Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: September 2015

September 2015

Taking Issue with the South

I take issue with Christopher Gawley’s review of Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (May). Gawley says he is attracted to the antebellum culture of the South with its “noble virtues and aspirations like tradition, manners, honor, hospitality, and duty.” True, he does say, “notwithstanding the South’s sin of slavery,” but in effect he dismisses slavery as nothing more serious than skipping an occasional Sunday Mass or eating meat on a Friday in Lent.

The antebellum culture of the South, despite its apparent charm, was founded and depended for its continued existence on the bondage of nearly four million African Americans. Gawley laments the North’s “vanquishing of a democratic people at the point of a gun” when the “democratic people” thus vanquished provided absolutely no rights at all to a third of their own citizens — excuse me, to their “property” — as decided by Chief Justice Roger Taney (a Catholic!) in his infamous Dred Scott decision.

I agree with Gawley that there were many lost moments by leaders of both the South and the North, leaders who should have worked more energetically toward avoiding the calamity of war. I also agree that John Brown’s violence inflamed passions and hardened positions on both sides of the slavery question. I don’t agree, however, that promoting “the diffusion of black slaves throughout the newly acquired territories” was primarily a reaction to the Haitian race riots of 1804. Rather, the expansion was based on the desire to extend an economic model that served the South well and, more importantly, to keep the number of slave states in balance with the number of free states so that there could be no amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery.

Finally, I cannot accept Gawley’s faulting of President Lincoln for “savaging the South in a total war and in contradistinction to the fundamental concepts outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” Wow! The Declaration of Independence states, “All men are created equal.” Does Gawley, like Chief Justice Taney, believe that African Americans are simply property? All war is terrible, and civilians are frequently innocent and sometimes not-so-innocent victims. Yes, Union armies wreaked great destruction in the South, but Southern armies also attacked civilians during their invasion of Union territories. In July 1864 Confederate General Jubal Early’s troops extorted $200,000 from the city of Frederick, Maryland, after threatening to raze it, and his troops looted and burned the homes of Union sympathizers en route to his attack on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Later that month, General John McCausland’s forces burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, destroying over 500 structures and leaving over 2,000 people homeless.

No, Mr. Gawley, the right side won the Civil War. God bless the United States of America. (Full disclosure: My maternal great-grandfather fought in the Union Army.)

Clarke N. Ellis

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish

Bethesda, Maryland

Those who choose to dig deeply and objectively into the Civil War discover that it was a war between two slave nations, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. They discover that General Robert E. Lee was an abolitionist, and that the anti-slavery movement had been gaining momentum in the Southern states. And lo and behold, they discover that Pope Pius IX not only recognized the C.S.A. as a sovereign nation, but that he also sent a crown of thorns to imprisoned Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Vatican saw the C.S.A. as more akin to the European Christian model of government and a bulwark against the encroachment of liberalism. And finally, they discover that there was not much difference between the motives of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Both sought to establish free and independent nations through armed insurrection. The big difference is who won and who lost.

All that having been said, has anyone noticed that the Confederate flag just won’t go away? It has become the banner of resistance to the forces of politically correctness that want to destroy every vestige of history they don’t like. Just as the Islamic State recently blew up ancient Assyrian relief sculptures, the PC police here in the good ol’ U.S.A. want to jackhammer the relief sculptures of Confederate war heroes on Stone Mountain in Georgia.

Rick Bohler

Professor Emeritus of Spanish & Portuguese, New York University

Jacksonville, Florida

Ed. Note: There is considerable debate about the crown of thorns that was in Jefferson Davis’s possession while he was in prison. Some accounts insist that it was woven by Davis’s wife, others by Davis himself, and still others by “the Pope’s own fingers” (Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis: Tragic Hero, 1964). One thing, however, is certain: When Davis was in prison, Pius IX sent him a photograph of himself with the hand-written inscription, Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus (“Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, saith the Lord”).

Also, Robert E. Lee cannot be considered an abolitionist in the true sense of the term. Though he did, in a letter to his wife, call slavery a “moral & political evil” (particularly as it affected “the white man”), he also wrote that slavery was “necessary” for the “discipline” of “the black race,” and that abolitionists were on an “evil Course.”

Bernard M. Collins

Professor of Philosophy, Holy Apostles College & Seminary

Silver Spring, Maryland


I wrote my review of Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind well before this June’s horrific and murderous events in Charleston, South Carolina, when a white racist went on a shooting rampage in a black church, and the ensuing hysteria to strip the remaining monuments to the failed Confederate States of America — most notably its battle flag — from public view. If anything, the public uproar is ongoing proof that the Civil War is not merely history — it is worth studying precisely because it remains current. That said, there is a certain irony in today’s Confederacy-bashing and the burning of the Stars & Bars: some American “patriots” and Confederate-bashers may well see the day come when Old Glory is burned for the United States of America’s much longer history of accepting racial slavery, or when Thomas Jefferson’s or George Washington’s monuments in the nation’s capital are removed because those men, as we all know, were slave owners. It goes to show, at least in my opinion, that the Confederacy is a part of the fabric of American history. Demonizing the Confederacy for sins that transcended its short existence — as if they existed “out there” — effectively whitewashes the entire nation’s complicity in racial slavery and animus. If the Confederacy’s founders and defenders were evil, I am at a loss as to why the nation’s founders, who protected slavery in law and practice, get a free pass.

