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In Defense of Manuals and Manualism

Above: engraving of Melchor Cano.

Editor’s note: this article appears as a response to our article which included critical remarks about pre-Vatican II manualism, and is meant to be a balancing treatment on the period in theology. See also “The Authority of the Scholastics.” -TSF


Note: This topic includes much confusion surrounding exactly the referent of “manual” or “manualism” which can be taken in a broad or narrow sense. I have taken it in the broad sense of an ecclesiastical summary of theology or philosophy, used as highschool, undergraduate, and seminary textbooks, meant to introduce the reader to a certain subject, in the scholastic style of analysis, synthesis, definition, and disputation, following the period of the second (Baroque) scholastics (1550-1750), culminating in the “golden age” of Leonine Thomism, following Vatican 1. This sufficiently includes such diverse figures as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Cardinal Mercier, Fr. Charles Coppens, Fr. Grenier, Fr. Woodbury, Msgr. Fenton, Msgr. Pohle, Fr. Scheeben, the Biblioteca de Auctores Cristianos Jesuits, and the Collegio Romano, while excluding other figures who were outside the tradition (but were trained by and appreciated the tradition), such as Cardinal De Lubac.

To read a historical survey of the movement, see Perrier’s The Revival of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century.

Further, for a reading list of manuals, ordered by difficulty, see the book list I have put together on my blog, here.

Introduction: the Fathers and their Commentators

Fr. Melchor Cano, O.P. (1509-1560) begins his De Locis Theologicis by asking the reader to consider the question of “whether the one… who introduced the abundance of learning into the disciplines, or the one who devised a system and created a method by which the disciplines themselves could be more easily and conveniently taught in order, is more deserving of praise.”[1] Cano goes back and forth, examining each side, the former (those whom he calls “the ancients”) introduced “a very great part of the good things which we enjoy today.”[2] Yet, the latter excel when he “turn[s his] attention to the work and care of the younger generation.”[3] Cano concludes that “both… are deserving of equal praise.”[4]

There is such a mutually dependent relationship between the two that we gather “matter from the one and form from the other.”[5] It is as the relationship between the body and the soul. One cannot rightly exist without the other in theology. We need those soaring treatises of the ancients, wherein we learn how to be a theologian, and we need the sober manuals of theology wherein we learn what are the conclusions of all theologians. We both need to form that habitus of theology wherein we are able to contemplate God rightly in His word and works, and to gather those objects of contemplation from that glorious heritage of twenty centuries of Catholic thought.

This is that self-same eternal struggle between the humanists and the scholastics that is placed before us when we consider the contemporary question of the theological manuals. Some wish, in their excessive zeal, to remove that scholastic heritage of the synthesis and collection of the loci of theology, leaving in their wake disorder wherein “every man does what is right in his own eyes.” (Judg. 21:25) Others, falling into the opposite error, wish to “remove… the ancient landmark” (Prov. 22:28), those classical works of theology where the great and saintly doctors of the ancient church “ascended the mountain of the Lord” (Ps. 24:3), gazing upon those mysteries of the faith that even “the angels desire to look into,” (1 Pet. 1:12) as it were, dragging us up that mountain that the darkness of our intellect is hard pressed to ascend on our own.

The Catholic via theologiae has always been that of Cano, both to read the works of the Holy Doctors, and to synthesize them in an “orderly and scientific manner” that is apt for pedagogical and investigative purposes. The Catholic theologian ought to read both Franzelin’s Tractatus de Deo Trino Secundum Personas and St. Augustine’s De Trinitate. The former teaches us what to think about the Trinity, the later teaches us how to think about the Trinity. If one merely reads the former, he will lack the true virtue of a theologian. If one merely reads the latter, he will miss out on the great heights of theological development found in the conclusions of the schoolmen. As Cano writes, “a theologian who reads both will undoubtedly make his scholastic disputation more complete… quite capable of exhorting in sound doctrine and of rebuking those who contradict him.”[6]

