Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

FAITH Magazine July-August 2008s



Dear Father Editor

With regards to your September 2006 editorial (“The Catholic Vision of Matter: Towards a New Synthesis”) and the discussion arising out of it (recent Letters pages), it seems to me that a more fruitful frame of reference for the debate might be Thomas’ epistemology. In Holloway’s Perspectives in Philosophy, Volume One, the epistemological question is his point of departure.

If one accepts Scholastic metaphysics vis á visprime matter and form then the key epistemological question seems to be: how can we come to know the universal apart from the particular? How is it that we are able to classify objects as being of the same type?

Aquinas’ solution was to posit a process called abstraction. Because forms cannot be perceived by the senses they have to be abstracted from our sense data by our intellect. This process must of necessity have an active dimension. What is perceived by the senses is that which is there to be perceived. These objects are individual. Analogously, that which can be understood by the intellect is that which is there to be understood. But that which is there to be understood is universal and so not immediately available in our sense data. If it was we could point to it. We could “perceive” it directly. That which can be understood by the intellect must therefore be the result of some form of processing.

The faculty that processes the sense data into something which is intelligible to the mind Aquinas calls the ‘active intellect’. The ‘active intellect’ works upon the incoming data of sensation, “the phantasm”, like a light shining upon it. The “passive intellect” receives the form like a shadow falling upon the ground. In its “abstracted” manifestation in the passive intellect the universal form can be understood. But to understand the proper object in the light of this universal form the intellect needs to refer back to the sense image ( “conversio ad phantasma” ) and so to the objective particular thing that is being understood. “The understandable impression is not that which is understood but that by which the understanding understands.” (Species intelligibiles non estid quod intelligitur sed id quo intelligit intellectus. Summa Theologica, I, 85, art.2) Knowing is a (cognitive) relation not a mechanism.

The faculties and mechanisms that Aquinas describes here cannot be empirically verified and the work of the active intellect is not something of which one is conscious. Thomas’ abstraction process is a hypothesis posited to explain our ability to classify particulars without letting go of the common sense view that what we come to know is real. This in itself is not a criticism since such theories rest precisely on their ability to explain, but it does provide for a certain room for manoeuvre.

We can seek to develop Aquinas on this particular issue or we can present an alternative view that will in its turn stand or fall on its ability and power to explain the human person and the world in which he/she lives. Holloway, in his Perspectives Volume One,and Faithmagazine, in its September 2006 editorial, each in their own way, seek to do both.

Yours faithfully
Roger Peck
Oscott College Birmingham


Dear Father Editor

While I can only share your Carthusian correspondent’s enthusiasm for the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a sure guide to the Church’s teachings, I read – with some surprise – in his comments on the letters I wrote to you in 2007 that I am supposed to hold suspect, or even possibly unorthodox, “any text” that cites Tertullian.

Since not only the Catechism but even the Roman Rite itself, in the Liturgy of the Hours, uses Tertullian (Thursday of the third week of Lent; the feast of Ss Philip and James), this would clearly be an impossible position.

But the points I was making in my letters of November and December were quite other. The first letter was to correct the erroneous statement of your editorial that Tertullian was a Latin Church Father; the second was to dissent from the editorial comment (oddly enough, echoed by your correspondent) that the phrase “caro cardo salutis est” is taken from Tertullian’s “catholic writings”. Nothing else.

Tertullian is highly quotable but as St Vincent of Lérins said of his writings “quot verba, tot sententiæ” : his phrases strike us; his writings have to be treated with circumspection and an awareness of their historical context.

Yours faithfully
Gerard McKay
Piazza della Cancelleria Rome


We thank Mr McKay for his concern about clarity, accuracy and orthodoxy in our publication. In the same spirit, and notwithstanding the fact that the Catholic Encyclopediaincludes Tertullian in a list of “early Fathers”, we would accept that such an unqualified designation may not be the most appropriate in the context of our discussion. We would simply want to point to him as a long accepted literary witness to the common theological outlook of the patristic period on this and other vital points.

We hope that there remains no quarrel with the orthodoxy of our central affirmations that “The fathers maintained the sacredness of matter and its share in God’s saving plans“; that the flesh is central to the plan of salvation; that the Incarnation takes place in order to bring about eternal communion between the Godhead and humanity, and thereby the whole of the physical creation which is summed up in Christ. This is the almost universal patristic perspective written about, preached and taught by canonised Fathers of the Church in both Greek and Latin. Tertullian expresses this thought so succinctly that the Magisterium has adopted his phrase from the De Resurrectione Carnis and used it in the Catechism. We humbly seek to develop and deploy this insight once again at theservice of re-evangelising our scientifically sophisticated but spiritually impoverished age.

As to whether the De Resurrectione Carnis comes from his “Catholic” works or not, scholars agree that Tertullian formally seceded from the Church – when he declared himself a Montanist – either in 211 or at the end of 212 at the latest. He wrote the De Resurrectione Carnis most probably around 209. This places this particular work in a time when he was a still Catholic in communion with the Church, even though some of his opinions were becoming extreme, especially in moral and disciplinary matters.


Dear Father Editor

I read with interest the piece by Father Francis Selman ‘On the Soul’ in your March ’08 issue.

I felt that his treatment of my work The Human Person, 1992, was unjust.

In that book, I purported to demonstrate that the human being has operations, described as linguistic thinking and linguistic understanding, which have no bodily organ through which they operate, and no neural correlate, in any way comparable to the way in which perception and imagination have bodily organs through which they operate (pp. 447-474). Language and thinking to oneself in the medium of words (pp. 434-445) express thought and understanding, rather than embody them.

