Have You Tried Scotus?

Aquinas Didn’t Know Everything
Duns Scotus (Bilwissedition Ltd. & Co. KG / Alamy Stock Photo)

In the years before Vatican II a young man named Anthony Kenny entered the priesthood after studies in England and Rome. Some years later—but still before Vatican II—increasing doubts induced him to leave the priesthood. His doubts were about various things, but he relates a particular doubt in a talk he gave on theology and philosophy. 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.”

Thomas’s answer to Kenny’s question can, in fact, be found in other Scholastics who variously adopt the principle that “that into which something is converted is where the converted thing was before.” This principle is dubious and was not universally accepted. Since transubstantiation converts only the substance of the bread into Christ’s body and not also the accidents, why should any of the accidents of the bread be kept by Christ’s body if, according to the doctrine, the accidents are not part of the transubstantiation?

In fact, there is another way to answer the question that troubled Kenny, but you will not find it in Thomas. It is in the work of Blessed John Duns Scotus, an author that a young pre-Vatican II seminarian would likely have been discouraged, if not forbidden, to read. 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. The presence of Christ’s body on the altar is a distinct fact, distinctly caused. Transubstantiation does not explain it and is not meant to explain it. The significance of transubstantiation nevertheless remains—that Christ’s body is there under the species of bread, to be received as spiritual food.

The further details of Scotus’s exposition of Christ’s presence on the altar are not important here. What is important is that Scotus did have an answer to Kenny’s question. But that answer was not offered to Kenny, and one doubts that his teachers would have known of it, or mentioned it if they had. In his studies the young Kenny was taught, in good pre–Vatican II fashion, out of Thomistic manuals. Thomas’s original texts were not used, nor were seminarians encouraged to read them. Not that this would have helped, because, again, Thomas’s work does not have the answer to Kenny’s question.

Perhaps Scotus’s answer isn’t the only or best answer. Perhaps Thomas’s position too could be finessed or developed in order to produce another answer. The key point remains: an answer needs to be found, and if one possibility is ignored simply because it is not from the work of Thomas, how could that not hinder the church’s theological training? An exclusivist Thomism, which foreswears the teaching of non-Thomist theologizing, is a problem the church still needs to confront.

Indeed if, as seems true, there was something deficient about pre–Vatican II theological training, even in Rome, the deficiency will not be made up by a return to an exclusivist Thomism, much less to the old Thomistic manuals. A return to Thomas read and studied in the original texts would doubtless help. But such a return would not have helped the young Kenny with his question. For the theologian who had a good answer, Duns Scotus, is barely studied, if studied at all. His very name raises hackles or eyebrows or both. The man is accused by some of causing the theological decline of the West. It is said that he precipitated the destruction of a magnificent and glorious edifice with his falsely subtle distinctions, his flattening metaphysics of univocity, his skeptical undermining of rational proofs for the faith, his tortuous Latin.


Why make Thomas exclusivist or even primary? He was not so in any of the centuries that followed his death, not even in the nineteenth century before Leo.

Such complaints are particularly associated with the modern Radical Orthodoxy movement, but they are not new to it. Étienne Gilson popularized something like them in the early twentieth century. Prior to both was Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni patris (1879), which gave support to the emergence of the Neo-Thomist movement of the early twentieth century. But even Leo does not seem to have been an exclusivist Thomist. The subtitle of his encyclical speaks about Christian philosophy ad mentem Sancti Thomae Aquinatis, which means something like “to, or toward, the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Paragraph 31 of Aeterni patris reads “We hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned, ought to be received with a willing and grateful mind.” It is unclear what we are to make of these qualifications, but the Franciscans, at least, did not think it meant study of Thomas alone, for they proceeded to reprint in modern format (presumably in response to Leo) Jerome of Montefortino’s arrangement of Scotus’s writings according to the divisions and questions of Thomas’s Summa Theologica.

A preference for Thomas is perfectly acceptable, of course, and many have adopted it to their profit. Indeed, his Summa (expressly written for “beginners”) had a unique advantage among Scholastic writings. Within its covers just about any question of theology can be found easily by consulting the contents, and to this question a clear and orthodox answer is given with admirable directness and concision. A better handbook of theology for purposes of teaching and learning would be hard to find. But why make Thomas exclusivist or even primary? He was not so in any of the centuries that followed his death, not even in the nineteenth century before Leo. Scotus was still often studied at that time, and not just because of the Immaculate Conception (dogmatically defined in 1850), which he was the first of all the Scholastics to defend. His distinctive views about the Incarnation—that Christ would have become Incarnate even if Adam had not sinned—were fairly widely shared.

The Dominican Order naturally preferred Thomas, who was one of their own. They made him the Order’s chief Doctor very early on. Deviation from his positions was discouraged. When the Dominican Durandus de Saint-Pourçain strayed from Thomas and started taking a path of his own, his Order required him to revise his views.

