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Father David Bellusci, OP

What philosophers teach us

Voices July 9, 2018

A depiction of Boethius teaching his students. “The testimony Boethius leaves us is his martyrdom for the truth and sacrificing his life out of love,” writes Father Bellusci.  (Wikimedia Commons)

While I was teaching a philosophy class on Boethius (477-524 AD) and his Consolation of Philosophy, a student asked me if this was the same Boethius who was a saint. His execution was political and his most famous work, the Consolation, raised theological problems, so, I was not sure about his canonization.

I examine texts with students taking into account potential pantheistic or atheistic elements in writing – neither pantheism nor atheism is uncommon among philosophers. Since philosophy has enormous implications on how theology is understood, students need to acquire the tools to identify errors. Since the 1980s Marxism has been repackaged in postmodern philosophy and theologians trained in postmodernism are carriers of a materialist and/or relativist theology – theologies lacking metaphysical realism.

The same student enquiring about Boethius emailed me an attachment from Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and the Boethius my student enquired was listed among the saints (Oct. 23).

Certainly, Boethius died a horrible death, most probably tortured by being clubbed to death; he died a faithful Catholic. He was executed by the Germanic King, Theodoric the Great, an Aryan, who had established his Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy in the late fifth century (493 AD).

One could claim that Boethius died a Catholic martyr because the King was an Aryan but Catholic adherence was not the motive for Boethius’ execution. The Italian ex-consul, Albinus, had been falsely accused of treason and Boethius spoke out in Albinus’ defence risking his own life. Boethius resembles Socrates the Greek philosopher who willingly accepted death for truth and justice. Boethius also responded to Christ’s teaching of self-giving love, namely, sacrifice.

It raises the obvious question of what makes a saint? One cannot teach heresy and be a saint. Either the “heretic” needs to admit his/her error once having been corrected by religious authorities of the error; or the “heretic,” having discovered their errors can correct their own mistakes.

Can the Church be wrong in its pronouncements of a heretic or heresy? Two Renaissance Dominicans were burned for heresy, one for theological reasons, Giordano Bruno (1600). His statue stands in Rome at Campo dei Fiori in full Dominican habit. The other was of a political nature. Girolamo Savonarola (1498) was burned in Florence.

The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, also a Dominican, died in 1328 before he could hear the results of his trial in Avignon on charges of pantheism. Saint Thomas Aquinas did not escape the condemnations of errors when the Bishop of Paris in 1270 and again 1277 condemned certain Aristotelian assertions. Saint Thomas was teaching in Paris between 1268-72 defending Aristotle’s writings when properly understood as compatible with Christian thought.

With the canonization of Aquinas (1323) Pope John XXII acknowledged the sanctity of the Angelic doctor and the authority of the Dominican’s teachings. Aristotle, a highly divisive figure polarizing religious communities (the Dominican themselves) and seculars, was no longer regarded as “prohibited.”

Does philosophical and theological scholarship run a risk – when new ideas, original thoughts, creative theses are defended – of clashing with Catholic orthodoxy? How does the universality of Roman Catholicism extending across global networks of evangelization penetrating cultures for over 2,000 years preserve orthodoxy?

Church authorities in the late-medieval period recognized that monks (Benedictines, Cistercians), canons (Augustinians), and mendicants (Dominicans, Franciscans) devoted their lives to study with new ideas germination and blossoming.

While the late-medieval Church manifested remarkable laxity as far as ideas was concerned, tremendous confusion was also experienced: fluidity and diversity in teachings did not resolve the conflicts but exacerbated them.

It would appear the relaxed openness of the Church permitting monasteries, studia, and universities to advance in academic scholarship opened the way to angry reformers such as Luther.

So, is Luther a saint? The point is that intellectual weight does not suffice for sanctity. Saints were pious, devout individuals and often ridiculed by others – St. Rita of Cascia, St. Martin de Porres, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Bernadette, the children of Fatima, St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Faustina Kowalska, San Padre Pio, St. Therese of Lisieux, and Servant of God Marcel Van, just to name a few.

The execution of Boethius was political but so was that of Saint Joan of Arc. Though burned as a heretic, the unjust trial of Saint Joan was politically motivated and violated all ecclesial norms, and this remarkable young woman defended Catholic orthodoxy. Saint Joan did not obfuscate or dilute her religious language.

The mystery Boethius leaves us is why a person unjustly charged would write a philosophical work approaching execution without salvific reference to Christ. Yet, the testimony Boethius leaves us is his martyrdom for the truth and sacrificing his life out of love. But only Christ can sanctify us, only grace gives us what we need to become holy, and sainthood without grace is not possible.

Father David Bellusci is a Dominican priest and assistant professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College in Langley.

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