Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Book Review: By Knowledge & By Love

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By Knowledge & By Love

Throughout Christian history certain theological dichotomies tend to dominate the backdrop, such as the contrast between: nature vs. grace, faith vs. works, or freedom vs. Divine sovereignty. Though their influence is often imperceptible, the force of these clashes move like theological seismic plates along the landscape of the Christian globe, where the collision between these meta-themes, even if unfelt to some, invariably form the landscape’s very features. From time to time, a veritable subduction-zone occurs, one extreme dominates its opposite, one pole of a theological clash eclipses the other, and the both/and balance of classic Catholic thought is compromised. It is Fr. Michael Sherwin’s conviction that something very similar has happened in the 20th century field of Catholic morals. 


The book is titled By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the struggle the book addresses is the classic conflict between the role of intellect and will in human action. Sherwin begins by recognizing that, where traditional moral theology has always assumed a balance between these powers of the soul in the execution of the moral act, mid-twentieth century theology did not. According to Sherwin, certain thinkers, in a well-intentioned attempt to answer the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewal of moral theology, returned to the sources of the science – to those that preceded the casuist manuals, to the fathers, and to St. Thomas himself – and began to reconstruct a theory of moral value they believed more fitting for contemporary moral analysis. As well-intentioned as this goal might have been, Sherwin insists that this reconstruction, far from being a more faithful representation of St. Thomas’s true thought, was actually a radical departure from it. Far from illuminating the true sources of moral freedom, it rather obscured them. This obscuring of morals is a danger that Sherwin’s book confronts.


To summarize the problem, certain theologians of the 20th century downgraded the role of knowledge and the act of the intellect in the moral act, and saw rather the act of the will, simplex voluntas, as providing human action with the totality of its moral value. According to these theologians, what one knows is of lesser value, or no value, compared with what one wills. Simply put, as long as one intends to do good, that is, as long as one wills some ultimate good through his actions, by that fact the action must be judged good regardless of the knowledge or intellectual content therein. This notion can be seen at work in the contemporary opinion that, as long as one intends good, or is sincere, or means well, then, by virtue of this sincerity, no further moral growth is needed. By virtue of these good intentions, any further moral formation on the intellectual front would be superfluous. Immortalized in popular song lyrics of the time, these theologians insist that, in morals “all you need is love.”


As the “and” in title might already suggest, By Knowledge and By Love is a shattering critique of this one-sided shift in moral theology. Providing a masterful analysis of the role of knowing and willing (knowledge and love) in human action, Sherwin brilliantly illustrates the various errors of these modern theologians. Where some suggest that charity’s act exists only on a transcendental level -- within some “fundamental option” toward God made before any categorical determination of action -- Sherwin shows rather that the execution of the virtue of charity exists at every level of the human act; not only in a precognitive velle free from intellectual determination, but more thoroughly in intention, judgment, choice, command, and use. Sherwin also appeals to St. Thomas’s famed distinction between specification and exercise, in illustrating how, where modern theologians might insist that moral value is derived from a naked act of the will free from the specifying role of intellect, intellect and will are rather interconnected at every level of human action. There is no act of the will (save the will’s first act, which is by nature), Sherwin explains, that is not influenced by the directing and specifying priority of the intellect. In like manner, there is no act of the intellect that is not commanded by the exercising priority of the will. Both knowledge and love inform the moral act. Both knowledge and love invest human action with the freedom and dynamism of self-direction that render it morally good.


The anthropological import of the book must also be noted. Sherwin’s presentation of the intellect and will working together in the moral act reminds modern students of St. Thomas that the human soul, although containing multiple powers, is still a unity where the full engagement of the whole human person is required for the execution of a moral act. The faculty psychology of Aristotle and the scholastics, as essential a model as it is for anthropological analysis, often tempts the theologian to think of the powers of the soul in isolation, where each is hermetically sealed from the influence of the others. Sherwin’s work is free from this trap. Where students are so often in danger of seeing the acts of intellect and will as independent, Sherwin’s book presents them again as a wedded pair. Where textbook analysis of the moral act tends to picture intellect and will as two parallel lines between which human action oscillates like a bouncing ball, Sherwin instead pictures these two lines as intertwined, in a sense, wrapping around each other like a double helix between which the very genetic code of moral action is carried and hinged to both at every stage. 


