"Revival" of St. Thomas' Philosophy - Yes, But Not His Erroneous "Delayed Personhood" Argument
Concerns For Beginning And End of Life Issues

Dianne N. Irving
[Note: This article is copyrighted and
thus must be acknowledged when using its
ioriginal ideas and resources or quoting from it.]
©Copyright April 4, 2011
Reproduced with Permission

I. Introduction: 1

The recent announcement from the Vatican2 on the "revival" of St. Thomas Aquinas' philosophy was rather shocking to many who heard the news. As a former bench research biochemist/biologist, as an Aristotelean Thomist myself, and having used St. Thomas' classic realist philosophical system as the basis for my own position in my doctoral dissertation on the nature of the early human embryo,3 it was with great joy but also with some trepidation that this news was received.

There was joy especially because St. Thomas' philosophical system is the major source for legitimate "natural law ethics" used for centuries in the Church's moral teachings on the life issues. But there was also trepidation, because as brilliant as St. Thomas was, his philosophical error concerning "delayed personhood", as with any "delayed personhood" theory, could be and is used today to justify the killing of innocent living human persons at both the beginning and at the end of life.4 Such positions would also contradict the Church's formal teachings on "corpore et anima unus", or the essential "unity" of the human person,5 as well as preclude the correct formation of conscience on these related life issues.6 Thus one would hope that any such current "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy could heed both the praises and the warnings of an earlier Church pontiff - Pope Leo the Great - who likewise recognized the urgent need to restore the teachings of St. Thomas' philosophy in his own time.

Because the issues involved cross several academic fields, and in order to accommodate those working at both the theoretical and the practical levels, this article will necessarily attempt to reach both, and thus must be comprehensive and at times repetitive. However, those working tirelessly on the practical sides of the "life" issues need to understand at least in general the various "theories" that drive their efforts and how to identify errors within them, while those working on the theoretical levels need to appreciate with utmost clarity how their intellectual errors and egos can and do have profound real-life consequences.

II. Pope Leo XIII's Clarion Call To "Revive" St. Thomas

"Revivals" of St. Thomas' philosophy are not new. In his great encyclical, Aeterni Patris: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on the Restoration of Christian Philosophy,7 written in 1879, Pope Leo had witnessed the mounting heresies and confusions running rampant then in society, in the Church and especially in the seminaries. His encyclical was a clarion call to return to the extraordinary philosophical teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas as the required remedy. In lengthy, historical and technical detail, Pope Leo explains why this "revival" of St. Thomas was crucial for the survival of the Church. As he so perceptively acknowledged even back then, if one wanted to destroy the Church from within or without all one would have to do is get rid of St. Thomas:

"For it has come to light that there were not lacking among the leaders of heretical sects some who openly declared that, if the teaching of Thomas Aquinas were only taken away, they could easily battle with all Catholic teachers, gain the victory, and abolish the Church."8 (emphases added)

Precisely because St. Thomas was such a formidable opponent to defeat, there was a time when almost all religious orders required the teaching of St. Thomas' entire philosophy in their seminaries:

"It is known that nearly all the founders and lawgivers of the religious orders commanded their members to study and religiously adhere to the teachings of St. Thomas, fearful least any of them should swerve even in the slightest degree from the footsteps of so great a man. To say nothing of the family of St. Dominic, which rightly claims this great teacher for its own glory, the statutes of the Benedictines, the Carmelites, the Augustinians, the Society of Jesus, and many others all testify that they are bound by this law." (emphases added)

Unfortunately, almost all those religious orders today wouldn't have a clue about any of St. Thomas' philosophy - a little bit of his theology, perhaps, but serious instruction in and facility with his hard core philosophy, no. In fact, why should the Church bother about any philosophies at all?

A. Why Philosophy?

At first blush, one might consider that "theology" is enough to serve and save the Church. Yet "theology" is not Divine Revelation itself. Rather it is a field of human knowledge developed by mortal man to attempt to communicate those profound Divine Truths, including the truths about the inherent dignity of every human being. It is easy to see that mere humanly-constructed "theological theories" can be as easily deconstructed and abused as any other field of mere human knowledge - especially by various (and corrupted) philosophies. The entire History of Philosophy (which also used to be required, even in secular universities) is certainly a veritable testimony to just that.

