Did 13th Century St. Thomas Aquinas Make Straight the Path to 20th Century Atheism?

13th Century
St. Thomas Aquinas
Make Straight the Path
20th Century

Excerpted from "Holy Redeemer" in
Victory Garden Boys: Growing Up in a Suburb of the Cold War


jr foley 

              The generation of Catholic school children growing up in America in the 1950's were taught the Baltimore Catechism No. 2 from 1st Grade through at least 5th. The Catechism was drilled into us in the form of numbered questions and answers. It was a kind of chant, antiphon and response -- very pleasing to the ear, if truth be told, which was essential to its mnemonic charm. But I won't go into the specifics of the Baltimore Catechism here. What we did not know is that ever since the Baltimore Catechism was first issued in 1885 it had come in for strong and steady criticism, especially for its emphasis on rote memorization, from catechists required to teach it, mainly nuns and priests, but even from some bishops. Theological weaknesses were pressed, too. The favorite example was its treatment of the Resurrection of Jesus, which, together with the Crucifixion, is the central event, the central mystery, of Christianity. Out of 421 question-and-answers the Baltimore Catechism devoted to the central mystery of its religion exactly ... one question, namely, on what day did the Resurrection occur? The other 420 questions-and-answers, after a couple dozen on the existence of God, focused on virtue and sin. The core criticism was that the Baltimore Catechism inculcated doctrine but it did not deepen faith. None of this criticism was ever publicized to the laity, and it took 50 years before a concerted effort to revise the Catechism even began. The eventual 1941 revision multiplied its coverage of the Resurrection 100% -- from one question-and-answer to two. The underground campaign to revise the Baltimore Catechism became a campaign to get rid of it, and in 1963 the American bishops announced it would be replaced. In fact, it was removed from Catholic schools but never replaced. The next Catechism issued, not till a generation later, 1992, was for adult Catholics only.

          What difference has this made?

          I must leave this question ringing in the air, because I don't have an answer. I don't know if polls or surveys or scientific studies have been done, or even if they could measure a true answer. My concern here, though, is not the ongoing development of Catholic catechesis, and its ups and downs since Second Vatican Council of the mid-'60's, but the catechesis we experienced at Holy Redeemer, Kensington, in Cold War America and the waning days of the 16th Century Catholic Counter-Reformation, leading up to Vatican II.

          The Internet showcases some nostalgia for the old Baltimore Catechism as a rigorous summary of clearly defined doctrines. What can I say? Memories of childhood are always alluring, when exasperation is not relived. The allure of a "rigorous summary of clearly defined doctrines" leads me to the second point I want to make about the catechism we were taught.

          Catholics who grew up to reject what the Baltimore Catechism taught them would no doubt agree with the catechists, theologians, nuns, priests, and bishops who labored in the vineyard to get rid of it: the Baltimore Catechism No. 2 was not adequate to its assigned task -- to make us good Catholics, good Christians.

          Adequate -- such a sedate, unrevolutionary word!

          But post a question mark beside it and Adequate? becomes subversive of any established philosophy or theology.

          At Holy Redeemer we memorized an inadequate Catechism just as it was beginning to come apart.

          The man who posted the question mark in the years following my graduation from Holy Redeemer was a Spaniard -- a Basque, actually -- who had become a Canadian citizen, an RCAF pilot in World War II, and subsequently a philosopher at the University of Toronto. The book in which he posted it was The Future of Belief: Theism in a World Come of Age (Herder & Herder, London, 1966), which caused seismic waves among the philosophers, theologians, and journalists of the Catholic Church in the late 1960's, although it is safe to say that most Catholics of North America never heard of it.  The Future of Belief appeared in the wake of various "death of God" theses of four Protestant theologians (Thomas J.J. Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren, William Hamilton) and a rabbi (Richard Rubenstein). Hostile critics "associated" Dewart with them, even as he stressed he believed in a "living" God in the Catholic tradition. But his point was that Catholic philosophy, especially the official Thomism and the related Neo-Scholasticism, were no longer adequate to modern man's experience of the world.

