Monday, September 15, 2008

THOMAS AQUINAS ON AUTHORITY AND CHARITY (Published article, by Fr. Robert Vallee, philosophy professor, St. John Vianney College Seminary, Miami)

Thomas Aquinas concludes his discussion on the role of authority and its relation to reason with the following passage: “Cum igitur gratia non tollat naturam sed perficiat, oportet quod naturalis ratio subserviat fidei sicut et naturalis inclinatio voluntatis obsequitur charitati.” Which is: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.” This article investigates the importance of this passage for the exercise of authority, especially within a seminary context. The major premise contained herein is that authority which seeks to circumvent or suppress reason is abusive and illegitimate. Grace, the grace of authority no less than any other manifestation of grace, perfects natural reason. To paraphrase St. Thomas, authority which sets itself above and against human reason sets itself on the weakest possible foundations.

Thomas confirms this interpretation in ST, Q. 2, art. 2, “faith presupposes natural knowledge even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection presupposes something that can be perfected” [fides praesupponit cognitionen naturalem, sicut gratia naturam et perfectio perfectibile]. According to Dr. Sixto Garcia: “For our purposes the key word is praesupponit. To presuppose in scholastic Latin is to predict a ceratin contingency, that is, cutting to the chase, no reason [cogitatem naturalem], no faith. As Pierre Rousselot so cogently demonstrated, reason requires the eyes of faith and faith requires the clues of reason.” The raw material upon which grace builds is, precisely, nature. Hence, the natural gifts, talents and capacities of the student must be nurtured and groomed so that the student might cooperate with the work of grace. Grace does not build on nothing. It builds on nature. Hence the natural, intellectual, moral and psychological capacities of the seminary student must be of central concern to those in charge of the process of formation. Grace does not work against nature but with it so as to perfect it.

I recall the comments of a woman religious I once knew who said that her order consisted of mostly ignorant farm girls and that, for them, the process of formation consisted of basically erasing who they were on the personal level, so that they could be re-formed in the cookie-cutter image of something less inadequate, which is why they all walked, talked, dressed and thought in the same way. This is more a matter of deformation than it is one of formation. Moreover, it is not, explicitly or implicitly, harmonious with a Catholic anthropology. As I begin teaching philosophy in a college seminary and being a member of the formation team for another year, I would take the position of St Thomas as a starting point for reflection. Whether one is teaching in the classroom or involved in the process of formation, it is obvious that the voice of authority must be exercised. However, whether that voice is a font of grace or pit of disgrace depends, to a large extent, on the manner in which it is exercised. The sounding of authority’s voice must be modulated by the dictates of reason and charity. Hence, how is one to exercise authority without becoming authoritarian? How is one to maintain discipline without establishing a police state haunted by fear and trembling? Most of all, when a situation of conflict or necessary correction arises (as it inevitably will), what tone and principles should guide the process of correction? These are the questions to which this article addresses itself.

Returning to St. Thomas, authority has the disastrous tendency to subvert itself when it sets itself against human reason. Which is to say, Thomas did not allow for a “double” theory of truth. The truths of reason do not contradict the truths of faith. The truths of faith go beyond those of nature, yet build upon them [Utitur tamen sacra doctrina etiam ratione humana]. In a like manner, the student has a much deeper and more daunting responsibility than mere compliance with the program of priestly formation. It is no virtue to believe irrationally that which one does not understand. The student must attempt to understand not merely what is expected of him but why it is expected. Formation is not successful simply because all the soldiers learn to line up and march correctly. Formation is successful when the soldiers know why they march and have interiorized the principles and values that underlie the program of priestly formation.

The authority figure in a seminary, albeit a rector, a dean or a professor, who constantly and arbitrarily appeals to authority, eliciting compliance by pure fiat, quickly uses up the capital given to authority by persons of good will who enter the seminary. The average and normal seminarian enters seminary with a fundamental disposition to be obedient and pliable–there are of course exceptions to this rule. Nevertheless, the average seminarian, such has been my experience in the classroom and in formation, is willing to be taught. He possesses a fair amount of what used to be called docilitas, which is inadequately translated as docility and better translated as teachability.

The distinction between docility and teachability is a crucial one in a seminary formation program. A student may be perfectly compliant with all the rules of seminary life. But if that student is not open to being taught, the program of formation is practically useless for him. Because, strictly speaking, such a student is not being formed but is only conforming to rules, regulations and norms that remain external to him. Essentially, such a one says you can make my body do what you want but my soul is free and untouched by all this pandering. On the other hand, the student that is teachable is open, open to letting the voice of authority into his life and instigating a true and frank dialogue.