The Pedagogical Use of the Manuals

In considering individually the reasons for the manuals, first, we come to their most illustrious use, that is, the manuals are needed for teaching. The manuals were constructed, as the Summa Theologica, “to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion in such a way as may befit the instruction of beginners” (I. Pr. 2). The ordinary order of the manuals is described in the Sacrae Theologiae Summa, “thesis, connection, definition of terms, adversaries, doctrine of the Church, theological note, proof from Scripture and Tradition, arguments from reason and the answers to objections.”[7] In this, the student knows the thesis he is to ascent to, that thesis in the larger scope of dogmatic theology, the terms used in that thesis, the adversaries to the thesis, the Magisterium’s teaching concerning this thesis, the level of certainty we may have concerning this thesis, the thesis’ grounding in Scripture, the fathers, and the schoolmen (especially the Angelic doctor), and the common objections given to this thesis.

In this, we have a method of teaching, rooted, first, in the schools of the ancient pagans, but now purified and brought to its perfection over a span of 1,200 years since the time of the Carolingian renaissance. Students are able to “catch up” on an incredible scope of knowledge in a short time.

The way in which these manuals were used in seminaries masterfully engage what was taught in the manuals. The method used in the classroom is that of a disputatio, which is the developed and modified form of the quaestiones disputatae found in medieval works, such as, St. Thomas’ Summa, and frequently practiced in the Medieval schools. This is described by Fr. Hunter in his Outlines of Dogmatic Theology,

A few days’ notice is given of the date and matter of the disputation. A Thesis is selected embodying some point which has been recently treated by the Professor, and one student is assigned to defend this thesis, while one or more others are assigned to object. We shall call the Defendant D. and the Objicient O. All the proceedings are conducted in Latin. When the time comes, D. reads the Thesis, and shortly explains its meaning, bearing, and grounds, but usually without noticing the objections that may be made against it. This is the business of O., who has selected two or three that seem to him most telling among such as he can invent or find by diligent search in the books of authors who have written on either side of the controversy. When D. pauses, O. reads the Thesis, and formally denies it; D. asserts its truth, and thereupon O. makes his attack. This takes the form of a syllogism, having for its conclusion the contradictory of the Thesis. D. repeats the syllogism, to show that he has gathered the words correctly, and then gives his answer to each premise, granting, denying, or distinguishing as he sees fit. O. then undertakes to prove something which D. has denied, and does so by another syllogism, to which D. replies as before; and so the dispute goes on, until either the assigned time is exhausted, or O. finds it well to abandon his first difficulty and start a new one; or, as sometimes happens, D. is reduced to silence.[8]

To further illustrate this, we can look at the fruits of the pre vs. the post manual era. The Neo-scholastic era was one of the greatest eras of the flourishing of Catholic learning in the history of the Church. This was the era of Migne’s monumental works collecting together the entirety of the Latin and Greek fathers, Denzinger’s work giving a definitive collection of magisterial sources, and hundreds of omnia opera of medieval and post-Tridentine theologians. Further, this was the great era of synthesis, with very many courses of theology and philosophy being written, scaling heights and asking questions never asked before. No, they did not limit themselves even to theology, they even wrote manuals of Rhetoric,[9] English grammar, Politics,[10] economics,[11] medical ethics,[12] and everything in between, “to restore all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10). Instaurare omnia in Christo, that glorious motto of the Saintly Pope Pius X, was taken as the banner of the manualists. Rigidly trained in first principles, they acted as filtration systems, taking every bit of secular learning and filtering out the worldly errors present, baptizing and consecrating all manner of learning to Christ, bringing all in submission to Him. Everything from 50 page catechisms to teach young students the principles of scholastic ethics,[13] to a one volume manual of theology,[14] teaching high school students dogmatic theology, to multi-volume works on scholastic logic and metaphysics were written by these titans of learning. No matter who, no matter what, there was a manual.

