By: Fr. Robert Mann, SCJ
There can be no disguising the fact that for Catholics serious about their faith the almost daily stream of ambiguous and dangerous words and actions emanating from this Papacy give good cause for alarm. Not that there was no cause for concern with previous post-Conciliar Popes. However, in these times, the revolution has moved up a gear with almost no pretence of disguising the ultimate goal of bringing “irreversible changes” to the Catholic Church in terms of attitudes to doctrine and universal disciplines intrinsically bound up with that doctrine.
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in all of this is that the vast majority of Catholics for the most part do not seem to care about doctrinal departure from the Church of the past or are not even aware of the catastrophe unfolding at the heart of the Church. The great majority of clergy and people seem quite happy to go along with the Modernist program. They are welcoming of the ‘new attitudes’ – especially the rebooted ecumenical thrust, with its disregard for defined dogma and, of course, the new attitude to morality with it’s “Who am I to judge?” approach.
There will be others of course who are troubled but feel powerless and unable to articulate an adequate response to the intended “remodelling” of the Catholic Faith. As for those most obviously opposed – if you were to include all traditional Catholics, of one stripe or another, who do care about the disastrous state of affairs, in terms of numbers they would be a small proportion indeed of the entire Catholic population.
It seems then that over the last few decades the Catholic mind has been slowly eroded. It has become a ghost of itself. It bears some outward resemblence to what it once was, it holds on to some remnants of Catholic belief and practice but in reality it has come to accept that truth is relative. What would have been repugnant not so long ago is now acceptable to most who call themselves Catholic. The Catholic mind has been “disarmed”, and this has been in process over the last fifty years or more.
It is this issue of “disarming” to which I want to draw attention. I am thinking especially of this in relation to the priesthood, for it seems to me that in that time the Catholic priesthood has “morphed” into something quite different, from an understanding of priesthood as primarily sacrificial in character to something more akin to a Protestant ministerial functioning. What are the causes of this change? Well, I am sure we can all identify many but there is one I particulary want to identify and that is the abandonment of Thomist philosophy and theology in the seminaries and Catholic educational establishments.
When I was studying for the priesthood in the late seventies and early eighties, and during later postgraduate studies, the theological sources were people like Rahner, Schillebeeckx, de Lubac, Congar and a host of others along with a growing North American school. (There was also the Canadian Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan – he appeared at first sight to be of quite a different shade from the others, at least in his early writings, but ultimately he seemed to go the way of all the others in terms of the Catholic Faith).
By my time, the Thomist approach (that is the school of philosophy and theology based on the writings of the great Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas) had been well and truly abandoned. True, there were a few courses on different aspects of the Scholasticism and Thomism here and there but any sense that this was a perennial Philosophical/Theological system (with roots in the best of ancient classical thought) taken up and profoundly shaped by Catholic doctrine over centuries was well and truly lost. It was seen as an archaic intellectual product of a bygone age with little relevance for the modern world.
The contemporary philosophies with their atheistic presuppositions, doubtful of the possibility that the human mind could attain to objective truth, and their focus on the human person and the exaltation of subjectivity and relativism, were now ascendant.
Of course the Church has always made use of the best achievements of human reason while at the same time correcting error and distortions inevitably found in systems of thought; as she did with Plato and Aristotle. For no matter how clever and penetrating they may be they are always the product of a human intellect weakened by the effects of original sin and so liable to a darkening and the influence of the passions.
That is partly why the human mind needs the corrective and transformative power of God’s revelation and supernatural faith if it is to attain to absolute truth free from error and distortion – but it also needs this if it is to approach the truths about God that transcend the natural powers of the mind, truths that can only be known by God revealing them; e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption and so on.
That being said, the new philosophies with their focus on the human person, by and large, had their roots in anti-Catholic thinking coming on the heels of the Reformation and preparing the ground for the French Revolution and all that it spawned. The new starting-point was the human person and subjectivity. This shift has been termed “the anthropological turn to the subject.”
Thomism also dealt with the human person but the major focus was always on the objective reality of God and his Revelation in Christ, known to us through the teaching of the Church. This context prevented such considerations of the human person from spiraling out of control with the consequent danger of exaggerating the human at the expense of the Divine, to the extent that the human person becomes the measure of all.
By abandoning the most potent system of Catholic thought ever attained, the clergy became vulnerable and ultimately overpowered by the new thinking. They were left with no effective means to evaluate and critique what humanistic thinkers threw at them. The best defence that could be mustered in the face of an attack against Catholic doctrine was often a fuzzy mushy appeal to God’s “luv,” but there was little powerful intellectual challenge offered in response.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you ever heard or saw a Catholic theologian or philosopher, or priest on the media defend ably and robustly the Catholic Faith? Do you ever hear priests in Novus Ordo parishes give solid doctrinal sermons anymore? Not many, I bet. Many no doubt will have gone along with the “party line” because they have virtually abandoned the Faith, but no doubt there are many others who, though uncomfortable with the present state of affairs in the Church, feel unable and ill-equipped to join the fray.
