Monday, February 15, 2010

Scholasticism and Neo-Scholasticism

I have seen these two terms used often in reference to the dominant post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-Vatican I, anti-modern theology of the official Church. I have, however, been unable to find a clear definition of either term, and I have obviously not done enough reading and research in theology and Church history to be able to make my own definition.

Can anyone help me out here?


  1. Ross, I can offer a tiny bit of help, I hope.

    Scholasticism refers to the "high" tradition of scholasticism of the high Middle Ages, as exemplified best by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas recognized the need to try to get faith and reason walking in tandem. He lived within the social context in which universities were coming into being in Europe, and so the church sought to respond to the rise of a new educated intellectual class in European cities. His order, the Dominicans, specialized in that engagement.

    As his guide, Aquinas took Aristotle's philosophy, with its emphasis on logic and reason. And so he created the great compendium of Catholic theology, his Summa, using an Aristotelian logical approach to theological questions, in which he used reason to weigh the pros and cons of a question, and placed his conclusions in the light of revelation.

    Aquinas's scholasticism was initially condemned by the church, and was under suspicion, in part, because Aristotle's works had been saved for the West by the Islamic world, and came back to the West by Islamic tradition, especially through the philosopher Averroes.

    Neo-scholasticism is a somewhat formulaic and debased form of the high scholasticism of Aquinas. This form of scholasticism came to dominate Catholic seminary life in the 19th century, and was even mandated by papal fiat for use in seminaries.

    It reduces Thomas's intellectually honest and challenging approach of weighing theological pros and cons rationally in the light of revelation, to a question and answer approach.

    And so this theology is often also called the manual tradition--a tradition in which people believed that truth could be captured in formulas and written down in manuals, then memorized and parroted.

    This approach to theology and revelation has had really horrible consequences in Catholic life, and it's still around in the way many people deal with the catechism.

  2. Thank you, Bill. Yours is the clearest and most enlightening explanation I have seen so far.