The dialogue with the modern world UPDATED.

Since, about 1945, Thomists have been told that they can no longer practice thomism like Banez, John of St. Thomas, Cajetan, Capreolus, or any of the so called “manual thomists” that arose after Aeterni Patris like Grenier, Hugon, Gredt. The status of Gerrigou- Lagrange is disputed, but he is usually reckoned among one the guys we’re not supposed to think like any more. The reason given for abandoning these authors is that they are “unable to dialogue with/ speak to the modern world”.

The reason is unclear. If the thomists in question lacked dialectical skill, they did not have a philosophical or theological problem at all. For example, say that all, or at least most, of Algebra teachers and chemists were unable to explain Algebra and chemistry to their students (and anyone who’s worked in education, or gone past seventh grade knows how vast this problem is) is this a problem of Algebra or chemistry? Will a new theorem in chemistry make all those terrible teachers into good, inspiring, and motivating teachers? While a bad teacher can be dry, lifeless, and a scandal to the doctrine he teaches, this would not impugn the subject matter.

The claim, then, should mean something more than “thomists happened to have poor teaching skills”. The method itself, then, must be unable to speak to the people in the modern world. And why don’t we immediately infer from this that modern people are simply unable to appreciate or understand the most proper and well-developed theological method? It can only be because we have already decided, on the basis of some argument that is rarely given anymore, that the Scholastic method as such is a bad way of doing theology.

The older school of modern theologians made this claim more directly: Gilson, for example, would claim that Aristotle’s logic was inadequate to do thomistic metaphysics. Because of this, modern thomists began to claim, and still often claim, that they are being faithful to St. Thomas even though they have wholly abandoned his method: for example, they no longer speak about per se and the per accidens, the four causes, discipleship to Aristotle, the order of the sciences from logic to physics to metaphysics, syllogistic construction of arguments, the primacy of definition- and along with it genus and species and difference and essential considerations, the categorical divisions of the predicates, the shunning of poetic and metaphorical language, and the necessity of dialectic. The new wave of thomists also abandoned later scholastic developments of Aristotelian method: of the emphasis on commentary, the disputed question format, the highly polished universal technical language, the emphasis on brevity, outlining the argument, the necessity of Latin terms etc. Some parts of this method lingered for a while, but not many- and from what I can tell all of these parts are now totally gone.

But having thought about it for a moment, who cares? Any movement that exists to speak to the modern world can only last as long as the modern world. What is this age? Just another stretch of time, which, like any age, has no source within itself making it perennial. Unless doomsday comes first, I can foresee an age where some monk will be reading the Summa while walking through the ancient ruins of an American city. That image should be an illustration of the sort of power we should be tapping into now.


  1. Blaha said,

    November 1, 2006 at 12:19 am

    I think you are a little too hard on those who insist we should not practice Thomism like his disciples who followed him. One of them you mention, Cajetan, along with many others in the neo-scholastic tradition that followed him in subsequent generations, was accused not of being excessively Thomistic but of placing his own words in the mouth of the one on whom he was claiming to comment – that is, of not being a Thomist at all. As Gilson once noted, “Cajetan’s commentary is not what St. Thomas says, and we can observe in him a kind of failure to enter into the fundamental ideas” of his master; “the distinctions he introduces so skillfully are not directed to making St. Thomas’s thought clearer, but to substituting his own.” Such critics were far from brushing aside St. Thomas as “unable to dialogue with the modern world”; rather, they saw in the departure of modern theology (and its manualist tendencies) from the original teachings of St. Thomas a false divorce between grace and nature which in some fashion allowed secular utopian aspirations to find fertile ground. The most notable of these critics was Henri de Lubac, who was of great influence upon Humani Generis and often quite directly criticized manualism and neo-scholasticism for its departure from true Thomism – if not in method, then in spirit.

    At any rate, regardless of the longevity of modern theology, would you allow that to “condescend” to the modern world is necessary, in order to lift it up? I have no doubt that any of these theologians would scrap their thought the moment evangelization and dialogue with the world became no longer necessary. Yet the fact remains, and will long remain, that it is. Acknowledgment of this fact is no knock on St. Thomas and the perennial value of his teaching.

  2. shulamite8810 said,

    November 1, 2006 at 1:37 am

    You raise many fine points, and have given me some very nice quotations. There are many things to dialogue about here. At the same time, it’s difficult to know where to start, because you have mostly not objected to what I said, although you appear to be objecting many times.

