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Early in the 19th century in Italy certain Catholic professors of philosophy began to see in Thomas Aquinas's teaching basic principles that might resolve the problems associated with Kantian and Hegelian Idealism, British Empiricism, current Rationalism, Skepticism, and Liberalism. By 1850, neo Thomism or neoscholasticism began to be heard through the writings of Gaetano Sanseverino in Naples, Matteo Liberatore in Rome, and the Jesuit periodical Civilita Cattolica founded in Naples in 1850. These efforts were brought to a head by Josef Kleutgen in Germany, Henri LaCordaire in France, Zeferino Gonzales in the Philippines and Spain, and Tommaso Zigliara and Pope Leo XIII in Italy. The charter of this neo Thomism was Leo's Aeterni Patris (1879). Through subsequent encyclicals, Leo exemplified the applicability of Thomistic ideas to contemporary problems. All subsequent popes, including John Paul II, reiterated the need for a Christian philosophy based on Thomistic principles.

The rise of Modernism in the Roman Catholic church after 1900, however, resulted in a multiplicity of ecclesiastical condemnations, a legislated Thomism, and a failure to realize the hopes of Leo XIII. Despite this and two world wars, much fruitful work was accomplished by outstanding scholars, numerous periodicals, and editors of historical texts, including the critical edition of the works of Aquinas (the Leonine Edition). Among the great number of modern scholars who called themselves Thomists (but not neo Thomists or neoscholastics) were Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Martin Grabmann, and Yves Congar.

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For reasons still not fully understood, a decided reaction against Aquinas and neoscholasticism occurred in the 1960s. Some have erroneously associated this with the Second Vatican Council, which turned people's minds toward social rather than doctrinal issues. Aquinas was, however, the only scholastic doctor mentioned by name in all the conciliar documents. The real reasons for the decline of neoscholasticism must be sought in the wider sociological and psychological concerns of contemporary society.

Y Congar, A History of Theology (1968); E Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1957); R M McInerny, ed., New Themes in Christian Philosophy (1968); B Smalley, The Becket Conflict and the Schools: A Study of Intellectuals in Politics (1973)

Neo - Thomism

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Neo-Thomism is a twentieth century revival of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Thomism had been the dominant philosophy undergirding Roman Catholic theology from the fifteenth century. Under the pace setting interpretations of such thinkers as Cajetan in the early sixteenth century a complex system which spoke to the needs of both theology and contemporary philosophical questions developed. Thomism appeared to have triumphed in 1880 when Pope Leo XIII declared it to be the official (though not exclusive) philosophy of Catholic schools.

However, at the same time it became clear that Thomism's posture was threatened by the increasing popularity of Kantian philosophical principles. In the twentieth century the movement bifurcated. Transcendental Thomism, represented by Joseph Marechal, Bernard Lonergan, and Karl Rahner, self consciously adapted itself to Kantian thought. But another wing, under the leadership of Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, sought to recover a pure version of the teachings of Aquinas himself. Eventually this understanding crossed confessional boundaries to include such Protestants as E L Mascall. This article will concentrate on this latter movement.

The metaphysical distinctive of neo Thomism may be found in its insistence on the maxim that "existence precedes essence." For that reason Maritain has claimed that Thomism is the original existentialism. Put simply, this means that one has to know that something exists before one knows what it is, and before one knows that something exists, one has to accept that anything exists. This latter conviction is not the result of a rational deduction; it is an immediate awareness. Thus the act of being, apprehended in a direct intuition, precedes its various modalities.

This apprehension of being leads the Thomist to posit the existence of God via the cosmological argument. For even though the reality of being is an inescapable fact, it is not a logically necessary truth. Being exists, but need not exist. Thus being is inherently contingent, and its contingency makes it finite. If it exists in view of having no inherent necessity to do so, it must be caused to exist. Also, the very forms which being assumes are due to the interplay of various causes; and the fact of change, so characteristic of being, must be the result of causal actions as well. Thus being is bounded by causes wherever it appears.

However, since it is a logical absurdity for anything to cause itself, there must be an external cause of being. Now if that cause is also finite, we have not grounded finite being yet, and it still should not exist. A chain of finite causes would carry the same problem with it. Hence the Thomist posits an original uncaused cause of all being, viz. God. It must be noted that this argument is based on the metaphysical necessity for a cause of being, not on a need for explanation, as would be the case with Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason.

The understanding of God as unconditioned necessary existence goes far in providing the basis for Thomistic natural theology. For if God is uncaused, he is unlimited. Then he contains all perfections infinitely; e.g., he is all - good, omnipresent, omniscient, all - loving, perfect person, etc. There can be only one such God, since a God who possesses all perfections cannot differ from any other God who would also possess all the identical possessions. Thus Thomists feel confident that their philosophical arguments concern the same God whom they worship in church.

Thomism understands the relationship between God the Creator and the created order to be analogical. God is the source of all being, and finitude participates in his being, but only with limitations. In the matter of applying language to God, predication proceeds analogically as well. Language is derived from the finite world. But then it is applied to God with the understanding that he is the source of all named properties and that he posseses all those properties without limitation. For example, one may apply the word "love" to God, even though it is a word learned within human finite relationships, because God is pure love and the originator of all human love.

The insistence on being over essence also makes itself felt in Thomism's understanding of the human person. Thomism avoids both a Platonic mind - body dualism and a reductive materialism. With the understanding of the soul as the form of the body, the human is seen as a unit, composed of soul and body in mutual dependence. Thus, for instance, cognition combines both the physical / empirical (sensation) and the spiritual (abstraction). Thomistic writings have consistently defended the dignity and integrity of human personhood, particularly against totalitarian ideologies.

In theology Thomism has usually been linked to conservative expressions of orthodox doctrines, partially due to the close dependence on Aquinas's own formulations. Since the Second Vatican Council it has lost much ground in Catholic circles to philosophies of more recent origin, e.g., phenomenology or process thought, due to a certain impatience with Thomism's supposedly outmoded Aristotelianism. At the same time there has been some movement in evangelical Protestantism to adopt Thomistic philosophical principles for purposes of apologetics and theological enhancement, e.g., by Norman L Geisler.

W Corduan
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

N L Geisler, Philosophy of Religion; E Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas; J Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge and Scholasticism and Politics; E L Mascall, Existence and Analogy.

Also, see:

Summa Theologiae

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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