A Thomist’s Perspective on the Church in Crisis

Editor’s note: in this far-ranging and prophetic interview with Crisis Magazine, Josef Pieper discusses the vocations crisis, the failure of catechesis, liberation theology, feminism, and something very much like the Benedict Option. The interview originally appeared in the March 1990 print edition of Crisis. It has been edited for brevity.

Crisis: Some people claim that St. Thomas is the apostle for our era. They say he is the person we must turn to in order to solve the problems of contemporary culture. Others claim that St. Thomas was meant to be an important voice in the Church prior to Vatican II and that the neo-Thomistic revival brought with it some good things, but now there is a new era in the Church and we don’t need to rely on St. Thomas as much as before. What do you think?

Pieper: It depends on what you want to learn from St. Thomas. What I have always been interested in is what idea of man he has: not what he thinks a man should do, but what a man should be.

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I started my work on St. Thomas with a treatise on fortitude because of the Nazis and their wrong idea of fortitude and heroism. For them, the symbolic figure of fortitude was the conqueror and the muscleman. I said no, the proper symbolic figure is the martyr—the man who is ready to die if necessary for his faith.

Do you think that it is necessary for theology today to take a less historical approach? Would this make it less of a soft discipline and more the kind of deep, demanding, and rigorous pursuit it was in the middle ages and for St. Thomas? Would this help to restore it to its place as the queen of the sciences?

Josef Pieper: Yes, it is all a matter of what kinds of topics are preferred and what is taught. One of my students wrote me that he had been studying theology for ten years and never heard one lecture on what a priest is. The priesthood, the nature of the sacraments, what happens in the Mass—these are the things that must be taught.

I asked one of my female students if she knew what a sacrament is. She said no. I asked her what kind of theology book she had in the Catholic school run by nuns that she attended. It turned out that in that book there was no definition of sacrament.

I went to my bishop and pointed this out, and he told me to look at the curriculum of the theology faculty in the University of Münster. There are not any lectures on the sacraments. How are students supposed to learn this?

Today, there is feminist theology and liberation theology, but there is nothing said about what happens in the consecration of the Eucharist, what happens in baptism, what occurs in the absolution from sin, or for that matter, what sin is and why one should and even must go to the sacrament of penance. Today, I have little affinity with what my colleagues in theology are doing.

The pope has been speaking much lately about the need to re-evangelize culture in Europe and in the West. What strikes you as something that needs to be done in this regard?

The answer, I think, lies in communities. I once asked Cardinal Jean Danielou about this and he agreed. Small communities: they, not full churches on Sunday, will be the salvation of the Church. Groups like Schonstaat, Opus Dei, Focolare, and Communione e Liberazione. Cardinal Danielou also thought that groups like these were the hope of the Church, and, as I understand what the pope is doing, he is encouraging the growth and development of smaller and very dedicated communities of men and women like these.

From your perspective as a university professor do you see anything in particular that needs to be done, say with students, in the work of re-evangelizing culture? How do you work at this goal in your own sphere of action?

Yes, given a subject matter that would help students come to a better knowledge of their faith, I pursue a unique approach to instructing students. Instead of teaching systematic philosophy in the courses I offer—for example, a course on the notion of sin philosophically considered, or courses on various topics in the thought of St. Thomas—I tell lots of stories. Storytelling, I think, is an excellent way to convey philosophic insights. My students joke with me that I am continually telling stories, but they encourage me to continue because they, too, find it a good form of instruction.

Do you have any sense what students entering a university today need most?

What they need most is community with a teacher who tells stories—not any kind of stories, but the right stories pertinent to the subject at hand. I usually teach whatever subject my students ask me to, in small classes where everyone knows everyone else. I also make an effort to relate abstract philosophic speculation, say about the nature of love, to concrete, normal situations of day-to-day life.

If I should make a proposal for the reformation of the university today, I would reinstitute the old medieval disputatio as an obligatory element of university life. By disputatio I mean disputation between different faculties, different departments, and different individuals in those departments and faculties. For a short time, we had something like this in the University of Munich. A Catholic youth club organized a symposium for several hundred students on the topic “Liberty or Determinism?” I participated in this seminar with a neurologist, a neo-Darwinist, and others, and we were not fighting but discussing through free argumentation.

I think something like this should take place within the university and be organized by it. Then somewhat spontaneously a kind of universalism will come about where the whole of reality will come into sight. So disputatio is my suggestion for the renovation of the university, but, of course, no one has accepted my suggestion yet. Every department now speaks its own language, and even within departments, this restricting specialization has become a problem.

A friend of mine was recently at a seminary down in Guadalajara, Mexico, where there were over 2,000 seminarians. In the U.S., though, and in Western Europe, there is a serious shortage of vocations to the priesthood. To what would you attribute this, and what do you think is necessary for this situation to change?

No one knows for certain. Family life, I think, is the answer: prayer at meals, going to Mass together (when my children were young we had five bicycles and we would all ride together to Church) reading together aloud stories of the saints. I feel that these are some of the fundamentals.

Is this, then, what is missing in countries in the West that have so few vocations?

It has at least very much to do with this. When you ask a priest how he entered the priesthood, every second one, I think, will tell you, his mother or his father, or some other human being—not books.


  • Josef Pieper

    Josef Pieper (1904 – 1997) was a German Catholic philosopher at the forefront of the Thomistic Revival of the 20th century. In 1981, he was awarded the prestigious Balzan Prize in Philosophy. Among his most notable works are Leisure: the Basis of Culture, The Four Cardinal Virtues, and Contemplation and Happiness.

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