“Go Read Your Thomas”

Last year, Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, edited a magnificent book entitled O Rare Ralph McInerny: Stories and Reflections on a Legendary Notre Dame Professor. The book is a collection of essays written by former friends, colleagues, acquaintances, strangers, and novel-readers that knew the remarkable and beloved professor at Our Lady’s university. It is difficult not to read the stories and remembrances of a man that was truly noteworthy in every sense of the word. His saintly disposition spills over into every memorable word shared. Husband, father, philosopher, mystery writer, dissertation director exemplar, essayist, and poet were just a few of the many hats that McInerny wore.

In the Introduction, Kaczor recalls telling his mother about Ralph’s funeral service and the many endeavors that permeated his life. “Is there anything this man didn’t do” was her response, and what an appropriate one indeed. The multi-faceted tasks of Ralph were not the result of a divided man spread thin by his duties. Rather, it was the depth and love of his Catholic faith that revealed a zeal for everything he did (and might one say completed).

Along with his success as mystery writer, McInerny is best known for his devotion to St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was the model philosopher for McInerny, and following the likes of 20th century Thomists such as Maritain, Gilson, Fabro, and DeKonick, he wanted the world (and the Church) to see the necessity of this man and his thought. When McInerny realized his vocation as a philosopher to help restore Catholic philosophy to its motto of philosophandum in fide, Aquinas was already starting to fall out of favor. Thomism was seemingly archaic, meant to be left in the museum of Catholic philosophical and theological history. Catholic universities were hoping to become worthy competitors to the rising secular research university. The Catholic university, so it was thought, was wearily dragging behind in that ambiguous category of “excellence”. The faith was the heavy cargo weighing the ship down from staying afloat and prospering. The Catholic patrimony was (and still is) being dismantled. As a result, St. Thomas was one of the first cargo to be thrown off ship.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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In his classic work Thomism in an Age of Renewal, McInerny traces the intellectual climate that led up to the abandonment of Aquinas by Catholic philosophers. All the popes from Leo XIII up to Benedict XVI have recommended that Catholics, particularly Catholic philosophers and theologians, turn to St. Thomas Aquinas. While the reasons for this are quite numerous,  I would like to briefly mention and explicate four that align with current themes that adequately detail the current decline of modernity.

Pope John Paul II remarked in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, that all men are “implicitly philosophers.” Man is the kind of being who seeks to engage in intellectual inquiry because this is definitive of his nature, of the kind of being that he is. This is reminiscent of Aristotle’s remark in the beginning of his Metaphysics that “all men desire to know.” We seek to know the truth about God, the world we inhabit, and of course, ourselves. Our inquiry manifestly expresses itself in the language we speak. The fact that all men are philosophers rests upon the fact their exists an “implicit philosophy,” a body of knowledge that is the patrimony of not some particular philosophic system, but the entirety of the human race. These truths are implicit, as the Pope notes, because they are antecedent to and discernible in each philosophy, even though many philosophers and so-called intellectuals have forgotten and even reject them outright. The project of modern philosophy since the time of Descartes has been simply to call into question any person’s antecedent beliefs or predispositions and claim them to be antithetical to any mode of genuine intellectual discovery.

Following Aquinas, John Paul mentions those elements which constitute this implicit philosophy: the principle of non-contradiction, finality, causality, the human person as free and intelligent, man’s capacity to know God, goodness, and truth, and knowledge of fundamental moral norms. By “principle” is meant the very beginning or foundation of knowledge by which things are known as such, per se (in themselves). The mark of a principle is that it cannot be reasoned to. Knowledge of the principle of non-contradiction is not demonstrable, but is seen only through what is called the reductio. To affirm that something could be both true and false at the same time and in the same manner would require one to show how this could be the case without falling into absurdity and incoherence, and thereby calling into question the very purpose and meaning of language. The philosophizing according to St. Thomas is such that there are certain truths, known per se, that all men know prior to their explicit philosophy. This is why Chesterton called Aquinas’ philosophy nothing other than “Common Sense.”

A second reason for the Church’s assertion of St. Thomas as philosopher and theologian exemplar builds upon the first point: what St. Thomas taught was true. The end of the mind is to conform itself to reality. This was St. Thomas’ definition of truth. We conform ourselves to what is. With the advancements of modern science and technology, man has sought to manipulate reality to be conformed to the image of himself. It is we who become the arbiters of what is true, good, lawful, or evil. Chesterton remarked that reason is a tremendous act of faith because, through it, we profess that we know that which is outside of the mind. We not only know it, but we know that which is outside of us is truly there. For Thomas, we do not so much concern ourselves with who said what particular truth, but whether or not what was said was in fact true. St. Thomas affirms what is true because that is the purpose and delight of the human intellect, whether the source of its knowledge is reason or something that exceeds the finitude of the mind, i.e., revelation.

