Friday, July 25, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - On Christ's Assumption of Human Nature

Having at least a mild grasp of my own limitations, I don't intend to cover everything that St. Thomas says about the Incarnation - a subject too deep for me. However, he does say some interesting things that I think I do grasp (at least a little) in his discussion of the union of the divine and human natures.

The single point I want to mention in this post is that Christ did not assume human nature in general, but rather a specific human nature.
The Word of God "did not assume human nature in general, but 'in atomo'"--that is, in an individual--as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 11) otherwise every man would be the Word of God, even as Christ was (ST III Q2 A2 ad 3).

Now some might object that this means the Word assumed a person, because being a person is part of human nature. But St. Thomas says otherwise.
Yet we must bear in mind that not every individual in the genus of substance, even in rational nature, is a person, but that alone which exists by itself, and not that which exists in some more perfect thing. Hence the hand of Socrates, although it is a kind of individual, is not a person, because it does not exist by itself, but in something more perfect, viz. in the whole. And hence, too, this is signified by a "person" being defined as "an individual substance," for the hand is not a complete substance, but part of a substance. Therefore, although this human nature is a kind of individual in the genus of substance, it has not its own personality, because it does not exist separately, but in something more perfect, viz. in the Person of the Word.

This is consistent with Chalcedonian theology: "the union of the two natures took place in the Person."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

An Unloaded Definition

Although I make use of the 1828 Webster's myself, and find it to be pretty valuable, there are times when it get things wrong thanks to changes in language.

So it is with its definition of "papist," which has recently been discussed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this meaning is no longer so neutral, even if it was in Webster's day (which I seriously doubt, but I am completely unqualified to properly investigate).

I've checked several dictionaries. Here's how they characterize the word:

  • "chiefly derogatory" (New Oxford American Dictionary - comes with any modern Mac computer)
  • "usually disparaging" (25-year-old Random House College Dictionary; first definition at
  • "offensive...disparaging" (second definition at previous link)
  • "offensive term for Roman Catholics" (fourth definition at previous link)
  • "offensive designation" (fifth definition at previous link; in fact, the only definition at that doesn't specify it as a disparaging or offensive term is an etymological one.)
  • "unfriendly" (30-year-old World Book Dictionary)
  • "usually hostile or opproprious" (OED 1971 edition)

In short - the surprise isn't and ought not to be that Catholics would be offended by the term; the surprise is that anyone would be mystified by their reaction to it.

The fact that some Catholics don't mind it, or even refer to themselves by the term, is completely irrelevant. Some members of the black community refer to themselves as "n-s" - but that doesn't excuse or justify that term's usage by others. Now of course I'll grant that "papist" isn't in the same class as the other term, but the principle is the same: if a word's offensive, it's offensive.

The claim to a "special definition" of the term doesn't hold any water, either. Suppose someone (and I assure you that this would not be me, since I have many close Protestant friends who are much brighter than I am) decided to use the word "idiots" to refer to Protestants on a regular basis, excusing his choice of words on the grounds that all he means by it is "Protestant"? Well, he'd be wrong, and he'd be offensive.

In short: special definitions don't remove the offensive meaning from offensive words. They should be avoided if one is serious about not giving offense.


Philosophy of St. Thomas - Virtues and Passions

In ST II-II Q141 A3, St. Thomas presents a good summary of the relation of temperance to concupiscence, and of fortitude to the irascible passions.

The virtues assist us in living according to the good of reason:
[I]t belongs to moral virtue to safeguard the good of reason against the passions that rebel against reason. Now the movement of the soul's passions is twofold, as stated above (I-II, 23, 2), when we were treating of the passions: the one, whereby the sensitive appetite pursues sensible and bodily goods, the other whereby it flies from sensible and bodily evils (emphasis added).
We can go wrong in living according to reason by falling off the tightrope, so to speak (if that's not an exaggerated image), in either of two ways - by an inordinate pursuit of bodily goods, or by an inordinate flight from bodily evils. The virtues assist us in staying on the tightrope.

[By way of a digression, it ought to be said that living according to reason in Aquinas' view is not in any way life apart from faith in God. On the contrary, he would say that to be a Christian is pre-eminently reasonable.]

It's not that the passions are just plain evil. To the contrary, we need them - but we need them under the direction of reason.
The first of these movements of the sensitive appetite rebels against reason chiefly by lack of moderation. Because sensible and bodily goods, considered in their species, are not in opposition to reason, but are subject to it as instruments which reason employs in order to attain its proper end: and that they are opposed to reason is owing to the fact that the sensitive appetite fails to tend towards them in accord with the mode of reason. Hence it belongs properly to moral virtue to moderate those passions which denote a pursuit of the good.