The comments by Mr. Ellis magnify this point: He clearly does not like the Confederacy. Fair enough, but defenders of aspects of its culture and virtues should not be dismissed as apologists for racial slavery. History and life are slightly more complex than good U.S.A./bad C.S.A. While I do not have to dignify his ad hominem charge that my review “dismisses slavery as nothing…serious,” his accusation is unfortunate and untrue. I call slavery a “sin” precisely because it is a sin, but I can defend certain collective virtues of the Southern people — and yes, even the Confederacy itself — notwithstanding that vice in much the same way he glosses over the U.S.’s many sins — including slavery — while he engages in profuse Americanist flag-waving. If, by Ellis’s logic, the Confederacy and the people it comprised were reprobate and incapable of virtue because of slavery, so too was the greater American nation. Indeed, America’s sins go far beyond its legal acceptance of slavery — ergo, Ellis has a lot more rationalizing to do to maintain his patriotic fervor.

Ellis also takes issue with my critique of President Lincoln’s utter destruction of the South in prosecuting the Civil War. I beg to differ. One could argue that Lincoln’s method of pacifying the South was the first instance of modern industrial total war, which has had a lamentable regression in human affairs. The non-distinction between civilian and soldier, the wanton destruction of civilian property, and the very strategy of terrorizing a civilian populace in order to break the will of an army are barbaric. The North prevailed with at least some of these tactics — and future political leaders would learn the lesson of Sherman’s horrific March to the Sea. Humanity is much worse for it. So no, Mr. Ellis, the means matter as much as the ends — and some wars are not worth winning if the means employed are barbaric.

Ellis finds my reference to the Declaration of Independence problematic, to say the least. I fail to see why. The U.S. was founded precisely on the idea that free men have the collective liberty to obtain independence from a greater sovereign. What else did the American founders do than “secede” from the British Empire? Indeed, the first words of the Declaration state, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….” Mr. Ellis, if the founders were justified in seceding from the British Empire, on what basis do you excoriate the South’s invocation of the very same principle only two generations later to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with” the U.S.A.? Whatever can be said, Lincoln’s war was not without its political ironies, and the Declaration cut against his policies as much as it aided them.

In that spirit, I have to agree in part with Mr. Bohler’s comments. While I am not in a position to accede to his factual assertions, I agree that, at least for some, the Confederacy increasingly represents an historical counterpoint to a contemporary American federal leviathan that is as rapacious as it is totalitarian. When I see my government using its enormous powers to legalize vice and penalize virtue, when I see its limitless intrusions into family and economic life, when I see it as the great international purveyor of pornography, abortion, and birth control, and when I see it as a military machine that interferes everywhere and anywhere with impunity, I am sorry that I look wistfully to a moment in history when perhaps this leviathan could have been thwarted before it amassed the monstrous powers it now exercises. Notwithstanding that racial slavery was a great and terrible sin, my position on the South says as much about my feelings about the contemporary state of American affairs as it does about the political questions of the 1850s — and it has nothing to do with race relations. I suspect that this is true for many who think that the wrong side won in 1865.

Jerome Donnelly


New Salem, Massachusetts

Into the Dark Tunnel

“The Roar of the Lion” (New Oxford Note, June) offered extensive coverage of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s conflicts with those who support the presence of homosexuals in archdiocesan Catholic schools. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has rendered its decision relative to the legal status of “gays” who live together as if they were married. These associated topics are sure to stay at the surface for a long time to come, and so it is worthwhile to take note of Ross Douthat’s recent assertion in The New York Times that the campaign for so-called gay marriage has essentially been a battle about freedom from marriage as an institution rather than freedom to “marry” someone of the same sex. In a way, freedom from marriage is what society has been trying to achieve for many decades. Divorce, facilitated by contraception, contributed inevitably to the growth of all the other adjuncts of destructive behavior in the realm of family life — abortion, child abuse, pornography, and, in a great collective act, humanity’s self-destruction through the collapse of the birth rate (something that has not yet sunk into mankind’s collective consciousness).

A perceived lack of clarity in our own Church with regard to the purpose of marriage has contributed to the problems we face. This lack of clarity has been followed, in the current context of events, by guidance that is ambiguous enough to encourage even those who bear the burden of “same-sex attraction” to feel comfortable or content in their situation, to say nothing about the great numbers who have separated from their marital partners and chosen another.

A line from Joseph Pearce’s new book Beauteous Truth might restore a sense of hope for the future. Speaking of the marvelous Catholic allegorical poetry of the Middle Ages, he writes, “Ironically it is not until the decay of Christendom in the late middle ages that Catholic social thought is seen more prominently in literature, protruding in protest against its abuse.”

We all hope that the culture our faith created will somehow prevail over the long haul. If the insistent elements of the natural law can be made manifest in the lives of ordinary people through the bold uncompromising leadership of our bishops, our republic might survive the dark tunnel into which it has entered, and emerge stronger than it presently is.

Thomas Storck

Westerville, Ohio

Remarkable Parallels

In her guest column “The Darwinists & the Albigenses” (June), Anne Barbeau Gardiner draws a remarkable parallel between the Albigensian heresy and modern-day “evolutionism” — a parallel that at first seems as far-fetched as Robert Frost’s likening of birch trees bowed so low that their foliage hangs down “Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” Every summer when I wander in Frost country and come upon one of those birches with its trunk bent so low, Frost’s comparison inevitably comes to mind. As Gardiner’s parallel shows, metaphysical wit didn’t end with the 17th-century metaphysical poets, nor is it confined to poetry.

Gardiner argues that the Albigensian heresy and Darwinian evolutionism share a view of the world as a hostile place, ruled either by the Devil (Albigensianism) or blind chance (evolutionism). Both, she adds, dismiss God from having any role in the universe. Any discernible order in the universe is meaningless; providence, a view that things tend to work out for good, let alone Divine Providence, God’s oversight and care of the world, is wholly absent from both views. Albigensianism holds that there is no goodness in the world, and evolutionism takes a similar position in the belief that there is nothing more in the world than evolution.

