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Of Manuals and Those Who Did Not Write Them: The Case of Garrigou-Lagrange

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If[1] ever there was a term that was used as a kind of epithet about Latin Theology during the pre-conciliar period, it could be stated in one word, “Manualism.”  No doubt, you my reader may have heard some version of this spoken of. The implication is always rather clear: simplistic, ahistorical, and rationalistic. Often as well right alongside that is the implication that such theology was not interested in Scripture or the Fathers of the Church, but only in scholastic syllogistic analysis. The problematic nature of those other claims must be left for a different venue.  Here, allow me to briefly deal with the general question of “manualism” and Garrigou-Lagrange.

First of all, I would like to begin by leveling the playing field a bit. I think that some “sauciness” is justified here: if you ever read someone who talks about “the manuals” or “philosophical / theological manualism” as though it were one reality or one genre, that person really doesn’t deserve to be listened to regarding the history of Latin theology in the late 19th or early 20th century.  They are either completely ignorant of the body of literature from that era, or perhaps, even worse, they are using the term as a cudgel in their own ideological battle.

So, let’s start with the term itself, just to make sure that we are on the same page. The word “manual” comes from the Latin for “hand.”  If the main Roman Catholic seminaries were in Bavaria instead of being in Rome, we would use the more Germanic word “handbook” in place of “manual.”  But, the immediate implication is that it fits in one’s hand.  It is a descriptor that gathers multiple genres into a per accidens unity, based upon shared quantitative dimensions.

First Genre of Manuals: Textbooks

Now, historically, the term came to be applied to the educational books used in the Roman Catholic world (though elsewhere too) in philosophical and theological studies. Very often, for the training of seminarians you would have texts that summarized the state of theological questions and would propose certain “theses” to be held concerning all sorts of topics in dogma and morals.  They were, in the end, textbooks for a basic formation in these disciplines.

Seminarians are not all called to be philosophers or theologians. The vocation to be a priest is not by its essence academic.  It requires a solid and sure formation in the realities of faith, but a seminary’s concern is not to form future seminary professors, let alone academic theologians. Therefore, this first general genre of manuals, textbooks for seminary formation, varied in quality.  Some are mere summaries, whereas others provide much more detailed “states of the question” for the topics covered therein.

Another point should be observed regarding this first genre of manuals, and it reveals something about the world of pre-conciliar philosophy and theology more broadly.  The methodology and particular approach is by far not universally the same. If you peruse a list of such manuals, even merely in philosophy, you will not find the same structure across all the texts. Modern philosophy did indeed affect the curriculum used in Catholic philosophical studies.  (In the fourth chapter of the second half of The Order of Things, Garrigou-Lagrange joins a number of other figures in critiquing these developments.) What is more, although many people treat the period of neo-scholasticism as though it were a kind of unified block neo-Thomism, we can find a great deal of variation among the contents of these “manuals.”  The main opposed school during this era remained the Suarezians among the Jesuits.  But, also in moral theology there was, by the beginning of the 20th century an internal conflict beginning in the western Church regarding how much one should follow the structure of St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Theologia moralis.  Not all continued to follow in his layout of morals (which was problematically derived from Hermann Busenbaum’s Medulla theologiae moralis, facili ac perspicua methodo resolvens casus conscientiae).[2]  And I think it is fair to add that not all “Thomism” in the “Thomistic” manuals was the same either.

Well, we have spent a lot of time on this first genre of manual, which I have wanted to insist is not the whole story! Nonetheless, it is the primary reference of the term, “manual,” sociologically in the Catholic world. And even if we think about our normal English use of the word “handbook,” it signifies something like a simplification or summary text.  Those who speak of the manuals as being this genre are not completely wrong. But almost always when they speak of this kind of text, they play upon the ignorance of their listeners and hope that the slight implication comes along as well: this kind of text is a superficial summary, with no real academic basis, and not at all engaged with the modern world; thank goodness they are gone!

