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.
I answer that, The custom of the Church has very great authority and ought to be jealously observed in all things, since the very doctrine of catholic doctors derives its authority from the Church. Hence we ought to abide by the authority of the Church rather than by that of an Augustine or a Jerome or of any doctor whatever. Now it was never the custom of the Church to baptize the children of the Jews against the will of their parents, although at times past there have been many very powerful catholic princes like Constantine and Theodosius, with whom most holy bishops have been on most friendly terms, as Sylvester with Constantine, and Ambrose with Theodosius, who would certainly not have failed to obtain this favor from them if it had been at all reasonable. It seems therefore hazardous to repeat this assertion, that the children of Jews should be baptized against their parents' wishes, in contradiction to the Church's custom observed hitherto.
The point is that, while no doubt some of Scotus' controversial ethical teachings have never been formally condemned, they are nevertheless not a sound guide to the Catholic faith, as measured by the overall tenor of official Magesterial documentation.

In the case of the example, above--the forced baptism of Jewish children--Scotus, of course, is notorious for taking the opposite view from Aquinas.  That is to say, Scotus held that the forcible baptism of Jewish children against their parents' wishes is a worthy Christian practice.

As one might imagine, Jews generally find Scotus' views on such matters to be objectionable. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that Scotus' views

were diametrically opposed to the more humane and enlightened views held by Aquinas, and ... represented a deplorable reaction. Thus, whereas Aquinas denounced the forcible baptism of Jewish children, especially on the ground that such a course would be a violation of justice, ... Duns Scotus stoutly advocated such baptism. Such a procedure, he maintained, would mean a breach of natural justice only in the event of its being undertaken by a private person; to the sovereign, however, the right appertains. Just as the jurisdiction of local magistrates is limited by the authority of higher functionaries, so the jurisdiction of the parents ceases when it conflicts with the authority of God. Accordingly, it is not only a privilege, but a duty to take children out of the power of their parents in case the latter are unwilling to bring them up conformably to a true worship of God, and to lead them in the right way (commentary in Sent. iv. 4, 9: "Opera," ed. Wadding, viii. 275, Lyons, 1639).
And not only the children, but also the parents themselves should be subjected to forcible baptism.
David Lantigu is a graduate student in theology at NDU and has a blog called The School of Salamanca (his area of research--and a fascinating one it is). In a post entitled A real reason to blame Scotus: the case of forcible baptism he discusses this topic at some length. I enjoyed the first paragraph, which is general in nature:
Blaming Scotus for the origin of voluntarism, or the separation of morality from happiness, or the rejection of the moral precepts of the Decalogue (the second table) as permanent natural norms, are all reasons why moral theologians (often with Thomistic loyalties) have loved to hate him over the centuries. Some of these narratives are more interesting than others. But as Charles Taylor notes in the epilogue of A Secular Age, such narratives of “intellectual deviation” presume that the world is really driven by ideas among the elite more than it is shaped by social processes or what he calls social imaginaries. In considering the use of the Subtle Doctor in sixteenth-century debates regarding forcible baptism for my research, I have come across a real and palpable reason to blame Scotus, along with numerous other theologians, Church officials, and Christian rulers throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, who defended the religious coercion of unbelievers to effect conversion. I focus on Scotus here.
And I thought this passage  was admirably succinct:
Scotus concluded then that even something good such as Catholic uniformity and orientation to the supernatural life can arise from a bad intention to coerce. Cajetan’s Pauline response, unlike the Subtle Doctor, was quite simple: one cannot bring about good from evil.
Subtlety is a good thing so long as it is not an excuse to evade a case of serious moral wrongdoing or even worse, to tacitly endorse one.
Three points will suffice. First, while Duns Scotus is certainly to be included in the overall Augustinian tradition of thought that has been the dominant tradition of the West, in this instance he is in opposition to Augustine's well known views on faith and coercion.  Secondly, Scotus' odious opinion did not lead to adoption of such a practice, which the Church had long opposed. In the third place, recalling Josef Pieper's statement that
“... it seems to me not at all a matter of chance that this appellation [voluntarism] has repeatedly been attached to [Scotus].” (Scholasticism, 141)
I'd say it's eminently fair to say that, given Scotus' ethical views, it's not at all a matter of chance that Scotus opposed Aquinas in this matter and came to such an odious conclusion. The fact that his views have not been formally condemned isn't the real point. The real point is the scandal that they weren't formally condemned long ago. For my own part, I frankly confess myself dismayed--although not surprised--that John Paul II beatified Scotus. Not surprised, because there are some who would maintain that even actual proof of existence was not a prerequisite to beatification under John Paul. However, most disappointing of all is to learn that there are young Catholics who are attracted to Scotus' thought.

