Can Neo-Scholasticism Make a Comeback? 

Can Neo-Scholasticism Make a Comeback?


New Oxford Review – January-February 2018 – By James Iovino

James Iovino has a master’s degree in theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and a master’s in medieval history from the University of Oxford and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His work has appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and the International Philosophical Quarterly. 

In response to the challenges of modernism, Pope Leo XIII issued Aeterni Patris (1879), an encyclical in which he gave papal sanction to the rise of Neo-Scholasticism, a philosophical and theological method that came to prominence in the early 19th century. Neo-Scholasticism is characterized by systematic investigation, analytical rigor, clear terminology, and argumentation that proceeds from first principles, chief among them that objective truth is both real and knowable. Neo-Scholasticism came to dominate Catholic philosophy and theology in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century. It exerted a particular influence on the discipline of apologetics. To counter the chaos of modernism, Neo-Scholastic apologists such as Thomas Walshe, Michael Sheehan, Paul Glenn, and Joseph Cavanaugh aimed to provide Catholics with a confident, stable, and unified approach to the explanation and defense of the faith. Neo-Scholastic apologists saw the Catholic faith as rationally justifiable and its opponents as dangerously irrational, and so they focused their defense on the needs and requisites of the intellect.

The various schools and branches of modernism attacked all aspects of the religious enterprise, not simply one or another particular doctrine, and so the Neo-Scholastic apologists, propelled by encyclicals such as Aeterni Patris, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), and Humani Generis (1950), fashioned a remarkably unified approach rooted in the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas and based on the classical model that first proved the existence of God, and then, building on those arguments, demonstrated the truth of Christian revelation and the authority of the Catholic Church. As a rational apologetics, its arguments relied on external evidences that can be judged by reason alone, rather than motives intrinsic to the human will or the internal message of the Catholic faith.

There is no denying the simplicity and beauty of Neo-Scholastic apologetics, or that certain minds will respond favorably to its rationally persuasive and intellectually sophisticated arguments. However, a deeper look reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the Neo-Scholastic apologetic approach and also uncovers ways it might still be of service to the Church.

The defining characteristic of Neo-Scholastic apologetics is a series of interconnected arguments that present the Church as the ultimate conclusion to the human person’s most basic intellectual inquiry: Does God exist? With impressive confidence, Neo-Scholastic apologists faced the incoherence of modernism not with ad hoc arguments and undisciplined disputation but with a single, clear, and coherent case for the credibility of the Catholic faith. Perhaps the methodology’s most salient strength is that the specific truth claims of Catholicism are more fully appreciated when explicated within the context of a robust apologetic that not only defends the authority of the Catholic Church but builds on a firm defense of Christian revelation, that not only defends the validity of Christianity but builds on the arguments of natural theology that prove the existence of exactly the sort of God who would provide that revelation.

For their natural apologetic arguments, the Neo-Scholastics presented evidence in the form of philosophical and moral arguments underpinned by an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics and a moderate realist epistemology. In their Christian apologetic, the Neo-Scholastics relied on Christ’s miracles and prophecies in what they argued are historically reliable Gospels. For their Catholic apologetic, the Neo-Scholastics favored the four marks of the Nicene Creed as evidence that the Catholic Church is the one true Church. The overriding idea is that anyone with a properly functioning intellect, who honestly weighs the evidence presented, has no choice but to concede the truth of the Catholic faith. The arguments, the Neo-Scholastics argue, are intellectually conclusive, but they are not always coercive. When they fail to convert, it is not due to a failure of the arguments or insufficiency of evidence but due to a failure on the part of the unbeliever to submit to the dictates of right reason. In other words, the lack of conversion is a failure of the human will, which Neo-Scholastic apologetics is unconcerned with engaging.

