Thomas Aquinas and Ecumenism

(This is Neil) The editor of New Blackfriars has generously made a number of articles about Thomas Aquinas freely available. One of them is Yves Congar’s “Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Spirit of Ecumenism,” originally published in 1974 (see here [PDF]). Cardinal (then-Père) Congar’s article would seem to be especially relevant as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity just concluded a few days ago.

It must be said, the title of Congar’s article might at first seem counterintuitive, even opportunistic, for two main reasons. First, we do not generally consider the medieval period as a time marked by the respect for the other “as other” that is necessary for ecumenism. And didn’t Thomas Aquinas – perhaps a man of his time after all – write a Contra errores Graecorum? But, regarding Aquinas, he didn’t title his work himself, criticized only the rejection of the papal primary and the Filioque (which he understood as “per Filium”), and had a great deal of respect for the Greek Fathers. He never actually took part in actual discussions with Eastern Christians, and, if he had, he would have noted that the Greek and Latin Fathers, despite any disagreement, had managed to live in communion with one another.

Second, Congar notes, we often consider the “temper” of Aquinas’ “sensibility” to be quite different than the “existential point of view” of Lutheran and much later Protestant theology. There is some truth to this (see my posts here and here). But Congar tells us that Aquinas’ analyses and distinctions are means (“particular angles”) to approach reality. They are not meant to be “reified.” Furthermore, Aquinas is not interested in constructing a cold and impersonal system. He is actually very interested in human liberty. For instance, Congar writes that, in the IIa pars of the Summa, “man is not treated as a ‘nature’ in the current sense of the word, but as the creator of that which he is called to be, by his virtuous acts and the habitus: He creates himself.” Congar also notes that many Protestant theologians have appreciated Aquinas.

So, perhaps we may conclude that Aquinas is not anti-ecumenical, but can he provide constructive aid in the contemporary practice of ecumenism? Congar answers positively. Of course, Aquinas never participated in ecumenical dialogues, but his way of writing “formally” (“from a precisely determined point of view”) means that the essence of his thought can endure even in different historical contexts – “rather as gold abides under the fluctuations of currencies.” Thus, we might expect that Aquinas would provide a description of the new heaven and new earth that would presently be outdated, given his adherence to Aristotelian physics. But Aquinas merely “confines himself” to a formal principle: that the human body will be “entirely subject to the soul, God’s power so disposing, not in being only but in all actions, experiences, motions and bodily qualities” (Contra Gentiles IV.86) – namely, that the glorious liberty of the children of God will be fully realized. This principle can be accepted even in a time of quantum physics. Also, we can say that Aquinas carefully distinguishes between what it is necessary to maintain and what is merely opinion – between the certain and the hypothetical. Finally, unlike many of our coreligionists, Aquinas is very careful before using such terms as haereticum and erroneum.

Besides his method, which has ensured that his thought will endure, Aquinas has positions that are useful to recall in ecumenical discussions (here I will just mention three):

1. While it might be imagined that Catholics emphasize the permanence and finality of the church and its “official” theology, Aquinas always keeps in mind the eschatological reference of all things – thus, the church for Aquinas is always between the synagogue and the kingdom, not an end in itself. 

2.  Aquinas maintains that the virtues have God as ground, rule, and object, so to “believe” is not a human “work,” but merely to become receptive to the witness that God gives of himself.

3. Aquinas writes that the “Holy Church is the same as the assembly of the faithful,” and is primarily the house of God, where the faithful are washed in the blood of Christ, receive anointing, are made holy, and are sanctified (Expos. in Symbol. A 9).

In Aquinas, there is no confusion of the eschaton with the present, and no confusion of the spiritual with the temporal. There is no attraction to theocracy of any sort detectable in Aquinas.

Finally, Aquinas should inspire us with the sheer intensity of his search for the truth, no matter where he found it. The quaestio (“the discussion of the pro and contra, the determination of the doctrine to be held, the response to the objections) that is familiar to anyone who has even glanced at the Summa is an attempt to rescue the truth, even when it is surrounded by error. Aquinas follows the general principle of Aristotle:

And since in choosing or rejecting opinions … a person should not be influenced either by a liking or dislike for the one introducing the opinion, but rather by the certainty of truth, he therefore says that we must respect both parties, namely, those whose opinion we follow, and those whose opinion we reject. For both have diligently sought the truth and have aided us in this matter (Comm. in Metaph. XII, 9).

Thus, after obtaining even proscribed texts, Aquinas always begins by looking for the intentio auctoris the intention of the author. This is not always an easy task – a formula might have been misused, or another passage might have to be referenced to make sense of the meaning of the original passage, or one might even need to have recourse to the “general aim” or “global intention” of a work. Aquinas, at one point, demonstrates that an argument from Augustine is unsound. But then he says, “Sed tamen ut profundius intentionem Augustini scrutemur …” (“However, if we examine more deeply the intention of Augustine”). Congar asks, “What results would have been yielded by a study which, after pointing out the questionable or even unacceptable meaning of a text by Luther, would have continued: ‘Sed tamen ut profundius intentionem Lutheri scrutemur’?” It is, I should say, very difficult to imagine Aquinas “fisking” anybody at all.

Aquinas, as it is well known, died on the way to the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. Congar asks one more question: What would Aquinas have said if he had lived to go there to speak about the procession of the Holy Spirit? In his De Potentia, Aquinas gives us the two principles he would have applied to the controversial question of the Filioque: first, the principle of development, and, second, the principle of the difference between the concepts and the terms with which the issue had been discussed in East and West. The Greeks had come to use the term “cause” to speak of the Father in his relationship with the Son and the Spirit, while the Latins thought that the use of this term would lead to serious problems. Aquinas claims “if we take careful note of the statements of the Greeks we shall find that they differ from us in words rather than in thought” (De Potentia 10.5.c). Conceivably, if Aquinas had lived to attend the council, the claim that was made two centuries later in Florence might have been made at Lyons: “That which the holy doctors and the Fathers declare, that is to say, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father by the Son, is intended to signify that the Son, as well as the Father, is the cause – according to the Greeks – the principle – according to the Latins – of the subsistence of the Holy Spirit” (Laetentur coeli [1439]). (Obviously, I am not claiming here that East and West could have been fully reunited so easily.) 

Aquinas, then, might have looked forward, however distantly, to the principle of “equivalence” found in the Second Vatican Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio: that we might preserve unity in what is necessary, and diversity in “the various forms of spiritual life and discipline, or in the variety of liturgical rites, or even in the theological elaboration of revealed truth …” (my emphasis).

So, thus, Aquinas might be a resource for ecumenism in terms of his methods, positions, and, especially, the sheer intensity of his search for the truth.

What do you think?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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