Annual Aquinas Colloquium
Reports on Previous Years’ Activities
A Colloquium, effectively a one-day conference, has been organised virtually every Hilary Term for many years, in which local and international speakers present papers related to the chosen theme, followed by a plenary discussion.
We are grateful to the Earhart Foundation which in 2014 and 2015 gave a generous grant to allow selected doctoral students to attend the final Aquinas Seminar and the Colloquium as Earhart Scholars; to Prof Barbara R Walters-Doehrman and Steven R Doehrman for funding the Colloquium in 2017 in memory of, and with gratitude to, the late Eugene Walters and the late Virginia and Ralph Doehrman; and to the benefactors who are allowing us to build up a fund to offer small subsidies to doctoral students wishing to attend future Colloquia.
Reports on recent Colloquia can be found below.
2018: “Thomas Aquinas and Modern Biology”
The 2018 Colloquium, held on 3rd March, explored aspects of modern biology from a Thomistic perspective. Attendance was good despite extreme weather conditions.
Speakers and titles
Prof Rafael Vicuña (Catholic University of Chile; Pontifical Academy of Sciences)
“Is the Origin of Life a Biological Question?”
Rev Prof Jean-Michel Maldamé, OP (Pontifical Academy of Sciences; l’Académie Catholique de France) “Evolution, Chance, and Providence”
Dr William Carroll (Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars)
“Does a Biologist Need a Soul?”
[Dr Carroll delivered a second paper to replace the paper originally scheduled by Rev Prof Nicanor Austriaco, OP (Faculty of Biology, Providence College), “Original Sin after Darwin”, which could not be delivered owing to adverse weather conditions preventing his travel.]
2017: “Aquinas and Newman on Conscience”
The 2017 Aquinas Colloquium, held on 4th March, launched one strand of research undertaken in collaboration with the Las Casas Institute under the overall title “Human Nature and Dignity: Resources for the 21st Century”. Given that Freedom of Conscience is a right widely promoted, and widely withheld, we wanted to begin exploring different accounts of what conscience is, and what it contains, so as to achieve some clarity regarding its fallibility and responsibilities, in the hope of achieving more precision concerning its rights and what grounds them. Read more>>
Freedom of Conscience is a right widely promoted, and widely withheld. But if, as Elizabeth Anscombe remarked, “a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things,” how absolute are its rights? Can it really be “the voice of God”? We need to clarify what conscience is, if we are to state its duties, privileges and limitations, and cherish it without idolising it. Aquinas is helpful, since he distinguishes “synderesis”, which God has built into us, from “conscientia”, which is the reasoned judgment we have the duty to make about what we have done and about what we should do. If “my conscience tells me to do X” has exactly the same meaning as “I judge I should do X”, then conscience’s fallibility becomes obvious – but we still need to ask what signs might urge us to re-think a judgment. Not all scholars approve Aquinas’ distinction between synderesis and conscientia, and it is not immediately obvious how far synderesis extends; hence work remains to be done on this subject, and on how conscientia and synderesis differ from the “super-ego”.
Since there is a perception that there has been at least a shift of emphasis in the Catholic Church’s teaching on conscience, and that Newman had a role in this shift, we chose to compare and contrast Aquinas and Newman, so as to sharpen the question of what conscience is. The common elements in these theologians are in fact striking, and stand to balance a focus on conscience’s rights with reflection on its responsibilities. Further research will explore how the duty and the right to make serious moral decisions is an important part of human dignity, and how governments, the Church, families, educators, and so on, must cherish this duty and help people carry it out well.
The Colloquium included a paper contrasting Aquinas and Calvin so as to illustrate the range of accounts which Newman inherited, and which should be taken into consideration.
The Director’s 10-minute introduction to the Colloquium may be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUNUSzdhNyc , followed by the first paper of the day.
Speakers, titles, and links to recordings and abstracts of the papers
Prof Candace Vogler, Chicago
‘Aquinas on Synderesis’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUNUSzdhNyc (the first 10 minutes are the introduction to the Colloquium by the Institute’s Director)
Abstract>> Prof Vogler began with the need for the concept of teleology if we are to make sense of animal and human behaviour. As the highest animals and the lowest intellects, human beings have the burden and glory of needing to figure out what to do and why to do it – and we find this task difficult. One of the things that helps us is synderesis, a basic practical orientation towards human good, an infallible natural habit directing us to the reasonable pursuit of human good. If it were blotted out, human action would be unintelligible. It is presupposed to all we do deliberately, and to conscience, which is a serious, deliberated judgment about how one ought to live. Aquinas does not accord much content to synderesis – it directs us to avoid evil, obey God, and posit natural-law precepts – seeing it rather as making us apt for acquiring moral virtues. This aptitude must include the ability to learn from our care-givers early in life, i.e. innate tendencies to develop self-awareness in the context of increasingly nuanced awareness of others. Aquinas’ teaching on synderesis seems to chime with the growing body of work about human development, and encourages us to look for distinctively human tendencies among the developmental patterns characteristic of primates in general. Language acquisition is a distinctively human tendency; the slow human mastery of the distinction between the edible and the inedible is another: Jean Porter has signalled how this fits into young children’s developing a sense of themselves as belonging to the same group as their care-givers. Is this an instance of synderesis as a formal demand to pursue good and avoid bad, and as energising the giving of substantive, specific content to that demand? We should expect to find other tendencies in very young children that pave the way for an explicit ethical awareness that depends on the care-givers’ moral awareness.
