Friday, June 1, 2012

Scotus and the Reformation

My son Stephen brought to my attention a brief review at First Things: The Late Middle Ages Rightly Blamed. This is a review of Brad Gregory's new book, The Unintended Reformation. The subtitle accurately reflects the overall theme, "How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society," but in telling this tragic story Gregory lays a major portion of the blame on what Etienne Gilson long ago described as the "Breakdown of Medieval Philosophy"--thus the title of the First Things review, which directs our attention to the philosophical shortcomings of Scotus and Occam in particular. The review is written by a Protestant, Matthew Milliner, a professor of Art History at Wheaton College. In his review he observes:
there have been other Protestant responses to Gregory’s book, namely that of the evangelical historian Mark Noll. Noll disagrees with Gregory’s distribution of blame for secularism on the Reformation. However, Noll agrees with Gregory’s point of historical departure: The suggestion that the univocal metaphysics of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s nominalism were profoundly harmful, and did much to put the young Luther in the unenviable state that precipitated (thanks in part to Luther’s disruption of episcopal income streams) the tragedy of the Reformation.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Duns Scotus and the Forcible Baptism of Jewish Children

On a recent post regarding John Duns Scotus, Michael Sullivan--objecting vociferously to my criticisms of Scotus and preference for the thought of Thomas Aquinas--commented:
... perhaps you can understand that if I am over-zealous it is in defense of saints, doctors, and blesseds of the Church, and of their philosophy and theology, produced in faithful service to the Church, and of arguments and propositions none of which have ever been censured by the Magisterium or found to be incompatible with the orthodox faith, brought forward from the light of reason and in philosophical good faith; a defense against a constantly-repeated calumny grounded in misunderstanding and falsehood.
Interestingly, I found a passage from Aquinas that reads a bit like a commentary on that. It's from II-II, 10,12Whether the children of Jews and other unbelievers ought to be baptized against their parents' will?

On the contrary, injustice should be done to no man. Now it would be an injustice to Jews if their children were to be baptized against their will, since they would lose the rights of parental authority over their children as soon as these were Christians. Therefore these should not be baptized against their parents' will.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cardinal Ratzinger On Europe's Crisis of Culture

A niece of mine recently brought this Ratzinger lecture to my attention.

On July 26, 2005, the day before John Paul II died after a prolonged death watch, Joseph Ratzinger—soon to be Benedict XVI—gave an address at Subiaco on Europe's cultural crisis. This address was in the nature of a campaign speech for the papacy, setting out Ratzinger's views on the position of the Church in the modern world. He was presenting himself as a man of vision with a clear idea of the problems facing the Church—the implication being that he was therefore the right man to lead the Church after the long pontificate of John Paul II. This address is thus a handy summary of Ratzinger/Benedict's views.

Ratzinger begins his address by providing something of a laundry list of important problems facing modern man—symptoms of the cultural crisis. These are, in his view, problems that have developed over the last century and are representative byproducts of a cultural change in the West. Among those problems are the threat of terrorism, including the possibility that terrorists may soon obtain biological and/or nuclear weapons; the reaction to terrorism on the part of “lawful states,” which have adopted internal security measures that rival those previously associated only with dictatorships; the development of bio-technology which casts doubt on the dignity of man as God's image; and the growing inequality in the “distribution of the goods of the earth.” Ratzinger concludes by characterizing this crisis as a crisis of moral strength:
All this shows that the growth of our possibilities has not been matched by a comparable development of our moral energy. Moral strength has not grown together with the development of science; rather, it has diminished, because the technical mentality relegates morality to the subjective realm, while we have need, precisely, of a public morality, a morality that is able to respond to the threats that weigh down on the existence of us all. The real and gravest danger in these times lies, precisely, in this imbalance between technical possibilities and moral energy.
Having stated his view of the problem in general terms, Ratzinger presents his analysis of the crisis under seven headings.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Two items came to my attention shortly after writing John Duns Scotus and the Crisis of the West, Part 2, and they fall right in line with several of the themes I've been stressing lately. The first is an article by David Gibson that appeared on April 23, 2012. The Real Clear Religion link was titled rather more provocatively than the original: Benedict XVI, Papal Enforcer versus Is Pope Ratzinger Suffering From the Seven-Year Itch?

The article begins by addressing the recent announcement that “Benedict had signed off on a crackdown on the organization representing most of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.” Of more interest to us, however, is that the article went on to mention recent sanctions against an American and a Spanish theologian. In each case the actions were taken by the respective Bishops conferences:

Friday, April 20, 2012

John Duns Scotus and the Crisis of the West, Part 2

MacIntyre's Critique of Scotus

As we have seen, numerous thinkers, included Benedict XVI, have seen in John Duns Scotus' thought a turning point for Western Christianity. While we lament the failure of most modern thinkers (Josef Pieper is a remarkable exception) to connect all the dots that lead from archaic ontology through Plato to the present, the recognition of Scotus' significance for Western thought is a welcome development. We, of course, believe it is essential to see Scotus and other similar figures as parts of a continuum—in line with Whitehead's insight that Western thought is largely a series of footnotes to Plato. In this second look at Scotus' thought and its influence on subsequent Western thought we will begin by considering Alasdair MacIntyre's fine critique of Scotus in his important work, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. MacIntyre's discussion of Scotus can be found on pages 152-156. Importantly for our purposes, MacIntyre (like Pieper before him) discusses the importance of Scotus' influence with regard to the relationship of “philosophy” and “theology” or “religion.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

