Towards Realigning Thomism

Editorial FAITH Magazine January-February 2009


"Where there is no vision the people perish" Proverbs 29:18

Some time between 1945 and 1946 a youthful Edward Holloway wrote

"If we may use a very vulgar analogy, justified only by its exactness, we consider the mating of Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition of St. Augustine, as the union of horse and ass -the offspring is a static compromise, without power of generation, without elan vital, but not without sometimes the obstinacy which characterises the castrated offspring of those two useful animals." Perspectives in Philosophy (PiP), Vol. 1, p. 28.

One can detect behind these words a certain bombast and desire to be provocative. Furthermore one might respond that Holloway in his seminary years had only been exposed to a manualist presentation of Thomism. However the three volumes of his Perspectives in Philosophy (see advert on inside front cover) are littered with quotations from St. Thomas, and even the most cursory reading of them provides ample evidence of Holloway's profound engagement with, and his respect for St. Thomas' thought. In later years, when he returned to critique his youthful writings, he concluded, "The philosophy I was taught [i.e. the Thomism of the Gregorian University before and during the Second World War] seemed to me not so much decadent as quite irrelevant. It had reached a terminus. It hadrendered great service, but now it needed redevelopment and realignment." (PiP Vol. 1, p.9) No amount of ingenious accommodation can disguise the fact that Holloway was fully aware that his philosophical thought at points diverged significantly from the Thomistic tradition.

Hand in hand with his explicit refusal fully to embrace the old Thomistic synthesis, Holloway professed an unwavering loyalty to the Church's Magisterium, and to key theological principles of the Tradition.

Although in recent years John Paul II stressed, "the Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonise any one particular philosophy in preference to others" {Fides et Ratio n.49) nonetheless the Magisterium has undeniably accorded a privileged place to Thomas' philosophy. In Aeterni Patris (1879), the founding charter of the modern Thomist movement, Leo XIII wrote

"We exhort you brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defence and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences." (Aeterni Patris, n.31)

Pius XII lavished equal praise on St. Thomas:

"the method of Aquinas is singularly pre-eminent both of teaching students and for bringing truth to light; his doctrine is in harmony with Divine Revelation, and is most effective both for safe guarding the foundation of the faith and for reaping, safely and usefully, the fruits of sound progress." (Humani Generis n.31)

It might then be argued that actually Holloway's developments upon Thomistic philosophy and theology, along with those of most prominent post-Vatican II Catholic theologians, have stretched loyalty to a Magisterium which holds up St. Thomas' philosophy as the paradigm of Christian philosophy. Do not the Church and right reason demand that we just return to and polish up the old synthesis?

A Third Way?

With a very different mindset, as R.R. Reno points out, the thinkers of the influential schools of Transcendental Thomism and the Nouvelle Theologie have swept away the old synthesis without replacing it with a viable new one: "the collapse of neo-scholasticism has not led to the new and fuller vision sought by [these thinkers]. It has created a vacuum filled with simple-minded shibboleths." (Theology after the Revolution', First Things, May 2007)

For decades seminarians have been intellectually formed by lecturers who completely disagree among themselves about whether existentialism, or Karl Rahner's synthesis, or some other recent theoretical framework, is the way forward. No longer can a new priest be expected to have a deep synthetic knowledge of his faith. Leo XIII and Pius X had ensured that synthetic formation continued despite increasing pressure from Enlightenment thought. But this only worked until the mid-twentieth century.

Facing up to this problem, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as other prominent thinkers, have been fostering the search for a third way between the old Thomism and the new dominant theology. The latter they argue is, in some important respects, the fruit of a damaging revolution; by contrast renewal must come from the careful realignment of the truths of the Catholic faith, in the light of new knowledge.

We want to suggest that the basic parameters of Holloway's thought are in harmony with what both the Church and right reason demand. Given the collapse of conservative neo-scholasticism and the failure to bear fruit of modern synthesises, it is our view that Holloway's 'Unity-Law' thought should be given a hearing. We think it might inspire a new and needed coherence.

St. Thomas's Thought Lends itself to Development.

It is well known that St. Thomas, towards the end of his life and having had some sort of mystical experience, described the Summa by comparison as "so much straw" after which he stopped working on it. Obviously this anecdote shows that although he possessed a theological mind of the highest order St. Thomas possessed in equal measure intellectual humility. But it also means that, whatever his motives, he left the Summa unfinished. An unfinished work, by definition, is not the final word: it is therefore in its material reality open to subsequent development.

