Hypothesis on Vatican II

Vatican II is a pastoral council. There is some dispute about what it mans to be a pastoral council, but this dispute itself reveals the nature of something called pastoral. When we try to submit pastoral words to minute scholarly scrutiny, the words themselves become morbid and tortured, and quickly come to mean the exact opposite of what they were intended to mean. For example, a priest doing pastoral work with someone might well tell them “the most important thing is to pray your daily prayers every day”. As a piece of pastoral advice, this is laudable and necessary to say, and it has an exemplar even in Scripture, as when the Apostles say declare that all one must do is avoid ornication and eating meat offered to idols. But can you imagine how pervese these tatements become if they are subjected to the sort of scutiny that scholars submit texts to? All of the sudden, advice to say ones prayers comes to mean that prayer is more imortant than even going to mass. Didn’t the priest, after all, say that prayer was the most important thing?

Examples of such morbid and tortured readings of the Vatican II documents abound (although tortured readings are made more likely by the terrible Abott translations) To take only one example, the often- quoted line from Dei Verbum “the Church gives reverence to the Holy Sciptures just as it gives reverence to the body of the Lord”. As somthing said in a pastoral way, this is meant to be taken as saying something like “The Church loves Scripture a great deal” or “we should think we are responsible both for going to Mass and for reading Scripture too”. When scholars get their grubby little hands on the passage, however, it somehow becomes a call to reject Eucharistic devotion. After all, do we sit around and adore the scriptures? Of course not. But we must venerate our Lords body just as the Scripture, right?   

 Such readings are simply bad scholarship. They are based on the pathological inability of scholars to relate to a text as written to anyone other than themselves. There is a place for minute scrutiny, and we cannot apply it simply willy-nilly to any text we happen to deal with.  

To worship nature is an error, to be sure, but it presupposes a more profound understanding of nature than the error of thinking that nature is just stuff we can dig up and burn. Those who see nature as simply things there to be used can only discern its material aspect; but those who see it as being divine discerning something more formal to it: namely its essential relation to intelligence, and its governing power over action. All things are acting according to principles of motion within themselves, and so all is acting from nature. An so all action within nature is nature’s unfolding of itself according to its perpetual existence (this is confirmed even by the empirical sciences: note the use of the word “always” and “created and destroyed” in the first laws of thermodynamics and mass conservation. The first thing we understand about nature is its eternity to itself.)

We know that by the end of the 13th Century, the prerequisites for theological training involved between 4 and 7 years of studying Aristotle almost exclusively. It is unlikely that this system was a radical departure from the sort of training that was in place before. Most attempts to resurrect Scholasticism are bound to fail simply because we are unwilling to meet the prerequisites. We literally cannot begin to recapture the wisdom of the Scholastic period.

Notes on Persons in John’s Gospel (and one in Luke)

-The woman at the well evangelized her town by saying that Christ “told her everything she had ever did”. In fact, Christ only told her about her failure to be chaste, which was known to everyone in town. She could have exploded with rage when Christ spoke of her Husbands, but she perhaps already knew that she was doing wrong. She could have admitted that she was doing something wrong, and yet just “walk away sad” (as the rich young man) and never change. The woman did none of these things because she experienced that Christ gave her the power to do what she needed to do. He “told her what she had done” because he gave her the strength to do something about it.

 -Zaccheus wanted to see Christ, but he could not do so because of the way he was naturally. Morally, the sense is that by nature no one can come to Christ. How do we see him? By climbing into the tree, i.e. the cross.

 -Christ miraculously fed the multitude and the multitude chased after him. Christ then asks the multitude to believe in him, to which they respond “what sign will you do, that we might see and believe you (Jn. 6:20)?” On the face of it, this remark seems to evince an almost embarrassing stupidity: What sign? Do you remember why you were chasing after him in the first place? Their response is perfectly understandable. Miracles can make belief more reasonable and unbelief unreasonable, but they cannot make reason by itself able to ascend to the truths we must believe.

-Again, a miracle without grace is not enough to make us believe- because nothing without grace is enough to make us believe. Without grace, we either become enraged by miracles, or we want to see them over and over again, as though we would believe if we just saw one more. See the response to Lazarus, or the healing of the man born blind.