What I find most salient of all of Gardiner’s intriguing parallels concerns the issue of control. The Albigenses were “divided into the superior few (‘the perfect’) and the inferior many (‘the believers’).” The proponents of evolutionism have championed programs such as eugenics in order to shape society according to their (supposedly) scientific vision — the “perfect” manipulating the unwashed “believers.” (Hitler notoriously drew upon American ideas about eugenics to create a pseudo-scientific basis for genocide. Eugenics, nonetheless, seems to be rearing its horns once again.)

Gardiner’s discussion also calls to mind C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, wherein he conjures a dystopian future in which “Conditioners,” having persuaded themselves that values are unreal except in a subjective way, have reached a point in science where they can manufacture any sort of human sensibility they choose. However noble their intentions (noble, of course, no longer having any meaning to them), they believe that they would do humanity good (another meaningless word) by instilling a sense of meaning in those they conditioned — until at some point the Conditioners would begin to envy that sense of meaning in the conditioned and would grow to hate them.

Social Darwinist types (though not necessarily of that name) had already attempted to be Conditioners in the 19th century: Malthus, in later editions of his “Essay on the Principle of Population,” called for placing the poor in conditions in which they would be likely to fall sick and die. Lewis wrote his essay in the early 1940s, long before things like genetic modification were possible, as they have become to today’s aspiring Conditioners.

As Gardiner points out, the Albigenses hated the world, hated life itself, and wished to see it end by doing away with marriage, while those preaching an extreme evolutionism favor a declining population and the utilitarian means of promoting it. Some of them, like my old friend Jack Kevorkian, see themselves as the modern secular equivalent of “the perfect” and simply ahead of their time. (Dr. Kevorkian, despite some of his macabre ideas, was highly likeable — gregarious and a good listener, with the heartiest, and what seemed to me the most life-affirming, laugh imaginable.)

Evolutionism is to evolution what scientism is to science. Both “isms” profess a faith in science as the one and only vantage point for assessing reality. Those isms are distinct from recognition of the reality of evolution or the value of science. The myth that science is pitted against religion and leaves no room for belief persists, despite the appearance of much writing that has debunked the myth of scientism. As John Leslie put it in his review of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s latest book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, “Weinberg insists that expert scientists can be religious. He goes so far as to declare that science ‘has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or an afterlife'” (The Times Literary Supplement, May 6). And he quotes Weinberg’s observation, “Whatever our final theory of physics, we will be left facing an irreducible mystery.” The Albigenses’ insistence that evil rules the world may find itself eventually, and ironically, supported in the evolutionists’ insistence that any notion of an active presence of evil in the world is only a bugbear.

Rev. David G. Poecking

Carnegie, Pennsylvania

A Genuinely Catholic Way of Thinking

I was delighted to read Kenneth Colston’s article “The Most Pernicious Catholic Heresy” (June). Mr. Colston manifested something rare these days: a genuine Catholic mind and way of thinking. He did not shy away from making distinctions or acknowledging good points that our adversaries might have, whereas in today’s intellectually toxic atmosphere, to concede anything to one’s opponent or to approach something in a nuanced manner and attempt some hard thinking is too often viewed as a sign of weakness.

I was also glad to see his highlighting of the perennial social teaching of the Church and his noting that Catholic doctrine does not comport well with the competitive, individualist world of America that is largely the creation of the Calvinist heresy.

Ken Krabbenhoft

Marbletown, New York

The Remarriage of Objectivity & Subjectivity

As I understand Richard Upsher Smith Jr.’s article “What Does the Anglican Patrimony Have to Offer the Church?” (Aprib| the authentic Anglican heritage preserves a distinctive accommodation of medieval Christian objectivity with the 16th century’s notorious turn toward subjectivity.

The Latin rite of the Catholic Church, reacting to the Protestant Reformation, bunkered in an exaggerated objectivity. Only in recent generations have conciliar reforms led to overreaching implementations and an institutional schizophrenia — an “objective” party oblivious to its own subjectivity, and a similarly paradoxical “subjective” party. Among Anglicans, for all their troubles, objectivity and subjectivity were never fully divorced.

Smith cites the liturgy of the Latin rite as an illustration. Reformers and traditionalists each insist, ironically, on the objectivity of their subjective preferences. Meanwhile, the Anglican patrimony preserves liturgical mannerisms both acknowledging the objective meaning and value of divine worship and facilitating a “worship experience” among the faithful.

Smith’s ecclesiological insights bear fruit also in an ecumenism founded on the witness of the martyrs, as Pope St. John Paul II called for in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint. St. Peter frequently figures the Church’s responsibility ad intra, her universal communion; St. Paul, the Church’s responsibility ad extra, her universal mission. Peter, however, draws his authority from an exterior font — an historical, empirical discipleship, sealed with a public commissioning. Paul draws his authority from an interior font — an encounter with the Lord Jesus at least superficially more like a private revelation, fueled by excellence in study and protracted prayer in the desert.

Their shared crown adorns Smith’s implicit thesis, that Christian objectivity and subjectivity can and must inform each other. Let us eagerly welcome that strain of the Anglican patrimony that can help reconcile these partners, too long estranged among Latin Catholics.

Stephen J. Clegg

Boston, Massachusetts

I’d like to put some of Richard Upsher Smith Jr.’s claims in a broader perspective, beginning with his idiosyncratic terminology. His use of the phrase “subjective Neo-Platonism,” for example, would seem to imply that there is such a thing as “objective” Neo-Platonism. I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, but in the work I’ve done on Neo-Platonism I don’t recall either of these adjectives being used by E.R. Dodds or anyone else of similar stature.

Also, I understand Smith’s logic in contrasting Augustine’s Neo-Platonism with Aquinas’s, but by associating Plotinus exclusively with the former and Proclus with the latter, I believe he’s giving an oversimplified view of the movement and how it hangs together as a whole.