Moreover the whole methodology of the Summa is one of question and answer. It is not formulated as a perfected system whose definitive conclusions have now been reached; rather it documents an enquiry that has reached a certain point. Because it is composed of questions and response, it is always open to further questions and further responses. As Maclntyre notes "Aquinas summarises the outcome of that enquiry so far, advances it one stage further, and leaves the way open for the proponents of yet further considerations to continue beyond that point." (our italics - Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Indiana 1990. p. 74.) The methodology of the Summa is of its very nature open-ended.

The Summa is a work of genius that synthesises the theological debates of the first twelve centuries of the Church's history. As such, after St. Thomas, it is impossible to philosophise or theologise within the Christian Tradition without due deference to this inescapable monument of Tradition. However the Christian who approaches the Summa as if it were the final word in theology, or as if it contained the answer to every conceivable question, violates its material reality -it is an unfinished work- and its intrinsically open-ended methodology. Unfortunately after Vatican II to speak of being faithful to the "spirit" of a project has all too often become a euphemism for radical infidelity. However it is possible, given the insights of modern science, that by slavishly binding oneself tothe letter of St. Thomas's thought -who did after all live in the thirteenth century- one might run the risk of betraying the spirit of openness to, and confidence in, the truth which inspired him.

"Thomism" - An Ambiguous Term

The belief that Thomism is a single monolithic philosophical system is as widespread as it is mistaken. In the mid-nineteenth century, a variety of cultural and intellectual currents threatened the integrity of the Church's teaching. In response the Church's most brilliant minds, Jesuits like Kleutgen and Liberatore, called for a return to a unified approach to philosophy and theology, the precedent and model for which they saw in medieval Scholasticism. In 1879 in his encyclical letter Aeterni Paths (AP), Leo XIII endorsed this project: he maintained that the Scholastics had diligently collected and "stored in one place, for the use and convenience of posterity" (AP, n.14) the whole heritage of Christian antiquity, and that foremost among the Scholastics was St. Thomas. However,he also called for a rigorous study of the sources of Thomism: "be ye watchful that the doctrine of Thomas be drawn from his own fountains, or at least from those rivulets which, derived from the very fount, have thus far flowed, according to the established agreement of learned men, pure and clear." (AP, n.31) As scholars deepened their research into its sources, it became increasingly evident that Scholasticism did not constitute a single metaphysical system: for example

the thought of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure differ appreciably on important issues.

Furthermore even within the narrower confines of the Thomistic tradition differences emerged. The baroque Scholastics like Cajetan and Suarez, because they were philosophers and not historians, had approached St. Thomas' thought in an a-historical fashion and so had adopted positions under the guise of Thomism that were at variance with St. Thomas' own. Kleutgen and Liberatore, brilliant though they were, read St. Thomas as a response to problems formulated in the nineteenth century and so emphasised and interpreted certain aspects of his thought in a way that was not wholly in agreement with St. Thomas.

Russell Hittinger has brought out further complexities of Thomistic developments in the wake of Aeterni Paths: "Thomists developed rather freewheeling accounts of the political, economic, legal and social order [... putting] Thomism in an offensive mode as far as social doctrine went [... whereas] in matters related to sacred doctrine [philosophical] Thomism would be put into a defensive role" such that scholasticism could not be publicly challenged within the Church. It was feared that "even slight changes in philosophy entail new estimations of the doctrine." (Two Thomisms, Two Modernities', First Things, June 2008)

Thomism thus had a developmental style in response to modern social theory, which developments supported and built upon Rerum Novarum (1891). It had another less flexible posture when engaging with modern philosophy, a posture fostered by Aeterni Paths and later Pius X's firm rejection of modernism.[1]

Pope Benedict XV somewhat relaxed Pius X's restrictions upon debate, and argued, in 1914, that in order to foster unity amongst Catholics,

"matters in which without harm to faith or discipline -in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See- there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion."

In the years after this relaxation eminent philosophers such as Maritain and Gilson gallantly took on the task of synthesis in the increasingly complex Thomistic field. In the event they developed irreconcilably different interpretations of St. Thomas' epistemology and its implications. Simultaneously Marechal was developing his own unique approach to Thomist epistemology. As Gerard McCool observes concerning philosophical thought:

"Thus in the period between the wars three irreducibly distinct Thomisms emerged: the traditional Thomism of Maritain, the historical Thomism of Gilson, and the transcendental Thomism of Marechal." {Nineteenth Century Scholasticism, Fordham, 1999, p. 257.)

