Thomism Is Ready for Its Close-Up

Thomism Is Ready for Its Close-Up
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As a centuries-old school of Christian philosophy and theology, Thomism rarely earns notice from the American media. Emails written in 2011 by operatives of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, however, have thrust Thomist thought into the national spotlight. In a year of unexpected political events, Thomism’s five minutes of fame is perhaps the most surprising.

In one of the emails, John Halpin of the Center for American Progress mocks high-profile Catholics as pseudo-intellectuals. He complains to a receptive Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s current director of communications, that these Catholics “throw around ‘Thomistic’ thought and ‘subsidiarity’ and sound sophisticated because no one knows what the hell they’re talking about.”  Surely Mr. Halpin understands now that some individuals do understand these terms, like the members of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. In an October 12th editorial, the board condemned Halpin’s and Palmieri’s blatant anti-Catholicism, defending subsidiarity’s intelligibility while, understandably, leaving Thomism “to the theologians” to explain. In the space left open by the Journal’s board, this Thomist theologian is happy to defend the Thomist tradition.

The Thomist school takes its name from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the Italian nobleman and Dominican friar whose celebrated Aristotelian interpretation of Christian revelation results in a unified view of reality, beginning with appreciation of the created being of the simplest mineral and extending to wonder of the uncreated being of the source and end of all things, God. Aquinas’s unified view of reality, which constitutes a paean to truth, is no small achievement; what is more, it represents a pivot in the history of Western thought. Drawing on the best of the thousand-year tradition of Christian reflection before him—shaped in large part by the thought of St. Augustine (354–430)—Aquinas adjusted the philosophical foundation upon which that tradition was built. He realized that it is better to investigate Christian realities like the Incarnation of the Divine Word, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments of the Church with a realist philosophy rather than an idealist one. So, he preferred Aristotle’s confidence in the human mind’s ability to access the truth in things to Plato’s suspicion of it. Aquinas’s turn to the real is one from which official Catholicism has yet to deviate.

Although St. Thomas’s new method of theological reflection initially drew criticism, it eventually attracted generations of disciples. In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, scholars across Europe—many of them members, like Aquinas himself, of the Dominican Order—sustained his project by commenting on his writings, expanding his theological and philosophical insights, and applying them to contemporary questions. Italian Thomist scholars contended with the challenges posed by Renaissance humanism; Spanish Thomists helped the burgeoning world of trade by explaining the economics of currency exchange and inflation. During this time Western diplomats brought the doctrines of Aquinas to the courts of Byzantium, and Christian missionaries carried Aquinas’s writings to the Middle East, India, and China.    

Thomism also played a major role in Catholic debates with the Protestant Reformers. Thomist theses shaped the Catholic Counter-Reformation inspired by the Council of Trent. At the same time, half a world away, Thomist thinkers in the New World defended the humanity of the native peoples against the deprecations of some European settlers. From these stout defenses of the natives’ dignity emerged theories of human rights and international law that hold sway even today. A statue of Francisco de Vitoria (1492–1546), a leading figure of the Thomist School of Salamanca, stands in the gardens of the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

The wars of religion in the seventeenth century, the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, and the Napoleonic wars in the nineteenth century adversely affected Thomist teachers. Numbers and institutions fell into decline. In 1879, however, Pope Leo XIII called for the restoration of the study of St. Thomas in all Catholic schools and universities. Leo’s decree bore its fruit in the early twentieth century, when Thomist scholars could be found worldwide wrestling with the philosophical, theological, and political questions of the day. Thomist intellectuals helped to draft the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the report of Quebec’s Tremblay Commission. Thomist theologians participated in the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, which canonized the theological method of St. Thomas in its decree on the formation of priests: “In order that students may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, they should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas.”  During his twenty-eight-year implementation of the Council, Pope John Paul II took this decree to heart, not only placing a Thomist stamp on own brand of personalist thought but also applying Aquinas’s doctrines to critical discussions of theology and morality. Citations of Aquinas appear in the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Thomism today remains a vibrant force in the intellectual world. It continues to attract young adherents from a variety of academic disciplines. Through centers of Thomistic study in countries around the globe—including Chile, Argentina, France, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, Poland, China, Australia, Canada, and the United States—Thomist intellectuals engage the best of contemporary thought. The Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C., for example, organizes philosophical and theological discussions on secular campuses around the country. It also houses a project to develop a Thomistic understanding of evolution. Elsewhere, Thomist thinkers have taken the lead in the renewal of virtue ethics. In Europe, the Thomist principles of Jacques Maritain’s Christian democracy continue to influence numerous political parties.

Thomism boasts a proud tradition. Its pursuit of wisdom has guided Christian thinking for eight centuries. Under the glaring gaze of its naysayers—and under the spotlights of the national media—the Thomism is ready for its close-up.

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