10 December 2016

Is Fr Z important?

I would not wish to imply that Fr Z is ever anything other than tremendously important! I wish I had half his erudition and energy! But I do wish to suggest to you that his post yesterday was very, very important indeed. ... I wish the Thesaurus offered more synonyms for "important" ...

Father gave links to a highly important paper by Professors John Finnis and Germain Grisez. Some readers might be unaware of what enormously significant scholars these are. For decades, they have been expounding the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, and doing so in complete fidelity to the Deposit of Faith, the Tradition that comes to us from the Apostles. But doing so with a profundity and a freshness of touch which constitutes a valid and illuminating "development" of that Tradition. Finnis, of this University, is a jurist and a philosopher of Law with an international standing (an important constitutional case which has this week been argued before a full eleven judge bench of our Supreme Court involved discussion of a paper which he he had written). I mean no disrespect to the Four Courageous Cardinals when I say that the entry by Finnis and Grisez into the Amoris laetitia controversy is probably the most disabling intellectual blow yet delivered to the shadowy and heterodox circle which surrounds our Holy Father.

Fr Z also provided a link to a sermon preached by Papa Bergoglio in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Coming as it does so soon after publication of the Sovereign Pontiff's words about shit-eating, this puerile and unbalanced attack upon those the pope appears to enjoy hating seems to me ... I feel compelled by Canon 212 paragraph 3 and the Holy Father's own often-expressed desire for Parrhesia to say this ... to raise disturbing questions about Pope Francis' mind.

I shall not enable any comments upon that last paragraph.   And, by the way, I have recently declined to enable a number of comments because of the violence of their language or their espousal of heresies such as Sedevacantism. And, if you desire me to get in touch with you personally and privately, you need to send me your email address.


Kerry said...

One supposes most readers are unaware what "enormously significant scholars these are". Between their unwritten 'if's and then's', what magnificent reasoning!

mark wauck said...

I think it's necessary to be aware of several important considerations regarding the moral thinking of John Finnis and Germain Grisez (not "de Grisez").

Of course we're all grateful that over the years Finnis and Grisez have supported the traditional conclusions of Catholic moral doctrine, and now support The Four Red Hats and their dubia. However, any study of the history of thought should quickly lead to the insight--so frequently and regrettably ignored--that HOW one arrives at a conclusion is usually as important as the conclusion itself, because if the conclusions are not fully supported by the approach adopted the conclusions themselves will be quickly discredited.

Grisez and Finnis are part of a movement known as The New Natural Law Theory. What this means in practice, as Catholic thinkers such as Russell Hittinger (whose thinking reflects that of thinkers such as Ralph McInerny, Henry Veatch, and Alasdair MacIntyre) have repeatedly pointed out, is that, while Grisez and Finnis certainly intend to arrive at the Catholic conclusions that they profess, they proceed by first accepting the terms of the Kantian Critique, which excludes metaphysics from moral thinking. In turn, this excludes what has traditionally been known as "philosophical anthropology."

This approach is emphatically NOT representative of traditional Catholic thought nor of Thomist thought. Their critics--both Thomists as well as non-Catholic thinkers--maintain that this approach does not actually support the Catholic conclusions that Grisez and Finnis profess.

Why is it important to bear this in mind, even as these men offer their support to The Four Red Hats? Because their work is emblematic of the widespread intellectual confusion in the Church today, but which has its most proximate origins in the late 19th century and gained critical mass in the mid 20th century--to emerge in full form in the wake of Vatican II. (Anyone interested in some of this history from a strictly philosophical standpoint is referred to works such as those by Etienne Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience and Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge.)

The point is that Grisez and Finnis share most of the basic underlying philosophical presuppositions as the most rabid of modernist thinkers, and to the extent that they claim to offer an alternative to traditional Catholic moral thought, an alternative that accepts the presuppositions of modern (especially Kantian critical) thought, they have contributed to the intellectual confusion in the Church. I repeat: there are many highly respected Catholic thinkers who maintain that this project--which has been tried several times throughout the history of natural law thinking--amounts to one more attempt at forcing a square peg into a round circle. To that extent, these men, despite their good intentions, are part of the problem, not the solution.

