Perhaps Better Than We Can Hope For?

Although my first take on the Pope's interview was to see it as not really offering much hope for changes in doctrine, reflecting on it a bit more I see a couple of rays of hope in the section under the heading "Human Self-Understanding" towards the end of the interview.  Quite a few commentators have talked about the Pope's statement in that section about the acceptance of slavery and the death penalty in earlier times.  These are certainly interesting examples, since they are errors that were shared by those in authority in the Church at the time.  They are also stock examples frequently cited by those who advocate for doctrinal reform against excessively triumphalistic understandings of Church history.

Another passage in that section that has received less attention is the Pope's discussion of Thomas.  Here's the passage I had in mind:

“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.


“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.

If you treat the part I have put in bold text as forming a kind of single thought, the Pope seems to be suggesting that the Church of late has been (or even still is) not operating in one of its moments of genius or brilliance.  ("The thinking of the church must recover genius.")  It is not the most flattering portrait.  And his reference to the development of an ability to better understand how human beings live today, a project he identies earlier in the interview with the Second Vatican Council, may be a portent of more dramatic things to come. I don't want to read too much into this short passage, but such a reading would support those who see something more than a mere change in tone in the interview. 

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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