God’s Existence & Natural Apologetics

In their natural apologetic, the Neo-Scholastics adopted the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas and favored the Thomistic proofs known as the Five Ways because these arguments demonstrate the dogma, defined by the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), that men can know with certainty and prove by a posteriori arguments that God exists. These arguments (from motion, from efficient cause, from necessary being, from gradation, and the teleological argument), which are not dependent on feeling or sentiment, do not merely prove God’s existence. They offer a full-blown natural apologetic that provides the framework from which to deduce many of the conclusions of the branch of philosophy known as natural theology. For example, the very special relationship worked out by these arguments between God’s nature and human nature demonstrates the human need for, and the fittingness and likelihood of, divine revelation. They set the tone not simply for a defense of the Catholic faith but for an attack against modernism as well. They serve as a viable alternative to modern ideologies that a priori exclude the possibility of divine revelation. They clear the way rationally for the subsequent Christian and Catholic apologetic arguments that would have been robbed of their force if they were not preceded by natural apologetic arguments. These arguments are the vanguard of Neo-Scholastic apologetics, which is a fitting description, as many Neo-Scholastic apologists saw the struggle with modernism in militaristic terms.

As a method based on the philosophia perennis of Aquinas, however, Neo-Scholastic apologetics assumes not only that all obstacles to the Catholic faith can be defeated on rational grounds but that the only challenges to Catholicism worth engaging are rational ones. As a series of interconnected arguments, it stakes everything on the initial metaphysical arguments for God’s existence. Although these sorts of arguments have been plied for over 1,500 years by the likes of Aquinas, Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides, Augustine, and Plotinus, and today are championed by such esteemed advocates as Edward Feser, their full force, as Feser himself admits, requires a substantial understanding of the metaphysical presuppositions involved.

In the first half of the 20th century, it was still possible, though it was becoming increasingly unlikely, that opponents would have a sufficient grasp of the metaphysical presuppositions that support Neo-Scholastic natural apologetics. Yet that is almost wholly not the case today. Though the Neo-Scholastics endeavored to give an adequate grounding in the first principles of their natural apologetics, if a skeptic dismisses the arguments for God’s existence because, for example, he denies that the principle of causality is anything more than a particular preference conditioned by certain Eurocentric modes of thought that have no real correspondence to reality, then, per the skeptic, the entire apologetic — the subsequent arguments for the validity of Christian revelation and the authority of the Catholic Church — falls too. If Neo-Scholastic apologetics — which for over 50 years provided Catholics with a confident, stable, and orderly system to which they could anchor their worldview — is to leave a legacy for today’s Catholic apologists that is more than just its method of systematization, then it must first recondition its audience to its basic philosophical presuppositions.

Neo-Scholasticism must also incorporate the human will, not just the intellect, in its natural apologetics, particularly its proofs for God’s existence. It is not completely fair to criticize the Neo-Scholastic arguments as artifacts, as some of the Neo-Scholastics endeavored to engage modern science and philosophy by applying St. Thomas’s arguments to the problems of the day. Nor is it fair to criticize the apologists’ reliance on rational arguments in what they freely admit is a rational apologetic. But often the arguments, as presented, appear too coldly scientific, too detached, and too rationalistic. They appear, as presented, to collude with the very forces of modernity they claim to counter (in the case of natural apologetics, enlightenment rationalism). Certainly this was the criticism from the Nouvelle Théologie, which saw no room for faith in an apologetic that only required external evidence (in the case of natural apologetics, philosophical arguments).

However, there is nothing inherently cold and detached about truth. As Glenn B. Siniscalchi points out, “Truth is more than rational; it is personal, moral, dynamic, and life-changing. There is always room to explore further the fullness of truth” (Retrieving Apologetics, 2016). One way to apply this to Neo-Scholastic apologetics is to emphasize that the conclusion of the Five Ways is not that God exists in some cold and abstract way. Rather, proceeding as they do from the common facts of ordinary human experience to an a posteriori demonstration of God’s existence, the central aspect of the Five Ways is our very real experience of God through His effects. For example, the First Way shows that every per se causal chain of change we see or experience (for example, the simple movement of our arms and legs) terminates in the causal activity of God. The Five Ways do not reveal a God who is detached from us, who is merely the god of philosophy. Rather, the arguments disclose He Who Is, the God who is with us. This “beefing up” of the Five Ways, and indeed the whole of Neo-Scholastic apologetics, with the “personal, moral, dynamic, and life-changing” aspects of truth offers a rich and exciting area of development for today’s Catholic apologists.

