Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

FAITH Magazine January-February 2007

The Nature of Matter

Dear Fr Editor

I am conscious of perhaps sounding like an Alamo-style Thomist when I write to take issue with the editorial article in the Sep/Oct issue of Faith. I hope that is not how I come across, because I don’t simply object out of dumb loyalty to the Thomistic vision of matter and metaphysics. My chief objection is that you seem to misapprehend some of the key concepts employed by Aristotle, St Thomas and other classical metaphysicians. Allow me to give a few examples.

Matter: You are correct in characterising prime matter as “pure potential”. But you are quite wrong in asserting that it constitutes a “contrary pole of existence” with respect to mind. Prime matter, for Aristotle as for Thomas, doesn’t exist. There is no such thing, clearly, as an existent pure potentiality. Matter is the principle of potentiality in actually existing things, form being the principle of actuality. But the point of departure for the specification of these two metaphysical principles is the actually existing entity. In Aristotle, this is ambiguous, and your criticisms about the pre-existent abstract form are probably sustainable. But in St Thomas, the particular existent is the springboard into metaphysical speculation. Every entity is made of something(matter) and that matter must have a form. This is the constitution of contingent, terrestrial entities: there is nothing mysterious or esoteric about it. There is no question of the form pre-existing “in the abstract” for St Thomas- except in the Mind of God from all eternity.

Fundamentally, the metaphysical and the modern/scientific concepts of “matter” are not the same. One refers to the dual constitution of terrestrial entities, the other to a certain level of energy-density (I am not a scientist, I must confess). Because of your misunderstandings of the classical/metaphysical idea of matter, your argument fails to hit home.

Form: This is, as said above, the principle of actuality in existing things. But in the thought of St Thomas, form is not- as you claim it is-  “pure actuality”. In Aristotle, the form is the purest, most fundamental act; but Aristotle is not to be automatically equated with Thomas, who held that the act of Being is more primordial than that of the form, a distinction which preserves his metaphysics from the pitfalls of Aristotelian essentialism. “Surely only God is Pure Act”, you rhetorically ask; to which Thomas would answer, absolutely. There is no contradiction between this doctrine and the Thomistic doctrine of forms, properly understood. And this is because his doctrine of the act of Being gives his philosophy and theology a transcendental dimension and anexistentialist character lacking in Aristotle’s metaphysics.

Substance/Accidents: The objection you present is quite common. In Bertrand Russell’s terms, substance is a metaphysical “hook” upon which we hang all sorts of pretty accidents. This isn’t the proper way to understand what Thomas wrote on the subject. Substance is not, for Thomas, something “hidden away” inside things. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that substance pertains to the “inwardness” of individual beings, whereas accidents refer to their “outwardness” onto the world. For terrestrial and contingent beings, these two aspects are always inseparable- although that does not mean they are indistinct and that one cannot have logical priority. The “soul in the machine” substance is not authentically Thomistic, although regrettably it has been espoused by certainof the Saint’s disciples.    

I  don’t know how familiar you are with the works of Thomas first hand. Some of these misconceptions suggest not very (though I could be wrong). I would perhaps say the same of Fr Holloway, whose inspiration is behind this New Synthesis. I appreciate that St Thomas didn’t get everything right-no mere human being ever could; I  also agree that a theological synthesis in the light of modern science is desirable. However, I do not envision that synthesis as rejecting the metaphysical framework St Thomas set in place all those centuries ago. In fundamental metaphysics, I really do believe he had insights that are valid for all time: not because he is Thomas Aquinas, but because they are true.
May I also take this opportunity to thank you for your unfailingly stimulating and very valuable magazine.

Yours faithfully


John Deighan
Pontificio Collegio Scozzese

Editorial Comment:

We welcome this response and the opportunity for dialogue. Our aim is not to reject, but to uphold the essence of the objective realism of St Thomas. However, we believe that this can only be done by realigning some of the details of his system in the light of greater knowledge of reality. If metaphysics is regarded purely as a thought exercise, which never needs to refer back to our current understanding of material being, then it is inevitable that metaphysics will become regarded as abstract and unfit for purpose as science progresses.            

