2013: Augustine or Aquinas in Catholic Theology?

At first glance, the title of the 2013 conference may appear to buy in to the tendency in some Catholic circles to polarise theological traditions.  However, as Karen Kilby remarked during conference preparation, the question mark applies to the ‘or’ just as much as to either theologian.  Happily that inclusive and critical attitude marked the tone of the papers and discussions undertaken together at Durham in September 2013. Although, disappointingly, this did mean the important question of which theologian would win in a fight went unanswered.

The conference began with John McDade’s explicit rejection of an intellectual polarisation that means “being against everyone else rather than connected to everyone else”, and argued for a more inclusive and universal Catholic culture – one that can accommodate Augustine and Aquinas, without collapsing into an isolationist “Postmodern Augustinian Thomism”. Lewis Ayres offered a further defence of such attempts by “rescuing Thomas from the neo-Thomists”.

Two papers identified clearly why we still need, first, Augustine, and, then, Thomas. Richard Price argued for the incontestable place of Augustine in Christian tradition, where Augustine is a common resource essential for ecumenical discussions and our current social context. Fainche Ryan recommended Thomas’s way of dealing with all questions of theology because of “his precise and clear analytical and argumentative approach”, but in three areas in particular: getting our thinking right about God, as an unknowable mystery from whom the world comes; as we are related to God, especially through prayer; how we are to live virtuously and flourish.

Oliver O’Donovan analysed the similarities and differences between Thomas’s Compendium of Theology and Augustine’s Enchiridion, the design of which served as a model for Thomas’s late work, though with radical differences. Augustine understands faith as a moment in the act of worshipping God, “where Augustine turns it in an evaluative direction, towards goodness”. By contrast Thomas sees faith “as a cognitive presupposition of the worship of God” and turns it in a cognitive direction towards being.

Janet Martin Soskice also looked for similarities between Augustine and Thomas where there seem to be differences on the nature of God and the divine names, and on creation.  Neither of them is simply locked into what might once have been called natural theology, for each of them works primarily from scripture and not Plato of Aristotle, and each brings Christ into play to supply what knowledge we have of God.

On the final morning of the conference, Tina Beattie offered a startling original Lacanian reading of Thomas. Thomas seems to have had some influence on Jacques Lacan’s development of psychoanalytic theory and here we have suggestions (developed at length in a recent book) of a reciprocal reading in the areas of language and desire, creation ex nihiloand the incarnation,  and Thomas’s use of “gendered Aristotelian concepts”.

Finally Nicholas Healy argued for a fresh model of discipleship. The prevailing Augustinian and Thomist model, the one that predominates in the Catholic Church, sets high moral and disciplinary standards. To fall short, he suggests, is to be “an unsatisfactory Christian” according to this model. Following Karl Barth’s theology of vocation, he proposes an alternative and less stringent, but more realistic, model of the Christian life.

These key note papers were complemented throughout the conference by short papers from many Association members as well as a series of additional discussions and talks: an introduction by Denys Turner to his recent book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (Yale UP, 2013); a reading of some questions from the Summa Theologiae led by Simon Gaine OP; a tribute to Seamus Heaney, who had just died, by Eamon Duffy; and an insight into the character of Pope Francis by a fellow Argentinean priest, Augusto Zampini-Davies.

(See New Blackfriars March 2014 for published papers)

The CTA is always ready to welcome new members who are actively involved in some way in the promotion of theology through their teaching.