Popes, Philosophers, and Peeping Thomists
A significant Catholic moment occurred in the middle of the twentieth century.
Consider these American success stories: Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen's TV program Life Is Worth Living (1951-1957) reached 30 million viewers and earned an Emmy. The great French Catholic philosophers Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson taught in major, secular, American universities and developed a wide lay readership.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), became an improbable best seller. Catholic fiction writer Flannery O'Connor began a promising career with her first novel, Wise Blood, in 1952. She was soon followed by fellow Southerner Walker Percy, also a Catholic, whose first novel, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award in 1962.
Few Americans, even Catholic Americans, realize that this mid-century flourishing of Catholicism was made possible by a papal encyclical, Aeterni Patris, composed in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII. Yet, nearly all the significant figures in this movement benefited from Leo's efforts to revive Catholic philosophy by reviving the writings of Thomas Aquinas. The Catholic moment in mid-twentieth century America was very much an Aquinas moment as well.
Hero or scapegoat?
Between the publication of his greatest works, in the mid-thirteenth century, and Pope Leo's encyclical, Aquinas's popularity waxed and waned.
Just a few years after his death, the famous Parisian condemnations of 1277 declared some of the propositions he taught contrary to the faith. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Aquinas's thought was at the center of fierce intellectual battles between the Dominicans, his religious order, and the Franciscans, who defended the rival ideas articulated by their ...