Review of a new edition of a work by John of St. Thomas

JofStThomas_COVERCluny Media has recently reprinted the 1951 Sheed & Ward edition of John of St. Thomas’ The Gifts of the Holy Spirit, translated by Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P., with a new introduction by Fr. Cajetan Cuddy, O.P., written especially for this reprint. The editor-in-chief, John Clarke, provided me with a copy of the book, and what follows is my long-overdue review of the edition. Clarke has noted to me, rightly, that this wonderful text has been difficult or even impossible to obtain for much too long, and through it one hopes that as many people as possible can encounter the wisdom of St. Thomas and the Commentorial Tradition. This reprinted English translation will be of great interest to academic theologians, philosophers studying virtue ethics, those interested in the relationship between grace and nature, as well as modern man’s notion of revealed truth over and against rational strictures on evidence.

This edition opens with several introductions that prepare the modern reader with a mode by which to learn from John Poinsot’s late scholastic style. A contemporary of Descartes, John was heir to a long tradition of post-Thomas scholastic commentary and debate. The new introduction to the 2016 edition by Fr. Cajetan Cuddy, as well as the original forward by Fr. Farrell and introduction by Frs. Hughes and Egan draw attention to the perennial core that remains at the commentator–teaching of John of St. Thomas: the nexus between human nature and its elevation by grace, especially the gifts of the Holy Spirit. First, Fr. Cuddy notes the relevant question:

How can we think and live as authentic Catholics in such a complex [modern] world? Here the gifts of the Holy Spirit emerge as vitally important. As we will discover in the following pages, the gifts of the Holy Spirit bring the all-powerful simplicity of God’s ordering wisdom and love to the complexities of our concrete human experience and situation. Nothing is too complex for the wisdom of God. (emphasis in original; Cuddy, “Introduction,” p. iii)

The pertinent theme is that the exigencies of human life, even navigated by the natural excellences known as the virtues or their supernatural counterparts, require elevation and strength that comes gratis or by gift from the Holy Spirit. (One wonders how Fr. Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence and its emphasis on the moment-by-moment inscription of providence into human affairs by the Holy Spirit would interweave with John’s views.) Fr. Farrell resumes this theme in his forward:

Christ’s invitation points out a road to be traversed only by a combination of persistent human effort, control, and discipline with an incredible generosity from God. The principally human part of this journey, by the help of grace and the virtues, is a matter of getting the heart ready for greater things and keeping the mind the neighbourhood of the divine Lover—much as we do in the human order to increase love and serve in its name. The principally divine part of the journey is accomplished through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first is the human way with divine equipment and help; the second, a divine way through human faculties. (Farrell, “Forward,” p. xiii)

This “twofold way” encompasses not only the orders of nature and grace but also the (as it were) ‘ordinary’ course of grace with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The unfolding of these layers of cooperative action in human life, with an emphasis of course on the gratuitous gifts, is the burden of John of St. Thomas’ treatise.

The translation of the work is overall clean and very readable—which is a blessing for any familiar with John of St. Thomas’ specialized academic Latin. It is marred by few typos (e.g., p. 91 contains three such). The presentation includes outlines of each major chapter that follow the contours of the work as indicated by John himself, and which outlines are keyed to the text via paragraph numbers. This attention to order makes the book easily adapted to study and reference with others.

I will note, briefly, two aspects of John’s treatise that will be of particular interest to modern readers as such. The first is the lengthy consideration, in the second chapter, of the distinction of the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the acquired virtues and the theological virtues. While the difference between the naturally acquired virtues and the gifts is established easily enough, John scrupulously examines the received Scotistic position that identified the theological virtues and the gifts, making the latter modes of the former since the both arise from the same Divine cause. Working out the layers and priority of causality illuminates the compound character of human agency striving for its ultimate end, as John notes (citing, as is his wont, Cajetan as an authority):