Mr Aaron Taylor, Blackfriars, Oxford
‘Aquinas and Calvin on Conscience’
Abstract>> Mr Taylor pointed out that comparing and contrasting Aquinas and Calvin helps us get a sense of the difference between a scholastic approach to conscience and the modern popular perception, which is related to Newman (who had a Calvinist phase) and Gaudium et Spes 16.
Aquinas distinguishes synderesis and conscientia. The former makes moral reasoning possible, but (contrary to Augustine, Albert, and Anthony Celano’s reading) contains no precepts apart from the most abstract ones. Conscientia, which can err, applies the habit to specific cases. Aquinas’ position – which is consistent throughout his career – on erroneous conscience is instructive: to disobey conscience is to show contempt for God’s will, but it does not follow that it is good to obey an erroneous conscience, since it may result from voluntary ignorance. We need to bring into consideration not only 1a 79, 12 & 13 and 1a2ae 19, 5 & 6, but also 1a2ae 94 and 100, together with the Commentary on Romans 2, which imply that the Decalogue mediates between synderesis and conscientia.
Calvin’s doctrine has to be pieced together from various passages, including the Commentary on Ezekiel where he rejects synderesis. While for Aquinas conscientia can be right or wrong, Calvin’s Biblically based account of conscientia sees it as “positive” in the sense of a native knowledge of the Natural Law; even after the Fall the seed of religion, and the distinction between good and evil, are present in everyone, as a genuine perception of the Eternal Light, as are the precepts of the Decalogue. The possibility of self-deception, and the need for revelation, increase as we move towards more particular precepts. However, conscience is a “negative” voice in the sense that it forbids and condemns (it even torments those who try to deceive God and conscience) – this is closer to the Classical Greek view than to the Latin (developed by Seneca) which attributes to conscientia knowledge of merits as well as of defects. For Calvin, a “pure conscience” has abandoned the attempt at self-justification.
Both Aquinas and Calvin therefore see conscience as depending on the Decalogue as the basic moral precepts, of which no one can be ignorant in a general sense. But Calvin has less room than Aquinas for errors made in good faith; Aquinas’ “invincible ignorance” is Calvin’s “hypocrisy”, so that mistakes in the application of the general moral precepts are usually due to deceit or forgetfulness, and vindicate God’s judgment rather than excusing us.
Prof Fred Aquino, Abilene Christian University
‘Newman on Conscience’
Abstract>> Prof Aquino explained that Newman, rejecting accounts that go with the denial of objective moral truths independent of our intuitions, sees conscience as a native endowment, which, as ‘a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature’ (cf. Aquinas) points to the God who implanted this authoritative voice in us. Like memory and reason, it is something we use; hence education can render us more likely to use it to make apt judgments. Since conscience ‘bears immediately on conduct’ and does not render judgments about ‘speculative’ truths, the doctrine of Papal infallibility is unlikely to prevent Catholics giving conscientious obedience to the State; however, there is no a priori rule determining how we should flesh out our allegiances, since moral judgments are made by phronesis, involving practice and experience. Prof Aquino returned to the need to educate conscience, since the human reception of the divine voice is fallible and complicated – e.g. by antecedent biases. We have a sacred duty to perfect our conscience, and this is a communal affair since, as Aristotle observes, we must heed the experienced. In some texts Newman seems to imply that our moral sense involves an immediate awareness of the divine voice; in others he thinks that an implicit kind of reasoning ‘saturates’ our perception of moral truths, speaking of ‘cultivated moral perception’ and ‘religiously trained reasoning’ – note that reasoning is not synonymous with proficiency in logical argument; it is often a spontaneous, informal process shaped by experience and personal insight. Thus Newman seems to distinguish between uncultivated and cultivated levels of conscience, and warns us that the education of conscience involves moral, spiritual and intellectual preparation.