On the other hand, the movement of the sensitive appetite in flying from sensible evil is mostly in opposition to reason, not through being immoderate, but chiefly in respect of its flight: because, when a man flies from sensible and bodily evils, which sometimes accompany the good of reason, the result is that he flies from the good of reason. Hence it belongs to moral virtue to make man while flying from evil to remain firm in the good of reason.

The virtues of temperance and fortitude assist us in moderating these passions according to reason.
Accordingly, just as the virtue of fortitude, which by its very nature bestows firmness, is chiefly concerned with the passion, viz. fear, which regards flight from bodily evils, and consequently with daring, which attacks the objects of fear in the hope of attaining some good, so, too, temperance, which denotes a kind of moderation, is chiefly concerned with those passions that tend towards sensible goods, viz. desire and pleasure, and consequently with the sorrows that arise from the absence of those pleasures. For just as daring presupposes objects of fear, so too such like sorrow arises from the absence of the aforesaid pleasures.

It's an error to deny the legitimacy of the passions. Only a fool would ignore his hunger to the point of starving to death; only a fool would fail to step out of the way of the train hurtling towards him. But the passions must be reined in, and the virtues assist us in doing so.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mike Burgess - Once Again Doing Yeoman's Work

My friend Mike Burgess is standing for the Catholic Faith once again. I commend him, and I recommend his efforts to you wholeheartedly.

On the same subject, I want to repeat a question Mike asked at the same venue in another context which has so far gone unanswered. Unsurprisingly.

He said:
Apart from what you've written on the passage in question before, could you engage my questions above to explain your position that the sufficiency of Scripture to equip the man of God, by way of profitability for training in righteousness, rebuke, reproof, etc., unto completeness for every good work is an affirmation of the proposition that the Scriptures are thus exclusively the rule of faith (which ostensibly presumes your other solas)?

[emphasis added]

He received no answer then, and I seriously doubt that he will ever receive one.

Bravo Mike! Your efforts are much appreciated.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Philosophy of St. Thomas - Shrewdness

This post may be of interest to none besides myself. Sorry :-)

Prudence, as St. Thomas says, is "right reason applied to action." Shrewdness is a part of this.
Now a right estimate or opinion is acquired in two ways, both in practical and in speculative matters, first by discovering it oneself, secondly by learning it from others. Now just as docility consists in a man being well disposed to acquire a right opinion from another man, so shrewdness is an apt disposition to acquire a right estimate by oneself (ST II-II Q49 A4; emphasis added).
He goes on to say, quoting Aristotle, "Shrewdness is a habit whereby congruities are discovered rapidly."

There are, perhaps, negative connotations associated with the word today, but it seems that Aquinas has none of them in mind. As a part of prudence, it is associated with virtue. It's a good thing to be inclined to acquiring right opinions on our own - not that there is anything wrong with being teachable, either.

Somehow this illustration comes to mind: you don't have to get down in a hog wallow to know that it's dirty. Perhaps a shrewd man - having never seen a hog wallow - demonstrates his shrewdness by figuring out on his own that it's dirty the first time that he sees it; whereas the merely docile (i.e., teachable) man might need to be thrown in :-)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Explanation of the Second Great Command

The Second Great Command, of course, is "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Mt. 22:39). St. Thomas discusses the reason and mode of the command:
The reason for loving is indicated in the word "neighbor," because the reason why we ought to love others out of charity is because they are nigh to us, both as to the natural image of God, and as to the capacity for glory. Nor does it matter whether we say "neighbor," or "brother" according to 1 Jn. 4:21, or "friend," according to Lev. 19:18, because all these words express the same affinity (ST II-II Q44 A7).
 The nearness which St. Thomas specifies isn't merely geographical, but rather it is ontological: That is, I ought to love my neighbor because he is like me: made in the image of God, and created for the same end. So primarily the reason is grounded in the Lord: I must love Joe because of God. This is why this second command is said to be "like" the first.

But it seems to me that there may be two other sorts of nearness which must be considered, too. First, we have a greater responsibility for charity toward family than toward others; second; we have a greater responsibility for charity toward those who really are geographically nearer. As to the first:
But if any man have not care of his own and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel (1Tim. 5:8).
 As to the second: consider that if a man on the other side of the world needs urgent, immediate help, I am unable to provide it: I am too distant. My obligation of charity towards him is consequently reduced significantly (if not removed by this inability). On the other hand, my obligation of charity towards those in my town, or on my street, or in my block, or to my next-door neighbors, is clearly more immediate precisely because of their nearness.