John Duns Scotus and the Western Crisis, Part 1

To many it might seem hard to believe that a reflection on the thought of John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) could possibly be timely. And yet Benedict XVI, for one, seems to think it is—and with good reason. Benedict mentioned Scotus prominently in one of the earliest public statements of his papacy, an address that sought to set a theme (the recovery of reason) for his entire papacy. And Benedict has returned to the subject more recently. In fact, as Benedict realizes, a consideration of Scotus' thought is important for any understanding of the rejection of reason and of anti-intellectual currents of thought (especially in the field of morality) both in the modern world as well as in the modern Church, since Scotus was a significant figure in the trend toward rationalistic skepticism that has characterized Western thought since the High Middle Ages. As Alasdair MacIntyre has expressed it:
Scotus thus not only made possible but provoked a good deal of later moral philosophy, directly and indirectly, from Occam all the way to Kant. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, 155)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Levada's defense of the Catechism

After the initial publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church then Archbishop William J. Levada published a defense of the new catechism: The New Catechism: An Overview . I say “defense,” because while Levada's presentation of the CCC is an overview, it is also and importantly a response to criticisms that had been leveled at it. That Levada should have presented this defense or overview is hardly surprising, since Levada had been a principal editor of the CCC. Indeed, It was commonly speculated that the reason Pope Benedict XVI appointed Levada as his own successor in the post of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may have included Levada's work on the CCC as well as the fact that the two of them had worked together at the CDF in the past (2000-2003). What I wish to draw attention to in Levada's defense of or presentation of the CCC is the strain of what can only be described as fideism which he displays, in common with his mentor, Joseph Ratzinger/B16. (We previously drew attention to that in our discussion of Ratzinger's lecture on Biblical interpretation: Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The 1988 Erasmus Lecture). In addition to this fideistic strain, the two men also share another tendency of the Nouvelle Théologie—a conviction that a return to a greater emphasis on the Patristic authors, the “Fathers” of the Church, is a key to renewal in the modern Church. Included in that is a devotion to Patristic modes of scriptural interpretation and a skeptical (if not downright hostile) attitude toward modern historical-critical interpretation—this despite Benedict's repeated but grudging acknowledgments that the historical-critical approach must, in fact, take precedence.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Popes Say The Darndest Things

While researching regarding Duns Scotus we came across two documents of Benedict XVI that contain some remarkable opinions--opinions that cut to the heart of his papacy.

The first document is the text of a General Audience given on July 7, 2010. The General Audience was devoted to John Duns Scotus.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Anselm's Platonism and the Development of Doctrine

In Questions of Authority I posed the following question:
This leads us to the question: is it possible that the Church can mistakenly put forward as doctrine theologizing that is based on misunderstandings of Scripture?
The example I provided was one that Avery Dulles cited re Original Sin:
In recounting the challenges faced by the authors of the Catechism, Dulles points out one doctrinal matter in particular:
The doctrine of original sin caused particular difficulty, and was studied at length by a special commission. In the past fifty years numerous theologians have proposed ways of updating the traditional teaching, which relied heavily on contestable interpretations of the creation narratives in Genesis and of Paul's letter to the Romans.
Josef Pieper, writing in 1960 in his well known survey Scholasticism, touched on these issues from an historical standpoint in his treatment of Anselm of Canterbury—most famous for his so-called ontological “proof” for the existence of God. Pieper begins the extended passage ( pp. 60-65) by noting that, of the two ways in which human reason may be “overvalued,” the “overvaluation of logical deduction from general principles,” is
especially linked to the Platonic-Augustinian view of the world; it is a latent peril of that view. And it is this peril of “deductive rationalism” which Anselm of Canterbury conjured up, and which thereafter lingered in Western Christianity.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Questions of Authority

Back in November and early December of 2011, Crisis Magazine ran two articles that address the issue of change in Church teaching.  The first, Catholics and “Usury”: A Tragic History, by Jeffrey Tucker, addresses an issue that, at first glance, appears to be largely of historical interest--although the history of that problematic issue ran on for well over a millennium.  Usury, of course, is a case in which Church teaching appears rather incontrovertibly to have actually changed, and as such it is cited repeatedly by those who wish the Church to change other teachings, as well.  The second article, Can the Church Ban Capital Punishment? by Christopher A. Ferrara, on the other hand, takes up an issue that only arose quite recently.  Church teaching on Capital Punishment has not changed--despite some high profile efforts on the part of a recent pontiff--and for some this is a concern.  Taken together these articles are an excellent starting point for addressing issues regarding the Church's teaching authority.