Of all the reactions to the Vatican declaration this week ruling out the blessing of same-sex unions, the most interesting came from Daniel P. Horan, OFM. Times have changed, Father Horan believes, and Rome must look past its hidebound moral dogmas to fully appreciate new or hitherto-repressed dimensions of love, including those disclosed by homosexual relations.
As Father Horan sees it, what’s blocking the way to such an opening is the Church’s centuries-old adoption of Aristotelian teleology and virtue ethics. He sarcastically commented: “Breaking News: Gravity is considered ‘intrinsically disordered,’ because it does not appear anywhere in the 13th-century appropriation of Aristotle's treatise on physics and, therefore, goes against God's will. Anyone participating in gravity is committing a grave sin.”
Aristotle’s limits as a physicist, as Father Horan no doubt knows, don’t invalidate his insights into ethics. Sarcasm aside, Father Horan's response to the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith evoked an old and unpleasant strand of Christian anti-intellectualism. He also tweeted, “I’m very sick of the idolatry of certain Christians, including many in positions of great authority, who have replaced the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Summa of Thomas Aquinas; and the ‘foolishness’ of God’s love (I Cor. 1:18–30) with the ‘logic’ of Aristotle. God loves you!”
Although deployed in service of a modern cause that would have been unthinkable to the Church Fathers, Father Horan’s rhetoric places him squarely in an anti-philosophy tradition going back to the patristic age. His charge that Aristotle (or mere natural reason) has supplanted revelation for his opponents, his use of that precise verse from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, even the scare quotes around the word logic—all could have come down from, say, a Tertullian.
The second-century father, too, raged against Aristotle: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church, what between heretics and Christians? . . . Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition!” Tertullian blamed all heresy, ultimately, on Christians’ refusal to dispense with the “world’s reason” now that God had revealed himself on Sinai and Calvary.
Attitudes like Tertullian’s continued to shape a part of the Christian mind in the middle ages. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux encouraged his disciples to boast, after the psalmist, of having “more understanding than all my teachers” (Ps. 119:99): “Wherefore, O my brother, dost thou make such a boast? The reasonings of Plato and the subtleties of Aristotle? ‘God forbid!,’ thou answerest. ‘It is because I have sought thy commandments, O Lord.’”
Bernard’s disdain was a justified reaction to an excessive rationalism that risked “absolutizing Aristotle,” as Josef Pieper put it. Moreover, all the Church’s great thinkers would sometimes stand in awe of how the ordinary Christian has a more sublime understanding of God than Plato or Aristotle. None of them would ever pit sound reason against the true faith.
Still, an anti-philosophy streak was a real force in that time. Blessedly, others countered it—or else, as Étienne Gilson famously quipped, the Dark Ages would have deserved their name.
Above all, it was Saint Thomas Aquinas who struck just the right balance between the poles of biblicism and rationalism, leading the Church to adopt his system for harmonizing faith and reason as her own. For his service, Pope Leo XIII called him “the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.”
Aquinas, too, heard all around him the accusation that philosophy was an invitation to worldliness, that natural reason risked devaluing the foolishness of God. And he struck back—hard: “They hold a plainly false opinion who say that in regard to the truth of religion it does not matter what a man thinks about creation so long as he has the correct opinion concerning God. An error concerning the creation ends as false thinking about God” (SCG II.3).
It doesn’t take too many steps to show that Father Horan’s brand of biblicism displays precisely the error the Angelic Doctor warned of. By denying a space to philosophy, and specifically natural teleology, Father Horan ends up denying that human beings have natural ends proper to them as rational animals. And that, in turn, leads him to the view, totally alien to his anti-philosophy forebears in the Church, that same-sex unions can receive the Church’s blessing.
It's a clear demonstration of why the Church needs philosophy—and why philosophical errors concerning human things lead to errors about divine things.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of the forthcoming book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.
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