HOUSTON, Texas, APRIL 24, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a compilation of excerpts from a Jan. 28 public lecture given by Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver, British Columbia, at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. The lecture was published April 14 by L’Osservatore Romano.
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The Church’s “Common Doctor:” Aquinas and the Contemporary Catholic University
St Thomas himself never put his mind to worrying about how to think about a Catholic university of his time or any other. His writings never touch upon matters of faculty, students or curriculum as they concern us today. Yet he does propose specific views about the acquisition of knowledge about truth and the relationship of faith and reason which are, I believe, of permanent value to understanding how the contemporary Catholic university should carry out its teaching and research.
After a look at the study of Thomism in centers of higher education universities and seminaries following the revival initiated by Pope Leo XIII, what I suggest in this lecture are several reasons why St Thomas is rightly called “a light for the Church and the whole world”, above all the world of the Catholic Academy at the dawn of this Third Christian Millennium.
Second Vatican Council: Apex and Decline
Following the long tradition according official approval to Thomas’ teaching, which the Church used so widely and successfully “as an instrument superbly adapted to her purposes, thus casting the mantle of her own magisterial authority over Aquinas”, the Second Vatican Council followed suit. It highly praised Thomas, whose thought had prepared for it in so many ways.
The Decree on Priestly Formation, for example, recommended that seminarians be taught according to “that philosophical heritage which is perennially valid”. Moreover, their dogmatic theology should be taught so as to illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, and seminarians “should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections”.
In like fashion, the Declaration on Christian Education praised Aquinas’ teaching for showing how faith and science can work in harmony in Catholic colleges and universities. For the first time an ecumenical council recommended an individual theologian for study, and they gave that honor to St Thomas, even though the Fathers themselves made less use of him in their final documents than in those previously prepared for their deliberations.
Ironically, right around the same time as the Council, a decline what some have called a “collapse” in the study of St Thomas was taking place. Several reasons for this slow falling into neglect can be suggested. First, the renewal of biblical scholarship prompted by Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu, published in 1943, introduced scriptural themes and categories more directly into theology, thereby making Thomas seem outdated. This was accompanied by a more general ressourcement among theologians, a return to the study of the Church Fathers, thereby bypassing the Scholastics, including Aquinas, in favor of the tradition of a presumed earlier golden age. At the same time, creating an almost perfect storm, a third movement was in the wind, one which, even if not intending to do so, undercut the privileged place of Thomism, especially in seminaries. Aidan Nichols comments on this new emphasis that emerged: theology itself should be preachable; that is, it should be readily and immediately able to be “translated” into a Sunday homily relevant to contemporary situations. In achieving this purpose Aquinas was held to be no help; he was insufficiently biblical, excessively philosophical and too complicated. Some blame for the hasty exit of St Thomas from the Academy should also be placed on what Nichols calls “the off-putting mode of the pedagogical and literary presentation in which Thomism was often cast…. [I]ts communication in many seminaries and Catholic philosophy faculties appears to have become dessicated and ahistorical”. Pius xi’s admonition to “go to Thomas” was insufficiently observed. A dry summary of certain theses replaced the texts of the Master himself.
Despite this evident decline in the study of Aquinas, in 1974, Paul VI rather surprisingly expressed his delight in what he optimistically called “the extraordinary, even if unforeseen, “return’ of St Thomas, which has confirmed the wisdom of the supreme Magisterium in declaring him to be the authoritative, irreplaceable guide in philosophy and theology”. For his part, John Paul II hoped that the Council’s encouragement, together his own particular blend of Thomism and phenomenology, would give a new impetus to the Church’s intellectual apostolate. To be sure, John Paul did not propose that Thomism was the Church’s only philosophy, as had Leo xiii, who had affirmed that “insistence upon the thought of the Angelic Doctor” is “the best way to recover the practice of a philosophy consonant with faith”. Rather, John Paul allows for a plurality of philosophical systems, with the caveat that to be acceptable they must share Aquinas’ metaphysical realism, including his position on the natural knowability of the existence of God. Certainly Thomas is a “model” for the philosopher. Nevertheless, the Pope adds, despite the high praise owed to Thomas, “the Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others”.
