Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

FAITH Magazine May-June 2009


Dear Father Editor,

In your March-April editorial you do not mention that, while many of his co-religionists and even fellow bishops deserted Pope Benedict in his hour of need, one of the staunchest defences of him was written by perhaps the leading orthodox Lutheran theologian in Germany, Dr Gottfried Martens, pastor of St. Mary's in Berlin.

He was trying to explain to his (many) Berlin parishioners what all the fuss and palaver was about. Dr. Martens defends the Pope more forcefully than have many German bishops who enjoy communion with him, a fact I find, shall we say, ironic? It is published at vitrueonline.org

Yours faithfully

Revd Dr John R Stephenson
Registrar & Professor of Historical Theology,
Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary

St Catharine's


Dear Father Editor,

Thank you for your in-depth reply to my letter, which covered perhaps a wider range than I anticipated (March '09). I would like, if I may, to take up a few brief points.

1. First of all, let us consider the methodological disparity between science and metaphysics. It is not accurate, in my opinion, to characterise this difference as observation versus deduction, a posteriori versus a priori. Nothing is more alien to the thought of St Thomas than the idea of an a priori metaphysics: metaphysics always has to proceed from physics (usia to $ oiko: after/beyond physics), it can never bracket the sphere of physical coming-to-be.

2. To put modern Thomist thinkers together with Descartes on this score

(as is implied regarding Schonborn) is like putting Aristotle with Kant because they both liked 'categories'.

It is true, however, thatThomistic philosophy recognises a certain independence of each science in its proper sphere. This independence is above all a question of method, such that a plurality of sciences can approach the same phenomenon or object according to their own proper principles and procedure. This means that the physical world can be investigated by the philosopher and the scientist, without precisely the same conclusions coming to light from each investigation. What we need - and we really do need it -is compatibility.

3. When Dulles and Schonborn and many others make claims about the limitations of scientific method, this is the kind of background they are coming from. Regarding the specific case of formality,

I do think care must be taken. Scientists, you write, do in fact "get at formality"; I think that very much depends on what we mean by "get at". It is true that the irreducibility of form, of information and of organization has gained a broad acceptance among scientists. But how many of them will tell you that they understand this irreducibility? How many will tell you, for example, that they are perfectly clear about how an as-yet unrealised final state can influence, as a kind of "attractor", the actual material processes within a specific system - say a living organism? Or how the functioning whole can be a prerequisite for the physical configuration of its internal parts - like with DNA? They are getting at it as a question, all right; but they are some distance fromgetting at the answer. In my view, due to limitations of method they lack the concepts of being-as-act, of substance and of form. You write that for the scholastics, form somehow transcends the sensible and concrete realm. I would say that form as "transcendent" indeed seems to be coherent with recent scientific work, especially in biology - yet with a qualification: we must not locate this transcendence in a "world of forms" as Plato did (this is such a poor reading of Thomas - not that I accuse you of it). It refers rather to the transcendence of the ephemeral spatio-temporal conditions of matter-in-evolution, through

real metaphysical unity. It is not the world qua world, but qua multiple that is thus transcended - yet, the real unity of what is materially many is a strictly metaphysical question, and hence requires a fundamentally different method. I believe that the questions scientists are now raising about "top-down causality" (as opposed to "bottom-up") in some cases represent a kind of nudging against the walls of the "science next door" - metaphysics.

4.1 would also like to highlight a distinction that is important in Thomistic epistemology, but is often overlooked. The form exists in the mode of universality in the mind - but this has nothing to do, ontologically speaking, with the form as causa essendi. The form as a principle of material being is not universal; it is in fact (as you say) fundamentally related to "environmental context". Both Aristotle and Thomas saw complexity as incrementation of form, arising from the innate propensities of matter at a lower level (eg De Generatione et Corruptione, II, 1-4; In Metaphysicorum, V, lee. 3). Here, form as that which in-forms matter 'emerges' from processes of efficient causality. This is clearly very different from the intellectual species.

