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But Was Aquinas Right?

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Commonweal . September 12, 2014

Thomas Baker


Commonweal [ISSN 0010-3330], a review of public affairs, religion, literature, and the arts, is published biweekly, except in April, July, August, and November, when it is published monthly, by Commonweal Foundation, 475 Riverside Drive, Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115. Telephone: (212) 662-4200. E-mail: editors@commonwealmagazine. org. Fax: (212) 662-4183. postmaster: send address changes to Commonweal, P.O. Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834-9982. Commonweal is indexed in Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, Book Review Digest, and Book Review Index. Commonweal articles are available at many libraries and research facilities via ProQuest and OpinionArchives. Serials Data program No.: ISSN 0010-3330. Periodicals postage paid at New York, NY, and at additional offices. Copyright © 2014 Commonweal Foundation. Single Copy, $3.95. Yearly print subscriptions, U.S., $65; Canada, $70; other parts of the world, $75. Special two-year rate: U.S. $98; Canada, $108; other parts of the world, $118. Add $45 for airmail. For digital and online subscription options visit

Cover design: Cecilia Guerrero Rezes Cover image: CNS photo / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, Reuters

In “Doubting Thomas?” (August 15) Brian Davies challenges my review of Denys Turner’s new book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, often on the grounds that I am mistaken in my “account of Aquinas.” For me to argue with Davies about what Aquinas meant would be like a Little Leaguer trying to hit against a World Series MVP pitcher. The opening paragraph of my review made it clear that I am not a historian of medieval philosophy and so would have nothing to say about what Aquinas thought. Instead, I wrote, I would only discuss the views that Turner (another MVP whose fastball I could never handle) attributes to Aquinas. Davies’s criticisms of the “account of Aquinas” I discussed should be directed to Turner. Unfortunately, he continually assumes that Turner’s interpretations are mine. At one point he even attributes to me a crucial phrase (about Aquinas on the Trinity) that I quoted directly from Turner. Sometimes, however, Davies responds to my criticism of a position he thinks Aquinas really does hold. My criticisms typically claim that Aquinas’s position—as Turner presents it—has unacceptable consequences. For example, I say that his claim that all talk of God is analogous implies that assertions such as “God is good” have no clear meaning; and that his claim that the divine persons of the Trinity are in fact relations implies a contradiction (since a person cannot be a relation). To such criticisms Davies’s typical response is that Aquinas would deny that the consequences I criticize follow from his position. I’m sure Davies is right about that, but the question is not about what Aquinas says follows from his position but about what actually does follow from it. For example, Aquinas holds that God creates everything, including our free

choices. Davies says I wrongly claim that a consequence of Aquinas’s view is that “God is the total and direct cause of my free action” (though here I am just following Turner). Davies rightly points out that for Aquinas “God creates X” is not a matter of God’s “bringing about a change in X.” Instead, “God creates by sustaining the things he creates, not by forcing them. He makes it possible for them to exist...and to continue to exist.” This, however, misleadingly suggests that God’s creation produces only the possibility of my making free choices. In fact, for Aquinas, God creates the very choices that are said to be free. Davies admits this when he cites a text from the Westminster Confession, which he says “squares with” Aquinas’s view. According to this text, “God from all eternity, did...freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” But how can a choice that God unchangeably ordained from all eternity be a choice that I have freely made? Aquinas’s (and Davies’s) answer is that God has created my choice precisely as my free choice. But how can a choice that God has entirely created (ex nihilo) be my free choice? We can write the words, but what do they mean? Davies doesn’t explain how to make sense of Aquinas’s view, concluding only that he’s “not at all sure that it is nonsense” and that I haven’t shown that it is. I agree that Aquinas is a profound thinker who has many resources for responding to objections. We should, as Davies suggests, continue our “careful reading of his many writings.” But neither Davies’s comments on my review (nor Turner’s book) suggest plausible responses to the questions I’ve raised. gary gutting

Notre Dame, Ind.

Commonweal September 12, 2014  •  volume 141  •  Number 14

interview 8

Farmer, Anarchist, Catholic

An Interview with Tom Cornell Wayne Sheridan

short takes 11

As We Lie Dying

A necessary protocol for end-of-life care Gerald Coleman & Margaret R. McLean


Fearful Asymmetry

Should Israel pull its punches? Gordon Marino

article 17

Infinite Horizon

The prairie spirituality of Ronald Rolheiser Michael W. Higgins

Book Essay 22

Mad Jack

Siegfried Sassoon at war & at peace Peter Quinn

upfront 2



Commonweal online Manic Grace Rand Richards Cooper


editorial Reluctant Rescue


Small Problem, Big Solution Jo McGowan


Why We Fight Margaret O’Brien Steinfels

screen 28

Boyhood Rand Richards Cooper

Books 31 Essays and Reviews 1959–2002 by Bernard Williams John Schwenkler 33

Abraham Joshua Heschel by Shai Held Mary C. Boys


Bookmarks Anthony Domestico

poetry 14

Two Poems Michael Cadnum


Song of Songs Lou Ella Hickman

last word


The Fear of God Jerry Ryan


Commonweal Magazine - Sep 12th, 2014