Thus, while we must be cognizant of the current threat, we must never forget that some of our allies are offering us weak reeds for support. The modern forms of "philosophy", typically in Kantian form, are inimical to the tradition of Catholic moral thinking and it behooves us to be wary of offers of support from that quarter. Any "reform of the reform" will inevitably need to address the philosophical basis for so much of what troubles us.

John Fisher said...

Its seems father you are right on the mark. Even "The Spectator" makes the points about Francis many Catholics have noted and as he has just turned 80 suggest he resigns. One interesting point is observing if Donald Trump used the words Francis uses there would be trouble. (Lawsuits)Imagine how many millions their might be as each felt emotionally, doctrinally, spiritually, politically violated by him! Perhaps even some Argentine Jesuits and member of his home diocese could accuse him of violating and destroying vocations.

Nicolas Bellord said...

The Finnis/Grisez letter is different in kind from the dubia in that it suggests the probable outcomes of Amoris Laetitiae being left in uncorrected form whilst the dubia pointed to actual passages that needed correction or clarification. It is a very useful addition to the debate and will, I hope, add to the pressure on Pope Francis to respond.

Julie McCarthy said...

Thank you for your own input Father (should that be Rev Father?). Off to check up on Fr Z's latest. Much enjoyed the other acerbic and witty blog you recommended.

Titus said...

Mr. Wauck's summary of Finnis's and Grisez's thought is accurate, but not complete. Finnis and Grisez have adopted the methodology they have not because they are operating from different intellectual premises, but because they recognize that the traditional intellectual premises of Thomism make it incapable of discourse with modern thought. Now, oftentimes, modern philosophy isn't worth talking with, but if one is going to criticize its disciples, it helps, even if it be not strictly necessary, to be capable of doing so in a language they have some hope of understanding.

And Finnis is worth reading if only for his crushing demolition of consequentialism. That's worth the price of admission right there.

Nicolas Bellord said...

It is curious how what many of us would regard as the greatest crisis in the Church since the Arian heresy seems to have been totally ignored in the secular media whilst a vulgar remark by Pope Francis does get reported even by such papers as The Guardian.

Christina Reyes said...

Could I suggest that the Pope might have mixed up two similar psychiatric terms?
Coprophilia makes no sense.
I suspect he meant coprolalia, which is intemperate language seen in those with Tourettes syndrome.

mark wauck said...


Similarly, if you had asked Bugnini he would probably have told you that the only way for the liturgy to "speak to" modern man was by removing the dead hand of the Roman past. The results, of course, speak for themselves.

Etienne Gilson pointed out in Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge(1939, a portentous year) that to the extent that one adopts the vocabulary of one's opponents you almost inevitably also accept his terms of debate. This is certainly true in the encounter between Catholic faith and modern thought. In Finnis' case you (Titus) admit that he adopts the "methodology" of the moderns. That is already a far cry beyond merely adopting a certain vocabulary, for as Gilson further demonstrates in exquisite--not to say excruciating--detail, to accept the starting point of one's opponent (i.e., his methodology) is to accept his conclusions. The conclusions are inscribed, as it were, within the methodology. This is the criticism that Thomists have consistently leveled at Grisez and Finnis, and as in liturgy the results of adopting modern methodology speak for themselves.

Alasdair MacIntyre has, in his own way, several times addressed these same points, and I'm aware of no convincing rebuttal. I urge anyone interested in these matters to refer to Gilson's book. To offer just one example, his illustration of how differences in vocabulary affect thought in crucial ways begins with his discussion of the difference between what moderns call "presuppositions" and what Thomists call "principles." Failure to understand the difference inevitably leads to intellectual shipwreck.

As for discourse with the moderns, I continue to maintain that it IS possible without compromise--as witness the enduring relevance of such thinkers as Chesterton, Lewis, and many others. While they may adopt a vocabulary that is more congenial to those who are not educated in the Church's perennial philosophy, they do so without adopting the loaded terminology of the moderns, and certainly not the modern methodology.