Bearing this in mind, I am not sure I have understood what you mean by suggesting that one should see "dynamic, concrete, relationality as intrinsic and not extrinsic to formal intelligibility". Should they be intrinsic to it in physical reality, or in the mind? If the former, I think the recommendation is quite compatible with the Thomistic view sketched above, provided that form is not reduced to an "accidental" arrangement of colliding and cohering particles: and so I don't see why a "new metaphysics" should be preferred to integration of modern physics with "old metaphysics". If the latter, it seems problematic that we cannot understand what a thing is in itself, without at the same time understanding its "concrete relationality" - which extends far beyond what is needed fora normal act of understanding. If formality does not render sensible realities, having been sensed, potentially intelligible aside from the broader relational context of the cosmos, will not all concepts and thus all knowing be context-relative in much the same way as the form-as-causa-essenc//?

Thanks again for your willingness to engage in civilised debate on these important issues. I would be grateful if you were able to respond - especially to clarify the final point.

Yours faithfully
John Deighan
Scots College


We are pleased that this discussion upon issues which we feel are important is being pushed forward in such a constructive manner.

1. We concur that Thomas Aquinas based his metaphysics upon his physics. Our main concern in this discussion

is that this a posteriori methodology is compromised by his epistemology in as much as he proposes a static character to the universal 'form'. This was sustainable in Judaeo-Christian philosophy between Plato and modern science. In the modern context neo-thomists who try to hold to it can end up saying that our grasp of it is a priori to scientific observation. Such thinkers, it seems, preclude the posssiblity that discovery about the physical realm can affect their concept of the 'form'.

2. We do indeed think Descartes' development of this weakness is present, to a degree, in the philosophy of science of Etienne Gilson, Cardinal Dulles and especially Cardinal Schonborn.

In his influential but self-consciously tentative 1971 book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, Gilson critiques "the modern biologist['s]" and Descartes' acceptance of Bacon's belief that "it is scientific to exclude final causality from the explanation of organised living beings", and, one might add, from the interpretation of experimental science. But Gilson tends towards a partial acceptance of this elimination by focussing upon affirming final and and formal causation exclusively at the holistic level of living species. Concerning lower chemical and physical levels he talks of material and efficient causation, and mechanism, as being sufficient explanations. He does not appear to see holistic structure as inherent to all 'matter-energy' as discovered aposteriori, and therefore to see the concrete inter-relativity of all formality.

It looks as if he and followers are attempting to synthesise an effectively static concept of the universal form with

the fact that scientific methodology is a gradual growth in knowledge of holistic, dynamic, inter-relationship, which basic observational method applies across all physical levels. This 'form', whilst not a priori in the nineteenth century idealist sense, is still a priori to scientific experience, which we think is an unnecessary nod to the former school of thought. As we will bring out below, this view of the intellect's grasp of formality and finality is exactly the conclusion Cardinal Schonborn reaches. This is the very dynamic within modern philosophy of science which was started by Descartes in response to Bacon's philosophy of science and which we think has had very deleterious effects upon Christian culture in our technological age.

If our reader would indulge us we would quote from three recent pieces in First Things magazine to make the point more fully.

(i) With acknowledgements to Gilson's book Cardinal Dulles, in his October 2007 article 'God and Evolution', argues similarly that reductive Darwinists are wrong to exclude formality from biology. But below biology he doesn't complain about such reductionism. Rather he "inclines towards" John F. Haught's view that "that natural science achieves exact results by restricting itself to measurable phenomena, ignoring deeper questions about meaning and purpose. By its method, it filters out subjectivity, feeling, and striving". He sympathetically affirms Polanyi's "ontological gap between the living and non-living", the former exclusively having an "internal finality", and that "the emergence of life cannot be accounted for on the basis of purely mechanical principles."

Our position is that nothing, not even the sciences of physics and chemistry can be properly explained by such reductive principles - they all have formal and final contexts intrinsic to their intelligibility, from the parts of the atom through the periodic table to the living, seeing eye of the chimpanzee.