Moving on to the mode of the command to charity:
The mode of love is indicated in the words "as thyself." This does not mean that a man must love his neighbor equally as himself, but in like manner as himself, and this in three ways. First, as regards the end, namely, that he should love his neighbor for God's sake, even as he loves himself for God's sake, so that his love for his neighbor is a "holy" love. Secondly, as regards the rule of love, namely, that a man should not give way to his neighbor in evil, but only in good things, even as he ought to gratify his will in good things alone, so that his love for his neighbor may be a "righteous" love. Thirdly, as regards the reason for loving, namely, that a man should love his neighbor, not for his own profit, or pleasure, but in the sense of wishing his neighbor well, even as he wishes himself well, so that his love for his neighbor may be a "true" love: since when a man loves his neighbor for his own profit or pleasure, he does not love his neighbor truly, but loves himself (ST, loc. cit).
 This is all worthwhile, but I want to particularly point out the third way - "in the sense of wishing his neighbor well." It's easy in a sensual age to misunderstand what love is. It's not a special way of feeling. It's seeking what is good for the other person. We don't really "love" another if we only do so for the sake of what he hope to get from him. This is really nothing but love of self.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Precepts of Charity and the Virtues

In ST II-II Q44 A1, St. Thomas addresses the question whether should be any precepts about charity: that is, whether there should be any divine commands concerning it. He answers in the affirmative.
Whatever God requires of us is included in a precept. Now God requires that man should love Him, according to Dt. 10:12. Therefore it behooved precepts to be given about the love of charity, which is the love of God.
In other words, God tells us what it means to love him: what we must do if we love him. It's not enough just to say we love someone: our actions must demonstrate it. This is pre-eminently so with God, whom we ought to love above all others. And this is completely in keeping with what he tells us.
  • If you love me, keep my commandments.
  • He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.
  • If anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.
  • Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are immorality, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, anger, quarrels, factions, parties, envies, murders, drunkenness, carousings, and suchlike. And concerning these I warn you, as I have warned you, that they who do such things will not attain the kingdom of God.
  • Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
(John 14:15, 21, 23; Galatians 5:19-21; Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
Because what St. Thomas says on this subject is so good, I can hardly do better than to quote him at some length here.
[A] precept implies the notion of something due. Hence a thing is a matter of precept, in so far as it is something due. Now a thing is due in two ways, for its own sake, and for the sake of something else. On every affair, it is the end that is due for its own sake, because it has the character of a good for its own sake: while that which is directed to the end is due for the sake of something else: thus for a physician, it is due for its own sake, that he should heal, while it is due for the sake of something else that he should give a medicine in order to heal. Now the end of the spiritual life is that man be united to God, and this union is effected by charity, while all things pertaining to the spiritual life are ordained to this union, as to their end. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 1:5): "The end of the commandment is charity from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith." For all the virtues, about whose acts the precepts are given, are directed either to the freeing of the heart from the whirl of the passions--such are the virtues that regulate the passions--or at least to the possession of a good conscience--such are the virtues that regulate operations--or to the having of a right faith--such are those which pertain to the worship of God: and these three things are required of man that he may love God. For an impure heart is withdrawn from loving God, on account of the passion that inclines it to earthly things; an evil conscience gives man a horror for God's justice, through fear of His punishments; and an untrue faith draws man's affections to an untrue representation of God, and separates him from the truth of God. Now in every genus that which is for its own sake takes precedence of that which is for the sake of another, wherefore the greatest precept is that of charity, as stated in Mt. 22:39.
So the virtues are intended and given to us in order that we may be freed to love God, and that we may more readily order our lives according to that love.

But this duty to love God (and neighbor, for that matter) is not something that ought to be viewed as a burden:
The obligation of a precept is not opposed to liberty, except in one whose mind is averted from that which is prescribed, as may be seen in those who keep the precepts through fear alone. But the precept of love cannot be fulfilled save of one's own will, wherefore it is not opposed to charity.
If you love God, you will keep his commandments: this is something we do because we love him, and that we must do freely (or else it is not really love).

Philosophy of St. Thomas - Limits of Punishment

I am not alone in wondering why it is that Rome hasn't done more to squash dissent in the US and elsewhere. Being (apparently) a harsh taskmaster myself, it sometimes seems to me that we need more of the iron glove and less of the soft words in order to eliminate error in the Church. But I know that this is a matter of discretion and prudence, so it doesn't unsettle my faith.

