Aquinas vs. ID: The Ongoing Debate


I read with interest Dr. Tkacz’ attempted application of neo-Thomist thought to the problem of evolution ("Aquinas v. Intelligent Design," November 2008), and the exchange of letters with Mr. McCauley that followed. While I applaud Dr. Tkacz’ insistence that God is "the ultimate ordering principle" of the universe, his dogmatic assertion that "it cannot be that God creates sequentially or episodically, nor does he create by intervening in nature" does not ring true.

First of all, our God is outside of time, so it is an anthropocentric affectation to tie him to any particular time frame. But even viewed from our perspective, God is constantly sustaining the universe as it exists today. Would light waves propagate, gravity gravitate, and electrons continue to faithfully circle protons were it not for the sustaining power of God? To assert otherwise is to take a position that I, at least, have trouble distinguishing from crude deism. God did not create the universe and then, as it were, vanish.

Moreover, if God does not "create by intervening in nature," then what about miracles? Each and every miracle involves what one might consider a "violation" of nature’s laws. Every faithful Catholic believes in the Virgin Birth, the Prophesy of Simeon, and the wine miraculously created at the Wedding at Cana, not to mention the Resurrection, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Yet each and every one of these events violated countless natural laws, ripping a hole in the God-woven fabric of the universe, so to speak. The same may be said of more contemporary miracles, such as those attributed to the saints.

For these reasons and more, then, I believe that God is constantly, indefatigably, creating. I accept the creation account of Genesis as reflecting the reality that God brought higher levels of life into existence over time, culminating in the creation of man himself.

Yet Dr. Tkacz and I presumably agree in this: That all is contemporaneous to the mind of God. And that the laws of nature are both discoverable and applicable in all circumstances—except when God decides that they aren’t.

— Steven W. Mosher
President, Population Research Institute
Via E-mail

Michael T. Tkacz replies: I appreciate your concerns about my account of St. Thomas on Creation, which are shared by many others. You will not be surprised to learn that all of your questions have been raised before. (See replies to E. Rodens and John Kirby in Letters, April 2009.)

Let me add here that my account is fully consistent with Church teaching and is not new. Note that the sort of "divine intervention" that St. Thomas claims is incompatible with transcendence is the sort that is opposed to the natural order. This is part of his notion that grace does not violate nature, but perfects nature.

The sort of issues you and others have raised have been discussed for centuries. One of the reasons why St. Thomas took on the task of analyzing in such detail the concept of creation ex nihilo is precisely because of the many misunderstandings that have found their way into the tradition. Your suggestion that my account is anthropocentric is curious because the error concerning divine agency that St. Thomas identifies—which I call the "cosmogonical fallacy"—results from insisting that God’s causality is just a more powerful version of human causality. The history of this problem is ably discussed by my colleagues Professors Baldner and Carroll in their book Aquinas on Creation (Toronto, 1997).


Ask and It Shall Be Given?

Michael Tkacz’s reply concerning prayer is incomplete (Letters, April 2009). He states that "the purpose of prayer is to dispose us to receive the good God intends for us." He denies that God arranges events in response to our prayers, despite Jesus’ statement, "Ask, and it shall be given unto you" (Mt 7:7). Because God knows the past, present and future, he knows about our prayers and has arranged throughout all eternity that events will occur in accordance with our prayers (if he so wills; see www.newadvent.org/cathen/12345b.htm). Our prayers do affect the course of history. Tkacz’s purpose for prayer offers only a partial explanation, one that was popularized as the only purpose in the 1960s revisionism.

— Frederick A. Costello
Oak Hill, Virginia

Michael T. Tkacz replies: My remarks concerning prayer certainly are incomplete, as Mr. Costello points out and as I admitted in my earlier responses. I did not intend to provide a full theology of prayer, as valuable as that would be. At the same time, I do not deny the efficacy of prayer nor that prayer affects human history. What is at issue in this discussion is not the efficacy of prayer, but the understanding of what prayer is, especially insofar as it represents a relationship of human beings with their divine Creator. My point is simply that our understanding of prayer cannot violate the doctrine of God’s absolute transcendence. The article from
The Catholic Encyclopedia referenced by Mr. Costello confirms my point. It points out, for example, that prayer is not intended to instruct or direct God what to do, but to appeal to his divine goodness. This appeal cannot be a matter of making God give us what we ask in any way, for God is not within our power. Christ does indeed instruct us to "ask and it shall be given unto you" and Mr. Costello rightly points out that a Christian of the true faith must accept this. The issue, however, is just what is Christ instructing us to do? He is not suggesting that we attempt to pester, bribe, or manipulate God into giving us what we want. He is telling us to properly dispose ourselves to the reality of our dependence on God for every good. This is not "1960s revisionism" but the age-old teaching of the Church. As St. John of Damascus rightly says, prayer is communing with God so as to be more perfectly united to him. This union is not something that we can do on our own—we cannot force ourselves on God—it is a grace, a divine providence by which God draws us to himself.