Maybe this is scholarly quibbling, but I doubt that contemplation of the resolutely a-Christian (even anti-Christian) Enneads is going to enhance contemporary Catholic or any other “subjectivism.” There is no question that the Enneads is one of the great monuments of Western speculative philosophy, but to contrast its supposed “subjectivity” with the Summa‘s presumable “objectivity” makes little sense to me. In any case, do we really think that a clear grasp of the progression from tà aisthetá to tà noetá and the One via Psyche, Nous, the Henads, and the Principle of Undiminished Bestowal has anything to do with the “integration of the [Anglican] clergy and laity” from which Smith thinks we Catholics have something to learn? He mentions the Cambridge Platonists in passing, and I do wonder where they would come down in all of this.

I’ve seen nothing in contemporary Anglican or Episcopalian practice to support Smith’s claims for the self-reflective Christianity he sees enshrined in the Prayer Book — a font, he says, of a clergy and laity integrated “in one common liturgy…[in] edification, penitence, and praise.”

From the spiritual and theological point of view, the principal factor that “integrates” Anglican and Episcopalian clergy with their laity is a very Protestant rejection of the Christian tradition that underlies and complements the Magisterium in the fullness of its theologia, both speculative and mystical. It may be worth pointing out that, like other Protestants, they falsify the first 1,500 years of that tradition in order to justify their hostility to the last 500 years of its development along the lines defined by John Henry Newman, who of course had an unparalleled grasp of both perspectives.

It is well known that rejection of the authority of tradition has led to such radical secularization that membership in the Anglican and Episcopalian confessions is no longer predicated, in practice, on the teachings of Jesus Christ or even, in individual cases, belief in His divinity. Can Catholics actually believe that there is a spiritual “edification” for them, subjective or not, in the “common liturgy” of such an organization? If I may gloss Ronald Niebuhr’s famous quote, penitence and praise don’t mean much if you believe in “a God without wrath” and “a Kingdom without judgment.”

Getting back to Neo-Platonism, Smith’s image of Plotinus may not have anything to do with either the existing Anglican or Episcopalian confessions, but it does resonate strongly with an earlier creed that made similar claims — namely, Gnosticism. And a lot of Catholic blood was shed in the struggle against that heresy.

Michael B. Ewbank

Springtown, Texas


Fr. David Poecking has understood my thesis, and added the helpful illustration of Peter and Paul. My one caveat would be the same as Richard Harris’s in his own letter (June) in reply to my article: The Anglican liturgy to which I refer is that of the traditional Book of Common Prayer.

I thank Prof. Krabbenhoft for making me think. I used the phrase “subjective Neo-Platonism” as a clue for those who are not familiar with Neo-Platonism. I do not think it necessarily implies an objective Neo-Platonism, any more than the phrase “Almighty God” implies the existence of a God who is not almighty. The adjective in each case serves merely to focus attention on a particular attribute of the substantive.

My presentation of the historical development of Neo-Platonism was necessarily simplified, given the type of article I was writing, and my own knowledge. It would be absurd to suggest that Aquinas was not profoundly influenced by Augustine and his heirs, and thus by Plotinus. Nevertheless, as has been proven, the structure of the Summa Theologiae is indisputably Procline. While Plotinus developed the fundamental analogy between human subjectivity and the structure of the universe and its relation to the One, Proclus gave a systematic exposition of the universe as it emanates from the One in his great metaphysical treatise The Elements of Theology. While Augustine learned from Plotinus that only the soul and God are worth pondering, the Pseudo-Dionysius learned from Proclus that all creation, all being, is worthy of study. At any rate, Thomas’s philosophy was enlisted in the 19th-century Catholic battle against the idealist tradition in modern philosophy that originated with Descartes, himself a profound student of Augustine. One can study this realist approach to philosophy in such books as John Wild’s Introduction to Realistic Philosophy.

I did not suggest that Catholic thinkers should simply go back to Plotinus, but rather that they should learn to navigate the entire river that flows from him through Augustine to the present, one channel of which is found in Anglican theology starting with Richard Hooker, a channel that would be helpful in coming to grips with modern and postmodern subjectivity.

Prof. Krabbenhoft is perfectly right that contemporary Anglicanism is a gloomy slough, and that, even in its lucent periods, Anglicanism has always been Protestant. However, Anglicanism has had its lucent periods, and even just yesterday a vigorous school of theology, of which I am still proud to have been a humble member, was flourishing among Anglicans in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada — a school that was fundamentally Platonist and sought to promote the best of the Anglican tradition in theology, devotion, liturgy, and pastoral care. Those Maritimers and Newfoundlanders drew a number of Americans and Europeans into their orbit, one of whom is now head of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, Msgr. Jeffrey N. Steenson. This tradition, so recently studied and elaborated in the Atlantic Provinces, has something profound to offer the Roman Catholic Church. Those who are interested in this tradition could do worse than to consult the annual reports of the Atlantic Theological Conferences.

Ronda Chervin

Cromwell, Connecticut

Yes, We Did

In response to Thomas Storck’s question in his review of Peter Kwasniewski’s Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (June): Yes, we laity in the pews did use hand missals when the Latin Mass was normative prior to Vatican II. I prayed the Mass using Msgr. Joseph Stedman’s My Sunday Missal in the 1940s and 1950s. The Stedman missal had the Roman Canon printed in Latin and English on facing pages. The English language was used throughout the rest of the missal.

Later, I and many others prayed with the Saint Joseph Daily Missal, which was in use right up until the 1970s, when the liturgical landscape changed.

Joseph R. Breton

Walpole, Massachusetts

Reflections on the Rise & Fall of Thomism

D.Q. McInerny’s two-part article series (May and June) on the rise of Thomistic thought within the Church beginning in the 19th century and its decline in the latter half of the 20th century was well balanced and informative. As we might expect from one who teaches philosophy, McInerny emphasizes a limited number of notable contributors to this movement during that period who were prominent in areas of philosophical speculation, and not those whose concerns were in areas of sacred theology. Along the way, McInerny astutely recalls Fr. James Weisheipl’s observation that the Thomist revival owed its impetus to legislative authority, and that although such may have been its Achilles heel, the movement nonetheless only sporadically promoted a return to the true thought and spirit of St. Thomas relevant to our day.