We agree wholeheartedly that the primary unit of existence, and therefore the primary object of consciousness and enquiry is the existing entity, simply defined by the category of “being”. All that exists must in some measure reflect the simplicity and unity of God. The problem comes, in Mr Deighan’s own concise and illuminating words, when we give to contingent being a “dual constitution”.

We are familiar with the protest that “matter” and “form” are only "principles" of existence, but even Mr Deighan cannot help but speak of matter as a “something” out of which beings are formed. If that “something”, even as a principle, is pure emptiness, there is a difficulty. The Scholastics also make a real (not just a notional) distinction between matter and form, substance and accidents etc. We rather think that “act” and “potency” describe a single principle of contingent relationship to absolute Being.            

It is true that the “matter” is used in different senses in classical metaphysics and modern science, but the fundamental accounts of realty implied must in the end be compatible. Science has shown us so much more about the “out of” and “into” relationships of material being that we can at last overcome the tension inherent in the metaphysical notions of "matter" and "from". There is no need to think of everything as being formed from a primal “nothing” and discrete “forms” in the Mind of God. These same categories can be refocused through a simpler and much more existential “transcendental dimension”: that of matter (in its modern sense) controlled and directed by the Mind of God.         

The same applies to readjusting the notios of “substance” and “accidents”. The neo-Scholastic schools do indeed make substance into a “soul in the machine”. We have heard it explained and even preached that way with all sincerity very recently with regard to the Eucharist. Indeed correspondence in The Tablet last year exposed the fatal flaw of such thinking for Catholic orthodoxy and the desperate need for philosophical renewal in this regard. Again, the tension again arises from the insistence on a “real distinction” between substance and accidents - or as we would say, between the nature/identity of a thing within the cosmos and its variable properties through time and space. In the end there is no need for any other “inwardness” and "outwardness" to terrestrial being than itsbeing-in-relationship across the dynamic unity of the cosmos under the Mind of God. It may be that what we are doing is nothing more than liberating the true intentions of St Thomas from the confusions of some of his disciples. As for Fr Holloway’s familiarity with the writings of the Angelic Doctor, we can do no more than urge people to read him for themselves.

Catholic Education

Dear Fr Editor

May I congratulate you on the November/December issue of Faith containing Eric Hester’s perceptive and well informed article on the decline of Catholic education in this country. The failure in most Catholic schools to pass the truths of the Faith on to the next generation needs to be made known to as many faithful Catholics as possible, repeatedly, until action is taken to correct this long standing scandal.     Mr Hester gives an accurate picture of the present situation, but this is all about to change for the worse. Indeed it has already changed in some dioceses, because the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales has agreed in future to combine Anglican schools with our existing Catholic schools. Unfortunately, this has become financially necessary because Catholicsnow have too few children to fill the large senior schools we built in the 1960’s. This we will have to accept.   However, it is quite unacceptable that the Catholic pupils in these schools should be given religious instruction and sex-ed together with the non-Catholic pupils, by either Catholic or non-Catholic teachers.

Do Catholic parents want their children to be given a ‘version’ of the Catholic faith by non-Catholic teachers?   Even if they agree to use the approved Catholic scheme ICONS which, as Mr Hester very ably demonstrated, has practically no Catholic content, this will be disastrous. For, although ICONS in the hands of good Catholics can be corrected and supplemented, non-Catholics are just not equipped to do this. The best that could happen is that Catholics will leave these schools convinced that Catholicism and Anglicanism are equally good options they can choose between.

Fortunately, even if combined schools are necessary, combined religious instruction is not. Before it is too late our bishops must be persuaded to follow the good example of our elder brothers, the Jews. They are opening their schools to Gentiles, but they always ensure that the Jewish pupils are taught their faith by qualified Jewish teachers. Although   this would be quite simple to arrange in Catholic/Anglican combined schools, at present our bishops have no intention of arranging it. Indeed, the Papal Nuncio, His Excellency Archbishop Faustino Sainz Munoz, told one of our supporters who spoke to him of her concerns (in Spanish) that “It’s alright.   It is still a Christian school”!

