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Augustinian brothers? Not so fast

Just read this: https://covenant.livingchurch.org/augustinian-brothers

Not sure I am able to appreciate the categories that Rowland or Crowe (I could not follow very well who was making which claim), use to compare and contrast Rowan and Benedict.

For me, to suggest that Thomism is not Augustinian makes no sense. Thomas’ brilliance is his synthesis of Augustine with Aristotle. Thomas adduces a Neo-Platonism just like that of the Augustinian scholars of his day, like Bonaventure. Bonaventure’s critique was not that Thomas was insufficiently Augustinian, but that he insufficiently subsumed reason within faith. Thomas’ account was Augustinian, but, for Bonaventure, insufficiently so.

I also don’t follow the way the category “rationalist” is used to distinguish between Thomism and the alleged Augustinianism of Benedict and Rowan. A rationalist theologian is one who claims we have an a priori knowledge of God, either through an innate knowledge, an innate apprehension of concepts, or a capacity to intuit (just “see”) propositions about God to be warranted. That is in contrast with another category, the empiricist, who denies this, insisting that all knowledge is experiential, a posteriori.

Thomas’ rationalism just is his NeoPlatonism (derived, ultimately, from Augustine). He was a rationalist precisely because he claimed we have an a priori capacity to know God — a psychology that enables us through intellection to participate in the transcendentals and thereby to render judgments about facts and concepts. The intellectus is a mystical place within the soul where this participation happens. The ratio is a lower faculty of the mind that provides the discursive function.

So Thomas’ rationalism is his mysticism. And it is Augustinian.

The author (either Crowe or Rowland, or both) seems to confuse rationalism with empiricism, and then applies this mistaken conception to Thomism. In other words, I infer that the author sees Thomism as cold, detached reason (implied by the descriptions given of 20th century Scholasticism). But it seems to me that a Thomism that does not claim the capacity for an a priori knowledge of God is not Thomism. And therefore it is anything but detached; it is mystical.

The author mentions Neo-Thomism and suggests that it is Thomism, corrected by Kant. If that is the case, then a Kantian Neo-Thomism still would not be cool, detached empiricism, but would simply be rationalist in a different way. Rather than the participatory ontology of Thomas Aquinas, a Neo-Thomist presumably posits a Kantian metaphysics (if the author is right). Yet there is still a metaphysics in Kant. There is still in Kant the mystical knowledge of God. Rather than an innate capacity to know God through a Thomist psychology of intellection that participates in the mind of God and so knows the transcendentals, there is the capacity for intuition. Our faith is warranted by a mystical capacity to “just see” that which is across the boundaries of our finitude.

Perhaps the author does not mean to imply that the choice between Augustine and Aquinas is like the choice between mysticism and empiricism. That would be a false dichotomy. However, the author could mean that the influence of Kant was such that medieval liturgical practices grounded in a Thomist participatory ontology came under philosophical critique because after Kant it is difficult to sustain the argument for such an ontology. And so it may be that Ratzinger and Rowan observed a consequent phenomenon — an attempt over decades to sanitize such practices of those forms that are entirely dependent on a medieval ontology that is no longer sustainable.

In particular, the description of reality in Neo-Platonic terms of hierarchical mediation is difficult to sustain after Kant. Rather, there is only immediacy — the immediate capacity of all humans to intuit the Christ within. And that has political and therefore ecclesiological implications. For that is the fundamentally Protestant insight of Ockham that Kant merely clarified. Perhaps the authors means to say that both Benedict and Rowan, post-Vatican II, observed the phenomenon of the Protestantization of both Romanism and Anglicanism and recognized its cost.

As an Anglican, I can’t speak to what Benedict may have felt that cost of Vatican II to have been. However, it is easy for me to imagine that Rowan may have recognized in the phenomenon echoes of an earlier time in which Anglicans similarly sought to sanitize liturgical practices: the sixteenth century “stripping of the altars.” That was a time of great ambiguity — a time when Anglicans “threw the baby out with the bath water,” destroying beauty in the feverous rush to conform practice to deep and abiding Protestant insights regarding the immediacy of Christ to all humans. Perhaps that is what Crowe intends in his description of Benedict’s post-Vatican II conservatism.

If so, then it is an interesting point to consider. Benedict would then be akin to the Prayer Book Puritans restraining the Geneva Puritans of the late sixteenth century from purging the Church of England of all the blessings of its past in pursuit of a purer Church.

I am not sure what the authors mean. But surely it is not helpful to set up a dichotomy in which we are to see Rowan and Benedict in resistance to a cold, detached Thomism which is to be understood in contrast to Augustinianism as empiricism is to mysticism. That contrast is not an accurate portrait of either Thomism or rationalism.


  1. Craig, I’m afraid I’m the author of the offending article. Thanks for your comments, leading me to reconsider some of the points made. The article was a reflection on Rowland’s excellent book and I hope that the shortcomings in the review will not detract from the book.

    I think Rowland was contrasting Benedict with both the c19th Neo-Thomism (“cold and detached”) which dominated much ‘official’ Roman theology until Vatican and – entirely distinct – the post-ressourcement Thomism of JPII (anything but “cold and detached”).