So, accept the Grisez/Finnis critique of AL for what it's worth, but be aware that a reform of the reform MUST urgently address the philosophical confusion that is at the heart of heart of the current crisis.

tradgardmastare said...

Can't seem to find the link on Fr Z's blog to the pope's sermon,can you help?

ffcfcfcfcf said...

Father Hunwicke, I knoow you live in a declining Western country, where coarse language has become the norm, both on television and in public. But do please uphold the civilization that was handed down to you by our parents, and do not use the word "Shit" in your commentary. There are plenty of alternatives.

Nicolas Bellord said...

Christina: Pope Francis used two different words: coprophilia and coprophagy so I am afraid his meaning was quite clear. I find it curious that he knew both words when I suspect most people have never heard of either.

Melinda said...


"the civilization that was handed down to you by our parents". Presumably, then, you would not include the writings of Chaucer or Shakespeare in that civilization? (Not to mention Dante!) Or did their coarse language contribute to the Western decline? If so, we must go yet farther back before Anglo-Saxon riddles to find a properly sanitary language to suit your tastes; and, I fear, in the hunt for purity, will be forced to get rid of writing and language altogether.

Banshee said...

Mark Wauck -- Surely St. Thomas Aquinas started with his opponents' arguments, or at least included their best arguments and even bettered them. I agree that you should not accept an opponent's premises as your own. But if you can argue starting from their premises and still show they are wrong, how are you losing?

Re: the pope's fervorino, he's doing that thing again. He describes exactly the sort of problem that we have -- priests who make Mass all about them -- and then he contends that problem priests have a tendency to be serious and hardworking! I suppose that in Hispanic countries it might be different, but problem priests and even abusive priests here in the US have tended to be the touchy-feely, friend to everybody, joking about everything, never wear clerical clothing types.

It's not bad to be genial and extroverted, but it makes a great cover for pedophiles; so they usually make a point of being the life of the party.

So yeah, the idea that a huggy priest is _necessarily_ a nice priest, and that non-huggy priests don't care about their flocks... um, I don't think Pope Francis has been paying attention.

Joshua said...

The late, great Benedict XIV had a bad habit of exclaiming "Cabbages!" - apparently a common feature of contemporary Bolognaise slang - to the scandal of the Papal court, but that pales into insignificance beside the current Bishop of Rome's worrying predilection for insults, patronising psychobabble and coprolalia, not to mention his tendencies toward Latin American authoritarian populiism (Peron comes to mind, as does the dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, next as farce), nor the cursing, mockery and dismissal of his enemies real and imagined (meeting some Immaculate Franciscans, I had to restrain myself from exclaiming, Salvete, flores martyrum), which, if symptoms intensify, could result in quite some embarrassment for the poor put-upon plebs sancta Dei, who earnestly pray not to have to behold a coprolaliac pontiff astride the Papal throne like a latter-day Montaigne meditating upon the privy. I was asked the other day, in the light of his remarks, whether I thought the Pope to be well, and was constrained to reply in all honesty that I hoped not.

RichardT said...

I first heard of coprophilia about ten years ago, when a LibDem MP had to resign after the newspapers discovered that he was a connoisseur of the practice.

Cosmos said...

Titus and Wauk and Banshee,

I agree with Wauk's criticism of contemporary high catholic scholarship. The best minds seem trapped in agendas set by non-believers, and are constantly undertaking projects that end in very questionable conclusions and methodologies. The projects seem justified by the acclaim they get in academia, and the theological issues that they create seem largely ignored. I struggle with the Pope Emeritus in this regard--for example, his acceptance of the evolutionary hypothesis and his consequent use of de Chardin to try and rectify evolution and faith (it seems hyper-revolutionary to me). But I can assure you that Finnis is not at all a modernist, he is the exact opposite. His views are extremely traditional.

