Quantcast Richard M. Liddy, "Can Lonergan Replace Aquinas?"


Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Commonweal, June 14, 1996, 22-25.

Can Lonergan Replace Aquinas?

Richard M. Liddy 


Philip Gleason's new history of Catholic higher education, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in Twentieth Century America, evoked many dormant memories for me: not just the shortcomings of the intellectual life of pre-Vatican II American Catholic culture, but its positive side as well.

Gleason presents a very sympathetic account of the developments that led Catholics at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to accommodate their educational institutions to the practices of the burgeoning American educational system.  Even the move from the European six-year secondary school-college to the American four+four+graduate school came to symbolize Catholics taking on the American educational template.  The institutionalization of “credit hours” that accompanied the increasing specialization of knowledge and departments is another example.  Finally, the accreditation of Catholic teachers and of schools according to modern American standards left Catholics wondering what was “Catholic” in their educational programs.  They found an answer in the fervent embrace of neoscholasticism, a philosophy that also encouraged “a philosophy of life,” a culture.

Threatened by the Resorgimento and by the Enlightenment currents that had spawned it, Catholic philosophers in nineteenth-century Italy initiated a recovery of Saint Thomas’s philosophy that culminated in Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris in 1879.  That encyclical enshrined Aquinas and “the scholastic method” as the focal point for Catholic philosophical renewal.  Indeed, where else could Catholics look for a model of an “integral and integrating” education than to Thomas’s summae?  What other philosophy could link faith and life?  Where else could Catholics look than to the medieval period, newly discovered by many romantic writers, and to the towering figure of Thomas Aquinas?

In fact, at that very time John Henry Newman was suggesting another approach and trying to point to modern ways of handling philosophical issues by highlighting the structures of personal experience.  But although Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal, the philosophical direction pointed to by his Grammar of Assent was little understood or accepted by scholastics.

In fact, at that very time John Henry Newman was suggesting another approach and trying to point to modern ways of handling philosophical issues by highlighting the structures of personal experience.  But although Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal, the philosophical direction pointed to by his Grammar of Assent was little understood or accepted by scholastics.

Leo’s mandate resulted in the founding of various institutes engaged in the scholarly recovery of Thomas, including the Institut Superieur de Philosophie at Louvain under the future Cardinal Desire Mercier.   Although especially in Louvain, Leo’s efforts resulted in a Thomism that was “more a beacon than a boundary,” the Americanist and later Modernist crises resulted in much more of a mandated and “imposed” scholastic philosophy.




This neoscholastic vision of things provided the core integrating content of Catholic higher education prior to Vatican II.  Gleason recalls that in the 1950s 5,000 students at Notre Dame were expected to take anywhere from eighteen to forty credits in scholastic philosophy.  Even for people who were not at all philosophically inclined, this scholastic philosophy provided basic terms and relations to employ in answering fundamental questions: questions about God, creation, spirit, body and soul, immortality, natural law, virtue, etc.

Neoscholasticism brought to the fore the classic philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and the classic Christian writings of Augustine and Thomas.  It was an important element in the inspiration of many to enter the Catholic church, and, I can testify for myself, it encouraged vocations.  My father used to tell me, “Have a reason for the faith that is in you”—and at least at times I found some “reasons” in the works of the neoscholastics.  Neoscholasticism set before the world the image of another world, though with medieval accents, where politics allowed reason full play and reason pointed to the living God.

Even a contemporary writer such as David Tracy recently paid tribute to the pre-Vatican II commitment to Catholic philosophy in higher education:

. . . it was the philosophy departments of Catholic universities that kept philosophy pluralistic in this country.  They weren’t taken over, as so many secular departments in this country were until recently, by analytical philosophy.  It’s been the philosophy departments of the great church-related, chiefly Catholic, institutions that kept alive philosophic forms that can help one think about religion and give one ways to approach theology (America, October 14, 1995).

Typically, Catholic thinkers felt that modern culture was in crisis and the source of this crisis was rejection of God, the supernatural order of things, and the Catholic church.  At the same time, they felt that Thomas provided the means of analyzing the prevailing malaise and offered a remedy.  They were conscious of being part of a movement to make that remedy a shaping force in the restoration of a better social order: an order more human because more Christian.

Such philosophy was also “a philosophy of life” and contributed to Catholic culture.  It was part of “the feel of the things” for Catholics.  One could always point to “the greats”—chiefly Augustine and Thomas—and their present-day interpreters—for many, the laymen, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson.  It was considered the integrating discipline behind Catholic theology and other aspects of Catholic life.  Thomas Merton was not atypical of those who were aided in their journey to Catholicism after coming across a coherent articulation of the meaning of “God” in the writings of Etienne Gilson.