Why Belief Makes Sense

Thank you for confronting the so-called new atheism in the March 2009 issue of This Rock. To my reading, however, there is not much "new" about the new atheism: Its chief public proponents seem far more motivated by their antipathy toward religion and believers than they are persuaded to their "new" atheism as a result of solid philosophical reasoning.

The truth is that modern cosmology—the science of the origin and history of the physical universe—has concluded that the laws of physics lead to the inescapable conclusion that the origin of being itself is wrapped in a mystery that is utterly impenetrable to any physics we can ever know. When our scientific reasoning requires us to confront this point, we realize that reason per se can take us no further. One must make a leap.

Atheists make a leap of denial and disbelief. Life then becomes hollow and ultimately absurd. In contrast, believers contemplate the awesome harmony of all that is—taking into account both what we know via our experience with the external world and what we know by contemplation and discernment of our inner selves. Believers then make the leap of faith: faith in the ultimate, compelling, and transcendental beauty of divine intention and purpose.

As G. K. Chesterton said, "I do not believe what I believe because some things point to it, I believe what I believe because all things point to it." The world only makes sense from the perspective of belief.

— John Hellerstedt
Austin, Texas


Ashes for Toddlers?

I’d like to know what source Michelle Arnold used for her answer that approved giving a two-year-old ashes (Quick Questions, February 2009). It is obviously her own opinion. Her understanding of the sacramental of ashes seems to be flawed. Ashes are in fact an ancient sign of repentance reaching back to the Old Testament, and in the Church they were the public sign of those enrolled in the Order of Penitents, publicly declaring their sinfulness and asking for the prayers of the faithful as they sought to be reinstated in the worshipping community. Our Ash Wednesday custom of wearing ashes is the last remnant of this practice. Unfortunately, in recent years, the meaning of the wearing of ashes has become confused. Many people come to receive ashes and have no clue as to what they mean, and the Church has been trying very hard to rescue the true meaning of the celebration. One of the specific guidelines has been that, since ashes are a sign of repentance, imposing them on children not old enough to sin renders the sign vacant of meaning. Ms. Arnold mentions that the traditional words of imposition are "remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." How can we tell a two-year-old to "remember" this? What is the reason for remembering that we are dust? It is so that we will keep our eyes fixed on heaven and work towards our eternal salvation rather than earthly pleasure. The other approved form is "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." How can we tell a two-year-old to "turn away from sin"? Our Vicar General sends us a reminder every year that children not of catechetical age should not receive ashes but should in fact receive a blessing instead. Thus the practice that the individual who wrote in about is indeed something new, and it would have been wiser for Ms. Arnold to explain to the writer that this practice is part of our effort to recapture the true meaning of ashes.

— Rev. Andrew P. Carrozza
Yonkers, New York

Michelle Arnold replies: I thank Fr. Carrozza for his comments and agree with his general point that a greater understanding by the faithful of the rituals in which Catholics engage is important. I disagree with his conclusion that blessed ashes should be denied to children under the age of reason and to others (e.g., the cognitively disabled) unable to understand the meaning of the sacramental.

Blessed ashes are a sacramental of the Church. The Code of Canon Law provides that, "While blessings are to be imparted primarily to Catholics, they may be given also to catechumens and, unless there is a prohibition by the Church, even to non-Catholics" (canon 1170). The Book of Blessings states, "The season of Lent begins with the ancient practice of marking the baptized with ashes as a public and communal sign of penance" (1656, emphasis added). There is no further qualification that "the baptized" must be of catechumenal age. As I mentioned in my original answer, the Old Testament reading for the day (Jl 2:16) includes "children, even nursing infants" in the communal penance.

Fr. Carrozza states that, "One of the specific guidelines has been that . . . imposing them on children not old enough to sin renders the sign vacant of meaning" but does not cite his source, other than mentioning that his Vicar General "sends us a reminder every year" not to give blessed ashes to children "not of catechetical age." In light of the citations I have given above, I respectfully request that he provide documentation from authoritative liturgical rubrics substantiating the practice in his diocese.


This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 6.