          Fair warning, dear reader: the next few pages discuss certain surprising points of Thomistic theology. Skip thee past them if so thou wishest. But if you do, you will miss the heart of the what that we, at Holy Redeemer, Kensington, were taught in Religion class.

          Dewart develops his argument in all its detail in The Foundations of Belief (Herder & Herder, London, 1969), to which The Future of Belief is but an overture. The argument is not simple. Dewart develops it at a pace that neither hastens nor delays, with wit, patience, and all the clarity that can be brought to the fundamentals of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, as interpreted not only by St. Thomas Aquinas and his 20th Century disciples (Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Bernard Lonergin, among others), but also by his Arab predecessors Ibn Sinna (Avicenna), al-Farabi, and Ibn Rushd (Averoes). He also examines, as very much on point, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

          I will try to recount only one line of development in Dewart's subversive thesis, but a major one.

          First some terminology, in context. Plato and Aristotle, following Parmenides, assumed that everything that is is knowable, that is, intelligible. Everything that is is a being of some sort -- which comes into existence and eventually passes out of it -- but there is always, underlying each being, or rather embodied in it, being as such. (Even when a particular beingpasses out of existence, it actually disintegrates into material ingredients that either persist or mutate but in fact never cease to be, in one form or another.)  Being, which always persists, is material but also, according to Plato and Aristotle, immaterial -- particularly human reason, which unlike material being can reflect on and know itself. That was essential: being as such can not only know itself, it is inherently -- essentially -- knowable, intelligible.  Being as such has as "part" of its essence that it is intelligible; intelligibility is an essential constituent of -- is of the essence of -- being. Finally -- to complete this thought -- the Greeks also assumed being as such has always been in existence, and regardless of all transformations will always be in existence: in fact, the existence of being as such is necessary.

          St. Thomas Aquinas divided being as such into created being and Uncreated Being (which he identified with the God Who had revealed Himself to Abraham, Moses, and the Jews, and Who had become man in Jesus Christ). St. Thomas acknowledged that Uncreated Being, God, exists necessarily, but a created being exists only because God wills it into existence. Created existence, contra the Greeks, is not necessary. It is contingent ... upon God. If God exists necessarily, it is of His divine essence to exist; in fact, His essence and His existence are identical. We can distinguish between His essence and His existence for the sake of argument, to try to get some rudimentary understanding of God; but in reality God's essence and God's existence are one and the same, indistinguishable.

          Evidently, however, the essence and the existence of created beings are not one and the same; they are separable. The way St. Thomas perceived the difference between the essence and the existence of created beings -- creatures as such -- worked a revolution in Western philosophy, "pagan" and Christian both.

          Here is the way Dewart states the case:

... [T]he very nature of his doctrine [the contingency of creatures, as presented in his early De Ente et Essentia] forced St. Thomas to argue in the first place ... from creatures to God -- however free he may have felt thereafterto argue ... from God to creatures. For the possible difficulty of which St. Thomas was surely not wholly unconscious ... was that the very existential creatureliness of creatures might be endangered if it were granted that their existence was not the accident [added on from the outside, by God] of the essence, but its act. In the doctrine of St. Thomas esse ["to be"] might come to ens [a particular being] -- not to essentia [being-ness] -- from the outside. But esse ["to be"] never lay outside essentia [being-ness], nor did it ever lie outside of the being (ens), once the being was. It is ... paradoxical; but if the existential contingency of creatures was to be retained, it was necessary to derive their creatureliness from their existential contingency, not the other way about. Hence St. Thomas' problem really was, in [Neo-Scholastic Etienne] Gilson's memorable phrase: "how do we know that empirically given beings [as such, i.e. not creatures as such] are compounded of essence and existence?" In other words, if creatures are really contingent and are not necessary even after they exist, then their contingency should be evident in them, in themselves, as they exist, not in the relation that they may have to God. 
                                                  (The Foundations of Belief, hereafter FOB, p. 185)

          To put it even more simply, St. Thomas recognized, early in his philosophic career, that man thinking had to proceed from the recognition of himself as a being, and a contingent one at that (subject to change, death, sheer unnecessity), before he could ever arrive at a view of himself as created by Another -- as the creature of Another. Moreover, man could recognize, not only that his individual ens need not exist, but even that man need not exist, that is, again contra the Greeks, nothing made it necessary for man to have essentia -- to have the being-ness of a being at all.

