Fr. Thomas Reese’s quixotic, irrational battle with Greek philosophy

The former editor of America magazine would do well to read Benedict XVI’s 2006 “Regensburg Address” and Vatican II’s documents on seminary training and Catholic education.

(Inma Ibáñez @inmaa_ic/Unsplash.com)

Fr. Thomas Reese, the former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, has apparently launched himself on a new crusade: the dehellenization of Catholic seminary education.

In a recent column for Religion News Service that was published by the dissident National Catholic Reporter, Reese laments that seminarians are still being given instruction in Greek philosophy—in particular, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle—before going on to study Catholic theology.

Reese is exercised over the fact that Catholic seminarians have to learn dogmatic terms derived from such philosophical systems because they’re “unintelligible” to modern man, and rooted in notions that he regards as outdated, such as “rigid categories and rules” and “certitude”. Reese’s lexicon of objectionable vocabulary even includes terms that are contained in the dogmatic canons of ecumenical councils.

Sadly, the church does expect seminarians to learn Greek philosophy before studying theology, which results in them spouting unintelligible concepts like ‘transubstantiation’ and ‘consubstantial,’ writes Reese, lamenting that “Catholic conservatives were brought up in a church that presented itself as unchanging because in Greek philosophy the perfect cannot change.” He calls such an approach “ahistorical” and “doomed to failure.”

Such people “see the world as ideologues with rigid categories and rules. They have absolute certitude in their views and are not open to new questions. They are incapable of dialogue or learning from others,” bewails Reese.

Ironically, Reese pushes this nonsense in the name of defending, of all people, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the man many believe ousted him from America in 2005 for making the magazine into a sounding board for dissidents. Reese seeks to place Benedict in the same camp as the Francis regime, making them both the victims of wicked theologians of the traditional (and therefore, Hellenistic) variety who oppose the doctrinal innovations of the Francis papacy.

Apparently Reese has forgotten (or worse, hasn’t) that one of the most memorable moments in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI was his prophetic address to representatives of science at the University of Regensburg in September of 2006, when he warned against the dehellenization of Christianity in explicit terms, observing that the Christian faith was formulated within the milieu of Greek language, culture, and philosophy, elements that permeate the Scriptures and the writings of the earliest Church Fathers.

In his address, Benedict notes that the enemies of the Catholic faith have long sought to attack its Hellenistic dimension, beginning with the Protestant rejection of Aristotelian scholasticism in the 16th century, and continuing with the assault against the supernatural elements of the Christian faith in the 19th century by liberal theologians such as Adolf von Harnack, who attributed such elements to Greek philosophy. He then arrives at the third and most recent stage of dehellenization advocated by the likes of Reese: the claim that Greek thought is not relevant in other social contexts, and should therefore be dropped in favor of other more culturally-relevant worldviews.

This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision,” said Benedict at Regensburg. “The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.”

And that, it would seem, is the crux of the matter. Those who rail against the influence of Plato, Aristotle and their Scholastic successors are not moved by an immoderate enthusiasm for cultural diversity. Rather, they are vexed by the most essential aspect of Greek philosophy: its application of reason to theology, with its so very troublesome requirements, such as consistency of thought, and non-contradiction. The Law of the Excluded Middle would seem to be the greatest obstacle standing between neo-modernists and their project to overthrow the Catholic Church’s traditional and authentic doctrines. If only Aristotle weren’t standing guard over Catholic theology, insisting that A is indeed A, they could have their heretical cake and eat it too.

Heaping irony upon irony, Reese tries to somehow tie Thomas Aquinas to his dehellenization project as well, insinuating that the Angelic Doctor was a cultural relativist who was simply speaking the language of his day when he used Greek philosophy, and urging that theologians imitate him by embracing modern intellectual fashions. This, however, is more modernist bunkum; sound philosophy isn’t a language or a cultural style—it’s a universally valid way of using reason to arrive at truth. Aristotle’s thought, and particularly his logical treatises, had long been respected in the Catholic Church precisely because they were a component of the Greek philosophical tradition that had informed the Church from the beginning, and the rediscovery of Aristotle’s forgotten works were naturally received with openness by most theologians, even if some of his doctrines were disputed.

