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Vatican II & Scholasticism


By Avery Dulles | May 1990
Avery Dulles, S.J., is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. A Contributing Editor of the NOR, he currently occupies the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University. He has been a member of the Board of Directors of Georgetown University and a Consultor to the Papal Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Believers. His two latest books are The Catholicity of the Church and The Reshaping of Catholicism.

Until Vatican Council II, scholasticism, or, to speak more precisely, neo-scholasticism or neo-Thomism, had been for more than a cen­tury the officially established and approved philosophy of the Catholic Church. It was regularly used by theologians as a resource or instrument for theological inquiry and explana­tion. Within a year or two after the council, the case was quite otherwise. Many sophisti­cated Catholics looked upon scholasticism as obsolete.

Was the council responsible? As we shall see, the council’s explicit teaching on the sub­ject would seem to indicate that it was not. Nevertheless I think that Vatican II did give some occasion for this intellectual revolution.

In the first place, the impulses and direc­tives given by Pope John XXIII were unfavora­ble to the reigning scholasticism. This pope had been nuncio in Paris at the time when Pius XII issued his encyclical Humani Generis, directed against the nouvelle theologie. His plans for the council seem to have been partly in­spired by the French Dominican and Jesuit theologians who had been suspect under Pius XII.

According to Pope John’s instructions the council was to be, in the first place, pastoral in character. The term “pastoral” could have several meanings, but as used by John XXIII it implies a practical orientation toward the Christian life and a lack of concern with the fine points of speculation as developed in late scholasticism. This orientation favored a cer­tain liberty in speculation. The pope did not want new restrictive teachings, and he espe­cially resisted the adoption of new dogmas under pain of anathema. He popularized the maxim, “Unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in all mat­ters.”

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