St. Augustine noted that parents do not send their children to school to learn what the teacher thinks. A former student of mine once posed the following question to me. As we were reviewing a lesson on cell division, she raised her hand and asked: “Mr. Jones, some of the things you just taught came straight from the book.  I don’t want to be here if school solely consists in being graded on what you think about science.” A relevant question that left all in stunned silence, including myself. She was right to think it rather odd for her to come to school everyday, with the extended school hours and grueling hours of homework, just to listen to what this guy has to say. Of course, this is not, as Augustine pointed out, the reason or purpose of education. I am not the one who determines or creates the truths of physics or chemistry, but in a secondary way, can help others discover for themselves the reality of these truths.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain recalls a moving story in his notebooks about a young soldier he once taught in Paris. Pierre Villard, like the young Maritain, was bombarded by the scientific rationalism of 19th century French culture. The idea that man is merely reduced to matter and a composition of biological or physiological interactions that is ultimately meaningless was what led Villard to become so enamored with Maritain, for he perceived in Maritain an internal battle fought and won through the pursuit of wisdom. What drew him to his former professor was the recognition that what this man lived and taught was indeed true, that life in fact was infused with tremendous meaning, and that this discovery was also something for which we could delight in. Villard witnessed precisely what McInerny saw in Maritain at his last public lecture in 1958:

He was a saintly man. That is what I sensed as I scuffled through the leaves on my way   back from Maritain’s last lecture. He loved the truth, but his purpose in life was not to win arguments. He wanted to be wise. Such an odd ambition for a philosopher! He  succeeded because he prayed as well as he studied (Ralph McInerny, Notre Dame Magazine, summer 1985).

This ultimately leads to a third reason for the Church’s recommendation of St. Thomas. In God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre details the departmentalization of the academic disciplines that characterize today’s universities. Professors specialize in their particular academic field to such a degree that they render themselves incapable of providing an overarching synthesis and coherent unity with other branches of learning. Due to their own over specialization, professors pass on to their students this same disorder and lack of integration.  Instead of physics or mathematics being understood as a part of the whole of reality, they become the whole. Aquinas highlighted that if there was no speculative order, a transcendent order which gives a particular discipline its meaning and freedom to be what it is, then eventually something such as politics would become metaphysics. A “bigger picture” question is no longer understood as being relevant.

Following and expanding upon the tradition handed down to him, St. Thomas taught that reality had an intelligible order to it which aligned with our internal knowledge-based development. Modern man is frequently provided with more education than ever before, but seems to understand himself less and less. There is no metaphysical framework that allows us to understand ourselves, the world we are in, how we ought to act, and ultimately, God. College has become the summum bonum for the youth, but it has not proven to be a community that truly helps young people to ask the deepest questions concerning life that make it more authentically human.

This situation is something to which Lumen Gentium so perceptively articulated in its analysis of modern man: “Within the individual person there develops rather frequently an imbalance between an intellect which is modern in practical matters and a theoretical system of thought which can neither master the sum total of its ideas, nor arrange them adequately into a synthesis” (#8).  The philosophy of St. Thomas is a remedy for this societal ill, since Thomas understood that truth is ordered in a unity that leads back to the Truth. The great discoveries of astronomy, molecular biology, help us to understand the world and its workings better. However, these are only a part of a totality that is larger than the parts or effects that we are capable of knowing and synthesizing into a whole that is not, in fact, the result of man’s mind or creation.

Pope Benedict XVI has made it a hallmark of his pontificate to restore what he calls “the rationality of faith.” This was the ultimate, and often misunderstood, purpose of the Holy Father’s remarkable Regensburg Address. A reasonable faith is not something a non-believer would grant to any theist. For the atheist, faith is something blind, irrational, and not put up against a true intellectual backdrop. The scientific discoveries advanced through technology have some how been the knockout punch for the “God question.” Only what is “known” through the natural and experimental sciences are worthy of the evaluative judgment “true.” Any branch of knowledge that does not meet this standard is rejected as a legitimate epistemology. As Stephen Hawking professed in his book Grand Design, the verifiable truth of gravity disproves the existence of God.

How does the believer bridge this gap between “what is known” and “what is believed?” The answer lays in what Aquinas calls the preambula fidei, the preambles of faith. The natural world, from the millions of galaxies to the verities of unicellular and multicellular organisms, reveals an intelligible and creative order. This order reveals truths about God that are knowable by the light of natural reason. That God exists, that He is intelligent, that He is the First Cause of all that is, can be known apart from the aid of Divine Revelation.

St. Thomas distinguishes the truths of Revelation from the truths known to unaided human reason in order to display their complementarity. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II states that faith and reason “are neither mutually exclusive nor completely identical.” The truths of faith, such as the doctrine on the Trinity, or that God became man, cannot be intellectually construed together by someone. They are revealed, and are believed as true because of the One who has revealed them. Revelation not only gives to man a truth unknowable to his reason alone, it also affirms the truths about God that can be discovered apart from grace. St. Thomas’ line of thought is quite simple: if certain truths concerning God can be discovered through reason and are understood to be true, then why can not those truths that are given in the same Revelation which are above our reason also be affirmed as true?

The title of these reflections comes from a story told by a former student of McInerny’s, Professor John Hittinger. After being appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas, McInerny was summoned to Rome for a conference. Hittinger expressed his disappointment at the upcoming absence of McInerny from class. With his usual wit, McInerny quipped, “Go read your Thomas.” In an age riddled with doubt and uncertainty, let us turn to one that will help us begin our inquiries, those which make us more fully human, in certitude. Thank God we are not the authors of reality, of that truth which lay outside of us that we can know, and ultimately, come to love and worship.

“Ite Ad Thomam.” Go read your Thomas.


  • Brian Jones

    Brian Jones is pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His writing has appeared in the New Blackfriars Journal, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Catholic World Report and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife Michelle have three daughters.

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