As for theology, John Paul lauds St Thomas as “a model of the right way to do theology”, adding that “the Magisterium has repeatedly acclaimed the merits of Saint Thomas’ thought and made him the guide and model for theological studies”.
Doctor Veritatis: Relativism and the Crisis of Truth
Much can be said about the intellectual malaise, the so-called “weak thought” of our contemporaries. Probably there is no single cause for the corruption of the modern mind. But I would submit that a good place to begin finding a cause is the penetrating analysis of Pope Benedict.
According to the Holy Father, among the major challenges to the Church of the 21st century, and one which presents “a particularly insidious obstacle in the task of educating”, is the massive presence of relativism in society and in the halls of the Academy. The central problem of our system higher education is not its failure to provide strong intellectual and marketable skills, which it can do well enough, but its premise that reality does not exist independently of the human mind and cannot be known with any certainty. In this way, even if not intentionally, far too many colleges and universities stifle the students’ natural desire to know, and to know the truth. This entices them to avoid the humanities and liberal arts and take refuge in the professional and practical arts alone, with their expected financial rewards.
Another consequence of this underlying assumption and one even more serious is that, even if a person practices his or her faith, such faith has nothing to do with truth; hence, nothing to do with the core purpose of a university; that is, teaching and research. In situations where what makes a university “Catholic” is not the content of what is taught in other words, the curriculum – but only the laudable concern for the “whole student”, then its intellectual foundation has been weakened, perhaps beyond repair. Important as student life is to expressing one’s faith, it can never replace the curriculum as the principal locus of genuine catholicity in the world of higher education.
All too often relativism and privatized faith are not only the academic’s creed, but also that of the person on the street. Indeed, relativism has become a secular dogma and “it is considered dangerous and “authoritarian’ to speak of truth”. A “dictatorship of relativism” prevails in the now famous phrase from Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily before he was elected Pope.
In fact, in many universities, seeking truth is considered a h
opelessly impossible, even naive, undertaking. Academics are suspicious, if not hostile, to any claim to know the truth. They often suffer from “the widespread conviction that the possibility of attaining truth is an illusion of traditional metaphysics”, accepting as true only what can be experienced.
In the university world skepticism reigns about truth: nothing is definitive except in the empirically verifiable scientific realm. If this University is going to fulfill its mission in the Church as a community of teachers and learners, its curriculum is going to have to meet this crisis of truth head-on. It can do so by arguing convincingly, with passion and respect, that the truth can be pursued and, to a limited but real extent, attained by the human mind and communicated to others. Such a service to the truth is the intellectual foundation of every Catholic university. Today we must reaffirm the “the “passion for truth” that animated St Thomas in order to harness the intellectual forces necessary for the development of a future of authentic human flourishing. Failure to engage this quest leads a scholarly community to see itself merely as an educational provider, trapped in a hall of mirrors of endless choices without focus or purpose. Consequently, as Ralph McInerny has noted in typical pithy fashion, “The main reason to read Thomas is to learn things that are true”.
Catholic universities can imitate today what Aquinas did in the thirteenth century by imbuing their curricula with the desire to search freely “the whole truth about nature, man and God”. Although his serene openness alarmed not a few of his contemporaries, he searched for truth diligently and lovingly among pre-Christian and non-Christian philosophers, willing to engage in intellectual dialogue with all wise teachers. Thomas showed great liberty of spirit and intellectual honest in dealing with new questions and by not rejecting secularist philosophies a priori and without examination.
Aquinas was ever alert to the truth buried in the opinion of others: “There is no false teaching which does not have some truth admixed in it”, he affirmed. John Paul ii observed that for Thomas “this presence of truth even if it be incomplete and imperfect and at times distorted is a bridge uniting every man to other men and makes understanding possible when there is good will”.
Whence the source of the Saint’s conviction? In his unrelenting search for the good and the true, Thomas recognized that the Holy Spirit was already at work, opening the human heart and making it ready to welcome the truth of the Gospel. In a celebrated phrase he states: “any truth, no matter by whom it is spoken, is from the Holy Spirit”. The action of the Spirit creates an affinity for the truth and draws the human heart towards it; he helps human knowledge mature in wisdom and in trusting abandonment to what is true. Just as he succeeded in establishing a fruitful confrontation with the Arab and Hebrew thought of his time, treating them respectfully but refusing to let himself be overawed by their authority, so must scholars and students in a Catholic university, with a similar grace bequeathed by the Holy Spirit, be free to examine the truth wherever it may be found.
