A respectful reply to Dr. Crosby

by Edy Morel de la Prada

To reply to Dr. Crosby’s April 23 criticisms of my articles: If to prefer Thomas is rigid and wooden, then I am—but so would be the Church. I never proposed a closed system (which I consider the very negation of Thomism) but merely Thomas as the best foundation. If to invite someone—even an institution—to prefer what the Church prefers is rigid and wooden, then I am. But I don’t think such conclusions follow.

Dr. Crosby rightly observes that John Paul II and others have made valuable philosophical contributions. Where do you see in my articles that I resist this? I, on the contrary, took John Paul as a model of someone who builds surely on Thomas’ patrimony, and stressed that we are all invited to make a contribution to humanity’s great philosophical enterprise. But if you want to refer to the Pope, he is the one who calls Thomism “the best philosophy.”1 I presume he is not being rigid. “Best,” in human terms, never means “infallible” or “incapable of being complemented;” it simply means best. And so far the approach of “the Master of Philosophical and Theological Universalism”2 is the best. I’ll be open to new “bests” if the Church proposes them.

Nevertheless, it is important to point out that, as John Paul II reiterates, “the works of the Angelic Doctor contain the doctrine most in conformity with what the Church teaches,”3 for instance as regards the body and soul unity of man, and the goodness of creation. And as regards St. Thomas’ attention to the human person, may it suffice to say that it merits him, in the eyes of John Paul II, the title of “Doctor Humanitatis.”4

I also ought to point out that I disagree with Dr. Crosby’s understanding of “perennially valid philosophy,” an understanding which I think is counter-definitional. Let us analyze the terms. Perennially means forever. Philosophy is a human science. If “forever” in this science is not be reduced to a euphemism, then it means that, in the Church’s mind, there is a philosophy which, in a certain measure, truly corresponds to reality, deriving from this its perennial value. No correspondence to reality, no perennial value. 5 It follows that among the principles of such a philosophy there can be no contradiction, for were this the case, one of the contradictories would obviously not be “forever” valid. If the Church did not mean forever, she would use other terms, such as “provisional” or even “scholastic” in her conciliar directives; for her to say perennial, if she did not mean it, would be, at best, misleading. I think Dr. Crosby’s difficulty in granting the term “perennial” its true meaning, springs (as the examples he uses shows) from his equation of “perennial” with “scholastic.”

As regards the historical aspect, I never referred to any particular professor but to the phenomenological approach at large, which has been rightly criticized of historical isolation, as Dr. Roberts observed in his recent lecture: “Can Phenomenology and Thomism be Compared?” Did I indeed imply that the faculty at FUS do not recognize any masters? My reference to the place of Husserl and Scheler—and particularly Von Hildebrand—in the philosophy department, should have made clear that I never questioned some masters are recognized (a fact that Dr. Roberts, at the above lecture, alluded to as an instance of the department not living up to the phenomenological “ideal”). Dr. Crosby and Dr. Roberts do have a historical approach, and grant a certain importance to St. Thomas. Yet, while I was not alluding to them or to any of their colleagues personally, I was responding to a mind-set reflected in all the articles written by the Concourse’s editors throughout this debate, editors who to a greater or lesser degree identify with the phenomenological approach. I speak of things such as Miss Bratten’s denial that, strictly speaking, there is such a thing as Christian Philosophy; to Mr. Gordon’s qualifying references to Church statements on philosophy as “inappropriate” and “unhelpful;” and particularly to statements such as: “philosophers who love her [i.e., the Church] truly will resist her self-defeating tendency to encroach on their domain,” by Kathleen van Schaijik. I do not imply that the philosophy faculty necessarily agree with these statements, but I do suspect that something they are doing is at the source of this mind-set.

Against Mrs. van Schaijik, one must point out that the Church’s “domain” extends most certainly to philosophy, “by reason of the connection between the orders of creation and redemption,” by which “the Magisterium can make a pronouncement ‘in a definitive way’ on propositions which, even if not contained among the truths of faith, are nonetheless intimately connected with them, in such a way, that the definitive character of such affirmations derives in the final analysis from revelation.” 6 Such is the case for instance, with the Thomistic doctrine of the soul as form of the human body: “whoever shall obstinately presume in turn to assert, define, or hold that the rational or intellective soul is not the form of the human body in itself and essentially must be regarded as a heretic.” 7 The connection between the orders of creation and redemption also forms the basis for the Church’s preference for the Thomistic metaphysics, and her warning about the dangers of deviating from it (please see my previous articles), and explains the need for the Church’s guidance in philosophy and for a Christian philosophy.