This reclaiming of a balanced understanding of knowledge and love is preceded by a stunning historical analysis of St. Thomas’ very notion of love itself. Before presenting the relation between knowledge and love in human action, Sherwin first reveals a development from St. Thomas’ earlier description of love in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard to his later descriptions of love in the Summa Theologiae and Quaestiones Disputatio de Malo. In his earlier writings, St. Thomas described love with the language of form; he understood love to be, like intellection, a type of adequatio, a type of reception within the lover of the form of the thing loved. As helpful as this understanding was for St. Thomas’ earlier analysis and as faithful to tradition as it might have been, Sherwin shows how it failed to sufficiently distinguish the act of love from the act of knowledge and, consequently, failed to provide the correct moving parts by which the actions of both could reciprocally coordinate. However, in his later writings, St. Thomas abandons the language of form and speaks of love solely as an appetitive movement, a tending outward towards that which is presented as good and perfective. Sherwin explains how this streamlined understanding of love solely as an appetitive movement proved to be the final tool needed for St. Thomas to synchronize both knowledge and love as two mutually intertwined movements. From this point of view, nothing can be loved as good and perfective, until it is first known, and nothing can be known as perfective, until the will exercises its command toward the aspect of goodness.


These aspects of the book place By Knowledge and By Love as undoubtedly one of the great works of moral theology in modern times. It is a great gift to the Church -- a clearing of the obscurities that cloud the air of modern moral discourse. It is an even greater gift to students of Catholic morals, particularly those of the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, providing a systematic, precise, and balanced answer to complex and nuanced problems. As all students of St. Thomas know, a small error in the beginning leads to a great error in the end. From time to time, the Catholic world wakes up to a consciousness that one of these great errors is upon her. At these moments in history, it is the role and duty of her disciplined theologians, who are also her loyal children, to exercise their skills of faithfully examining where, when, why, and how such small errors might have occurred in the beginning. Fr. Michael Sherwin’s By Knowledge and By Love is a shining example of one of these faithful sons of the Church exercising this duty with the highest degree of skill and erudition. It will be a crowning addition to any theological library.

Lenten Reflections from Br. Andy

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Br. Andy Opsahl, OP

As some of you may know, part of our formation as Dominicans involves spending a year at one of our ministry houses around the Province, gaining new experiences in Dominican life and service. This year we have four brothers on residency. One of them, Br. Andy Opsahl, O.P., is right across the bay at St. Dominic's Church in San Francisco. Lately he's been providing some reflections on the meaning and purpose of Lent on St. Dominic's blog, offering insightful analogies and ways of approaching this penitential season. Check out his latest posts:

You can read all of his posts here. For those in the Bay Area, he also will be giving a talk for the "Friends in Christ" group on Thursday, March 19th at 7pm in the parish hall at St. Dominic Church, on "Five Steps to Becoming a Happier Christian." You can read more about the event by clicking here.

Please keep all of our residency brothers in your prayers, that they may continue to grow as faithful servants of our Lord and preachers of the Gospel, bringing many souls closer to Christ!

Br. Kevin Andrew, O.P.'s picture

Run so as to win!

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While all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, the award goes to one man.
In that case, run so as to win! Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things.
They do this to win a crown of leaves that withers, but we a crown that is imperishable. (1 Cor 9:24-25)

"Run so as to win..."I ran cross country and track throughout college. All four years of college we had 6am practices. We had to learn to be disciplined: watching what we ate, how late we stayed up, how much we went out. If not, we could easily get hurt, or – even worse – slow! In the end, after 10 years of races in total, I had collected a small box worth of trophies, ribbons, and plaques. Although I never won a laurel wreath, this trophy box is now sitting in some closet at my parents’ house, collecting dust.

In addition to my own running, I zealously followed the international track, cross country, and road racing circuits. At that time the Kenyans dominated the distance running world, and so I followed the Kenyans. I was amazed at how effortless they often made running look. It was art, it was beauty, it was poetry in motion. They have some natural advantages -- they tend to be very slender, and they live at altitude -- but I’d say that their true advantage lies between the ears. The “secret” of their success is their relentless single-mindedness. Here in the Unites States, runners have to make time to train before and/or after school or work. The Kenyans go to extended, isolated training camps; no family, no job, no friends to distract them. They eat a very basic diet. They train in large groups, and these groups are made up of the best runners in the world, with each runner trying to prove that he is the fastest one there. A race can break out at any time. These camps have a very high drop-out rate, as there is no room for mediocrity. Bernard Barmasai, the former world record holder in the steeplechase, would train four times per day: an easy run in the morning, then intervals before lunch, then a tempo run in the afternoon, before closing out the day with a long run in the early evening – that’s a week’s worth of workouts for most people!