“A Disputation between a 19th-Century Dominican and Fr. Newman”
The text of the disputation is given in our Resources section
Abstract>> The 2011 annual Seminar of the Dominican Friars, Sisters, Secular Institute and Lay Fraternities was devoted to the study of Newman, and included “a disputation between [a fictional] Fr Torquemada, O.P., and Fr Newman, Cong.Orat.” set in 1878. This disputation had been composed by Fr Vivian Boland, OP, and Fr Richard Conrad, OP (the then, and the current, Directors of the Aquinas Institute), drawing on Newman’s own writings. Fr Torquemada relied on Aquinas’ understanding of conscientia as a judgment that we have a duty to make, and sometimes a duty to revise, and complained about Newman’s calling it a ‘Vicar of Christ’. Newman insisted on another, ‘high’ sense of the word ‘conscience’, distinguishing it from a ‘counterfeit’ now widely lauded – and rightly rejected by the Church. Newman and Torquemada agreed: (1) that much can intervene between the impress of the divine Light and a moral judgment, (2) on the need for phronesis, and (3) on how this involves taking advice. Torquemada was wary of Newman’s use of ‘sentiment’ and ‘emotion’ in connection with conscience, and Newman explained that he was rejecting a modern ‘rationalism’ that constructed its own order – he wanted to reawaken the sense of a divine sanction. Torquemada was afraid that ‘the sense of a divine sanction’ might be interpreted as merely a feature of human psychology. The disputation therefore raised questions such as the extent, nature and ‘experience’ of synderesis, and the value of ‘introspection’ in moral matters. During the Colloquium the disputation was staged by Frs Richard Conrad and Peter Hunter.
Rev Dr Gerard Hughes, SJ, Campion Hall, Oxford
‘Clarity over Synderesis and Conscience’
Abstract>> Fr Gerard concluded the formal presentations by providing a lapidary account of the nature and place of synderesis in Aristotle and Aquinas, with references to key places in their writings.
Aristotle and Aquinas basically agree about the first principles of speculative and practical reason. For Aristotle, there are three senses in which something can be a “basic starting point”:
(1) Principles like the Principle of Non-Contradiction and the Principle of Causation lay down “procedural rules for research”, rather than leading to outcomes of research;
(2) Definitions, like those of geometry, are determined by fiat;
(3) Observations can ground inductive enquiry.
While substantive moral principles fit into (3), synderesis (which Aquinas sees as a natural habit of the practical reason) fits into (1). So in ethics the principle that “the good is what all aim at” defines the subject-matter of ethics, and implies that all good reasoning in ethics must be related to human fulfilment. This principle is innate, not learned. Synderesis does not deliver anything substantive – this comes from reflection on experience – but constitutes a matrix into which moral reasoning must fit. Practical reasoning relies on an innate awareness of the ends connatural to human beings.
Hence for Aquinas, synderesis motivates; hence we have an intellectual reluctance to go against our basic needs. It is not an innate (set of) moral judgment(s), but a basic understanding of ethics, rooted in the human being’s basic desires, that sets the agenda for moral discourse. Balanced judgments do not come from synderesis but from phronesis/prudence based on experience. Hence Aristotle speaks of noos in ethical matters as concerned with ultimates – with what cannot be established by previous reasoning. In ethical matters, these fall into two kinds: (1) the initial principles (i.e. what is held by synderesis), and (2) the ultimate outcomes which constitute the minor premise in the practical syllogism.
2015: “Thomas and Thomisms”
The 2015 Aquinas Colloquium, held on 7th March, consisted of presentations representing different recent “schools” of Thomism, followed by a discussion of whether Aquinas’s thought can be well captured by any one school or by a limited list of “theses”. Participants in the Colloquium include scholars familiar with further approaches besides the four represented.
Speakers and titles
Prof John O’Callaghan, University of Notre Dame
“Existential Thomism: Quid Sit et An Sit?”
Prof Reinhard Hütter, Duke Divinity School
“Metaphysics as the privileged instrument of Sacred Theology as scientia argumentativa”,
representing “Strict Observance Thomism”
Prof Jeremy Wilkins, Regis College, Toronto
“Vetera novis augere et perficere: Lonergan’s Appropriation of Thomas Aquinas”,
taking Lonergan as to some extent associated with “Transcendental Thomism”
Fr Peter Hunter OP, Blackfriars, Oxford,
presenting “River Forest Thomism”
2014: “Aquinas Reading . . . ”
The 2014 Colloquium, held on 8th March, explored Aquinas’ reading of earlier authors.
Speakers and topics
Vivian Boland, OP (Santa Sabina, Rome)
Aquinas’s reading of Plato
Fran O’Rourke (University College, Dublin)
Aquinas’s reading of Pseudo-Dionysius
William Carroll (Blackfriars and the Faculty of Theology and Religion of Oxford)
Aquinas and Aristotle
Afifi al-Akiti (Worcester College and the Faculty of Theology and Religion of Oxford)
Aquinas and al-Ghazali