In his encyclical, Pope Leo describes in detail the long haul of the Church from pagan philosophical errors through those of even the early Church scholars. What has always come to the aid of the Church against these erroneous theories that so damage the Church's theological teachings, including moral theology, is philosophy:

"Who so turns his attention to the bitter strifes of these days and seeks a reason for the troubles that vex public and private life must come to the conclusion that a fruitful cause of the evils which now afflict, as well as those which threaten, us lies in this: that false conclusions concerning divine and human things, which originated in the schools of philosophy, have now crept into all the orders of the State, and have been accepted by the common consent of the masses." (emphases added)

The highest and most proper role of philosophy from his perspective, Pope Leo explains, is to serve theology by "defending the truths divinely delivered, and of resisting those who dare oppose them," Indeed, "it is the glory of philosophy to be esteemed as the bulwark of faith and the strong defense of religion":

"As [philosophy] weakens the contrary arguments of the sophists and repels the veiled attacks against the truth, it has been fitly called the hedge and fence of the vine. For, as the enemies of the Catholic name, when about to attack religion, are in the habit of borrowing their weapons from the arguments of philosophers, so the defenders of sacred science draw many arguments from the store of philosophy which may serve to uphold revealed dogmas. ... In the first case they [philosophers] cut the ground from under the feet of error and expose the viciousness of the arguments on which error rests; while in the second case they make themselves masters of weighty reasons for the sound demonstration of truth and the satisfactory instruction of any reasonable person."

And Pope Leo (quite amazingly) even addresses such heresies fomented historically by Church scholars themselves through the careless use of faulty "philosophies" in their "theologies", including moral theology:

"For it pleased the struggling innovators of the sixteenth century to philosophize without any respect for faith, the power of inventing in accordance with his own pleasure and bent being asked and given in turn by each one. Hence, it was natural that systems of philosophy multiplied beyond measure, and conclusions differing and clashing one with another arose about those matters even which are the most important in human knowledge. From a mass of conclusions men often come to wavering and doubt; and who knows not how easily the mind slips from doubt to error? But, as men are apt to follow the lead given them, this new pursuit seems to have caught the souls of certain Catholic philosophers, who, throwing aside the patrimony of ancient wisdom, chose rather to build up a new edifice than to strengthen and complete the old by aid of the new-ill-advisedly, in sooth, and not without detriment to the sciences. For, a multiform system of this kind, which depends on the authority and choice of any professor, has a foundation open to change, and consequently gives us a philosophy not firm, and stable, and robust like that of old, but tottering and feeble. And if, perchance, it sometimes finds itself scarcely equal to sustain the shock of its foes, it should recognize that the cause and the blame lie in itself." (emphases added)

Real philosophy should not be twisted, fabricated or politicized. Rather, it should be used to seek the truth. And the use of St. Thomas' philosophy is no different. But why the enthusiasm for Thomas' particular "brand" or "system" of philosophy? Pope Leo then goes into extraordinary detail to answer this question. It might be wise of us to listen to just a sampling of his praise. It might save lives.

B. The Philosophy of St. Thomas

What many don't realize, and as Pope Leo also makes clear, philosophy is not theology (although they can be related): "Again, clearly distinguishing, as is fitting, reason from faith, while happily associating the one with the other, he [St. Thomas] both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each;". This is important, as many heresies historically have been caused simply by confusing and conflating these two different fields of human knowledge, as if one were simply a sub-field of the other.

For both Aristotle and St. Thomas the various fields of knowledge (or "sciences") are described as "linear" in relationship, rather than as in "pyramid" formation.9 That is, each field of knowledge is separate and independent of the other fields of knowledge. One is not the "sub-field" of the other. Therefore, each has its own peculiar "subject matter" and its own peculiar epistemology (or, method of coming to know that subject matter). One should no more subsume philosophy under theology and use faith as its method any more than one should subsume theology under philosophy and use reason as its method, or subsume theology under science and use the microscope as its method, etc.