Manualism Compared to Nouvelle théologie

Compare this to our current state of learning. We had the great scholars (if only their brilliance matched their faithfulness) of the Nouvelle théologie, De Lubac’s masterful “Medieval Exegesis,” Von Balthasar’s 85 books, 500 essays and 100 translations, spanning every area of learning, and Rahner, who far surpasses the rest, writing 4,000 works, including a 10 volume and 6 volume encyclopedia. Yet, where are those brilliant descendants of the Nouvelle théologie now? The closest we get are those with the mindset, as I myself have, that “the Nouvelle théologie had genuine insight that must be considered and employed, yet much of their entire project must be rejected.” There was a cataclysmic downfall after that first generation, no such brilliance exists in their intellectual descendants. An example of which can be found in Professor John Milbank, a man notorious for his scholarship on Bl. Scotus, yet admits that his reading of the Scotist tradition has been “not much.” One only needs to compare the bibliographies of the original Nouvelle théologie to those of their intellectual descendants. Why is there this fall? The fall is what occurs where one tries to impress the form of theological learning on matter which is not well disposed by the orderly and rigid overview that the manuals give. Theological education has been disordered and “random” without the rigid structure offered by the manuals, making for poor formation.

To illustrate, some converts have experienced reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While certainly beautiful with a great number of citations, it is wordy and not organized ideally for those who are new to the faith. It can be difficult for beginners to follow along with the book that is written for them. While one can argue that it is “deeper” or is more aesthetic than the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, pedagogically, the later blows the former out of the water with being able to teach beginners deep things concisely and clearly. A similar thing takes place (generally) with the works now used in seminaries that were written by the Nouvelle théologie. Rather than teaching in clear and concise terms, in an orderly manner to introduce the entire scope of a certain locus, it is disorderly and wordy, leaving the intended purpose of the “ease of learning” severely wanting.

Apologetic Value of the Manuals

The second advantage that is found in the manualist tradition is apologetic. In disputes with Protestants (or any others we will dispute with) there are three types of arguments that must be made. First, the Protestant will misrepresent the Catholic position on a certain issue and often will equivocate on the terms used in Catholic theology. The manuals solve this by clearly presenting the thesis of the Church on this issue and then explaining each of the terms that are used in this thesis.

An example can be found on the “insufficiency of mere faith” that we posit in Justification. The Protestant will equivocate on the meaning of faith in this and fail to recognize that by “mere faith” we mean “an intellectual ascent to the articles of faith devoid of hope and charity,” which is far different from the Protestant who defines faith as a “sure trusting in the merits of Christ” which includes aspects of hope and charity.

Second, the Protestant will often claim that the Catholic position lacks grounding in Sacred Scripture and in the Tradition. The manuals resolve this issue by providing us with the exegetical background of the teaching of the Church (along with providing resources for further reading, which we will cover later) and the Patristic background for this.

Third, Protestants will often give direct attacks on Catholic theology by citing Scripture and the Fathers. The manuals aid in answering these objections in two ways, first, by directing answering these objections, and, second, indirectly, by answering other objections, building the rigidly scholastic mind needed to process the terms and premises of a certain argument and be able to answer them.

Proper Ressourcement

The third advantage is found in the proper ressourcement of theological sources. Contrary to Nouvelle théologie propaganda, the manualists were shining examples to us of being able to go ad fontes, to return to the sources of theology while also remaining strictly in line with the teaching authority of the Church; to play within the bounds that have been set in front of us. Thus, the manualists brought about a great flourishing of a “Patristico-Dogmatic”[15] method of theology, especially found in the great Collegio Romano theologians, Perrone, Franzelin, Schrader, etc., the men who taught the likes of Denzinger and Scheeben.

In this, within that framework of the theses taught to us by the Church, we investigate the thought of the various Fathers and doctors of the Church. This allows both for the necessary freedom and constraint. The entirety of the deposit of Tradition is investigated and some of the most impressive florilegia were constructed. An example of such work can be found in Carlo Passaglia’s work on the Immaculate Conception which was three volumes long.

In this case, that of the Immaculate Conception, we see the true beauty of Manualist ressourcement come through, rather than unnecessary quibbling and subtleties, theology moves in a linear direction, progressing from question to conclusion in a rapid pace. This is neither theological archeologism, nor theological novelty. New conclusions are welcome and debated between theologians, yet their inclusion in the manuals is gradual and conservative.