They do this because their focus is not on a withering crown of leaves, but something more important. The average income in Kenya was just over $1000 per year back in the mid-90s. Elite runners can earn over 100 times that for a single race, but even second-tier runners could earn 10 times that much in a summer of European racing. They ran to make money in order to support their families, and to support their futures. They would use their winnings to buy farmland back in Kenya, or to build a house. The Boston Marathon winner a few years ago announced he was looking forward to buying some cows. Younger Kenyans have also increasingly come to the United States to compete collegiately, as their running skills have netted them scholarships. They then return home afterwards with degrees in their pockets, often in business, political science, or agriculture. When I ran, it was a hobby and so the “crown” I pursued has faded. The Kenyans tend to run to improve their lives, and their crowns last a bit longer, but are still oriented towards this life, and so, they too, will eventually fade.

The questions we Christians must ask: What is the crown we desire? What are we aiming at? Now that Lent has begun, what is the purpose of our penitential practices? What do we desire from them? Do we mortify ourselves out of pride, or humility? Or to say – to ourselves or to others – simply that we’ve done them? Or do we do them for higher purposes? Does our fasting remind us of our hunger for God? Do we give alms from our surplus, or do we give “until it hurts," until it affects our lifestyle? Do we spend a lot of time online or in front of the TV, or do we spend it in prayer and in conversation with Jesus? In the end, we each get the crown we deserve: either withering or lasting, rusty or glorious, material or spiritual, faded or eternal.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Theology in Paint

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In the medieval convent of San Marco in Florence lived one of the Dominican Order's greatest evangelists. He was not a master of the spoken word, an expounder of sacred scripture, nor an expert rhetorician; rather he was a simple artist. This friar was none other than Blessed Fra Angelico, who was able to craft images that both illustrated profound theological themes while also raising the mind to the sublime contemplation of God. Below is the second video in the DSPT Lenten reflection series in which Fr. Michael Morris, O.P., reflects upon one of Fra Angelico's most famous images of St. Dominic at the foot of the cross. Check it out and have a blessed Lent.

Br. Kevin Andrew, O.P.'s picture

Abandoning our nets

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As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.
(Mark 1:16-20, from the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Brs. Kevin and Dennis in San Diego

Recently, my classmate Br. Dennis and I flew down to the UC San Diego Newman Center at the invitation of our brother, Fr. John Paul Forte. Our novices visit them every year on the “southern tour” (as they are doing now) and offer reflections on their discernment journeys at the Masses. Fr. John Paul felt it would be beneficial for the Newman Center community to hear from some of us who have already been in the Order for a few years to describe our lives now (Br. Dennis & I entered the Order in the summer of 2010, and are now students at St. Albert's). What is our life like, now that we have abandoned our nets? What has changed over the years? What supports do we have?

For myself -- and I feel for many of my brother Dominicans --  that first moment of abandoning our nets to follow Jesus turns out -- in hindsight -- to have been rather easy. We really don’t know what we’re in for when we receive the habit. The image, the idea, the fantasy of religious life is one thing, the reality is often much more complicated. We give up much of our autonomy, we are thrust into a community of men that we don't personally choose, and we have to adapt suddenly to an entirely new daily schedule. After the first year, we begin studies in earnest and take on more ministry duties, as well as chores around the house. The ongoing challenge is to persevere in following Him our Lord after the initial excitement wears off, after we lose the emotional high we feel when we first receive the habit. We must base our vocation on prayer and God’s active grace in our lives. Our energies fade, our willpower at time fades, but God’s grace will continue to support us all unfailingly. When we forget that, we no longer live up to our call as friars preachers and simply become a community of men.

All four of the men that Jesus called that day at the shoreline went back to fishing after Jesus’ death. Unsure of what to do, all of them pick up their abandoned nets once again and headed back out to sea. Only by God’s grace did they recognize the risen Christ, and abandon their nets to once again become fishers of men. We must always remember to do the same.


Saints Peter, Andrew, James & John, pray for us!

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

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Fr. Michael Morris, professor of Religion and the Arts at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, has narrated lenten reflections through the medium of sacred art. This is the first reflection in the series called, "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent." Check it out and have a blessed lent.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Hope and the Fifty Shades of Misery

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In its misery and pessimism, the world offers us, on Valentine's Day, "Fifty Shades of Grey"−more misery and pessimism. Br. Chris Brannan, preaching on Colossians 1:2-6, says that the Church, on the other hand, has divine medicine to offer: the gift of hope in Christ. 

