The Development of 20th Century Thomism By Hans Coessens
I remember a few years ago having a discussion with a priest about receiving Holy Communion in the hand and I argued that this practice should never be done. It is borderline sacrilege and opens many doors to irreverence towards Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. I gave the example where tiny particles of the host may still be in the person’s hand and that still obviously contains the Blessed Sacrament. The priest told me that I was basing this view of mine on a doctrine of St Thomas Aquinas of substances which had been borrowed from Aristotle. I did not know at the time what to reply to him given he had discredited this. I only came to realize that this disregard for the Aristotelian notion of substances was being taught by possibly one of the most famous theologians of the 20th century, Karl Rahner. Rahner himself went to deny the doctrine of Transubstantiation and this was still being taught in many seminaries. The consequences have been disastrous and have led to a flat denial of the real presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The doctrine was not merely one invented from St Thomas’ borrowing of Aristotle’s notion of substances but was officially proclaimed dogmatic in the Council of Trent. This is a simple example of how a corruption in thought leads to a corruption in practice.
The revival of Thomism in the late 19th century is owed to Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris which was commissioned by his brother Giuseppe Cardinal Pecci and the German Jesuit Josef Kleutgen. This in essence gave rise to the refurbishment of the teachings of St Thomas. Not that they had in any way been abandoned by the seminaries and pontifical schools of the time, simply the emphasis on St Thomas' doctrine as perennial had been forgotten. It was also an opportunity for many to combat a prevalent philosophy which had become popular in the late 19th Italian Catholic environment. Already after 1274 the Church showed her official endorsement of the Angelic Doctor's teachings beginning by Pope John XXII himself who when asked what miracle the saint had performed to deserve a canonization, the reply was “there are as many miracles in his life as articles (in the Summa)!” The main concern held by Leo XIII was the apparent conflict that was being created by modern thinkers between religion and science. It is precisely in appealing to the scholastic method, that he attempts to demonstrate that most medieval theologians and logicians were constantly following the developments of the natural sciences of their time by using analogies in their works. The main adviser to the Pope at the time, Fr Kleutgen S.J., was rather concerned with the influence of Cartesian scepticism in many theologians that had seemed to infect their ideas. Indeed many responded to the ideas raised by Descartes in a fashionable way
In the early 20th century, the neo-Thomist revival began to suffer an immense diversion. Perhaps the most famous intervention in this division of thought was that made by the great Dominican Thomist, Fr Règinald Garrigou-Lagrange in a brief paper whereby he examined the nature of this new theology and precisely why it could lead to a form of dogmatic relativism, given the slippery-slope nature in which its methodology was conducted. Later on the very term Thomism was abandoned by most neo-modernist theologians and the final stamp of condemnation came under Pope Pius XII's condemnation of the nouvelle théologie through the encyclical Humani Generis.
The very concept of theology was already a motive for difference between some Thomists. As it will be clear the strict disciple St Thomas, Garrigou-Lagrange defined theology as such:
“Theology is a science made possible by the light of revelation. Theology, therefore, presupposes faith in revealed truths. Hence the proper object of theology is the inner life of God as knowable by revelation and faith.”…“Theology is a commentary ever drawing attention to the word of God which it comments on. Theology, like the Baptist, forgets itself in the cry: Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Another Dominican, Marie-Dominique Chenu priest also disciple of the Angelic Doctor but not so much in the strict sense, had a historical perspective of what theology is by claiming that the source of theology is the vital life of the Church in its members which cannot be separated from history, its deciding factor. This departs from the notion that theology is based on divine revelation and introduces the idea that it is more a historical study of the Church's members1. This definition in consequence led to a flat condemnation of Chenu's works by Pope Pius XII himself. However, Chenu can be seen in one sense as a radical who decided to depart, some might say, from St Thomas' teachings in order to address current problems with Protestants and with members of other ideologies in a language that might not be so alien or condescending to them. We will not touch on the issue of other theologians who will not consider themselves as Thomists. As the 20th century taught us, the Church was infested with prominent theologians, who were introducing ideas which previously were explicitly condemned by Popes and teachers of the faith such as the neo-Kantian ideas found in the works of Karl Rahner S.J. and the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar which adopted many of the concepts introduced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger2.
The 24 Thomistic theses which were proposed in 1914 were seen as the ultimate stamp by which young students of St Thomas could confirm their ideas and know what it means to be a Thomist. The author of the theses, Dominican theologian Fr Edouard Hugon O.P. has written extensive works that are available online and are still taught in traditional seminaries that take seriously the importance of St Thomas' teachings in the world today. They include the four-volume masterpiece Cursus Philosophiæ Thomisticæ. His work was arguably the greatest representative of the neo-scholastic revival in the 20th century. There also were the masterpieces of Fr Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. whose main works included the two-volume De Revelatione and Reality: a Synthesis of Thomistic thought, which exposes St Thomas' teaching in light of its historical developments. Another prominent theologian who was a key figure in the formation of many early 20th century seminarians was the Polish Benedictine Joseph Gredt with his two-volume Elementa Philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae. The list can go on and on of the vast amount of theological treatises and volumes that were being published by these theologians in the early 20th century that were addressing current issues and in line with the entire tradition of Thomistic thought itself.
