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The courage of imaginative empathy - an interview with Michael Sherwin OP

This winter semester Michael Sherwin OP (1963) will start teaching Fundamental Moral Theology at the Theological Faculty of Fribourg University (Switzerland). He is the successor of Servais Pinckaers OP, who has shaped his thought and methods.
What do you do and where do you work?

I teach fundamental moral theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. I also teach for six weeks each Spring at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

What courses are you teaching this semester?

My core course (cours principal) is an introductory overview of moral theology entitled 'Théologie morale: vision globale'. Secondarily, I will be teaching the first part of a yearlong course on moral development. The first semester offers an historical overview, while the second semester considers contemporary perspectives from within a Thomistic framework. Lastly, I will be offering a seminar on the moral perspective of the early church.

What are some of the themes of your current research in Aquinas?

I am becoming increasingly interested in recent interpretations of Aquinas’ moral theory offered by philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition: MacIntyre, Anscombe, Geach, Kenny, as well as the theologian Fergus Kerr. (Roger Pouivet has described them as Wittgensteinian Thomists.) They remind of us of the role a community, and individual mentors, play in the formation of the virtues. Not only is this research deepening our understanding of the acquired virtues, it provides the theologian analogies for understanding the theological virtues and our relationship with Christ and his Church. These studies also help exorcise the Cartesian ghosts that continue to haunt contemporary understanding of anthropology.

How were you introduced to the thought of Aquinas?

My first deep introduction into Aquinas comes from my professors from the Dominican faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, especially the philosophers Antonio Moreno and Vincent Guagliardo (who in 1984 first introduced me to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre), and the theologians Michael Dodds, Gregory Rocca, and Edward Krasevac. These Dominican confreres introduced me to the great authors of the Thomistic revival. Chenu and Congar have had an abiding influence, both on my way of reading the Summa Theologiae and on my desire to understand Aquinas in light of his sources. Congar's work on the Holy Spirit as well as his remarkable study The Mystery of the Temple were and are models for me. So are the rigorous clarity and charity of William Hill’s studies. In philosophy I am especially drawn to the “River Forest” school of Thomism, with its open dialogue with the sciences. I remain convinced, from the influence of William Wallace and Benedict Ashley, that both theology and the natural sciences have need of a renewed philosophy of nature.

Who have been your more recent guides or mentors in your study of Aquinas?

Without doubt, during my studies at the University of Notre Dame, my dissertation director, Jean Porter, was my principal guide. She has profoundly influenced my way of reading Aquinas, especially through her engagement with the Anglo-American tradition from within a Thomistic perspective. It was also at Notre Dame that my contact with Professor MacIntyre’s work was deepened. Another influence at Notre Dame was Ralph McInerny, especially by his generous way of bringing junior scholars together with senior researches in an environment of prayer and study as well as of charitable conviviality.

Yet, if I were to describe any one person as my mentor, this would be Fr. Servais Pinckaers. His writings have shaped my thought and methods. His friendship and example have shaped my way of living the Dominican life. His insights into the two distinct conceptions of freedom (freedom of indifference vs. freedom for excellence) at work in theology and the two distinct perspectives on morality (morality of obligation vs. morality of virtue) that these freedom generate are insights that remain with me.

What is the most important thing you have learned from Aquinas?

This is a difficult question. I owe the man from Rocca Secca quite a lot. Perhaps more important than this or that single fact of theology has been the overall perspective on theology gained by regular contact with his texts. Aquinas offers the reader an example of tremendous intellectual courage. With calm composure he poses penetrating questions and raises sharp objections to almost every aspect of the faith. And yet, the calmness evident in his texts is not smugness. The objections he offers are not mere straw men to be cut down in short order. He seems truly to enter deeply into the force of these objections, to understand them from the inside, as it were. This sort of imaginative empathy takes great courage. It is the theologian’s version of “vicarious suffering,” a way of confronting the objections to faith so deeply that one cannot avoid the suffering incurred by the non-believer, the person in doubt or even the hardened sinner. This, I suspect, is part of the mystery underlying Thomas’ statement that he learned most of his insights at the foot of the cross. No doubt he means to tell us that it was by begging insight from the suffering Christ that he gained insight. Yet, how did he learn what to ask? I suspect it was by suffering deeply the needs of his contemporaries. Such courage, it seems to me, is impossible without faith and charity: a loving trust in the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. In this respect, St. Thomas has helped me most by being a model: the model of a humble courageous theologian. The challenge is to live this model! It is so much easier to avoid the difficult questions. Yet, doesn’t this spring from a lack of faith? A lack of faith in the action of the Holy Spirit, who works both through theologians and through the Magisterium?

Which works of Aquinas are you most familiar with?

Without doubt, I am most familiar with the Summa Theologiae, especially the Secunda Pars. The Summa is a constant reference point.

What is the importance of Aquinas-research for our times, especially for the discipline you are working in? And vice versa: what results has research in your discipline yielded that is relevant to research on Aquinas?