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Hearing the Lord in Silence

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One of the great blessings of St. Albert's Priory is the silence -- periods of great quiet where one is able to reflect, recollect, and be with God. This time of “still” is a great spiritual luxury, a time of prayer and solitude. In the hustle and bustle of a modern and urban setting, we are bombarded with sounds: traffic, car horns, sirens, cell phones, alarm clocks, and all the machines that make our world possible. Modern life is just plain noisy. Sonically speaking, the world is a very different place than it was for the early Dominicans, even for those religious men and women a century ago. Truly if there is one respect in which modernity has altered life, it is by stealing away the silence.


Last week, during one of these periods of quiet, the Lord brought me to a deeper understanding of the beauty of silence, and its importance in the life of prayer. If I am to unite myself with the mission and work of the great saints of old, it must begin right here, stocking the fire of the interior life in the silence of prayer.


I recall a prayer that a retreat master once offered to open a day of silence and, though I cannot remember every word, the finale certainly left an impression: “...that our hearts and minds might be open to the Lord,who speaks in silence.”


Why is silence so important for hearing the voice of God? Now that I am more adapted to the rhythm of Dominican life, the answer has begun to dawn on me. Silence is a powerful icon of God, perhaps the greatest icon we have. It is utterly simple, like one long “now” without division of parts, yet large enough to contain all measure of diversity and plurality.


I am reminded of the Prophet Elijah who, upon being told to stand on the mountain before the Lord, was engulfed by violent winds, fires and earthquakes. None of these, as powerful and as distracting as they must have been, brought the voice of God. However, in the silence that followed, when he heard a “still small voice” speaking in the calm of his heart, he covered his face with his mantle, for then he knew he was in the presence of the Almighty. It was in the school of silence that Elijah learned to recognize the voice of the Lord.


When we allow ourselves to enter into silence, when we make room for it, we then realize that it was there all along, not imposing itself like a tyrant, but waiting for us like a patient friend. It never left us; we left it; or rather forgot to notice it. Where had we gone? 


We cannot create silence or manufacture it; we can only get out of its way and simply let it be. Unlike human artifacts, it can never be rendered “secular” or “timely.” It can never be out-of-date or old-fashioned. Only human creations get old. But this is exactly what we should expect. Our creations were made by us and for us, to suit us and entertain us. Just as every cause is contained in its effect, so do our own artifacts resemble their makers each in its own way, like various reflections in a mirror. When they no longer arrest our attention, we simply get bored with them and create new ones: a new pop song, a new movie star, a new fashion trend, a new gadget to play with.


But silence will forever lie just beyond the reach of human touch. It reminds us that there is something in our souls that will never be satisfied by a mere reflection of our finite selves. In fact, if we manage to sit in silence for long enough, that seemingly bottomless ache will begin to rumble in that even more bottomless resonance-chamber of the human soul, and thus remind us that we will only be satisfied by the infinite God. Pascal wrote, “I have discovered that the unhappiness of men comes from just one thing, not knowing how to remain quietly in a room.”


This is why I have found silence so powerful in the spiritual life; it is the sound of the sacred. Truly the rising of the heart and mind to God -- the essence of prayer -- is what the human soul does naturally if not troubled. If not distracted or held back by other concerns, the soul in the state of grace will fall to God like gravity to its true center. Perhaps this is the reason why so many of the great saints, even those not cloistered in religious life, hungered for hours and hours of silence spent with God. It is here that the soul can truly be itself.


It is in prayer that I am united with the Dominicans of the past and all the saints who have died in friendship with Jesus; united in our Lord who is the end towards which we all tend. I am united with them in the great liturgical prayers of the Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the chanting of the Divine office. As a member of the Order of Preachers I long to unite with them in the cause of saving souls through the preaching of the Word, and the living of the three vows. 


I know that I am still a sinner; religious life has made that uncomfortably clear. There is still much of that random noise echoing in my own soul from the original fault of man. The senior friars have jokingly warned that, once the white habit is worn, all the stains show, literally and figuratively! But I am growing. Slowly but surely, little by little, I am growing, and walking the same path that hundreds of Dominicans have walked before me.


I pray, if it is the Lord’s will, that one day I may also cross the same passover and sleep the same sleep, resting in that same silence that can only come from the life of sanctifying grace. This is where all the prayers, psalms and hymns will cease and reach their goal. They will all be realized in that perfect silence of heaven. Then and there will that perfect stillness be, and that one perfect and infinite WORD uttered from all eternity will be the only sound we hear.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

The Nature of Freedom

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Recently the brothers and I were engaged in a conversation about the nature of human liberty. We were reflecting on the stark difference between freedom as the modern world would present it, and the true freedom to which our Catholic faith teaches that all men are called.