As McInerny remarks, though said movement was imperfect, it was preferable to what had preceded it and was strikingly more effective overall than what supplanted it. I recall a survey taken several decades ago of graduates of Saint Louis University prior to the 1960s, in which a vast majority confirmed that the mandatory Thomistic sequence of courses they took in their philosophy studies had a profound and beneficial impact on their lives.

Yes, textbooks varied in quality, and not all authors were capable of doing more than hinting at the implications of certain of St. Thomas’s principles, rationales, and conclusions. Occasionally, certain books presented principles as self-evident axioms from which one could make immediate deductions applicable to all experience, rather than revealing how our lives and reasoning, when sound, manifest those operative principles. And some authors failed to link abstruse notions adequately with the richness of concrete experience. Nonetheless, Voltaire’s quip about not making the optimal the enemy of the good is pertinent here. I only wish certain periti during and after Vatican II had reflected on what this implies, not only in regard to intellectual formation but also to liturgy.

At present, there is a resurgence of deepened reflections on St. Thomas, even though these efforts are not prevalent in today’s atmosphere of pluralism. What has come to dominate within the philosophy curricula at most Catholic colleges and universities is an almost exclusive emphasis on courses on this or that historical figure mixed with rather synoptic overviews of historical periods. Some have insisted that if such historical courses are properly presented, it should be possible to lead students to discover most of the main insights and true principles articulated by St. Thomas by sifting through what is positive versus negative in this, that, or the other philosopher.

This optimism, however, presumes a great deal, both in regard to students and professors. St. Thomas laconically observed that many truths accessible to human reasoning about God can only be understood after long, strenuous effort, and still one often encounters such mixed with many errors. Given the wide variety of approaches promoted by professors throughout academe, and given their widely differing suppositions and formative backgrounds, it is not unreasonable to wonder to what degree students departing from such streams of formation have no awareness as to how much their presumed certitudes (or misplaced skepticism) are likely admixed with errors.

William M. Selenke

Cincinnati, Ohio

I was pleased to read D.Q. McInerny’s two-part article series, “The Rise & Fall of the Thomistic Renewal” (May and June). The reason is that I teach two of D.Q. McInerny’s fine books, representative of the resurrection of Thomism in our times!

Back story: I am a convert to the Catholic faith from a Jewish but atheistic background. Figuring largely in my conversion was the Catholic philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand, which I studied at Fordham University in the 1960s. During that same period I took several courses with Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J., one of the leading Thomists of the 20th and 21st centuries. I also co-authored Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy with Msgr. Eugene Kevane, for whom the teachings about the revival of Thomistic philosophy in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris were central.

Let me start with the positive. My introduction to the philosophy of St. Thomas was not by way of the type of textbooks Ralph McInerny cited in his book Thomism in an Age of Renewal as contributing to the fall of the revival. I was immersed in the writings of Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, and also acquainted with those of some French Thomists who combined scholarship with what I would call a kind of mystical enthusiasm. Indeed, such mystical enthusiasm characterized the teaching of Fr. Clarke. I like to recount to my own young students how astounded I was when Fr. Clarke described “being and Being” in such a sublime manner, almost levitating off the floor of the classroom, and that I was finally able to see that God was not only transcendent Truth but overflowing Life.

My understanding of Thomism was also enhanced by reading and teaching certain writings of Pope St. John Paul II, in which Thomism is the skeleton and personalism the flesh. In fact, I insist that when my students read John Paul II’s encyclicals, they carefully notice which passages reflect the Thomism and which the personalism.

My own “synthesis,” however, goes in another direction. I begin the standard classes in philosophy for undergrads, seminarians, and graduate students with my own existential-phenomenological approach. Since I discovered D.Q. McInerny’s books, the second part of the course includes the reading of Thomism on the same subjects, in McInerny’s clear but vibrant and up-to-date style. The students love this combination!

The negative? In my teaching career of some 45 years, I have encountered plenty of Catholic professors who, influenced by their Thomistic education, refuse to accept the idea of a perennial philosophy described so well by D.Q. McInerny: “The perennial philosophy is simply the sum total, the treasury, of those foundational and timeless truths at which man has arrived, in the East and West…. The truth should be gratefully garnered wherever it might be found” (May). If I propose an idea that they have not read in Thomas, whether it be personalist, existentialist, or phenomenological, they will refuse even to hear me out or read anything about it! It was that attitude that contributed to the “descent” of the Thomistic revival.

V. Rev. Myron Effing, C.J.D.

Russian Federation

Having played a small part in the aborted Thomistic renewal (I received my M.A. in philosophy in 1957), I read D.Q. McInerny’s two-part historical reflection with more than casual interest. The abrupt collapse of this movement raises many questions.

First of all, religion needs neither theology nor philosophy. It stands solidly on revelation. When well done, the opening to theology and philosophy can buttress religion, or it can seriously disrupt religion when poorly done. Such was the case in Aquinas’s time. Islam had rejected Islamic philosophy and turned to a fideistic reliance on revelation alone. The same challenge emerged in the West. But Aquinas brilliantly “baptized” Islamic philosophy, changing the threat into an ally of religion. He finessed the Islamic philosophers by returning to their sources in Greek philosophy, principally Aristotle. It should be noted that Aquinas was challenged in his day by a Catholic fideism that succeeded in having his works proscribed for a short time. Nevertheless, Aquinas can be rightly acclaimed as a savior of Western civilization.