So what Pope Leo meant was that for St. Thomas, philosophy and theology are two separate fields of human knowledge. They have different subject matters, and different epistemologies. The subject matter of philosophy is not God, but rather "being", and its epistemology is what we humans can know about "being" through the light of (empirically based) reason alone. Even the subject of metaphysics is ultimately derived through empirically based reason, as is his philosophical natural law ethics (or, the ability to know through reason alone the rightness and wrongness of human actions). On the other hand, the subject matter of theology for St. Thomas is God, and its epistemology is what we humans can come to know about God through faith, Divine Revelation and the teachings of the Magisterium. (It is worth noting that while various theologians have expounded their own personal idiosyncratic "theories" of theology through the ages, those individual "theories" are not the same or equal to the formal theological teachings of the Magisterium of the Church, nor carry the same obligations for the faithful.)

It was also St. Thomas' extraordinary use of human reason, accessible in principle by all human thinkers, that was most successfully capable of identifying the fallacies in other philosophies and the absorption of those philosophical errors into theologies. This is not to take away at all from Thomas' momentous teachings in theology. Rather it is to appreciate that many heresies in theology are caused by the incorporation of faulty philosophies, and it takes a philosopher's mastery of human reasoning and of the historical reservoir of the efforts of other philosophers throughout the History of Philosophy to detect and identify those philosophical errors and to refute them.

Pope Leo continues by expounding on how highly regarded Thomas' use of human reason alone has historically served the Church against the heresies. To include here but a few of his very lengthy remarks:

"Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because 'he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.' The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith. With his spirit at once humble and swift, his memory ready and tenacious, his life spotless throughout, a lover of truth for its own sake, richly endowed with human and divine science, like the sun he heated the world with the warmth of his virtues and filled it with the splendor of his teaching. Philosophy has no part which he did not touch finely at once and thoroughly; on the laws of reasoning, on God and incorporeal substances, on man and other sensible things, on human actions and their principles, he reasoned in such a manner that in him there is wanting neither a full array of questions, nor an apt disposal of the various parts, nor the best method of proceeding, nor soundness of principles or strength of argument, nor clearness and elegance of style, nor a facility for explaining what is abstruse. ... [S]ingle-handed, he victoriously combated the errors of former times, and supplied invincible arms to put those to rout which might in after-times spring up. ... [H]e both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each [philosophy and theology]; so much so, indeed, that reason, borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which she has already obtained through Thomas." (emphases added)

And Pope Leo presents perhaps the crowning statement from Pope Innocent VI:

"W]hile to these judgments of great Pontiffs on Thomas Aquinas comes the crowning testimony of Innocent VI: 'His teaching above that of others, the canonical writings alone excepted, enjoys such a precision of language, an order of matters, a truth of conclusions, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error.'" (emphases added)

Anyone who has ever seriously studied St. Thomas' philosophy can attest to the many Excedrin headaches that result from the necessity of comprehending every single word of his voluminous and exhausting Questions, Sed Contras and Answers, and from following the excruciating logic of his picky picky arguments! One is never the same after studying St. Thomas.

And so it is with extraordinary enthusiasm and even joy that Pope Leo begs the Church to return to the incomparable philosophical teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. But he does so with some very wise cautions. It is particularly in concert with some of those cautions that I will address my concerns about St. Thomas' controversial philosophical theory of "delayed personhood" later in this article, and the very serious and inherent dangers it holds for the current life issues today.

C. Pope Leo Cautions Us

Given the obvious joy and deference of Pope Leo to St. Thomas' philosophy, it is all the more interesting that he makes the effort to qualify his remarks with the following.

1. The Right Use of Philosophy

As Pope Leo has already cautioned, it is not just the "right philosophy", but also "the right use of philosophy", that he is advocating. "But in the case of such doctrines as the human intelligence may perceive, it is equally just that philosophy should make use of its own method, principles, and arguments." In other words, don't mix philosophy with theology or any other independent fields of knowledge. Errors, with substantial intellectual and real-life consequences, will necessarily result.

