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Heidi Schlumpf’s Great Disservice to Aquinas’ Charism and Theology

July 5, 2024


Fr. Thomas Weinandy has recently penned a fine article on The Catholic Thing that begins by noting how saturated our culture and even our Church have become with the symbols of the LGBTQ “Pride” movement. It seems that no matter where one turns these days in the Church the topic of homosexuality is front and center and is the filter through which almost everything is read. 

No better example of this can be found than in a recent article written by Heidi Schlumpf in the online version of US Catholic magazine. Entitled “Would Thomas Aquinas be a Thomist?” the essay is beyond superficial and puerile and borders on a self-caricature of time machine Catholics who seem endlessly stuck, Groundhog Day style, in the thought forms of 1975. And, confirming Fr. Weinandy’s insight, the article is a thinly veiled criticism of the use of Aquinas to develop natural law moral theories that support the Church’s traditional moral teachings on human sexuality. Schlumpf is at pains to make us aware of the dangers lurking in this use of Aquinas by “conservative” Catholics who favor a “form” of Catholicism that sees importance in a magisterial form of Catholicism that emphasizes “history, authority, and tradition.” 

The last time I checked, what she refers to as a “form” of Catholicism is simply Catholicism straight-up and neat, which causes one to wonder what “form” of Catholicism it is that she favors? A Catholicism that radically deemphasizes magisterium, authority, history, and tradition? To be sure, there are modern day Catholics who reduce Catholicism to those things in a manner that distorts the inner Christological core of the faith. But that is not what this article is about, and she chooses instead to lump together all “conservative Catholics” under the banner of culture war rubes and simpletons seeking “black and white answers” to moral questions that are inherently ambiguous. Her examples include Bishop Robert Barron, Fr. Michael Schmitz, the journal First Things (which she labels “ultra-Right”), Scott Hahn, and universities like Benedictine College in Kansas.

But her rogues gallery list of simplistic ecclesiastical bestiaries is undermined by the simple fact, easily discerned by any impartial observer with a functioning brain, that none of her examples give evidence of being simplistic, naïve, or “uncomfortable with ambiguity.” Quite to the contrary, these are highly intellectual and sophisticated thinkers (and institutions) whose careers stand as an open rebuke to her simplistic attempts at caricature and reduction. 

It is the Church herself who puts forward these answers to moral issues grounded in a tradition Schlumpf clearly seeks to subvert in order to make room for her LGBTQ revisionism.

For example, I am assuming that she labels First Things as “ultra-Right” simply because they have recently emphasized a certain strain of post-liberal Catholic thought in their pages. And that is in itself quite telling since it bespeaks her own ongoing commitment to a form of political liberalism that is, by any sociological metric, extremely acidic to religion in general and acts as a universal solvent that nullifies the public purchase of any faith-based approach to the social ordo. 

But in her world, this basic sociological fact can be safely ignored since all post-liberal Catholic thought is simply fascism by a different name insofar as it dares to imply that the Church does indeed have some “black and white” answers to these issues of sex and gender. For example, am I intellectually abusing Aquinas if I say that men cannot get pregnant and that women do not have penises? Is it a simplistic desire for black and white answers to say that pre-natal homicide is always gravely immoral? Or that reproductive procedures that involve the tossing away of thousands of embryos as so much trash is a blasphemous denigration of the Imago Dei in all human life?

She also says that Bishop Barron “calls himself a Thomist,” as if to imply that he is not simply a Thomist as he says, but rather as just one more conservative Catholic who thinks they understand Aquinas but do not. The condescension here is palpable, and it drips from every sentence of this essay where conservatives are not simply wrong but suffer from a psychological fear of ambiguity which leads them to seek black and white answers. But it is the Church herself who puts forward these answers to moral issues grounded in a tradition Schlumpf clearly seeks to subvert in order to make room for her LGBTQ revisionism. And her attempt to employ Aquinas in her effort to subvert the tradition ends up, ironically, subverting Aquinas himself who always displayed a much deeper respect for the normativity of the tradition than she and her allies do. 

She even drags in the old canard that Aquinas himself did not believe that ensoulment occurs until “quickening.” But Aquinas based this on the flawed biology of his time, and had he been conversant in the modern sciences of genetics he would almost certainly have changed his views. And I say this with full confidence since Aquinas also taught that no matter when ensoulment occurs that abortion is always gravely immoral. In other words, Schlumpf seems to be implying that opposition to IVF would not have been supported by Aquinas and, therefore, conservatives misuse his natural law theories in that effort. But she is clearly wrong on this score since Aquinas opposed all forms of abortion as does the entirety of the tradition reaching back to the Fathers and to the Didache

The “ambiguity” to which the Schlumpfs of the world always appeal is a manufactured and artificial ambiguity of their own making.

But it is clear that what really vexes her along these lines is that these simpleton conservative Catholics have “misused” Aquinas to argue against the moral legitimation of transgenderism, IVF procedures, and all things gay in general. This emphasis is underscored by the fact that almost all of the theologians she turns to for support are themselves public supporters of the new LGBTQ religion of transgressive violation of natural law boundaries. Notably absent from her analysis of Aquinas is any scholar who really is a “Thomist” by trade, and it is shocking that not a single Dominican is cited or asked for an opinion. In short, her list of “experts” is a cherry-picked amalgam of secularized and liberal Catholics and Protestants who are not comfortable with the idea of moral clarity in the light of the objective goods of human nature established by God in creation.

To those without non-negotiable moral principles, every moral situation always seems hopelessly gray and ambiguous. Therefore, I like to say that the “ambiguity” to which the Schlumpfs of the world always appeal is a manufactured and artificial ambiguity of their own making. For example, a mere twenty years ago, there was no ambiguity in either our culture or our Church that men cannot get pregnant and that they should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports or strut around nude in front of teenage girls at the local gym locker room. But now this is one of those “ambiguous” realities that conservatives just are not sophisticated enough intellectually to deal with in any way that is “pastorally inclusive.” They keep moving the goal posts of normalcy further and further into the distance until they are lost in the mist of agnostic ignorance which then allows them to claim that all such “difficult circumstances” require latitudinarian relativism as a solution.

It is telling as well that Schlumpf never gets down to the nitty gritty of actually articulating basic moral principles gleaned from the writings of Aquinas. Instead, her claim is a purely methodological one which she claims supports the moral revisionism of dissenting Catholic moral thinkers. She correctly points out that Aquinas, because of his use of Aristotle, was held to be suspicious by many of his contemporaries. But he stuck to his guns despite being an “outsider” since he was committed to open and honest intellectual discourse with all manner of thinkers. Therefore, she says that modern conservatives are acting contrary to Aquinas when they use him for black and white answers, while liberal Catholics are using him properly since they are the dissenters of today who have the courage to be intellectually open and honest.

But this is just silly. Aquinas may have been suspect in his day but he firmly held to the normativity of Revelation as this comes to us in Scripture and Tradition, and he used Aristotle to bolster the traditional claims of the faith, not to undermine it. And when the intellectual utility of using Aristotle for this purpose became clear, Aquinas was immediately held up as an example to be emulated. Thus, not every “dissenter” is emulating Aquinas nor is every cracker barrel theological sophist a modern Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of ecclesiastical oppression. Some theology is simply wrong. Indeed, much of it is. 

The only misuse of Aquinas that I see is in the attempt to co-opt his theology in order to bless the sexual revolution in general and the LGBTQ movement in particular. A greater disservice to his charism and to his theology cannot be imagined.