Starting out with St.Thomas

Having another go at tackling Aquinas, via Edward Feser’s beginner’s guide. It’s certainly the clearest introduction I’ve come across, but I do struggle with potencies and efficient causes and all the rest of it, and I wish I’d had a proper training in philosophy.

Reading metaphysics still feels like listening to an unfamiliar foreign language: I understand about every word in ten. But unless anyone has a better suggestion for getting to grips with Thomism, I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on.


5 thoughts on “Starting out with St.Thomas

  1. Have you finished this yet? I was thinking of giving Aquinas another go (I’ve never been able to sustain interest and have read the overrated Chesterton book, good books by Joseph Pieper and Peter Kreeft and Aidan Nichols) and thought of picking this one up. I read Feser’s polemic The Last Superstition last year but was too distracted by the narrow, right wing politics to appreciate the metaphysics.

    • No, I haven’t finished this yet, I’m afraid – my enthusiasm comes and goes! It’s certainly much clearer than anything I’ve read before, and I agree that Chesterton on Aquinas, though as engaging and readable as ever, is not the best introduction. I see Feser has written a response to the ‘new’ atheists, and I’ve looked at his blog, but again I agree with you about the conservative polemic. Perhaps you can help me understand why the tone of so much Catholic writing in the US, particularly online, is so ultra-conservative these days – there’s an assumption that readers, as well as being Catholic, will also be paid-up Republicans. Thoughtful Catholic Democrat voices such as Michael Sean Winters seem increasingly rare.

      • On why many U.S. Catholics in the visible blogosphere and in print are so right-wing…

        1. Abortion. The formerly Democratic-voting Catholic population split after Roe v. Wade and many conservative commentators have successfully made this issue the sine qua non of true Catholicism. (I’m not saying this issue is not important, but it does occupy more word-production than, say, care for the poor or the vast inequalities of wealth in the U.S. or the conservative worship of Moloch, er, The Market, which is vastly more destructive of ‘traditional values’ than it’s acolytes would care to admit.)

        2. We are the only nation on earth that has ever given significant credence to libertarianism, no doubt a product of our founding by religious nonconformists who wanted to be left alone to their denominational ghettos and who elevated this right to a Creed. We therefore suspect Social Democracy far more than, say, Europeans. Or the Pope, for that matter.

        3. Many of the most visible and prolific Catholic writers in the blogosphere are evangelical converts who were most likely converted by a) the culture wars and b) the ‘what’s wrong with the world/Boy’s Own’ kind of writing of Tolkien, Chesterton and C.S. Lewis (and lesser known Inklings like O. Barfield and C. Williams). One should always suspect a writer who claims that an Anglican convinced them the Catholic faith is true. These converts are on fire for the faith and have incredible energy and they see the Catholic Church as the last bastion against immorality and defender of Western civilization, even if the latter is couched in a kind of romanticism.

        4. Criticism of Vatican II, which many see led to declining vocations, empty pews, and a laity more interested in left-wing causes than the mysteries of the faith. This would be a minor issue but for the increasingly intelligent critiques that have been published in America (Ignatius Press, for instance) by well-known and respected Catholic intellectuals. I would also venture that liturgical abuses are more common in the U.S. (due to ecumenical desire) and many suburban (read: large) parishes are virtually indistinguishable, in architecture and liturgy, from any other, say, Lutheran, church down the road. Many U.S. Catholics would like to see ‘a reform of the reform’, correcting some of the abuses or vague language of Vatican II documents and these people are, to a person, conservative in temperament.

        5. Anti-Catholicism is still ‘the last acceptable prejudice.’ The only Christians who are accepted at the dominant secular humanist table are those who accept liberal politics and have the proper view toward abortion, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, etc. The Magisterium, the Catechism, and the the Pope still stand firmly opposed to secular humanism and thus all U.S. Catholics who still think they must follow the Church’s teachings see themselves in a defensive posture. The horrific sexual-abuse scandals in the U.S. have not helped this situation, to say the least.

        6. Many Catholics still don’t like Protestants, or at least the once-dominant mainstream denominations that formed the ‘in-crowd’ in American culture (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians). There is a distinct schadenfreude among conservative Catholics as they watch these mainline denominations decline in membership as they abrogate traditional Christian teaching (especially on moral issues). There’s nothing the First Things crowd likes better than a good ‘look how bad they are now’ story about the mainline denominations. Unless it’s an article defending The Market. Or why the Iraq War was a Just War.