But other religious and priests were under no such compulsion, and Thomas was by no means the only, or the most studied, theologian in the Scholastic period. The Franciscans among others tended to follow Scotus, but not exclusively. Ockham, for instance, went his own way. Unlike the Dominicans, the Franciscans did not make any Doctor their special master in theology, even if Scotus stood out. They required only that Franciscans who chose to read Thomas read him in the light of the critique written by William de la Mare in his Correctorium Fratris Thomae. Scotus would have read Thomas after first reading William. But he did not need William to find Thomistic positions questionable.

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.

Now if Scotus’s arguments are fully weighed and set alongside those of Thomas, it is quite possible that Thomas himself would have agreed that Scotus was right. In fact, one suspects that Thomas, and others like Bonaventure, would really have been glad to say Mary was immaculately conceived. They were just unable to see how to make it work. But what happened when Scotus first defended the Immaculate Conception? He was attacked and condemned, especially by Dominicans. His defense, however, was so penetrating, powerful, and decisive that belief in the doctrine had become almost universal in the church long before Pius IX made it the church’s official teaching. Indeed, only the Dominicans seem to have opposed the doctrine—in deference, one presumes, to Thomas—and some of them, though by no means all, apparently went on doing so almost to the end. But it was not Thomas himself or even Thomism per se that could induce one to go on rejecting the Immaculate Conception even after Scotus’s comprehensive solution. It was an exclusivist Thomism.

Gerard Manley Hopkins found in Duns Scotus someone who gave him more comfort in Catholicism than anyone else. “Who of all men most sways my spirits to peace,” he wrote in his poem “Duns Scotus’s Oxford.” Hopkins was not alone in preferring Scotist positions; many did so in the nineteenth century, including many Jesuits. Some Jesuits, of course, were strong Thomists and Hopkins had at least one of them as his theology teacher. Whether he failed his theology exam because he gave Scotist answers to that teacher is disputed, but it does at least seem to be the case that he failed because he gave answers that were considered insufficiently Thomist.

If non-Thomistic theological resources were ignored or cut off, especially in seminaries, as they seem to have been in the years leading up to Vatican II, it is hardly surprising that feelings of dissatisfaction or even resistance would be spreading before the Council started. It is hardly surprising too that, after the Council, Thomism, or at least manualist Thomism, was abandoned, sometimes in favor of questionable novelties. But Vatican II’s call to renew the church should have led to bringing lots of things, Scotus included, back onto the list of available resources. One cannot, however, bring things back onto a list if one does not know what they are or what their value is.

Exclusivist Thomism bears some responsibility here. And it will bear some responsibility if those on the so-called conservative wing of the present-day Catholic Church (or supporters of Radical Orthodoxy and the like) return to it and persuade others, especially seminaries and universities, to return to it. The same mistakes that were apparently being made before Vatican II are likely to be made again. For there are clearly other and orthodox answers to theological questions that one cannot find in Thomas.


We should restore a just sense of the richness of the church’s theological patrimony. Thomism is not Catholicism, neither is Scotism.

What sort of possibilities does an exclusivist Thomism remove that an openness to other positions, in particular those of Scotus, would bring back? Apart from the case of how to explain the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, consider a few others.

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.

Another view of Scotus’s that is fairly widely known, though not as widely shared, is that there can be many angels of the same species, whereas the Thomist view is that each angel is a distinct species unto himself. More interesting here, and less well known, is that Scotus thought that the angels who fell did not fall all at once after a single sin. He believed, on the contrary, that they committed several sins in a progressive order (Ordinatio II d.6 q.2 nn.33–63, d.7 n.18). Scotus is particularly dismissive of the view (held by others besides Thomas) that angels, once they choose, choose irrevocably (ibid. d.7 esp. nn.9–26). The possibility is expressly left open by Scotus that some angels sinned but repented (ibid. d.6 q.2 n.78). That means some angels might be converts, as we are when we repent.

What one makes of these contrasting views of Scotus and Thomas seems to be entirely a matter of individual persuasion. None seems decisively settled by the several arguments, or at least not decisively settled in favor of Thomas. Let there be freedom, then, in preferring one to the other, or in remaining undecided. Thomists may go their way and Scotists and others may go theirs.

For my claim is not that we should prefer Scotus to Thomas, or Thomas to Scotus. My claim is, rather, that we should restore a just sense of the richness of the church’s theological patrimony. Thomism is not Catholicism, neither is Scotism. They are like other positions in the church (such as Karol Wojtyła’s phenomenological personalism) that are not of the faith—or de fide, as they say—but are compatible with the faith. Let us be free to enjoy them, and not let exclusivist Thomism stand in our way or generate perplexities that a more open-minded orthodoxy could easily resolve. Let the old rule apply: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas—unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things, love in all things.

Published in the June 14, 2019 issue: 

Peter L. P. Simpson is Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. His website aristotelophile.com contains on the Current Work page translations of the Scotus texts cited here. His recent book is The Authenticity of the Gospels (HarperCollins, 2019).

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