(ii) Stephen Barr seems to take a similar position and to demur from the proposed 'gap' concerning the presence of formality as well as the suggestion that biologists are, in their work, in any sense reductionist. Responding to Dulles' article in the lead letter of the January 2008 edition of First Things Barr states that:

"Contrary to what is often claimed, even by some scientists, modern science has not eliminated final and formal causes. It uses them all the time even if unaware. For example, a liver and a muscle are made up of the same material constituents - hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and so on - acting on each other by the same basic forces. It is precisely their forms, their organic structures, that differ and enable them to play different roles in the body. The same is true in physics. The very same carbon atoms can form a diamond (transparent, hard, and electrically insulating) or a piece of graphite (opaque, soft, and electrically conducting). What explains their different properties is the difference in form, in intelligible structure. Indeed, as one goes deeper into fundamental physics,one finds that matter itself seems almost to dissolve into the pure forms of advanced mathematics."

(iii) In his January 2006 article, 'The Designs of Science', Cardinal Schonborn seems to concur with Barr and us to the extent of not affirming Polanyi and Dulles' "ontological gap". But this leads him in the other direction to us. With a certain logic flowing from the Dulles-Haught position he applies the supposed methodological reductionism point across the whole range of science, whilst he suggests this applies "most clearly and evidently the world of living substances, living beings". He states:

"In science, the discipline and methods are such that design - more precisely, formal and final causes in natural beings - is purposefully excluded from its reductionist conception of nature. [...] true science is impossible unless we first grasp the reality of natures and essences, the intelligible principles of the natural world. We can with much profit study nature using the tools and techniques of modern science. But [...] to grasp reality as it is, we must return to our pre-scientific and post-scientific knowledge, the tacit knowledge that pervades science [...] Prior to both science and theology is philosophy, the 'science of common experience' [...] Modern science first excludes a priori final and formal causes, then investigates nature under the reductive mode ofmechanism (efficient and material causes) [... It is] reason [... which grasps] the 'vertical' causation of formality and finality".

3. Mr Deighan seems to take a slightly more subtle version of this position. He recognises a certain continuity of principle between living and non-living structures - and also keeps a certain ontological dualism across the whole range of holistic matter-energy

He suggests that the "how" of bottom-up (material causation), of past-to-the-present (efficient) causality involving "multiple" individuals is easily explained whereas that which is transcendent to these, that is top-down (formal) and future-to-the-present (final) unifying causality is not easily explained. It is in these latter gaps that metaphysical concepts can be fitted in by Mr Deighan and indeed by the above mentioned Cardinals.

Positing an ontological distinction at the foundational level of the physical individual always risks such a metaphysics-of-the-gaps which tends towards its more famous cousin, the god-of-the-gaps. It falls foul of the same weaknesses: as scientific explanation of these gaps gradually becomes easier, (being done by the same methodology as the former set of 'easier' material explanations) we have no further need of metaphysics or of God. And as described by Barr above such organically developing explanation is exactly what is happening through modern science's relentless discovery of the intrinsically inter-related and hierarchical structure of matter-energy

Moreover such a positing of a partially a priori form which mediates organization and intelligibility to a further created realm below ('matter') puts significant pressure upon the Christian doctrine of God as the immediate creator and sustainer of every aspect of the cosmos. This is notwithstanding the gallant scholastic attempts to support this latter doctrine through affirming the 'act of existence'. This 'existential' realm was seen as a further, trans-intelligible, metaphysical dimension immediately instantiating the whole physical composite essence. In being prior to the intelligible and created 'essential' realm it has been identified with the very 'Act of Existence' of God himself as well as being at the root of the school of Existentialism.

Our position is that all causation and existential relationship is holistic and points, in its intrinsic intelligibility as part of the unity of the whole cosmos, to the Mind of God. This is the ultimate level of

explanation of anything and everything -however apparently easy or difficult such explanation might at first appear.