2. The Real St. Thomas

We should also make sure, Pope Leo warns, that with the teachings of St. Thomas we are passing on the "real St. Thomas", not a false, fabricated or badly understood version of him:

"But, lest the false for the true or the corrupt for the pure be drunk in, be ye watchful that the doctrine of Thomas be drawn from his own fountains, or at least from those rivulets which, derived from the very fount, have thus far flowed, according to the established agreement of learned men, pure and clear; be careful to guard the minds of youth from those which are said to flow thence, but in reality are gathered from strange and unwholesome streams." (emphases added)

This warning certainly bodes true today as well considering the many different kinds of "Thomism" being espoused. "Which" St. Thomas are we to "revive", teach and use? If "Platonic", "Aristotelean", "Neopotonic", "Scholastic", "Kantian", "Transcendental", "Process", and other "neo-Thomisms" come to contradictory conclusions about issues, then one wonders which rendition of St. Thomas is really real? And because of fundamental systematic differences among them, how would these varieties of Thomism conclude differently on the various life issues such as abortion, the use of abortifacients, human embryo research, genetic engineering, euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, "brain death", organ transplantation, etc.? Additionally, given the "new" translations of St. Thomas, how are we to be certain that those new translations are true to the really real St. Thomas?

3. Do Not Pass On Error

St. Leo also warns us that if there are any elements in any Christian philosophies, including that of St. Thomas, that are erroneous, then those erroneous elements should not be passed on but corrected:

"[I]f anything is taken up with too great subtlety by the Scholastic doctors, or too carelessly stated -- if there be anything that ill agrees with the discoveries of a later age, or, in a word, improbable in whatever way -- it does not enter Our mind to propose that for imitation to Our age." (emphases added)

In short, as a human endeavor, every philosophy is "historically bound". Care must be taken to identify and acknowledge any historical or cultural shortfalls and idiosyncrasies.

a) Equivocal Use of Terms

An example is the equivocal use (same term, but different meanings) of definitions of each major philosophical term used "then" and how it differs now in "our age". Not all terms are understood or used univocally. For St. Thomas, in fact, many terms are used "analogically".10 Of specific interest to us in this article is how are the critical terms "substance", "soul" and "person" differently and equivocally defined?

Indeed, there are great philosophical works that trace historically, in chronological order, the very different definitions of just one major all-inclusive philosophical term - "being" -- throughout the History of Philosophy, demonstrating how even that single term is defined very differently by different philosophers.11

For those not familiar with philosophy, consider that if the term "being" is differently defined, then so are all the sub-fields of philosophy. "Being-qua-being" or "ens commune" (metaphysics), "natural" being (natural philosophy and the natural sciences), "human being" (philosophical anthropology), and "ethics" (derived from the definition of "human being" in anthropology) - and even sub-fields of ethics such as "medical ethics" (derived from the definition of "ethics") would all be defined differently. Any differences of definitions on any of these theoretical levels would necessarily lead by deduction to very different practical conclusions on the various life issues. Indeed, if one wanted to "force" a particular desired "conclusion", all one would have to do is redefine the major terms on any of the higher levels and then deduce the desired conclusions from them. For example, if you redefine the term "being", then you automatically redefine the term "substance", which redefines the term "human substance", which redefines the terms "soul" and "person", which redefines the term "ethics". The same concern and caution with terms should be exercised when reviving and teaching the philosophy of St. Thomas.

b) False Scientific "Starting Points" in Epistemology

Similarly, Pope Leo also cautions that there might be elements in a philosophy that are erroneous because of it being merely a function of the lack of relevant human knowledge available at the time. Of particular interest to us here is the abysmal state of sciences such as human embryology, human genetics and most other scientific fields in the times when both Aristotle and Thomas philosophized - especially since their method (or epistemology) of doing philosophy required an empirical "starting point". These epistemological and scientific errors too should not be passed on. And if one wanted to change the definitions of major philosophical terms on the higher levels, all one has to do is inductively "start" with false or erroneous empirical claims, and then inductively arrive at the concepts you want. For example, by using false and erroneous science one can inductively change the philosophical definitions of "human substance", "human soul" and "human person", and when a person begins to exist. The same concern and caution about acknowledging Aristotle's and Thomas' erroneous scientific starting points should be exercised when reviving and teaching the philosophy of St. Thomas.