First, a certain conclusion is brought up in a monograph or article. Then, it is debated between theologians; at this stage it may be a bad idea and die, or move on to the next stage. Next, it may be covered in a brief excursus, if it is found that it is something that a student of theology should know. Then, it may reach the stage that it is included as a thesis that is defended as a theological opinion. At this stage, it ascends the rungs of the theological notes, until one day, it may be definitively taught by the Magisterium.

This process is helpful because the theologian knows what to include, and better yet, what not to include. We may contrast this with many of the contemporary works of theology, where theological speculation is not done in independent monographs or articles, rather, theological speculation is done in those basic works of theology meant for the novice in theology, with many important theses left out, serving only to fan the flame of that wicked vice of pride in the author.

At this point, it is also appropriate to mention the general sourcing that the manuals excel in, making them the perfect resource for further study on the topic brought up in the manual. In the beginning of the manuals, general lists of works covering more general topics are given. At the beginning of each thesis, prominent works of Catholic divines are given, along with the section wherein they treat the same thesis. Then, in the footnotes, a flood of resources are given to investigate each individual question considered.

Magisterial Weight of Manualism

Fourth, the manuals have magisterial backing to them. The manuals were so widely employed in the seminaries of the Church that to posit that they were gravely deficient would be unthinkable. Are we to say that the Church, in her careful watching over the education of her priests (as is evidenced by the many encyclicals on education given during this time) failed so gravely as to improperly form her priests? Such a thought would be horrifying. It would certainly be as if the Church had positively bound others to error over many years. The former era of ecclesiastical education was not as it is now. The guidelines were strict. The watchmen were diligent. Thus, the teaching of the approved textbooks in ecclesiastical seminaries (the manuals) expressed the Magisterium of the church.

Msgr. Fenton gives the same argument, that because they are “used in the instruction of candidates for the priesthood… written by men who actually teach in the Church’s own approved schools, under the direction of the Catholic hierarchy, and… under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiff himself” they therefore “express the teaching of the bishops about the matters they teach… [and thus] express in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Church.”[16] In consequence of this, “the common or morally unanimous teaching of the manuals… is definitely a part of Catholic doctrine.”[17]

This is the self-same logic behind Bl. Pius IX’s statement concerning the infallibility of the Scholastic doctors in Tuas Libenter:

even if it were a question of that obedience which is concretely due to divine faith, this obedience should not be limited to truths expressly defined by decrees of ecumenical Councils or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this Apostolic See, but must extend also to truths which by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, spread throughout the world, are transmitted as divinely revealed, and therefore by the common and universal consent of Catholic theologians are held to be matters of faith.

One may respond, “Well, you previously stated that the current situation is one of deficient standards of seminary education. Why can we not apply the same standards to the teaching of the manuals?” There is a distinction. I explicitly stated that it was “in her careful watching over the education of her priests.” For, where the Church does not guide, there is not the same protection of the Holy Spirit present where she does guide. With the lack of proper and explicit guidance of the ecclesiastical hierarchy found in seminaries today, it is not to be wondered that there is confusion, for, it is merely the teaching of individual theologians and not the teaching of the Church.

Methodological Superiority of Manualism

The last consideration is that the manuals are methodologically superior. While the method of the manuals may seem to be different than St. Thomas’, the difference is merely accidental, essentially they are the same. For, the manualists, in stating their theological method, explicitly follow the method of St. Thomas, as stated in his Expositio Libri Posteriorum.

First, in the proper use of history. For, St. Thomas was not a historicist. Rather, history was seen as a pedagogical example, establishing what was known as the “state of the question.” Thus, St. Thomas strikes the balance between those who abuse history by being bound by her, and those who ignore history to their own speculations. So too the theological manuals who narrate the history and positions of the schools and the adversaries of the doctrine as to establish the state of the question.

Second, in properly seeking definitions of things. For St. Thomas, a definition was comprised of a genus and specific difference. This was obtained by the division of the genus. In this, the nominal definition of a certain thing was given and then proximate and opposite notes present in the genus were given and “divided,” denying one note and affirming another until we teach the “real definition.” For example, if we are to find the real definition of “man,” we begin with the genus “animal” and divide it into “rational” and “irrational.” We negate “irrational” as being verified in man and affirm “rational.” Thus we arrive at the definition “rational animal.” This is the entire foundation of the respondeo in the Summa, for example, in I-II, q111, a1 where St. Thomas distinguishes “sanctifying grace” from “gratuitous grace” in that the former “adds to the notion of gratuitous grace something pertaining to the nature of grace, since it makes man pleasing to God.” The theological manuals continue this tradition in their section on the “definition of terms” where the terms in a thesis are distinguished according to their proper usage.