Pope Paul VI sums up this attitude of Thomas to all the great masters of human thought, an attitude which might well undergird every university which strives to preserve, hand on and enrich the Catholic intellectual, moral and artistic tradition. First, he began with great admiration for the intellectual patrimony of other traditions. Second, he recognized the value and significance but also the limitations of each thinker. Finally, he was compassionate towards those who, like the philosophers of antiquity, lacked the light of faith. The Holy Father then speculated on how Thomas would confront contemporary questions:
“We are convinced that were he among us today he would be no less eager to investigate the forces that are bringing about changes in man, his conditions, his manner of thinking and his way of life. Whatever would help him now to speak of God more worthily and persuasively than ever before would be in his eyes a cause for rejoicing. Yet in all this he would never lose that serene, magnanimous sense of security which faith alone can bestow on the human mind”.
The Angelic Doctor is a marvelous example of Christian scholars open to the signs of the times shaping their age and yet remaining faithful to the path marked out by faith, tradition and the Church’s teaching. What a lesson this is for civilized and respectful scholarly interchange in the Academy!
Doctor Concordiae: Harmony of Faith and Reason
Besides being, par excellence, the Doctor Veritatis, Thomas is also the Doctor Concordiae; that is, he is the pre-eminent teacher of the harmony between faith and reason, the “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”.
In addressing the University community at Leuven in 1985, Pope John Paul II affirmed: “The whole living tradition of the Church teaches us this: faith seeks understanding, and understanding seeks faith. Both the need to understand and the need to believe are deeply rooted in man’s heart. It is for this reason that the Church herself was the point of departure for the creation of universities”. Nonetheless, a particular challenge faces universities today in that many would detach faith from reason, and reason from faith. This challenge can be met if teachers and learners take the Angelic Doctor as their master. “With his charism as a philosopher and theologian”, says Pope Benedict, “he [Thomas] offered an effective model of harmony between reason and faith, dimensions of the human spirit that are completely fulfilled in the encounter and dialogue with one another”.
For Aquinas, then, faith and reason should be neither separated nor placed in competition; rather, they go hand in hand. “Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he [Thomas] argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them”.
On the relationship St Thomas is truly enlightening. Commenting on this, Pope John Paul II has said:
“Philosophical and theological truth converge into a single truth. The truth of reason ascends from creatures to God; the truth of faith descends directly from God to man. But this diversity of method and origin does not detract from their fundamental unity, because there is a single identical Author of truth manifested through creation, and truth communicated personally to man by means of His Word. Philosophical research and theological research are two different directions of movement of a single truth, destined to meet, but not collide, on the same road, in order to help each other. Thus reason, illuminated, strengthened and guaranteed by faith, becomes a faithful companion of faith itself and faith immensely widens the limited horizon of human reason”.
Pope Benedict reaffirms his predecessors’ views that Aquinas offers “an effective model of harmony between reason and faith, dimensions of the human spirit that are completely fulfilled in the encounter and dialogue with one another”. Indeed, “an intellectual “culture’ which is genuinely Catholic”, must be “confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason”. The Holy Father affirms that “a natural friendship exists between faith and reason, founded in the order of Creation itself”. The synergy between the two is the linchpin of Benedict’s thought. At the origin of the Christian faith there is not only the Jerusalem of the theologians but also the Athens of the philosophers.
In dealing with the harmony between faith and reason developed so exquisitely by Aquinas, the Holy Father leaves no doubt about the Christological center of this vision. For Thomas, he writes, “the definitive fulfilment of every authentic human aspiration rests in Jesus Christ”. But it was the genius of Aquinas to have highlighted the autonomy of philosophy, and with it the laws proper to reason. He gave a new emphasis to the specific responsibility of reason
, which was not to be absorbed by faith. According to Thomas, Christianity was obliged to argue the case for its own reasonableness.