4. Another significant motive for the affirmation of the a priori 'Act of Existence' as that which transcends definitive intelligibility was the attempt to handle the difficult fact that scholasticism's approach to such abstract intelligibility of the 'essence' prescinds from whether or not that thing actually exists. This is related to the fact that this system, as Mr Deighan describes it, implies that "physical reality [...] 'concrete relationality' [...] extends far beyond what is needed for a normal act of understanding." This 'moderate realism' has proved far too moderate to maintain realism in an age when we know that a thing's concrete relationality is intrinsic to what it is.

Mr Deighan goes further and captures the profound tension in Thomas's epistemology as described for instance in the Summa. He puts it this way: "the form in the mode of universality in the mind [...] has nothing to do, ontologically speaking, with the form as causa essendi," except for the fact that it is, must be for our knowledge to be true, the same identical form.

St Thomas himself has a line which captures this tension which he is perhaps happy to allow in order to maintain his 'moderate' realism, until a deeper world-view be found. It flows from his argument that the latter, non-universal, non-intelligible mode of the form mentioned by Mr Deighan must be abstracted by the 'active intellect' into the former "in the mind" mode in order to be the object of our understanding (intellect). This intelligible mode is termed the 'species intelligibiles', what we might call the 'understandable impression'. But this universal object of the understanding (as intellect), which is in the mind, cannot at the same time, if we are realistic, be the object of our human holistic understanding (or 'ratio', which includes judgment) becausethe composite form-matter individual is that object. Thomas puts it this way: "The understandable impression is not that which is understood but that by which the understanding understands." ("Species intelligibiles non est id quod intelligitur sed id quo intelligit intellectus", Summa Theologica, I, 85, art.2). In this sentence and this passage he has to use

two exclusive meanings of the verb "to understand" without making that clear.

If one depicts the 'form' in a mediatorial realm between the knower and the known it falls between two stools. We don't think one needs to posit any more orders of being than the two consistently affirmed by Catholic Tradition: the spiritual and the physical, mind and matter. Matter is intrinsically related to mind. Upon this insight we must develop our epistemology away from the theory of abstraction, its quasi-idealist, correspondence theory of truth, and its separation of essential meaning and existential truth.

Modern realism must indeed acknowledge that "all knowing [is] context relevant in much the same way as" the physical realm discovered by modern science - and all creation is immediately dependent upon and contextualised by, for its very existence and intelligibility, the Mind of God. This fundamental relationality is the condition of realistic objectivity not its undermining. That which has proved so uncomfortable for the Greek interpretation of the cosmos is the discovery of the intrinsic, existential relationality of all creation. To be open to this discovery is to invite a development of traditional philosophy, not least of the concept of 'form' which will prove, we think, profoundly supportive yet we think, powerfully supportive of the revelation of Christ.


Dear Father Editor,

Because the Faith "vision" essentially depends on two corner stones: theory of evolution (which is not the same as an established fact) and the "revelation" to Mrs. Holloway (the authenticity of which cannot be demonstrated). Remove these "stones" - the entire "vision" collapses. In other words, it is irrational, while claiming to be the synthesis of faith and reason.

Another correspondent, Father Cameron-Brown is known to the readers for his unshakeable faith in evolution: his letters have been recurring ever since the former Editor, cornered by evidence, "closed" the debate on this subject some two years ago. I say, "closed", because it has been closed only to those who ventured to challenge the theory and the magazine's "vision".

The saying "like a red flag to a bull" equally applies to him when criticism of the theory is mentioned, as it does to those to whom evolution is mentioned as a scientific fact. Evolution isn't a scientifically established fact, and however sensible it might appear as a biological theory, it hasn't been, and will never be proved; it is unprovable in principle. Science is about what we can establish by observation, while evolution, if still in progress, is too slow to be observable, and past events are beyond the reach of observations.

One doesn't have to be a biblical fundamentalist -1 am certainly not - to be sceptical about this theory; one can be an atheist too.

Yours faithfully
Michael Skarpa
Hawes Road


Mr Skarpa's letters, too, have been recurring ever since the very earliest days of the publication of Faith over several decades, along with very extensive private correspondence to Fr Roger Nesbitt, the co-founder of Faith Movement.

