Dominicans And Jesuits Battle It Out Over Thomism—Guest Post by John Kelleher

Dominicans butt heads with Jesuits
First, I want to thank Matt for all he does. Not every Statistician to the Stars has risked career and fortune to teach an extraordinary and fruitful revolution in statistics, but he has. Matt is also not afraid to write about other things, like metaphysics, that All The Very Best People Nowadays seem to think are laughable, and don’t pay any attention to, and think we shouldn’t, either. To his credit, Matt disagrees.

But…I am going to present some facts not in dispute, and from them I am going to argue that however useful classical Thomism (or outlines of it from modern proponents such as Edward Feser and Peter Kreeft) may be, we already know that classical Thomism has to be seriously flawed and therefore is not going to be the last word on metaphysics.

I’m going to look under the hood of classical Thomism for a second, and without taking the engine apart, show you one place where it has has plainly ‘gotten stuck’. By ‘getting stuck’ I mean a long-standing dispute within the inquiry that’s never been resolved.

When an inquiry mires down in that sense, then one logical possibility is that reality is being its typical annoying self and prodding a previously-unknown sore spot within the inquiry. Reality is exposing some unresolved incoherence or other deficiency in the theories and assumptions that the inquiry is currently using, even if nobody has yet put their finger on exactly what the specific difficulty is.

So, I can only suggest, I can’t logically prove, that classical Thomism ‘getting stuck’ means that there’s something not quite right about classical Thomism’s fundamental assumptions, theories, and methods. But I can prove that around 1600 AD, about 300 years after St. Thomas’s death, in just the sense I mean, classical Thomism did bog down, and that it has remained at the same place, in all the years since.

The problem at hand was providing within the classical Thomist framework a coherent account of human freedom (and hence and crucially, of each man’s individual moral agency and responsibility), while at the same time providing a similarly coherent account of efficacious grace and Divine Providence.

Two competing camps of Thomists, at the time represented by Jesuits on one side and Dominicans on the other, vehemently opposed one another. And, remarkably, 400 years since the 1600s and counting, the issue has never been satisfactorily resolved within Thomism. You don’t hear a lot about it, but they’re still at odds. You can look it up:

Vast as was the subject of that controversy, its principle question, and the one that gave its name to the whole dispute, concerned the help (auxilia) afforded by grace; while the crucial point was the reconciliation of the efficacy of grace with human freedom.

Finally, after twenty years of discussion public and private, and eighty-five conferences in the presence of the popes, the question was not solved but an end was put to the disputes. The pope’s decree communicated (5 September, 1607) to both Dominicans and Jesuits, allowed each party to defend its own doctrine, enjoined each from censoring or condemning the opposite opinion, and commanded them to await, as loyal sons of the Church, the final decision of the Apostolic See. That decision, however, has not been reached, and both orders, consequently, maintain their respective theories, just as any other theological opinion is held.

Please note that the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia states that the issue has never been resolved. A coherent account, satisfactory to all, that simultaneously honors the reality of human freedom, and hence safeguards the reality of man’s real moral responsibility for his actions, while also respecting the reality of efficacious grace and hence of Divine Providence, has so far not been achieved within classical Thomism, even after all this time.

In 1607, the Pope finally in effect told the disputants to go home, shut up, and make nice; and nothing much has changed since then.

Yes, we might laugh, but c’mon — is human freedom real? is each man truly morally responsible for his actions? is there such a thing as Good? does it all matter? does God really care about us, and is He truly active in this vale of tears? — these are, just possibly, real questions.

My mission is thus not to laugh at the questions themselves, but to point out something that is true but not widely known: classical Thomism really has stalled regarding some matters that bystanders might consider important, and the problem persists, even after all this time.

To be precise, it’s not that some individual Thomist hasn’t resolved the problem to his own satisfaction. That was already the case in 1600. The problem then as now is that these individual ‘resolutions’ have not adequately persuaded other Thomists, who have been able to find what they consider to be substantial flaws in them.

I think that the issues involved: being able to provide a coherent account of human freedom, and hence, of man’s moral responsibility for his actions, while also providing a similarly coherent account of the efficacy of grace and divine Providence, are pretty serious.

And I have directly suggested that classical Thomism has remained static, and on some issues that you or I might consider to be non-trivial, may mean, despite the enthusiasm of modern day proponents of classical Thomism such as Edward Feser and Peter Kreeft, that there’s something not quite right with classical Thomism’s fundamental assumptions and theories, and thus, that it might not be the final word in metaphysics. Or, by extension, in ethics, in philosophy, in theology.

We don’t ourselves have to pinpoint the exact difficulty within classical Thomism to suggest this possibility, either. We don’t have to be the mechanic and know how to fix the problem to look under the hood and observe that something is in fact, broken.


  1. Luis Dias

    People from both sides of the aisle would obviously disagree with you that the dispute is “real”, that is, that the other side is “full of it”. Pay attention to the detail (for the devil is said to reside in it): this “crisis” is only recognized as such because the Holy See recognises it and has not reached a conclusion. That is, the problem in one part of metaphysics is only recognised because a bureaucracy says so.

    In science, this dispute is usually solved by empirical testing. “If I’m right, there’s gonna be an explosion, if you are right there isn’t”. But how can you solve this dispute without these kinds of “external referees” in Thomism?

    However, a better clear exposition of both arguments in their own logical terminologies would probably be more informative right now.

  2. JTC

    It seems that we’ve been presented the fact there is a disagreement between two traditions of Thomistic thought. And that because there is disagreement, we should consider Thomism fatally flawed. That’s it?

