find ourselves asking, what is the point of all of this? What has this to do with the imperative of living the gospel in the world? The point is precisely that we must live the gospel in the 'world' and so the answers that we give to the questions: what is the world, what is the basic nature of reality, and by extension, how should we comport ourselves in the face of the totality of existence, are decisive. Alfred North Whitehead said that "the choice is not between having a metaphysics or not having a metaphysics, but between having an adequate or an inadequate metaphysics."

Since we cannot avoid having at least a tacit view of the nature of the real, we would do well to engage with the world from within a conceptual framework that is compatible with Christian faith and yet is open to further insights and new questions. A Thomistic metaphysics is a good framework for a truly Catholic engagement with the world around us. For the sake of brevity, I will not go further into an outline or description of St. Thomas' philosophy or theology. My purpose here is to argue in more general terms for a retrieval of Thomism as the preferred intellectual framework for contemporary Catholicism.

St. Thomas, teacher and student

Part of what made St. Thomas such a great teacher was that he loved to be taught. In an age such as ours which no longer understands the meaning of leisure or the value of contemplation, which has reduced leisure to entertainment, which sees in contemplation only the passivity of inaction instead of the attentiveness of listening; in an age such as ours it is easy to forget that in order to have something worth teaching we must first of all love to be taught. The teacher or preacher must have a reservoir within them so that they can draw out of this well, things both old and new. St. Thomas is the model par excellence of just such a teacher. It is for this reason that the Church in her wisdom calls him the 'Common Doctor' or 'Universal Teacher' of the Church, and that he is the only Doctor or teacher to have been given such a title.

St. Thomas was rooted and grounded in the tradition, highly literate in its most normative forms. He was first of all a student of Scripture, who studied in such depth that he was able to write many insightful commentaries on the gospels and the psalms, and even on his death bed, he was dictating to his secretary, Brother Reginald, a commentary on the Song of Songs, that great mystical love poem of the Hebrew Scriptures.

He was also a great student of Patristics, the Church Fathers, of those Catholic thinkers of the first six hundred years who form a fundamental normative layer of the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition. The writings of St. Thomas are packed full of quotes from earlier Christian thinkers, the foremost of whom was St. Augustine, but also the Cappadocians, Saint Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Jerome, the great doctor of scripture, and Pseudo Dionysius, to name only a few. St. Thomas is aware that he is standing on the shoulders of the great thinkers and saints that went before him. We would do well to honour those who have traveled the path of Catholic intellectual life before us. St. Thomas is for us not only a model of what it means to be literate in faith, in scripture and tradition, but also in the ways of reason.

St. Thomas is also an example of wider cultural literacy. Aquinas was engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the major intellectual currents of his time. He was instrumental in the reception of Aristotle into European thinking, a move which resulted in a turn towards the things of this world, and eventually gave rise to the natural sciences. Aquinas was not only well read in Scripture and Theology, but in the important non-Christian philosophers of his day, such as Maimonides, who was Jewish, and Averroes and Avicenna, who were Islamic. He knew Plato as well as he knew Aristotle, and read Plotinus and Boethius. Like any academic of his time, he would have been well formed in the study of rhetoric, logic, mathematics and the other liberal arts, which were considered necessary presuppositions to the study of philosophy and then theology. Unlike today, when everyone thinks he or she is a theologian, in St. Thomas' time the rigorous task of theology was only for those with an adequate, well-rounded intellectual formation. We would do well to aspire even to a portion of such literacy in the areas of both faith and reason.

Neo-Thomist revival

Fortunately for us, we have a shortcut that we can take that will both ensure our basic fidelity to the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and our readiness to engage with the intellectual and cultural currents of our own time. St. Thomas is this shortcut, which is why he is the only "common doctor" of the Church. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was involved in a widespread resoursement, a return to the sources of scripture, liturgy, patristics, and tradition. The neo-Thomist revival was at the heart of this going back to the sources, this quest for Catholic identity and literacy. Unfortunately, this may be news for some of us, or at least a word that we have not heard for a long time.

The widespread Catholic intellectual renaissance that was blossoming before the Second Vatican Council was somehow short-circuited, not by the Council itself, to be sure, but by a certain misappropriation of the renewal of Catholic faith that the Council so rightly called for. Since Vatican II, the dynamic intellectual framework of Thomism has been pushed aside by everything from Wittgenstein and Heidegger, to the Enneagram, Jungian Archetypes, Neo-Vedantism, thinly disguised 'Protestant' Catholicism (those who no longer believe what the Church teaches, who protest various beliefs and dogmas, but unlike the first Protestant revolution, they refuse to leave), etc. The general theme song on which all these diverse influxes all seem to agree is "May old Aquinas be forgot and never brought to mind."