Second Genre: the State of the Science

But, it is here that we begin to expand on the genre of “handbook” or “manual.”  And I’ve chosen to include the Germanic term because it calls to mind the great work of Matthias Joseph Scheeben: his seven-volume Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik, which, through the labors of the great ecclesiastical translator of our era, Michael J. Miller, and the patronage of Scott Hahn’s Emmaus Academic Press is coming to publication in English.  Anybody who has looked at the German or English of this text will immediately realize how a “handbook” is something much more than a simple listing of rules or theses.  In Scheeben’s work, we are presented with a veritable smorgasbord of scriptural, patristic, and later-theological reflection upon the great themes of dogmatic theology.  All of the sudden, we begin to think: wow, manuals are a little bit more than mere summaries!  And you should ask yourself, quite justly: do you think that the person who screams “manualist” has as much knowledge of Theology as someone like Scheeben?[3]  If not, perhaps they should remain silent instead of throwing around epithets.

Matthias Joseph Scheeben’s Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik in translation


Here, we begin to see that the term “manual” can be used to describe a second sort of text: the presentation of the state of the science in its most rigorous form in a given era.  Already many of the first, aforementioned genre of manuals tend toward this level of technicality.  Merely to choose from the line that is dearest to me, if you were to pick up the Theology or Philosophy manuals of Fr. Joseph Gredt, Canon François-Xavier Maquart, Fr. Édouard Hugon, or Fr. Benoît-Henri Merkelbach, you would already be confronted with a rather detailed account of philosophy and theology.  But, when we come to men like Scheeben or the unfinished dogmatics manuals of Emmanuel Doronzo, we immediately find ourselves confronted with an incredible level of technicality that cannot be dismissed as something merely passé.  In fact, in the contemporary Church, there are no textbooks that can match their level of erudition.  Not by a long shot. We still await the day when graduate students in philosophy and theology will benefit from writers of such insight and breadth. 

In the interest of moving along, I will set aside many other excellent texts that existed from this era. But I think the point stands almost on its own: even these “manuals” are not the supposedly simplistic, rationalistic garbage that so many of a certain generation still wish to make them out to be.  If you actually bother to open them up and read them, I think it’s fair to say: res ipsa loquitur.

Third Genre: Treatises of Theology

But, this already gets us into the third genre. Especially if we consider someone like Fr. Emmanuel Doronzo we have a good starting point for understanding that there is another kind of book that many people call a “manual”: texts which, in fact, are treatises of theology.  The confusion is somewhat understandable. In particular after the time of the Council of Trent, there was a kind of hardening of the theological form taken by many works in the West, especially in Dominican theology and the various Jesuit lines of theological erudition.  The various treatises that make up St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae came to be the outline for theological works.  For this reason, there was born a kind of theology that traced the various lines of his own, structured thought.  This would give rise to a commentary and disputational tradition based now upon the Summa theologiae, about which I will speak in a minute.  But before that we should also consider how this treatise-structure affected the general approach to writing detailed works of theology.

Someone who is not familiar with the world of pre-conciliar Western Catholic theology would tend to think that all treatises, for example, “De sacramentis” are created equal.  Thus, one would open up a seminary textbook of dogmatics and see “Tractatus de sacramentis” and perhaps think that this is the same as, for example, the Tractatus de sacramentis in genere by Emmanuel Doronzo.  But upon further inspection, all of the sudden you will realize the immense difference that separates the two. The latter, which is merely one volume in the midst of an entire series of texts ultimately numbering over 11,000 pages concerning the sacraments, is really a presentation of the detailed state of the art concerning a given topic. In other words, we could think of it as a theological monograph by an expert. It is devoted to a particular “treatise” of theology, but with a profound level of erudition.

