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such philosophical systems because they’re “unintelligible” to modern man, and rooted in notions that he regards as outdated, such as “rigid categories and rules” and “certitude”.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.