Of course, it is incumbent upon those in authority to be cognizant of the immense responsibility they bear. Most students who close down, become passive aggressive and, as a psychologist friend of mind used to say, “submarine,” do so because in one way or another they have been roughly handled by authority. Those charged with exercising authority in the seminary must be cognizant of the fact that the fund of good will is not endless. A student treated roughly or unfairly will be far less inclined to open himself again. This is not resistance to formation so much as it is a healthy instinct for self-preservation. This is not to say that discipline should be avoided but only that those in charge of formation need to choose their battles wisely.

Obedience is clearly not merely a matter of doing whatever a superior tells one to do with no further qualifications. Thomas himself is quite forceful on this point in II-II, 104, art 5 of the Summa Theologica: “ad interiorem motum voluntatis, homo non tenetur homini obedire, sed solum Deo.” Which is, “in matters touching the internal movement of the will man is not bound to obey his fellow-man but God alone.” Even in the case of a slave, slavery does not bind the entirety of the slave. Instead, “the better part of the slave is excepted. His body is subject and assigned to his master but his soul is his alone [pars enim melior excepta est: corpora obnoxia sunt et adscripta dominis, mens quidem est sui juris].” One could easily multiply examples so as to show that, for St. Thomas, obedience is far from an absolute virtue. In general, obedience must be tempered by reason. The intellect, as Thomas teaches, has the power to move the will, just as the will may move the intellect. The delicacy of this balanced relationship must always be maintained. If the will assumes a position of utter dominance, one quickly lapses into voluntarism and the moral fundamentalism that so often attends it. If the intellect assumes a position of utter dominance, then one lapses into rationalism and the arrogant egolatry that so often attends it. Either way, neither the pious fundamentalist nor the arrogant rationalist make for very good priests. In any event, the responsible teacher must bear this complex moral landscape in mind when interacting with, and especially when disciplining, students. Insofar as, the teacher betrays his or her vocation and does violence to the student if the precious fund of docilitas is used up needlessly or squandered on trivialities. The entire program of priestly formation, as it has been practiced of late, is, in my view, plagued by an unfortunate tendency to train men in the exercise of their will against their reason. Students are expected to do what they are told and not ask too many questions. Obedience has become the central virtue. Such a program is perilous insofar as it sets the will against the intellect. Therefore, it is little wonder that the main complaint pastors have against newly ordained is that they are not self-starters. How could they be? They have gone through four to eight years of training where the mark of success was how compliant they could be.

Seminaries are structured like monastic communities. Most priests live and work individually, in offices that more closely resemble business offices in the secular world than a monastery. Moreover, most priests live in rectories which have more in common with an apartment complex than a cloister. It is difficult to see how monastically structured seminaries prepare one for secular priesthood. It is even more difficult to understand why the Church persists in this style of formation. Obedience, passivity and a willingness to “not rock the boat” are qualities highly prized in seminary. However, the priest needs to foster vision, independent thought and creativity in order to be an effective minister. These priestly qualities are precisely ones that will tend to get a seminarian in trouble. He may be characterized as stubborn, willful or resistant to formation. It is odd that the very qualities that make for an effective leader are not more explicitly nurtured in the process of priestly formation. Seminaries function very well with seminarians who merely do what they are told. Sadly, parishes do not flourish with pastors who sit around and wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Long ago, I knew a seminary professor who made every detail of seminary life a matter of holy obedience, as if the way a student walked or handed the celebrant a cruet at mass were a matter of life and death. Students tend not to flourish and grow under such painful scrutiny and constant criticism. To the contrary, students tend, for the sake of their own psychic and spiritual well-being, to tune out the harping voice of criticism such that they become progressively deaf to any and all authority. Ironically the excessive exercise of authority does not lead to a greater respect for authority but to a servile compliance and to a passive and entrenched resistance. The student begins to act out of fear and in order to avoid reprisals. Such a process does not form the student. Such a process deforms the student, keeping him in an infantile state and rendering him unfit for ministry.
A far better approach is to appeal, always and ever, to reason. I recall when I was first in college seminary and on the other side of the formational stick. I was plagued by the chronic inability to get out of bed in time for morning prayer. I paid the price countless times by punishments that annoyed me much and taught me little. Once, during my second year in the college seminary, I slept through morning prayer. Afterwards, the dean of students called me into his office. I was resolved to doing dishes for another a week. Instead, the priest, one of the wisest men I have ever known, said: “Bob I am not going to punish you. Instead, go to chapel for a half an hour and think about this one question I have for you. If you can’t get up for morning prayer, what in God’s name makes you think that you will ever be able to get up for morning mass when you are a priest?”
That single question had a greater effect on me, and more formational value, than thousands of dirty dishes. Why? Because the priest refused to treat me like a child and appeal to his avowed authority over me, even though I was expecting to be treated as a child. Instead, he sat me down, looked me in the eye, and appealed to my reason and good will. He challenged me not merely to obey but to understand and grow. Such is a true and healthy exercise of authority, not set against human reason but building upon human reason.

