Questions Answered

Question: I would like to study the problem of universal ideas in Thomas Aquinas.  Can you give me some insight into understanding this problem, and some sources on how to research this problem in Catholic authors?

Answer: Pope Benedict is famous for his statement that the modern world is characterized by the “dictatorship of relativism.”  This relativism even afflicts the Church because of a lack of authentic philosophy.  If one thinks that by reason one cannot arrive at universal, objective truth, it is absurd to maintain that such truths are taught in religion.  It is a heresy to maintain that faith and reason can teach contradictory truths with both being correct because they both have their origin in God.

The solution to the problem of universals vexed the ancient world and, unfortunately, as a result of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, continues to vex the modern world.  In the ancient world, the first philosophers in Greece were naturalists.  They went out into the physical world to try to explain it by discovering its causes.  They wondered why things were the way they were.  However, they were also materialists and so, though they experienced knowledge in the senses, they could not get beyond them.  Plato and Socrates discovered substance and the form which they understood through universals.  They discovered ideas.  However, they had trouble with just what to do with the body and the senses, and held them to be illusions.

Aristotle gave the true solution to knowing universals, which eventually was adopted by Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic Church.  Knowledge comes through the senses.  But because of the spiritual soul, it is enlightened and interpreted into universal ideas or “concepts.”  The concept, or universal idea, is a middle ground through which the thinking person participates in other things, including material individuals.  A concept of an apple is universal and idealistic, but if it truly expresses what separates an apple from an orange, then it is real and objective.  By it, the thinker actually experiences union with all individual apples which have existed, do exist, or will exist, and what sets them off from oranges.

Modern thinking is heavily influenced by Descartes and Kant, both of whom separated sense experience from universal ideas.  For Descartes, sense knowledge was confusing and unreliable, and so ideas were simply the product of the subject.  For Kant, there was no real substance in things, but the thinking person cast a web of understanding from his spiritual soul around the thing, and made it an object of understanding.  Thus, all knowledge became subjective, especially the knowledge of things like God.  God was unknowable through sense knowledge, but existed because the subject needed him to exist, and so in a certain sense, human ideas created truth, apart from objective experience, in the five senses.

The Catholic Church met this relativism by continuing to maintain that true abstract ideas are not the creation of the subject, or simply the knower experiencing his own thoughts which have no necessary relation to the world outside him.  The idea which is universal is such because it occurs in a spiritual soul, but it is real and objective because it truly allows the knower to expand his world and participate in the world outside him as it really is.  Good explanations of the problem of universals can be found in Ralph McInerny, Thomas Aquinas, in William Wallace, Elements of Philosophy, and in Edward Feser, Aquinas.


Question:  Who has the authority to remove and replace heads of Catholic universities when the university is causing scandal among believers and non-believers? Who is responsible before God to correct such a situation?

Answer:  The Code of Canon Law is very clear on the answer to this question.  One can find the practice of the Church on this subject explained in Canons 807-821.  Basically it can be summarized with several points.

First, the university itself is an institution of ecclesiastical origin in the Middle Ages as, for example, Paris and Oxford.  The distinction between Catholic and Protestant, or the secular university, is a product of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  The Code makes a further distinction between Catholic and ecclesiastical universities.  The 1983 Code bases this distinction on the purposes of these schools, and on the subjects taught.  Ecclesiastical universities are specifically devoted only to those subjects which affect the Catholic faith, such as philosophy, theology, and canon law.  Catholic universities are primarily devoted to the secular subjects.  The origin of subjects affecting the study of religion, in both types of universities, is based on a share in the teaching authority of the Church.

The Church has the right to establish and to govern universities which serve to promote the deeper culture and fuller development of the human person, and to complement the Church’s own teaching office. (Canon 897)

Second, as a result of their origin and purpose, “No university, even it if is in fact Catholic, may bear the title ‘Catholic university’ except by the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority.” (Canon 808)  Since the Catholic university is an extension of the munus docendi (office of teaching) of the Church, it is the responsibility of the bishops to ensure that teachers of theology are not only qualified, but also teach Catholic doctrine.  Unlike the Pope, or the college of bishops, these university teachers do not define doctrine; they merely communicate, or deepen the understanding of the faithful about doctrine already defined.  They are not a competing Magisterium. For example, they do not write or define the Creed, but seek to explain what is taught in the Creed to the faithful.

In Catholic universities, it is the duty of the competent statutory authority to ensure that there be appointed teachers who are not only qualified in scientific and pedagogical expertise, but are also outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and uprightness of life.  If these requirements are found to be lacking, it is also that authority’s duty to see to it that these teachers are removed from office, in accordance with the procedure determined in the statutes.  (Canon 810, 1)

So there are two necessary requirements for professors directly concerned with the faith: competence and fidelity to Catholic teaching.  This is reflected in Gravissimum educationis, the Declaration on Christian Education of October, 28, 1965.

Indeed, in the institutions under its control the Church endeavors systematically to ensure that the treatment of the individual disciplines is consonant with their own principles, their own methods, and with a true liberty of scientific enquiry.  Its object is that a progressively deeper understanding of them may be achieved, and by a careful attention to the current problems of these changing times and to the research undertaken, the convergence of faith and reason in the one truth may be seen more clearly.  This method follows the tradition of the doctors of the Church and especially St. Thomas Aquinas. (10)

Lastly, the mandate of the Church is primarily implemented by making a profession of faith to defend Catholic doctrine on the part of professors of theology.  This is the same oath that all those who enjoy ecclesiastical authority are to take.

{I}n the presence of the local Ordinary or his delegate: parish priests; the rector, professors of theology, and philosophy in seminaries, at the beginning of their term of office … in the presence of the Chancellor or, in the absence of the Chancellor, the local Ordinary, or the delegates of either: the rector of an ecclesiastical or catholic university, at the beginning of the term of office; in the presence of the rector if he is a priest, or the local Ordinary or the delegates of either: those who in any universities teach subjects which deal with faith or morals, at the beginning of their term of office.  (Canon 833, 6, 7)

The answer to your question should be clear from these points.  Since in all Catholic faculties, the teaching of theology is an extension of the ministry of the Apostles to help people understand truths of faith from revelation, the Bishops are responsible to ensure that this doctrine is faithfully taught and preserved.  They do not directly interfere in faculties, but they can certainly withdraw their mandate, or refuse to give it, if the teaching of the faith is not observed.  If the professors, or schools, refuse to obtain the mandate, or implement the profession of faith, then there is no other recourse than the Holy See.

So, in ecclesiastical universities, the statutes must be approved by the Holy See. (Canon 816)  In Catholic universities, only the theological faculty must be subject to Church authority.  In both cases, the authority of the Church is guaranteed by a mandate given by competent Church authority. (Canon 812)  This is the diocesan bishop and the Bishops’ Conference.

The Bishops’ Conference and the diocesan Bishops concerned have the duty and right of seeing to it that, in these universities, the principles of catholic doctrine are faithfully observed. (Canon 810, 2)

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. From the answer to the second question, we’d have to say that the bishops in the US have been WOEFULLY negligent in their duty. So sad.