Here is Aquinas' judgment on such things.
In the infliction of punishment it is not the punishment itself that is the end in view, but its medicinal properties in checking sin; wherefore punishment partakes of the nature of justice, in so far as it checks sin. But if it is evident that the infliction of punishment will result in more numerous and more grievous sins being committed, the infliction of punishment will no longer be a part of justice. It is in this sense that Augustine is speaking, when, to wit, the excommunication of a few threatens to bring about the danger of a schism, for in that case it would be contrary to the truth of justice to pronounce excommunication (ST II-II Q43 A7 ad 1).

...if the correction be omitted in order to avoid scandal, no spiritual good is foregone (ibid., ad 3).
In other words: punishment is intended for the sake of justice. But if the punishment will make things worse, then it becomes imprudent to inflict it - even unjust to do so. Seen in this light, the toleration shown by the Vatican (or less authorities) towards the wayward may be understood as forbearance for the sake of avoiding schism.

This is a reasonable perspective, it seems to me. I have heard others say this sort of thing (either George Weigel or Ralph McInerny, commenting on why the Church hasn't addressed dissent from Humanae Vitae more rigoroously): that the Church wants to avoid schism in some cases, which seems a likely consequence of too firm a disciplinary hand at times. Better, in this light, lovingly to attempt to reel in the wayward than to drive them off forever with harshness.

The connection of this with a recent post seems obvious to me. Toleration isn't necessarily weakness, as I (and others) may be prone to supposing, but rather charity in action. I suppose there may be something of a fine line: it would be possible to err on the side of being too lax. But there are risks on the other side as well - of being too much the martinet. Clearly there is matter for discretion and prudence here, so we armchair Inquisitors would be better off granting the benefit of the doubt.

Medieval History - The Church Saved Civilization

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the civilization built by Rome might have been expected to collapse as well. But it was saved by the Church:
Civilization, damaged and degraded as it might be, was preserved in the Dark Ages by the Latin Church, and the medieval civilization that was to arise was inspired and directed by that community and that inheritance (Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, I:127).

Philosophy of St. Thomas - On Toleration

Writing on the subject of whether the rites of unbelievers ought to be tolerated, St. Thomas says:
Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred (ST II-II Q10 A11).
This is a remarkable statement regarding government. It has given me fits trying to decide how to handle it here! St. Thomas doesn't in any way endorse what we call pluralism. There is no hint of a suggestion that "what's true for you" may not be "true for me." No. The truth is the truth at all times. But what he says is that we cannot afford the luxury of supposing that we can build a perfect society without evil. We can't, and we shouldn't try. We shouldn't try because our governments ought to model God's government, and God "allows certain evils to take place" even though he could certainly prevent them.

Why? Because "greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue." For example, God could prevent us from doing evil, of course, but the good of human free will would be forfeit. Another surprising (well, to me, at any rate) example offered by St. Thomas:
thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust" (ibid).
Now obviously neither St. Augustine nor Aquinas is endorsing prostitution, nor suggesting that adultery and fornication aren't mortal sin. But they are saying that rulers need to exercise wisdom and prudence in their legislation, so that they don't make the world a worse place while supposing that they're making it a better. So how does this principle apply with regard to matters of religion?
Hence, though unbelievers sin in their rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of some good that ensues therefrom, or because of some evil avoided. Thus from the fact that the Jews observe their rites, which, of old, foreshadowed the truth of the faith which we hold, there follows this good--that our very enemies bear witness to our faith, and that our faith is represented in a figure, so to speak. For this reason they are tolerated in the observance of their rites (ibid).
Okay, but that has to do with the Jewish religion specifically. What about others?
On the other hand, the rites of other unbelievers, which are neither truthful nor profitable are by no means to be tolerated, except perchance in order to avoid an evil, e.g. the scandal or disturbance that might ensue, or some hindrance to the salvation of those who if they were unmolested might gradually be converted to the faith. For this reason the Church, at times, has tolerated the rites even of heretics and pagans, when unbelievers were very numerous.
Aquinas says that when it's wiser - for the sake of avoiding an evil - to tolerate error, this should be done, and that the Church has done this at times.

It's clear then that Aquinas viewed the question of religious toleration as a prudential one, and it was a course which the Church had followed more than once. The point is that Aquinas considered doing so to be a wise thing when necessary.