Thus Pope Leo was acutely aware of the possibility of destroying philosophy, and thus theology, by either deductive or inductive means. It is precisely with these cautions from St. Leo that I proceed now to St. Thomas' controversial philosophical theory of "delayed personhood" and its dangerous real-life consequences for the life issues if "revived" uncorrected today.

III. St. Thomas' "Delayed Personhood" Argument and The Life Issues

How perceptive Pope Leo's encyclical was, as in our own time the teaching of any philosophy in the seminaries, much less that of St. Thomas (who has been considered anathema since Vatican II), was almost totally abandoned over the last 40 years. Consequently, since then we have witnessed the darkening of the human intellect, the disintegration of whole cultures and societies, and the insidious and frustrating inability to "rationally" justify many of the Church's teachings on the life issues by using the "new" philosophies. You can't "get to" those genuine traditional ethical teachings of the Church by using other philosophies. They simply won't work. Indeed, one usually ends up with "conclusions" that contradict those very moral teachings.12

That being said, as anyone who has studied the History of Philosophy knows, there is no such thing as a philosopher who is 100% correct, including St. Thomas. That is why, in teaching the History of Philosophy, it is so crucial to identify for the students both the "pros" and the "cons" of any philosophers being studied. The point of studying these philosophers is not to "hero-worship". Rather, the point is that we learn how to think correctly and independently, and how to extract the truths of reality from both their brilliant insights as well as from their unfortunate mistakes. We correct those mistakes as best we can - and move on. And there is one such major mistake in St. Thomas that should be fully acknowledged in any "revival" of his otherwise brilliant-beyond-comparison philosophy: his argument for "delayed hominization" (or, "delayed personhood").

"Blushingly" following Aristotle (384-322 B.C), St. Thomas (1224-1274) argues that the whole human person is not present until roughly 3 months post-fertilization. (We assume that scientists were not yet aware back then as they are today that human beings can be both sexually and asexually reproduced or that a new sexually reproduced human being begins to exist at "first contact" and penetration of the sperm and the oocyte at the beginning of the process of fertilization). For both Aristotle and St. Thomas, first the "vegetative" soul (or "form") was present in the human body (or "matter"), then the "sensitive" soul was added later, and only even later was the "rational" soul added (when the matter was "appropriately organized") - and for St. Thomas, only when the "rational" soul was present was there a human "person".

But consider what that "theory" would mean for the life issues today. If there is a "delay" in personhood at the beginning of life, as St. Thomas does argue, that "delay" can and has been used to justify abortion, the use of abortifacients, pre-natal genetic diagnosis, etc. It also can and has been used to justify the use of cells, tissues and "parts" of aborted human embryos and fetuses for the production of vaccines and as the source of genes, feeder cells, and media for culturing human embryos, human embryonic stem cells, and reprogrammed or genetically engineered human cells in vitro. Further, it can and has been used to justify human embryo and human fetal research, including human cloning, human embryonic stem cell research, unethical genetic engineering of human cells and human embryos, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs), etc. Further, and what most people don't realize, it also can be and has been used to argue for a "delay" at the end of life - the "delays" are simply reversed. First the "rational" soul leaves the body, then the "sensitive" soul - and all that is left there is a "human vegetable". Consequently, those "delays" can and have been used to justify euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, "brain death", organ transplantation, the use of human subjects in the "vegetative state" in experimental research, etc. In fact, if it is claimed that all human beings are sexually reproduced at "fertilization" (or "conception"), then that leaves all human beings asexually reproduced out of existence altogether, not to mention out of both humanhood and personhood -- at both the beginning and the end of life. They simply wouldn't even "exist" - and therefore they can be used.

All of the above claims for "delayed personhood" would actually be more in line with the very problematic "new" bioethics,13 as well as contradict the Church's traditional and current formal teachings on these same related life issues. It would also make it difficult for professors who do know the accurate science and the proper Thomistic philosophical system to teach such errors to their students in contradiction to the traditional formal teachings of the Church on these life issues.

Heeding Pope Leo, any "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy today must also carefully identify both the scientific and philosophical errors in that philosophical system, including his "delayed personhood" argument, before teaching and passing those errors on.

Next Page: IV. The Bottom Line
1, 2, 3, 4