    I entirely accept that the Thomism of JPII has an significant relationship with Augustine. That said, however, surely it is fair to suggest that there are differences of emphasis, perspective and style between Augustine and Thomas.

    More to the point, I think it is fair to suggest that Thomas’ influence on JPII and Augustine’s on Benedict did result in different theological perspectives and (no less significant) style.

    Looking back on the review (written in 2010), I was seeking to explore possible reasons for the warmth of the theological relationship between Benedict and Rowan. It seems to me that this does indeed come down to Augustine. I am not sure that a pontificate shaped more by Thomas (of the ressourcement) than by Augustine would have produced the same theological warmth/respect.

    On the matter of liturgy, I would probably want to express myself now in more cautious terms. What can be seen in both Benedict and Rowan, however, was a recognition of the meaning present in the rhythms of older liturgical forms.

    I entirely agree that “it is not helpful to set up a dichotomy in which we are to see Rowan and Benedict in resistance to a cold, detached Thomism”: I fully sign up to Radical Orthodoxy’s reading of Thomas!

  2. Thanks for your reply, Brian. What a delight to hear from the author himself. Hopefully we will hear also from my colleagues who quickly corrected me on a variety of issues, not least your contrast between JP and Benedict.

    As perhaps was not clear, my concern stayed away from interpreting Roman Church history since I am Anglican. My hope was to clarify that, while there were certainly differences between them, Thomas is certainly Augustinian in crucial ways, and also to defend forms of rationalism from the empiricism with which it is so often confused today. Also, while Rowan clearly is influenced by Augustine (wonderfully so!), I want to say that he ought not be seen as anti-Thomist. Thanks again for writing in with your own clarification. I think you will appreciate the comments of my colleagues, too, who dug deeper into how your comparison is apt with respect to Rowan.

  3. This is probably a bit tangential, but…after reading Philip Cary on Augustine on the sacraments, it seems to me that medieval sacramental theology is thoroughly un-Augustinian. Without a strong sense of interiority (one which privileges inner over outer), how is Aquinas an Augustinian? We might call Aquinas (Neo-)Platonic in his exitus-reditus and/or schema(e), but this is a pretty thin ‘(Neo-)Platonism’.

  4. I read all of Cary’s books on Augustine, too, Ben, and loved them. My own reading is that Aquinas took Augustine’s soteriology, as received from Lombard, and re-described it in Augustinian ways. However, I note the same thing you experienced: Augustine describes a Christocentric immediacy, where, at first glance, Aquinas describes a hierarchical mediation from Pseudo-Dionysus. Aquinas mediates Aristotle by describing the sacraments in terms of Aristotelian causality. So there is the shocking shift from Christocentric immediacy to hierarchical mediation. Yet Aquinas, in all his Aristotelian philosophy, ultimately follows Augustine. In his description of scientia, one cannot believe until one experiences a moment of doxastic causality – a cognitive reconfiguration that provides the certain knowledge of cause enabling deduction of principles from that point. For sacred scientia, however, that cognitive restructuring only happens in an encounter with the Christ – the gift of the light of faith. That encounter looks a lot like Christocentric immediacy. Thomas describes two ways in which humans are affected by grace. First, the disposition of the soul is re-ordered such that humans are “moved by God to know or will or do something.”[1] Second, God bestows grace in the form of a super-added quality – “a habitual gift is infused by God into the soul” such that “the movements whereby [humans] are moved by God become natural and easy.” This habitual gift is a super-added quality added to the soul in “the manner of a formal cause, as whiteness makes a thing white, and justice, just.”[2]

    [1] ST I-II.110.2
    [2] ST !-II.110.2 ad 1

    If you read some of Aquinas’ hymns you will see he is not a cold and detached robot. Quite a poet with a fine appreciation of the sacraments. The hymn he wrote for the Corpus Christi procession is a case in point. Beautiful.

  5. Craig, don’t read too much into the rejection of “Thomism” in favor of “Augustine.” (I don’t think either Crowe or the books he covers would put it so starkly.) Obviously Thomas was Augustinian, as was Bonaventure, as were the neo-Thomists of the late 19th century and the Kantian Thomists of the 20th and the resourcement Thomists of today (e.g. Hütter); but there are multiple Augustinianisms just as there are multiple Thomisms. I do think it would be mistaken to think of neo-Thomism as Kantian, unless it is construed as reacting to the Kantian rejection of metaphysics. The 20th century stream of Thomists — Rousselot, Maritain, Rahner, etc. — are Kantian, perhaps, but shouldn’t be thought of as “neo-Thomist” (at least I don’t know of anyone who thinks of them in that way).

    Anyway, pointing out the “Augustinianism” of Williams and Benedict is not necessarily anti-Thomas, even if it is possibly anti-Thomistic (in one of the varieties of the term). One of the reasons that I so admire both Rowan and Benedict is that they both resist, personally and intellectually, the easy divisions between devotion and scholarship, between the monasteries and the schools. (The Tridentine liturgy, for example, need not be tied to Neo-Thomist manual theology, but has far deeper roots.)


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