Already, this genre of “treatises”—sometimes even new ones—was beginning to develop in a text like Melchior Cano’s (c. 1509–1560) posthumous De locis theologicis, dedicated to what we would now call theological methodology, especially regarding the nature of “positive theology.”  The later work of his fellow Dominican, Joachim Berthier, dedicated to the same topic, would be of the same genre.  And here we could number texts by other scholastics from among the Jesuits: Sebastiaan Tromp, Louis Billot, Christian Pesch, Tilman Pesch, Giovanni Perrone, and many others.  Although the format of such texts was marked by their particular eras and the general scholastic way of laying out questions, I believe it is fair to say that such works don’t deserve to be brushed away as though they were cheap repetitions of Aquinas, lessened by a kind of modern hardening of thought.

The Sacred Monster of Thomism

Notice, here, my reader, that we have not yet even hit Father Garrigou-Lagrange! It is only now that we can begin to place his works amid such texts. He never wrote a manual in the first sense discussed above. In fact, he on more than one occasion would critique such manuals for becoming something like the intellectual stamp collecting that I mentioned before.  I do not wish to overburden this article with citations, as though it were a completely researched presentation.  Nonetheless, as regards the application of the epithet “manualist” to Garrigou-Lagrange, I think I am faced with a very difficult task, shouting against the wind of so many commentators who blithely and ignorantly act as though Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange was a “mere manualist.” And, the implication, perhaps sotto voce or even tacite, at least always rhymes with the same lilt: what was said from around 1400 to 1950 need not be listened to, unless it has received the imprimatur of those who declare it to be “interesting.”  Be that as it may, Garrigou-Lagrange himself, without the same chronolatrous dismissal of 550 years of Catholic thought, had his own critical remarks to make regarding the “manuals” and ecclesiastical education in his day.

Therefore, consider what he says in a sometime-cited passage from the beginning of his The Three Ages of the Interior Life:

We have not given this study the form of a manual because we are not seeking to accumulate knowledge, as is too often done in academic overloading, but to form the mind, to give it the firmness of principles and the suppleness required for the variety of their applications, in order that it may thus be capable of judging the problems which may arise. The humanities were formerly conceived in this fashion, whereas often today minds are transformed into manuals, into repertories, or even into collections of opinions and of formulas, whose reasons and profound consequences they do not seek to know.

Moreover, questions of spirituality, because they are most vital and at times most hidden, do not easily fall into the framework of a manual; or to put the matter more clearly, great risk is run of being superficial in materially classifying things and in substituting an artificial mechanism for the profound dynamism of the life of grace, of the infused virtues, and of the gifts. This explains why the great spiritual writers have not set forth their thought under this schematic form, which risks giving us a skeleton where we seek for life.

The Three Ages of the Interior Life, v–vi

Or, in a more-philosophical work, translated into English as The Order of Things:

The order to follow in [philosophical] psychology, at least in a work of Peripatetic philosophy, is obviously that of the De anima and not that of the theological treatise De homine.  Granted, it is easy to write a manual of philosophy by transcribing the parts of the Summa theologiae that are related to being, truth, the sensible world, the soul, God, and moral thought. However, a philosophical treatise should be something more than such a juxtaposition of texts.

The Order of Things, 234
The Order of Things translated by Matthew Minerd

And again:

To present this doctrine concerning potency and act in another, a priori manner, as happens in many manuals, is to suggest that it has merely fallen from the sky or that it is only a simple, pseudo-philosophical translation of common language… There is no longer any profundity in analyzing matters. One is content with some quasi-nominal definitions of potency and act, and it is no longer clear how and why potency differs from the simply possible being, from privation, as well as from imperfect act or from the Leibnizian force / virtuality, which is only an impeded form of act. Likewise, one can limit oneself merely to stating the relations of potency and act in the axioms proposed as commonly received in the School [i.e., the Thomist school, Suarezian school, etc.] without seeing their true value on which, nevertheless, everything depends. We must admit this fact: this fundamental chapter of metaphysics, i.e., regarding act and potency, remains in a state of great intellectual poverty in many manuals when we compare them to the first two books of Aristotle’s Physics and to the commentary that St. Thomas left us concerning it. The method of discovery has been too neglected in philosophy, a method which is founded on the very nature of our intellect, the very least among created intellects.