Reese then casually repeats the silly but convenient historical myth that Aquinas’ works were condemned and burned by the archbishop of Paris, which supposedly proves that we can’t trust the Church’s judgments against dissident theologians. The reality is that in 1277 the archbishops of Paris and of London issued condemnations of a very long list of propositions that were mostly aimed at other theologians, but included some propositions that may have been derived from the doctrines of Aquinas. However, Aquinas was not named in the condemnations, and his works were never banned and certainly never burnt. An investigation into the orthodoxy of Aquinas’ works appears to have begun in 1277, but was never concluded. His works continued to be used by theologians and were universally embraced and defended by Dominicans, and soon became the template for Catholic theology in most of the Church.

Reese even wants to enlist Vatican II in his favor, implying that somehow the council would favor his desire to rid Catholic education of Greek philosophy. It will be of immense disappointment to the man, if he someday bothers to read the documents themselves, to find that they positively require that seminarians and university students be taught the very Hellenistic thought of Aquinas.

Optatam totius, the council’s decree on priestly training, dictates that “in order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the [seminary] students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections.” It also requires students to learn the Church Fathers, whose thinking was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism (also pooh-poohed by Reese for its supposed irrelevance in the modern context).

Gravissimum educationis, the council’s decree on Christian education, contains a whole paragraph contradicting Reese’s claim that novel philosophies are necessary to speak to modern man, urging that students be taught the doctors of the Catholic Church, particularly Aquinas, so that “as questions that are new and current are raised and investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, there may be a deeper realization of the harmony of faith and science.” Thus students will be “molded into men truly outstanding in their training, ready to undertake weighty responsibilities in society and witness to the faith in the world.”

Search as he may, Fr. Thomas Reese is not going to find in the tradition of the Catholic Church any inspiration for banishing Greek philosophical thought from the instruction of seminarians, or indeed of Catholics in general. It is only in the camp of dissidents, to which he was exiled in 2005, that he will find a sympathetic ear for his desire to impose such a wreckovation on our already badly compromised Catholic educational system.

About Matthew Cullinan Hoffman 15 Articles
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic essayist and journalist, and the author and translator of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian's Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption (2015). His award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Catholic World Report, LifeSite News, Crisis, the National Catholic Register, and many other publications. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

18 Comments

  1. Great article Matthew. Unfortunately Fr Reese in tandem with Cardinal Kasper practice anthropomorphic theology. They understand unchanging in God as desolate stillness. The infinitely dynamic God is per force unchanging since change is entirely imperfect and reaching toward some perfection. God Pure Act surpasses the necessity for created things to change. Studied Gk phi under J Quentin Lauer SJ a foremost Aristotelian scholar, a study that finally opened St Thomas Aquinas to my understanding. John Paul II was well versed in Aquinas and applied his thought extensively [besides his knowledge of existential phenomenology] in Splendor Veritatis, particularly the object of the act as ordered to God. He highly recommended Thomistic Philosophy for seminarians. The crowd at the Vatican seem to detest reason. Like Gandalf one might ask Cardinal Kasper, perhaps even out of charity small fry Fr Reese “When Sauron did you abandon reason for madness”.

  2. It all goes back to this statement of the “current pontiff’s” favorite theologian, Walter Kasper:

    “The God who sits enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offense to man.” (Kasper, God in History, 1969)

    A theology of arrogance – for what Austin Ivereigh calls “Team Bergoglio” – the new godhead of post-Catholic Kirk.

  3. Very good.

    While the world clamors for “change” and in this broken world change is the only constant, hearts yearn for that which is always the same and is of one essence.

    The truth does indeed set one free.

  4. Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics are permanently relevant in describing the fundamental structure of reality. Divine simplicity is a “de fide” teaching of the Catholic Church.