When most people consider the concept of human freedom or liberty, they generally consider, not the presence of a positive reality within the soul rendering it capable of free action, but rather the absence of realities outside the soul that serve as limits or boundaries to choice. Freedom is said to exist when all the various impediments to external movement or choice are removed; this is the notion of “freedom as license” that is so very common today. Given this understanding, a ball rolling down a hill -- where the mere pull of gravity rules its motion -- would be dubbed “free” if it simply has no obstacles in its path. Yet in this scenario, the ball’s fall is not something that it is “doing,” as much as it is something “being done to it.” The ball is not self-directed, not moved from within. The ball is not dominus sui (Lord of itself), but rather is lorded over by external forces outside of its control. This is not freedom.

True human freedom consists not in the absence of external impediments to action, but rather in the internal principle by which self-directed action towards an intended good is taken. This inner strength or virtus, by which one intentionally chooses the good and thus moves himself to a greater fulfillment of his human nature, is where human freedom lies.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

The Bible in Jerusalem

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Basilica of St. StephenCan you imagine a better place to study Scripture than in the Holy City of Jerusalem? Earlier this January I had the chance to spend a few days there, at St. Stephen Priory (located on the site where tradition says St. Stephen was martyred), attending "The Bible in Jerusalem," a conference for new and upcoming Dominican Scripture scholars. St. Stephen's is the Dominican priory associated with the École Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem, a Dominican school of scripture and archaeology founded by Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P. in 1890. This gathering was the first of what we plan to make an annual event, the purpose being to promote and foster collaboration and fraternity among young Dominicans pursuing Scripture scholarship, all for the sake of the Order's mission of preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls.

Between January 3rd-5th, more than 15 friars participated from around the world (e.g., France, Poland, Ireland, England, Ukraine, Croatia, Mexico, the United States, and the Phillipines), most of whom have begun or recently completed doctoral work related to Scripture; I hope to begin doing so in a few years. We handled this first meeting with a two-pronged approach: (1) to provide individual friars with an opportunity to present their current research topics and interests; and (2) to have some focused exegetical discussions about the relation between intra-biblical and patristic exegesis. This second part focused on Luke 4:19-30.

Our sense of fraternity and devotion to studying, exploring, and proclaiming the written Word of God was very tangible. I presented a synopsis of my MA Philosophy thesis on "Truth and Hermeneutics," and all the presentations led to some very lively discussions. We spoke of how to collaborate with each other and with the École in our work of Scripture study, and how our way of life as Dominicans makes us uniquely suited to study, mediate upon, and preach from the Scriptures. The tradition of the Order of Preachers, and the work of the Ecole and its founder, offers us the opportunity to pursue a Thomistic approach to biblical exegesis, one that is both scientifically and academically rigorous, yet inspired by faith and thus theological.

I also found our exegetical discussions about Luke 4 to be very engaging and stimulating. We all agreed that such collective work and dialogue is something we would like to continue; and we proposed a theme of "The Word," and the text of Sirach 24, for our next meeting in January of 2016.

Fr. Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P., the director of "The Bible in its Traditions" project, presented some of the purpose and structure of this ambitious, and decades-long project of the École to produce a wide-ranging exegetical tool and commentary on all of Scripture, to be made available online (examples can be found here). You can also read more about it on its blog here. He hoped we would be able to collaborate in this project, and we thought that we should use the "BEST" website (the French acronym for the project) as part of our annual meetings and preparation.

In spite of spending about 60 hours of travel time in 5 days, the visit was very worthwhile, and left me, and I believe the other friars who participated, hopeful for the future of biblical scholarship in the Order. This being my second trip to Jerusalem, it was no less poignant to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again and to pray there, as well as at the Cenacle (the site of our Lord's Last Supper). Being physically present at "Mt. Zion, true pole of the earth," (Ps. 48:3) and in the very places in which our Redeemer lived and won for us a share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), gives a whole new dimension and meaning to praying the Psalms everyday and reading the Scriptures! I look forward to further visits and time spent in Jerusalem and at the École Biblique.

Many thanks to the friars of the École Biblique and St. Etienne, especially Fr. Marcel Sigrist, O.P., the director of the school, and Fr. Guy Tardivy, O.P., the prior of St. Stephen's, for welcoming us and encouraging us in our collaboration for the renewal of Scripture studies in the Order. And to our own New Testament scholar, Fr. Gregory Tatum, O.P., who lives, studies, and teaches at the Ecole Biblique; he was kind enough to take me to the aiport early in the morning on my last day. Thank you, Fr. Gregory! May God bless the work of the École Biblique and all those pursuing Scripture studies, that by their work, the Word of God Himself might more fully illumine not only our Order, but the world with His Wisdom, His Truth, and His Grace!