John Paul II called for and exemplified a renewed "bold" approach to developing and synthesising the Thomistic response to post-Enlightenment thought and culture. In Fides et Ratio he tells us that "the Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology." (n.43). He goes on to note the post-Enlightenment fragmentation of the Catholic synthesis: "what for Patristic and Medieval thought was in both theory and practice a profound unity [...] was destroyed by systems which espoused the cause of rational knowledge sundered from faith." (n.45) He concludes that:

"it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, [...] or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason [...] willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true." (n.56)

Benedict XVI has been a great example of this willingness in his cordial and challenging dialogue with philosophers of an Enlightenment or Islamic disposition. He has spoken helpfully about developing the philosophy of science and applying a hermeneutic of continuity to modern liturgy and to modern scriptural exegesis (see Fr Holden's article in this issue). During his last summer holiday he responded to a priest's question by stating: "Faith must constantly confront the challenges of the mindset of this age, so that it may not seem a sort of irrational mythology."

Aeterni Patris as Guide to Development

So Thomism does not denote a univocal reality and St. Thomas' method of philosophising is open-ended. Leo XIII helpfully envisaged the need to adapt St. Thomas' thought in the light of new knowledge about our world: "if there be anything that ill agrees with the discoveries of a later age, or, in a word, is improbable in whatever way - it does not enter our mind to propose that for imitation to our age." (AP, n.31) Furthermore, Pope Leo understood that what we moderns call science - sophisticated knowledge of the natural world - has an impact on philosophy. In point of fact, he noted that this symbiotic relationship between science and philosophy was proper to the Scholastic method:

"They [the Scholastics] well understood that nothing was of greater use to the philosopher than diligently to search into the mysteries of nature and to be earnest and constant in the study of physical things. And this they confirmed by their own example; for St. Thomas, Blessed Albertus Magnus, and other leaders of the Scholastics were never so wholly rapt in the study of philosophy as not to give large attention to the knowledge of natural things". (AP, n.30)

Finally it should also be noted that Pius XII, as quoted, lavished praise on "the method of Aquinas" which one can legitimately distinguish from the content of Aquinas' thought, and argued that it was "most effective ... for safeguarding the foundation of the faith". Thus the Magisterium's position, because in Thomism it is necessarily faced with a complex reality, is altogether more nuanced than might initially be apparent.

What then does Aeterni Patris have to say to the Catholic thinker of 2008 regarding the relationship of Scholastic philosophy to the faith? As noted above Leo XIII called for a renewed study of Scholasticism at a particular point in history and with reference to particular threats to the integrity of the Church's teachings: St. Thomas' thought was singled out as the adequate response to these threats. Consequently a proper grasp of those aspects of St. Thomas' thought that were being proposed for imitation, can only be reached by understanding the problems to which the Church was responding at that time.

Threats to the Integrity of the Faith

In the late nineteenth century the faith of the Church was assailed by intellectual threats from within and without. As Leo XIII put it,

"a fruitful cause of the evils which now afflict us, as well as those which threaten us, lies in this: that false conclusions concerning divine and human things, which originated in the schools of philosophy, have now crept into all the orders of the State, and have been accepted by the common consent of the masses." (AP, n.2)

The Enlightenment gave birth to a variety of philosophies which, based on exaggerated claims for the role of human reason, rejected the positive historical nature of Christian revelation. Either Christianity was to be rejected outright or its moral and intellectual claims were seen as the fruit of pure reason alone.

Within the Church seminary formation had for a variety reasons suffered from extreme eclecticism. Moreover there were schools of theology many of which had developed in response to the pressures of the Enlightenment but adherence to which seemed to endanger the integrity of the faith. Those of a somewhat reactionary bent posited a primitive divine revelation, denied human reason's ability to reach certainty in moral and religious matters. Above all reason was believed to be unable to establish the existence of God. Various other theological approaches, which had to a greater or lesser extent accepted Kant's philosophical premises, attempted to reconcile the positive historical claims of Christian revelation with the necessary and apodictic certainty required of knowledge within theKantian system. In doing so they tended to posit some sort of intuition of God's nature -which in Catholic theology is a work of grace- as the foundation for certainty in our knowledge of every day reality and so blurred the distinction between nature and grace.

