More on the Thomism in “Amoris laetitia”

Some defenders of Amoris laetitia like to suggest it is a profoundly Thomistic document, though not, notably, any Thomists. Indeed, among Thomists, there are serious reservations about the use of the Angelic Doctor in the exhortation, particularly the infamous Chapter 8. At the National Catholic Register, Fr. Basil B. Cole, OP, a professor at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., has written a fantastic comment. You’ll want to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already, but here’s an excerpt:

Another tangle one can encounter is when quoting Aquinas piecemeal or without full advertence to his theological project. St. Thomas was nothing if not a complete and consistent thinker. To pick and choose his statements without considering their context and relation to his other relevant insights would be about as disastrous as proof-texting Sacred Scripture. One might suppose that a situationist ethic is supported by Aquinas when he states, “In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all. […] The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail” (ST I-II, q. 94, a. 4; quoted in Amoris Laetitia n. 304). Isolated from Aquinas’s other statements, it could seem as if the doctor of the Church is saying that no moral rule is absolute, but that discernment is needed in each and every situation to know whether or not a general moral principle applies in a particular situation. However, this is not authentic Thomism. Situation ethics contradicts Aquinas’s firm affirmation that there are some moral norms that always hold for everyone: these are the precepts of the Decalogue (ST I-II, q. 100, a. 8), and similar universal negative precepts, for they condemn acts that are “evil in themselves and cannot become good” (ST II-II, q. 33, a.2). He specifically says that “one may not commit adultery for any good” (De Malo, q. 15, a.1, ad 5). In the same vein, Aquinas holds that some acts “have deformity inseparably attached to them, such as fornication, adultery, and others of this sort, which can in no way be done in a morally good way” (Quodlibet 9, q. 7, a. 2). The reason for these exceptionless norms is that human nature does not change, nor does the Gospel and the Church’s mandate to transmit it unsullied through the centuries. Certain positive norms need to be adapted to the times, such as one’s relation to the environment. In such cases, Magisterial teaching adapts to changing conditions—but always without contradicting reason and the truths already articulated by the Church.

(Emphasis supplied.) Fr. Cole dispatches quickly, charitably, and utterly the suggestion that there’s anything all that Thomistic about Amoris laetitia. And he does it without hyperbole or polemical tone.

In his commentary, Edward Pentin makes clear that the Holy Father and his close supporters are particularly invested in claiming Thomistic support for Amoris laetitia. It is, therefore, hugely important to hear from theologians like Fr. Cole, who plainly have tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge about St. Thomas’s theology. Note also that, in their open letter to the Holy Father, John Finnis and Germain Grisez went out of their way to demonstrate, discussing what they call Position C, that the allegedly Thomistic aspects of Amoris laetitia are, in fact, not compatible with Thomas’s own thought. (They also suggest a connection between Position C and the dissent from Paul VI’s teaching in Humanae vitae, which seems to be a fruitful historical argument that someone else may want to flesh out.) For our part, while we think some cases for Amoris laetitia might be articulated more or less well (though all of them are unconvincing), we think it’s probably time to stick a fork in the claim that it is especially Thomistic.

At any rate, as it is clear that the controversy over Amoris laetitia is not going away, it is perhaps now the time to delve into the claims made about it, particularly the claims that it somehow reflects this or that school of thought in the Church.