          There is quite a bit more to this Thomistic subversion of the old Parmenidean-Platonic-Aristotelian idea that man as a being (not as an individual) existed of necessity. For St. Thomas only God exists of necessity. Dewart's emphasis is on the thinking process St. Thomas recounts for arriving, first, at the recognition that man as a being does not exist of necessity -- and that one can arrive at that recognition without taking any notice of God or His existence, necessary or otherwise.

The great insight of St. Thomas was that the contingency of created reality is, somewhat paradoxically, dependent on the intrinsic [that is, the necessary] character of its reality.
                                                  (FOB, p. 173)

          In connection with the notion of being as existentially contingent, wherein esse [to be] is the act of essentia [being-ness], Dewart goes on: "The use of the Greek notion of essence had an explosive epistemological potential which in due course was bound to be set off." Dewart traces this epistemological potential four centuries forward from St. Thomas to Rene Déscarte, who set it off at last ... with consequences, I will show, even for the Baltimore Catechism No. 2 (and any subsequent catechism of the Catholic Church). Because the question is not only about being but about knowing, and what can be known. Dewart continues to be worth quoting at length.

St. Thomas' argument depends upon the major premise that "every essence or quiddity [what-ness] can be understood without anything being known of its existing." In keeping with the requirements of his objective, this observation of St. Thomas concerns empirical being as such -- it does not concern empirical being insofar as it is created. This is, indeed, an empirical observation concerning empirical being as such. It is not ... an a prioriproposition about being.

          That is, it's an observation about being as experienced, not as deduced from some prior idea of what being is or ought to be.

The example offered by St. Thomas himself to illustrate the principle serves to remove every reasonable doubt about this point. For the text of St. Thomas does not say: "a man or a phoenix can be merely possible, can be conceived by God, and yet not be brought into existence by him." It says: "I can know what a man or a phoenix is and still be ignorant whether it exists in reality." It concerns that which "I can know" and that which I can "be ignorant" of. Now, considered by itself, this was hardly a novel observation. ... But everyone who has any experience with reality knows very well that despite the aptitude of reality for "being found" [an approximate translation of wujud, the Arabic equivalent of "to be," that is, "to be found"], sometimes we can look for [reality] without success. On the other hand, neither the common experience of any culture, nor that of Avicenna and Al-Farabi in particular, had ever before coupled this observation with either a philosophically elaborated or a common sense apprehension of the existential contingency of reality, ens, whose existence was the act of its essence and its knowable content. The conjunction of the two in St. Thomas would have the effect of extending the realm of possible doubt about the existence of beings from given beings to being as such, since it would subject to possible doubt the actual existence of every essence -- perhaps not as such, as intelligible, but, in any event, as related to the act of esse -- including the sense of an essentially existing [in the language of the Baltimore Catechism No. 2: a "Self-existing"] God. At least, that would be the ultimate result, namely, to cast doubt even upon the existence of any God who was intelligibly constituted. The more immediate effect was simply to cast doubt upon the reality of anything whatever whose essence and whose existence were not "the same."

          Which is not to say that the system of Thomistic reasoning which the Baltimore Catechism embodies leads inevitably to doubt about the very existence of God. But it does say that St. Thomas admits philosophical doubt -- which the Catechismrejects a priori -- to be unavoidable ... in experience.