In fact the Faith vision relies on neither of the supposed corner stones he mentions. We do see the universe as a vast, developing equation of being in action and interaction. From this we argue to a centre of control and direction, and a universal Unity Law of being, which demands a God who is transcendent and independent of the contingent universe.

Whether particular theories of biological evolution stand or fall would not affect this basic perspective, or arguments and insights that follow from this. Unless of course Mr Skarpa takes issue with the universe being "a vast, developing equation of being in action and interaction", in which case he no doubt questions the whole of contemporary science.

On our back cover we survey other aspects of our vision..

As to whether the basic insights proposed by Agnes Holloway and developed later by her son Fr Edward Holloway were divinely inspired or not is a matter for the Church to decide in her own time. The ideas stand in their own right and are recommended to many

by their usefulness is developing and defending the Catholic faith in the modern world. She always said that these ideas were nothing that could not have been developed by others in the Church. The divine aid she claimed in all humility, was simply a prompt and an aid for the darkened and unfaithful times we face. Faith movement is not based on any presumption about the sanctity or authenticity of her claims.

Finally, the suggestion that Fr Patrick Burke (emeritus editor) closed correspondence on the topic because he was "cornered by evidence" will be highly amusing to those that know him. Publications, including this one, sometimes close particular lines of correspondence so as not to wear out the patience of the wider readership, because they are becoming effectively a private dialogue with the same few correspondents and the debate is going nowhere. There are times when we must simply agree to disagree.


Dear Father Editor, Towards the end, Father Neuhaus seemed to be coming round about the hoodwinking and hijacking of the American pro-life movement by the Republican Party, which is not in principle any more pro-life than the Democrats, and which is in practice rather less so because of the consequences of its economic policies, not to mention, of course, its record of warmongering and convict-killing even worse than that of the Democrats (which is quite a feat). Indeed, the new Chairman of the Republican National Committee is very considerably more anti-life, even in the usual sense of the term, than is the new Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

A key strand in neoconservatism, at least in America, is made up of Catholics who agree with the Pope and his predecessor about sex but not about economics, seem immune to the enormous amount of work that they have done and still do in explaining how these things are connected, and manage to present themselves, quite falsely, as somehow more orthodox than those who, with similar disregard, agree with the Popes about economics but not about sex. But alike, they are in fact inheritors of

the misappropriation of the name of the Second Vatican Council. And alike, they hark back to the nineteenth-century Americanist heresy, which conceived of an oxymoronic American Catholic Church autonomous from Rome.

Alas, for all his gifts, Father Neuhaus was a key figure in the sex-but-not-economics camp, and a leader in its support for the neoconservative war agenda. But was he shifting just before he died? I hope and pray so. His last book, American Babylon, to be published in the US in March by Basic Books (and which must therefore have been completed before the recent presidential election), depicts America as a nation defined by consumerism and decadence, and argues that Christians must learn to live there as if they were in exile from the Promised Land.

He had form as a trailblazer. So, after him, who? Catholics of his hue were intellectually indispensable to the neocons, just as Catholic opponents of abortion are electorally key to the actually pro-abortion Republican Party. But President Obama won a clear majority of the Catholic vote (even if not Father Neuhaus's own vote). If the shift is finally happening, then praise God, not least for what it will do to the Democratic Party.

Yours faithfully
David Lindsay
Foxhills Crescent
County Durham


Mr Lindsay may find some support for an aspect of his challenging thesis in R.R. Reno's tribute to Fr Neuhaus in last month's inspiring memorial edition of First Things. Reno recalls sharing his worries about pro-life politics and the possible bad performance of the Republican Party in upcoming 2006 elections. Fr Neuhaus sat back and commented. "Relax Rusty, the Republicans will betray us eventually anyway." We would demur on Mr Lindsay's implied equation of the authority of the Church's sexual and social teaching. The specificity of principle and the consistent invocation of Christ's authority is significantly more developed with regard to the marital act and life issues than economics. And they are more prominently, directly and vociferously dissented from.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2009