It is not insignificant that Msgr. William B. Smith died on the vigil of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 24, 2009, and was buried on the Feast of St. Thomas. His personally chosen homilist – Msgr. James T. O’Connor - did himself proud in a true to life presentation of Smith from the heart. Msgr. O’Connor was a classmate of Smith in seminary. They did simultaneous doctorates (O’Connor in Dogmatic Theology, Smith in Moral Theology), taught at Dunwoodie together for decades forming a terrible triumvirate of profound and precise orthodoxy with Msgr. Austin Vaughan as rector. They lived across the hall from each other on the south side of the second floor of Dunwoodie. They vacationed together with close friends in uncomfortably hot places in summer when seminary was out, never in the winter when business was business. The Smith I knew came alive profoundly in the homily: the basic scene was “the desk” surrounded by piles of papers (that grew exponentially over the years) where Smith – “priest and victim” – crafted Immaculate Heart of Mary homilies, classes and world class papers on moral theology with insight and loving care. I must say I wept again as O’Connor followed Smith’s explicit instruction that the Memorare to our Lady be recited at his funeral. The entire Church did it. And then the music! I was done for.
St. Thomas Aquinas
The significance of St. Thomas Aquinas for today has been sharply and profoundly delineated by Pope Paul VI. He points out what St. Thomas did for the revelation of Christ in his day (1225-1274), and therefore what we should do in ours. Thomas combined (1) the radicality of the Gospel with the (2) secularity of the world. Paul VI said: “The key point and almost the kernel of the solution which, with all the brilliance of his prophetic intuition, he [St. Thomas] gave to the new encounter of faith and reason was a reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural.”
The Fathers of the Church of the fourth to the seventh centuries had been duly dazzled by the reality of the introduction of the creating God-man into creation. The great task was to give a rational, and therefore metaphysical, account of the two dimensions at stake, viz. the radical transcendence of the Creator as “supernatural” divinity, and the autonomy, or secularity, of the world. Thomas did this with his understanding of “esse,” the act of existence as tending to be infinite act when unlimited by potency. He had done this by being open to and accepting the philosophy of Aristotle but “giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason.” As John Paul II said, “Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God… hence there can be no contradiction between them.”
“More radically, Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it.”
This is exactly what has to be done today at a moment when we find ourselves in a nihilistic moment dominated by a “dictatorship of relativism.” Both ruling ideologies, Communism and Capitalism, have seemingly collapsed leaving no rector truth to order freedom, locally or globally.
Recalling what Joseph Ratzinger had remarked about the challenge we face today concerning modernity: “Here is the problem: Ought we to accept modernity in full, or in part? Is there a real contribution? Can this modern way of thinking be a contribution, or offer a contribution, or not? And if there is a contribution from the modern, critical way of thinking, in line with the Enlightenment, how can it be reconciled with the great intuitions and the great gifts of the faith?
“Or ought we, in the name of the faith, to reject modernity? You see? There always seems to be this dilemma: either we must reject the whole of the tradition, all the exegesis of the Fathers, relegate it to the library as historically unsustainable, or we must reject modernity
“And I think that the gift, the light of the faith, must be dominant, but the light of the faith has also the capacity to take up into itself the true human lights, and for this reason the struggles over exegesis and the liturgy for me must be inserted into this great, let us call it epochal, struggle over how Christianity, over how the Christian responds to modernity, to the challenge of modernity?...
“And it seems to me that this was the true intention of the Second Vatican Council, to go beyond an unfruitful and overly narrow apologetic to a true synthesis with the positive elements of modernity, but at the same time, let us say, to transform modernity, to heal it of its illnesses, by means of the lights and strength of the faith.
“Because it was the Council Fathers’ intention to heal and transform modernity, and not simply to succumb to it or merge with it, the interpretations which interpret the Second Vatican Council in the sense of de-sacralization or profanation are erroneous.
“That is, Vatican II must not be interpreted as desiring a rejection of the tradition and an adapting of the Church to modernity and so causing the Church to become empty because it loses the word of faith.”
