Ignatians: Pro-Convert through Intellectually Demanding Equipping

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Ignatians will equip themselves to present the truth and beauty of the Catholic Faith to non-Catholics by a demanding intellectual formation in philosophy, theology, the liberal arts and oratory.

They will give special importance to St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology and its scholastic method which has already proven its effectiveness by the long line of converts who have enthusiastically spoken of its role in their conversion to Catholicism. And also, in a special way, a theology and philosophical method valued by contemporary scientists.

St. Thomas Aquinas: the preferred philosopher among neuroscientists and intellectuals of all types even self-described hillbillies

A  pointer to the relevance of Aquinas among 20th and 21st century thinkers is the steady stream of intellectuals who convert or return to Catholicism aided by his writings. For instance, the American Jewish intellectual Mortimer Adler. Or the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who once explained that his conversion to Catholicism happened in his fifties as a “result of being convinced of Thomism while attempting to disabuse his students of its authenticity”.

The great French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel (1868-1935) returned to the Church after a struggle in which three “books”  played a prominent role: the Bible, The Imitation of Christ and St.Thomas Aquinas’ writings.

In her autobiography, Faith Through Reason, Janne Haaland Matlary, one-time deputy foreign minister of Norway, explains how an important step in her journey from being a Norwegian caught up in the secular, post-Protestant culture of her homeland to entering the Catholic Church at age 25  was her discovery of St.Thomas Aquinas as a scholarship student in a Protestant American university.

Flannery O’Connor

      The down-to-earth American female novelist, Flannery O’Connor, styled herself a “Hillbilly Thomist” and remarked in The Habit of Being:

“I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this:  I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late.’ I, with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes.’ or some such thing. In any case I feel I can personally guarantee that St.Thomas loved God because, for the life of me, I cannot help loving St.Thomas.” 

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton, a convert and a man of towering genius who thought outside of the boxes of conservatism and liberalism, remarked about St. Thomas:

“Above all, his [Father D’Arcy’s] wide reading in metaphysics has made him patient with clever people when they indulge in folly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these: ‘A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St. Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences. For St. Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and again reality and intelligibility correspond, but a thing must first be, to be intelligible.’

“Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the ‘remarkable difference’ seems to him to be that St. Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand. Yet Father D’Arcy mentions this Hegelian paradox as if it were all in the day’s work; and of course it is, if the work is reading all the modern philosophers as searchingly and sympathetically as he has done.” (G. K. CHESTERTON, St.Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox)

Or, as the English convert stated elsewhere in the same book:

“ ‘There is an Is’. That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet, upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.”  (G. K. Chesterton St. Thomas Aquinas)

“Nobody can understand the greatness of the thirteenth century, who does not realize that it was a great growth of new things produced by a living thing. In that sense it was really bolder and freer than what we call the renaissance, which was a resurrection of old things discovered in a dead thing… and the Gospel according to St. Thomas… was a new thrust like the titanic thrust of Gothic engineering; and its strength was in a God that makes all things new.” (G. K. Chesterton St. Thomas Aquinas)

Raissa Maritain

“It was not without trembling with curiosity and foreboding that I opened for the first time the Summa Theologiae on the “Treatise on God.”

Was not scholasticism, according to the reputation which had been given it, a tomb of subtleties fallen to dust?

And would not even the Prince of the schoolmen himself throw a little of this dust on the flames of our young faith?

From the very first pages 1 understood the emptiness, the childishness of my fears.

Everything, here, was freedom of spirit, purity of faith, integrity of the intellect enlightened by knowledge and genius.

The serene calm of the style, in appearance so impersonal, the peaceful bearing of the reasoning which gives to each word the meaning closest to the intellectual intuition from which it was born and, for this very reason, giving it the fullness of its savour; the spiritual power, almost angelic, which allows Saint Thomas to enfold within the briefest of his propositions innumerable truths each linked the one to the other according to the very hierarchy of real beings—everything was luminous for me in what I read, and it was with incessant thanksgiving that I pursued my reading.