The Order of Things, 239–240, emphasis added

And again, more so concerning the state of moral theology:

As some have noted, the ever-present importance of this treatise on prudence would be quite clear to modern thinkers if only two words were added to its title: “Concerning prudence and the connected moral virtues, in relation to the formation of conscience.” Prudence, which directs all the moral virtues, is so fundamental that no human act is good without also being prudent. And despite this fact, numerous modern manuals of moral theology, which do devote a large place to the treatise on conscience, quickly and silently pass over this virtue, the principal cardinal virtue. They sometimes dedicate only eight or ten pages to it and seem to forget that right and certain conscience is an act of prudence, whose formal object must be determined, as well as its proper nature and connection with the other virtues.

The Order of Things, 276n6

Although other texts could be gathered, allow one final text on the state of Moral Theology manuals in his day:

Some modern manuals of moral theology contain almost nothing other than casuistic theology, and in them moral theology appears like a science of grave and minor sins to be avoided rather than a science concerning virtues to be perfected. Likewise, many modern treatises of ascetic theology and mystical theology do not proceed fully enough from the rightful foundation of moral theology concerning the nature and progress of the infused virtues and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, they come to be constructed in too empirical a fashion and are lacking in doctrinal value. Ultimately, these defects lead to the diminution of the notion of the eminent unity of sacred theology.

On Divine Revelation, 136n76

This last quote by itself opens up an entire abyss of possible further remarks. Many people speak of “manuals” in moral theology as though they were all devoted to the legalistic examination of cases of conscience (“casuistry”).  Already at the time of Garrigou-Lagrange there were excellent attempts by moral theologians—merely to name two good Dominicans, Benoît-Henri Merkelbach and Dominic Prümmer (see the three-volume of the latter in particular, not his 1-volume summary, which is somewhat lacking in fullness) but others were making their attempts too—to turn away from such an approach to morals, which was all too indebted to the great debates over “probablism” that rocked the modern Church.

The only Prümmer in English currently is the 1 volume, recently re-published by Benedictus Books

The Lionization of Pinckaers

But, this is not the place to get into such lengthy commentary, except to note something that is a bit of a pet peeve of mine as a Garrigou-Lagrange scholar. Nowadays, it is fairly regular to lionize the work of Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP.  Many have benefited from his essays and, especially, his volume The Sources of Christian Ethics. This is all good and fine. But I look forward to a day when it is finally admitted in polite circles that in the end Fr. Pinckaers was not at all unique in his critique of late-modern Latin moral theology.  And, in fact, his strength was not in profound analysis as much as it was in the ability to write a kind of narrative.  For far too long, conservative Catholics have acted as though he is the gold standard of Thomistic moral theology.  He wrote a number of important and edifying things, but in many ways he is not that unique when viewed in light of the great Thomists of the first half of the 20th century.  A broader incorporation of great spiritual theologians (e.g., Fr. Juan Arintero and of course, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, merely to name a few among many whom Fr. Pinckaers generally passes over without deep recognition of how they all were deeply engaged in the same “project” as him, as well as some of whom, like Fr. Thomas Deman, Fr. Pinckaers did recognize) is needed, as is an appreciation for the profound re-echoing of the great tradition of Thomistic moral-theological thought which we find not only in men like Prümmer and Merkelbach (whom Fr. Pinckaers also does briefly but importantly recognize), but also in the lecture notes of Fr. Marie-Michel Labourdette being republished by Parole et Silence (here too, though the two men are quite different, Pinckaers did recognize the merits of Labourdette).  (One could also include other figures too, such as Fr. Thomas Deman.)  All of the sudden, you will find out quite strikingly that Fr. Pinckaers is, at the very least, not as unique and special as people make him out to be, and perhaps indeed is yet another example of that terrible fault of the 1960s: the rejection of the very tradition that made one’s own thought possible.