  5. In his magisterial teaching on philosophy and religion (Fides et Ratio), Pope John Paul II saw the integration of Greek philosophy into Christian theology as a providential development. He was reacting to the kind of thought we see in people like Father Reese. The frontal attack on St. Thomas came (in spite of what Vatican II actually said) already at the time of the Council and thereafter. The enemy they have is simply truth and our ability to know it. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In the time of Pope Benedict, Rome added an extra year for the B. A. in ecclesiastical philosophy precisely because students were coming out who were not convinced that we can know the truth. At the time, I remember remarking there is no need to change the courses, they just need to change the professors to solve this problem. Too many philosophy professors got into the field because they enjoyed studying odd opinions (e.g. Sartre, etc.) not because they loved the pursuit of truth. People who love the truth find the destruction of it painful and not at all interesting — this is often the case in contemporary philosophy which becomes increasingly irrelevant.

  6. Great article. It’s as though there is a significant faction in the Church who want to eradicate all rational thought. My suspicion is that they want to do this so they can push contradictory ideas and teachings based on emotion and personal tastes rather than reason, logic, Scripture and Tradition. The idea of objective truth, reason, logic is a threat to their “reforms”. It’s maddening. It reminds me of the saying from St. Anthony of the Desert who said: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’ I had this experience yesterday when a Catholic priest called me a dissenter for believing what the official Catechism says in regard to divorce, illicit second unions and the reception of Holy Communion. I was at a kiss for words. There was no logic to his critique. In his eyes I am an unfaithful Catholic for believing today what the Church taught yesterday (and still does in the official Catechism). There’s no way to penetrate this illogical thinking. I’m not a a “traditionalist” and very much a JP2 generation Catholic, but I’m finding myself increasingly alienated from what passes for Catholicism these days.

      • Actually those are words we can kiss. I’ve taken to kiss the Gospels [always after reading at Mass] when coming upon a pointed passage for me personally. It was perhaps a Freudian slip and a good one.

  7. The observations here are correct. Kasper judges God and places man as the judge of his Creator and Fr. Reese wishes to pick and choose from ecclesial documents, this is hardly theology or based on any valid reasoning. Fr. Reese slides down a steep slope rejecting Thomism and embracing relativism. This modern unwillingness to call a sin a sin or to acknowledge God as God is born of cowardice or pride and greed, either born of fear of being thought of as “uncool” or of a desire to gain worldly acclaim or rank in the Church hierarchy instead of living in the “Splendor of Truth” being made holy by “obedience to the truth” (1Pet1:22).

  8. Two books that can act as a powerful antidote to such illogical and fuzzy thinking are:

    1) Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas By Peter Kreeft

    2) Theology and Sanity By Frank Sheed

    • Andrew, don’t ever despair. It sounds like you are striving to be the “Educated Catholic” we need in the world. In fact, we need MANY more of them! Keep your eyes and heart on the Prize!

      Peace to you!

  9. It’s all to undercut – eventually Aquinas – begin with Aristotle…then with that out of the way, Aquinas is easier.

    It’s really an attack on Aquinas’s teaching on moral theology.

    We need like a hundred bishops signing this Kazakh letter, a week.

    Time to get it on.

  10. The good news is that the leaders of the Libertarians are secular Aristotelians and are understanding of Catholic theology and champions of Great Books. Both Etienne Gilson and his protege, Michael Gilson De Lemos an Aristotelian Objectivist who co-ordinates the world Libertarian International Organization, are advocates of reason first and foremost. The spread of critical thinking, entrepreneurship, and comparative ethics courses by pro-libertarians and their object to spread the US Bill of Rights to all nations is a very good thing.

    There’re therefore many attacks and smears on Libertarianism from the Communist infiltrators and ‘social theologists’ in the Church.

  11. I have often thought that there is too much Greek philosophy influence in the Church. It should be dropped in favor of a more Scriptural worldview. This would be a better use of human reason coupled with faith. Vatican II, in Dei Verbum 21 would concur with this. It says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” Scripture needs to also regulate tradition.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. FRIDAY CATHOLICA EDITION – Big Pulpit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*