The Invisible Desert

From the time of Moses, to the time of Christ, to the present day, God has always sent His people into the desert in order to purify them of worldly attachments and so draw them closer to Him. Today the Church in the aftermath of Vatican II is much like a desert people: thirsty nomads roaming desperately for any clean source of the life-giving waters that well up to eternity.

It is also the case in the academy that students thirsty for the waters of truth will drink even from an impure stream, if they are parched. Doctrines that are still muddied by error may appear to be clear and true next to others that look far worse. More than once in the history of philosophy, the decadence of the Schoolmen has been the occasion of a period of purification, a desert condition. In the Fourteenth through the Sixteenth centuries, most scholastics lost the simplicity proper to wisdom. They wasted themselves in contentious disputes, and they were chastised by the birth of modern philosophy and the downfall of scholasticism in the academy.

During this period there were some pretenders to the title of Savior of Scholasticism. They proposed new and dangerous ideas as the way out of the present philosophic impasse. These were men such as William of Ockham, who proposed to resolve the problem of universals by rejecting its premises. History remembers them not as scholastic philosophers but as anti-scholastic innovators and the fathers of modern philosophy. However, the educators of the day were only dimly aware of the threat that these men posed to authentic learning. In a sense, they could not see that they were already in the desert.

In those days there were still places where scholasticism thrived, but they were few and far between. As after the fall of Rome, the true philosophy was preserved whole and intact within houses of religion. The great authors of this period specialized in mystical and ascetical theology. This was providential, since the decay of academic scholasticism saw a corresponding decline in public piety and morals. As the laity lost their acquaintance with the way of sanctity instituted in the rites of public worship, they increasingly needed tutelage on a private, individual basis, which these authors provided.

After the Scientific Revolution, scholasticism was presumed dead. For two centuries it did not leave the cloister. Its triumphant return was supposed to have been signalled by the great encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII calling for a concerted effort in applying the scholastic method to the results of modern science. This project would acquire the name of neo-scholasticism; however, it was interrupted by the modernists at the Second Vatican Council.

Today the academy does not have any neo-scholastics, but it does have self-avowed Thomists, followers of the greatest scholastic, St. Thomas Aquinas. However, something is very wrong and familiarly so. These Thomists, perhaps without exception, are so absorbed in pointless, contentious debates with the New Atheists and other materialist thinkers, that they remain largely silent on the spiritual disasters that have occurred in their lifetime. Perhaps they are blind to their own affliction. Their focus is on the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. They do not discuss (or even accept) the Social Kingship of Christ; they try to accommodate evolutionism; they accept secularist establishment historical narratives without serious modification, even when these conceal the enemies of Christ. They especially defend, or at least fail to attack, the errors of the Second Vatican Council, although it is their duty as Catholic intellectuals to rebuke the scandalous abuses of putative authority.

There is really no question of applying the scholastic method to the results of modern science anymore. Instead, the results of modern science are applied to historical scholasticism. The neo-scholastics rejected Newton’s principle of inertia in an ontological sense as metaphysically absurd; by contrast, the modern Thomist accepts it but looks for a way to prevent it from invalidating the first of St. Thomas' five proofs for the existence of God (Ia, Q. 2, a. 3). This is truly an abandonment of the purpose of neo-scholasticism. The results of the dereliction are everywhere to see: modern scientism is taken by the world’s leading scientists to a metaphysically absurd and atheistic conclusion, greatly endangering the immortal souls of all educated men; but when Thomists try to push back against this satanic movement, they have no footing. In countless ways they have already conceded the foolishness of their neo-scholastic forebears in the vain hopes of gaining the respect of, and remaining relevant to, their secularist colleagues. However, in an age of universal apostasy, to remain faithful to the truth is to choose obscurity.

Our Lord Himself appeared in obscurity to a world darkened by error. Today, the teachers of truth can only be found in traditionalist seminaries: institutions that the visible hierarchy of the Church does not even recognize. Only here is the traditional scholastic method of philosophy followed anymore, albeit divested of the worldly glamor of epistemological critique, and stripped down to its essential purpose of training the priest to teach and sanctify. Elsewhere it is derided as “textbook Thomism” — stuffy, rote, shallow, irrelevant pedagogy no longer suited to the modern world. How similarly would the world receive the Son of God, were He to come to us as an infant today!

Anyone who desires wisdom today must wake up in the desert like Saint Anthony, or retire in a manger like the Infant of Bethlehem. He must put aside any other desire and pursue it with single-minded determination. It no longer carries the same worldly benefits that it once did, for this age is an age of wickedness. Therefore lay up your treasure in heaven, and do not despair, but persevere.