From: Reality – A Thomistic Synthesis

Chapter 55: THE TWENTY-FOUR THOMISTIC THESES

By the Motu Proprio of June 29, 1914, Pius X prescribed that all courses in philosophy should teach “the principles and the major doctrines of St. Thomas,” and that in the centers of theological studies the Summa theologiae should be the textbook.

Origin Of The Twenty-Four Theses

The state of things which Pius X intended to remedy has been well described above (p. 343 ff. ) by Cardinal Villeneuve. We repeat here briefly the Cardinal’s contentions:

a) Authors try to make St. Thomas the mouthpiece of their own pet theories.

b) Hence contradictory presentations by teachers and writers, confusion and disgust among students.

c) Hence, Thomism reduced to the minimum on which all Catholic thinkers can agree, hence to a blunted traditionalism and an implicit fideism.

d) Hence, carelessness in the presence of extremely improbable new doctrines, abdication of thought in the domain of piety, practical skepticism in philosophy, mysticism based on emotion.

Against this withered and confused Thomism, Pius X prescribes return to the major doctrines of St. Thomas. What are these major doctrines? The Congregation of Sacred Studies, having examined the twenty-four fundamental theses presented by Thomistic professors of various institutions, replied, with the approval of the Holy Father, that these same twenty-four theses contain the principles and major doctrines of St. Thomas.

What shall be the binding force of these theses? They are safe norms of intellectual guidance. This decision of the Congregation, confirmed by Benedict XV, was published March 7, 1916.

The next year, 1917, saw the promulgation of the New Code, which makes the method, the principles, and the teaching of St. Thomas binding on the professors and students both in philosophy and in theology. Among the sources of this canon the Code cites the decree of March 7, 1916.

Pope Benedict XV, on various occasions, expressed his mind on this point. He approved, for instance, in a special audience, the intention of P. E. Hugon, O. P.: to write a book on the twenty-four theses. The author of the book reports that the Pontiff said that he did not intend to impose the twenty-four theses as compelling internal assent, but as the doctrine preferred by the Church.

It gradually became known that these twenty-four theses had been formulated by two Thomists of great competence who, throughout their long teaching career, had been teaching these theses in juxtaposition with their respective counter-theses.

Is the real distinction of potency from act a mere hypothesis? Some historians of great name, who in special works have expounded the teaching of St. Thomas, saw in the real distinction of potency from act a mere postulate. And an excellent review has, for forty years, carried a series of learned articles which culminate in this conclusion: the doctrine of real distinction between potency and act is an admirable hypothesis, most fertile in results.

Now if this distinction were but a postulate or a hypothesis, then, however strongly suggested it might be by the facts, it would still not compel the mind’s assent. What becomes then of the proofs for God’s existence, which are based on that distinction?

Those who formulated these theses, on the contrary, saw in the distinction of potency from act not a mere postulate or hypothesis, but the very first principle, the necessary foundation for all the other theses. In truth, if we study the commentaries of St. Thomas on the first two books of Aristotle’s Physica and books three and four of his Metaphysica, we see that real distinction of potency from act imposes itself necessarily on the mind which attempts to harmonize the principle of contradiction or identity with that of becoming or multiplicity.

“That which is, is, and that which is not, is not. That’s a sentence we cannot escape from.” This is the formula of Parmenides, which makes of the principle of identity not merely a necessary and universal law of reality, but a law which governs all processes of becoming. A thing supposed to be in process of becoming cannot arise either from being or from non-being. Not from being, which already is: the statue cannot come from a statue which already is. Not from non-being: out of nothing comes nothing. Hence all becoming is an impossibility, an illusion. If you set yourself to walking, to disprove Parmenides, he retorts: Walking is a mere appearance, a sense phenomenon, whereas the principle of identity is a primordial law both of the mind and of reality.

For the same reason Parmenides concludes the impossibility of more than one being. Being cannot be diversified by itself, nor by something different from itself, which could only be non-being, i. e.: nothing. Hence being is one and immutable. Parmenides here, like Spinoza later, confounds being in general with divine being.

With Parmenides, Aristotle too, against Heraclitus, defends the principle of contradiction, which is the negative form of the principle of identity: being is being, non-being is non-being, we cannot confound the two.