I think Titus is right that what Finnis is doing is trying to explain modern human rights theory to actual jurists in terms of the underlying assumptions that are necessary to ground that philosophy. Finnis believes those foundations are ultimately compatible with, and analogous to, traditional Catholic morality (starting with the idea of justice as giving each what is rightfully his).

I agree that the "holes" in Finnis theory are the places where the underlying modern philosophy rejects certain key insights of Thomas and Aristotle. I know he does not think of himself as a theologian, so it would be interesting to see how he answered this criticism. He is extremely nimble-minded. I guarantee you it has not escaped him.

Banshee, Thomas Merton wrote something to the effect of, "if TA can use Aristotle to explain Christianity, surely I can use Taoism." JPII was a proponent of using phenomenology and personalism in the same way. The issue that Wauk points out is that not all philosophies are all equally capable of supporting the truth. Aristotle is rooted in what philosophers now call a "naive realism," a belief that reality is an objective reality that can be explored through our faculties. Stated simply in presupposes a Creator, Truth, and reason's access to Truth. It understands morality as flowing from this objective reality. Other philosophies reject these premises, making them ultimately less fit for use by Catholics.

You said "surely St. Thomas Aquinas started with his opponents' arguments, or at least included their best arguments and even bettered them." This is true, but he ultimately circled back and answered on his own (Aristotelian) terms in a manner that was internally consistent. The issue that I think Wauk points out is that modern Catholic scholars don't seem to steer it back in an intellectually satisfying manner. They just gloss over the inconsistencies in the name of evangelism, dialogue, synthesis, or something else.

mark wauck said...

@ Banshee

Certainly if one is able to demonstrate that an opponent's argument is based on inner contradictions, one should do so. However, Gilson takes as his examples prominent Catholic intellectuals of his time--and especially two Jesuits, Rousselot and Marechal. These two men were enormously influential on both their contemporaries as well as on their successors--if names like de Lubac, Rahner, Lonergan, and many more mean anything. And Gilson gives credit where it is due--he acknowledges that all these men were highly intelligent

Gilson adopts an approach not dissimilar to what you recommend, but with a crucial difference. What he does is demonstrate that all the men whose thought he examines--and these were eminent men in their day--sought to derive Thomist conclusions from Cartesian or Kantian presuppositions (that last point is important; we are dealing here with presuppositions, NOT principles). And he shows that this is impossible, despite the best efforts of these powerful minds. Thus, Gilson's approach does not begin by accepting his opponents' "premises"--to do so would lead into the same dead end--but by rejecting those premises. He does this by recalling what Aristotle and Aquinas said about principles and by showing that his opponents' arguments rest on what are in fact arbitrary presuppositions.

Why is this so important? Gilson's key point is that philosophy rests ultimately upon insight into existing reality, and thus can never proceed in a priori mathematical fashion from presupposed starting points. As he points out, if one starts with Descartes by doubting all but the thinking mind, one will never get beyond starting point--as the history of Cartesian based thinking has demonstrated. Kant's subtle attempt to get beyond that starting point has been widely influential, but as Gilson's analysis of Marechal demonstrates (and as we have seen from Marechal's successors), Kantian based thought suffers from the same defect and is just as doomed to failure.

The problem, however, is that this is not simply an intellectual game. If it were, thinkers would acknowledge, like chess players, that their use of unsound "presuppositions" had led them into checkmate. Instead, the use of these presuppositions, the desire to use the premises of modernist thinkers, is too often based on the desire to justify moving beyond the Apostolic Tradition. As Paul wrote to Timothy: "The time will come when men will not tolerate sound teaching; instead, because their ears are itching, they'll gather teachers for themselves in accordance with their own desires."

And this is precisely what gave Gilson such unease. He was humble enough to acknowledge the brilliance of many of the thinkers whom he criticized. Their inevitable failures, which should have been patent to minds such as theirs, could therefore not arise from lack of intelligence but must arise from wrong desires.