Returning to Dr. Crosby, as regards the new code of Canon Law: this code is merely reiterating the Second Vatican Council, which calls for perennially valid philosophy in ecclesiastical universities, and directs the reader to Humani Generis for a definition of that philosophy. Has John Paul II, the promulgator of this code, said anything since that could shed light on the matter of Aquinas’ standing? At an audience on September 29, 1990, the Pope re-stressed his commitment to “foster in every way possible the constant and deeper study of the philosophical, theological, ethical and political doctrine which St. Thomas has left as a heritage to the Catholic schools and which the Church has not hesitated to make her own…” He immediately observed that “the fact that the conciliar and post conciliar texts have not insisted upon the binding aspect of the norms in regards following St. Thomas as the ‘guide of studies’—as Pius XI called him in the encyclical Studiorum Ducem—was interpreted by quite a few people as license to forsake the ancient master…” And he concluded saying: “the Church ... will continue to recommend to her children with motherly insistence that humble and great ‘study guide’ which St. Thomas Aquinas has been throughout the centuries.” 8

As regards Newman, my citations were not meant to show that he was a Thomist, but only to point out in his words (against Mr. Gordon’s affirmation that Newman “felt no real need to study Thomas”) that he was very familiar indeed with St. Thomas, that he called Catholic philosophers to “be substantially one with ... St. Thomas,” and that he did not expect to “be found in substance to disagree with St. Thomas.” An observation that could be made is that Newman is really regarded more as a theologian and historian than as a philosopher. Yet even when he does get philosophical (as in the Grammar of Assent) he is compatible with Aquinas.

To conclude: Dr. Crosby says that the philosophy department at FUS has taken a “more inclusive approach to Christian Philosophy” as desired by the Council. If this is so, then why does the department not provide more variety, that is, a more balanced make-up of the regular faculty—with perhaps something more than the current one Thomist (it would be reasonable to expect this if “the unique stature and prestige of Aquinas ... as philosopher,” which Dr. Crosby speaks of, is to be adequately represented.) Actions speak louder than words. And only words could deny what I and others, faculty and students, consider FUS’ current hardly “inclusive” philosophical environment.

(Footnotes after the following replies)

The editors reply:

We must protest Mr. Morel de la Prada’s reference to us as exhibiting a collective “mind-set” regarding this or any other issue. The fact that several of us have published our disagreement with his understanding of Christian philosophy does not merit the assumption that we are otherwise in accord with one another. He should not hold all of us responsible for what each of us has said. Much less is he justified in basing his criticisms of the philosophy department on our articles, which are no one’s responsibility but our own.

Furthermore, just to clarify: Ms. Bratten’s denial of the existence of a specifically Christian Philosophy (with which the other editors do not necessarily agree) was more qualified than Mr. Morel de la Prada’s article might make it appear. And Mr. Gordon did not say Church statements on philosophy were unhelpful and inappropriate; rather he said Mr. Morel de la Prada’s “magisterial survey” was unhelpful and inappropriate in the philosophical domain. Also, while it is true that several of us have been deeply and gratefully influenced by phenomenological realism, we all acknowledge various other influences in our intellectual development, and prefer not to have it thought that we “identify ourselves” with the phenomenological approach.

Kathleen van Schaijik also replies:

I would so regret to leave the impression dangling for the whole summer that I am unwilling to be guided by the Church in my philosophical studies! Those who know me well know it isn’t true. Like any Catholic student, I mean to put my mind entirely at her service. It is only that Mr. Morel de la Prada and I disagree on what that practically means. He apparently thinks that if I really loved and listened to the Church, I would be a Thomist; while I, for all the documents he quotes, remain convinced that the Church is happy to have me go on loving Newman above all other thinkers I know.

The statement of mine quoted by Mr. Morel de la Prada was preceded in my article by a sentence referring to the Church’s respect for “the integrity and legitimate autonomy of philosophy.” This phrase was meant to be taken as an implicit acknowledgment of the fact that not every form of autonomy is legitimate, or, that authentic Christian philosophy is by no means completely independent of revelation. The problem of the precise nature of the relation between theology and philosophy is extremely complex, and has involved some of the greatest Catholic minds of this century in protracted, subtle controversy. Without making any attempt at pinpointing it, I will just restate my belief that the Church grants philosophers more intellectual leg room than Mr. Morel de la Prada seems to.

  1. LOR, Oct. 1980, pp.9-11, no.4 ↑
  2. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p.31 ↑
  3. LOR, Dec. 17, 1979, pp.6-8, no.4 ↑
  4. LOR, Nov. 5, 1990, p.3 ↑
  5. Cf., Humani Generis, nos.29-34 ↑
  6. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, May 24, 1990, no.16 ↑
  7. Edict De Summa Trinitate et fide Catholica, Ecumenical Council of Vienne ↑
  8. LOR, Nov. 5, 1990, p.3ff ↑

issue cover

Related articles:

Same issue

Same topic: st. thomas & catholic philosophy

I,1 To Systematize or not to Systematize: Philosophy at a Catholic University, Rebecca Bratten I,2 Why the Church gives St. Thomas primacy of place in Catholic education, Edy Morel de la Prada I,3 The freedom of Catholic philosophers: Why we need not necessarily give primacy to St. Thomas, Richard Gordon I,4 St. Thomas and freedom: a reply to Richard Gordon, Edy Morel de la Prada I,4 St. Thomas and Catholic connaturality, Michael Waldstein I,5 Thomism and intellectual freedom, Kathleen van Schaijik I,6 Chairman addresses the question of Thomism in Franciscan University’s philosophy department, John F. Crosby I,6 Thomism, Courtney Scharfe I,7 Finding common ground between Thomists and non-Thomists in Catholic philosophy, John F. Crosby II,3 On dwarfs, giants and little boys, Jules van Schaijik II,4 Why the little boy is more apt than the dwarf, Richard W. Cross II,5 Thomas not just a doctor, but a saint, Jim Fox

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