But Aristotle shows too that the process of becoming, which is an evident fact of experience, is to be harmonized with the principle of identity and contradiction by the real distinction between potency and act. This distinction, accepted, however confusedly, by natural reason, by the common sense of mankind, is indispensable in solving the arguments of Parmenides against the reality of generation and multiplicity.

That which is generated, which comes into existence, cannot come from an actually existing thing: a statue does not arise from something which is already a statue. Nor can it come from that which is simply nothing. But that which comes into existence comes from indeterminate potential being, which is nothing but a real capacity to receive an actual perfection. The statue comes from the wood, yes, yet not from wood as wood, but from wood as capable of being carved. Movement supposes a subject really capable of undergoing motion. The plant, the animal, comes from a germ capable of definite evolution. Knowledge comes from the infant’s intelligence capable of grasping principle and consequences.

That there are many statues, say, of Apollo, supposes that the form of Apollo can be received in diverse portions of matter, each capable of receiving that form. That there are many animals of one specific kind supposes that their specific form can be received in diverse parts of matter, each capable of being thus determined and actualized.

Potency, then, is not act, not even the most imperfect act conceivable. Potency is not yet initial movement. Potency, therefore, since it cannot be act, is really distinct from act, and hence remains under the act it has received, as a containing capacity of that act which it receives and limits. Matter is not the form which it receives but remains distinct under that form. If potency were imperfect act, it would not be really distinct even from the perfect act which it receives.

In the eyes of Aristotle, and of Aquinas who deepened Aristotle, real potency, as receiving capacity, is a necessary medium between actual being and mere nothing. Without real potency there is no answer to Parmenides, no possible way to harmonize becoming and multiplicity with the principle of identity, the primordial law of thought and of reality. Becoming and multiplicity involve a certain absence of identity, an absence which can be explained only by something other than act, and this other something can only be a real capacity, either to receive the act if the capacity is passive potency, or to produce the act, if the potency is active. But active potency is still potency, and hence presupposes an actual mover to actualize that potency. Hence arise the four causes, matter, form, agent, and end, with their correlative principles, in particular that of efficient causality, of finality, of mutation. Thus, in his first proof of God’s existence, St. Thomas writes: “Nothing can be moved except it be in potency. The thing which moves it from potency to act must be actual, not potential. Nothing can be reduced from potency to act except by being which is not potential, but actual.” This proof, it is evident, rests on the real distinction of potency from act. If that principle is not necessarily true, the proof loses its demonstrative power. The same holds good for his following proofs.

This truth was clearly seen by those who formulated the twenty-four theses.

Derivative Propositions

In the Thomistic Congress, held in Rome (1925): we illustrated the inner unity of the twenty-four theses by showing the far-reaching consequences of the distinction between potency and act. The points made in that paper we here summarize.

In the order of being we note ten consequences of the principle that potency is really and objectively distinct from act.

I. Matter is not form, but really distinct from form. Prime matter is pure potency, mere receiving capacity. Without form, it can simply not exist.

2. Finite essence is not its own existence, but really distinct from that existence.

3. God alone, pure act, is His own existence. He is existence itself, unreceived and irreceivable. “Sum qui sum. ”

4. In all created person, personality is really distinct from existence.

5. God alone, existence itself, can have no accidents. Hence, by opposition, no created substance is immediately operative; it needs, in order to act, a super-added operative potency.

6. Form can be multiplied only by being received into matter. The principle of individuation is matter as preordained to this particular quantity.

7. The human soul is the sole form of the human body, since otherwise it would be, not substantial form, but accidental, and would not make the body one natural unity.

8. Matter, of itself, has neither existence nor cognoscibility. It becomes intelligible only by its relation to form.

9. The specific form of sense objects, since it is not matter, is potentially intelligible.

10. Immateriality is the root both of intelligibility and of intellectuality. The objectivity of our intellectual knowledge implies that there is in sense objects an intelligible element, distinct from matter, and the immateriality of the spirit is the source of intellectuality, the level of intellectuality corresponding to the level of immateriality.

In the order of operation, we note six consequences.

I. The operative potencies, the faculties, are distinguished specifically by the formal object and act to which each is proportioned.