Garrigou’s De Revelatione

But, this represents one of my own particular vexations as a practitioner in moral matters and as a translator of Thomistic texts of the past.  What is important for us here is to note that it is only now that we find a text composed by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange: De Revelatione per ecclesiam catholicam proposita, On Divine Revelation

De Revelatione in English translation from St. Paul Center

This work, which has antecedents in the Dominican tradition of course, is no mere “manual” in the first sense discussed above.  Internal evidence within the text itself already bears witness to the fact that the author did not think that it was such either. It was, instead, a kind of middle point between a treatise and a teaching text. It clearly was derived from his multiple years of teaching the theological course on revelation at the Angelicum.  The structure of the text is marked by the kind of clarity necessary for defining terms in the midst of lecturing. But nonetheless, throughout the work, you have a mind unfolding regarding the various topics that must be treated in order to appreciate merely one tiny (though important) particular aspect of theology: the rational credibility of the supernatural mysteries of faith.

Just recently, someone commented to me that this kind of “propositional” approach to revelation was cast aside by the Second Vatican Council.  I think the claim is wrong historically, though we can at least concede that the Council enunciated some salutary expansions about the nature of revelation and its place in relationship to the Incarnation and the life of the Church.  However, more to the point here, it seems to my eyes that when people make claims of this sort they are just buying, on the cheap, an excuse not to read the text in question.  Every work will be marked by its particular age and the limitations faced by its author.  Here, in On Divine Revelation, we have a professor at a Roman college, at times without any secretary, writing approximately 700,000 words on a theological topic.  I think it is mental laziness, or just laziness in general, that leads people to dismiss this sort of text without any kind of substantive engagement.  There are many thinkers with whom I profoundly disagree but whose long labors I believe should be given sufficient attention before critique is registered.  If only the same were given to a text like this!  It seems that, when it comes to certain scholastic figures, the universal scope of charity finds itself noticeably cramped…

So, what we have here is a kind of monograph, not just a mere summary.  The style of the work may indeed be wanting in this or that way, but anyone who looks at the text will realize immediately that it cannot be dismissed by saying “this is a mere manual.”  In line with the state of knowledge at the time, he engages with classical, modern, and contemporary problems all in the service of coming to some small understanding of the truths of faith.  And never do you get the sense that he is throwing around vain concepts, playing around with little syllogistic tokens. All of a sudden, the pages burst open from their scholastic form and speak with the warmth and holiness that many have attested were his character.

Garrigou’s Dieu: Son existence et sa nature

It is closest to this genre that we find him writing many of his other works.   The other work that equals this level of technical prowess is his early-career volume, Dieu: Son existence et sa nature (God: His Existence and His Nature).  It is a lengthy (two-volume in English translation) treatment of “natural theology,” that is, the specifically philosophical and metaphysical speculation that we can undertake concerning God on the basis of reason alone.  In the first volume, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange interacts with many currents of thought that were contemporary to him, drawing not merely upon the thought of Saint Thomas, but also that of the great tradition of Dominican masters in the line of Thomism, men who are somewhat simplistically referred to as “the Commentators” (though they are more than mere regurgitators and outliners). 

Obviously, the work bears the stamp of the age when it was written. But this is yet another example of criticism that makes no sense to me. On the one hand, one will often critique Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange for being “outmoded” and not of use today.  But on the other hand, he will be critiqued for a kind of lack of interaction with modernity.  Although we have more of a taste for irenic dialogue nowadays, we should not forget that debate is also a kind of dialogue, at least for the strong of heart.  In any event, the very fact that a work such as Dieu is marked by its time actually testifies to the living character of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s thought.

Garrigou’s other monographs

Many of his other works could be placed in this same genre of theological monographs. Obviously, there is his great synthesis of spiritual Theology, known by the name, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, a work that was slowly written over the course of years in the pages of the journal Vie spirituelle, as the fruit of his lectures on spiritual theology, which would fill the great Hall of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas in Rome.  But also, there is his very cohesive and perhaps underappreciated work The Love of God and the Cross of Jesus, as well as his shorter but important study, Christian Perfection and Contemplation.  There is a good deal of overlap among these volumes, but they certainly are not the work of a supposedly closed-minded “manualist.”  And, as many know, in these works he was the defender not only of the now-named “universal call to holiness” but beyond that strenuously defends what we could call “the universal call to mysticism.”

