A Genuine “Return to Thomas”

BY KNOWLEDGE AND BY LOVE. By Michael S. Sherwin, O.P. (The Catholic University of America Press, P.O. Box 50370, Baltimore, Md. 21211, 2005), xxiii + 270 pp. HB $54.95.

There are two problems that have beset Thomistic philosophy and theology in the decades following the close of the Second Vatican Council, and it is difficult to decide which is the graver of the two. The first, and more general, is the virtual wholesale abandonment of Thomism on the part of our Catholic colleges, universities, and seminaries. The second is what appears to be almost a systematic misreading of St. Thomas on the part of certain philosophers and theologians. The explanation for this second problem is not easily to be had. Is it perhaps simply the inevitable result of the abandonment of Thomism in our schools, so that we have a situation in which ill-educated scholars are doing their best with what they have, but is what they have not adequate to the task to which they devote themselves? Or is it the case that the misreading is the outcome of presuppositions that blind the readers to the text that is right in front of their eyes?

What makes the second explanation the more likely one, in most of the instances we have to deal with, is the uncanny consonance that eventuates between a particular misinterpretation of St. Thomas and the known presuppositions of the misinterpreters. Let us suppose a situation where a theologian is promoting views that are either directly contrary to the teachings of the Church, or which represent a pronounced twisting of those views. He could not reasonably expect, not even in the confused climate of opinion in which we live today, that his dissenting views are going to be warmly received. What then to do? One expedient is to elicit the support of traditional authority figures, and, given the towering stature of St. Thomas Aquinas, what more formidable authority figure would you want than the Universal Doctor of the Church? So, not a few dissenting or deviating theologians have made the claim that they have in St. Thomas someone who shares their views. The ploy is a bold one, but it invariably fails, for the interpretation of Thomistic texts that are put forward by these interpreters is simply not supported by the texts themselves.

By Knowledge & By Love is a heartening response to both of the problems cited above. In the first place, the book must stand as another piece of evidence, and weighty evidence indeed, that we are experiencing a genuine “return to Thomas” within the world of Catholic scholarship. The book is a carefully composed and detailed explication of a key aspect of St. Thomas’s moral thought—the precise relation between intellect and will in human action. But it is more than that. Fr. Sherwin, besides giving us an accurate and comprehensive account of St. Thomas’s thought on this important subject, and doing so with admirable clarity and control, accompanies that account with commentary which is richly interlaced with revealing and cogent analysis.

I take the most valuable aspect of the book to be its direct and pointed response to some of the more serious recent misinterpretations of St. Thomas’s moral theology, specifically as pertaining to his thought on the relation between intellect and will. After carefully reviewing the interpretations of a group of theologians he identifies as the theologians of moral motivation, Fr. Sherwin next examines a wide array of pertinent Thomistic texts and then, after some judicious comparing and contrasting, he demonstrates clearly, indeed emphatically, that there is in fact no consonance between what these interpreters say St. Thomas is saying, and what St. Thomas himself, unambiguously, is actually saying.

The theologians of moral motivation, which includes such figures as Karl Rahner, Josef Fuchs, and James Keenan—a group to whom we owe that remarkable invention called the fundamental option—take the basic position that, in moral action, will takes precedence over intellect, and for that reason they can be fairly described as voluntarist. In effect, these moralists attempt to rule reason out of moral behavior. Reason, for them, has to do with what is right, not with what is good. The pursuit of the good is, of course, the whole purpose of the moral life, but as these moralists view things, it is only will, or charity, that can attain the good, and a charity that somehow manages to be antecedent to, and independent of, practical reason. But if this is true, then “moral man” is only half a man, an uninformed Will. Charity, for Josef Fuchs, is “striving for self-realization,” a wide-open description which allows us to make charity mean whatever we want it to mean. What we have here, in a supposed moral theology, is not just the triumph of theory over practice, but the trivialization of practice. We are not surprised to discover, then, that for these moralists concrete actions, the real stuff of virtue and vice, assume an almost marginal importance, in contrast to the centrality of one’s basic orientation toward vague goals such as “self-realization.” It doesn’t so much matter what you do, just so long as you have the right attitude.

The specific way by which the theologians of moral motivation attempt to garner Thomistic support for their position is by arguing that there is in St. Thomas a peculiar development of his moral thought, to the effect that, in his mature writings, we discover that he effectively demotes the role of reason in moral behavior (which he had emphasized in earlier writings), and gives primacy of place to will, or charity. In other words, St. Thomas assumes just the position which is being advocated by the theologians of moral motivation. Now, this represents such an egregious misreading of St. Thomas that one can only marvel at the remarkable patience and charitywith which Fr. Sherwin responds to it.

Fr. Sherwin argues that there is, to be sure, a detectable maturation process to be detected in St. Thomas’s thought, and a discontinuity of sorts, if you will; but the more prominent, indeed I think we can say the commanding, feature of St. Thomas’s thought is its incontestable continuity on just this issue, a continuity which, for whatever reason, the theologians of moral motivation seem quite oblivious to. Bringing together an abundance of pertinent textual evidence, Fr. Sherwin shows conclusively that throughout St. Thomas’s thought, early and late, he is consistently expressing the key idea that “at every stage in practical reasoning intellect and will work together to shape reason’s practical judgments.” And he shows that there is definitely no trace in St. Thomas’s thought of his having somehow side-lined intellect (i.e., practical reasoning), and given primacy of place to will. St. Thomas was no voluntarist. “Far from disengaging charity and the will from practical reasoning,” Fr. Sherwin writes, “Aquinas in his mature thought effects a work of deeper integration at every level of human psychology.”

Given the vaporous, indeterminate understanding of charity fostered by the theologians of moral motivation (by which it is divorced from knowledge) how, Fr. Sherwin asks in a spirit of consummate common sense, can charity be considered to be a virtue at all—a virtue that must perforce relate to other virtues—for there can be no coherent understanding of virtue which attempts to cut it off from knowledge? On the human level, we only love what we know, and the waxing or waning of love accompanies the increase or diminishment of the knowledge we have of the loved object. Certainly we cannot suppose to be possessed of true charity if it is not informed by an adequate knowledge of its object, which, ultimately, is of course God himself. Much play is given to the notion of freedom in the writings of the theologians of moral motivation, but it suffers from the same severe limitation as does their notion of charity, and this draws Fr. Sherwin’s apposite observation that “this freedom becomes so elusive and difficult to identify that it ceases to be recognizable as freedom.”

By Knowledge & By Love is a sound and substantive book. Besides being in its own right an impressive and valuable contribution to Thomistic scholarship, by devoting attention to an important and timely aspect of St. Thomas’s moral theology, it performs the very important service of correcting serious misinterpretations of the Angelic Doctor’s thought. And by doing that it also contributes appreciably, on a broader scale, to the growing and much needed reaction to the kind of loose and wandering reasoning that in recent decades we have seen altogether too much of in moral theology. It is books like this which will lead us back to the lucidity and stability of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Dennis Q. McInerny
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary
Denton, Nebr.

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