Addendum: In another comment on my earlier posting regarding Scotus' role in the crisis of Western thought, Michael Sullivan writes:
Scotus' thought is very difficult, much harder that St Thomas'. In Chesterton's words, used in a different context, Scotism has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.
In light of the tendencies of Scotus' thought, as we see it above and as we have previously described it, I think we can say with David Lantigu that the simpleness of Aquinas is far preferable to the difficulty, the much vaunted subtlety, of Scotus. The Church can be thankful that Scotus' thought has, largely, been left untried. David Lantigu, in the linked blog (above) makes that point as well. Scotus' disregard of the long and well considered tradition of Church practice and teaching, his "preoccupation with logical niceties" while disregarding human nature (our knowledge of which was limited by Scotus in ways totally foreign to Aquinas)--these considerations fortunately limited the influence of Scotus' thought. When it did gain influence it was in one of the more shameful episodes in Christian history:
The bottom line, according to the long-standing custom of the Church and the teachings of Augustine and Gregory the Great, was that faith can never be forced but is a gift accepted willingly and freely.
Although Scotus had his followers on this issue like Gabriel Biel in the following centuries, his arguments were mostly unconvincing to Christians. That is until the ‘affairs of the Indies’ surfaced in the sixteenth century. Although it is more than expected to find the Subtle Doctor’s arguments employed in Sepúlveda’s defense of war and conquest of the Amerindians, it is disheartening to see Vitoria flirt with his arguments as well. ... His reason came from a Thomistic principle of ordering all human affairs in a commonwealth to what is most beneficial for its citizens. While he did emphatically hold the traditional teaching that coercion in baptism is evil, Vitoria’s position ended up being too ambiguous because of its preoccupation with logical niceties characteristic of Scotus’ thought and yet weak and mute in the face of gross injustices against human dignity perpetrated by Christians.


  1. boo hoo. If one really looks one can find remarks that pain modern sensitivies in just about every medieval author.

    And yet, Aquinas didn't get the immaculate conception right

  2. Now that's interesting. Lee Faber had the opportunity to state for the record that the forcible baptism of Jewish children is wrong--instead he chooses to say that it's just something that pains "modern sensibilities." And ridicules "modern sensibilities" with his "boo hoo." Like he thinks such modern sensibilities--shared by Augustine, the great Father, Doctor and saint--are pathetic.

  3. St. Thomas offends our modern sensibilities by stating that obstinate heretics should be put to death. So forcibly baptising babies is bad, but forcible ending someone's life for not being Catholic is good...

    1. Not that either of you will see this, but a heretic is someone who professes to be Catholic while rejecting a teaching of the Church. "Not being Catholic" is not necessarily the same thing. There were no Protestants in his day. And a heretic who leads others to eternal damnation is arguably doing something worse than murdering someone. A person who is killed may go to heaven. A person who is lead into obstinate mortal sin loses their eternal soul and will likely lead others there as well. So I wouldn't fault Aquinas for that necessarily.

  4. "forcible ending someone's life for not being Catholic is good..."

    Hmmmm. Somehow I don't recall saying that--are you suggesting that I did?

    But there's an important difference here. I would argue that Aquinas violated his natural law principles re justice in coming to that position: his principles are correct but he came to a wrong conclusion for whatever reasons--culturally conditioned, personal, etc. If you believe you can argue that Scotus violated his ethical principles in coming to his conclusion, feel free to make the argument. Scotus' contention that the morality of an act is ultimately dependent on God's will makes that difficult to maintain.

  5. All I was pointing out was a "real" live example of what Lee wrote. Our modern sensibilities can be offended by a lot of what the great medievals said. One such idea might be that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.
    I might be interested in seeing you defend your proposition that St. Thomas was inconsistent in application. Even as a Scotist, I am loathe to ascribe that to such a great, holy and genius of a man. I don't think there is a good defense. St. Thomas was completely consistent. His approval of the death penalty for obstinate heretics is in line with everything he had previously written. And I do not think it is inconsistent with natural law.
    It appears you may be thinking about all this in a overly theoretical way. I would brush up on Thomas political philosophy. That would go a long way in clearing up the supposed contradiction.
    (What is this??? The Scotist goes on the Thomists blog to defend St. Thomas against the Thomist???)