In addition to his shorter works of spiritual theology, there is also his excellent little volume on the implications of Mariology for spiritual theology, The Mother of the Savior and Our Interior Life.  It represents a good example of how he could draw from manuals of the first kind in order to write a text of Latin Catholic Marian spiritual theology which was not based merely upon pious thoughts but upon solid dogmatic grounds.  In fact, these dogmatic foundations give the work a solidity that enables it to communicate beyond the Catholic West, even if the work is marked by its particular 20th-century Latin context.  A similar sort of text is found in his work Our Savior and His Love for Us, which represents a kind of extension from Christology into spiritual theology.  Something somewhat similar can also be found in his work of priestly spirituality, The Priest in Union with Christ.  Once again, we do not find here a kind of “manualist” stamp collecting, but rather, Latin Scholastic theology deploying its resources in the service of a fuller understanding of the unity of the revealed mysteries.

In this category too, we could also add his work, L’éternelle vie et la profondeur de l’âme, known in English as Life Everlasting.  So too, there is his volume on priestly spirituality (echoing much that is said in the volume above), sometimes published in English as On the Sanctification of Priests According to the Needs of Our Times.  Even if “our times” are now different, nonetheless we find in him a model for how to consider the pivotally important role of ordained priests in the midst of a continually secularizing world.  And likewise, there are his dogmatic treatments of Providence and Predestination, in which he attempts to bring further improvement to the traditional Thomistic position concerning these controverted topics De auxiliis divinae gratiae.  And finally, there is his well-known, La Synthèse thomiste, published in English as Reality: A Thomistic Synthesis, a kind of late-career summary of so many themes of his thought and work.

Fourth Genre: Commentaries

Thus, we have gone at this point from the more restricted sense of “manual” to a broader sense that applies to a whole host of theological monographs.  This brings us now however to a final genre which we have already begun to bump up against: commentaries.  As a kind of introduction to this final classification, it is useful to note how the genre of commentary was profoundly connected to the genre of manual for centuries in Latin Catholic theology.

The history of western academic Theology cannot be conceptualized without the very important work of the 12th century bishop of Paris, Peter Lombard, whose “Sentences” (or “Texts” / “Positions”) of the Fathers became the standard work of Theology in the west until the time of Martin Luther.  (So important are the Sentences that the reader should consider reading one of the volumes on the topic by Philipp Rosemann.)  For centuries, theologians would comment on this text, laying out its meaning and engaging in the questions that it raised, at once looking backward to the 12th century foundation upon which they were building and also looking forward regarding the questions of their day.  In the 13th century, the commentaries on this text were immense and profound.  And even though later centuries would become more and more bogged down by the opening sections of Peter Lombard’s text, you will find there too a rich dialogue with the past looking toward contemporary questions. 

Ultimately, St. Thomas looked to update the curriculum for his Dominican students.  In other words, he himself wished to write a kind of manual, albeit a very full one indeed! It would take several centuries before the fruit of this labor, the Summa theologiae, would be incorporated into official theological formation in the Order of Preachers. But, from the start, great Thomists used St. Thomas’s texts as the beginning point for a tradition that at once looked back (to him and to his context) and toward contemporary questions.  Therefore, you have the famous work of John Capreolus (1380–1444), the Defensiones Theologiae Divi Thomae.  It traces the format of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but throughout, all of the various issues considered are reflected on in light of the host of people who critiqued St. Thomas’s thought and writings.  Even if the method used by Capreolus is not as sensitive to the various changes within St. Thomas’s thought over the latter’s lifetime, nonetheless, we have in his approach an honest and very human manner of reflecting: an acceptance of the received context in which one lives, while also refusing to merely be a historian collecting data about the past but, rather, to respond in a conclusive and more explicit manner (to the degree this is possible at a given time) to contemporary questions by means of further distinctions and argumentation.  Although I do agree with those who think that commentaries sometimes can turn into a closed circle, in which new questions are ultimately overlooked, nonetheless, I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in the rootedness of such an approach, and it represents an important and essential charism in the life of the Church.  Thus, with my aforementioned caveat, I can subscribe to the remark made by Fr. Serge-Thomas Bonino: “The literary genre of commentary corresponds perfectly to the intrinsically traditional modalities of the development of the intellectus fidei in the life of the Church” (Bonino, De deo uno, 114).