The reason is that an observation about empirically given being concerns being, to be sure, but it concerns being which is given in experience: St. Thomas' argument concerns being, but it is thereby concerned with what "I can know" and what I can "be ignorant" of. Hence, this observation about being is also an observation about experience itself; in this sense it can be stated, therefore, that St. Thomas based his distinction between essence and existence, in empirically given being as such, upon a reflexive analysis of existence. I hasten to add that this is not in the least objectionable. It is, in any event, inevitable: philosophers from Parmenides to our own day have never analyzed reality except insofar as it was given in experience, and it is difficult to imagine under what conditions it would ever become possible for any philosopher to do otherwise. For it appears that there is no way, at least for man, to analyze anything unless it be somehow given to him in experience. The novelty of St. Thomas' doctrine, however, is that this was the first time in the recorded history of Hellenic-Western philosophy that any scholar began to take advantage of this very fact. And insofar as later thought has only taken increasing and ever more conscious advantage of the same fact, it is fair to state, simply as a matter of historical fact, that later Western philosophical thought, up to and including contemporary thought [oversimply, Descartes-Kant-Hegel-Heidegger-Sartre], continues and fulfills the philosophical creativity of St. Thomas himself (albeit, to be sure, along lines St. Thomas would not have himself wished to take).
                                                  (FOB, p. 189-191)

          In fact, St. Thomas never followed up on this line of thought; nor did he "correct" it, or repudiate or refute it, or explain away the difficulties it caused for his later theology, or even acknowledge them. This was largely because, according to Dewart, St. Thomas "retained the classical conception of knowledge [that 'knowledge is the mind's intentional taking in {"intussusception"} of an extramental being' -- of an objective being outside the mind], with which the doctrine of the existential contingency of being is ultimately incompatible." (I won't go into the demonstration of that.)

For if St. Thomas meant exactly what he said in De Ente et Essentia (that is, if the empirical reason why essence and existence are really distinct in empirically given being is the empirical fact that in such being essence can be known without its actual existence being ipso facto known), then the problematization of knowledge, specifically as posed by Déscartes, would sooner or later arise. Its basis would be that provided by St. Thomas, that is, a reflexive analysis of experience itself.
                                                  (FOB, p. 191-192)

          "Cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am" -- actually a pre-philosophical, or psychological, recognition, not a deduction from the concept think -- only anticipates but does not directly address Déscartes' "problem of knowledge" (which, by the way, Dewart calls a misnomer).

...[A]s posed by Déscartes the problem of knowledge was essentially this: how to establish philosophically the real existence of objects of knowledge about whose real existence neither common sense nor philosophy could entertain any doubts -- for their real existence was presupposed not only by common sense, but also by the philosophers' very concept of knowledge as the mind's attainment of an extramental reality.
                                                  (FOB, p. 200-201)

          More specifically how St. Thomas set up this problem:

...[I]t follows from the premises established by St. Thomas, that if by knowledge we attain to an extramental reality which (a) does not necessarily exist and does not have within itself anything which is the sufficient reason for its existence, and which (b) cannot, simply because it is known, be necessarily known to exist (for this indeed is the basis of the previous assertion), then the existence of every being we know (or could know), the existence of anything constituted by an intelligible quiddity, is philosophically problematic. Irrespective of its perseity [in medieval philosophy, the quality of those things having substance independently of any real object], extramentality and existential independence, empirically given being is known to us in virtue of its intelligibility; and its intelligibility may be essential to its constitution, but since it is "other than" its existence, and since it exists contingently, no amount of knowledge about empirically given being will reveal whether or not it exists.
                                                  (FOB, p. 196)

          And how Déscartes connects with St. Thomas:

...[Déscartes] never had, any more than St. Thomas ever did, any doubt that the known is in point of fact an extramental existent: the very fact that it is known means that, prior to its being known, it already was some sort of independent existent. But the effort of epistemology to demonstrate philosophically what must be assumed by the philosopher to be true in any event, is required by the very fact that philosophical reflection upon the nature of the objects of knowledge (i.e. philosophical awareness of their existential contingency) leads to the conclusion that [the] ontological structure [the being-ness of the very nature of knowledge] (i.e. its existential contingency) makes [the nature of knowledge itself] problematic precisely as object of knowledge. Therefore -- but only therefore -- the same fact that makes the object of knowledge problematic, makes knowledge problematic as well. ...
                                                  (FOB, p. 201)

          So Déscartes' "methodic doubt," not a "real" doubt, proceeds "as if what is known were only an idea in the mind, as ifwhat is known were only a representation of that which exists in reality as an in-itself -- though the philosopher knows very well that in reality this is not the case, because were it otherwise, it would not occur to him to attempt the demonstration in the first place" (FOB, p. 205).