The Magisterium Itself as the New Thomism:
At the moment, we have lost the realism of an experiential encounter with the Absolute. We have gained the subject which was missing in Thomas’s account of reality, but that was not a lack in him since it was not his time. There had not been the retrieval of the “I” as of yet, save in Augustine, and that was unique to him. Therefore, there could not have been the historical-experiential retrieval of the “I” as “being.” We could say that he was critically “naïve,” but so was the age. However, that does not lessen the loss of the ontological reality and weight of the subject as being.
Modernity is characterized by the turn to the subject and has been severely emarginated by orthodox thinking because of the attendant idealism and relativism that have come apparently in its wake. Modernity has reached the sophistication of engaging the “I,” but at the cost of losing realism.
At the same time, the cost of objectified realism in the form of the hegemony of scientific methodology and a concomitant positivism has tended to reduce the modern intellect to being overcome by mere “facts” whereby “reason [has] wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to now the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned.
“This has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way in the shifting sands of widespread skepticism.”
Hence, the time has come. The only way of the relativist impasse in which we are mired is to accept the “I” of modernity and purify it by a philosophic work that will be able to perceive that it is not a part of being, but “the privileged locus for the encounter with being [actu essendi], and hence with metaphysical enquiry.”
This is our task, and it is Thomist as understood above. We must do a metaphysic of the “I” in the radicality of being total “self”-gift which has been experienced by the Church and conceptualized as an obedience of the whole person, not merely faculties of intellect and will - mere accidents of man as a substance. The entire dynamic changes once we enter into horizon of the “I” and render it metaphysical as constitutively relational. This last, the “relational,” is the metaphysical rendering of self-gift. It will involve a Thomist metaphysics of “Esse” that is new since it is now experienced as “I.”
Concretely, this is the Work. It is St. Josemaria Escriva in his constant teaching that we must find the Person of Christ through the humanity that is Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the Scripture of the New Testament. He has insisted to us: “Don’t ever read the Gospel as water which passes; in it you can learn to deal with Jesus… When opening the Holy Gospel, think that what is narrated there – the works and sayings of Christ – you must not only know it, but you must also live it. Everything, each point that is mentioned, must be gathered up, detail by detail, so that you incarnate it in the concrete circumstances of your existence.
“ The Lord has call us – the Catholics – to follow him and, in this Sacred Text, you will find the Life of Jesus; but besides, you should find your own life.
“You will learn to ask also, as the Apostle, full of love: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do…’ – The Will of God! You hear in an imperative way.
“Well, take the Gospel daily, and read it and live it as a concrete norm. That’s the way the saints did it.”
This concrete adventure is the experiential way to “know” Christ Jesus Who is the Absolute Reality. He is the Word of God Who alone is what we mean by “real.” He personally is the fullness of Being. We may know “about” Him, but we do not “know” Him until we experience our being becoming His by this radical supernatural going out of self – which is an imaging of the trinitarian relation of the Son to the Father.
Modernity is not our enemy here. There is not only the philosophic work of John Paul II as Karol Wojtyla but there is a recent work of David Walsh (including previous books of his) that is clearing up a too narrow apologetic of the faith that has exercised an exclusively negative apologetic on such authors as Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc. In line with the mind of Benedict of broadening reason, we have much work to do to retrieve them in much the same way that Thomas retrieved Aristotle.
I repeat what I posted yesterday on Walsh:
1. Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ as Existential
· 2. Hegel’s Inauguration of the Language of Existence
· 3. Schelling on the Beyond of Existence
· 4 Nietzsche: Philosophy as Existence
· 5. Heidegger’s Achievement Despite the Betrayal of Philosophical Existence
· 6. Existence Without Refuge as the Response of Levinas
· 7. Derrida’s Dissemination of Existence as Differenance
· 8. Kierkegaard’s Prioritization of Existence over Philosophy
· Epilogue: Modernity as Responsibility
When Walsh gets into his Preface, he makes the point that Ratzinger made in challenging us to face up to philosophically. He said in his interview with Robert Moynihan:
“It seems to me that this was the true intention of the Second Vatican Council, to go beyond an unfruitful and overly narrow apologetic to a true synthesis with the positive elements of modernity, to heal it of its illnesses, by means of the light and strength of the faith.”