  6. Again, there are important differences.

    Every society has had to wrestle with the question of how to deal with "heretics," in the sense of those who would speak out to undermine the foundations of that given society. I understand that's your point and that there is a good natural law argument to be made in favor of defending the order of society against such attacks. The proper response will vary depending on the nature of the society in question. Where I disagree with Aquinas is that I don't think execution is the proper response--and I say that realizing that in those times execution was not viewed the same way we often view it.

    The case of Scotus is different, however. The consistent tradition of the Church, both in teaching and in practice, had been that belief cannot be coerced and that sacraments must not be administered by force. That goes back to Augustine and Gregory and Aquinas is firmly in that tradition. Scotus was an innovator, outside that tradition. Protecting society against harmful ideas is an arguably legitimate activity of the state, with the proper means to be determined in accordance with natural law. This is to be distinguished from imposing faith--or, more exactly, an outward show of faith--by force, which has been considered to be contrary to the Christian faith from its inception.

  7. I am not sure how one forces an infant to be baptised. Have I forced all my infants to be baptised? There is a very important discussion to be had about how far a parent's natural rights go vis-a-vis the supernatural order. And as far as I understand, Scotus was not defending the practice per se. It was a disputed question and he seems to be saying when such a thing might be legitimate. At least that is my understanding. I could be wrong. I personally don't have a view one way or the other. It's not really something I've had to deal with in the modern USA. Having heard a little of both arguments, I can see both sides.
    Back to Aquinas, I think that such a disruption to society was viewed as a capital offense because it threatened the very fabric and unity of the community.

  8. Apparently the distinction between one's own children and the children of others is just a bit too subtle for followers of the Subtle Doctor. The notion of freedom of conscience--well understood by Augustine, Aquinas and most other Christian thinkers prior to Scotus--is apparently another subtlety missing upon Scotus and his followers.

    As for this no longer being an issue, it is for some people. David Lantigu points out (above) that for a long time Scotus' odious opinion gained little support, prior to the Indies controversy. After that it had more influence.

    It's interesting to note that the same pope who beatified Scotus also beatified Pius IX, whom many characterize as the kidnapper of Edgardo Mortara (1858). The following is from an account of the controversy surrounding the beatification of Pius IX, which occurred in 2000:

    Monsignor Carlo Liberati, the church official who advanced Pius IX's beatification, said Pius should not be judged by the Mortara case: "In the process of beatification, this wasn't considered a problem because it was a habit of the times" to take baptised Jews and raise them as Catholics. "We can't look at the Church with the eyes of the year 2000, with all of the religious liberty that we have now," Liberati said. Liberati also said: "The servant girl wanted to give the grace of God to the child. She wanted him to go to heaven… [and] at the time, the spiritual paternity was more important than civil paternity."

    It appears that Scotus' views are still held by some and are still giving the Church a black eye in the opinion of most people who are aware of these things.

  9. More of the usual Thomist claptrap. When Scotus turns out to be right on something, like the immaculate conception, well, it was mere happenstance and his arguments are bad and he violates all his principles. When Aquinas ends up on the wrong side, well, he was really right, after all, just didn't go far enough.

    Now, since you are a narrative man and not a text man, you wouldn't know that Scotus does not think that morality is dependent on the divine will. As I mentioned before, intellect and will both contribute to acts of volition, and apart from this, Scotus says God is a most ordered willer, as he wills according to right reason.

    Finally, another thing you wouldn't know,since as a Thomist you believe every word that comes from the mouth of the divi thomae is sacred scripture: Scotists have never followed Scotus in all things, or only most things. We, and this goes for the entire tradition back to the 14th century, follow Scotus where we think he has good arguments. So I have no reason to immediately distance myself from Scotus' position on the children of Jews and Muslims.