The distinctiveness of the specifically metaphysical revolution wrought by St. Thomas was perhaps one of the most effective channels for the subversive Spirit of freedom and creativity to stir the waters of the faith of Christendom. That atheism and secularism have been the excesses under whose sign man has, if not once for all come of age, at least entered his childhood's end, is an unfortunate accident -- but one which, like all fortuitous mishaps, can be redeemed and, in some way, turned to good account. When Christian philosophers begin to tell people, as St. Thomas did, that they exist in their own right, and give them the premises from which they will in time deduce that they, too, are creators, and that they have a decisive role to play -- for better or for worse -- in the shaping of themselves, and that it is better to have creatively attempted something and failed than never to have created anything at all, one has to expect that some people -- perhaps even most people for a while -- will not know just what to do with their discovery and will not quite manage themselves well. But ars essendi longa, vita hominis brevis. A little atheistic wild oats, a little experimental apostasy, may not be such a bad thing in the end, if only the Christian world learns to profit, even from them.
                                                  (FOB, p. 206)

... Of course, since Déscartes assumed the same concept of knowledge as St. Thomas did, and the same concept of the self as an object of knowledge which as such is no different from any other (it is simply a different sort of substance), it did follow logically that the knower could not know anything other than himself except because of some guarantee extrinsic to knowledge itself.
                                                  (FOB, p. 224)

          "...[T]he Cartesian cogito," says Dewart, "did imprison man within his own subjectivity, from which the efforts of the British empiricists" and others like Kant and Hegel "did not succeed in liberating him."

...But the Cartesian cogito, and even more Kant's reworking of it as the Ich denke which must "accompany all my representations" [Critique of Pure Reason, -- 132] and Hegel's as the for-itselfness of Spirit [Phenomenology of Mind, Preface 5-6], did constrain the philosophical tradition of the last one hundred years, beginning with Kierkegaard and Marx and leading to Dewey, Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre, to consider anew the meaning of the empirical fact that consciousness is self-positing: that whether or not extramental things exist, the mind itself cannot know itself except as existing, and that, thus, consciousness is not definable in abstraction from its subjectivity, or in abstraction from the self which is given in it and to it. But to reconsider this was, in effect, first, to put in doubt the adequacy of the very concept of knowledge which went back to the Greeks, and, second, to redefine knowledge on a consciously empirical basis.
                                                  (FOB, p. 224-225)

          While examining Déscartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, and Sartre as heirs of St. Thomas -- and perpetuators one way or another of the classical concept of knowledge -- Dewart proposes, against them, his own concept; in view of this company of champions, one especially worth quoting at length.

Thus, isolation from the world, self containedness, lack of relation to reality, self identity, impassivity, atomicity, substantiality, perseity, in itselfness--these are not the characteristics of the world in which knowledge occurs. Man is, to begin with, and as an existent, already in relation to reality whenever he exists, precisely because he is part of the world in which he exists. Knowledge is, indeed, posterior to being--but knowledge is not posterior to experience; hence, being is not the a priori condition of knowledge. Knowledge emerges in the world of being and, as it were, as the creature of being. Knowing is, therefore, a form of being, a manifestation of reality. What is peculiar to it is not that it relates one reality to another, but that it enables reality to become self related. Knowledge is not peculiarly a relation to reality, but a self-relation to it. Man is, thus, the being who relates himself to being. Consciousness is the being of the being who not only is being, but who relates himself to being: it is man's self-relation to being that makes him the sort of being he essentially is, namely, the conscious being, man.
                                                  (FOB, p. 255)

          And so follows Dewart's fundamental critique of the adherence of St. Thomas to the classical concept of knowledge in spite of his own insight into the existential contingency of beings as given in experience -- even without relation to a Creator -- as opposed to the classical concept that man as a being exists of necessity:

