Dear Donagh, I saw an article recently […] where the writer said the Church had sold out on scholastic philosophy and theology. All the present-day confusion and uncertainty is because of this, he said. When he was in the seminary everything was subject to rigorous proof, but now everything is just vague suggestions and pretty sayings. There’s no consistency any more. Theology has been taken over by scripture scholars, and Aquinas has been shelved. He was convinced that the only hope is in a return to scholastic method. What’s your reaction to this? Stephen
Dear Stephen, I haven’t been able to find the article you referred to, so I can make only general remarks here.
The first thing I would say is that the Christian life is a life before it is a system of thought. Thomas Merton put this well: “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” (I use the full passage as this month’s ‘Wisdom Line’.) The truth has to be consistent with itself, but consistency alone is no guarantee of the truth: a person could be consistently wrong. The search is for the truth first of all. If it is indeed the truth it will prove in the end to be consistent.
The mind, of course, always looks for consistency, and from the earliest Christian times there have been efforts to understand and present the various themes of the faith in a coherent way. But the attempt to set it all out in a single vision that took account not only of the Scriptures but also of philosophy, tradition, ethics, etc. is a somewhat later development. Though St Augustine in the 5th century brought his probing philosophical intelligence to bear on almost every aspect of the faith, most of his works were written in response to particular crises in his own time and place. The fully systematic approach began later, with Peter Lombard’s work in the 12th century, which came to fulness in the mediaeval scholastic tradition, perhaps best exemplified by St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.
Two points about that massive book. First of all, in the preface he states that it is for beginners. He is far from suggesting that this is the last word on everything! Secondly, the format makes the same point. The book’s great divisions are called ‘Quaestiones’. Each quaestio is divided into a number of articles, every one of which is itself a question. Before he attempts to answer a question he gives an array of arguments that suggest the opposite of what he is going to propose. In the Summa, this number is usually about three, but in his other works it can be up to twenty. It is a tragedy that his life’s work was mangled into 24 philosophical propositions by the Roman Congregation of Studies in 1916, which the 1917 Code of Canon Law then made obligatory for all professors in Catholic institutions of learning throughout the world. It bred a couple of generations of theologians - ‘theo-logicians’ rather than theologians - who were more interested in system, in consistency, in ‘proofs’, than in Scripture or spirituality. These subjects were treated more as ‘afters’ than as the main course. This was a gross caricature of Aquinas. He was never a reactionary. On the contrary, he insisted on reading Aristotle at a time when it was forbidden to read him; he was forever exploring new ways, opening new paths. But these dogmatic caricatures were like trees fallen across the path.
The integration of the various themes of the Christian faith takes place in a living body - a body growing and changing through time, a living tradition - not in a set of abstract propositions. In this connection I often remember François Fénelon’s description of abstract religious thinkers: “They are like those conquerors who ravage a world without possessing it." Aquinas showed a way of integrating different fields, and he will be read again when the caricatures of him have been put aside. Reactionaries have no business looking at Aquinas; he would be horrified at the uses he has been put to. I haven’t been able to find the article you mentioned, but I recognise its tone. I always want to say to such people: if you think you can save the world by going back a generation, why didn’t you save it at that time?
Happy reading, Stephen!