William of Ockham is the Least of Rome’s Apologists’ Worries

Historians and apologists for Rome heap a lot of blame on William of Ockham for philosophical and theological ideas that unleashed Protestantism and produced the West’s decadence and Walmart. Why Christendom itself doesn’t receive the blame for Ockham is one of those chicken-and-egg questions, I guess.

Now it turns out that Ockham was not the only one who challenged Aquinas, the theologian Jesus founded. Duns Scotus has his own explaining to do.

It turns out he may explain the Mass better than Aquinas because transubstantiation makes Christ’s presence dependent on the location of the bread (sort of like “bread presence” rather than “real presence”):

It concerns the claim of St. Thomas Aquinas that Christ’s body is present on the altar because something that was there before, the substance of bread, has been converted into that body. The “accidents” of the bread—for example, its whiteness and roundness—remain, but these do not belong to the body of Christ; otherwise that body would have to be white and round, which it is not. So far, so good.

Among the other accidents of the bread, however, is its location, there on the altar. For what a thing is, its substance, is no more the same as where it is than it is the same as how it looks (round and white). But in that case, how can we say that Christ’s body is there on the altar—since, ex hypothesi, it cannot get its “where” from the “where” of the consecrated bread? The doctrine of transubstantiation, as explained by Aquinas, thus fails to secure the real presence of Christ’s body on the altar. “I do not know of any satisfactory answer to this problem,” Kenny continued. “If I did, I would give it. Since I do not, I must leave it, as the writers of textbooks say, as an exercise for the reader” (A Path from Rome, 1986, 167–168).

These questions may seem abstruse, perhaps even improper, since the sacrament is rather to be adored than quibbled over. But the question of Christ’s presence now on the altar is a genuine one, and central to the consecration and adoration of the Eucharist. It is a question that many others besides Thomas Aquinas sought to answer, and a seriously inquiring intellect might rightly be disturbed, even scandalized, if forbidden to ask it. But for a long time Thomas’s answer was accepted just because it was his. This was an unnecessary constriction of Catholic thought. Unfortunately, some Catholic intellectuals seem still to be constricting themselves in this way. One might call their position “exclusivist Thomism.”

According to Scotus:

The subtle Scot distinguishes between presence and transubstantiation, claiming that one can exist without the other (Ordinatio IV d.10 q.1). Christ could be there on the altar now without transubstantiation, and the bread could be transubstantiated without Christ being there on the altar. Christ’s presence on the altar is not a matter of his appropriating the “where” of the transubstantiated bread, or of his retaining this particular accident and not others.

It turns out that Scotus also differed with Aquinas on the immaculate conception in ways that may make Roman Catholics and their nostalgia for Christendom perk up:

The most famous difference between Scotus and Thomas is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Scotus got right and Thomas got wrong. But surely, one might say, we no longer need Scotus to tell us about the Immaculate Conception. Didn’t Blessed Pius IX tell us all we need to know in his dogmatic pronouncement? Perhaps. Note, though, that Thomas was not alone in failing to defend the Immaculate Conception. Every Scholastic theologian before Scotus, including fellow Franciscans like St. Bonaventure, failed in the same way. None was able to give a defense of it that would avoid creating a serious theological problem somewhere else.

Consider in this regard one of the arguments that Thomas himself gives against the Immaculate Conception (Summa Theologica III q27 a2). If the Virgin Mary had in no way incurred the stain of sin, she would not have needed Christ as her savior and so Christ would not be the savior of all men and women. Scotus’s answer is that Christ is indeed Mary’s savior, for he saved her in advance of her incurring the original sin that, as a natural descendant of Adam, she would have incurred otherwise (Ordinatio III d.3 q.1). Christ is thus her savior, as he is the savior of everyone else. Moreover, he is her savior in the most excellent way possible, for he saved her from ever having had sin, including original sin, while everyone else is saved only after incurring at least original sin.

And then there’s Scotus’ view of pets which has some appeal in this corner of Christ’s spiritual kingdom:

Can animals go to heaven or be resurrected? Pope Francis was recently reported to have said that they can—but inaccurately, as it turns out. Still, the pope said enough in his encyclical Laudato si’ to suggest the thought that it’s at least possible. Section 243 of the encyclical reads: “At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God, and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude…. Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all” (emphasis added).

Does this remark mean that animals can or will be in heaven, not indeed as sharing the beatific vision, but as sharing resurrected life with beatified human beings? Thomists will say no because the sense-souls of animals, unlike the rational souls of humans, perish at death, and what has altogether perished cannot be brought back numerically the same. Scotus thinks this view false and argues, in his usual subtle and involved way, that the numerically same thing could in principle be recreated after having ceased to exist. He appeals in defense not only to divine omnipotence but to reported miracles of saints actually bringing animals back to life (Ordinatio IV d.44 q.1 n.19). Let those, then, who want to think of their pets being with them in heaven be consoled with Scotus, and perhaps with Pope Francis, for assuredly they cannot be consoled with Thomas. But then, if Thomas is not the unique measure of orthodoxy, there can be no harm or fear in leaving him for Scotus and Pope Francis—and one’s favorite pet.

