A medieval friar may hold the keys to tackling modern confusion, Greg Daly is told
Today’s young people have a natural craving for a coherent vision of the world and our universities are not helping them towards this, Fr Thomas White OP says, following numerous meetings with students and young academics in top universities across the English-speaking world.
“So the irony is that the Catholic Church today actually is in possession of a resource that’s more powerful for helping people intellectually than 99% of what’s present in the university,” he says. “What we lack is the knowledge of our own tradition and the conviction to make good use of it.”
Originally from the US state of Georgia, the child of a Presbyterian mother and a Jewish father, Fr Thomas grew up with no particular religious identity.
“I was agnostic as a college student, but began asking religious questions and eventually read my way into the Catholic Church, helped along the way by Benedictine monks in Peterstown, Massachussetts,” he says. “I was then admitted to Oxford to study Patristics – the Fathers of the Church – on a two-year reading course and it was then that I encountered the Dominicans.”
Getting to know the Dominicans in Oxford had a huge impact on him, he says, explaining how he was drawn to their harmonious integration of prayer, study, apostolate and friendship, and in 2002 he eventually entered the formation house of the order’s St Joseph’s province in Washington DC.
As a priest in the US capital, he taught theology and ran the country’s Thomistic Institute.
“The Thomistic Institute in Washington DC puts on academic events in philosophy and theology and the most secular campuses in the US. We’re now on 50 campuses and we have about 200 events annually, and are very active in places like Harvard, Yale, MIT, Brown, and Columbia,” he explains.
His experiences inspired him to write The Light of Christ: An introduction to Catholicism, and led the Master of the Order, Fr Bruno Cadoré, to ask him to run the European Thomistic Institute.
“Basically the Thomistic Institute in Rome is a research institute at the heart of the Church, to foster excellence in academic philosophy and theology, both in the service of the Church in Rome and as a crossroads of conversation with those who are in non-Christian universities around Europe,” he says. “In a way, to use American-speak, it’s a kind of think tank. We host academic events in Rome, but we’re also hosting events in other parts of Europe.”
The institute is named, of course, after the famous 13th-Century Dominican St Thomas Aquinas. “Aquinas was both an intellectual and a mystic, who spent his life illustrating the harmony of faith and reason, and Aquinas is famous for developing profound reflections on the nature of being – what we call metaphysics – which ultimate leads to arguments for the existence of God, and reflections on the nature of God as best we can know him philosophically.”
Beyond philosophy, he explains, St Thomas wrote deeply on the mysteries of the Faith, seeking to show his contemporaries how a deep analysis of these was in harmony with the best of philosophical learning.
“So he was trying to show the deep harmony that can exist between Faith and reason and he remains a normative reference in the Catholic Church’s teaching on this matter,” Fr Thomas points out, noting how St John Paul II had identified him as such in his in the 1999 encyclical Fides et Ratio.
The universality of St Thomas’s thinking enables those who study him to get a grasp on issues as diverse as what it is to be a human being, the nature of existence, what goodness, beauty, and truth are, and the moral life of human beings, he says.
Despite how large the 13th-Century friar looms in the history of Catholic thought, he’s far less well known nowadays than one might expect, Fr Thomas concedes.
“Many Catholics have a kind of pious idea of Aquinas as kind of a notable thinker of the past who is – metaphorically speaking – locked somewhere behind a glass case, and we don’t necessarily have deep exposure to his thought in the Church today.”
This was partly driven by a feeling in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council that profound study of Aquinas was in many ways a distraction from contemporary philosophies that needed to be engaged with, he says, adding that a problem with that is the lack of a real consensus in modern philosophical thought that Catholic thinkers can work with and build on.
“In fact, the crisis of the contemporary university is in many ways a crisis of heterogeneity, or of just disintegration of learning,” he says. “You have lots of strands of expertise and speciality, but you don’t have a way to put together what you learn in physics, what you learn in a poetry class, what you learn in a class on palaeontology or early human history, what you study in philosophy of mind. These are all disparate subjects and no one has a way to put it together, and no one’s offering the students a way to put it together.”
