In August 1879, Pope Leo XIII issued Aeterni Patris, an encyclical promoting the revival of Christian philosophy as a defense against the dangerous errors of secular intellectuals. Above all he recommended the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas and commissioned a scholarly edition of his collected works. For most of the century that followed, Thomism had a profound influence on Catholic education, Catholic culture, and Catholic apologetics. Seminarians as undergraduates majored in philosophy regardless of their personal inclinations. Graduate seminarians studied theology in the spirit of St. Thomas. These students generally did not read the works of Thomas in their original Latin; rather they studied manuals that extracted and simplified Thomistic thought. The Thomism that filtered down to high schools and elementary schools formed the minds of Catholic children with even simpler derivatives.
But Catholic philosophers and theologians capable of understanding Thomas made their own original thought a respected alternative to the prevailing opinions of their times. They brought Catholic thinking into the 20th century and did dialectical battle in secular controversies. Out of this Thomistic renaissance came the Second Vatican Council. Both progressives and conservatives at Vatican II had grown up in the era of Thomistic Catholicism. However, in subsequent reforms Thomism lost its monopoly.
I hear grumbling in the audience. Anyone who objects to my simple notions can find ample evidence to refute me in archival collections at Notre Dame. But those hypothetical scholars will not find their ammunition only in the Notre Dame Archives. Rather, after checking in at the Cushwa Center, they will have to walk around the corner and down the hall to the Jacques Maritain Center and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture (CEC). In the Maritain Center they will find papers of philosophers respected outside the Catholic ghetto: Jacques Maritain himself, Yves René Simon, Charles De Koninck (a peritus at Vatican II). Stored in the same vicinity they will find the papers of Germain Grisez held by the CEC.
Maritain (1882–1973), raised as a Protestant, did not grow up in the Thomistic educational milieu. After his conversion to Catholicism he paid no attention to St. Thomas. But his wife Raïssa (1883–1960), a poet who came to Catholicism hand in hand with him, discovered the Angelic Doctor and brought Aquinas and Maritain together. By the time Jacques and Raïssa came to the new world to escape Vichy France during World War II, Jacques had become the most prominent Catholic philosopher of his century, respected by supporters and opponents alike. The papers held by the Maritain Center (18 linear feet) date chiefly from Maritain’s time in America and represent the development of his philosophy during that time but also his work in the world. He helped Notre Dame develop a new curriculum and served as a leader in the École Libre des Hautes Études, a university organized by and for French professors exiled in America during the war. He wrote books intended for a general audience. Through his work, Thomism became a major influence on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Simon (1903–1961), Maritain’s student and colleague, came to teach at Notre Dame in 1938, moved to the University of Chicago in 1948, and taught there until his death in 1961. His papers (32 linear feet) eventually came to the Maritain Center. While his files reflect the whole range of topics important for teaching philosophy, his research and published books focus on social concerns: democratic government, work, society, culture, authority, morality, liberation, freedom, natural law.
De Koninck (1906–1965), a Belgian educated in France and Canada, held doctorates in both philosophy and theology. He taught at Laval University in Quebec from 1934 until his death. The Maritain Center has photocopies of his papers (6 linear feet) including correspondence, lectures, notes and drafts concerning evolution, science, education, logic, theology, natural philosophy, ethics, political theory, and metaphysics.
Grisez (1929–2018) grew up in a Cleveland suburb, attended Catholic schools, and in three years finished most requirements for a bachelor’s degree at John Carroll University. He spent his senior year studying with the Dominicans in the Chicago suburb of River Forest and received a licentiate in philosophy there before his graduation at John Carroll. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago (1951–1959). He taught at Georgetown University (1957–1972), Campion College, University of Regina (1972–1979), and Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland (1979–2009). His papers (36 linear feet) represent his teaching and research but also document his active participation in the maelstrom of Catholic controversy before, during, and after Vatican II. With original arguments he defended traditional Catholic teachings about natural law, contraception, and abortion. He served as an advisor to bishops and called for a summa of Catholic moral theology for contemporary Catholics. When he could convince nobody else to write it he spent 30 years doing it himself, producing his magnum opus The Way of the Lord Jesus (see twotlj.org). His papers provide excellent documentation of his role in the culture wars.
The watered-down Thomism of 20th-century Catholic education had an answer to every disputed question. But the philosophers themselves belonged to a number of different schools of Thomism and frequently disagreed with one another. De Koninck famously criticized the personalism of Maritain, and Simon defended it. Grisez often agreed with Ralph McInerny, longtime head of the Maritain Center, but his papers show that they sometimes disagreed.
Lately I have heard from some professors that nobody reads Maritain anymore. For decades Thomism has not been trending. But on the Maritain Center’s website one can discover many volumes of scholarly papers written by members of the American Maritain Association, and similar organizations devoted to Thomism that continue to flourish in many other countries. The website also has many volumes, under the heading “Aristotle et al.,” representing Thomistic thought. (For scholars who are not themselves trending, the Maritain Center also has a collection of papers from the River Forest Dominicans and a large collection of old-fashioned medium-rare books and dissertations representing the Maritains and Thomism.) In the 21st century we still find a few influencers who believe in free will, who understand how natural law supports human rights, and who have a role in the argument over whether such rights should extend to humans in the womb.
Wm. Kevin Cawley retired in 2019 from his role as senior archivist and curator of manuscripts at the Archives of the University of Notre Dame, after 36 years of service. For nearly three decades, he has served as volunteer librarian and curator for Notre Dame’s Jacques Maritain Center (maritain.nd.edu).
Image: Jacques Maritain, circa 1930. Public domain.