Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers
by Ralph McInerny
The Catholic University of America Press, 310 pages, $34.95
If Ralph McInerny had not written this book, then someone like McInerny would have had to write it. That person would have been difficult to locate. When it comes to defending Thomism, McInerny, long-time distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, is without peer.
McInerny borrowed the title for his 2006 autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, from the Book of Job: “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house; and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” The afflictions that befell Job supplied McInerny with allegories for the upheavals that since the First World War have beset the everyday practices of the Catholic Church. In Praeambula Fidei, McInerny extends that analysis to the world of high-level Catholic theology and philosophy. He does not pretend to chronicle every misadventure of Catholic thought during the twentieth century. Rather, he provides a keen exposition of the most contentious discussions that, during the twentieth century, pitted students of Thomas Aquinas one against the other.
Ralph McInerny writes with both precision and the novelist's flair. Respect for persons suffuses the narrative—as it should, for the history McInerny recounts involves cardinals against cardinals, priests against laymen, Dominicans against Jesuits. The author introduces scholars who debated foundational questions for Catholic life, such as essence and existence, the natural desire in man for God, and the roles that philosophy and historical studies play in the development of authentic Catholic theology.
At the center of these controversies stand the person and legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor. The book is divided into three parts. The first contains an introduction to the volume's general theme. McInerny introduces the notion of praeambula fidei: the preambles of faith. As the title of the book suggests, the Catholic faith holds that there are truths that the human creature can attain demonstratively, that prepare the way for Christian faith, properly speaking. Indeed, Thomists prize these preambles as conducive to salvific faith.
In his 1995 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II consigns the praeambula fidei to the discipline now called fundamental theology: “With its specific character as a discipline charged with giving an account of faith, the concern of fundamental theology will be to justify and expound the relationship between faith and philosophical thought. Recalling the teaching of St. Paul, the First Vatican Council pointed to the existence of truths which are naturally, and thus philosophically, knowable; and an acceptance of God's revelation necessarily presupposes knowledge of these truths. . . . Consider, for example, the natural knowledge of God, the possibility of distinguishing divine revelation from other phenomena or the recognition of its credibility, the capacity of human language to speak in a true and meaningful way even of things which transcend all human experience. From all these truths, the mind is led to acknowledge the existence of a truly propaedeutic path to faith, one which can lead to the acceptance of revelation without in any way compromising the principles and autonomy of the mind itself.” In the theological curricula of the period before the Second Vatican Council, these theses would have been elaborated in a course entitled Rational Apologetics.
The pope had something new in mind. The reference he attached to that text insists, “The search for the conditions in which man on his own initiative asks the first basic questions about the meaning of life, the purpose he wishes to give it and what awaits him after death constitutes the necessary preamble to fundamental theology, so that today too, faith can fully show the way to reason in a sincere search for the truth.” In other words, before apologetics comes personalism—a claim with roots in Pascal, born of the assumption that the modern dechristianized and desacramentalized world needs a direct appeal to man's desire for God, not rational arguments for the existence of God.
McInerny's Praeambula Fidei challenges this assumption about what our contemporaries require to approach Christian faith. The second part of the book describes “the erosion of the doctrine” that “philosophically established truths about God” profit the Christian believer. Six chapters examine borderline questions in Catholic thought that have been debated by prominent twentieth-century scholars. The questions include ones that reach the limit of reason's ability to grasp the truth about God, the human person, and the nature of philosophical inquiry. These chapters consider questions that Christian believers should pose to themselves about the kind of world that God has created and that he has mercifully elevated through the redemptive Incarnation of his only Son.
Eventually, some historian of Catholic thought will have to explain the mid-twentieth-century assault on the theological trustworthiness of Cardinal Cajetan. For centuries after this Dominican's death in 1534, his commentary on the Summa was considered authoritative by most Catholic theologians. But something happened in the twentieth century to cause many theologians to turn against Cajetan. McInerny gives a clear and well-documented analysis of the criticisms raised by the layman Etienne Gilson and the Jesuit Henri de Lubac. The former questioned Cajetan's essentialism, whereas the latter rejected Cajetan's conception of human nature's openness to divine grace. Others inveighed against the alleged Baroque systematization of Thomist thought that, they claimed, actually reflected the views of the secular rationalist Christian Wolff (1679-1754) more than it did the authentic tradition that flows from Thomas Aquinas.
“These are melancholy matters to relate,” laments McInerny: serious scholars squabbling with one another, to the loss of scholarship. Gilson, whose achievements still edify students of medieval theology and philosophy, complained against “the Thomistic school, the Dominican Order, and especially Cardinal Cajetan . . . that they simply failed to realize the role that esse plays in Thomas's view of reality.” McInerny dedicates this volume to Thomas DeKoninck, the philosopher-son of Charles DeKoninck, whose teaching and deanship at Laval University from 1939 to 1956 influenced more than a few North Americans who, during the World War II years, were sent to Quebec to study philosophy and theology. Among the most prestigious legacies of this wartime migration to Canada remains the River Forest School of Thomism, whose last great exponent, Dominican father Benedict Ashley, has just published his own account of Thomist metaphysics. Father Ashley has always regretted the digression that Gilson's emphasis on esse has caused those Thomists who came to lose esteem for the place that natural philosophy holds along the way toward metaphysical wisdom.
The third part of Praeambula Fidei addresses the question of Thomism and philosophical theology. McInerny underscores the native realism of the Thomist philosophical outlook. He sets forth in a remarkably compendious way his replies to commonly accepted distortions of the Thomist legacy. The red-herring exchanges that McInerny exposes have influenced for the worse a large percentage of Catholic theologians and philosophers trained since the Second World War. To sort out the misunderstandings that the attacks on Cardinal Cajetan launched would require a historical study and a taxing analysis. The scholar who eventually undertakes this investigation should first read McInerny. He has the goods on the critics of the Thomist commentatorial tradition, who, no matter how well-intentioned they may have been, contributed to the destabilization of Catholic theology.
One sign of our present distress—which admittedly has developed for reasons in addition to those McInerny discusses in Praeambula—is the 2005 Christmas address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia. There the pope insisted that the documents of the Second Vatican Council be read with a sense of continuity with previous ecclesial and magisterial teaching. To follow this request of Benedict's will require a return to St. Thomas as well as an unbiased reading of the commentatorial tradition that flows from him.
How else will a student read intelligently the decrees of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent and of the nineteenth-century First Vatican Council, to cite only two landmarks of pre-1965 Catholic Magisterium? The 1870 dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith, Dei Filius, merits special attention from the spiritual descendants of both la nouvelle théologie and existentialist Thomism. This document of the First Vatican Council, as Pope John Paul II reminded us, “pointed to the existence of truths which are naturally, and thus philosophically, knowable.” It is toward these truths and their unalterable importance to Christian believers that Ralph McInerny has turned in Praeambula Fidei. The book should be required reading for all Catholic seminarians, graduate students of theology, and anyone who wants to understand better the merits of Thomism, both Renaissance and contemporary.
Romanus Cessario, O.P., is a professor of theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston. His most recent book is A Short History of Thomism.