A Thomism for the New Evangelization

TJW_ThomismThe short essay, “Thomism for the New Evangelization,” by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is an illuminating and moving proposal that outlines how Thomism is necessary for the new evangelization. He proposes six touchstones so that “we who are all committed in some way to the evangelization of our culture can think about the truth not as a weapon but as a medicine for the healing of the human mind and heart.” The first relates to how Thomism can help to heal the crisis in the university (more on this below); the second, how Thomism and its key philosophical distinctions are relevant to addressing the perceived opposition between modern science and biblical religion; the third regards how Thomistic moral theology and its true-happiness-centric ethical theory undercuts the arbitrary moral relativism of our time; fourth, “St. Thomas teaches us how to believe that the Bible is authentic historical revelation without becoming either a fundamentalist or a liberal Protestant”; fifth, a Thomistic sacramental theology (grounded upon its understanding of human beings as religious but also rational animals) illuminates for us the sacramental and corporate, societal dimensions of the Church as a substantial and serious proposal in our day; sixth, St. Thomas allows us to see how and why contemplation is crucial for human happiness.

This essay should be required reading of all Catholic university students—and faculty, for that matter. Especially poignant in this regard is Fr. White’s description of Thomism as the antidote to the fragmentation of knowledge purveyed at most modern universities:

Never in the history of the world have so many people spent so much money to study in such elite institutions only to finish with so little plausible understanding of the meaning of their existence. The crisis of the university is really very striking, and it is indicative of a deeper crisis in our culture. What do we see in contemporary academic culture? We see a tendency towards intense personal specialization and away from overarching synthesis, toward empirical and historical study (positivism) and away from value laden judgments that risk incurring the ire of politically correct censors. There is intense publication ambition, in view of tenure and grant bequests. We see a supermarket ideal of education as geared toward students’ varied interests, and away from a structured program of integral formation. What ensues is an individualism that obtains on many levels—teacher, student, subject, methodology—that colors the whole education. It’s like a buffet of every expertise on offer from the leading expert, but there’s rarely a mediating discourse or common philosophy that allows you to bring into unity all the various forms of learning. Consider a typical first semester: A class on anthropology; a class on Spanish literature; a class on calculus; a class on biology; and perhaps the philosophy of John Locke. And how is it all united? No one ever tells you. And at the end of four years, did anyone ever seek to tell you? Not usually! So you end up with an education of fragments. And it is extraordinarily expensive! And it leaves you existentially disoriented!

Fr. White notes that there are various overarching “theories of meaning” that universities do offer, such as Rawlsian political liberalism, or postmodern skepticism about deep meaning, or a scientistic approach that surrenders philosophical questions to the natural sciences. He proposes as an antidote the Thomistic theory of the degrees of knowledge, that the human mind is capable to approaching reality at various interrelated yet distinct levels of comprehension or abstraction (e.g., in mathematics, or natural science, or metaphysics). From this, Fr. White notes,

St. Thomas develops a broader theory about all the different disciplines: math, observational sciences, philosophy, theology, the arts, ethics, politics, and literature. One of the strengths of St. Thomas’s view, which is applicable in a very contemporary way, is that he shows you how different scientific forms of understanding (broadly speaking) help you penetrate reality at different levels. There is particular expertise, but there is also a deeper unity present in our knowledge of things. So, there’s a way that the mathematician should be able to speak to the philosopher or the poet. And there’s a way that the philosopher or the poet should be able to speak to the theologian. And ultimately, truth is one because the intellect is made for being. All that exists— all that is real—can be known even if it is known in different ways.

This broader theory not only helps us to avoid “theological totalitarianism,” that is, “the idea that because one believes in ultimate things about God, he or she should be able to railroad all the lesser disciplines and force them into narrow straitjackets of intellectual presupposition,” but it proposes to the student an integrated and sapiential claim about the meaning of the whole of knowledge, a way to understand the tradition and cultural heritage of higher learning. Grasping and appreciating such a claim is a clear desideratum of Catholic institutions of higher learning. (For such reasons, and now having them reinforced, students of mine in one upper level course will be reading qq. 5–6 of St. Thomas’ Super Boetium de Trinitate, which outlines this sapiential view of the human sciences.)

The essay is bookended by the notion that the new evangelization must not only appeal to the human heart, but also to the human mind. Our hearts our restless until they rest in God, and this rest is that rest proper to an intellectual being, a creature that is not just animal but a rational animal, one whose being is enformed by a spiritual soul. Fr. White closes on this theme also, describing how the “interior chapel” of St. Catherine of Siena is not just in one’s heart but also in one’s mind.

The chapel of our heart is where we live in continual unity with God. But, you can also talk about a little chapel of the mind. The mind is a place where we are trying to see the world in light of God, and give homage to God, and therefore live continually in the happiness provided by authentic wisdom. Thinking about reality in the light of God makes the whole world into our church. The whole world is teaching us the truths about God. The whole world is bringing us into harmony and communion with God in peace of heart through the Truth. St. Thomas is an excellent companion to have as you cultivate this interior chapel of the mind. In this way he is also a mentor in the new evangelization.

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