Thomas Aquinas and Contemporary Philosophy

July 5, 2011

A Report by Br. Ambrose Little, O.P.

From June 23-26, a group of philosophy professors and graduate students gathered at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY, to begin a new initiative to address problems in contemporary thought by applying to them the perennial principles found in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. To do that, we gathered to lay the foundation for a dialogue that we hope will continue for many years to come. The event was co-sponsored by the Catholic and Dominican Institute of Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY, and the Thomistic Institute of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. The conference had a good feel to it from the first moment I arrived. Jokes and friendly conversation greeted me upon my arrival outside the dorm where we would be staying. This friendly atmosphere continued throughout the weekend, for there were plenty of opportunities to socialize amidst the more serious discussions. The event attracted a wide variety of people, with guests from as far away as Rome and some who lived only a few minutes away. Though many of the attendees were professional philosophers and students, some were locals simply interested in learning how St. Thomas can help us to promote truth among our contemporaries. The number of young professors and graduate students was also uplifting, for these students and teachers want to bring to their various philosophy faculties the perennial wisdom of St. Thomas and Aristotle. Beginning Thursday evening, Fr. Charles Morerod, O.P. opened the workshop with a paper on the vocation of the Catholic Philosopher as a philosopher. Fr. Morerod noted that the Catholic Philosopher has a huge advantage. While using reason to discern natural principles, the philosopher also has the aid of the light of faith to help him see where he might make mistakes. This opening lecture helped to set the stage for the weekend, encouraging us to seek diligently for the truth, for that truth will always point to God. The first full day of the conference began Friday morning. Friday was dedicated to papers concerning dialogue with contemporary philosophy and what errors must be avoided. Dr. John O’Callaghan showed us that “contemporary analytic philosophy” is more of a social grouping than a consistent system of thought and method. Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. rounded off the morning with a discussion of the role of history in modern philosophy. Noting that we must avoid historical amnesia as well as historicism, he lifted up St. Thomas Aquinas’ virtue theory as an example of how to use history properly. Dr. Gyula Klima explained to us how we can translate St. Thomas’ notion of being and essence into a symbolic language understandable to analytic philosophers. The day ended with Dr. Joshua Hochschild showing us that no one is truly a relativist, but that our contemporaries tend simply to ignore deeper issues, tending only to manipulate appearances. He ended by pointing out the need to promote St. Thomas’ moral theory as a whole to engage contemporary issues. This was only highlighted by the results of the vote in Albany later that evening. On Saturday, the papers were more principle-oriented. Dr. Alfred Freddoso began the day discussing the human soul, and how we, as animals, differ from all other animals. Fr. Lawrence Dewan, O.P., discussed what kind of knowledge we can have about God, ending with an analysis of St. Thomas’ famous five ways of proving the existence of God. Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., followed upon this by discussing how we can talk about God and the important use of analogy in applying our language to Him. The conferences ended with a paper by Fr. James Brent, O.P., discussing the ways we can use reason to rationally defend belief and what characteristics the true faith has that can be recognized by reason. The most beautiful part of the weekend, however, was to see the deep faith of the attendees of the conference. We celebrated Mass every day with a wide attendance. It was fitting that two solemnities fell during the conference. First, we celebrated the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Like John the Baptist, many of us realized that we have to be voices for true philosophy in the wilderness of the contemporary philosophical world. And like John the Baptist, when we reach the limits of philosophical thought we realize that all we can do is point beyond ourselves and say “behold the Lamb of God.” The last event of the weekend was Mass on Corpus Christi, after which we had a procession to the old convent chapel. Processing before Christ present in the Eucharist, following behind the banner of the Cross, we sang the words of St. Thomas Aquinas “Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius” (There is nothing truer than this word of truth). This procession summed up the weekend better than words ever could. As I was cleaning the chapel after one of the Masses I remember looking around and seeing that long after Mass had ended there were still a good number of people praying. These men and women with all their great intellectual capacity were kneeling devoutly before Truth Himself. I could not help but think, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32).

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