This “Thomist” tradition would continue among Dominicans.  Famously the Summa Contra Gentiles was commented on by Francesco Silvestri (often known as Sylvester of Ferrara [1474–1528]) and the Summa Theologiae by Dominicans like Conrad Köllin (1476–1535) and Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1469–1534).  Indeed, I would be remiss here if I did not add as well the master of Bologna, Sylvester Mazzolini “Prierias” (1456/7–1527), who has been so boldly and ably defended by Fr. Michael Tavuzzi, as well as great Spanish commentators like Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) and Domingo Bañez (1528–1604).  Many more could be cited—how indeed one should recall that tireless 15th century scholastic, Denis the Carthusian (1402–1471)!  However, we merely need to note that, in these theological (and philosophical) works we find the same dynamic at play: one eye to the past and the other to present questions, answered in light of the received theological science.

The height of confidence, however, in this tradition was at the time of the great disputations of Iberia.  Thus, we have the 20 volume Cursus Theologicus of the Salamanca Carmelites (the Salmanticenses) writing in the 17th century.  So too the great Jesuit edition of Aristotle with commentaries, by the Fathers of Coimbra.  Although many have a kind of hatred nowadays for Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) as a kind of corrupter of scholasticism, I think that such critics pale in comparison to his boldness as he penned not only his many theological commentaries, but his Disputationes Metaphysicae, in which he had the boldness to think for himself and lay out a full cursus of metaphysics, based however upon the antecedent tradition.

But for the Dominicans, there was, in particular, that great and profound light, John Poinsot, John of St. Thomas (1589–1644).  The future centuries of Dominican thought would pass through him and the Salmanticenses.  Here again, contemporary thinkers dismiss a man, without deeply engaging with his thought, yet again vitally in contact with the past and yet willing to push onward in the midst of contemporary questions and debates.  His Cursus Philosophicus and Cursus Theologicus represent a kind of gold standard for how Thomism should be done, no matter what its updated modalities are today.  How unfortunate that contemporary journal articles and monographs (both of which, of course, have their use) are judged to be more important than the light to be drawn from these truly great philosopher-theologians.  (In truth, a number of the Iberian texts fall into a genre of disputation which technically does differ from that of literal commentary, strictly so called.  However, very often the theological works trace the Summa theologiae after the manner of a kind of disputational commentary.)

The Decline of Scholasticism

With the passage of time, and the great discontinuities of the modern period, the quality of scholastic thought would, yes, diminish. But there would be continued teachers in the tradition, answering, if not as profoundly at times, the questions of the ages. Among the Dominicans, the best of these would be found in men like Jean-Baptiste Gonet (c. 1616–1681) and Antoine Goudin (c. 1639–1695).  But, as the most important preamble to Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, there is Charles-René Billuart (1685–1757), whose Summa Sancti Thomae, written prior to the French Revolution, would be the text that enabled the Dominican scholastics to return to their tradition following upon the socio-political-religious cataclysm of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  It is perhaps the single most important Dominican text for understanding the rebirth of Dominican theology in the 19th century.

It is in such a line that the other texts of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange should be understood.  Thus, we have his commentaries on the Summa Theologiae.  These volumes, arising from his teaching of the underlying text of St. Thomas, provide a continuation of this commentary tradition: Not all of his volumes have a full treatment of all the questions at hand.  Upon reading the text, it is clear what topics were of interest to him and which were of less concern.  But throughout, what we have is a teacher who wishes to illuminate the central principles that guide the understanding of the great theological themes that arise in Saint Thomas’s Summa Theologiae.  (An excellent and sympathetic explanation of the style of these commentaries can be found in Fr. Marie-Joseph Nicolas’ 1946 review article in Revue Thomiste.)