Aquinas has extremely pertinent thoughts on how to understand the unity of learning, he then adds, offering an answer to young people trying to join the dots of what they know.
“We’ve gone into places like Harvard and MIT, and what we’ve seen is that people who are absolutely expert at, say, natural sciences or law, are deeply tantalised by the idea of having a deeper understanding of reality,” he says, describing how students and academics take part in annual conferences on cam puses and in nearby monasteries, where they learn about the Catholic intellectual tradition and begin to engage with it, changing spiritually as they do.
All told, he says, the institute reaches about 15,000 people in person, with a further million people around the world listening to the conferences online.
“I think Aquinas is a resource that we can tap into today, that allows us to speak directly to our contemporaries and to our contemporary questions,” he says, noting that “questions that we have in our own sceptical era about whether there’s any fixed knowledge or truth than can be obtained universally are issues he deals with in a direct way that are extremely compelling and very profound”.
Fr Thomas was in Dublin last month to speak at St Saviour’s Priory on the need for Catholic intellectuals and in UCD on the theme of when religious belief is irrational, and it’s striking that he believes the Scriptures are themselves very clear on religious irrationality.
“On the harmony of faith and reason and the question of irrational belief, the most severe critiques of religious irrationality are in the Bible itself, in that you’ll find them in the Old Testament prophets, who were the most severe critics of superstitious or irrational religion or morally disoriented religious practice,” he says. Noting how excoriating the prophets could be of superstition, idolatry, human sacrifice, hypocrites and those who fabricate God on their own terms, he says “they’re very severe on almost every front and they’re equal opportunity offenders – they go after everyone”.
One thing the Old Testament points to, he observes, is that a lot of religious activity is dangerous.
“That doesn’t mean of course that we’re not religious; we are naturally religious, that’s precisely why we should be so vigilant,” he says. Scepticism about revealed religion, already present in Antiquity, developed in the modern era under the influence of the likes of David Hume and Sigmund Freud, such that Fr Thomas thinks it’s well worth examining Dei Filius, the First Vatican Council’s understudied constitution on the Catholic Faith.
This, he says, sees the Church making several important observations he describes as “decisive” for thinking about the issue of Faith and reason, the first being that human reason is naturally open to God, with humans able to think about why we exist and why the world exists.
“The Church teaches at Vatican I that the human being can come by rational reflection to the philosophical demonstration of the existence of God as the first cause and final end of all things – in other words put briefly it’s reasonable to believe God exists, philosophically speaking,” he says.
“The second thing is that it’s reasonable to be open to the possibility of Revelation,” he continues. “The human person rightly longs to have contact with what is absolutely meaningful, and if God exists it’s reasonable to want to know God personally not just to know that God exists, rather like an orphan would have a natural desire to know their parents, so the human person has a natural desire to know God.”
Revelation provides a living contact with God, he explains, since while we can discern that God exists from reflecting on the world, knowledge based on creation alone is inevitably imperfect and thus unsatisfying. By revealing himself to us, Fr Thomas explains, God can allow us a personal relationship with him and a deeper knowledge of him.
Thirdly, he says, Dei Filius points to how revelation is reasonable because its mysteries can make sense.
“What we can know is that God has revealed certain mysteries as a benefit to man, that have internal intelligibility, coherence, and that enlighten us with regard to our human condition,” he says. “For example if God truly became human and if Christ is God, we can only know this by the grace of Faith and recognise him for who he is by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
“But if it’s true, then it means that God has a tremendous love for the human race and a solidarity with us, and that he has become human to atone for human sins, which gives us tremendous hope regarding the power and intensity of God’s mercy and his justice,” he says, explaining that this should encourage us in engaging in a spiritual life with God.
“None of those arguments are proofs that are suggestive of proof that God has become human, but if God has become human it’s deeply intelligible,” he clarifies.