Jacques Maritain hits on a similar point in his The Peasant of the Garonne. In discussing what most would term "modern philosophy"--which is to say, secular thinking from Descartes onwards, including especially the long line of German thinkers following on from Kant--Maritain pointedly denies these often brilliant men the title of philosophers and instead terms them "ideosophers." In doing so, like Gilson, Maritain is making a distinction that is often lost on our contemporaries: the difference between the love of wisdom based on insight into reality and the desire to dominate reality through the supposed power of our ideas.

Timothy Graham said...

Cosmos at al: it is worth pointing out that in the later half of the 20th C most Aquinas scholars have stopped calling him Aristotelian, and now talk of Thomas the Christian Platonist - in the broad stream of St John, the Greek Fathers, Augustine, Boethius, and the school of St Victor - who took on board some insights of the recently rediscovered Aristotle. Thomas uses Aristotle to qualify a (dare one say it) canonical Christian philosophy, and his use of Aristotle is perhaps not the most important thing about Aquinas.

I mention this because Kant and Romanticism can be diverted to become tributaries of this stream much more easily than they can be reconciled with a naively realist late scholastic philosophy that sees its own version of "Aristotelian" Thomas as simply Christianity... and I think that there were significant contributions made by Coleridge, and subsequently Newman and Pusey in this project.

Banshee said...

Well, I would agree that Taoism is not a philosophy of logic, so it would be a bit silly to use logic against it to try to prove anything. You would either have to out-Tao the Taoists, or just propose another argument and worldview. So if that is what was meant, I would agree.

Cosmos said...

Graham, that is interesting. It seems like it would be very difficult to downplay the fundamental influence of Aristotle to Aquinas. I wonder how they do that?

Wauk, great post! It makes me want to read more Gilson. I think I have wrongly read him as making a name for himself by discovering the existentialist in Thomas at just the right moment! I'm a little suspicious of 20th century scholars, as you can already tell.

Banshee, I would argue that a lot of other philosophies, like DeCartes', Kant's, Hegel's, also reject not necessarily logic, but some necessary starting points for reasoned discourse or philosophy. Aristotelian thought, on the other hand, seems almost more like an exposition of logical reasoning about the world. In that sense, it's not just one philosophy among many. I'm not sure I'm saying that well.

Timothy Graham said...

Cosmos: (1) the most cited authors in Aquinas's corpus are the NT first, Augustine second, (2) Aquinas's reception of Aristotle involves significant rejections and revisions of almost every fundamental feature of his philosophy including being, universal hylomorphism etc. (3) Cornelius Fabro's paper about Aquinas' Christian Platonism (Louvain 1950) threw everyone by revealing what was hidden in plain daylight for 4-500 years, viz. a defining feature of Aquinas's thought was the "Platonic" idea of participation in the divine... to the best of my knowledge (since this insight has been digested) no scholar of Thomas's philosophy has even tried to go back on this insight.

It isn't a case of downplaying Aristotle in Aquinas, but getting at Thomas as a thinker in his own right who synthesised Aristotle with a Christian philosophy that was thoroughly Augustinian and Platonist. Cajetan got Thomas wrong in many ways. His mistakes are none the better for having been made in the 16th C, any more than Fabro's corrections are necessarily to be thrown out for having been made in the 20th.

David Manly said...

Dear Father, Just to make sure you are acquainted with the allegation that Mgr Pinto became in 1970 a member of the infamous P2 masonic lodge, the evidence of which is found in the Pecorelli List of ecclesiastic members. David Manly

Banshee said...

No, you're right -- Aristotelianism is about logic, and no logic is workable unless you believe that logic and reality are congruent -- that you can use logic to understand the universe, and that other tools work better when combined or co-working with logic. There are other philosophies based on logic, but Aristotle is one of the biggies. So if you are going to talk about logic in any century after Aristotle, you have to grapple with him and his thoughts.

I wonder if using logical systems to argue against illogical philosophies is one of those cases dependent on the concept that "Arguments are a spectator sport," and "You argue for the benefit of the onlookers" (as the fantasy author Larry Correia has often contended in Internet battles). The person engaging in the argument might not be convinced by learning logic, but the spectators might be. Championing the claims of logic prevents onlookers from thinking that logic has no answer for illogical contentions.