Walsh remarks: “Based on a conscientious rereading of eight major figures, from Kant to Derrida, it (the book) argues that there is a remarkably consistent unfolding within this philosophical development. Studies of individual figures or periods within this time frame have often gone a considerable distance in dispelling the fog of conventional misjudgments. But the achievements as a whole have not come into focus; indeed, the era of philosophy from Kant to the present has hardly been conceived of as a whole, because we have lacked an overarching interpretative hypothesis. That is what the present volume seeks to provide. It suggests that Philosophy, beginning with Kant, has explicitly shifted from an account of entities and concepts to an existential meditation on the horizon within which it finds itself. So while metaphysics in the propositional sense may have become defunct, it is not by any means the case that our orientation within metaphysical openness has disappeared. The death of metaphysics in thought has meant the return of metaphysics in life. God, immortality, and freedom, as well as the unsurpassable exigency of goodness in its unending struggle with evil, not only remain real but have acquired an existential force that is all the more powerful for our inability to contain them within discursive limits. No surprise is prompted by the return of religion or the echoes of Greek philosophy in contemporary thought. But if we are to make sense of these strange reverberations in a context that has understood itself apart from all theological and metaphysical reference, we must be prepared to understand why the transcendent can surface only within this profoundly mysterious mode. It is not that we in the modern world have lost faith, but that philosophy has come to understand the meaning of faith in a very different way." [Let me hasten to add, what Walsh is talking about is the recovery of "being" (which is Greek metaphysics) and the real as “I.” Consider Benedict’s presentation of “reality” as the Word of God, that is “I Am.” He continues:] “Now whether that way of faith is continuous with the tradition of faith that is descended to us is for the reader to judge. All that the present study can offer is a way of reading the development of modern philosophy as an opening to the possibility of faith. Of course, it is more than the opening of sheer possibility that Kant announced. It is more like the practice of faith that his own philosophical odyssey evidenced, even while he sought to assimilate his project to the authority of science.”
Let me insert here: In the section on Kant, Walsh has a section entitled “Existence as Knowledge.” It reads: “The reason Kant marks the beginning of the modern philosophical revolution is that he sees existence, practical reason, as providing the deepest access to being.”
Comment: This is precisely the burden of Vatican II, Dei Verbum #5, and the mind of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This is the “New Evangelization.” As Benedict said in Brazil in May o 2007: “Only God knows God.” I.e. one has to enter into the Trinitarian dynamic of relation as self-gift in order to be “like” God and therefore know Him. I.e. one has to pray as Christ prayed in order to be able to say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16, 16). We do not God only by concepts whereby we know “about” God. Rather, we must “experience” God in Christ through Scripture and prayer. Walsh sees that Kant was philosophically on this same track. I repeat, “(Kant) sees existence, practical reason, as providing the deepest access to being.” Walsh continues:“This interpretation is in contrast to the prevalent view that originates in considerable measure from his own estimate of the scientific character of his work. There is a tension between the existential Kant and scientific-critical one, although he may no have considered it as such. Ultimately they cannot be reconciled, because the existential meditation reveals the extent to which the theoretical perspective cannot include itself. The process of objectification cannot include objectification. Kant reassured himself that he was thereby advancing a critical approach to philosophy, although he was rather opening philosophy to the unfathomable mystery of its own source. While holding onto the lifeline of the latter provide no theoretical knowledge, he nevertheless insisted that the existential enlargement furnished all the knowledge we need. Kant’s greatness as a thinker lies in his realization that to be scientific we must step outside the boundary of science. The implications of this recognition were not fully absorbed by Kant, just as they have not yet been digested within the history of modern philosophy, but he is clearly the one who made the issue visible. His insistence on the primacy of practical reason is the recognition that existence discloses essence. What remained to be determined was the status of that existential knowledge. The authority of scientific knowledge remained so strong for Kant that it still monopolized the claim to knowledge, even though his own critical philosophy had already exposed its relativity” (42-43).I stop. Time and Tide overcome me. I think the book (and others before, like “The Third Millennium”) are a must read to complement what Benedict and John Paul have been up to in this moment of Nihilistic relativism. It’s a new metaphysic of the “I.”
 John Paul II, “Fides et ratio,” #43.
 J. Ratzinger, R. Moynihan, “Let God’s Light Shine Forth,” Doubleday (2005) 34-35.
 John Paul II, “Fides et ratio,” #5.
 Ibid #83.
 Dei Verbum #5.