The revival of Thomistic philosophy, so strongly encouraged by Leo XIII and several successive popes, as well as by testimony from many earlier ones, faced some serious challenges. A theologian first of all, Aquinas was interested in philosophy only derivatively as it impacted theology. He gave us a Summa Theologiae but no Summa Philosophiae, much less a Summa Scientiae. His “philosophy” is found in minor works, mostly in his Commentaries on the works of Aristotle, and incidentally in other works.

The revival, as a first task, would be to agglomerate and systematize the pieces into a coherent whole capable of meeting and challenging modern philosophy. Unfortunately, despite some remarkable successes, the task was never completed. While the pieces helped the Church internally, especially in her educational institutions, the whole was never so well established as to meet the modern challenge Pope Leo had called for.

Even in subjects in which medieval philosophy matched or even outclassed modern thinking, such as in logic and psychology, modern thinking was not successfully confronted.

Also, the impediment of physical motion was not overcome. Aristotle had gotten the physics of motion wrong. He doubled up his error by arguing that astronomical objects must be made of celestial matter different from earthly matter. Aquinas simply followed Aristotle into this error — an error that discredited Aquinas in the eyes of moderns. To be successful, the revival needed to extend itself to a close examination of the philosophical roots of modern science.

So Leo’s challenge was faced but not mastered. The daunting enormity of the challenge, once appreciated, might have contributed to its collapse, but I doubt it was a significant cause. Much more important, in my view, was an attitude prevalent among many so-called Thomists of the time. Riding an ascending wave of enthusiasm in a resurgent Thomism, these men harbored a hunger to engage the modern world. Such men viewed the resurgence as a ticket to satisfy their appetite. While Leo’s encyclical Aeterni Patris should be read as a challenge to confront modern thinking, these men took it as a means to accommodate it. Once accommodated, their interest in Thomism waned. As McInerny points out, the appeal of the modernist heresy played its part, as did the “spirit” of Vatican II.

It is well noted that St. Thomas interpreted Aristotle through a Christian lens — i.e., Thomism is baptized Aristotelian philosophy. May I suggest a renewal of vacuum-tube electronics is like a revived Thomism? This is not meant to be sarcastic.

Material and scientific understanding of the universe did not change radically between the times of Aristotle and St. Thomas. Only within the past 200-plus years has the understanding of the material universe radically changed. For this reason, the basic philosophy of St. Thomas needs to be revived — but only as an up-to-date development integrating the modern understanding of biology and material sciences.

To complete my analogy: Vacuum-tube electronics were valid and powered radio, television, and the first electronic computers, as well as other wonders. In fact, modern electronics, including integrated circuits and transistors, are simply new applications of the theories of electronics that developed vacuum tubes. Likewise, the basic principles of Thomism are still valid.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the near suicide of Catholic intellectual life post-Vatican II has left a near Catholic intellectual vacuum, no pun intended. The once-great Catholic universities (that were respected and should have encouraged the philosophical thinking that could have developed Thomism into an understanding of modern scientific life) have voluntarily reduced themselves to a redundant arm of the great Enlightenment nonsense that guides our “great universities.” Of course, there is an important residue of orthodox Catholic colleges.

The perennial Catholic philosophy has much to teach the modern world. However, this teaching must be fully integrated with and understand the modern scientific world. This will take a solid core of motivated thinkers who have been well educated and understand both the modern scientific world and philosophy, especially Thomistic philosophy. Of course, these thinkers need to be grounded in the traditions and magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church, otherwise they could well veer off into who knows what intellectual swamps.

If traditional Thomism is simply revived, its revived form will be only an interesting historical artifact not unlike, for example, the studies of the English Reformation. If Thomism is to provide strength and intellectual vigor to the modern world, it must be updated to understand the modern world. This updating will require blood, sweat, and tears, as well as significant financial support of the young brave souls willing to undertake this important and necessary task.

It seems to me that the breakdown of the Thomistic system was related to the general breakdown of all sciences consequent to the crisis in geometry and then in physics. The question was, “How can we really know the truth?” It began when 19th-century mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky showed that the self-evident “truths” of geometry can’t be shown to be true after all. (It turns out that more than one straight line can be drawn between two points in real space, but not in the imaginary space of Euclid.) This great doubt gave rise to Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the curvature of space and time, which now seems to be rather self-evident after we’ve seen the images showing curvature in space — why didn’t we think of it before? Real space (the space of experience) doesn’t seem to follow the “self-evident” principles of Euclid. In physics, the quantum effects and special relativity put an end to the knowledge physicists thought they had in Newton’s formulation of physics.

What if St. Thomas were also committed to philosophical “truths” that will turn out differently? It doesn’t demean a scientist if he is superseded, since he played a part in the progress of knowledge. As a scientist, it seems strange to read about “philosophers who have a principled and whole-hearted commitment to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas” (June). Would anybody have a principled and wholehearted commitment to the thought of Euclid? Or to read that “unsound theology follows upon unsound philosophy.” How sound is Thomism? In the natural sciences we propose our conclusions not as “truths” but as “possible models” of the truth, considering our experiments and experience. On what can we base our conclusions in philosophy? The only certain truths are revealed ones, so philosophy needs to base its conclusions on theology, and not the other way around. 

A little later, McInerny says that Thomism “should serve as a guiding model.” But it is just one model, and maybe not the best one. Perhaps sound philosophy follows on sound theology, and not the other way around. Theology is unsound without faith and practice (experience). Pope St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” comes to mind.

When I express my doubts about Thomism to Thomists, they usually try to convince me of the truth of their first principles. That is like Euclid trying to convince me of the truth of his axioms that seem self-evident. What I need to see is the big picture, not the axioms. Unfortunately, when I was a student 50 years ago, it seemed that the Thomists were surer of their philosophy than of revealed truth, that their viewpoint was more important than Christian faith. Perhaps Thomism played too big a role in the life of the Church.


It is gratifying to receive such substantive and stimulating responses to my articles on the Thomistic renewal.