Leo XIII advocated the revival of Thomism in the first place because Thomas' thought provides a way of articulating faithfully the content of the Catholic faith, but also because, contrary to Enlightenment rationalism, it maintains the importance of divine revelation within human history, and avoids exaggerating human reason's capacity to know the divine without the help of grace. Against eclecticism it presented a unified vision of the Catholic faith; against  perennial fideistic tendencies it maintains unaided reason's capacity to know moral truths and establish the existence of God; finally Thomism does not blur the distinction between grace and nature.

These are key features of traditional catholic thought and foundations for its true development. The great virtue of neo-scholasticism has been its attempt to be faithful to these. We have often argued in this space that Transcendental Thomism does not maintain them. R. R. Reno, in his above mentioned piece, has powerfully argued that the anti-scholastic Nouvelle Theologie school, including Balthasar, have not been respectful enough of such foundations, even at times undermining them.

Reno also flags up "the equal and opposite blindness of the leading figures of early twentieth neo-scholasticism, who also neglected the full range of theological work and at times used their power within the Church to prohibit and suppress the proper exploratory mode of theology".

Holloway and Thomas

Edward Holloway, regarded by ecclesiastical authorities as too 'progressive' before the Council and too 'conservative' since, was trying to offer a hermeneutic of continuity, faithful to the integral Catholic faith, as well as responding to the needs of a new intellectual culture.

Given that St. Thomas' theological project is both materially and intentionally open ended, and given that the Magisterium recognises that philosophy must take adequate account of the advances of modern science, if one could demonstrate that the perspective proposed by Holloway and now by Faith movement and magazine fulfilled all of the criteria mentioned above - i.e. it is a unified vision of the Catholic faith that gives due place to the role of human reason without blurring the distinction between nature and grace and one that presents our revealed faith uncompromisingly and in its entirety -one could justifiably claim that the Faith vision is totally coherent with, if not the total content of St. Thomas' theology, then most certainly the aims and intentionsset out in Aeterni Patris.

It is well beyond the scope of this editorial to demonstrate all of these claims, though previous editorials, and many other publications available on our website, have gone further in presenting and exploring the ideas we have received. The remainder of this editorial highlights a series of issues fundamental to Holloway's thought that demonstrate his intention to be faithful to the vision of Catholic philosophy set out in Aeterni Patris.

The vision we present aims to show the coherence and unity of the Catholic faith. Holloway's epistemological realism takes seriously the possibilities of human knowing while avoiding the pitfalls of those schools of thought that accept Kant's first premises. Finally, though he differs in his description of the relationship between grace and nature as presented in manualistic Thomism - though there are strong parallels between

his thought and that of St. Thomas himself on this matter -he does maintain a distinction between grace and nature.

The Unity of the Fa/YA/Visiont

The Faith vision argues that the Incarnation of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, far from being primarily a response to human sin, is in fact from the very beginning the meaning and purpose of the Universe. The relationship between this Revelation and human reason is discussed below, but there is clearly a place for Divine revelation within this vision.

This perspective on the Incarnation means that creation is for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Church is a seamless development upon the Incarnation, and the locus where Jesus continues to be present in His wisdom and humanity, especially through her teaching authority and above all in and through the Blessed Sacrament. Moreover in the Incarnation God most fully enters into a personal relationship with mankind, which relationship is our eternal destiny under his gracious plan. The Incarnation is the hermeneutical key through which the whole of creation, not least the human flesh and the whole of matter-energy, is to be understood. Every branch of theology from protology through anthropology to eschatology derives it intelligibility from the Incarnation.

Thus Holloway's vision does not just coherently unify theology. If material creation is for the sake of Jesus Christ, then in the end the laws of science - physics, chemistry and biology - find their ultimate intelligibility in Jesus Christ. The Faith vision which proposes Jesus Christ as the "master key to meaning of the universe" amply fulfils Aeterni Paths' requirement that philosophy "bind together as it were in one body the many and various parts of the heavenly doctrines ... in complete union." (n.6)

Holloway's Epistemological Realism

It is beyond the scope of this article to analyse Holloway's epistemology in detail. Suffice to point out that it is fundamentally realist in intent. Holloway is at pains to stress that we know not an abstraction of reality but we know reality itself. Consequently his epistemology avoids the pitfalls of nineteenth century Traditionalism which, carried to its logical conclusion, by undermining the possibility of any rational discourse about reality -and God as its ultimate cause- leads either to radical scepticism or fideism. By contrast Holloway asserts: "I perceive in my mind that I know only the determinate, the real, the singular." (PiP I, p.22) Moreover because the individual known is part of and in relation to a unified cosmos, the dangers of nominalism are obviated.