Writing these pages I find myself again in the happy emotion of that first contact with the thought of Saint Thomas.

So great a light kept flowing into both my heart and mind that I was carried away as if by a joy of Paradise.

To pray, to understand, was for me one and the same thing; the one made me thirst for the other, and that thirst in me I felt to be constantly, and yet never, quenched.” (RAISSA MARITAIN,  We have been friends together.The Memoirs of Raissa Maritain.  Adventures in Grace. Image Books, New York,1961, p.182-183.)

Thomism: A Philosophy for Scientists

This “common sense”, understood not sociologically but as regards the infrastructure of knowledge, is what draws contemporary scientists to St. Thomas.

One of them, Walter Freeman, a cognitive neuroscientist and pioneer of neurodynamics, has pointed to Thomism as the philosophy of cognition most compatible with neurodynamics in any scientific explanations of intentionality:

“The core Aquinian concept of the unity of brain, body and soul/mind, which had been abandoned by mechanists and replaced by Brentano and Husserl using the duality inherent in representationalism, has been revived by Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, but in phenomenological terms that are opaque to neuroscientists. In my experience there is no extant philosophical system than that of Aquinas that better fits with the new findings in nonlinear brain dynamics.” (Article “Nonlinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas” in Mind and Matter, Vol. 6 (2), 2008, pp. 207-234)

In a conversation with someone who had doctorates in pure mathematics and physics and who had also studied philosophy and theology, the interlocutor asked me to explain Heidegger’s thought to him. He then remarked:

“I decided not to study modern philosophers in depth after making a comparison between them and Aristotle. Aristotle was not only a philosopher but a man of vast learning in the sciences of biology, physics, architecture, engineering, a man of remarkably vast interests and his philosophy reflected this. Modern philosophers are closed in on their own systems without seeking to integrate the discoveries of quantum physics and other new discoveries.”

Since the “system” of St.Thomas is based on realism, it is open to all the discoveries of the sciences and philosophy. That is why scientists like Anthony Rizzi, a  distinguished physicist with degrees from MIT and Princeton, who solved an 80 year old problem in Einstein’s theory, has such admiration for St.Thomas.

Ignatians Choose St. Thomas because He is Against the “Will to Power”

The Society of Ignatians, for the foreseeable future, will fight for Christ and the salvation of souls in a world largely dominated by the “Dictatorship of Relativism” (Benedict XVI).  In a society from which absolute moral truths have been expelled, there is no longer any North Star to guide men in their decision-making. Right and wrong become subject to individual determination, based upon one’s own judgment with the winds of passion allowed to blow freely. Such a society is already mentally conditioned for the rise of would-be dictators with their characteristic arbitrary mode of government.

Both political dictatorship and the culture of relativism owe much to a long line of philosophers and theologians stretching back to Duns Scotus (c.1266-1308), William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), Martin Luther, and Rene Descartes.  All of these thinkers were philosophical voluntarists: they held that an action is not good or bad on account of its nature but because God willed it to be good or evil. This idea of the dependence of good and evil on the will was taken up by modern philosophers, notably Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900) with his “will to power” theory, so influential among the Nazis. Contemporary society is soaked in this mentality because it holds that right and wrong are determined by the laws of the majority.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in sharp contrast, demonstrates that an action is good or evil depending on whether or not it respects the nature of the realities involved. And since each nature’s reality participates in a certain way by the fact of its divine creation in the very being and goodness of God, not only is the action evil but it is an offense against the Creator. This ethics of St. Thomas is of course grounded on his realist metaphysics which is radically opposed to the nominalism of thinkers like William of Ockham, Martin Luther, and many modern philosophers.

St. Thomas’s philosophy is therefore a bulwark against the offspring of voluntarism ‒ authoritarianism and a theory of obedience that has even at times been a policy (praxis) though never a principle within certain Catholic groups, even religious communities. Hence, the Society of Ignatians wholeheartedly founds its understanding of the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity on the philosophy and theology of the Angelic Doctor.