Recalling the maxim of the psycho-analyst Victor Frankel, “a man who has a why can bear with any how.” The process of seminary formation is not an easy one. The student faces hardships, challenges and frustrations. It is never easy to be told that one must improve in one area or another, much more difficult is it for a young man to be told that some aspect of his physical, psychic or intellectual life does not measure up. This is particularly difficult for young men. As the Jungian psychologist, Robert Johnson explains so evocatively, the young man needs to slay the red dragon. He needs to prove, to himself more than anyone else, that he is a strong and competent man, to throw off his mother’s home-spun garments. This constitutes a fairly daunting how and is more daunting in the context of seminary formation where many of the normal rules of competition and male-bonding do not apply. A young man will only be able to bear these difficulties and challenges if he is clear as to why he is doing so.

Frankel, with his rational approach to cognitive psychology, could be quoting Thomas. The will, for Thomas, is not a blind and ravenous power seeking it own satisfaction, although sometimes it seems as if those in charge of formation construe it in this manner, “the will is a mover moved [voluntas autem est movens motum].” The will is moved by the intellect and the intellect is moved by the will. Each power is mover and moved [movens motum]. The will is naturally ordered toward the good. Whereas the intellect is naturally ordered toward universal being and truth [Primum autem principium formale est ens et verum universale, quod est objectum intellectus]. Hence, the intellect moves the will by presenting its proper object to it. In other words, the intellect presents the will with the why of moral action, as viewed under the aspect of the truth, the student armed with such a why can bear any how. He is a house built on rock. The student lacking such a why is readily broken down by the first strong wind. He is a house built on sand.

At this point in the Church’s history it is somewhat politically incorrect to decry the intellectual capacities of the clergy. After all, the battle cry of many Catholics, even some Catholic bishops, is that the Church needs kind and compassionate pastors and we needn’t worry too much if they are a bit dim in the intellectual department. There is probably not a single seminary in the country that has not been told to keep a man or “give him another chance” when academics are the only issue that is bedeviling the student. The Church is often so desperate for priests that we seem willing to ordain men whether they can complete the course of studies or not. As a Church, we must come to see that this course of action is disastrous from a spiritual, ecclesiological and psychological point of view. Ignorant priests do positive harm to the Church. They mean well but they don’t mean much. No adequate theological vision of priesthood construes the priest as merely a nice guy.

This is not to deny that the Church does indeed need kind and compassionate leaders. However, purity of will must not be set against strength of intellect and pious laziness must not be permitted simply because a student is a likeable person. From the outset, seminary formation must commit itself to forming the whole person, heart and head, will and intellect. Too often, seminaries produce pliable, pious priests who have been very well trained in the habit of doing what they are told but are unable to think for themselves. I do not think that Thomas, with his views on freedom of conscience and the importance of the intellect even for the sake of volition would have approved of a such a heart-felt but intellectually vapid model of formation.
Thomas makes an interesting point in the incomplete Supplement to the Summa. Therein he states: “Order is given as a remedy, not to one person but to the whole Church. Hence, although it is said to be given to counteract ignorance, it does not mean that by receiving Orders a man has his ignorance driven out of him, but that the recipient of Orders is set in authority to expel ignorance from among the people.” This brings up a thorny conundrum. How is a man to dispel ignorance if he is himself ignorant? The seminarian who adheres perfectly to the program of priestly formation for eight years, conforming his will to that of his superiors, while remaining utterly in the dark as to why he does what he does is virtually useless as a priest. Such a one has been taught to follow but not to lead. Moreover, such a one is unlikely to be able to nurture goodness or wisdom in others when he has no idea as to how goodness and wisdom were nurtured in himself.
It would be easy for those of us who are involved in seminary work to send up a great storm of complaint, given the academic quality of many of the students, the lack of support from vocations directors who want as many ordinations as possible and the sometimes benign, sometimes not so benign, neglect of some bishops. However, we in seminary work must take responsibility for the parts of this problem that belong to us. We have allowed academic standards to drop and have turned a blind eye in the name of an insipid charity. We have, often times, been unwilling to take responsibility for maintaining a healthy discipline in seminary, often in the rather immature and idiotic hope that the students will “like” us and be our friends. As a priest friend of mine once told me when I was teaching eighth grade, “Bob, they don’t need a thirty-three year old friend, they need a teacher. And if you need a thirteen year old friend, you’ve got a problem.” The age gap between my students and myself may have narrowed or have been erased but the principle holds.

Most of all, we need to realize that the Church commissions us to train the whole man. We must turn out candidates who realize that there are passions of the mind, as well as those of the heart and know that the intellectual disciplines are not merely the domain of the philosophy and the theology professors in their ivory towers. Rather, “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.”

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)