Henri de Lubac S.J. felt the necessity to move away from this form of Thomism which he considered to be very arid by a return to the source, St Thomas himself. This movement which had Henri de Lubac as the main figure was known as ressourcement. Not be entirely conflated with nouvelle théologie, this movement had in mind a revival of the original texts of the Angelic Doctor alongside the Patristic fathers. The main critique was that neo-Thomism had become too rationalistic and focused too much on condemning errors rather than analysing doctrine per se and that most Thomists were relying on second-hand theologians too much. It is even noticeable that the style of writing of many of the ressourcement Thomists was far more similar to contemporary texts in terms of structure rather than the neo-scholastic form which involved the revival of the advocatus diaboli as a means to make a valid proof and sound argument. However the primary distinction between the likes of de Lubac, Chenu and Congar and the earlier neo-Thomists was that the former group was less keen if not totally dismissive of the developments of Thomism. The commentaries by Cardinal Cajetan (16th century) and John of St Thomas (17th century) have been so important to the development of Thomism that they were even included in the Leonine edition of the Summa Theologica. This however was in large ignored by the resourcement theologians who were mostly focused on looking at St Thomas' teachings from a mere historical perspective rather than looking at how it has historically developed and how it has been used as a weapon against current errors. In the 15th century, Cardinal Cajetan used St Thomas' teachings to combat Luther and in the 17th century John of St Thomas and Antoine Goudin3 used it to combat Cartesian doubt and the notion of substance-dualism. Ironically this attempt to look at St Thomas Aquinas from a historical perspective was far from anything 'historical' or traditional.
The other theologian of the 20th century Louis Bouyer considered the term ‘Catholicism’ to be loaded with a counter-reformation interpretation. He argued that neo-scholastic theology was stuck in the 17th century and that Thomism instead of relying on purely the Angelic Doctor, was drawing conclusions from commentators such as John of St Thomas who distorted the original Thomism. Bouyer called this ‘John of St Thomism’ in his La Decomposition du Catholicisme (1969). It is nevertheless curious to criticise this tradition of Thomist commentators given that they were at the frontline of attacking modern errors that St Thomas himself could not have predicted. That is not to say that they offered new answers but simply sophisticatedly responded to modern errors in light of St Thomas and Aristotle. Bouyer, like the new theologians favoured a historical St Thomas, one which we can understand as not containing perennial principles but rather as those which were used to answer his contemporaries. It was no coincidence that in the opening session of the Council of Trent, the Summa Theologica was placed next to a bible on the altar. Trent was a vindication of St Thomas against the attacks made by Protestants.
In the same spirit of continuity with the Thomist tradition, the great Czech Dominican Fr Tomas Tyn OP had published his magnum opus called Metafisica della Sostanza: Partecipazione e analogia entis (1991). Fr Tyn, a great post-conciliar moral theologian and holy priest, in this book relies on the concept of the analogy of being to show how the doctrine and teachings of St Thomas have developed. The book starts by demonstrating that all knowledge of God, be it natural or supernatural is knowledge of the first, absolute and immutable principle. He is above all the first object of the human intellect. Emphasis is put on the revival of the notion of quidditas or the analysis of essences. In the book, Fr Tyn critiques other metaphysical theories had become popular even amongst Catholic theologians such as the immanentism of Martin Heidegger. He points out that the thought of modern thinkers as Husserl and Heidegger is anti-metaphysical because it does not speak of being qua being but rather emphasizes the subjectivity of experience. Immanentism is atheistic and subjective because it denies the objectivity of the intellect in knowing the world of substances and also denies the analogies one makes to arrive at the first mover. In this view one cannot know through reason that God exists. Belief in Him becomes merely an act of the interior will without any relation to reality. Fr Tomas Tyn has not been as appreciated as he should have been. Recently with an open cause for his beatification there has been interest in Italy in the revival of his teachings yet in the English-speaking world, he remains to be received and welcomed.
In short I think that this brief analysis should help us understand what theology was looking like in the Catholic Church before and after the Second World War. It has been a drastic shift from a more organised and succinct form of Thomism to a rather watered down form which has claimed erroneously to hold a traditional form of St Thomas' teachings. As demonstrated, the dismissal of the developments of Thomism to address current and modern issues has meant that St Thomas Aquinas is seen merely as a historical figure that has no answers (at least not direct ones) to modern problems raised by various thinkers from Descartes to Husserl. Whilst it is true that Thomism should not and has not (in my opinion) relied merely on commentators such as Cajetan and John of St Thomas, it can be aided by their insight. That does not mean replacing the Angelic Doctor for his commentators, but recognizing the continuity of the Thomistic tradition throughout history and the fruitfulness of the commentators.
Hans Coessens is a scholar of Thomistic Philosophy at the University of London.
1I give credit mainly to Fr David Greenstock's O.P. paper Thomism and the new theology, Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review, 1950, pp. 570-572. For further reference see the original paper written by M.D. Chénu O.P., Une école de Théologie, Le Saulchoir, 1937.
2Karl Rahner S.J. denied the doctrine of transubstantiation in favour of what he called Transfinalisation precisely as a severe critic of the Aristotelian substance theory. This led to an intervention by Pope Paul VI to affirm the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation over this new idea. Hans Urs von Balthasar, as a colleague of Heidegger, felt amazed at the analysis of being and Dasein and considered it a friendly modern philosophy over the perennial Thomistic realist essentialism.
3Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Le Sens Commun: La Philosophie du l'être et les formules dogmatiques, Nouvelle Librairie Nationelle, 1922, pp. 139