Thomas Instituut te Utrecht (Tilburg University)

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Doing theology is no excuse for not using your head

Dr. Karl-Wilhelm Merks on the relevance of Thomas Aquinas.
Karl-Wilhelm Merks is chairman and member of the Editorial Board of the series of the Thomas Instituut. Since 1981 he is professor in moral theology at the Tilburg Faculty of Theology, the Netherlands, with special attention to fundamental moral theology and socio-political ethics.
What are you lecturing at present?

At present I am providing a course 'Ethics in democracy' and lecturing on intercultural theology. The latter is done because of the visit of John Banawiratma s.j., a theologian from Indonesia who will lecture at our faculty during the months November and December. We will study e.g. the difference between models of theological reflection which originate from an Indonesian context and those which stem from Africa.

What place occupies Aquinas in your scholarly activities?

I did my dissertation on Aquinas' concept of natural law (Theologische Grundlegung der sittlichen Autonomie: Strukturmomente eines 'autonomen' Normbegründungsverständnisses im lex-Traktat der Summa theologiae des Thomas von Aquin, Düsseldorf 1978). Ever since Aquinas functions as a companion who is consulted on many a subject I study. This is how my research project 'Current meaning of Aquinas' ethics' should be interpreted. A good example of a more explicit way in which Aquinas plays a role in my work is 'Naturrecht als Personrecht? berlegungen zu einer Relektüre der Naturrechtslehre des Thomas von Aquin', in: M. Heimbach-Steins (ed.) Naturrecht im ethischen Diskurs, Münster 1990, p. 28-46. The only occasion I am entirely occupied with Aquinas study is once a year during the week of studies of the Centre of Research and Advanced Studies in Thomas Aquinas in Rome at which scholars from, above all, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands read texts together.

What is the most important thing you have learned from Aquinas?

That doing theology is no excuse for not using your head.

What is the importance of Aquinas research in our time, especially for moral theology?

I see two important contributions Aquinas can have nowadays. In the first place, Thomas teaches us that we may have confidence in the capacity of our natural reason. He underscores the importance of the link between morality and reality. The morally good can only be appealing when it is part of one's experience in one way or another. Abstract laws or idealistic concepts of good and evil are not of direct use in ethics. To put it differently: the interrelation between metaphysics and ethics is a complex one, as Wolfgang Kluxen has shown.
In the second place, being familiar with Aquinas can be helpful so as to regain an openness towards problems of our day. The Enlightenment has not only opened, but also sometimes narrowed our scope and this is still felt in the way problems are approached in philosophy and theology. Thinkers like Aquinas, who are not yet contamined with this narrowed scope can shed light on our situation which can be refreshing.

What do you think of the Thomas Instituut?

I think the Thomas Instituut is a good forum which can contribute in keeping Aquinas alive in discussions. It can take care of making and keeping the intellectual heritage of Thomas visible in science, church and society.
I think, however, that the Instituut should not be monopolized by a specific approach towards Aquinas, like e.g. that of some members from Utrecht who underscore the importance of philosophy of language for Aquinas. I would prefer a more open attitude towards the texts of Aquinas in which different interpretetions are allowed to coexist. This prevents Aquinas from playing the role of an exclusive authority in the sense of 'Thomas locutus, causa finita'.

To what issues should the Thomas Instituut pay more attention in your opinion?

The Instituut should definitely pay more attention to the German speaking research on Aquinas. Until now the Thomas Instituut is too much Anglo-American orientated. This is at the risk of reinventing the wheel in some cases. In Germany a lot of important and interesting research on Aquinas is done by scholars like e.g. O.H. Pesch, W. Kluxen and E. Schockenhoff. Since the Dutch are well trained in languages it could be a contribution of the Thomas Intituut to promote the interchange between different traditions and styles of Aquinas research. Prolonging this line of thought, I think it is important for the Thomas Instituut to be present at international activities and be active in searching international contacts.
With regard to my own specialty, moral theology, it would be interesting if the Instituut were able to begin a discussion from a thomistic point of view with regard to e.g. the relation between state and civil order or the importance of common ethics in public life of our democracy.

Carlo Leget