Definition, Part IV

Everything that comes to be or arises has a before and an after, and all human knowledge arises from experience and reasoning. There are, therefore, as many ways of being before and after in our knowing as there are ways of being before and after in experience, in reasoning, and in the relations between reasoning and experience. The sense of before and after that we are most familiar with in human knowledge is the before and after of learning. In the case of learning, both by experience and by reasoning, the things that come before determine what comes after; but the things that come after complete the process of leaning and therefore more desirable. In fact, if we consider the learner more precisely, we can see that the things that come after are the only things desired for themselves; what comes before is only sought for their sake. Because as learners we only desire what comes after, our constant temptation is to leap over what comes before in order to enjoy what comes after. In the case of experience, this temptation involves claiming that we have seen some unity among thing that we have not yet seen, in the case of reasoning it involves jumping to conclusions before we have understood their principles. Note how in both cases that it is precisely a failure to order our knowledge according to before and after is leaves us with a “knowledge” that is in fact indistinguishable from error or sophistry. Both sorts of “knowledge” are clearly worse than a real knowledge of ones own ignorance. All the wise have seen that the order of learning according to before and after is one of the first things we must distinctly understand about learning, if not the very first thing. This is the one application of the proverb “well begun is half done”, which can be traced back as far as the Greek proverb “the beginning is half of all”. Eastern thinkers stand side by side with Western thinkers on this count, as is shown by the introductory words of Confucius’ The Great Learning: Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning. The primary figure in any discussion of the order of learning, however, is Socrates, who spoke of a failure to understand the first truths of any subject as a failure to understand the subject altogether. Notice the beginning pages of the Meno: Meno: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice? Socrates: …I literally do not know what virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not. And I myself, Meno, living as I do in this region of poverty, am as poor as the rest of the world; and I confess with shame that I know literally nothing about virtue; and when I do not know the “quid” of anything how can I know the “quale”? How, if I knew nothing at all of Meno, could I tell if he was fair, or the opposite of fair; rich and noble, or the reverse of rich and noble? Even a casual reader of Plato recognizes Socrates’ way of speaking here as very characteristic of him. Such remarks are often explained as “Socratic irony”, but such an explanation is superficial, accidental, and inadequate. Socrates’ remark here is not made out of some blind love of being ironic, but out of his desire to show the singular importance of prosecuting ones thoughts in the right order. Socrates is not claiming to know “nothing of virtue” as though he were completely oblivious to what Meno was talking about (as though Meno could just as easily have been speaking about, say, a fish) or as though Socrates couldn’t use the word himself in a sentence. Socrates claims to know “nothing of virtue” because he doesn’t know the first thing about virtue, namely the “quid” that must be treated before the “quale”. We will treat this point more thoroughly later, but it is enough to point out now that Socrates is saying that a disordered knowledge, or one that does not place the right things before and after, can literally be called no knowledge at all.

Two Notes

-St. Thomas would not respond to difficult philosophical or theological problems by thinking that he could figure them out, but by believing that God would give him an answer to the problem in prayer. This is shown by all the testimonials of how he solved problems and discovered arguments. He prayed as though it were his last and only option. I’m embarrassed by how far I am from being able to do this. When I confront St. Thomas’ same theological problems, I usually give up, or imagine that I can come up with the answer if I only think hard enough or read enough books. It’s hard for me to imagine that prayer will make the difference- but it is precisely this weakness and failure on my part that allows for and demands faith. St. Thomas was a preeminent exemplar of such faith.

Incidentally, the scholars need for faith and prayer is one of the underdeveloped themes in the discussion of faith and reason. The human mind is so weak, so prone to error, and so incommensurate to the things that can be known even by the human mind itself that it requires direction and subordination to the angelic universe and the divine mind. Since this subordination is by definition subordination to an intelligence that surpasses our own intelligence, our relation to it must be by faith and prayer. Now of course this need for divine direction is shared by people in all professions: lawyers, politicians, policemen, etc. But the particular weakness of the human mind and the incommensurability it has to the whole truth gives the scholar a particular need for divine help. Strangely enough, when we see the relation between faith and reason in this light, the more reasonable ones life becomes, the more it is called to become a life of faith and trust in divine help.

-Aristotle discovers act and potency and matter and form when he is seeking for the beginnings or principles of things. The Islamic philosophers later developed these principles to include existence an essence, and St. Thomas followed them. One of the easiest things to lose sight of when discussing principles is that they are principles: we start imagining them as though they were things in themselves. To think they are things in the same sense as the things they are principles of, however, destroys the whole reason to call them principles at all. One cannot explain something by simply positing another thing just like it- this only leads to an infinite regress of giving principles for principles.

Much of the modern dispute about the distinction between esse and essentia or substance and esse seems to lost track of the difference between a thing and a principle of a thing.

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