St Francis of Assisi College in Liverpool and St Joseph’s in Wrexham have already opened and are combining Anglicanism with Catholicism, others are in the pipeline and Clifton Diocese plans to combine Primary schools too.   It will be useless for Catholics to protest about Catholic schools being forced to accept homosexual teachers, as Mr Hester recommends, because homosexual behaviour is obviously accepted in these schools as is contraception, divorce and all the other Anglican beliefs and practices.

Yours faithfully

Daphne McLeod
Fife Way
Great Bookham, Surrey

Dear Fr Editor

I like many others entered motherhood naively, and then did it seven more times! Even in my first pregnancy I had to battle with the otherwise kind obstetrician who wanted to do the alpha-foetoprotein test on me.

Now all the children are at school and a regular pattern has developed to the school years. There are the predictable busy phases as a child enters their first year in senior school, the hectic run up to Christmas with school concerts etc and the various patches of the year with sports days and dressing up costumes to be made.

However there are the sinister features of the school programme which we have learnt to expect and which made the other toils of raising children seem pleasant in comparison. I was sick at the beginning of this school year (hospital admission, lots of tests, persisting malaise etc) and as I recovered I prayed that we would be strong enough to spot and deal with the next school questionnaire. We are sometimes surprised by our paranoia about these questionnaires, but when the survey is seen we later marvel at our acumen.

We have now a collection of inappropriate school questionnaires destined for our children. These are given to the children, usually without the parents' consent, sometimes given as an educational aid, and sometimes euphemistically described as a ‘healthy eating survey’. You must picture the scene; a classroom of fairly well disciplined, and reasonably motivated youngsters who want to do well in GCSEs. The paper is distributed with an explanation by the teacher that this is a national survey and that schools across the country can be compared and the health of all children can be improved. Where the question sheet is seen as part of the revered ‘coursework’ and ‘National Curriculum’ minds are concentrated to the greater goal.

The first was from a government body that sees itself as the child’s friend and confidante and seems to be given access to schools on the basis that it is sometimes gives some careers advice. After the usual easy, trivial questions it asked questions that were intrusive, nobody’s business and don’t even form part of medical questioning; e.g. how often do you wash personal parts, or how often do you change various garments.

The next was a voyeuristic sex instruction questionnaire that was approved by all the Senior Management Team of our school and our local diocesan education advisor. (Sex education is usually slipped in towards the end of the Summer term).
After asking the child to draw round their hand, it launched from changes that occur in puberty to the details of masturbation. The head teacher did not want to show it to us when we had a meeting with him but he had been happy for it to be shown to our 12 year old.

The latest offering for our 12 and 14 year olds was a 20 page questionnaire from a government sponsored ‘health education unit’. (I thought that the children had busy timetables.) In 20 pages it was thorough and included diet, suncream, cycle helmets, dental care, sexually transmitted diseases, bullying, counselling and contraception issues. It asked the 12 and 14 year olds if they knew where to obtain free condoms and for some reason asked twice if they thought they might be lesbian, gay or bisexual.   In all these things one must look for the amusing, for me this has to be their laudable ‘Please answer all questions honestly’ on the front page.

Parents who have now seen the recent questionnaire asked why it was not sent home with the child to be filled in at home. Why not indeed! What other ones are there?   The government demands increasingly that schools have so many surveys each year of a prescribed nature. No one in the Church seems to make a peep, even when we politely draw it to the attention of the one responsible for what happens in Catholic schools in the diocese. Only when parents can get hold of the information and then share it with each other, is the conspiracy of silence broken. We could tell our children to refuse to fill  in such papers in school; surely like St Thomas More they still have a right to remain silent.