Here we have a sequence of commentaries on the so-called treaties De deo uno and De deo trino.  (I say “so-called” because I agree with Fr. Jean-Hervé Nicolas’ proposed unified reading of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae concerning these two “treatises.”) Next is the commentary on the moral treatises on beatitude through that dedicated to habits.  In English, this text needs a re-translation, as it is a mere paraphrase; also, of all the commentaries this is the one that bears witness to the fact that it was not taught as frequently or as deeply as the others.  Then, there is the massive and important commentary De gratia, in which all of his profound thought concerning spiritual theology, as well as the problems of Predestination and Providence all come to bear.  Then, there is a commentary on the theological virtues, primarily devoted to faith, although there are two shorter commentaries on hope and charity in the original Latin.  Important themes and topics of Christology are treated in his commentary on De Christo Salvatore .  And, still in Latin, there is a treatise on the Eucharist, with brief discussions of the sacraments in general and the sacrament of confession.

As Fr. M.-J. Nicolas notes in the aforementioned article, these are not manuals. But I would also hasten to add that they are not quite commentaries in the great tradition found, for example, in someone like Santiago (Iacobus) Ramirez (1891–1967).  They are commentaries that are the fruit of teaching and for use in teaching.  Although differing not only doctrinally at times, but also in style of engagement, they are more like the Summa Sanctae Thomae of Billuart: initiations into a tradition.  Indeed, as we find ourselves today in an age of great forgetfulness, I think that any honest person would be able to say that he or she stands in need of a teacher like this to learn how to truly enter into the thought of Saint Thomas in a theological and scientific manner.

There are other works as well: a few little texts, and a number of articles, both theological and philosophical.  I have gathered together some of the latter in the Philosophizing in Faith volume, printed by Cluny Press.  Again, is his thought the answer to all things in all places to all temperaments?  No.  But then again, what human author is?  And, in all fairness, would he himself present his thought as the last word of theology or philosophy?  I think not.  And I assure you, dear reader, I base this estimation upon many hours with his writings, more than his main critics at least.

Answering the Critics

Therefore, when someone comes to peddle to you the line that Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange was a “manualist,” you should now be able to respond not only by showing that he is much more than that, but you also will be able to at least begin to tell such a person about how the entire period of theology that they are mischaracterizing was much more than their cheap ideological epithet.  In general, it is my preference to retain a serene tone regarding these kinds of matters.  Theology and philosophy are wisdom, not the squabblings of public agitators.  Nonetheless, when the self-understanding of an entire generation is in danger, I cannot help but register my complaints when I see a superficial moniker attached to a reality or person that is historically far more complex.  How I wish that the insecurities of a certain generation would give way to collaboration between younger scholastics and older thinkers who embrace the best of Ressourcement.  But, for that to happen, it is not merely a one-way street in which scholastics must forever beat their breasts about their own weaknesses, which are real (for they too are finite humans).  It will also require, for example, the admission that it is a cheap slander to merely throw away an entire set of multiple generations by means of a word that does more to obscure than to illuminate, namely: “manualism”.

[1] The present essay is a slightly adapted version of a private work that I posted, along with several other essays, as “Who Wasn’t the Sacred Monster of Thomism?: Overcoming Certain Narratives about Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, in the Hope of Mutual Honesty Among Faithful Catholics” at

[2] Editor’s note: we have discussed some of these controversies in moral theology with the author on a different podcast regarding the author’s book on Moral theology: Made by God, Made for God.

[3] Obviously, one can praise Scheeben this way without, however, also failing to note that the scholastic inheritance that he received was itself contextualized by the particularities of the Roman College of his time in Rome.   Not every element of Schebeen is isomorphic with the traditional Thomistic school.  For a history of some of these influences and interactions, see Joseph Carola, Engaging the Church Fathers in Nineteenth-Century Catholicism: The Patristic Legacy of the Scuola Romana (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2023).

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