Duns Scotus and the richness of Catholic theology

Peter Simpson writes at Commonweal

In the years before Vatican II a young man named Anthony Kenny entered the priesthood after studies in England and Rome. Some years later—but still before Vatican II—increasing doubts induced him to leave the priesthood. His doubts were about various things, but he relates a particular doubt…

Perhaps Scotus’s answer isn’t the only or best answer. Perhaps Thomas’s position too could be finessed or developed in order to produce another answer. The key point remains: an answer needs to be found, and if one possibility is ignored simply because it is not from the work of Thomas, how could that not hinder the church’s theological training? An exclusivist Thomism, which foreswears the teaching of non-Thomist theologizing, is a problem the church still needs to confront.

The most famous difference between Scotus and Thomas is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Scotus got right and Thomas got wrong….

Now if Scotus’s arguments are fully weighed and set alongside those of Thomas, it is quite possible that Thomas himself would have agreed that Scotus was right. In fact, one suspects that Thomas, and others like Bonaventure, would really have been glad to say Mary was immaculately conceived. They were just unable to see how to make it work. But what happened when Scotus first defended the Immaculate Conception? He was attacked and condemned, especially by Dominicans. His defense, however, was so penetrating, powerful, and decisive that belief in the doctrine had become almost universal in the church long before Pius IX made it the church’s official teaching. Indeed, only the Dominicans seem to have opposed the doctrine—in deference, one presumes, to Thomas—and some of them, though by no means all, apparently went on doing so almost to the end. But it was not Thomas himself or even Thomism per se that could induce one to go on rejecting the Immaculate Conception even after Scotus’s comprehensive solution. It was an exclusivist Thomism.

For my claim is not that we should prefer Scotus to Thomas, or Thomas to Scotus. My claim is, rather, that we should restore a just sense of the richness of the church’s theological patrimony. Thomism is not Catholicism, neither is Scotism. They are like other positions in the church (such as Karol Wojtyła’s phenomenological personalism) that are not of the faith—or de fide, as they say—but are compatible with the faith. Let us be free to enjoy them, and not let exclusivist Thomism stand in our way or generate perplexities that a more open-minded orthodoxy could easily resolve.

6 Responses

  1. I’ve been reading with interest some of your other posts on problems both pre- and post-Vatican II too. The trouble is, as far as I can see:

    1) Thinking critically is really, really hard, and teaching how to think critically doubly hard. It is much harder than learning the Summa from memory. In fact, in my experience, sad to say, most with advanced degrees in Thomistic philosophy or theology are horrible critical thinkers with holes in their reasoning one could drive a truck through. Was there anything of the sort taught in seminary? No. The Popes who thought “ite ad Thoma” would be the simple answer to all modern problems were simply, 100% wrong. The fact of the matter is they were beginning to lose the debates, which the anti-Modernists naively believed could be simply solved with an appeal to authority.

    2) It’s a very fine line between defense of orthodoxy and perpetration of groupthink, and in fact defense of orthodoxy provides cover for many far from admirable traits in humans – heavy-handed denunciations, over-confidence in one’s reasoning (either not doing homework or else proof-reading and checking), the assumption of evil intent in everyone who disagrees with you, lack of intellectual honesty, and so on. It much reminds me of the Left after losing the 2016 election – it had nothing whatsoever to do with anything they did but was all the fault of racist, misogynist, this”ist” and that”ist” America.

  2. Excellent article. I saw a similar thought being well made in a chapter in Sire’s phoenix from the ashes, he referred to it as Thomistic integralism

  3. Have you read Feser’s new book on philosophy of nature yet?

    As for the substance of the article, I’m all in favour of reading more Scotus, but the two examples brought up of where Scotus might supposedly be right while Thomas might be wrong (resurrection of animals and conversion of immaterial intellects) seem to me particularly weak.

  4. Would it be churlish of me to note that Kenny became an apostate? Perhaps less thought about thought, more action on Man’s sinfulness.

  5. “Aristotle’s Revenge”? I have read it. I am sympathetic to the overall project but disagree with most of Feser’s particular claims. I’m thinking of writing a book review on it at the Orthosphere, perhaps after I’ve finished another couple of philosophy of science book reviews here.

  6. I would distinguish seminary training for priests from the training appropriate for professional scholastic philosophers. There’s no reason priests must be particularly adept at critical or speculative thinking. Aspiring priests probably have no special aptitude or interest in such things, which is probably for the best. Their job is the sacraments. A philosopher, of course, must be be familiar with alternative schools of thought and understand them as their adherents do. (Usually, this means reading primary sources.) They should also be trained in modern logic and much else besides.

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