I once observed an online exchange between a couple people, one of whom is what you might call a Catholic celebrity which is just to say he’s a high profile Catholic commentator. Over the course of the conversation the less renowned debater made an appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas to which the celebrity replied with something like, “St. Thomas is fine for some, but give me Rahner, give me Kung, give me Congar.”
That little exchange on the surface just appears to be a couple nerdy Catholics describing their favourite theologians but in reality, it’s a depiction of a deep divide that exists in the Church today that most of us probably aren’t aware of and it’s important to understand because it speaks to why there are these competing currents in the Church today and how we should discern between them.
Going all the way back to the earliest days of the Church, leaders and evangelists started confronting a question that wasn’t easy to answer which was how do we reconcile faith and reason which represented two kinds of knowledge.
Faith is a knowledge that comes to us from God through revelation. It’s God giving us the answer key to life and encouraging us to trust him and to follow it. Reason is our ability to access what is true through our intellectual capability.
And the reason this challenge emerged so quickly is because of the Church’s collision with the Greco-Roman world through its evangelistic efforts, because they had a tradition of reason through the deposit of knowledge that came through great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle among many more.
And this tension was kind of neatly put by Tertullian who was an early Church father who said, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” And by that he wasn’t describing two nationalities or cultures. He was using these cities as metaphors for faith and reason, Athens representing the tradition of reason, and Jerusalem representing the place where God dwelled and where the people lived by faith.
We also see right at the beginning of John’s gospel he describes Jesus as the Logos identifying God with reason and in Acts 17, we see Paul appealing to the Athenians by reason and argument. So from the absolute beginning of the Church there’s a recognition of the legitimacy of reason as a means to knowing truth and persuading others.
But how they inform each other, how much we should rely on one or the other was unresolved. Some believed all we needed was faith and this current was known as Fideism. Some took a more rational line and believed that our reason could apprehend all truth.
And this tension played out through the Church for centuries until scholasticism and St. Thomas Aquinas arrived who introduced a concept that helped resolve the question for a lot of people. He said that Grace does not destroy nature, but it perfects it.
Because the trouble with reason is that it’s a human faculty and the problem with human faculties is that they are clouded with sin and our fallen nature. So how much we can rely on them has always been a difficult question to answer.
If you follow the Protestant line of thinking on this, our nature, and therefore reason, is completely broken and we can’t rely on it at all which is why Luther said that reason is a whore (Luther had a way with words).
He was promoting a renewed emphasis on faith and or Fideism which is why there are so many currents within Protestantism, especially American fundamentalism, where people say things like, just have faith.
It’s why so many people backlash against their fundamentalist upbringing because when they started to ask questions and employ their reason, they were met with slogans like, “When in doubt, faith it out.” And that’s unfortunate because that’s not the ancient tradition which has been one that has tried to balance the legitimacy of both faith and reason.
And St. Thomas took a massive stride forward in our ability to do that when he said that Grace perfects nature. Yes, nature is compromised, but when we expose ourselves to God’s grace and his willingness to make his goodness available to us that we might be transformed, then our nature, reason with it, becomes elevated and perfected into a condition where we CAN rely on it.
Thomas did much more than that as a prolific thinker and writer, but this contribution to Catholic thought made it possible for faith and reason to live in a kind of harmony until the Protestant Reformation became a loud voice for fideism once again.
But what we have in the Church today is a climate in which Thomas and Thomism are treated like one among many currents that are acceptable but with no pride of place even though Thomas helped anchor the Church in a resolution to a centuries old question that if you get wrong, can create a lot of problems as it did for Protestants.
At the council of Trent, which was meant to resolve controversies arising from the Protestant reformation, the council fathers placed St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, which was his magnum opus, on the high altar next to the Bible as a gesture meant to convey that St. Thomas’ theology and contribution is second only to scripture.
And while the popularity of Thomism ebbed and flowed for a few centuries, it was renewed not just in popular recognition, but in magisterial, that is authoritative, recognition in a movement that is known as neo-scholasticism.
This was a time in the Church in which Thomistic thought was enshrined, not just as a form of acceptable theology in the Church, but as the Church’s official theology. It was during this time that Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical Aeterni Patris in which he instructed the clergy and all theologians to take Thomism as the basis of their theology and insisted that it be the standard taught in all seminaries.
In it he said that Aquinas's theology was a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine. So this wasn’t just a time of popularizing Thomism, but establishing it as synonymous with Catholic thought. Thomism wasn’t just supposed to be one among many strands of thought, but, again, the definitive exposition and this was established at a magisterial level binding Catholics to it.
It’s important to know that during this time the Church was combating a heresy called Modernism which Pius X condemned and characterized as the synthesis of all heresies – among them are a vague agnosticism and relativism where you can line up all the currents of thought and pick and choose what you like and what you don’t like.
Now, following on the heels of this elevation of Thomism and scholasticism was a new and emerging movement which was dubbed the nouvelle theologie by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange who was a Dominican and Neo-Scholastic who happened to be a teacher of Pope St. John Paul II.
And as this new movement was emerging, Lagrange examined it, considered it and then condemned it as modernist and the same things he criticized were taken up by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis.
And so there became this competing interest for the mind of Catholicism between scholasticism which had found magisterial support and the nouvelle theologie which was novel and seriously criticized and operating dangerously close to condemned heresy.
And this rivalry came to a head in what many describe as a confrontation at the Second Vatican Council where these two factions faced off in an attempt to sway the outcomes of the council. On the one side we had the traditional and scholastic group and on the other we had the nouvelle theologie and by most accounts it was the nouvelle theologie faction that won the day and dominated in influence in the documents of the council.
And it has been this brand of theology that has been dominant in the Church since the council.
Now, if we come back to my anecdote at the beginning, the contrast that we see on display there isn’t just two nerdy Catholics identifying their favorite theologians, but two people establishing where they reside over this divide. Either the scholastic or the nouvelle theologie because that cast of characters including Rahner, Kung, and Congar where among the leaders of that movement.
Prior to the council, Congar was prevented from teaching and publishing by Pope Pius XII but was some how magically rehabilitated during the council and became one of it’s most important influences. Hans Kung, suffered the same fate later in his career for teaching heretical things, but yet, their influence in the council is still felt.
In the aftermath of the council, we eventually got a new Pope in John Paul II who wrote an encyclical called Fides et Ratio which means… faith and reason and this was the first time this topic was revisited by a Pope since Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris which was established Thomism as the standard for Catholic theology.
And this encyclical was met with a lot of hostility in a post conciliar Church that thought it had defeated the Thomistic influence in Catholicism and ushered in a new era in which novelty would reign supreme.
They rightly feared that it was a return to emphasizing faith and reason as it had come to be understood thanks to St. Thomas who is like this gadfly who won’t go away. Every time his death has been solemnly proclaimed, he is resurrected… kind of like Jesus did, kind of like the Church always seems to do.
So if you find yourself disoriented and confused by the currents of thought that compete in the modern Catholic Church and you’re unsure who to listen to, you can be confident that scholasticism and the thought of St. Thomas are a sure place to rest your hat.