I was even told once by a nun that "nothing written before the Council was worth reading." It was just such blatant ignorance of the Catholic tradition on the part of many liberal Catholics that plunged me back into a more conservative understanding of the Catholic Faith. I am a convert, I became a Roman Catholic when I was twenty-one. As a new Catholic, I started out believing what the Catholic Church taught, that the promise of Jesus was and still is with this Church. Over the years I bought into various critical perspectives to the extent that I ended up giving these critiques more authority in my life than I was giving to the Lord via the measuring rod of scripture and tradition. In a way, in the last ten years I have re-converted to my first conversion experience. I am still in the process of conversion but I refuse to apologize for being a Catholic. Apologetics is not the same as apologizing.

Vatican II: a call to renewal

The Second Vatican Council was a twofold call to renewal: A call to cultivate literacy in the Catholic sources--scripture, patristics, Church history, the teaching of the Councils and of the Magisterium, the liturgy, Catholic philosophers and theologians, and the lives and teachings of the Saints. Along with this, there was a second call to dialogue with the world, a genuine openness to enter into conversation (like St. Thomas) with the intellectual and cultural currents of this vast pluralistic world of ours. Resoursement and aggiornamento, back to the sources, to Catholic literacy, and dialogue with the world, these were the two great arms of the renewal the Catholic Faith that Vatican II called for. Aggiornamento took off full speed ahead; unfortunately, the resoursement arm of the renewal process was short circuited by the enthusiasm with which Catholics embraced, many with an inadequate Catholic cultural formation, the exciting task of dialogue.

St. Thomas as coach

The situation we are now in is one of widespread "ecclessial amnesia," where some have gone so far as to take pride in open dissent from Church teaching, and others have appropriated intellectual and cultural currents inimical to Catholic Faith. This is the diagnosis of the disease from which we suffer. St. Thomas is the shortcut cure, the inoculation that will protect us from the illness of surrendering our identity because we have not the strength to swim against the strong currents that surround us. These currents of thought are worthy of our attentive and respectful dialogue, but let us not get in the water if we are not strong swimmers. Some 'athletics of the soul' is first called for and St. Thomas Aquinas is the best of coaches in this game where it is we and our saving faith that will win or lose. St. Thomas is the medicinal framework that we need in order to find our way out of the divisive Catholic malaise in which we are sunk. If we want to get better, there is a way; it is not an easy path, but a great cloud of witnesses has gone before us and urges us on. The Angelic Doctor is the best of companions along this way.

Cultivating Catholic literacy

Does this mean that we are all called to become Thomistic literate, donkey companions of the 'dumb ox,' (his nickname) shock troops in this task of resoursement which was meant to be the strong swimming stroke for the co-task of confident dialogue with our contemporaries? Yes, and No. Each of us must begin from where we are. St. Thomas wrote his great Summa Theologica for beginners in the study of 'sacra doctrina,' and he even wrote a mini-Summa, the Compendium of Theology for the lay brothers and sisters of the Dominican Order. To be sure, neither of these is an easy read, both call for some strong intellectual labour. To wet our feet, we can begin with GK Chesterton's delightful little book entitled, St. Thomas Aquinas: the Dumb Ox, or Ralph McInerny's St. Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook For Peeping Thomists, or Peter Kreeft's, A Shorter Summa or A Summa of the Summa, or Frederich Bauerschmidt's Holy Teaching, or almost anything written by Josef Pieper, especially his Guide to Thomas Aquinas . There is any number of good introductory texts that could begin to give us the formation that Catholic culture warriors are in need of, any number of starting points for cultivating Catholic literacy.

If the cultivation of such literacy is beyond our powers, or if our life situation at present does not allow us the leisure to adequately pursue it, we can nevertheless remain on safe ground by submitting intellect and will to Jesus of Nazareth through the teaching Magisterium of his Church, the inheritors of his promise: "he who hears you hears me." We will also learn from St. Thomas to feed with this ox from other grain bins, the grain bin of Bethlehem most of all, but also those of scripture, Augustine, Plato, etc. We need not all be Thomists of course. St. Thomas is the 'preferred' theologian of the Catholic Church, but he is not the only one. There are other Doctors of the Church; they must all be our teachers. There are 29 of them so far. St. Thomas is chief among them, but there are also such notables such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux. Within 20 years I predict that there will be two more, two Doctors of the 20th century to lead us firmly and faithfully in the 21st century: St. Edith Stein, and John Paul II. And our task is to love to be taught, to desire to know, to hunger for these grain bins, to "delight in the law of the Lord, to meditate on it day and night." (Psalm 1)

Mr. Barclay teaches Religion and Philosophy at Regiopolis-Notre Dame in Kingston. He is the head of the Religion Department there.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Barclay, Blaine
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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