  10. It will be quicker and more convenient for me to simply provide some points made by Thomas Williams, which I find conclusive. These are issues that I discussed previously:

    The connection between Scotus's voluntarism and the view that we cannot know the contingent part of the moral law by argument is quite straightforward. Scotus argues that the contingent part of the moral law is freely determined by the divine will. And he understands ‘freely' here in a strong sense:

    "And if you ask why the divine will is determined to one of a pair of contradictories rather than to the other, I must reply that "It is characteristic of the untutored to look for causes and proof for everything." . . . Therefore, there is no cause why the will willed, except that the will is the will, just as there is no cause why heat heats, except that heat is heat. For there is no prior cause."

    So God's willing in one way rather than another does not follow from any prior truths; the proposition "God wills P" is, if it is contingent, not merely contingent but immediate. Consequently, we know in advance that any argument purporting to establish the truth of a contingent moral proposition will be invalid. For example, there is no cause of its being the case that murder is prohibited other than the fact that God willed to prohibit murder. An argument purporting to show some other cause, some reason for that prohibition besides God's will, must be invalid. For its conclusion, that murder is wrong, does not in fact follow from any other propositions whatsoever.


    Since God created us with the ability to regulate our actions in accordance with our own knowledge of the moral law, our actions are not fully morally good unless they involve an exercise of our own reason. But since we cannot come to know discursively what God has freely and contingently willed concerning the moral law, God has granted us an immediate knowledge of the moral law.

    Natural reason thus knows the moral law immediately and not by argument. Right reason is the correct application of such knowledge to specific circumstances.
    And action on the basis of a complete dictate of right reason is fully morally good. In this way, any agent who makes proper use of reason can easily elicit morally good acts without ever having the slightest thought about God's will, even though in fact it is God's sovereign will that freely established the moral facts that the agent is correctly discerning and following.

  11. I don't know if you're quoting Williams as someone who supports Scotus or someone who doesn't. He is hardly the guy I would quote when trying to get at a good interpretation of Scotus, especially on this point. Try Wolter.

  12. "I don't know if you're quoting Williams as someone who supports Scotus or someone who doesn't."

    Uh, does it matter? Would your response change depending?

    "Try Wolter."

    Scotist approved? Reliable special pleader?

  13. I gotta admit, that last part made me chuckle. It's been fun... and irritating. If über-Thomists put as much effort into defeating the real enemies of the Church, like Modernists, we'd be in a much better state. I think my Scotism actually provides a nice little bridge for inter-religious dialogue with protestants. That is for another blog posting, but a true understanding of Scotus' view of the will and intellect could do much to evangelize our lost separated brethren, especially the Reformed. Unfortunately, Thomists and even Protestants (unknowingly most of the time) are Aristotelian in their view of will, intellect and liberty and thus get bogged down in endless debates about those things. The unquestionably difficult, but elegant view of the Blessed Subtle Doctor can bring some of the lost sheep home and save them from damnation.

  14. "I think my Scotism actually provides a nice little bridge for inter-religious dialogue with protestants."

    I'm quite sure it does. It's interesting to note that B16 sees Scotism as a bridge to inter-religious dialogue with Muslims, as well (cf. Benedict at Regensburg). Further, Eric Voegelin in his brief classic, The New Science of Politics, compares the Protestant experience to Islam. Lots of connections.

    BTW, be sure to read that link--I think you'll like it.

  15. Explanation: the reason you should enjoy the "Benedict at Regensburg" link--aside from its intrinsic merit--is that it will give you a much better idea of where I'm coming from. As the reference to Eric Voegelin should indicate, my range of reading extends well beyond a narrow circle of Thomists.

  16. As a former Protestant, I definitely believe that there is an strain of the Islamic notion of the Divine Will in certain kinds of Protestantism. I have read most of the Regensburg address. Although I love Benedict, not least for freeing up the TLM, his assessment of Scotus is deficient. I'd say some charitable (as we are bound as Catholics) reading of the primary texts on the matter would go a long way in helping to clear Scotus of many of the charges of heterodoxy leveled at him. I would think magisterial pronouncements would be enough, but... ;)

  17. "As a former Protestant ..."

    Would it be uncharitable to edit that to: "as a recovering Protestant ..."?

    I say that because in my experience most converts have great difficulty breaking free of their former mindset--which is why I'm not in the least surprised that you find people like Scotus so congenial. It is my further experience that many self-styled "traditional" or "faithful" Catholics are in fact heavily influenced by Protestant types of thought.