        7. See #1. Really, everything flows from that.

      • Thanks for the summary, Cyril! Some comments:

        (1) From over here, the prominence of abortion as an issue in US politics looks distinctly odd. As you say, that doesn’t mean the issue is unimportant, but to make it the litmus test of political allegiance appears peculiar, especially given the persistence of support for the death penalty. Not much evidence of a ‘consistent ethic of life’ – though the recent Illinois decision was heartening. It seems one’s position on abortion trumps everything. Obama has said he wants to reduce the number of abortions and has reached out to the pro life lobby (see his speech at Notre Dame) but he’s still portrayed in parts of the Catholic blogosphere as an agent of death. All his work with the Church in Chicago as a community organiser, not to mention his concern for the poor locked out of health care, seems to count for nothing.

        (2) Again, from a European perspective, the hostility to social democracy is strange, especially among Catholics and other Christians. What happened to Catholic social teaching? I thought one of the funniest moments of the 2008 campaign was hearing right-wing protestors shouting at Obama supporters ‘You European socialists!’ From a left-wing perspective, European socialists are pretty toothless and middle of the road creatures!

        (3) It’s very interesting about the prominence of evangelical converts. Whenever I’ve googled ‘why catholic’ or ‘conversion to Catholicism’, I find a host of sites trying to persuade evangelicals about the ‘true Church’. Here in the godless UK, conversion is usually from atheism or agnosticism, and we don’t have the same universal evangelical culture. Hence my frustration in finding help with my own difficulties. All the websites I found were trying to convince me that the Bible supported Catholic positions – none of them addressed the question as to whether the Bible might or might not be true!

        (4) I actually agree with those who think Vatican 2 has ‘gone too far’, certainly in terms of liturgy. But I distrust the Vatican 2 bashers with their desire to reinstate a patriarchal, top down, juridical model of the Church. It ought to be possible to address some of the faults of post Vatican 2 liturgy etc without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

        (5) I think some conservative Catholics have contributed to the prejudice against their faith by their defensiveness, hostility to secularism and modernity (as if these were the worst things in the world, worse than sexual abuse, poverty, oppression, etc) etc.

        (6) I agree about the Schadenfreude – it happens here too. But it works both ways…some Catholics and other Christians seem distinctly envious of the evidence of piety at their local mosques (of which there are probably more here in England than in the US).

        Without compromising your anonymity, can you say which part of the US you’re in (very broadly speaking)? We travel to the States a couple of times each year, and my wife and I are both passionate followers of US politics – it would be interesting to know. In fact, we’ll be there in a few weeks’ time, but I won’t say where, in case that enables people to make links with my other online identities!

  2. I live in the heartland…Indianapolis, Indiana; a place that gets most attention for sporting events but might just get elevated next year should our governor, Mitch Daniels, decide to run for President in 2010. He upset the conservative Catholics (and many others on the Religious Right) by threatening a ‘truce in the culture wars’ until other, more pressing, domestic issues (i.e. debt) are solved. Obviously his plan for solving this problem is quite different than that of President Obama.

    Your frustration with Catholics ‘proving’ the faith from the Bible is shared. As someone who escaped American fundamentalism this kind of rubbish misses the point entirely and betrays a distinctly unCatholic mentality, in my opinion. The doctrines of transubstantiation, the Marian dogmas, the role of the Pope, or even the Trinity are not ‘proved’ from the Bible; they are truths revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Church, via the Magisterium. Or so the traditional Catholic teaching holds. Appealing to the Bible in this ‘proof-texting’ sort of way is embarrassing and ahistorical.

    The real challenge for American Catholicism, and American Orthodoxy, which has seen increasing numbers of evangelical converts lately, will be dealing with these evangelical, Bible-based, converts who bring some arguably incompatible hermeneutics to these ancient, pre-Reformation, traditions. I think a case can be made that American Catholicism since Vatican II is being ‘evangelicalized’ from the inside, altering the faith in ways that only a few commentators have noted. The Church couldn’t ‘go back’ to the Latin Mass even if the American Bishops or a large number of parishoners wanted to. Lex orandi, lex credendi is all-too-true and it was more than a cosmetic change in taste that turned the altar around inside Catholic churches. For the ecumenically-minded, this is not a problem; Catholic churches look and act more Protestant, Protestant churches look and act more Catholic…surely reunion is possible!? But to this outsider it just looks as though the Catholic Church sold its birthright for a mess of pottage, which is not to say I think the Church is THE CHURCH, but just to say that the great strength of the Catholic Church, in a Protestant country like mine, used to be it’s otherness, its distinctiveness. But if, pardon me for saying so, Scott Hahn and EWTN is the best the American Church has to offer, then I think I’ll pass and go back to reading my Karl Barth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s