Drawing, then, on St Thomas, Pope Benedict is convinced that it is urgent for contemporary thinkers “to rediscover anew human rationality open to the light of the divine Logos and his perfect revelation which is Jesus Christ, Son of God made man”. Nor does exhort only scholars. In countless homilies and discourses he cites St Peter’s injunction to every Christian: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3: 15). It is the Christian faith which safeguards reason in the modern world. Indeed, faith liberates reason from its own limitations. God has revealed himself as creative Reason and, precisely as the Logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. “In the beginning was the Word”, the Logos, and “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1: 1, 14). The divine Logos is thus the origin of the universe, and this same Logos was united once and for all with humanity, the world and history, in Christ. Moreover, this Reason is not a mathematics of the universe nor a first cause that withdrew after producing the Big Bang. Rather, it has “a heart such as to be able to renounce its own immensity and take flesh”.
The Holy Father addresses directly the consequence for higher education of holding to such an understanding of reason. In his first major address to academics he affirmed: “This then is the great challenge to Catholic universities: to impart knowledge in the perspective of true rationality, different from that of today which largely prevails, in accordance with a reason open to the question of the truth and to the great values inscribed in being itself, hence, open to the transcendent, to God”.
Because God is Reason, our faith has something that has to do with reason; it can be passed on through it and has no cause to hide from it. Whenever faith in God separates itself from its rational foundation, such a faith is put at risk.
Without the light of faith, however, human reason cannot find sure and fulfilling answers to today’s many urgent problems. Catholic universities, if they are to remain true to the intellectual tradition which has shaped them from their beginning, are called to bear witness not only to the dignity of human reason and its capacity for knowing reality but also to the role played by faith in learning. Our universities are broader, not narrower, in their outlook, since the study of divine revelation opens up a whole area of reality beyond the reach of reason left to its own natural resources. As Fr Victor Brezik once reminded us, “the combination of the world of revealed knowledge with the world of rational knowledge gives the Catholic university a much more challenging horizon of study”.
The Mall without the Chapel would be incomplete; and the Chapel without the Mall would be in exile. What we are blessed to have at UST is an architectural embodiment of a sound Thomism. The Catholic sacramental imagination demanded the completion of the Academic Mall crowned by the Chapel and we are forever grateful to Dr Joe McFadden for that. Moreover, that the Chapel bespeak a certain prominence for faith is also necessary. When the study of the world guided by reason and faith is taken seriously, a certain hierarchy of importance emerges. That is why theology and philosophy have long been accorded a kind of primi inter pares status in the University’s curriculum.
Furthermore, fidelity to Thomas also demands that a Catholic university teach theology as a divine science, and not religious studies, a human one dependent on rational inquiry alone. Even though the core beliefs of Christianity are revealed and held by faith, students have to be informed of what they are. Aquinas never suggests that explaining the content of the articles of faith will bring about a response of faith, but he does think that we need to be told them. Theology courses at a Catholic university propose sacra doctrina. They set out what Christ taught in the Gospels, since he “is the first and chief teacher of spiritual doctrine and faith”. Consequently, a Catholic university should be a place in where special attention is given to ensuring that students learn from theologians who propose the teaching of Christ as historical and authoritative.
Authentic Christian faith does not fear reason “but seeks it out and has trust in it”. Faith presupposes reason and perfects it. Nor does human reason lose anything by opening itself to the content of faith. When reason is illumined by faith, it “is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God”. The Holy Father observes that St Thomas thinks that human reason, as it were, “breathes” by moving within a vast horizon open to transcendence. If, instead, “a person reduces himself to thinking only of material objects or those that can be proven, he closes himself to the great questions about life, himself and God and is impoverished”. Such a person has far too summarily divorced reason from faith, rendering asunder the very dynamic of the intellect.
What does this mean for Catholic universities today? Pope Benedict answers in this way: “The Catholic university is [therefore] a vast laboratory where, in accordance with the different disciplines, ever new areas of research are developed in a stimulating confrontation between faith and reason that aims to recover the harmonious synthesis achieved by Thomas Aquinas and other great Christian thinkers”. When firmly grounded in St Thomas’ understanding of faith and reason, Catholic institutions of higher learning can confidently face every new challenge on the horizon, since the truths discovered by any genuine science can never contradict the one Truth, who is God himself.