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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Shakespeare, me, Maximos IV, Congar, Rahner and Schillebeeckx on Aquinas

I've been thinking about Thomas Aquinas ever since I read what Dr. Steven Shakespeare had said of him in a talk he gave about animals ....

[...] Thomas Aquinas. In his view, animals are dumb, soulless and irrational. They have no will to move themselves, but move as it were almost mechanically based on natural impulse. ‘By divine providence’, he writes, animals ‘are intended for man’s use in the natural order. Hence it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing them or in any other way whatever.’ There is huge subtlety in much of Aquinas’ thought about how we can use analogy to talk about the transcendent God, about how nature is not abolished but finds its perfection in grace. And yet here he seems to take the crudest of domineering and objective approaches, with no real empathy for the worlds animals inhabit, for their own languages and inner life.

I was never a fan of his, given his beliefs about women, his support of the death penalty (including death for heretics), and his general appropriation of Aristotle's work, among other things, but this all reminded me of something Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh had written about him for Vatican II .....


Chapter 17 ― Catholic Teaching


A statement presented by the patriarch at the session of the Central Commission in June 1962.

It is our opinion that, in spite of the very high regard that one must have for St. Thomas Aquinas, it is not fitting that this council should declare that his doctrine is purely and simply the very doctrine of the Church or of the council. Therein is the risk that the Angelic Doctor be substituted for all the teaching and the entire Tradition of the Church. From the viewpoint of bringing Christians together, there is more than one disadvantage in the pure and simple adoption of the whole Thomistic system as the Church’s own doctrine. Here are a few examples:

1. The Thomistic system, in fact, cannot be called universal in the Church. The East, in particular, possesses another theological system, which must not be cast aside from Catholic thought.

2. Thomistic terminology does not always conform with that in traditional usage in the Eastern Church, especially on the subject of the sacraments.

3. There is an involuntary risk of giving St. Thomas’ doctrine more consideration than the collective thought of the Fathers who constitute the ecclesial Tradition. In addition, the patristic thought of St. Thomas, although commendable for his epoch, is deficient on certain points compared with modern research.

4. St. Thomas is of his epoch and shares a good number of the prejudices of his time in regard to Easterners. He must not be utilized in dialogue with the Orthodox except with discretion.

5. Finally, Scholasticism, which is dependant on St. Thomas, has gradually made certain positions of its master more inflexible, and renders dialogue with the Orthodox still more difficult.

However that may be, Thomism is perhaps the most perfect expression of the theological evolution of the West in the Middle Ages. But Eastern theology does not die easily. It is better to leave the framework of the Church’s universal theology open to a number of currents. Thus while recommending St. Thomas for the study of theologians, the council must avoid making it something absolute. Divinity is infinitely rich and varied. Nothing is more impoverishing than to contemplate it from a single viewpoint

Extracts from the “Observations of the Holy Synod on the Schemas of the Council” (1963)

It is impossible to accept in a text emanating from this council, and thus of universal significance both as to time and as to place, a constantly repeated call for the adoption in Catholic teaching of the doctrine, the method, and the principles of St. Thomas . Although dogma, as a revealed given fact, cannot change, its human expression, on the contrary, is subject to variation. It is the fruit of each people’s own cultural spirit, a result of its mental inclination, its traditions, and of the circumstances under which its history has unfolded. In right and in fact, a number of currents of theological thought have existed and will exist in the Church, without prejudice to the fundamental unity of dogma. To tie dogma to a human culture necessarily coexistent with the particular civilization of a people, is unlawful and actually impossible, because it is against nature. Besides, that is to impoverish it, reduce it, whereas it is the message of God to men, all men. It is agreed that Thomism, itself an heir of Aristotelian philosophic thought, has contributed much to the Church, and that present day theological expression owes much to it, and it is only just to recognize it; but one cannot impose it, bind it to dogma, above all in a conciliar document.


Oh well, everyone else seems to really like him - here are some sermons on him ....

St. Thomas: Servant of the Truth - Yves Congar

Thomas Aquinas: Friar, Theologian, and Mystic - Karl Rahner

Thomas Aquinas: Servant of the Word - Edward Schillebeeckx


Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I understand your dislike of Aquinas. But every thinker is a product of their times. The best thinkers will overcome some of the blindspots of their age, but by no means all of them. And he was writing in the 13th century, after all.

Much of what he wrote seems quite regressive by today's standards, particularly when he depends on Aristotelian "science" and pre-critical readings of Scripture and the Church Fathers. But when you look at Catholic theology before Aquinas, and for several centuries after, one can see that his genius is truly without peer.

9:19 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi PrickliestPear,

Yes, I have to read more of what Aquinas wrote, because from my limited knowledge of him, it seems like he stole all his good stuff and made the rest up from whole cloth. The thought that he seems good in comparison to everyone else of his time is faint praise :) but I guess I'm being too hard on him.

I read a lecture by Keith Ward on the scholastics and he gives a pretty good defense of Aquinas - The Medieval Synthesis.

12:57 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

" seems like he stole all his good stuff and made the rest up from whole cloth."

Why do you think that?

BTW, I quite like that Keith Ward lecture you linked to. I had read it before (in fact, I think you linked to it before, and that's when I read it).

10:21 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Oh, I should shut up about Aquinas because I really don't know enough about him to make a good criticism of him. I'm just biased - my favorite philosophy teacher in college thought theology was the weak sister of philosophy and he especially disliked Augustine and Aquinas, thinking their work was not original but borrowed from Greek philosophy and that in their actual lives they were less than saintly. I guess I've internalized his point of view.

1:24 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Oh, okay.

4:17 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


what do you think of him and his work?

5:38 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

Hi Crystal,

Sometimes I want to slap that philosophy teacher of yours ;) He doesn't seem to have much of a historical approach to philosophy.

I think Aquinas was one of the most amazing thinkers ever. His conclusions, like anyone's, were often those of a man of his time -- and too often Catholics present them as received truths cut off from the process in which they were produced. But overall he had a very generous vision and a tremendous mind.

11:26 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Liam,

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to believe the beliefs of one's times. I don't really see how all men of the medieval period could have relationships with mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers, and none of them come to the conclusion that the prevailing idea that women were inferior, malformed men was just rubbish. And if even one of those guys on the street could make that leap, why not a brilliant person like Aquinas? But instead of wondering if it could really be true that half the population was substandard, he justified the idea in the name of God - eek!

But having said that, you're right - he was a visionary and indoubtedly a brain. I just don't get how people can be really good at almost everything and yet still have what I think of as serious flaws. Maybe I expect too much from saints.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

But that was also a common idea in the classical period -- Aristotle certainly felt that way.

Still, what seems like common sense is not always so clear to people. For example, you and I both have similar ideas (I believe) about gay rights -- that people are born gay, do not have a choice, and should have the rights as straight people. But you know that's not as obvious to other people -- even other people with whom we agree on a lot of other issues. And before I start blowing our own horn too much, I'm sure that both of us have prejudices we're not even close to aware of that would seem absurd from a different perspective.

Of course saints have flaws -- they're human. Look at St Peter.

12:41 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yes, we agree about gay rights issues.

I guess it's true - there are things people take so for granted that they're not questioned, they're just facts, like the world being the center of the universe or the earth being flat, and all new data is interpreted through that "fact".

Maybe this will motivate me to read some of St. Tommy's work :)

5:57 PM  

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