Name and Address Supplied

Dear Fr Editor

When Patrick Burke moved to Rome and a new editor was needed, I initially felt it would be difficult to live up to his reputation. I need not have been concerned as the Faith magazine is as fresh and vibrant as it ever was, and even with a new wisdom of it’s own. I delight on the day it comes in the post. Your latest editorial on Education articulated  all my thoughts. However there is one significant error in it. The 10\% arrangement within the partnership with Government, has only been
made in the last decades. In 1944, I think, it was about 75\% and gradually, at different stages, it moved upward to the present 90\%.

Yours faithfully

Fr Michael Kelly
St Augustine of Canterbury


Dear Fr Editor

Your correspondent Moira Lenartowicz (Nov., 06) is correct in pointing out that Pope Pius IX qualified the “outside the Church no salvation” doctrine with an exception in cases of “invincible ignorance”.       

In my previous letter, however, I  was referring to centuries earlier, when both the Fourth Lateran Council and Pope Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam pronounced the doctrine without the qualification. There is no reason to suppose that the faithful believed anything other than that all non-Catholics were damned. The (infallible) doctrine has remained, but the (fallible) interpretation has changed.

My point remains that it is by no means clear whether or not particular Church teachings, or the usual understanding of them, are to be regarded as infallible.   Recent examples are Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II’s ruling against the ordination of women. Some argue that these are infallible, others that they are not.

Yours faithfully

Alan Pavelin
Leesons Hill

Dear Fr Editor

Regarding Mr. Pavelin’s view about private judgment “on matters not already defined as infallible” (Sept/ Oct. 06), I would suggest that there is little room for it for the following reasons. First, an assent of Faith is due to all doctrines which are proposed infallibly, not only to those which have been defined. The main body of doctrine, particularly of moral doctrine, has been proposed infallibly by the Ordinary Magisterium but never defined.

Second, to teachings which are not proposed infallibly a “religious assent” is due. The following is
relevant in this case:

a) If a competent expert, after a renewed serious investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive
conviction that the teaching is erroneous, he may withhold assent, but not embark on an open dissent. He can communicate his difficulty to authorities, discuss it with his colleagues, but in no case may he promote his view as certain. The latter would imply a claim to personal infallibility, it would be an usurpation of the teaching office, and if he were to organize or encourage a dissenting movement, it would be an usurpation of the governing office.

b) An ordinary faithful is not a competent expert. He cannot undertake such investigation: if he tried he would end up arbitrarily adhering to his favourite experts in opposition to the Pope and
the bishops, who are not merely qualified themselves, and supported by a team of experts, but have a
teaching charisma. The Church couldn’t survive in the world if her membership consisted of mini-popes, each claiming legitimacy for their private “judgment”.

c) When a doctrine is proposed non-infallibly it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been revealed, but only that, for one reason or another, it hasn’t been proposed as revealed. A person withholding assent, can thus reject a revealed doctrine; unknowingly, perhaps, but this is hardly an excuse. Because he knows that it has been proposed by those, who according to the revealed doctrine, are sent to teach and promised a divine assistance even in those matters which are not revealed.
A doctrine itself is neither infallible nor fallible, but true or false. Infallibility and non-infallibility are attributes of the proposer. In other words, a non-infallibly proposed doctrine can be as true as the infallibly proposed one, i.e. revealed; the only difference being that one is proposed as revealed, another isn’t.         From the Pavelin’s thesis it would follow that the persecuted Christians were entitled to private judgment and offer sacrifices to idols, because the Church’s teaching that they must was “not already defined as infallible”.

Yours faithfully

Bromley , Kent


Dear Fr Editor

I received several letters after writing in the July-Aug. 2006 issue that the Church has developed, but not changed its teaching on usury.   But not the typical objections that say, “Church teaching changed on usury, therefore it will change on some other issue I don’t like.”   Instead, they were objections that the Church’s prohibition of usury, taught by an infallible magisterium, must still be in effect, and therefore are violated in our modern economy of interest banking.

