In Leuven, some traditions die hard. While most of the Catholic world is celebrating the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas today (28 January) according to the new calendar, the K.U.L. will celebrate its Thomas Feast closer to the saint’s old feast day, 7 March, the day he died. Nevertheless, any opportunity, nova et vetera, to remember Aquinas is welcome, especially in Leuven! Leuven has contributed much to reinvigorating the study of St. Thomas. The fact that there are “modern” Thomists, or scholars who believe that the comprehensive philosophical vision of St. Thomas is conducive to ever increasing scientific insights, is, in part, due to the work of l’Institut Supérieur de Philosophie, Louvain.
Shortly after Leo XIII’s call, ite ad thomam, a chair of Thomistic philosophy was established in Louvain in 1882. It was promptly filled by one, who was later to become Desiré-Joseph Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926). In 1893, the Institut officially opened. Then, the campus still included Leo XIII Seminary.
The attitude which characterized the revival of Thomism in Louvain can be summed up in Mercier’s own words: “Pour qui philosophons-nous, sinon pour les hommes de notre temps?” For whom are we philosophizing, if not for the people of our age? (‘Les Origines de la Psychologie contemporaine.”) This set the tone for the entire project: there were things in modern scholarship and thought to embrace, and others to criticize. Mercier and the others who developed the Institut, for example, insisted on synthesizing Thomism with modern science. (Their students also took classes in physics, biology, and chemistry.) On the other hand, the Cartesian (dualistic) anthropology which dominated seminary text-books at the time was the subject of much criticism. The work of St. Thomas was used to fight other battles too. It’s an old song in modern theological circles today, to criticize the neo-Thomistic radical distinction between creature and Creator; between nature and supernature; such a “chasm” must be bridged and has been by 20th c. nouvelle theologians—so it is said. Lest we start thinking that such a distinction was made on the basis of a negative, pessimistic, and self-deprecating anthropology, it is worth noting that the neo-Thomists were re-appropriating such a distinction in order to combat a certain pantheism of the earlier Spinozian and 19th c. German/Hegelian type.
Mercier and his collaborators at the institut, Louvain, at the very least, have shown that St. Thomas can still teach us something today. Quoting Mercier, Prof. De Wulf wrote, “Le thomisme n’est pas une borne, “un idéal que nous ne pourrions plus avoir l’ambition de dépasser”, mais une phare qui projette des clartés sur les avenues nouvelles ouvertes en philosophie.”
Thomism is not a boundary, ‘some ideal which we shouldn’t have the ambition to transcend,’ but a lighthouse which projects brightness on the new avenues open to philosophy.
–Maurice De Wulf, professor and collaborator of Mercier’s.
Sancte Thoma, ora pro nobis!