I have no dog in this fight other than reminding western Christians that the medieval church, let alone the ancient one, was hardly as unified and regulated as contemporary Roman Catholics make it seem. By the nineteenth century, Rome may have achieved the sort of market share in Roman Catholic dioceses that on the eve of Vatican II AT&T had in the phone business. But that consolidation and coherence took awhile and came with a price.


4 thoughts on “William of Ockham is the Least of Rome’s Apologists’ Worries

  1. Marilynne Robinson—The brutal system Marx describes depended on the British Poor Laws, which adapted serfdom to the needs of primitive industrialism. The Poor Laws restricted the movement of those who lived by their labor to the parish where they were born, making them in effect outlaws if they left. Vagrants could be hanged, and sometimes, especially under Henry VIII, they were hanged in great numbers. At the same time, the clearances pulled down or burned rural villages and seized what had been common land, so the poor were forced to leave their parishes and go to the cities to find work. They were, as we say, undocumented, and so they made up a cheap, docile, defenseless workforce. Here comparisons with the present situation of immigrants throughout the West are appropriate.
    In New England, the colonies that had greater control over their own social order, there was no real equivalent for these Poor Laws. In the South, whose laws came from England, slaves lived under many of the same constraints on movement as the English poor. There also, laws forbade gatherings of three or more men, or the possession of anything that could be used as a weapon



  2. Marilynne Robinson—the word “liberal” and its forms were used in American social thought until quite recently to refer to a scripturally blessed and commanded open-handedness, a generosity based in faith and love. Over time, the word became secularized with use, though it retained its essential meaning. Then someone noticed that when an Englishman used the word it meant something else entirely and was properly, by our lights, a term of opprobrium. And it was banished from use by those alert to the possibility that a gaffe had been made. So our tradition became unreadable in its own terms, capitalist in the light of a new hermeneutics that sees context as special pleading. The word “left” has been substituted for “liberal,” usually modified by the phrase “too far.” “Left” has little to do with American thought, much to do with seating arrangements in the French revolutionary assembly. And we all know what followed the French Revolution.

    There is a great tangle of language to deal with. Many scholars struggle to find a definition of “Puritan.” This is not surprising, since it was a blanket term for perhaps more than a hundred sects who found common cause in resistance to both church and government. There were Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and also Baptists, Quakers, Diggers, Levellers, and many more. Anyone who thinks there were and are not meaningful differences among the denominations has no understanding of theology, which is the substance of these differences. Figures like John Milton and Oliver Cromwell never identified themselves with any particular church or sect.



  3. Marilynne Robinson—The Puritans figured largely in the first modern revolution, trying a king, Charles I, as a common citizen, for crimes against the nation, as the French would do 150 years later. This revolution established a protectorship and parliamentary government in Britain, from 1642 to 1660. Then it collapsed, sending a wave of its supporters to swell the population of New England. The king, Charles I, declared war on Parliament, which took up the gauntlet, so to speak. Parliament was the popular side, favored by the great many common people who were religious dissenters. The king had failed to summon Parliament for years, and a great cause among the revolutionists was that elections and sessions of Parliament should be regular and frequent. The period of revolutionary government, from 1649 to 1660, is called the Commonwealth.



  4. Pope Benedict — “in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.”

    the pope–“This might lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s
    transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind
    his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted tha. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism that approaches that form of Islamic theology according to which God is not Logos, but will, and power. Among other consequences, this
    conception of God makes violence in the name of God justifiable.”

    Why is the gospel of Justification being replaced in our conversation by “social gospel” conclusions for and against racism and homosexual marriage? Because so many have agreed to put what they call the “the presence of the person of Christ” over against distinctions between justification and regeneration (the not yet aspect of justification).

    As an “unionist” explains —Making Christ the cause rather than justification better accounts for the total picture of salvation. A false dichotomy is not encouraged between justification and sanctification… We can agree with some from the WSC persuasion that our obedience to God should arise out of our justified state but we do not have to
    reduce our obedience to this motivation SOLEY but rather we can recognize that our progress in sanctification is born not ONLY out of gratefulness to the Lord but an active, living relationship with him. This is a faith that is living and active not MERELY in an objective reality,

    And then the old story repeats. The sacrament is the real presence of the person. Union with the person precedes justification. Faith precedes union with the person. Works of faith are faith and faith must continue to act, and therefore justification is yet future because justification comes with “sanctification”….Surely, to preach election and atonement as already past and decided and revealed would take us back to the arbitrary God of Scotus and William of Ockham…



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