Finally, he says, the Church teaches that “God has given signs of the true religion through miracles, through the sound philosophical and moral teaching of the Catholic Church, and through the example of saints and the longevity of the Church, which survives every possible human calamity through history including calamities from within, as we know all too well, as recently present in our history.”
The importance of religion being rational was central to Pope Benedict’s famous and much-misunderstood 2006 Regensburg address, with Fr Thomas explaining how the then Pope had identified two modern tendencies that threaten human intellectual life.
“One is the tendency of the modern secular university, to utterly exclude the disciplined intellectual consideration of religion and divine revelation, that is to say the exclusion from the secular universities of real reference to traditional theology, which has its own immensely sophisticated intellectual heritage,” he says, maintaining that “that heritage is simply being ignored and we’re ceasing to learn from it”.
“On the other hand,” he says, “you’d see the emergence of religion in sectarian forms, that is insufficiently formed by reason and that can give rise to extreme forms of violence and terrorism.” Recalling the natural tendency towards religiosity, he says that without serious intellectual reflection there’s a real danger that religion can become unreasonable.
“So you have these two as it were wings of division instead of having a harmony and a kind of symbiotic relationship,” he says, “where religious traditions and specifically divine revelation given to us in Christ nourish human reason and philosophical reflection without seeking to capture it or imprison it, and on the other hand, philosophy, which has its own autonomy and dignity as a natural work of the human intellect, shows a kind of openness to considering integrally religious questions.”
This can entail arguing against religious belief, of course, but doing so in a religiously literate way is important, he suggests, noting that in a modern culture of secular functionality and technology the language needed to talk about the transcendent is lost.
This goes back to his earlier point about there being a lack of a coherent agreed modern philosophical outlook, which echoes the ideas of Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. “We don’t even remember the language that would be necessary for us to be able to create the terms for us to have the conversation in which we could agree about what we disagree about,” Fr Thomas exclaims, acknowledging that his argument is very much in MacIntyre’s tradition.
What, then, can Catholics today do in the face of such confusion? Fr Thomas has a few ideas, which come down largely to learning how rich and reasonable our Faith is, building a rich and beautiful spiritual and sacramental life, and creating communities that foster both of these things.
“I’m talking about communities of intentional disciples that are open to evangelisation but that is charitable and gentle but also truth-telling, so that you invite people in to a conversation about the truth,” he says, describing respectfully engaging with others’ objections as opportunities to seek the truth together.
“That means being a seeker as well as a proposer of the truth, because the more we engage with people who are sceptical or at least questioning, the more we have to ourselves engage in the search for the truth in real vulnerability with regards to the Catholic faith and the Catholic philosophical tradition,” he says.
The Church in modern times is hardly without serious thinkers that today’s Catholics can engage with, he says, citing St John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Blessed John Henry Newman alongside philosophers like MacIntyre, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – better known as Edith Stein, Elizabeth Anscombe and Jacques Maritain, artists like Antoni Gaudí, Arvo Pärt, Paul Claudel and Evelyn Waugh, and such scientists as Kenneth Miller and Robert Barr.
Striking the right balance between thought and devotion is key, he clarifies.
“The devotional life of the heart is very important, and we tend sometimes to think that most of the battle is in the heart – the battle to convert, the battle to submit to God, the battle to love rightly and virtuously, and to become spiritual people,” he says, adding that in reality at least half of this battle is in the mind, as we’re called to be people of truth and people of love, since we can’t love what we don’t know.
“In a culture where the Faith is contested intellectually, there is a necessity on the part of the Church to have an intellectual search for the truth, to clarify why and how the Church believes what she does,” he says, warning that just as truth without love can be harsh and inhuman, so love without truth risks dissolving into sentimentality, nostalgia and an inarticulate sectarianism.
“If you don’t have the search for the truth in an age of scepticism and unbelief, devotional life will never be sufficient and will always be in danger of collapsing,” he says.
Thomistic Institute conferences can be listened to here.