    I actually agree with Luis on this one, the content of the disagreement would be quite useful.

    “We don’t have to be the mechanic and know how to fix the problem to look under the hood and observe that something is in fact, broken.”

    Yes, but we had better be if we’re going to diagnose that the radiator is seriously flawed and must be replaced; or worse, the car is beyond repair and consigned to the junk yard.

  3. Uncle Mike

    As luck (or Providence) would have it, * best * comment * ever * by * Luis *.

    The problem with the experimental method is that, providentially, false positives tend to certify error. No doubt Thomists suffer from confirmation bias. But they are free to do so! What we need are some decent referees, and not scabs that blow the call.

  4. Luis! Our hero! Nailed it! (words I never thought I’d say)

  5. Ken


    THE PROBLEM: “…that controversy, its principle question, and the one that gave its name to the whole dispute, concerned the help (auxilia) afforded by grace; while the crucial point was the reconciliation of the efficacy of grace with human freedom…”

    THE RESOLUTION: Still waiting for the Pope, et. al., since 1607 to figure it out.

    AT LEAST philosophical analysis has determined that there’s a “God”…but this clearly illustrates that that finding doesn’t add much, if any, useful/practical insight as fundamental matters & insights are still much in dispute.

    RE: “We don’t have to be the mechanic and know how to fix the problem to look under the hood and observe that something is in fact, broken.”

    WHAT IS THAT BROKEN SOMETHING? Could it be the fact that there’s really no evidence whatsoever for the “things” being debated between the Dominicans & Jesuits? Or, that the either/or mindset–that it must be one or the other–is just plain wrong? Philosophers make this either/or sort of mistake, unnoticed, all the time.

  6. rank sophist

    I’m familiar with the details of this debate, and I can safely say that both the Thomists and the Jesuits are not only wrong, but horribly incompetent. In recent decades, scholarship has finally been climbing out of the disastrous hole dug by Banez and Molina during the Baroque Thomist period. (It should be noted that Aquinas himself accepted neither the Thomist nor the Molinist solution, and that all of this confusion was generated by his benighted successors.)

    Those interested in seeing the debate illustrated and torn to shreds would be wise to read this piece from David Bentley Hart:

    I’m glad that you wrote this article, though. Most of the contemporary Thomists–Feser included–simply do not confront this issue.

  7. rank sophist

    That article appears to be slightly corrupted in its formatting–it wasn’t when I last read it–, but it should still get the point across.

  8. John Kelleher

    Thanks for the replies so far!

    To clarify, 400 years of popes saying that they’ve in effect taken the issue ‘under advisement’ is a polite way of telling Thomists that it’s nobody’s business but Thomists to resolve a conceptual problem within Thomism.

    To clarify further, a pope’s duty is to defend WHAT is real according to Catholic faith — not to resolve disputes on HOW it’s real, which, Nota Bene, is all that this dispute is about. If a prominent theological movement had denied the reality of human freedom and/or efficacious grace, then a pope might well have gotten involved more directly.

    But neither side here is doing that. Both sides completely accept both realities, but they can’t resolve their dispute on HOW they’re real, and the dispute is getting really harsh, so after letting each side have its say interminably, the pope tells them he’ll ‘take it under advisement’.

    Anybody, at any time, is welcome to go on and go further within this long-standing quandary. So dive right in: if you make progress, you might even become famous!

    Luis also brings up another important point: it’s META-physics we’re talking about here. Stuff that, by definition, is at least trans-empirical; things that are quite literally not (completely) available to the senses, ever. Most people these days dismiss even the possibility of such realities, of course.

    And as Luis quite rightly asks, so, how could disputes in metaphysics, even in principle, be resolvable? Good question. Have at it!

    Thanks also to ‘rank sophist’. It would indeed be regrettable if all that were taught of Thomism were some ahistorical –‘sanitized’ might not be too strong — version of it. In some senses, I agree that Thomas was not a Thomist; but whether the eventual dispute c. 1600 resulted from a corruption of Aquinas’s framework, or instead from a deeper scholarly apprehension of its genuine consequences, is not to me so obvious.

    One final caution. Of course, one way to ‘resolve’ this question that Thomism has put to itself, so far without resolution, is simply not to do Thomism, but something else instead. OK, fair enough.

    Another way is to deny the given; that is, to eviscerate or decimate or marginalize or define away the reality either of human freedom, or of efficacious grace. There are lots of ‘resolutions’ like that, both ultra-modern and ancient.

    Neither side in the original dispute, to their credit, did that. It’s really incredibly easy to get some sort of ‘resolution’ by simply not taking human freedom, or efficacious grace, seriously; maybe not so much otherwise.

    Any resolution of the conundrum has to begin with the very serious burden of in no way fudging the given, and that’s a high bar.

  9. Luis Dias

    Oh I have a very clear opinion on how metaphysics can be “solved”, but I am generous today and really intrigued by the present drama within Thomism. That is why I asked for some more details before “googling them”, since that act can present me with far more detail than what is probably required for us to analyse this particular issue. Also, I’d rather know more about this battle before being confronted by the David Bentley Hart’s demolishing of it…

    But I’ll try to read that piece to see if it enlightens me or not. Thanks.

  10. Rich

    Ken said: “Could it be that the either/or mindset–that it must be one or the other–is just plain wrong?”. Exactly.

    Do I have free will? Well, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I think I do and realise later I didn’t. And sometimes I do things quite unconsciously – like putting the Sunday roast in the dish-washer. I don’t think ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is going to cover it.

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