The Summa in the Wrong Hands
Giving a hammer to a child is a dangerous thing to do, especially if that child does not know the hammer isn’t a toy but rather a tool with a specific purpose. Likewise, Sacred Scripture in the hands of an angry fundamentalist, disinterested secular humanist, or a know-it-all Karen, simply becomes an opportunity to proof-text scripture in a destructive manner. These things require humility to be handled, and charity. We can say the same thing of the Summa Theologica in the hands of the uncharitable and/or undisciplined scholar.
When studying homiletics in seminary our professor (my spiritual director) showed us an image of a spiral-staircase that led to the Ambo in an older European church. The art-work within the stair case was just for the priest to see as he would elevate himself above the congregation with the Gospel. But the art work had demons with tongues wagging from their mouths. What was the point of these oddly twisted images? He said simply, “Even the devil quotes scripture.” This reprove calls to mind a caution for anyone who speaks from a pulpit, be it a liturgical one or in the world or on social media. Sometimes what we condemn is God, while at other times what we approve of is a twisted vision of Christ’s gospel. Consider those who condemned both Jesus and St. John the Baptist at the same time. Unaware of their own self-defeating contradiction, their sin led them to condemn both the greatest prophet and Lord while approving of their own tribe of self-righteous indignation.
I was recently speaking to a brilliant scholar in the Thomistic Tradition, asking for some coaching on a philosophical matter I was both excited about and confused about. I said to him, “With Aquinas, I tend to apply too quickly what he says, without first integrating a series of other distinctions.” Another way to put it is - with Aquinas, I get excited about some truth, but then too broadly apply it. Without pausing, he simply stated: “That is the problem with most contemporary Thomists.” He went on to describe his vision for a systematic way to study St. Thomas. In brief, he encouraged a disciplined way of learning the text of this very dense and wise theologian. Just like in any relationship, we do not simply listen to respond - but there is a need to be fully present to who another person is and what they are saying. This is even more true for those who dabble in theology, since we are speaking about the Persons of God. It has been wisely stated that today those who pontificate are as such: theologians who are not faithful, and the faithful who are not theologians. In this polarized state of confusion, there is no shortage of passion, but incredible levels of undisciplined spirituality, zeal, study, and theological competence. The Spirit gave us love, power, and competence - if we work by some other spirit, it will bear disordered fruits.
Whether it is a tool, the bible, or some theologian, its use requires intelligence, wisdom, authority, and dare I say love for what is truly good. Its something I need to perpetually remind myself of, in the anecdotal, click-bate, and quick-search culture that often characterizes our research disciplines.
Impulsivity & Latent Motives
Observing the vitriol on social media it sometimes happens that we fall into the unconscious mode of reaction and tribalism. We look for a magic-bullet quote from a theologian to justify our sinful, reactive, wrathful dispositions. One could quote a saint to demonstrate what is perceived to be a moral failing on that author’s part, while directing it towards the adherents. Or one can use the quote (possibly out of context) and use it to justify an uncharitable position. But when we speak, is our will ordered to the good of others, for their own sake? Or is that simply what we tell ourselves? Do we take time in a state of recollection to orient our will in that direction, whereby our words are rejigged to truly be helpful, rather than merely vent and offer some brief piece of self-vindication. Even if our motives are pure, it is possible that sloth will prevent good, disciplined study out of a healthy fear of misleading others and touting erroneous statements.
Let’s take a moment to just acknowledge something important here - our Catholic faith isn’t authenticated by a passion for a theological system. According to the Gospel, and St. Thomas Aquinas, it is defined by our knowledge of God and our Love for Him and those created in His image. So we must ask ourselves, to what end or in what spirit, do we speak about the great theologian, his musings, and teachings? If we aren’t aware that sometimes this motivation is infected with our addiction to pride, it may be something to take a deeper look at. Theology should be done in a spirit of worship - we ought to be swept off of our feet for a love of God and our neighbour: enemy and all.
Many have been discussing the problem of hell, especially in debating Bishop Robert Barron’s “Dare We Hope.” I had sent in a message to the content-director with my own 2 cents on the matter. In Canada we don’t have pennies, so 2 cents seems to be worth as much as nothing - and I recognize that as the truth about my own contributions to the world of theology and philosophy. Nonetheless, in this topic I have found that Ralph Martin has been one of the few people who has civilly, charitably and peacefully offered criticism of that position. Whether you agree with him or not, one cannot listen to Ralph Martin and get the sense that he embodies an evil-accuser, drunk on a desire to see others suffer eternally in hell. In fact, it always seems to be the exact opposite. In that vein, I tend to intuit a genuine love for souls that is found between the extremes of an enabling, lofty-theological thinking, and a malicious, presumptuous, elitist wrath. I would suspect that Bishop Barron would enjoy such public discourse with such a person, as opposed to the less savory types who only know arguments by way of the ad hominem. Both theologians offer great things to the Church, and in the dialogue that we ought to encourage, the friendship of Christ calls for a union with the Logos. May our prayers encourage such a union. It seems clear to me that these two genuinely are seeking the Logos, just as St. Augustine and St. Jerome did; just as St. Barnabas and St. Paul did. The fact that these disagreeing saints are saints doesn’t diminish the importance and urgency of such discussion - but it reminds us that the end result is nonetheless possible: sainthood.
Pity, Elation, and Hope
Another matter being discussed is in regard to St. Thomas’ notion that those in heaven do not pity the damned, while also rejoicing that they are damned. In my next article I’d like to address this specific matter, and only represent Aquinas’ own thought. After all, sometimes this position is embraced or regarded with contempt - but it may be embraced contrary to its genuine meaning and rejected because of a disfigured interpretation. Since it is a Saint’s good-name associated with an apparent type of cruelty that all Christians should avoid, it is worth addressing this specific matter. I tend to think this matter is latently motivating soft forms of universalism, whereby a spiritual disposition toward hope is being used to confront the elitist and wrathful disposition toward sinners. It is precisely the reality that Hope doesn’t exist in both the damned or the saints in heaven, that may help us better on understand St. Thomas Aquinas point here.
I really enjoyed your article, and your perspectives have given me more to consider especially on the Bishop Barron topic. Thank you.