In Holloway's epistemology the human mind attains to the real. Man does not require some sort of intuition of God to found his knowledge of reality. The following quotation from his writings shows that he rejected this latter form of epistemology that had resurfaced in the twentieth century under the guise of Transcendental Thomism, because he was acutely aware that this path led at least to a blurring of the distinction between nature and grace if not to pantheism: "What we must not do [...] is to relate God as 'ground of being' to the very inner substance and core of the soul as in some way ... a part or aspect of the creature's being." (PiP II, p.63)

Nature and Grace

Although Holloway was aware that an authentic Catholic understanding of the relationship between grace and nature distinguished between them, he realigned this distinction in a novel way.

The problem he saw was that although positing a natural end for man outside of God guaranteed the gratuity of God's gift to man of a supernatural end, it also reduced the relationship between nature and supernature to the level of accidental (in the philosophical sense) or incidental (in more commonplace parlance). Holloway argued that the final end of any spiritual being can only be in relationship with God. Whilst such an end in the natural order may well be intelligible, a knowing and loving as it were "at God", in the actual, historical dispensation, our spiritual and human end has been revealed as being "sharing the divine nature". As explained in our May and September editorials having such an end does involve a more dynamic concept of human nature than the scholastics had. It doesnot entail that the distinction of grace and nature be blurred because "such an end can never be proportionate to any created nature, nor within its natural powers to attain." (PiP I, p.79) Creation and the human creature has no right to, or claim in justice on, the supernatural end that God chooses to bestow on it. The gratuity of grace is maintained because "this intrinsic transcendental urge of the soul by which it seeks from nature but beyond nature to the Source of its nature, is in the order of Divine Charity." (my italics, PiP Vol. II, p.63)


The Church in the developed West is in crisis. The crucial intellectual dimensions of this crisis are increasingly recognised. Those who advocate a return to Thomism as the solution must answer the question: why did everything collapse so completely and so quickly in the 1960s? The response that this came about through a widespread and collective act of infidelity to the truths of the Catholic faith only shifts the question. Why, if the Thomistic theology prevalent at the time was adequate did so many turn their back on it?

The purpose of this article has not been to argue that Holloway's vision is flawless. Doubtless there are difficulties in his thought to be wrangled with. Nor does this article intend to dismiss St. Thomas' thought: its study is still of immense profit and of Catholic duty. Our more limited intention has been to argue that at least in intent Holloway is faithful to the project set out by Leo XIII in Aeterni Paths and as such the Faith vision merits further attention. To dismiss Holloway's ideas, based not on an assessment of their merits, but rather simply because they are in places

at variance with those of St. Thomas Aquinas is not a mark of Catholic orthodoxy - it is a mark of misplaced intransigence.

Holloway was trying to foster a realignment of Thomistic insights in the light of modern knowledge of matter. This is a Thomistic-like thing to do. Something similar was proposed recently by Pope Benedict - and John Paul before him. On 31st October last the Pope spoke these words to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

"Thomas Aquinas taught that the notion of creation must transcend the horizontal origin of the unfolding of events, which is history, and consequently all our purely naturalistic ways of thinking and speaking about the evolution of the world. [...I recall] the words addressed to you by my predecessor Pope John Paul II in November 2003: 'scientific truth, which is itself a participation in divine Truth, can help philosophy and theology to understand ever more fully the human person and God's Revelation about man, a Revelation that is completed and perfected in Jesus Christ. For this important mutual enrichment in the search for the truth and the benefit of mankind, I am, with the whole Church, profoundly grateful'"


[1]For a specific discussion of the anti-Suarez "24" metaphysical "theses" affirmed by the Sacred Congregation for Studies in 1914 as "not in the category of opinions to be debated one way or another" in Church universities, published just before Pius X's death, see the introduction to Denzinger, and The Hermeneutic of Continuity blog for August 2007. It is also worth noting that as head of the CDF in 1990 Cardinal Ratzinger saw the description of the lowest authoritative level of the magisterium found in The Ecclesid Role of the Theologian (e.g. n.24: "It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent") as "probably" applying to "the pontificalstatements of the last century regarding freedom of religion and the anti-Modernists decisions of the beginning of this century."

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