Aquinas and the Supreme Court: Race, gender, and the
failure of natural law in Thomas's biblical
Eugene F. Rogers Jr
Church Times Bookshop £58.50 (Use code
WE ALL know the name, and we think we know what he said; he is,
after all, the man who gave us, at least in Christian clothing, the
idea of natural law. Although his Summa Theologiæ was
written more than 700 years ago, his thinking is still profoundly
influential, and, indeed, cited extensively in the law courts, not
least in the Supreme Court of the United States, where Eugene
Rogers teaches at the University of North Carolina. That
influential theologian is, of course, St Thomas Aquinas.
But, as the subtitle suggests, Rogers thinks we have got it
substantially wrong. Indeed, he argues in his conclusion that "we
have hardly begun to read Aquinas historically." On the face of it,
this seems an extraordinary claim. Rogers, however, makes a very
detailed and persuasive case that Aquinas needs rescuing from many
of his interpreters, and particularly from the dead hand of the
"new natural law" theorists (Robert George, John Finnis, Joseph
Boyle, and Germain Grisez) who have sought to influence secular
courts with "their" Aquinas.
Much of what Rogers has to say will be familiar to serious
students of Aquinas, most obviously that he is primarily a
theologian of grace rather than nature, and that it is impossible
to abstract a purely philosophical account from his writings, or,
as Rogers puts it: "Aquinas ties God into every knot, leaving no
place to disentangle the theology from the philosophy."
Although Rogers bills his work modestly as a "series of
correctives", what is innovative about this volume is the way in
which he uses Aquinas's biblical commentaries to reframe our
reading of the Summa. From this he makes a clear case not
just that Aquinas's ideas about natural law cannot be separated
from his theology and somehow rendered in a secular form, or that
what Aquinas is actually concerned with is the failure of natural
law, but also that natural law itself is deeply marked by religion,
gender, ethnicity, and history: that Aquinas places natural law
inside a "narrative of God's dealings with two religio-ethnic
groups, Jews and Gentiles".
Scrupulous in its scholarship, this is a watershed book, which
demonstrates with clarity how egregiously and often Aquinas's name
has been taken in vain and co-opted to the agendas of others.
Naturally, not everyone will agree with Rogers, and some may
even blanch at the title of several chapters in this enlightening
volume, not least chapter 12, "How the Semen of the Spirit Genders
the Gentiles". In that case, let the counter-arguments be put
forward. A "must" for the theological-college library, this is not
a book that can be ignored by anyone interested in this fascinating
and deeply influential Dominican.
The Revd Duncan Dormor is the Dean and President of St
John's College, Cambridge.
IN HIS engaging book Thomas Aquinas: A
portrait, (Yale, £18.99 (£17.10);
978-0-300-18855-4), Denys Turner provides a sketch - a
"caricature", he calls it - of the life and thought of St Thomas
Aquinas. His starting point is Aquinas's "materialism": his belief
that human beings are fundamentally and essentially bodies.
From there, Turner describes Aquinas's views on God, grace,
Christ, and the eucharist.
Perhaps the most original insight is found in the opening
chapter. Turner argues convincingly that the much-debated structure
of the Summa Theologiæ is to be explained not
theologically but pedagogically: it represents, as Aquinas himself
states quite explicitly, "the structure of a university degree
course" (in Turner's apt words).
Apart from this, Turner's enthusiasm for his reading of Aquinas
sometimes leads him astray, and we might better think of the book
not so much as a caricature of Aquinas as the Thomistically
inspired reflections of a very 20th-century theologian.
It is, in other words, by no means a reliable account of
Aquinas's thought, and someone who read the book as though it were
would often be somewhat misled. Turner warns us of this in advance,
but in my view the warning is not strong enough.
For example, it is crucial to Turner's account of Aquinas that
the human soul does not count as "a sort of thing". But Aquinas
himself states just the opposite - the soul, albeit a part of a
human person, is itself a "this something".
Likewise, Aquinas holds that abstracting universal concepts from
particular experience involves somehow "thickening" experience (as
Turner puts it). But, according to Aquinas, it occurs by
considering the essential universal core of a thing "apart from"
any extraneous features - "thinning" experience, we might say.
And Turner repeats the mistaken view, often found in the
literature, that the earliest medieval Latin translations of
Aristotle were made from Arabic versions rather than Greek.
Aquinas himself almost invariably treats those who disagree with
him with respect and politeness. In this, Turner has failed to
learn from his master. He describes Aquinas's Christian theological
opponents - thinkers such as Bonaventure - as "dogmatic", and as
"pagan materialists" and "idolaters" (to select a few choice
epithets). This is as implausible as it is unworthy.
The Revd John O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the
University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in the United States