This is why, if we but reflect upon the empirical data of ordinary, everyday experience, we must arrive at the conclusion that St. Thomas' argument for the distinction between essence and existence is, for all its basis in a reflexive analysis of experience, vitiated by his more fundamental a priori premise, namely, the definition of essence as the intelligible constitution of the real as such, which in turn rests upon his (historically understandable) uncritical assumption of the classical concept of knowledge. It is barely credible that generation after generation of philosophers have accepted without murmur the assertion of St. Thomas (or any of its numerous equivalents in later philosophical speculation up to the Hegelian climax of Scholastic thought), that "every essence or quiddity can be understood without anything being known of its existing," that, for instance, "I can know what a man or a phoenix is and still be ignorant whether it exists in reality." {De Ente et Essentia, IV.}

For this assertion is nothing short of fantastic: it is precisely the opposite of what any legally sane, adult citizen can verify for himself by having recourse to no more sophisticated or authoritative testimony than that of elementary experience. For every essence or quiddity may remain misunderstood or even unknown--except in one respect, namely, in respect of its real existence. If man bears any conscious self relation whatever to any essence or quiddity, then the object of knowledge must be known as somehow existing, as something that is there, as a reality other than the consciousness which, by being itself, is correlatively other than it. I may not know what it is, but it is a reality, it is by definition other than me. Thus, I can know something in reality which, as it so happens, is a man or, say, a phoenix, without knowing what man or phoenix is--Cbut I cannot know either man or phoenix and still be ignorant whether they, whatever they may be, do not somehow and in some way really exist.
                                                  (FOB, pp. 255-256)

           Of the philosophers Dewart considers for their successive critiques of St. Thomas (and of each other), I will mention only the 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger, who happened also to be one of the teachers of Jean-Paul Sartre.

          For Heidegger, in Dewart's reading, what can be known (i.e., being) is first hidden -- historically hidden. The un-concealment of the hidden is both the essence of truth and the essence of being. Heidegger continues in the Greek tradition of assuming that what is is ultimately, and essentially, knowable. In fact, Heidegger denies any distinction between appearance -- the immediate "un-concealment of the hidden" -- and being itself. We can only speak of being as what appears, even if the to-be of being (as Dewart translates Heidegger's word essent) remains, at first – "historically" -- hidden.

...The historical hiddenness of the to-be of being ... is not to be dispelled by the absurd supposition of someone like St. Thomas, who deemed that being could be more knowable in itself than it could be knowable to us. [For Heidegger t]he essence of being is appearing. Being can be nothing but that which appears. A Being that would transcend appearance is a contradiction in terms. Whatever is hidden from man is either hidden because man does not see it, or else because it iss not. Beyond being--I mean, beyond being which is, and, (which is the same), beyond being which appears--there can be only nothing. The un-reality of this nothing is effective upon being, and is responsible for its being experienced (for instance, in the form of Dread), as the background of being and as the source of the contingency of being--that is, the source of its lack of sufficient reason for being in itself--precisely because there is no Being behind nothingness, no Being to nullify the nothingness of nothing, and thus no Being to take away from being that which is most truly itself.
                                                  (FOB, pp. 353-354)

          Dewart continues:

If the interpretation of St. Thomas I have suggested above is at all correct, then it is not the slightest exaggeration to state that [Heidegger's] doctrine is the fairly direct (though distant) outcome of the Thomistic revolution which, in order to preserve the contingency of creatures, made creatures existentially self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency remained compatible with theism only as long as creatures remained essentially necessary--that is, only as long as existence was the act of an essence which was really distinct from it, yet necessary in itself as the principle of intelligibility of ens. But it was this very conjunction which, at first, made knowledge problematic and, ultimately, led to the conclusion that intelligibility could not be the necessary constituent of being, but only its outcome. Thus, when being (ens) became definable in terms of its existence alone, the complete self-sufficiency of being (ens) became assured. This was, to be sure, no longer the self-sufficiency of a necessary being: it was the self-sufficiency of the totally Contingent, the superfluous, the gratuitous, the absurd. In an ontology of such being the concept of God can have no place, even as the symptom of disease: God is a historical mistake, the overcoming of which is complete only when he is forgotten and no longer problematic. The only consistent atheism is silence about God.

