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Why Not Univocal Indeed!

Italian Theologian Responds to Remnant's David Werling

Father Giovanni Cavalcoli, OP POSTED: 5/30/11

Editor's Note: The following is in response to David Werling's May 23, 2011 Remnant column, Why Not Univocal?  We're grateful to Father Cavalcoli for his interest in continuing this important debate. Mr. Werling has received a copy of it and will respond at his leisure. MJM

Dear Mr. Werling,

In my previous writing I absolutely did not intend to undervalue the importance of univocal propositions and concepts in the field of Catholic doctrine. I share fully, and it is more than justified, your demand that the Magisterium of the Church tell us with clarity, precision and univocity what we must believe and what are errors against the faith.

I maintain, moreover, my conviction that in the doctrines of the Second Vatican Council there are points which are equivocal or susceptible of liberal or modernist interpretations. And indeed there are those who pretend to validate their errors with the teachings of the Council.

Further, I consider it undoubtedly wise, in awaiting clarification of the new doctrines of the Council, to adhere to that sacred Tradition which conserves the truth and the moral instructions of our holy religion. Nevertheless, it is also wise to investigate with diligence what in the new doctrines turns out to be in continuity with the revealed data already known.

I am in perfect agreement with holding that true dogmatic progress, as Newman and every reasonable person says, consists in rendering clear what was obscure before. We should remember, however, that truth transcends our reason and has a mysterious aspect linked to the fact that our reason, in its finiteness, cannot comprehend its infinitude.  And here comes into play the analogy which the Council calls “the analogy of the faith,” which was also recalled by the Pope in his recent document Verbum Domini.

Citing Newman to support the fact that Catholic doctrine is developed according to the principle of analogy, I made the comparison with the way in which a plant or any living being grows: we have here that continuity in progress of which the Pope speaks. But this conjunction of continuity (permanence) and progress (change) is understood only if we consider the fact that a living being develops and evolves according to the principle of analogy; indeed, the merit of thinking by analogy is that it unites the identical (one) and the different (many).

If, instead, we stop at only a univocal type of thought, that conjunction seems to us absurd and contradictory. In fact, for univocity development does not make the new rise from the old, but adds the new to the old without it becoming new. The growth of a living being—and thought is a vital phenonemon—is not like the construction of a building with some bricks, by which one floor is added to another, but is as if a building, already complete in itself from the beginning, were augmented in volume with the passage of time.

Certainly the development of thought and the augmentation of knowledge does not come only in this way. There is no doubt that the method of univocity also comes into play. Indeed, beyond the progress toward a greater univocity, is also given a progress that consists in a logical deduction, and this certainly comes from the addition of a univocal proposition to a preceding one that contains it implicitly or virtually. And this is the task of theological research, whose results, if  well founded, can come to be approved and confirmed by the Magistserium of the Church. For example, the doctrine of the soul as “the substantial form of the body” was a thesis elaborated by Saint Thomas that subsqeuently was canonized by the Council of Vienne in 1312.

It is necesary moreover to pay attention and not confuse the analagous with the equivocal. In one or the other there is undoubtedly a certain obscurity, but while in the case of analogy obscurity is normal, in the case of equivocality it must be removed. I will give an example: the Council proposes an analogical concept of the Church, introducing the distinction between “full communion” (Catholics) and “partial communion” (non-Catholics). This is to say that between the Catholic concept of the Church and the non-Catholic concept there is an analogy that is a likeness. This does not exclude the traditional doctrine, based on univocity, according to which in the Catholic Church is all revealed truth, while in the other Christian churches are contained some errors.

I said that the Aristotelian method, which employs analogy, is better in the field of theology than the Cartesian method, because Descartes, in the name of univocity (“clear and distrinct ideas”), does not suffer the obscure concept. He arrives at the point of saying that that which is not clear is false. Yet, if we want to accept the truths of the Faith, we need to accept their obscurity because they surpass the comprehension of our reason. It is necessary instead to reject the equivocal, because it implies contradiction and falsity, while analogy enriches the mind, even if it presents a degree of mystery that renders it elusive.

At the same time everyone knows that Aristotle loved univocity. However, he applied it more in physics and mathematics than in metaphysics, which for him was the foundation of theology, of the moral and human sciences. And it is evident as well that analogy must also have a minimum of univocity, because this is an essential need of our mind. Without this minimum of univocity, our mind would not be capable of understanding anything of reality.

While analogy suffers contraries, univocity does not tolerate them. Now, however, the Church of the Council invites us to join the preceding concept of the Church, of a univocal type, to the new one, proposed by the Council, of an analogous type, without believing that they are mutually exclusive, because this treats of two different points of view: the preconciliar gave more attention to the errors of non-Catholics;  instead, the Council emphasizes that which makes us similar to them.

I share your need for the Pope to clarify the obscure points of the Council. But, meanwhile, the work of the theologians, however fallible and hypothetical, prepares the sentence of the Church. In any field of knowledge, even in that of the faith, the theory is prepared by the hypothesis, which, if valid, is confirmed by the theory and thus passes from the uncertainty of opinion to the certainty of science. In the case of Catholic doctrine, the certainty is that of the faith.


P.Giovanni Cavalcoli,OP

Bologna, 28 maggio 2011


(Translated from Italian by C. Ferrara)

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