Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Schaeffer vs Aquinas Redux

In my last little seizure of activity some months ago, I spent some time reviewing the case against Schaeffer’s erroneous claim that Aquinas must bear some (most of the?) blame for the course of modern philosophy—a claim that’s just bizarre, considering that it’s basically universally accepted that modern philosophy really begins with Descartes, and considering that Descartes explicitly and self-consciously repudiated the Scholastics (which of course includes St Thomas). Recently I stumbled across something that might possibly explain exactly where and how Schaeffer got his wrong idea.

In Praeambula Fidei, the late Dr. Ralph McInerny defends Thomism and St Thomas from the claim made by some scholars that Aquinas didn’t actually accept the idea of the preambles of faith, and that the notion was injected into Thomism by later commentators – especially Cajetan. “Preambles of faith” refers to the fact that there are things that we can know about God by means of reason which serve as stepping stones on the path to faith.

The third chapter of PF is particularly relevant to the present question concerning Schaeffer. In it, McInerny defends Cajetan against charges made by de Lubac. In 1946 de Lubac wrote Surnaturel (“Supernatural”; sorry, I haven’t got a link to an English language version of the book, and I’m not even completely certain that the link is to the right book), in which he proposes to show whether “the teaching of Saint Thomas on this capital point [concerning the supernatural] was indeed that offered by the Thomist school as established in the sixteenth century, codified in the seventeenth, and affirmed even more starkly in the twentieth” [quote taken from PF, page 70].

McInerny offers the following setting of the scene, which he draws from one of de Lubac’s partisans:

For Cajetan, nature does nothing in vain: it cannot have an aspiration it could not accomplish by its own means. If there is a desire for God in man, this is not natural, but added by God in a gratuitous act of omnipotence and His will. By right, nature is self-sufficiency (this is the theory of pure nature), and if in fact man always desires God, this is simply because God wills it and substitutes it for the order of nature. Cajetan thus combined an atheist humanism and a theology destructive of human nature. One can see the devastating consequences that de Lubac was able to draw from the course of history [PF, p. 71, emphasis added].

Does this bear any resemblance to Schaeffer’s charge against Aquinas? I think it that it does. Schaeffer’s claim holds water only to the extent that it can be said that Aquinas really did foster the idea of autonomous reason, which view is akin to “atheist humanism.” But this is exactly what McInerny tells us was de Lubac’s charge against Cajetan.

What does McInerny say about the claims made in this quotation?

Almost every charge against Cajetan in this paragraph is false. [PF, p. 72]


[It is said by Cajetan’s critics that] …[t]he commentators of the sixteenth century, by holding that man is not naturally called to the vision of God, end by juxtaposing a natural end of man distinct from his beatifying fulfillment. “They give credit then to a secularized natural order—cultural, moral, philosophic…Pure nature is thus linked to ‘separated reason.’” [Ibid.]

This, too, sounds a lot like Schaeffer’s claim.

Given his understanding of how mankind has declined into secularization and atheism, de Lubac’s animus against Cajetan is understandable, however unjust. He takes Cajetan to be, if not the inventor, then the propagator of a notion of obediential potency that presupposes a state of nature and thus suggests that we are, in a natural state, autonomous, self-sufficient. What need, then, for the supernatural? … There are two great problems with de Lubac’s criticism: first, Cajetan does not say the things de Lubac claims he says; second, it is de Lubac, not Cajetan, who is out of harmony with the teaching of Aquinas. [PF, p. 87]

In short: de Lubac, writing in the middle 20th century, says practically the same things about Cajetan that Schaeffer would later (in 1968) suggest about Aquinas:

But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up. From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures.... Aquinas had opened the way to an autonomous Humanism, an autonomous philosophy, and once the movement gained momentum, there was soon a flood. [Escape from Reason, 11-13, quoted here]

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that Schaeffer’s views here might well have been influenced by de Lubac’s. This gentleman, for example, associates the two’s criticisms as being substantially the same, so it’s not just crazy me that thinks so. But there are two problems. In the first place, de Lubac was criticizing Cajetan and not Aquinas; but more importantly, McInerny doesn’t leave any serious room for discussion: de Lubac was just wrong in his interpretation of Cajetan. The latter was rather a faithful commentator of Aquinas rather than an innovator, and furthermore Aquinas doesn’t hold the view that de Lubac attributed to Cajetan either.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Schaeffer might have been exposed to de Lubac’s views. There are sufficient parallels in the criticisms the two men offer to suggest a connection. Obviously I could be mistaken, because I certainly don’t know anything about Schaeffer’s personal library. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that de Lubac was wrong about Cajetan, and (on this point anyway) misunderstood Aquinas as well. Schaeffer does the same, and in practically the same way.

