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Decay And Recovery… How Thomistic Studies Revived The Church In North America

March 22, 2018 Frontpage No Comments


Ian Lovett in his Wall Street Journal tribute to Billy Graham wrote, “There isn’t one now and there may never be one again like him.” That may well be the case. The day is long gone when Bishop Fulton Sheen was one of the most popular figures on national television. Today Bishop Robert Barron follows in his mold but with less access to major media. Nevertheless his Word on Fire reaches many by cable and the airways.
As nations on both sides of the Atlantic, in what was formerly known as Christendom, drift further from their cultural roots and episcopal leadership when most needed seems equivocal or uncertain, it may be fruitful from a philosophical viewpoint to examine the sources of social decay and the possibility of recovery.
The secularization of Western culture dates to the 18th and early 19th century when the rational foundation of Christianity was challenged by the agnosticism fostered by British empiricism and the fideism of Immanuel Kant took hold. That story has been told time and again and readers of this piece are likely to know it well.
If the Church is to again exercise an influence on the common culture, it goes without saying that her effectiveness depends on an enlightened and superior clergy. The kind of education that she requires of her future priests is an important consideration. Not all disciplines are of equal value in preparing a candidate for theology, or for taking the measure of the culture into which one is to bring the truths of the Gospel.
Talent, accomplishment, and tenacity of purpose are virtues that may be presupposed in the candidate. But something more is demanded, namely, the kind of education that enables one to step out of the present to judge it in the light of the time transcending.
When A.G. Sertillanges wrote La Vie Intellectualle in 1920, he assumed that the “country priest” was not called to an intellectual life. France by that time had recovered from the Revolution and the Church of his native country was structurally in place. The parish priest was above all else a dispenser of the sacraments, an instrument in the salvific mission of the Church. In the post-Scholastic age of the twentieth century, can we make the same assumption?
“The lack of a coherent system of ideas,” wrote Sertillanges, “is one of the great misfortunes of our age.” To remedy that situation, Sertillanges recommended the study of St. Thomas Aquinas. A generation before, Leo XIII had recommended the same.
There is a charming story, based on a letter John Henry Newman wrote to his friend, John Delgarins, in 1846 that recounts a conversation he had with a Jesuit priest (whose name is not given) at the Collegio di Propaganda in Rome. Newman asked the Jesuit about the status of Greek studies at the College, specifically whether the students read Aristotle. The Jesuit told Newman, neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas was in favor in Rome, or for that matter in Italy.
“I asked him,” writes Newman, “what philosophy did they adopt?” The Jesuit said, “None, odds and ends, whatever seems best, like St. Clement’s Stromata. They have no philosophy. Facts are the great things, and nothing else, exegesis but not doctrine.” He went on to say that many Jesuits privately are sorry for this, but no one dares oppose the fashion.
That conversation took place one year after Newman had been received into the Catholic Church. In the same year we find Archbishop Gioacchino Pecci in Rome, and that may account for Newman’s remark, “There is a latent power in Rome which would put a stop to the evil.” The Jesuit may have misconstrued the comment, for he shrugged his shoulders and said, “The Pope can do nothing if the people do not obey him.”
Decades later, Pecci would become Leo XIII. Within a year after being elected Pope in 1878, Leo had named Newman a cardinal and within the same year had published his encyclical, Aeterni Patris, promoting the study of St. Thomas. The encyclical endorsed a fledgling Thomistic movement that was to have considerable influence on Catholic higher education throughout most of the twentieth century, particularly in North America. Both Newman and Leo recognized that the effectiveness of the Church, supernatural aids apart, depends on an enlightened and superior clergy, and both devoted considerable attention to the education of future priests.
Newman for his part was steeped in the Fathers of the Church, both Greek and Latin, and he knew the role that classical learning had played in their understanding of the Gospels. He wanted as much for the clergy of his day even before he entered the Church.
Leo, no less than Newman, venerated the Fathers whose use of pagan philosophy, he found, “prepared and smoothed the way to the faith.” But Leo was confronted with the agnosticism and materialism that followed the Enlightenment. Recognizing that philosophy can only be fought by philosophy he turned to the doctors of the Middle Ages for assistance and in the encyclical Aeterni Patris wrote, “The faith can expect no more reliable assistance than such as it has already received from St. Thomas.”
Aeterni Patris stimulated an interest in classical and medieval philosophy — in fact, produced a scholastic revival that enlisted scholars of the rank of Gilson, Mercier, Noel, Maritain, Pegis, Fabro, Garrigou Lagrange, De Koninck, van Steenberghen, and Ives Simon, to name only a few. Thomas became the Doctor Communis of North American colleges and seminaries alike. “Midwestern Thomism” became a euphemism for programs of study that could be found in Toronto, Milwaukee, South Bend, St. Louis, and points south.
Not only Thomas, but Bonaventure and Scotus were given a place in the curriculum of most Catholic institutions of higher learning. By mid-twentieth century, the Church in North America could be described as robust and self-confident in an alien culture.
For reasons that we cannot go into here, the scholastic tradition was abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. One may say that the secularization of Catholic colleges and universities began with the loss of that tradition. Given an episcopacy that seems to be wavering with respect to traditional teaching, it remains for an older generation, steeped in the classical tradition, to take upon itself the critique of questionable moral teaching.
Episcopal leadership by the Vatican is especially targeted, given its dismissal of stalwarts such as Cardinal Pell and Cardinal Burke, and its questionable appointments on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Church is fortunate to have numerous intellectual giants, mostly lay, rising to the defense of the doctrinal and moral integrity of the See of Peter. Scholars such as John Rist, Robert Spaemann, Remi Brague, Pierre Manent, and Josef Seifert, all formed in the classical tradition, write to maintain an intellectual tradition without which the Church would collapse into yet another impotent religious sect. The vision of Newman and Leo may yet prevail.
Theognis of Megara, a sixth century, B.C. philosopher and poet, reflecting on the social deterioration of his day, lamented the lack of piety in the people. In a poetic work, cited through the ages, notably by Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Clement of Alexander, and known to us as a poem entitled, Hope, he claims that all the gods have left the earth and returned to Olympus. Faith and Temperance and the Graces have abandoned Earth. Humans, having lost a sense of piety, no longer venerate the immortal gods. As a consequence oaths are no longer reliable. The only divinity still remaining on earth is Hope. If that divinity were to leave, Theognis warns, civilization would surely collapse.
This is not a happy note with which to end, but it seems to describe our present condition.

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