Christian Revelation & Historicism

The Neo-Scholastic Christian apologetic benefits greatly from prior natural apologetic arguments that reveal the fittingness of divine revelation, and it tells us to look for that revelation in human history. Christianity is a religion that makes specific historical claims to revelation; its truth rests on historical facts that can be investigated by, and adjudicated within the limits of, academic history. If, however, in their theistic apologetics, Neo-Scholastic apologists give the appearance of colluding with their opponents, in their Christian apologetics there is no doubt: The Neo-Scholastics made no attempt to deny the principles on which the methodology of their positivist opponents rest. In their natural apologetic arguments, the Neo-Scholastics countered modernism with a reinvigorated Thomism, but they presented the truth of Christianity as hinging upon the particular standards of positivist historicism alone.

Again, Neo-Scholastic Christian apologetic arguments are impressive for their systematic presentation of a chain of reasoning that proceeds from the first principle that a work is doubtless historical if it can be proven to be the genuine, intact work of a trustworthy author. It presents first the case for the historicity of the Gospels and seeks to show that, within the pages of the historically reliable Gospels, Christ claims to be God, and He backs up this claim with miracles and prophecy. It shows that Christianity coheres with the conclusions of natural apologetics — namely, that there is a God who can perform miracles, and it is fitting that He affords mankind access to special revelation backed by miracles that provide undeniable signs that His revelation is genuine.

Despite the elegance of the arguments, the Neo-Scholastic Christian apologetic suffers from two serious methodological flaws. The first is the misguided view of the Gospels as solely historical documents. The second is the mistaken insistence that academic history can provide an absolute case for the human past as it truly was.

The Gospels, though historical, are not strictly historical documents; they are also, and more importantly, proclamations of a message in which certain events have been interpreted and given special theological meaning. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission notes, “The doctrine and life of Jesus were not simply reported for the sole purpose of being remembered, but were ‘preached’ so as to offer the Church a basis of faith and morals” (“Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels,” 1964). The correct way to read the Gospels — the way their authors intended them to be read — therefore, is not with the cold detachment of a Neo-Scholastic apologist but with a warm openness to their transformative power. The positivist methodology at best confuses theological interpretation and historical fact; at worst, it ignores interpretation altogether.

Academic history, even when pursued with the noblest of detached intentions (and the Neo-Scholastics are far from detached analysts), can never truly free itself of presuppositions, nor can it give us absolute truth the way a philosophical proof can, for all history — religious or otherwise — is a mixture of fact and interpretation. Positivist historical methodology is not worthless, however. At the very least, its failure to prove absolutely the historicity of Christianity also demonstrates its failure to discredit Christian historical claims. While the methodology cannot definitively prove or disprove Christianity, it can acknowledge the possibilities of other explanations for the historical evidence and, in so doing, uphold the rationality of the Christian claims over rival hypotheses. It can, in fact, provide a strong probabilistic justification for Christian truth claims. After all, Christian claims are not made in a vacuum — they are made in the light of prior, interconnected theistic arguments that make the Christian claims not only possible but likely.

Catholic Authority & Ecclesiology

The final link in the chain of Neo-Scholastic apologetics is the argument for the Catholic Church’s authority as the true Church founded by Jesus Christ. Like the two prior links, Neo-Scholastic Catholic apologetics proceeds from first principles in a systematic and logical form of argumentation that once again places great weight on external evidence — namely, the historical expression of the four marks of unity, holiness, universality, and apostolicity in the Catholic Church. Crucial to the Neo-Scholastic apologetic is the view of the true Church as an institution subject to empirical observation. To the Neo-Scholastics, the Church is the earthly stand-in for Christ Himself, performing His salvific work down the ages. If one seeks to find the true Church — indeed, if one seeks to find Christ Himself — one need only look for the Church marked in the world by the external evidences of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.

Proceeding as it does from the same positivist historicism as the Christian apologetic, Neo-Scholastic Catholic apologetics suffers from the same methodological shortcomings. But Neo-Scholastic Catholic apologetics also suffers from an impoverished ecclesiology that sees the nature of the true Church only as a human institution. The Catholic Church has always held that Christ’s Church is both a civil institution and a supernatural mystery. In relying on an ecclesiology that views the Church as just another human institution, albeit specially guided by God, one cannot avoid the view that a mystery is precisely what the true Church is not. Because it proceeds from the same positivist methodology that a priori rejects faith as a basis for knowing, Neo-Scholastic Catholic apologetics is left only with a human institution to defend. There is no way for the rationalism of Neo-Scholastic Catholic apologetics to defend a supernatural mystery, other than to reduce it to an extraordinary, singular example of a human institution.