As early as David Hume philosophy had already concluded that "whatever is may not be." St. Thomas would have agreed that this principle is true when it refers to empirically given being, but not if it should refer to being as such: it could not be true of being as such because it could not be true of Being Itself, for whom to-be is necessary and essential, since in him to-be is "the same as" its essence and substance. As long as philosophy found it possible uncritically to begin its speculative task with belief in God, and to proceed thence to understand created being in relation to Being Itself, this qualification remained reasonable. And yet, it was St. Thomas himself, by a stroke of the other edge of his philosophical revolution, who made it impossible for philosophy to begin uncritically with belief in a God in relation to whose prior being the being of empirically given being should be thereafter understood. St. Thomas, in other words, taught the philosophical tradition of the Hellenic-Western world its radical empiricism. Philosophy since Hume has gradually worked out the implications of the contingency of being: "whatever is may not be." The death--rather the annihilation--of the Necessary Being, Being Itself, was but the principal negative implication to be extricated from it once the epistemological quandary of Hume was resolved in modern times.
                                                   (FOB, p. 354-355. Underscoring mine.)

          Dewart's own development of this line of thinking is outside the scope of a critique of the Baltimore Catechism. The point of this digression is that Catholic philosopher Leslie Dewart has developed a critique of the Thomistic philosophy undergirding the Baltimore Catechism -- particularly the "classical concept of knowledge" joined disjointedly with a doctrine of the radical contingency of being as given in experience -- which makes a compelling case that the philosophical basis of the Catechism, ironically and even perversely -- however innocently on the part of its writer and editors -- leads logically to the very atheism it is intended to prevent.

          To the extent that the Catechism of the Catholic Church issued in 1992 depends upon the same Thomistic undergirding, the same observation applies.

          Not to leave Dewart in the air, however, I add the following to indicate where his line of thinking is heading.

I have asked: Can theism be erected on the very foundations of atheism? But I have put it badly. If this question means: Can belief in the traditional Christian God, that is, God as traditionally conceived by Christians, find support in the fundamental epistemological and ontological concepts that can be developed in this, the latest stage in the history of Western-Hellenic thought? the answer is clearly no. Contemporary thought is perfectly consistent. Its atheistic conclusion is formally and materially valid on its own premises, and there is no question of attempting to catch its logical mistake. The traditional Christian concept is simply not viable, and the growing awareness of this on the part of believer and non-believer alike is not likely to be reversed. It is probably only a matter of time--though in the evolutionary scale time usually stretches out unforeseeably long--before the point becomes self-evident to almost everyone--at which time Christendom as a whole will begin to wonder how it ever could have thought otherwise. The question would be vain, thus, if it entertained the hope of turning back, or turning aside, the stream of philosophical thought.

The question that may be asked, however--the question the philosopher must by his very vocation ask--is whether positive atheism, for all its conscientious avoidance of anti-theism, does not remain too closely related to, whether it does not in fact retain some key assumptions of, traditional theism--and, if so, whether positive atheism may not be valid in relation to the traditional concept of God as the reality which corresponds to religious experience, but not necessarily precludes the evolution of human consciousness in relation to the very concept of God. The human intellect has developed itself to the point where it has found it necessary to redefine itself, its consciousness and the object of its consciousness. Does it not seem prima facie likely that man should also redefine the object of belief? In the light of this hypothesis, the question I have asked is legitimate. It means: does the interpretation of religious experience, on the assumption of the philosophical foundations of contemporary Hellenic-Western thought, not require us to reconceptualize the reality which has been traditionally conceived as the Supreme Being, God?
                                                  (FOB, pp. 355-357. Underscoring mine.)

          Dewart would reconceptualize "the reality which has been traditionally conceived as the Supreme Being, God" as a reality transcending being -- not a being or Being at all, but no less real all the same.  The Foundations of Belief develops and explores this inchoate reconceptualization in the context of what he calls the evolution of consciousness, explored even further in Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in the Origin and Development of Human Nature (University of Toronto Press, Toronto Buffalo London, 1989).

John FoleyComment