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Amazing conference on Faith, Hope and Love

During four days in December 2013, more than fifty scholars from all over the world gathered in Utrecht, to attend a conference on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. The subtitle of the conference was: Thomas Aquinas on living by the theological virtues. It was the fourth international conference hosted by the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht (Tilburg University). Most of those present contributed in some way or other to the conference, either by giving a (short) lecture or by presenting a paper; many of those present engaged in the discussions and debates that the presentations gave rise to. Key note lecturers were Eleonore Stump, Paul Waddell, Paul van Tongeren, Michael Sherwin o.p. and Bruno Niederbacher s.j.
Participants praised the conference for its substantial nature, coherence, good atmosphere and organization.
The position paper of the conference stated that during the last two decades virtue ethics has become the focal point of renewed ethical and theological interest. To lead a good life, it proves useful to watch those who have mastered the art of living. The conviction that living is an art is at the heart of virtue ethics. Living a good life requires exercise, and is a question of acquiring a virtuous character rather than of complying with external ethical and legal rules. This renaissance partly builds on Thomas Aquinas. He in turn recovered Aristotelian, Ciceronian and Augustinian thought on virtue ethics. The interpretation and development of virtues and vices form the core of his authorship, as the secunda pars of his Summa Theologiae readily displays. And yet, the most important virtues for him are not the moral ones, such as Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Fortitude, but those virtues that are both infused by and aimed at God: Faith, Hope and Love. These are virtues that the philosophers of antiquity were not aware of. To account for them, Aquinas had to adapt the classical understanding of virtues. For Aquinas, the moral virtues come to full fruition only when they are embedded in a life before God, a life lived exercising the God given theological virtues. By ignoring Faith, Hope and Love, the present discussion of virtue ethics not only ignores those virtues that were for Aquinas of utmost importance, but also fails to arrive at a complete understanding of his view of the moral virtues.
And so the following questions were addressed: how does Aquinas elaborate his thoughts on the theological virtues? To what extent can developments in his views on the theological virtues be traced? How do his views on the theological virtues compare to those on the moral ones? What do we learn here about the relationship between the philosophy of ethics and (moral) theology, between nature and grace, and between theology and spirituality? And also: why is it useful to think about Faith, Hope and Love as virtues, even though they are gifts of God, and man can easily lose them on account of sinful behavior? Can Christ serve as an example of virtuous life? Did he possess theological virtues?

The major common threads of the 31 lectures and papers that were presented were summarized by the director of the Institute, dr. Henk Schoot, in the following four points:
1) Aquinas’s approach has a distinct identity, both in philosophical and in theological respect; many proposals were made to formulate aspects of this distinct identity.
2) Opposition to a mere intellectualist reading of Aquinas’s anthropology; emphasis on love and friendship; emphasis on the importance of love for the understanding of faith.
3) Trinitarian perspectives concerning the infused theological virtues; attention to the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit; attention to their Christological dimension.
4) Many are looking for ways in which infused theological virtues correct or reevaluate or add to the natural virtues, and thus give a theological interpretation of Aquinas’s ethics.

Most of the contributions to the conference will be published in a coherent volume, to appear in our series Publications of the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht, published by Peeters Publishers, Louvain.

During the conference questions were also raised on Aquinas’s interpretation of the moral virtues that Aquinas considers to be infused. What is the relationship between the acquired and the infused moral virtues? To these and possibly other questions a new conference will be devoted to be held in Utrecht on December 16-19, 2015. In 2015 our Institute celebrates its 25th anniversary.