Gleason’s book is magnificent in pointing out all the positive and indeed wonderful elements in this neoscholastic “glue” that in the minds of so many seemed to provide the intellectual and integrating dimension of Catholic life.  He reminds us of all the positive elements that accrued to Catholic life in general and Catholic higher education in particular through the church’s official commitment to scholastic philosophy.

Neoscholasticism was not just a creed or a code or a cult.  It involved a certain “view of the whole” in the light of which the various aspects of life made sense.  That synthesizing view involved a culture-molding power that attempted to see things, as much as possible, sub specie aeternitatis, that is, from “God’s point of view.”  In the lives and work of some, such as Jacques and Raissa Maritain, philosophy was closely connected to the practice of contemplation.  So prevalent was the Thomistic world view behind all of this that Virgil Michel, the pioneer of the liturgical renewal in the United States, considered himself a convinced Thomist.

Nor were thought and prayer unconnected to action, as movements for social justice began to appear that appealed to Thomistic principles.  Eventually this “Catholic renascence” in America called attention to the Catholic literary revival in Europe, such as the writings of Sigrid Undset and Francois Mauriac.  As Gerard Ellard wrote in 1934: “The Catholic Revival is placing before a world sick and weary the picture of the Mystical Body of Christ vivifying Catholic culture.”

Gleason states his thesis regarding Catholic higher education in lapidary fashion: “The organizational modernization . . . made it possible to institutionalize the intellectual revival in the colleges, while the revival in turn reinforced the Catholic identity of the colleges at a time when they were undergoing a process of institutional modernization.”




The Catholic revival of the 1920s and ‘30s was self-consciously countercultural.  However, after Al Smith’s run for the presidency, and again in the late 1940s, Catholics found themselves having to defend their commitment to American presuppositions; for it was precisely that commitment that was questioned by some Protestants and secularists.  Did Catholics understand America?  Were the two compatible?  The work of John Courtney Murray, S.J., met the need for a “public language” with which to explain Catholic faith and understanding to modernity.

A call for full academic freedom in Catholic colleges and universities emerged in the 1950s and ‘60s, with some even questioning whether it was a mistake to think that genuine research and graduate-level work could develop under the aegis of the Catholic system.  Other voices began to be heard cautioning Catholics against a “ghetto mentality” or a “siege mentality.”  “Integration” became the big word.  How could the genuine achievements of modern scientific and scholarly culture be integrated into Christian faith?  Was a “Christian humanism” possible?  A more positive orientation toward American life and achievement came to be accompanied by a growing awareness of the shortcomings of Catholic intellectual life.  Various dimensions of Catholic culture came to be seen as inhibiting the genuine human and intellectual development of Catholics.  Gleason identifies several: a “formalism” that considered the world as already comprehended and conceptually classified in one’s scholastic system; an authoritarianism that inhibited questioning; a clericalism that did not value the genuine questions and contributions of the laity; a moralism; a defensiveness.

Gradually, a battle emerged at Catholic universities between those advocating an overarching integrating vision that tended to be “imposed from on high” and, on the other hand, those eager to embrace the products of modernity: individual autonomous departments with scholarly competence in specialized disciplines.  Against the latter, the church’s massive commitment to neoscholasticism could not hold its own.  Neoscholasticism could not win the support of the powerful specialized departments of the universities to be their integrating language.  Gradually, the scholastic “synthesis” could not even enlist the support of the administrators of Catholic colleges and universities.

In this light, Gleason’s book sounds a somber note, indeed, as it points out the monumental institutional changes Catholic higher education underwent to adapt to modernity in America—only, it seems, with the collapse of neoscholasticism after Vatican II, to lose its soul.  The Catholic institutions of higher learning are still there, but any distinctive Catholic intellectual culture seems to have largely disappeared.

Is there still any possibility of infusing into the wide world of modern culture, not an imposed philosophy with an archaic vocabulary, but a genuinely “catholic” philosophy that can speak to men and women of our day?  Gleason characterizes the problem of the Catholic university as follows:

The identity problem that persists is . . . not institutional or organizational, but ideological. That is, it consists in a lack of consensus as to the substantive contents of the ensemble of religious beliefs, moral commitments, and academic assumptions that supposedly constitute Catholic identity, and a consequent inability to specify what that identity entails for the practical functioning of Catholic colleges and universities. More briefly put, the crisis is not that Catholic educators do not want their institutions to remain Catholic, but that they are no longer sure what remaining Catholic means.

Gleason emphasizes the fact that the collapse of neoscholastic philosophy has left a vacuum in Catholic higher education.  What he does not equally emphasize is that this is only part of a larger vacuum in university education as such: a vacuum of meaning.  American universities today have their own pressing identity problem.  In this post modern age their operative philosophy is that there is no philosophy, no possibility of a common language with which persons from various specializations could speak to each other about what it is to be human.  There is no consensus on the very meaning of “knowing” and how human knowing in one area of specialization is related to every other area and to the rest of human living.  Into this vacuum rush various forms, literally, of irrational philosophies.

