Monday, March 09, 2009

The Common and Angelic Doctor

In connection with the recent feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas (March 7), I was perusing Pope Pius XI's Encyclical Letter Studiorum Ducem (On St. Thomas Aquinas), promulgated on June 29, 1923. I found this sentence, in which the Pope gives St. Thomas the title of Doctor Communis, to be especially interesting:

11... We so heartily approve the magnificent tribute of praise bestowed upon this most divine genius that We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own, as innumerable documents of every kind attest.

Contrast this to Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (On the Relationship between Faith and Reason), promulgated on September 14, 1998.

49. The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others [footnote 54 reads: Cf. Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Humani Generis (12 August 1950): AAS 42 (1950), 566].

But, as Thomas G. Guarino rightly points out in footnote 11 (p. 64) of his Foundations of Systematic Theology: "At this point the encyclical, in note 54, cites "Humani generis," Acta apostolicae sedis 42 (1950): 566, as a supporting document. But one is hard pressed to read anything quite like the sentence indicated here. The theme of that passage is that although the terminology used in the schools is capable of further perfection and refinement, it is clearly the case that such philosophy provides a sturdy foundation for church teaching."

Very interesting. Very interesting indeed.


Anonymous said...

The sentence referred to in Humani Generius is almost surely this one: "Liquet etiam Ecclesiam non cuilibet systemati philosophico, brevi temporis spatio vigenti, devinciri posse: sed ea quae communi consensu a catholicis doctoribus composita per plura saecula fuere ad aliquam dogmatis intellegentiam attingendam, tam caduco fundamento procul dubio non nituntur."

The English translation on the Vatican website reads: "It is also manifest that the Church cannot be bound to every system of philosophy that has existed for a short space of time." (I don't have a printed English copy here, but generally the Vatican website has the usual translation that's widely distributed.)

In this context, "every system" is an odd reading of "cuilibet systemati." Better is, "the Church cannot be bound to any system". The punctuation may also suggest (though it doesn't absolutely conclude to) a non-restrictive relative clause, "the Church cannot be bound to any system of philosophy, which exists for a brief period of time." (implying that any particular system is temporal, in contrast to eternal truths)--and then goes on to say that those things composed by common consent of Catholic doctors to understand dogmas have a firmer foundation, being based on principles and notions drawn out from true knowledge of created things.

The other translations follow what seems to be the correct sense of the Latin: e.g., "È chiaro pure che la Chiesa non può essere legata ad un qualunque effimero sistema filosofico"; "Et puis, il va de soi que l'Eglise ne peut se lier à n'importe quel système philosophique dont la vie est de courte durée". It seems clear that Fides et Ratio is following this reading of Humani Generis as well. And in this reading of the text, it is quite close to what Fides et Ratio is saying there.

It might also be noted that the text from Fides et Ratio is, in Latin: "neque quamlibet praelegit peculiarem philosophiam aliarum damno," which means literally, "nor does she make preference of one to the detriment of others"; which the English seeks to paraphrase with the term "canonize". I think the point is that the Church doesn't reject the truth that is to be found in any philosophy.

Benedicta said...

Very interesting indeed! Wow!

Have you ever looked at the Theology of the Body? I am finding that there are more and more people not so happy with it while many NO parishes promote conferences on the subject. Do you have info on the objections, do you plan to cover the subject one day? Thank you for your response.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joseph!

I should have known to check the Latin text before saying anything.

The English of FR there made it sound like the Church has no preference at all for one philosophy over another; this is quite different than saying that preference for one must not be to the detriment of others, i.e. to the neglect of truth that may be found in others.

I don't have Latin texts of either document on hand, and the broader point about what FR is trying to say here being granted, what do you make of "the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own" vs. "The Church has no philosophy of her own"?

Anonymous said...

I've previously came across translation issues with Fides et Ratio, though I hadn't been aware of this one.

The Latin texts of both documents are on the Vatican website: Fides et Ratio and Studiorum Ducem.

Though it doesn't seem that Pope John Paul II strictly contradicted previous statements, there is certainly a difference of emphasis: previous popes emphasized that because Thomas Aquinas did philosophy so well, and put it well at the service of theology, one should study him carefully, and be wary of departing from his teaching. Pope John Paul II does present Aquinas as a model, and on many particular points uses his philosophy, but he places much more emphasis on the freedom of philosophy in its own field: thus he puts forth Thomas many as a model of how to do philosophy in relation to theology, rather than for the whole content of his philosophy.

Based on this general difference of emphasis and tone, one might explain the differences between "the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own" and "The Church has no philosophy of her own" as referring in the one case to the Church's favored use of Thomas's philosophy in forming the language of her dogmas and in her schools, and in the other case to the fact that the final measure for the Church's teaching is revelation, not human reason, and thus the Church is not bound to one philosophy.

In fact, though, there is another big translation issue. Studiorum Ducem says "We are happy to recall that the philosophy of Aquinas was revived by the authority and at the instance of Leo XIII... the Code of Canon Law in which 'the system, philosophy and principles of the Angelic Doctor' are unreservedly sanctioned.... We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own, as innumerable documents of every kind attest.... it will be sufficient perhaps to point out that Thomas wrote under the inspiration of the supernatural spirit which animated his life"

We might wonder why the Church adopting's Thomas's philosophy as her own would be a reason to call him the Common Doctor.

In fact, according to the Latin text, it was the "study" or "teaching" (disciplina) of Aquinas that Leo XIII revived, the Code of Canon Law sanctions the system (ratio), teaching (doctrina), and principles of the Angelic Doctor, and the Church makes his teaching (doctrinam) her own. None of the three occurrences of "philosophy" in this English paragraph are found in the Latin text.

This is not to assert, of course, that in no way did the Church choose Aquinas's philosophy in a special way: obviously it did in several ways, e.g., inasmuch as it was supposed to be taught in seminaries. (And I think it is said in some other documents). I wonder, though, whether this (mis)translation wasn't perhaps a calculated one, by someone with an agenda for Thomistic philosophy.

Anonymous said...


Fascinating! I had no idea that translations (other than of liturgical texts) were so remarkably untrustworthy. Thanks.

Benedicta: I know very little actually about Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. I've heard it variously criticized and praised. Sorry not to be of much help.

Alexander said...

Who translated your English version? ICEL?