Apparently, my reaction to Brad Gregory’s chapter on ethics went the way of Facebook updates. So let me return to the subject of Roman Catholicism and Aristotle.
Out of curiosity, I went over to Called to Communion to see what the folks there have to say about Aristotle. I ran across this from Mr. Cross himself:
That is why Aristotle is so important. Aristotle shows how from what we already know through our common human experience of the world, we can understand virtue and vice, and their epistemic grounding in philosophical truths about human nature and the human person. Our shared human nature provides the shared rational framework and criteria by which to adjudicate between various hypotheses, and so reason together. It is only by this mutual participation in rationality that Hitchens and Wilson can criticize each other’s positions, in something more than a solipsistic way. What both are missing, is Aristotle. And that is why watching them debate is like watching the skeptic Sextus Empiricus debate Nicolas of Autrecourt, whose fideism was condemned by the Catholic Church in the fourteenth century. So when I reflect on ten years of teaching Aristotle, in light of my position twenty years ago, I see the way in which Aristotle provides an important philosophical understanding of nature, the very nature that grace perfects and upon which grace builds.
This comes in the context of the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson, where Bryan Cross’ veneration of philosophical certainty leads him to conclude that “there is no common rational ground by which to adjudicate between the positions of Wilson and Hitchens. That is why Hitchens is exactly right when he says, “There is no bridge that can suffice.” (6:39) . . . . If one’s whole epistemic edifice is built upon a mere leap-in-the-dark assumption, as Wilson’s is, then since nothing can be any more certain than that upon which it rests, one still does not get any certainty.”
Well, where exactly is the common ground between Aristotle and Paul (or Jesus for that matter, or the Magnificat while I’m at it) when it comes to good works? Christians believe (or are supposed to) that sinners can’t be good apart from grace. But Aristotle is all about virtue apart from grace. How could he be otherwise, since he knew nothing about grace? This doesn’t mean we need to throw Athens overboard in good Tertullian fashion. We do happen, this side of glory, to live with a lot of people who do not have grace. So finding ways that they can be good apart from grace is useful at least for proximate ends of communities and neighborhoods. Still, at the end of the day what Aristotle and Thomas meant by virtue is a long way apart thanks to the advent of Christ.
And by the way, curious is the charge that Protestants are wrong to appeal to Paul apart from papal approval but Roman Catholic teachers of virtue may appeal to a pagan without the slightest criticism.
I also ran across a defense of transubstantiation at Called to Communion that made an interesting point about historical development. To the charge that Rome’s teaching on transubstantiation depends on Aristotelian metaphysics, the blogger appealed to Jaroslav Pelikan:
. . . the application of the term “substance” to the discussion of the Eucharistic presence antedates the rediscovery of Aristotle. In the ninth century, Ratramnus spoke of “substances visible but invisible,” and his opponent Radbertus declared that “out of the substance of bread and wine the same body and blood of Christ is mystically consecrated.” Even “transubstantiation” was used during the twelfth century in a nontechnical sense. Such evidence lends credence to the argument that the doctrine of transubstantiation, as codified by the decrees of the Fourth Lateran and Tridentine councils, did not canonize Aristotelian philosophy as indispensable to Christian doctrine.
So, Called to Communion recognizes that Aristotelian metaphysics may be a problem. But Aristotelian ethics are okay?
This was not the historical point, though. Since Roman Catholicism of the Protestant era was heavily dependent on Aristotelian ethics (see Gregory and Alasdair MacIntyre), and since the West did not really appropriate Aristotle until the medieval renaissance associated with Aquinas and the rise of universities, just how ancient is the ethical framework that rejected Luther and Calvin’s constructions? For all the talk about the ancient church and the early church fathers, do the Called to Communion folks believe that Ireneaus and Polycarp were thinking about the Christian life in Aristotelian categories?
I ask partly because I don’t know, partly because the way some put the past together looks remarkably arbitrary.