    A few examples:

    1.) “[Cajetan] was not accused of being excessively thomistic”

    Right, I am aware that Gilson did not accuse him thus.

    2.) “[Cajetan] was accused of not being a thomist at all”

    Right. I am aware that this is what Gilson said ( and you said I was too harsh? To deny that Cajetan was a disciple of Thomas at all is kind and moderate?).

    3.) “Such critics {like Gilson and De Lubac} were far from brushing aside St. Thomas as “unable to dialogue with the modern world””

    Yes, their whole point was that they wanted him to come into dialogue with the world. That’s what I said. It’s the title of the post.

    You then give a seeming objection: “At any rate, regardless of the longevity of modern theology, would you allow that to “condescend” to the modern world is necessary, in order to lift it up?”

    Did I give an ambiguous answer about what I think about a dialogue with the world? I stand by what I said. Do you want me to write the post over again?

    You then make a very obscure point:

    “rather, they saw in the departure of modern theology (and its manualist tendencies) from the original teachings of St. Thomas a false divorce between grace and nature which in some fashion allowed secular utopian aspirations to find fertile ground”

    This claim is that manual thomism leads to… Socialism? Marxism? Liberalism? Is this supposed to be evident as soon as it’s said? Moreover, even if it’s true, is it a mistake of the teacher or of the method? If a teacher made a mistake, correct it. Why does one mistake require us to junk the entire method?

  3. Blaha said,

    November 3, 2006 at 6:45 pm

    Your assessment of my post is pretty much right on … there are more than a few ambiguities there. I was intending to offer an alternative interpretation to yours, which I read to assert that those who claim we ought to “abandon the practice of Thomism a la Cajetan, Banez, etc” are unreasonable and haphazard. I see now that your original post did not intend to address those others, who for whatever reasons (such as the ones I gave) criticzed manual Thomism for its erros and not its method. I would agree that an error in thinking would demand a correction rather than abandonment of the method according to which that thinking proceeds.

    The line about manualism leading to secular utopian aspirations was merely to provide some context for the strong reactions to some of the theories of manualism / neo-scholasticism (specifically the theory of “natura pura”) and certainly is not self-evident.

    The accusation that Cajetan is no disciple of Thomas is strong in one sense, but right on in another. What real disciple would put his own words in the mouth of his master, thereby lending them undue authority and weight? Introducing new thoughts instead of clarifications is revision, not commentary. All the same, my original comment can be restated in more moderate language without losing its point.

    However, my final point (posed as a question) was to confirm in an indirect way just how strongly you felt about the foolishness of dialogue with the modern world. It is one thing to claim our theology cannot be exclusively generated and conditioned by issues presented by the world, humanists, atheists, agnostics, etc. It is quite another to say that no conversation whatsoever must transpire between the Church, which is the source and sacrament of salvation for all, and those for whom it is intended to be such. Perhaps you are simply emphasizing a distinction between the Church’s “department of the interior” and its diplomacy. I agree, and the Church agrees, that they must be distinct, and that we must continue to speak truth to ourselves in our own language, discovered by our own methods, and with the purpose of edification, no matter what the urgency of evangelization may be. But to categorically deny the value of dialogue with the world (which is what you’ve claimed quite clearly, unless I grossly misunderstand you) is to place one squarely in opposition to Scripture, the tradition, and the magisterium.

    So, given the backdrop of my question: yes, I would like you to rewrite your post.

  4. shulamite8810 said,

    November 3, 2006 at 8:44 pm

    To your major point, I think it’s important to be clear- you seem to be asking me directly “what do you think of dialogue with the world”:

    Since the beginning, I have only denied that dialogue with the world requires us to abandon all the figures I mentioned- especially (my favorite) John of St. Thomas, but also the manual thomists, whose marvellous brevity has been such an inspiration to me in how to write this blog. If you want to know my own opinion of thomism and dialogue and the modern world, I offer you this very blog- which is written by a thomist who loves Cajetan, Banez, and John of St. Thomas, and who is in dialogue with the world.

    In a certain sense, the secondary sources are irrelevant. The goodness of any secondary source is only to get us to love St. Thomas far more than the source. The point is, at least as far as my life and this blog is concerned, to knit everything as closely as possible to St. Thomas and Aristotle. They are like the stem and bud of perennial philosophy. Everything else is just a nature guide to that flower.

  5. Blaha said,

    November 4, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you for the clarification.

    Keep up the good work.


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