The work of renewal in moral theology can still benefit greatly from the insights of Aquinas. Discussions of contemporary moral issues often continue to presuppose manualist categories. Even moralists who would style themselves progressive often retain three classically manualist concerns in the background of their thought: (a) who is in authority? (b) what rules has this authority imposed? and (c) are we bound to obey these rules in this case? A careful reading of the texts of Aquinas, however, reveals a profoundly different way of approaching moral questions. He begins not from authority, but from universal human experience: the universal desire for happiness. From this appeal to experience he is able to introduce the core concepts of the moral life, and ultimately to center them on our life in Christ and upon the ecclesial action of the Holy Spirit. In the context of the new evangelization, Thomas' method reminds us of a core pedagogical truth: to be effective, moral teaching must correspond to the natural aspirations of the human heart. Before our contemporaries will embrace the moral teaching of the Gospel, they must come to see this teaching responding to their deepest desires. Only then will our contemporaries begin to trust the Gospel message; only then will they begin to trust the voice of the Spirit speaking through the Teaching Church.

Many, however, would object to grounding morality on human desire. They would regard this as trying to ground morality upon the very thing that is most dangerous to the moral good.

No doubt the issue here is how to understand the adjective 'deepest' when appealing to the 'deepest desires' of the human heart. St. Thomas recognizes that it is precisely on the level of love that human nature has been most deeply wounded by sin. Following Augustine, Thomas would see all sin as flowing from disordered love and desire. Nevertheless, Thomas is guided by the Catholic conviction that human nature, although profoundly wounded, is good. Thus, on the deepest level, the desires of the human heart are directed toward God and fulfillment in God.

So you would interpret Aquinas’ moral theology as an effort to order our loves?

Exactly. Yet, crucial here is how this ordering of love occurs. It is precisely here that contemporary reflections on human development can help us. These studies remind us of an ancient insight. They highlight that moral truth is taught by being lived. It is from our initiation into the way of life of a community (primarily the family, but also the larger community of the Church) that we discover the meaning of the rules we are called to follow. Stated more accurately, it is through this initiation that we begin to respect the goods these rules are meant to preserve: the goods constitutive of human fulfillment in Christ. (MacIntyre famously illustrates this with his example of the child learning to play chess; Fr. Pinckaers offers a similar example in his analysis of learning to play the piano.) This implications for moral theology of this process of initiation are not hard to see. The truth of the Church’s moral teachings, such as its teachings on social justice or sexuality, become intelligible to us from within a social environment of a specific kind: from within a community that enjoys the goods inherent to just and chaste lives; from within a community that lives according to the truth about justice and chastity’s relationship to human happiness. St. Thomas' psychology, his understanding of the action of grace, and our growth in virtue, all offer a framework for understanding these contemporary insights into moral development.

In your analysis here you drawn on contemporary philosophy, especially the work of MacIntyre. How do you understand the relationship between philosophy and theology in Aquinas?

It is often tempting to divide Thomists into two camps: those who regard Thomas as primarily a philosopher and those who see him primarily as a theologian. Historically, it is indeed true that one facet has at times been emphasized to the detriment of the other. Yet, from within the call to evangelize and catechize, the usefulness of this division becomes dubious. It is precisely by understanding “Thomas the Theologian” that the importance of “Thomas the philosopher” becomes apparent. It is precisely because, for St. Thomas, Christ and his transforming grace are central to the moral life, that a coherent philosophical anthropology becomes imperative: what it means to learn from Christ is only evident from within some understanding of human moral development; what the Scriptures mean by grace is only evident from within a convincing account of human nature. It is here that Thomas still has much to teach us. The balance he establishes between nature and grace, between the acquired and infused virtues and between nature as good but wounded all remain valid guides for our own efforts to address contemporary moral issues.

What do you expect from the Internet in the future? In what way should the Thomas Instituut anticipate these developments?

This question is a bit outside of my area of expertise. I remember watching the original Star Trek TV series and thinking how “far out” their gadgets were, especially the little pieces of plastic that seemly held volumes of information on them. Now students carry hard drives in their pockets! Where these technologies will go in the future is anybodies guess. The creators of Star Trek consulted NASA to form their vision of the future. Perhaps the Thomas Instituut should do the same!

Do you have a connection to the Internet, at home or at your office? How do you evaluate the site of the Thomas Instituut?

I do indeed have internet access. I only have access in my office at the University. For me, at least, I think this is best. If I had internet access in my room at the priory I think I could easily begin to waste time surfing for topics not directly related to my current research. (This would probably fall under what St. Thomas calls curiositas!) I do frequently look for specific information on the internet. I also try to find images from art and photography that can help illustrate concepts I wish to convey in class. (I usually augment my lectures by accompanying them with computer slides.) I am familiar with the website of the Thomas Instituut. I enjoy its articles and find it has helpful resources and links.

Can you give the titles of some of your publications so that readers may get to know more about your work?

Some of the essays that focus on Thomistic interpretation are:

Saint Thomas, Helen Keller, et la Rationalité de l’Amour. Nova et Vetera 77 (2002): 21-32.

"In what straits they suffered." St. Thomas' use of Aristotle to transform Augustine's critique of Earthly Happiness. Aquinas’ Sources: The Notre Dame Symposium. Edited by Timothy L. Smith. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002, 260-271.

Christus Magister: Christ as the Teacher in St. Thomas’ Commentary on John´s Gospel. Reading St. John with St. Thomas. Edited by Matthew Levering and Michael Dauphinais. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, forthcoming.

The book form of my dissertation is currently under consideration for publication. It is entitled: 'By Knowledge and By Love'. Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. The dissertation itself can be obtained through UMI's Proquest.

Utrecht, 11 september 2002
Carlo Leget