    However, I wasn't suggesting that you read Benedict's address. I mean, that's fine, he raises some interesting ideas--but there are also deep flaws in the address. The "Benedict at Regensburg" link I provided in my previous comment was not to the address but to a post I wrote in 2008 that starts with the popular misunderstanding of Benedicts's references to Scotus and Islam and then tries to go much deeper into Benedict's ideas. And then I try to present an alternative take on Western intellectual history.

  18. Well, it might be charitable or uncharitable. I don't know the stance of your heart.
    I don't know how much you know about Protestantism. I was a faithful anti-Catholic protestant for a long time. After years of debate and seeing the flaws of Protestant thinking I finally converted to Catholicism, with St. Thomas as my patron at Confirmation. I continued as a loyal Thomas lover. I spent money I didn't have on the Summa set. Then a friend introduced me to Scotus. Because I read mostly Thomas instead of the commentaries on the commentaries of commentators of St. Thomas, I didn't know I was supposed to hate Scotus. I was aware of the divergence in opinions concerning matters not touching the faith. But that is fine. I have come to think Scotus does a better job overall than ST. Thomas. But I still go to my Summa first when I have a theological problem and need a quick, concise and excellent answer. Part of being a Traditionalist (which I feel like you unnecessarily attacked) is taking the whole of the thinking of the Church (that is approved). That means I can read both Aquinas and Scotus and come away with tears of joys (which I have many times). They are beautiful representations of men who loved Christ with a passion, and especially Scotus with his devotion to Our Lady. Remember, Scotus went after Henry of Ghent for the most part. He didn't attack the Angelic Doctor very much.
    I suppose you could say recovering... I do not boast that Christ has burned all of the erroneous Protestant thinking out of me. But I actively strive to be only Catholic and to eliminate any protestant way from my life, which can only lead me to hell.

  19. I'm currently doing a very close reading of N. T. Wright's latest book, How God Became King. I hope to do a fairly thorough analysis and critique of it, eventually. I highly recommend it to you, if you haven't checked it out already.

  20. Funny. N.T. Wright was a big part of my conversion to Catholicism. Especially the "Wright" New Perspective on Paul, which was only a stepping stone to the Catholic Perspective on Paul, which is to say the 'Right Perspective.' But I must admit I am confused by the jump to Wright. He's a Protestant, so I see that connection to what has been going on, but I don't know if he even knows there was such a person as Duns Scotus (I'm kidding of course). He's awful liberal at times... women priests (sic) and what not.

  21. Here's another Protestant you may well be familiar with: Mark Noll. He has an interesting article called "Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview" which I can recommend to you. In it he links Scotus to Protestantism and to anti-Christian attitudes that Protestants picked up. Food for thought, although it's no more than the state of current scholarship that you can also get from Catholic sources.

  22. Oh awesomeness!

    I just ordered the Bible you translated, Mr. Wauck. I decided to Google search your name to get an idea of your philosophy and what I can expect from your commentaries and editorial choices. I am absolutely blown away to find you engaging in a scholastic debate! This is so incredibly cool!

  23. I'm sorry, but given the choice between Scotus and Thomas, I usually side with Thomas. There was this really cool priest who stayed at my parish for awhile and tried to get me hooked on Scotism, but it all just made my brain hurt--and I'm a mathematician! The arguments of the Angelic Doctor read so much more elegantly and simply. I mean seriously, multiplicity of forms!? How is that even...

  24. Pomeranian Catholic, I hope you find the NT translation useful. I strove to make it both accessible as well as faithful to the original. Every translation involves compromises, especially when you're dealing with languages that come from two millennia apart and are as grammatically and syntactically different as are Greek and English.

    As for this blog, my advice is to take it slowly. These are deep waters. There is, in fact, very little that's absolutely novel in what I'm suggesting here--as you can divine from the fact that I appeal most frequently to time tested authors. Where I hope that I break somewhat new ground is in the use that I make of some of these authors.

    Yes, I agree entirely with your assessment of Aquinas' elegance and simplicity. Perhaps not simple in the sense of easy, but in the sense that his way of going directly to the heart of the issues sweeps away confusion. I think this simplicity derives from the clarity of his first principles, which he always has in mind.

  25. @Gwee Doe

    I understand your point. I'd need to look up Aquinas' argumentation on this point. It's possible that he also has in mind the harm that heresy can do to the public order as well as to the individual. And there are also prudential considerations ...