John Searle, the distinguished philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley, recently highlighted this situation, arguing that contemporary postmodern and deconstructionist influences undermine our attachment to the Western tradition of reason itself, the basis for all modern scholarship and science.  The scholarly ideal of that tradition, which he describes as “that of the disinterested inquirer engaged in the quest for objective knowledge that will have universal validity” is precisely what is now under attack in the campus culture wars.




In this light, some Catholics might feel that the only remedy is to repent of our sins and to return to the neoscholasticism of old.  That, I believe, would be a profound mistake.  It would certainly not be true to the example of Thomas Aquinas who met the contemporary Aristotelian scientific world on its own turf.  To do today what Aquinas did in his day we must engage the scientists and scholars of our own day and encourage interdisciplinary dialogue about the meaning and role of the various specializations within the whole of human knowing and human living.

Technically, the discipline that deals with this question could be called “the methodology of the disciplines,” “general methodology,” “the science of cognitive methods.”  As long as philosophy roots itself in the analysis of human knowing and human living, it deals with the central questions: (1) What are we doing when we are knowing? (2) Are we in fact knowing anything through doing that, and if so, what?  And (3) How does what we are knowing in our specialization relate to everything else, that is, to all the other questions people ask?

These are questions about human interiority, about the possibilities of truth, and about the basic structure of the universe that human questioning seeks to plumb.  It is essential for the health of the university today that these questions be raised in an explicit and interdisciplinary way, for these are questions that concern the very “circle” of the academic disciplines.  As John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of a University, unless one knows something of this “science of the sciences,” then one’s own specialization will only lead to knowing more and more about less and less.

Keeping these questions alive and central to higher education might very well be the providential role for Catholic higher education today.  In addition, these questions implicitly contain the question of God, the ultimate meaning of meaning.  This question, I believe, can be shown to underlie all our other questions.  As the Jesuit and philosopher Bernard Lonergan put it, our human questioning reveals “the spark in our clod, our native orientation to the divine.”  It is to this question—the question of who we are at the deepest level—that the specialization of Catholic theology responds.

Neoscholasticism was not able to speak to our age because its practitioners had little or no understanding of modern scientific and scholarly ways of questioning.  It was also severely hampered by an intuitionist view of knowing: reality is “out there”; all you have to do is take a good look at it.  It had little appreciation for the complex structure of human experiencing, human understanding, and human judging.  To my mind no Catholic has written of these methodological questions and, within them, the question of God, more clearly than Lonergan.  (Happily, the University of Toronto Press is currently publishing the twenty-two volumes of the Canadian philosopher-theologian’s Collected Works.)

In fact, I have seen the integrating power of Lonergan’s philosophy in action.  The last year-and-a-half I have been a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.  My experience there has been of a group of people from various specializations—law, business, politics, economics, theology, etc.—laboring together to have a common mind at the same time as we work in our own areas of expertise.  Lonergan has been our inspiration.  We meet regularly to analyze and relate the specific questions raised in our own specializations to our common drive for meaning, truth, goodness—and God.  This process has been of enormous help to each of us in drawing out the theological implications of our academic specializations.  After all, law, business, politics, science—each is an area of human activity in which God’s Word would “have a say.”

I could have no greater hope for our Catholic college administrators and faculties than that they would reflect upon and discover, with Lonergan’s inspiration and guidance, the basic human cognitive processes which underlie all disciplinary methodologies.  Such a discovery would enable interdisciplinary communication in pursuit of the common good of the university and of society.  I am not saying that such a philosophy of itself will be capable of filling the present void.  For any philosophy to be truly effective, it will have to be linked to efforts to attain religious and moral renewal as well.  Here and there I see signs of that renewal taking place.  Still, it will be incomplete if it is not accompanied by a unifying and critical philosophy adequate to our day.

There is a long road ahead.  Cardinal Newman said that the church is always beginning again in each new age and, after reading Gleason’s book, I am certain that we are in a new age in which we need to begin again to seek a common language with which we can speak to each other and to the world about life and God and the truths of faith.  Such a language can help us build bridges to men and women who are laboring in so many specialized fields and who need a philosophical language with which to speak to each other about what it means to be people as well as people of faith.  Would that we, members of the Body of Christ, could point out to them in contemporary ways the humanistic and theological dimensions of what they are doing!

The last sentence of Gleason’s very fine book sets this out as precisely the contemporary issue:  “The task facing Catholic academics today is to forge from the philosophical and theological resources uncovered in the past half-century a vision that will provide what neoscholasticism did for so many years—a theoretical rationale for the existence of Catholic colleges and universities as a distinctive element in American higher education.”


Richard M. Liddy page

Bernard Lonergan page