Adapting Neo-Scholasticism to Today’s Apologetics

Despite its domination of Catholic philosophy and theology in the first half of the 20th century, by the end of the Second Vatican Council, Neo-Scholas­ticism had been replaced, seemingly overnight, by new approaches such as ressourcement (a return to the Church’s biblical and patristic roots) and aggiornamento (adaptation of the Church to the demands of modern culture). The eclipse of Neo-Scholastic rigor left Catholic intellectual life without a clear identity, and apologetics was not immune to this trend. Gone was the robust, confident apologetics that characterized Neo-Scholasticism. It was replaced by “fundamental theology,” a branch of theology designed to examine fundamental themes in an effort to clear away misunderstandings of the Catholic faith without being weighed down by the baggage that comes with explicitly defending Catholicism.

Vatican II did not call for an end to rational apologetics. In fact, several conciliar documents tout the virtues of Thomism and Scholasticism. Insofar as apologetics is concerned, the conciliar documents show that what Vatican II sought to do was not eradicate Neo-Scholastic apologetics but open new avenues and methods and, in so doing, break Neo-Scholasticism’s monopoly on Catholic apologetics. It is evident that the Magisterium affirms the validity of Neo-Scholasticism’s methods in its own sphere of competence, and it sees a place for this type of apologetics in the present that prizes systematization, logical structure, clarity of language, and a return to metaphysics but at the same time repairs the practical rupture of faith and reason in Neo-Scholastic apologetics.

The neglect of rational apologetics has led many Catholics to conclude that there simply is no basis in reason for their faith. This has left them ill-equipped to confront either the hyper-rationalism of the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins or the denigration of human reason by postmodernism. As the International Theological Commission notes:

Today there is a new challenge and Catholic theology has to deal with a post-modern crisis of classical reason itself…. Catholic theology traditionally operates with a strong sense of the capacity of reason to go beyond appearances and attain reality and the truth of things, but today reason is often viewed weakly, as unable in principle to attain “reality”…. A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should strive to give a scientifically and rationally argued presentation of the truths of the Christian faith. For this it needs to make use of reason and it must acknowledge the strong relationship between faith and reason. (“Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria,” 2011)

In the final analysis, the Neo-Scholastic apologists met the modernist challenge with confidence and bravery but, in the end, promised more than their methodology could deliver. However, today’s Catholics can learn valuable lessons from what Henri de Lubac derisively called “the apologetics of yesterday.” For instance, Neo-Scholasticism demonstrated the need to speak clearly and confidently about one’s Catholic faith in an age of muddled sentiment and disoriented skepticism, reminding Catholics that they are warriors for Christ. It also established the need for Catholics not only to defend the faith but to show solidarity in defense of individual Catholics from the encroachments of an increasingly hostile secularism. It showed both Catholics and skeptics that the Catholic faith is eminently defensible on rational grounds. It helped shape the intellectual climate for over half a century in the U.S. in such a way that Catholicism remained a real option for the men and women who sought shelter from the dangers of the new modern secular orthodoxy.

If the sort of Catholic apologetics typified by Neo-Scholasticism is ever to recapture a culture-shaping role while avoiding the pitfalls that plagued its earlier incarnation, then it must broaden its own field of competency. What is needed now is a rational apologetics that not only addresses the human person’s intellect but his will too, an apologetics that not only coldly proves God’s existence but warmly shows how the arguments relate to our experience of the divine. We need an apologetics that not only demonstrates the coldly detached historicity of the Gospels but the joyous power of the evangelists’ testimony therein to convert and heal; one that demonstrates the authority of the Catholic Church not only from the standpoint of a visible, tangible historical artifact but also as a living mystery. And, most importantly, we need an apologetics that is not satisfied with merely winning arguments but with actually converting people to Christ. In short, we need a systematic, logical, properly ordered, interconnected apologetic that engages the whole human person.

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