In the early twentieth century, Catholic theologians in France were in the midst of a long and drawn-out battle. One key component to the ongoing debates was the nature of theology itself. There were new movements encouraging a return to the writings of the Fathers of the Church, as well as a new engagement with modern philosophical systems. As Jacques Maritain put it, such movements were “reinventing the Fathers of the Church to the music of Hegel.” Many Thomists, led by the Dominican Fr. Marie-Michel Labourdette, saw this as a growing problem. Theology is a sacred science built upon revelation and aided by metaphysical principles, not an eclectic engagement with popular ideas.
The ensuing debates often became public. Concerned about the deleterious nature of such arguments on the faithful, several influential figures sought to close the debates cordially. However, Fr. Labourdette disagreed with such attempts. He responded that “fortunately for the faith, such public-relations considerations had not been the primary preoccupation of St. Athanasius.” This raises an interesting question. What should the relationship be between theological inquiry and the concern to avoid scandal? If theological disputes can confuse the faithful, is it still worth disputing them?
Yes it is, although always rightly governed under prudence. Truth is important. But it is also hard. To come to true knowledge takes much work and may involve many missteps along the way. Yet it is always worth pursuing for its own sake. The speculative sciences are important. Theology in particular has serious consequences and meaning for us. While we will always know God imperfectly here on Earth, whatever knowledge we do gain is important. However, this work never takes place in a vacuum. Oftentimes this work spills out from the academies and into the public sphere.
It is said that in the disputes regarding the natures and wills of Christ in the early Church, you could not go to the market without someone giving you his opinion on whether Christ had one or two wills. While these arguments at the time divided Christians from each other, they were certainly worth having. Knowing properly who Christ is has wide-ranging consequences. To get it wrong would have negative effects which would reverberate through the centuries. The same is true for all forms of knowledge.
What we believe to be true is always important, no matter how inconsequential it may at first seem. Firstly, because the truth is always worth pursuing. We, by nature, desire to know, and the pursuit of truth is an end undertaken for its own sake. Furthermore, what we believe also changes us. True knowledge has consequences. While disputes must always be undertaken under the guidance of prudence, the goal of achieving true knowledge must always remain before us. Despite the fact that disputes may produce confusion for a time, achieving truth is a good of far too much importance to simply ignore.
Image: Edward Armitage, Julian the Apostate Presiding at a Conference of Sectarians