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A New Center for Thomistic Studies

Interview With Christopher Wolfe

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin, MAY 10, 2006 (Zenit) - The Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies is opening with the heady goal of tackling modern-day problems with, in part, time-tested reasoning.

Christopher Wolfe, a director of the Washington, D.C.-based center, presents the ideas of Thomas Aquinas in this interview as the foundation for understanding reality through the study of Thomistic thought as an attempt to combat modern day skepticism.

Wolfe is a professor of political science at Marquette University, in Milwaukee.

Q: What is the mission and purpose of the McInerny Center?

Wolfe: The Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies is one of the projects sponsored by Thomas International project, which has also established a similar center in Italy.

Its purpose is to foster a renewal of Thomistic studies in the contemporary world. We want to promote a strong and accurate rereading of Aquinas' philosophy and theology.

At the same time, we want to make Aquinas' thought fruitfully converse with contemporary culture, especially in the areas of bioethics, legal theory, economics, political theory, literature, science and sociology.

Q: What exactly does a 13th-century thinker have to offer the 21st century?

Wolfe: Truth! -- a great deal of truth, and the commitment to pursue it further.

Thomas' philosophy and theology provide a broad framework for intellectual life, an understanding of "science" -- in the broader sense in which he used that term -- in its many forms, and in their relation to one another.

The thought of Aquinas is not an ideology that has pat answers to all questions. But it provides essential foundations for achieving a better understanding of reality, and especially of the place of man in the universe, in creation.

Q: If Aquinas were alive today, what would most strike him about modern thought?

Wolfe: Two things, I think. First, he would be greatly impressed by the extraordinary growth in knowledge gained through the modern natural sciences. While recognizing that practitioners of the natural sciences have sometimes overstepped their bounds, I'm sure he'd be delighted to know so much more about the universe.

Second, I think he would be surprised by modern man's lack of faith in reason, and especially the widespread skepticism that we can really know anything about human ends.

The contrast between the growth of knowledge in the natural sciences and the shriveling up of philosophy would astound him. He would certainly applaud John Paul II's "Fides et Ratio," with its vigorous call to modern man to have a strong, but humble, faith in his reason.

Q: Observers lament that the West is steeped in "weak thought." Where is this most prevalent, and how could Thomism help?

Wolfe: "Weak thought" -- an example of postmodernist despair of reason -- is found most often -- should I say "ironically" or "unsurprisingly"? -- in the academy and among intellectuals.

Ordinary people don't usually have the luxury of time and resources for constructing sophisticated intellectual arguments to show that no intellectual argument, however sophisticated, gets us very far in understanding reality. So weak thought is a symptom of the current malaise.

Thomism offers a way of reaffirming the capacity of the human intellect to understand reality, in its many dimensions. For all our limitations and imperfections, human beings can attain a deeper and deeper knowledge of themselves, of the universe they inhabit, and of the Creator.

Q: What are some of the "bridges" that can be built between Thomism and modern philosophy? What would be a point of departure?

Wolfe: That might vary, depending on the area of philosophy. I think there are aspects of contemporary analytical philosophy that can be appreciated by Thomists -- and indeed there is even a school of "analytical Thomism," for example, John Haldane.

In ethics, there is a renewed interest in natural law, in its more traditional form -- for instance, Ralph McInerny and Russell Hittinger -- and more modern forms -- for example, John Finnis and Robert George.

In many cases, it is a question of going back to starting points, to discuss and make more intelligible the self-evident principles that ground speculative and practical philosophy.

Q: How does Thomism apply to specific problems such as same-sex marriage?

Wolfe: Thomism, especially its natural law teaching, offers us an understanding of human ends, and, in particular, knowledge of the nature and purpose of human sexuality.

Only a conception of sexuality that integrates body and soul and that understands the intrinsic finality of sexual activity -- the union of spouses in the conjugal act that embodies their mutual self-giving and their openness to the self-giving of procreation -- can provide the guidance necessary for dealing with issues such as same-sex marriage, as well as divorce, cohabitation, and many other issues.

Again, Thomas provides the intellectual foundations, but his successors today have to build on them. There is still much that we don't know, for example, about the origins of same-sex attraction. A deeper understanding of those causes can help us to make a more persuasive case against widespread errors regarding homosexuality and homosexual acts.

Q: How does Thomism apply to embryonic stem-cell research? Some interpret Aquinas as allowing such research in the "first days" because of the murky question of ensoulment, etc.

Wolfe: Thomas' understanding of essential change and of different forms of potentiality provides the proper framework for understanding that human life begins from conception.

It is ironic that people who wouldn't read a paragraph of Aquinas for any other reason, go running to invoke parts of his writing that depend on the very limited, and often flatly incorrect, empirical biological data to which he had access.

Aquinas would clearly have condemned the destruction of embryos, even before a supposed, delayed "ensoulment." If Thomas had had access to contemporary biological knowledge, that would simply have enabled him to make an even more powerful case against such acts.

Q: Is the promotion of Thomistic studies the only goal of the center?

Wolfe: While that is certainly the starting point, the Thomas International project hopes that someday the center will be -- with other institutes -- the core of a new international university.

We think that there will always be a need for a university that is committed to the pursuit of truth and unity of knowledge, through excellent scholarship as well as excellent teaching.

This university would be inspired by the Catholic tradition of thought, for a complete openness to the truth means openness to knowledge through faith as well as through reason.

It would not, however, be a confessional university, with a religious purpose or goal. Its purpose would be to achieve the intrinsic finality of a university as such: the attainment of truth -- and not just in philosophy and theology, but in all the sciences.

We want to collaborate with many men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic, to face the challenges confronting all of us.


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Thomistic, McInerny, Aquinas, Wolfe

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