Michael Ewbank appropriately calls attention to the fact that, besides its philosophical dimension, there was an impressive theological dimension to the Thomistic renewal, and it is an interesting question whether Thomistic theologians or Thomistic philosophers made up the more sterling group of scholars. Ewbank offers a pointed critique of the general pattern of philosophical education in most of our institutions today. In effect, students are being immersed in the history of philosophy but are not being properly introduced to fundamental principles, the presumption behind this approach being that students, through the study of the works of a wide range of philosophers, will somehow on their own be able to discern “the main insights and true principles” found in St. Thomas. I share Ewbank’s doubts about the effectiveness of this approach. He acknowledges that there does seem to be something astir with regard to Thomistic studies. Are we bearing witness to the incipient stages of the Thomistic renewal redivivus? Only time will tell but, as he pertinently remarks, the atmosphere of pluralism now prevalent hinders the progress of a possible resurgence of Thomism.

Ronda Chervin’s philosophical background gives proof of the happy fact that not everyone was subject to an inadequate introduction to Thomism. When she refers to her own “synthesis,” and explains the manner in which she introduces her students to philosophy, my impression is that what she is doing, which is no small thing, is making philosophy “real” — that is, bringing home to her students the fact that philosophy transcends what can be neatly packaged within an academic discipline; it is a way of life, the intensely personal, passionate, unrelenting pursuit of wisdom. I can easily relate to what she has to say about certain Thomistically educated types who seem to be oblivious to the larger, all-embracing reality that is the perennial philosophy. How could anyone who identifies as a philosopher not want to be operatively aware of the scintillating sum total of the world’s wisdom, much less suppose that it has no bearing on his own particular philosophical occupations? I would say, at the risk of sounding persnickety, that those with this attitude do not really think and work, as philosophers, secundum mentem Sancti Thomae (“according to the mind of St. Thomas”). They lack the kind of sapiential openness that animated his mind — a mind wide open to the truth, wherever it might be found. Thomas was very much aware of the main currents of the intellectual life of his times, and the same would be the case were he living today.

Joseph R. Breton’s observation that religion stands solidly on revelation is correct, but I think his further observation that religion needs neither theology nor philosophy calls for qualification. I would agree with the latter observation if by theology and philosophy we have in mind the man-made sciences that bear those names, especially as those sciences take form and expression as academic disciplines, sustained by people who identify themselves as professional theologians or philosophers. But I think we can admit to a broader understanding of “theology” and “philosophy.” Great saints like Thérèse of Lisieux (she a Doctor of the Church, no less!) and Martin de Porres had no formal education in philosophy or theology, but both were accomplished philosophers and theologians in a larger and perhaps healthier sense of the terms — the true philosopher being one who is in loving pursuit of wisdom, and the true theologian one who is firm in the faith and who day and night meditates on, in the words of St. Thomas, “God and the things of God.” I would argue that faith very much needs theology and philosophy of this kind, but not necessarily of the academic kind.

Breton does well to stress the point that Thomas was a theologian and did not regard himself as a philosopher, much less as what today we would call a scientist. Not that he was at all ignorant of the science of his day (natural philosophy), as is evidenced by two of his shorter works, The Principles of Nature and The Mixture of the Elements, in which, it would be easy to imagine, a contemporary theoretical physicist could find more than a few things to admire. However, as Breton would know, there is an ongoing dispute among Thomists, probably never to be settled, whether one can cull, from the sum total of Thomas’s works, a discernible, free-standing Thomistic philosophy, as distinct from his theology.

Granted that Thomas followed the reasoning of Aristotle’s Physics rather indiscriminately, this is something that modern Thomists universally acknowledge, and by putting it in its proper historical context, tend not to make too much of — appropriately so. A mistake that is often made, invariably by non-Thomists, is that, on the basis of the admitted limitations of Thomas’s physics, they uncritically assume that his metaphysics is burdened by comparable difficulties, which is definitely not the case. A mistake of this sort would be analogous to taking a skeptical view of the whole of Galilean physics because Galileo had it wrong in explaining the action of the tides. To get a balanced view of Thomas’s “science,” it would be helpful to dip into any one of the many trenchant works written by the Benedictine physicist Fr. Stanley Jaki, such as his masterful The Relevance of Physics, or engage with The Science Before Science by Anthony Rizzi, director of the Institute for Advanced Physics.

Apropos William Selenke’s reference to the vacuum tube, quite by coincidence I had recently heard a report on research being done by a sound engineer who claims that sound systems that use vacuum tubes produce purer, more faithful results in musical recordings than do those that use transistors. And they say vinyl records are coming back for the same reason. So perhaps we should be more cautious in what we brand as obsolete. However it might be with vacuum tubes, this certainly applies to the realm of ideas.

As to Thomas’s natural philosophy, two points need to be made: (1) What Thomas has to say on the subject of the philosophy of nature (physics, in the vocabulary of Aristotle) represents a small part of a very large corpus; (2) he is by no means egregiously off-base in everything he has to say about the physical universe. Where Thomas goes wrong, it is invariably because he is too faithful a disciple of Aristotle. Yet there is an unfortunate propensity on the part of some scientists, whose knowledge of the history of science is minimal to nonexistent, sweepingly to dismiss Aristotle on account of the few things they know he got wrong, while remaining quite ignorant of the many and very basic things he got right. He is rightly called the father of physics because he was the first thinker in the history of the world to work out a studied, coherent, systematic account of physical reality. Of course what he did was flawed, of course it had its limitations, but we should keep in mind that Aristotle was the man who got there first.

The Very Rev. Myron Effing’s observation that what happened to Thomism in recent decades was related to a more general skepticism that served to undermine confidence in the very reliability of human knowledge has much to recommend it. But I would say that what occurred was not so much a breakdown of the Thomistic system, for the system itself was never fully and faithfully reactivated.