2. Hence each faculty is really distinct, first, from the soul itself, second, from all other faculties.

3. Each cognoscitive faculty becomes, intentionaliter, i. e.: in a supramaterial order, the object known, whereas matter cannot become form.

4. Whatever is in motion has that motion from something higher than itself. Now, in a series of actually and necessarily subordinated causes regression to infinity is impossible: the sea is upheld by the earth, the earth by the sun, the sun by some higher source, but somewhere there must be a first upholding source. Any cause, which is not its own activity, can have that activity ultimately only from a first and supreme cause which is its own activity, and hence its own existence, because mode of activity follows mode of being. Hence the objective necessity of admitting God’s existence.

5. Since every created faculty is specifically constituted by its own proper object, it follows evidently that no created intellect can be specifically proportioned to the proper object of divine intelligence. Hence the divinity as it is in itself, being inaccessible to created intelligence, constitutes an order essentially supernatural, an order of truth and life which transcends even the order of miracles, which are indeed divine deeds, but can be known naturally.

6. The obediential potency, by which the creature is capable of elevation to the supernatural order, is passive, not active. Were it otherwise, this potency would be both essentially natural, as a property of nature, and simultaneously supernatural, as specifically constituted by a supernatural object, to which it would be essentially proportioned. The word “obediential” relates this potency to the agent which alone can raise it to a supernatural object, to which, without that elevation, it can never be related and proportioned. Here lies the distinction between the two orders. The theological virtues are per se infused only because they are specifically constituted by a supernatural object which, without grace, is inaccessible.

Revelation admitted, the real distinction of potency from act, of finite essence from existence, leads us to admit, further, that in Christ, just as there is one person for the two natures, so there is likewise one existence for those two natures. The Word communicates His own existence to his human nature, as, to illustrate, the separated soul, when it resumes its body, gives to that body its own existence. Similarly, in the Trinity, there is for the three persons one sole uncreated existence, namely, existence itself, identified with the divine nature.

Such are the consequences of the distinction between potency and act, first in the natural order, then in the supernatural order. The brief analysis just given shows what the Congregation of Studies had in mind when it declared that the twenty-four theses are safe norms of intellectual direction. The supreme authority does not intend these theses to be definitions of faith, but declarations of the doctrine preferred by the Church.

Forgetting The Twenty-Four Theses

We have noted above the state of things that led to the formation of the twenty-four theses. Now, thirty years later, the same conditions seem to have returned. Lip-service to St. Thomas is universal, but the theses defended under his name are often worlds apart, and even contradict the holy doctor. Can a man be called Thomist by the mere fact that he admits the dogmas defined by the Church, even while he follows Descartes in his teachings on the spiritual life, or denies the evident principle of causality, and hence the validity of proof for the existence of God.

A small error in principle is a great error in conclusion. This is the word of St. Thomas, repeated by Pius X. To reject the first of the twenty-four theses is to reject them all. This reflection led the Church to approve the twenty-four.

But are not the truths of common sense a sufficient foundation for Catholic philosophers and theologians? They are, but not when they are distorted by individualistic interpretations. If these truths are to be defended today, against phenomenalists, idealists, and absolute evolutionists, we must penetrate to their philosophic depths. Without this penetration we lose all consistency, even in fundamentals, and fall prey to a skepticism, if not in thought, at least in life and action, to a fideism which is the dethronement of reason and of all serious intellectual life. And if it be said that sincerity in the search for truth remains, then we must retort that a sincerity which refuses to recognize the value of the greatest doctors whom God gave to His Church is surely a doubtful sincerity, destined never to reach its goal. Common sense is a term to conjure with. But let it be genuine common sense, fortified by deep analysis of man’s first notions and man’s first principles. Otherwise, deserting Thomas of Aquin, we may find ourselves in the poor encampment of Thomas Reid.

Here we may well listen to Pierre Charles, S. J.: “In favor of the history of dogma, and in discredit of metaphysics, an extremely virulent relativism had been, almost without notice, introduced into the teaching of doctrine. Psychology replaced ontology. Subjectivism was substituted for revelation. History inherited the place of dogma. The difference between Catholics and Protestants seemed reduced to a mere practical attitude in regard to the papacy. To arrest and correct this baneful and slippery attitude, Pius X had the proper gesture, brusk and definitive. Anglican modernism today shows all too well the frightening consequences to which, without the intervention of the Holy See, doctrinal relativism might have led us.

