Why your bishop didn’t read Aquinas

Notre Dame for many years kept texts on the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books locked behind a metal grate, and students needed permission from the university President in order to access them.

While researching the history of Notre Dame’s Great Books program, I came across this bit of history from Fr. Nicholas Ayo, C.S.C.: “In 1950 it was the usual practice to use a textbook written by professors who presented a canned version of their understanding to be digested by the students. It was the professors, not the students, who read the great original sources of our knowledge.”

It’s often struck me how many older American Catholics have such narrow views of Aquinas and other theologians. It’s worth noting that, prior to the 1950s/60s, most Catholic universities didn’t have students focusing heavily on primary sources. Catholic university students usually did not read them. As Fr. Ayo points out, students read textbooks written by their professors, with the assumption that the professors were responsible for interpreting the primary texts and giving digested versions to students. It was not Aquinas that theology students would read, but the version of Aquinas that the professor deemed worthy of passing down.

As an aside, this may be why theology and philosophy curricula at Catholic universities tended to suggest that Catholicism had a singular monolithic view on all kinds of matters. Even today, some Catholic philosophy departments have required courses on, for example, “Philosophy of God,” “Philosophy of Mind,” and “Philosophy of Man,” where students are expected to learn “the best” positions on each of these, rather than to engage these questions as they have actually been engaged by Catholic philosophers and theologians: as matters of elaboration, exploration, and ongoing debate. There is no Catholic position on these matters, though there are Catholic positions. Otto Bird, in founding Notre Dame’s Great Books program in 1950, committed the program to the philosophy and theology of Aquinas. But he did this in order to give the program a unifying vision, while recognizing that “there are admittedly several different, even competing, Christian philosophies and theologies within the Church.”

But the Great Books program kicked off a new era for education at Notre Dame, one viewed critically by many in Catholic education. Engagement with philosophical and theological texts was once quite limited at Catholic universities. Notre Dame for many years even kept texts on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books locked behind a metal grate, and students needed permission from the university President in order to access them. This meant that, for example, philosophy students never even saw the texts that we today would expect them to read if they are to be viewed as having a basic philosophical education. When the Great Books program started at Notre Dame, students in the program read more of Plato and Aristotle than any students in the philosophy department. This may explain why Great Books students repeatedly won prizes for the best philosophy essays. It turned out that deep engagement with actual texts provided something that professors’ summaries could not. We often take this observation for granted, but it was not always taken so. With the prominence of schools like Thomas Aquinas College, it’s often forgotten that many in Catholic education in the mid-20th century objected to Great Books curricula, believing that their exposure to dangerous texts, and the seemingly relativistic Socratic method, would challenge a school’s Catholic identity.

It may have been through the older model of Catholic university education, the “summary model” of education, that so many Catholics born in the early-mid 20th century came to attribute views and dispositions to Aquinas (and to Catholicism) which do not really belong to him/her. If the Aquinas presented by these Catholics seems “dumbed down” and unfocused, that’s because this was the Aquinas that was taught to them at the university. Syracuse Religious Studies students in 2020 are more likely to have the Summa assigned to them than Notre Dame theology students were in 1950. This may also be why people who read the Summa today find him much more interesting and “edgy” than older Catholics have led them to believe him to be.

It’s worth noting that this is the educational model which many of today’s American bishops were educated in. In their graduate studies, they would have been exposed to primary texts. But they would have been educated in a model focused much more on having ideas about Aquinas (and other theologians) than on actually grappling with him directly.

This “summary model” of education has not entirely gone away. I once had the privilege of taking a graduate course on medieval philosophy at a pontifical university in Rome. It was, unfortunately, the worst philosophy class I have ever taken. We read no texts. The professor, though certainly brilliant (and also, to me, rather endearing), monotonously delivered summaries of persons and ideas read line-by-line from his course notes. I could hardly blame the European seminarians who spent the course snoozing in the back of the classroom. But I do worry about what this means for many of them, both “liberal” and “conservative,” when they start to teach parishioners about “medieval philosophy.” I myself had much trouble paying attention in that class.

The exceptional students in that medieval philosophy class were the young Dominican sisters, diligently taking notes and appearing to hang on the professor’s every word. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after every class, they went to the library to find and engage texts and authors we had discussed. Perhaps our hope for the Church, and for philosophy, should be in those women.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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