Such an argument stands in company with several influential lay Catholics of the twentieth century: Dorothy Day, Hilaire Belloc, and Jacques Maritain.   Their arguments vary, but these authors have a legitimate point.   They all saw abuses in the modern economic society often exploiting the poor and lower class.   Unfortunately, in recognizing a legitimate problem, these authors decided that interest on loans is the source of the evil itself.   While maintaining that the Church has not contradicted its teaching on usury, I do not think we can say the banking system itself is intrinsically sinful or evil, although it may be misused by men driven solely by materialism and profit.
Some make the assumption that the Church’s teaching at one time forbade all interest.   In my article, we saw that the Church forbade the taking of all usury (not all interest), i.e. taking anything above the principal on a loan simply because one made the loan.   But the taking of interest was allowed when one had a just, extrinsic title to it. Obviously, what constitutes a just title can be debated by moral theologians and economists, but the possibility of such interest has always been admitted.

Others follow the argument of Aristotle and Aquinas on the nature of money, who viewed money as barren, unable to grow.   Yet it seems rather difficult to maintain such a position with modern changes in the nature of money.   Thus the very nature of a loan has probably changed as well, as one letter said, becoming kind of “joint venture” - a partnership that the Church has always allowed. And even if one tries to argue that the nature of money and loans has not changed, one must recognize the existence of legitimate extrinsic titles, which the Church has allowed.

Yes, lending at an excessive interest is a sinful violation of justice, and could be called usury under its modern definition of undue interest, but this is different than the condemnation of usury as taught by the Church.   Yes, there are perhaps numerous injustices in today’s world: economic
‘dictatorships’ and modern banking practices that control the flow of money, the choking debt of many poor nations, the outrageous interest rates charged on many credit cards.  

Yet our concern for the poor is not a reason to condemn all of modern economics.   Critics of our government and economic system may use the Church’s past teaching on usury as an attempt to add weight to their arguments, but a much better addition would be the contributions of the Church’s social encyclicals of the last century. Follow the teaching of St. Thomas, they teach that material goods are simply means to attain our final end.          This is what needs to be taught (and condemned), not usury.   The purpose of money and loans, like all material goods, is not personal gain and profit, but the advancement, perfection and salvation of all men.

Yours faithfully

Fr Gary Coulter
St. Mary Church
Ashlan, Nebraska, U.S.A.

Nuclear Power

Dear Father Editor

I note that Dr. Peter Hodgson continues to promote the nuclear option for our energy future (Review, Faith, Sept/Oct. ‘06). One has to question his view that the 1982 Pontifical Academy Document, “Humanity and Energy” is a Vatican endorsement of his view.

Osservatore   Romano   editorial comments   rather   indicate   an endorsement solely  of  the  medical uses of nuclear technology.

As the cautionary principle in all applications  of  science  has  been grossly abused by commercial giants in  all  fields  of  science,  the  church will not hasten to reassure a rightly sceptical public.

Perhaps   Dr.   Hodgson   could comment on the Irish and European Administrations  Denunciations  of British Nuclear Pollution of the Irish Sea.  His  eulogy  of  Dr  Lovelock’s recent  book, “The  Revenge  of Gaia”, in support of urgent reliance on nuclear  fuel  as  the  solution  to our energy needs may also require correction.

During Andrew Marr’s Radio Four book programme, when attempting to mitigate the admitted disaster of Chernobyl with its estimated 40,000 casualties, Dr Lovelock commented that “Chernobl was now a wonderful place for wildlife as they were not disturbed by large human communities”.

Yours faithfully

Gerry Pontiero
Cityford Crescent
Rutherglen, Glasgow

Faith Movement

Dear Father Editor,

Just a short note to say how much I  enjoy the exceptionally good and thought provoking articles in Faith Magazine in defence of Catholic orthodoxy.

In the school here in Knock, I find that the articles give me much to contribute and discuss with the visiting lecturers when the opportunity arises, not to mention the many students who are resident here.

The Faith Movement vision, is a vision which has come of age. God Bless and guide the many wonderful priests and lay people who have contributed and supported the Faith Movement down through the years.

Yours sincerely,

David Walshe
Our Lady’s School of Evangelisation Kilkelly Rd
Knock, Co Mayo, Eire

Faith Magazine