Cajetan notes quite pointedly in this connection that there is in the soul a threefold principle moving it to the good, that is, according to a moral rule and not only efficiently. The first principle is the human mind endowed with the natural light of reason and prudence. The second is the human mind adorned with the light of grace and faith, but still limited to its human capacity, zeal, and industry. The third is the human mind as it is impelled by the impulse of the Holy Spirit. This new impulse not only moves it efficiently. It also rules over the human mind and directs it to action far exceeding human capacity and the meagre standards of human industry and zeal. In this manner the unction of the Holy Spirit teaches us all things. (I Jn 2:27) Motions proceeding from the first principles are in direct relationship to the acquired virtues. Movement under the aegis of the second principle corresponds to the infused virtues. Human activity sponsored by the third principle is linked in a relationship to the gifts, measured and moving upon a higher plane. (John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit, p. 76)

This results, according to John, in a new formal mode of knowing insofar as the human soul moves on a higher plane by the sponsoring causality of the Holy Spirit. That is, “these gifts are given so that a man may operate with a certain connaturality toward things divine, and, moved by an impulse of the Holy Spirit, as St. Thomas teaches, he may, as it were, have contact with divinity.” (ibid., 63) This elevation of even the supernatural virtues seems to me to shed light on the nuanced relationship between nature and grace—it at least taught me that more must be considered. That is (see ibid., 43–44) the operation of even the theological virtues is subject to a limitation on the part of the virtue itself:

Faith, for example, is of its very nature imperfect, inscrutable and obscure. The eyes remain enshrouded in darkness . . . . This defect is removed by a further perfection, which is called a gift, because it exceeds the ordinary manner of human operation. In this case it is the gift of understanding. This gift enables the intellect to penetrate more clearly the suitability and credibility of the things of faith. (ibid., p. 44)

Thus, the giftedness of certain graces is to be distinguished from the first grace of nature and from the second grace of Christian revelation. Thus, according to John following St. Thomas, the adaptation of the theological virtues to human nature still result in limitations that are removed by the habitual gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This plane of activity which exceeds the natural acquired virtues and the infused virtues also sheds light on phenomena which, authentic in many cases, can nonetheless be simulated by secular and mundane actors. John observes:

Great and unusual deeds can be accomplished by human effort and industry. Even in a theological virtue which presupposes supernatural faith, there may be more intense works of virtue, exceeding the limits and essence of human moral virtue. Such acts, even within their own proper sphere, require a more excellent grave and a more perfect assistance from God. Yet even in the supernatural order they are always founded upon human reason and limited by human industry.

There are, moreover, great and extraordinary works which despite one’s own effort and diligence are unattainable. They require an impulse superior to human direction and effort. That impulse constitutes a higher morality and regulative principle. To that morality should correspond a principle in the will which inclines it to the new and higher standard. According to human standards, Samson would have to be judged temerarious in attacking a thousand men with only the jawbone of an ass. By the same standards, it would have been judged wrong for him to break down the columns of the building to kill himself and others. The same might be said in the case of St. Apollonia who threw herself into the fire. According to the higher rule, however, these actions are judged good. Therefore, there is a distinct moral aspect. (emphasis mine; ibid., pp. 90–91)

This claim of a “superior morality” strikes we moderns, living in pacified liberal societies inoculated against religious zeal and trained to regard actions labelled “fanatic” with unquestioned suspicion and contempt, as an instance of the very “extremism” and incomprehensible transgression of reason that it describes. Yet, if “this help” born of the Holy Spirit “be given proportionately and connaturally, new habits in the soul transcending the morality of ordinary virtues are required.” (ibid., 91) This “transcendence,” since it is not subject to human volition, is likewise not subject to human judgment and standards. Is it then an admission of voluntaristic tendencies in the Thomistic tradition? Indeed not—for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit governs still on this higher moral plane, where man is by grace connaturally united to God: “For the Lord Jesus sent His Spirit with such abundance upon the Church that it made the disciples intoxicated and man said of them, They are full of wine (Acts 2:13).” (ibid., p. 51) The previously quoted three-fold division of causal layers in human action prevent us from concluding that such a “zealot” would transgress against ordinary human morality even as his actions transcend beyond the scope and object of the acquired virtues.

This reality of the higher graces of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is complemented by John of St. Thomas’ exposition of the gifts singularly. Here the riches of the Thomistic tradition come into full view. The exposition in the third chapter, for instance, employs distinctions from Thomistic epistemology that may be of interest even to philosophers. Indeed, the close reading of this text will allow initiates into the Thomistic tradition a fuller appreciation for the scope of the Thomistic synthesis and of its enduring relevance to the complexities of the modern age, with all its evils and goods.


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