Any subsistent being with an operation which is in this way not essentially bodily has an esse which is independent of the body. The person who thinks and understands is an example of this, as I emphasised in Chapter XV, pp. 539-540, since ‘person’ is not a term which restricts its subjects to being of a bodily or body-dependent character.

Nothing with such a subsistence ceases to exist by the perishing of the body, and therefore there is in the human being that which thinks and understands which does not cease to exist at death, and which I have proved in Chapter XIII-XIV to be the principle of unity of the whole human being, the soul. It remains the form of the body, and has hope of resurrection. This I laid out in my book.

By God’s power, by its resurrection, the whole person is restored and resurrected.

The only places in which a general account of the coming to be of the human being is implicit are in pp. 290-296, and 528-531, extending my remarks to other living things, none of which do I believe to be intelligible either in their nature and behaviour or in their origin in purely physicalistic terms. The peculiarity of the coming to be of the human being is that it involves the coming to be of a principle of understanding and will which is not essentially dependent upon the body for its existence.

Clearly since it has operations of the kind I indicate it is beyond powers of the material by themselves to educe, so that in order for the order of nature to continue in its regular fashion, God has to create this soul in synergism with the necessary parts played by the parent(s). Both I and St Thomas consider that the soul continues to exercise thought and understanding (and indeed will, which is intellectual appetite) after death, and, as St Thomas explains, this cannot be in synergism with the imagination in the way it is during human life, but is made possible in ways God provides, and in this way the life of purgatory allows the purification that most people need, while the Saints pray for the living and the dead of whom God gives them knowledge through their vision of Him .

In a work recently completed, but not yet published, I have explained how the adaptability of animal bodily systems, especially the brain, which Meredith and Stein have remarkably demonstrated in respect of the senses in their The Merging of the Senses and which is seen in infant language-learning in a way discussed by Meltzoff, Butterworth and others, reaches a peak in the case of the human use of language so that it is solely semantic and communicational constraints which determine grammar and nothing universal in grammar is determined by neurology. It is as if God creates man when the bodily system has become so malleable in its operation as to be capable of the expression of thought and understanding.

My approach shows what is wrong with Locke’s flight of fancy that an unstructured material body might think, or Kenny’s suggestion that our ways of speaking are compatible with our heads being full of sawdust, so that indeed bodily function is internal to normal mental function (pp. 336-339), so that thought and understanding while integrated with the imagination nonetheless transcend it, and transcend the body.

There are lots of features of human life which exemplify the transcendence of intellect and intellectual appetite over the body, e.g. certainly the experience of someone like St. John of the Cross (whose poems express an appetite which is intellectual, even if in St. Thomas’s phrase there may be some overflow into the sensible), along with other prayer involving a loving knowledge and attention to God, and on a more common plain some musical experience. But it is only from the semantic and communicational structures of language that we can get an argument to demonstrate human transcendence philosophically.

Yours faithfully
David Braine
Honorary Research Fellow
Department of Philosophy
Aberdeen University


Dear Father Editor

Moira Shea is quite right that Ronald Knox introduces a new nuance in Jn 2:1-3 when he has Mary say at Cana, “they have no wine left”, instead of the more usual and literal, “they have no wine”.

I imagine that Mgr. Knox intended to clarify more than to change the meaning of the phrase; and here I am inclined to go along with him.

Let’s suppose that the comment was made at the very start of the feast (it would be typical of Our Lady to arrive early so as to help in preparing things), because Mary had discovered that the family had not laid in any wine at all... Unlikely? Yes, that is what I think. Yet nothing in the text precludes such an interpretation. Nevertheless, (as far as I know), all commentators have interpreted the situation as a simple but embarrassing running out of that element which (in the words of the Psalmist) can so gladden the heart, precisely when the celebrations were still in full swing.

Whatever one thinks of these hypotheses, Mgr. Knox’s translation has the advantage of exonerating the bridal families of thorough ineptitude in preparing a feast, and perhaps of shifting the blame (if blame has to allotted) to the unexpected number or the excessive joviality of the guests.

Actually, one could argue from other passages that Knox had a certain penchant for expressing a lack or an absence, in terms of something “not being left”. For instance, “such a crowd gathered that there was no room left even in front of the door” (Mk 2); “There would have been no hope left for any human creature, if the number of those days had not been cut short” (Mt 24); “These must stay on board, or there is no hope left for you” Acts 27; “if you can see your neighbour’s faults, no excuse is left you” (Rom 2).

I have my own objections to some of Ronnie’s idiosyncratic phrases (for instance his frequent use of “have a mind to”, instead of simply “want to”); but overall I still find his English magnificent.

Yours faithfully
Fr Cormac Burke


Dear Father Editor

The Daily Telegraph recently published a short letter of mine the gist of which was that I had recently “visited the website of every Roman Catholic diocese in England and Wales, to see what its Justice and Peace Commission was saying about the Embryology Bill and abortion. Not one mentioned the Bill nor had a word to say about abortion.” Perhaps I might furnish your readers with a slightly fuller description.

The purpose of these commissions is “to stimulate awareness of the need for justice both at home and abroad.” In my investigations the most frequent issue raised was coffee; then there was much about the needs of travellers; other concerns included immigrants, poverty in Britain, and a multitude of relatively trivial issues, most of them addressed from a far left-wing perspective. Several dioceses, such as Portsmouth and Hallam, had recently had special Justice days but never a mention of abortion. The Archdiocese of Liverpool’s Justice and Peace Commission does “conscientisation training” but that does not include abortion. Northampton has an advertisement for a special day soon on “Climate Change”. The diocese of Westminster Justice and Peace section has no mention of abortion but doesgive special attention to “Care for the Earth”.

Our Bishops will not need me to remind them that justice, like charity, begins at home.

Yours faithfully
Eric Hester
Somerdale Avenue

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