The subject at hand in Aquinas is obediential potency, which has to do with how it is that we have a desire to see God. As human beings we have certain faculties and powers that are ordered to life as material beings in a material world. But because we are not merely material—because we have souls—we also have powers that are ordered to something beyond the material world. St Thomas addresses this issue in the Disputed Questions on the Power of God. In q.1, a.3, he addresses the question whether God can do what nature cannot, and answers in the affirmative:

[Objection] 1. The (ordinary) gloss on Romans xi, 24 says that since God is the author of nature he cannot do what is contrary to nature. Now things that nature cannot do are contrary to nature. Therefore God cannot do them.

I answer … thing is said to be impossible in respect of a power in two ways. First, on account of an inherent defect in the power, in that the effect is beyond its reach, as when a natural agent cannot transform a certain matter. Secondly, when the impossibility arises from without, as in the case of a power that is hindered or tied. Accordingly there are three ways in which it is said to be impossible for a thing to be done. First, by reason of a defect in the active power, whether in transforming matter, or in any other way. Secondly, by reason of a resistant or an obstacle. Thirdly, because that which is said to be impossible cannot be the term of an action. Those things, then, which are impossible to nature in the first or second way are possible to God: because, since his power is infinite, it is subject to no defect, nor is there any matter that he cannot transform at will, since his power is irresistible. On the other hand those things which involve the third kind of impossibility God cannot do, since he is supreme act and sovereign being: wherefore his action cannot terminate otherwise than principally in being, and secondarily in nonbeing. Consequently he cannot make yes and no to be true at the same time, nor any of those things which involve such an impossibility. Nor is he said to be unable to do these things through lack of power, but through lack of possibility, such things being intrinsically impossible: and this is what is meant by those who say that ‘God can do it, but it cannot be done.’

Reply to the First Objection. Augustine’s words quoted in the gloss mean, not that God is unable to do otherwise than nature does, since his works are often contrary to the wonted course of nature; but that whatever he does in things is not contrary to nature, but is nature in them, forasmuch as he is the author and controller of nature. Thus in the physical order we observe that when an inferior body is moved by a higher, the movement is natural to it, although it may not seem in keeping with the movement which it has by reason of its own nature: thus the tidal movement of the sea is caused by the moon; and this movement is natural to it as the Commentator observes (De coelo et mundo, iii, comm. 20), although water of itself has naturally a downward movement. Thus in all creatures, what God does in them is quasi-natural to them. Wherefore we distinguish in them a twofold potentiality: a natural potentiality in respect of their proper operations and movements, and another, which we call obediential, in respect of what is done in them by God. [Source]

The point here is that the facts that we are called to an end above us (namely, the beatific vision), and that we begin to obtain knowledge by way of our senses—which means that we begin to get knowledge by way of the material world—are not contradictory. Obediential potency is that which gives us the capability to become children of God.

Now with respect to philosophy, it is consequently no contradiction in the view of St Thomas to say that the intellect is capable of attaining to truths about God, and that in fact this is its true and final end (i.e., the beatific vision again, wherein the blessed contemplate God). And because this is its end, it is in no way autonomous. This is why he says (as we saw in a previous post) that “Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science must be condemned as false.” Because reason isn’t free to just go its own way, but is rather properly ordered to God. So it it’s just plain mistaken for Schaeffer to suggest that Aquinas set reason loose. But in view of what McInerny reports in PF about the history of Catholic theology in the mid-twentieth century, it is perhaps the case that Schaeffer leaned on a weak reed for his ideas, and borrowed from gentlemen who didn’t have their facts straight.