Third, in the proper synthesis of dogmatics and scholastics. Broadly speaking, dogmatics verifies quia or si est, i.e., that something (or a connection) is, whereas scholastics explains quid est or propter quid, i.e., what something (or a connection) is. The latter provides grounds and explanation of the former fact thus established. The latter puts the instrument of logic and contents of natural philosophy (as a minor premise) to work in service to theology. The former verifies that something exists from the theological sources. In St. Thomas, he answered the former question in the sed contra and the latter in the respondeo. The manualists answer the former question in their copious sourcing from the Magisterium, Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, and the theologians. They answer the latter in their “connection” and “theological arguments.”

A question arises, “why do they multiply sources where St. Thomas provides only a few dogmatic texts?” The answer is in the fact that St. Thomas provides the long, dogmatic arguments in his Biblical commentaries, where the manuals include exegetical argumentation in the individual manual.

Conclusion: Manualism not Perfect

In conclusion, I come to debate concerning the manuals, not as one advocating for the complete perfection of the manuals. I can, as my guide, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, critique the tradition for the abuses that arose in the use of the manuals,[18] or for “bad” trends that were found in the teaching of many manuals, specifically the merely casuistic nature of many moral manuals.

Yet, what I am arguing for is the continuity of a great tradition. There is a great tradition of the schoolmen, one that reached its heights in the first golden age of the 13th century following the 4th Lateran Council, surrounding such figures as Ss. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and many others. Its second golden age was reached in the 16th century, following (and preceding) the Council of Trent, with such figures as Cajetan, Báñez, and Cano. In complete continuity of this great tradition is a third golden age, following the First Vatican Council, the age of the Leonine Thomists, one which shined even brighter than the other two in its sourcing and illustrious predecessors.

There was another council, yet no revival in scholasticism. Yet, there is another impetus, the internet. Many young men in my age group, raised with access to the informational power of the internet, have returned again to those resources that were denied to our fathers in the Faith. The potential is there to bring about another renaissance of learning, plenty of work needs to be done and is being done amongst ourselves. Please do pray for prudence and direction for the many of us following this path, and please do consider joining us in the path of the Scholastics.


[1] Melchor Cano, De Locis Theologicis, Proemium.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sacrae Theologiae Summa, Preface, 5.

[8] Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Volume 1, Appendix. The entire description in the appendix is worth reading for an example he gives of a disputation about “St. Paul’s dealings with St. Peter at Antioch.” I have not found a way to replicate this aspect of learning theology from the manuals (such a project would be a worthy one, but not one that I am in a position to start at the moment). This may be replicated to some degree by engaging with resources who are opposed on a certain topic to the Catholic faith (n.b., if one is to read, watch, or listen to content against the Catholic faith, it is prudent that he seeks the permission of his spiritual father. It can be quite dangerous depending on one’s station in life and disposition. Remember St. Bellarmine’s grave fear in reading Luther and Calvin). To learn this method of disputation, I have an article on the matter (here), and three videos (here, here, and here).

[9] Fr. Charles Coppens, A Practical Introduction to English Rhetoric.

[10] Fr. Austin Woodbury, The Foundations of Political Theory.

[11] Fr. Charles Stanton Devas, Political Economy.

[12] Fr. Charles Coppens, Moral Principles and Medical Practice.

[13] Fr. William Poland, Fundamental Ethics. An ethical analysis, conducted by way of question and answer for use in classes of Moral Philosophy

[14] Fr. Charles Coppens, Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion.

[15] The origin of this phrase is, ironically, found in Congar’s description of the Collegio Romano theologians. If only he would have followed those he praised!

[16] Msgr. Fenton, The Teaching of the Theological Manuals.

[17] Ibid.

[18] C.f., Three Ages of the Interior life

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