You see, the great advantage and power of Thomism was that it was razor sharp and unashamedly asserted the ability of the human intellect to grasp reality objectively. It provided the most powerful vehicle for conveying the truths of the Catholic Faith and integrating these beautifully with the best that the human intellect had to offer.
If theology (as St. Anselm defined it) is “faith seeking understanding,” then there can be no doubt that this system of Catholic thought which allowed the human intellect, formed by Revelation and aided by divine grace, to penetrate the mysteries of the Divine Essence in a way never before seen or achieved since, must be reckoned as one of the greatest achievements of Christian and indeed of human civilization. To abandon such an intellectual patrimony was true folly and a great deprivation indeed.
The pre-Vatican II Popes time and again insisted on the value of retaining Thomism in the education of priests. Just to give one example, Pope Pius XII writing in 1950 states:
It is not surprising that the Church will have her future priests brought up on a philosophy which ‘derives its conceptualization, doctrine and basic principles from the Angelic Doctor’ (C.I.C., canon 1366, n. 2). One thing is clearly established by the long experience of the ages – that St. Thomas’ philosophical system is an unrivalled method, whether for conducting the beginner through his early steps, or for the investigation of the most recondite truths; moreover, that his teaching seems to chime in, by a kind of pre-established harmony, with divine revelation – no surer way to safeguard the first principles of the faith, and turn the results of later healthy development to good advantage. Deplorable, that a philosophy thus recognized and received by the Church, should, in our day, be treated by some minds with contempt.” (Humani Generis)
My contention is that the abandonment of this superior Catholic thought stripped priests (and consequently laity by a trickle down effect) of the ability to adequately expound and defend the Faith. They were intellectually disarmed. Without this powerful weapon they were like soldiers in a battlefield without ammunition. Their ability to teach the Faith robustly, to engage with those who honestly sought the truth, and to attract those who would be drawn to the intellectual power and beauty of Catholic truth, evaporated over time and a weak, insipid, limp mindset appeared in which objective truth was elusive and relative at best.
Thomism, with its precise doctrine of “Being” and its constituent principles of potency and act, essence and existence, matter and form, substance and accidents, the reality of cause and effect, categories that helped provide an unrivaled explanatory power for the expounding the truth of Catholic doctrine: all this was swept away in favour of a tortured personalist language of subjectivity, experience, encounter, inclusivity, and relativism.
The consequences ultimately have been catastrophic. We now have generations of clergy who for the most part are strangers to that Catholic intellectual tradition. Not only are they alien to it, but actively hostile and dismissive of it. The contemporary person-centered philosophies now shape and form their minds and attitudes; faith and moral issues tend to be relativised and the attainment of objective truth is at best an elusive ideal.
The disarming of the Catholic mind (amidst other causes) begun in Catholic seminaries and educational institutions all those decades ago has slowly wrought its havoc. Thus in our times the successor of Peter can publicly make known his support for the admission of the divorced and “remarried” to Holy Communion, and more recently state his intention to attend a ceremony commemorating the Reformation, during which a prayer will be offered thanking God for the “gifts” that this disastrous Revolt brought to the Church, and this will not cause so much as a stir among the vast majority of priests and laity.
Not so long ago the Catholic mind would have recoiled in horror at such a prospect. It would have been seen as impossible that a true Pope would ever endorse such anti-Catholic acts, but now for a great many, its not such a big deal.
Truly, something catastrophic has befallen the Church, a spiritual and intellectual darkening has descended. The true Catholic mind can see straightaway that if the doctrines and universal disciplines taught authoritatively by successive pre-Conciliar Popes no longer hold and are binding no more on the Catholic conscience, then it would mean you could never trust the Catholic Church again on anything, because if it was wrong then on these core doctrines and consequent disciplines, why can’t it be wrong now and in the future on all other doctrines and disciplines? Why trust such an institution that could get these matters that pertain to salvation so badly wrong and with such unjust and tragic consequences for people?
The erosion of Catholic thinking goes a long way to explaining why, in the face of all the doctrinal and intellectual chaos so rampant in the “New Church,” so few Catholics even bat an eyelid at the damage done to the Faith and consequently to souls by the words and actions that continue to flow from the highest authorities in the Church. They are virtually powerless to react.
Indeed the seeds were sown many decades ago in the Conciliar documents as others have documented. What we are witnessing now is the next stage in the revolution, a stage that now seems in a hurry to shake-off the vestiges of Catholicism that still remain. Thus the Thomist system with its focus on the objective truth of the Catholic Faith had to go; it was too Catholic, it could have no role in the construction of the “New Church,” with its new ecumenical design in doctrine and liturgy.
It was despised by the Modernists and its demise had to be achieved if the new faith and moral order were to be attained. And so it came to be, and now we are living in the doctrinal and liturgical wastelands they have created, and sad to say our Church leaders have no remedy but to provide more of the same.
Yet the Catholic mind is directed towards objective truth, and even in the midst of this time of terrible tribulation, for however long it takes, those who hold fast to the true Catholic Faith will always find in that great Thomist intellectual tradition a great treasury of Catholic thought and a powerful instrument in winning minds and hearts for Christ.