“Papal condemnation has brought to light, in many Catholic theologians, a gaping void: the lack of philosophy. They shared the positivistic disdain for metaphysical speculation. Sometimes they proclaimed a highly questionable fideism. Fashion led them to ridicule philosophy, to jeer at its vocabulary, to contrast its infatuated audacity with the modesty of scientific hypotheses. The pope, by describing and synthesizing the modernistic error, compelled theology to re-examine, not so much particular problems, but rather fundamental religious notions, so skillfully distorted by the school of innovators. The philosophic bone-structure began to reappear ever more clearly as indispensable for the entire theological organism.”

We admonish professors, Pius X had said, to bear well in mind, that the smallest departure from Aquinas, especially in metaphysics, brings in its wake great harm.

An historian of medieval philosophy has recently said that Cajetan, instead of limiting himself to an excellent commentary of the Summa, was rather bound to follow the intellectual movement of his time. The truth is that Cajetan did not feel himself thus called by Him who guides the intellectual life of the Church on a higher level than that of petty combinations, presumptions, and other deviations of our limited intelligences. Cajetan’s glory lies in his recognition of the true grandeur of St. Thomas, of whom he willed to be the faithful commentator. This recognition was lacking in Suarez, who deserted the master lines of Thomistic metaphysics to follow his own personal thought.

Many a theologian, on reaching the next world, will realize that here below he failed to appreciate the grace which God bestowed on His Church when He gave her the Doctor Communis.

In these late years one such theologian has said that speculative theology, after giving beautiful systems to the Middle Ages, does not today know what it wants, or whither it is going, and that there is no longer serious work except in positive theology. He is but repeating what was said during the epoch of modernism. In point of truth, theology, if it disregarded the principles of the Thomistic synthesis, would resemble a geometry which, disregarding Euclidean principles, would not know whither it is going.

Another theologian of our own time proposes to change the order among the chief dogmatic treatises, to put the treatise on the Trinity before that of De Deo uno, which he would notably reduce. Further, on the fundamental problems relative to nature and grace, he invites us to return to what he holds to be the true position of many Greek Fathers anterior to St. Augustine. The labors of Aquinas, the labors of seven centuries of Thomists, are either of no value or of very little value.

Alongside these extreme and idle views, we find an eclectic opportunism, which strives to reach a higher level between positions which it regards as extreme. But it is destined to perpetual oscillation between two sides, since it can not recognize, or then cannot appreciate, that higher truth, which, amid fruitless tentatives, the Church unswervingly upholds and opportunely repeats, as she has done in our own time by approving the twenty-four theses.

We must grant that the problems of the present hour grow continually graver. But this situation is an added reason for returning to the doctrine of St. Thomas on being, truth, and goodness, on the objective validity of first principles, which alone can lead to certitude on God’s existence, which is the foundation of all duty, and to attentive examination of those prime notions which are involved in the very enunciation of the fundamental dogmas. This necessity has been recently reinculcated by the Right Reverend St. M. Gillet, general of the Dominicans in a letter to all professors in the order. Msgr. Olgiati urges the same necessity in a forthcoming book on “Law according to St. Thomas.” By this road alone can we reach the goal, thus indicated by the Vatican Council:

“Reason, illumined by faith, if it seeks sedulously, piously, and soberly, can attain a most fruitful understanding of revealed mysteries, both by analogy with natural knowledge and by the interwoven union of these mysteries with one another and with man’s last end. ”

Who more surely than St. Thomas can lead us to this goal? Let us not forget the word of Leo XIII, on the certainty, profundity, and sublimity of the saint’s teaching.

In the life of the priest, above all in the life of a professor, whether of philosophy or not, it is a great grace to have been fashioned by the principles of St. Thomas. How much floundering and fluctuation does he thereby escape: on the validity of reason, on God one and triune, on the redemptive Incarnation, the sacraments, on the last end, on human acts, on sin, grace, virtues, and gifts! These directing principles of thought and life become ever more necessary as the conditions of existence grow ever more difficult, demanding a certitude more firm, a faith more immovable, a love of God more pure and strong.

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