As to the fascinating question Fr. Effing raises regarding the effect of Lobachevskian geometry, certainly his entirely new approach stirred up the minds of many mathematicians, and beyond that probably led to some general epistemological confusion and perhaps outright skepticism on the part of some. However, I would contend that what the great Russian mathematician offered was an alternative, and useful, way of geometrically interpreting the world, and that his geometry did not replace Euclidean geometry, for the latter continues to be, in its own way and as applied to specific purposes, a perfectly legitimate and efficient way of dealing with the material world, as attested to by the fact that civil engineers, among others, make constant use of it. The same can be said of the difference between Newtonian physics and the physics of quantum mechanics. The latter did not replace the former, nor did Einstein’s theory of general relativity disturb classical physics to the extent that it negated its practical applications, for we make free and confident use of it in our explorations into outer space. Fr. Effing is right to call attention to the various uncertainties that plague the modern mind, but these have their source more in bad philosophy than in mathematics or science.

Fr. Effing asks what would happen were some of St. Thomas’s philosophical “truths” to turn out differently, by which he presumably means turn out to be false. What would happen is that they would simply turn out to be false, or at least highly problematic, as has in fact happened with some of his ideas regarding natural philosophy: It is not true that there are only four natural elements, as he and everyone else thought up to the modern era, nor is celestial matter different in kind from sub-lunar matter. So, in order to provide an adequate response to the question, we would have to know the nature of the “truths” with which we are dealing. Although Descartes was surprisingly prepared to think otherwise, despite the fact that he was a formidable mathematician, it is hard to imagine how a truth like 2 + 2 = 4 could somehow “turn out differently.” And as for the axioms of Euclid, how could things turn out differently so that it is no longer invariably true that the whole is greater than any of its parts? There are, then, certain truths that are self-evident and therefore foundational. They are the principles, or starting points, of all coherent thought. If we are not prepared to accept those truths, then, as Aristotle pointed out, science can never begin; rational thought is impossible. We can thus say that there is nothing in the thought of St. Thomas which, if it is in perfect accord with and fully faithful to reality, is in danger of “turning out differently.” Maritain once made the telling remark that every truth, if it is in fact true, is an absolute truth, by which he meant that it simply does not admit of any exceptions.

How sound is Thomism? The only fully reliable way to answer that question is by rolling up one’s sleeves and engaging in some serious and sustained intellectual labor. In other words, put St. Thomas to the test; compare his philosophy to any other philosophy, then decide for oneself. The first step is to familiarize oneself with the thought of Thomas, at least to the extent that one grasps its main contours. (To gain something like a thorough familiarity with the thought of Thomas is, I am convinced, the work of at least one lifetime.) The next step is to delve into Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Cartesianism, Kantianism, Marxism, and Pragmatism, and then, moving East, into Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen. I am not being facetious. The philosophy of Thomas can be compared favorably (that’s putting it mildly) with any other philosophy one could find. In a word, the soundness of Thomism is proven by Thomism itself. St. Thomas can speak for himself more convincingly than any of his spokesmen.

Fr. Effing’s claim that “the only certain truths are revealed ones” is eminently challengeable. Revealed truths are most certainly certain truths, but they are not the only certain truths, for if they were, we would be in no position to make any claims regarding their certain status. Thomas deals with this question definitively in his treatment of what he calls the preambles of faith (praeambulae fidei), which in a very general way may be described as what we have to know before we can know that there is a God. Faith is, to be sure, a gift, but it is a gift offered to rational creatures, and freely accepted by them (or, alas, rejected) in terms of certain knowledge they already necessarily possess.

As to the argument Pope Leo XIII makes in his encyclical Aeterni Patris, that a sound theology depends on a sound philosophy, we must not confuse revealed religion, the depositum fidei, with theology. The former is the infallible word of God as it has been explicitly made known to us, whereas theology is a human science and, as such, is not part of the deposit of faith. Theology, specifically sacred theology (sacra doctrina), in contrast to natural theology (theodicy), is based on Divine Revelation, while natural theology is not. As St. Thomas points out, revealed truths constitute the first principles, or starting points, of sacred theology, but sacred theology, considered just as a human science, is obviously not revealed. The theologian cannot go wrong so long as he adheres faithfully to the revealed truths on which his science depends, but he can go wrong, even egregiously wrong, in interpreting those truths, as the history of theology shows. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of dissenting theologians. Now, it is precisely theology as a human science to which Pope Leo was referring when he stated that, in order to be sound, theology depends on a sound philosophy. What he was saying, putting it in broad terms, is simply that a sound theology depends on sound thinking on the part of theologians, and they are trained in sound thinking by a sound philosophy. Therefore, in light of the above, to say that theology depends on philosophy is not at all to say that the truths of the faith depend on philosophy.

Fr. Effing seems to question the very idea of first principles. He may have had some unfortunate experiences with overly zealous or intransigent Thomists, and he has my sympathies in that regard, but any coherent, systematic form of thought (i.e., a science) — be it scientific, philosophical, or theological — would be impossible to establish or develop, were it not for first principles. First principles are nothing other than the clear, self-evident, and foundational truths with which every science must begin its inquiries; otherwise, no inquiry ensues. Along with Fr. Effing, I think we all have a need to “see the big picture,” but without first principles we would be unable even to get a glimpse of the big picture.

Fr. Effing writes that “perhaps Thomism played too big a role in the life of the Church.” My view of the matter is quite different. The problem is that Thomism — the authentic, competently understood, and creatively developed thought of the Universal Doctor — has not played a large enough role in the Church. But we should all be willing to go beyond mere personal opinion in this matter. Should we not pay filial attention to what the Church herself, repeatedly and for centuries on end, has been telling us about St. Thomas Aquinas? Should we want to brush all that aside as inconsequential?

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