“We cannot love what do not know”: An interview with Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.

“Catholic dogmas,” says the author of The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism, “are intellectual sign-posts: teachings that point us toward divine truth and that give us real understanding of the mysteries of Christ. In this sense, dogmas are a stimulus to authentic intellectual life…”

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is the author of "The Light of Christ", recently published by Catholic University of America Press (Flickr)

After converting to Catholicism in his early twenties while studying at Brown University, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., entered the Order of Preachers in 2003. His writing and study have focused Thomistic metaphysics, Christology, and Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue.

He is the author of Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press, 2009), The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (CUA Press, 2015), Exodus (Brazos Press, 2016), and, most recently, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (The Catholic University of America Press, 2017). He has edited several books, and is co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera (English edition). In 2011 he was appointed an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Fr. White recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his book The Light of Christ.

CWR: This book seems perfect for undergraduate students, RCIA classes, and so forth. But it also seems to be directed at non-Catholics in many ways. Do you have a specific audience in mind?

Fr. White: In Washington, DC, where I live, it is not rare to encounter people interested in Catholicism coming from a wide array of backgrounds: earnest Catholics who feel they were not properly catechized, lapsed Catholics rediscovering their faith, evangelicals with traditional Protestant objections, non-baptized agnostics looking for reasonable explanations, wavering atheists who are concerned that religion is anti-scientific, and “spiritual but not religious” seekers who worry that dogmas are too narrow. There are a lot of questions or concerns common to almost all: Is faith in divine revelation reasonable? Can we trust what the New Testament teaches us about the historical Jesus? Are Christianity and modern science compatible? How should we understand the traditional moral teaching of the Catholic Church? The book is purposefully written for a wide audience and seeks to present Catholicism in a few broad brush strokes, deep enough to give people a real point of entry, but clear and accessible enough to provide a real introduction.

CWR: Right from the start, you place a strong emphasis on the intellect and reason; for example, the Introduction is titled “The Catholic Intellectual Life” and the first chapter is “Revelation and Reason”. Why is it so important to have this emphasis? Do you find that students today, overall, place far more emphasis on intution and emotion than previous generations?

Fr. White: Thomas Aquinas affirms that we cannot love what we do not know, and that when we grow in understanding of God, we can also grow in love for Him, precisely because we begin to understand more deeply who God is. There is no opposition between intellectual understanding and our emotions or intuitions, but we need intellectual analysis to test our initial intuitions, and to give structure to our emotional life.  In fact, over time, it is the search for the truth that does the most to steady the internal development of the human person, and this search is most noble in the person.

There is a prevalent suspicion in our culture today that having strong truth convictions will make a person unloving or unjust. Seeking the truth in the right way, however, is  not only not opposed to being loving or just but something they presuppose. Growth in spiritual love perfects or completes the human person but it presumes and is aided by truth. As we become more realistic we are able to love more realistically.

CWR: The book reveals your keen awareness that doctrine and dogma are considered negative, boring, or even insulting topics today. Why this general dislike for doctrine? How do you hope your book might change negatives attitudes and perspectives in that regard?

Fr. White: In their Latin roots, the words “dogma” and “doctrine” simply mean “teaching”. What are the basic Christian teachings? What does Christianity claim is true? Yes, today people associate dogma not with the mind but with the will: the will-to-power of authorities who impose their whims on others without adequate foundation or proof. However, Catholic dogmas in fact are intellectual sign-posts: teachings that point us toward divine truth and that give us real understanding of the mysteries of Christ. In this sense, dogmas are a stimulus to authentic intellectual life, not an obstacle or an arbitrary imposition.

The contemporary distrust has many causes, but the most basic one is ignorance: historical amnesia. Most Christians today no longer study the classical historical doctrines to learn where they came from or why they were formulated. When we do study them (with the right resources) we gain confidence in the Church’s discernment, because we see that time and again what She has taught to be true is not only founded in the New Testament and in the teaching of Christ and the apostles, but is also profound, meaningful, beautiful and realistic.

CWR: In writing about God and Trinity, you state, “Intellectual puzzlement about God is not strange. Paradoxically, it signals opportunity.” How can we as Catholics engage that opportunity? And why are we so often reluctant to discuss the greatest Mystery of the Faith? What can be done to do away with that reticence?

Fr. White: Deep curiosity leads to engagement. If I have a problem in understanding the faith, or even a real difficulty of belief, it can be the beginning of a better and truer form of believing. In all fairness, it’s not that easy to teach one’s self Catholic theology. Today many people are well trained engineers, nurses or lawyers, but they have the theological education of a middle school child. We can talk about who is to blame for this state of affairs, but the truth is that we are all to blame. Catholics need to study real theology—as best they can—and to talk about theological beliefs among each other. Otherwise, we create at best only a culture of apologetics and politics, which is what tends to predominate in orthodox Catholic circles. That means we never really learn to speak confidently about the mysteries of the faith among ourselves or with others, and in turn this greatly hinders the evangelical dynamic of the Church. There is no way to learn to swim than to get into the water. Studying theology in this case is the metaphorical water, and it is important to immerse oneself gradually and learn how to swim. The Thomistic institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, offers a number of online resources for this purpose. See for example the hundreds of lectures we make available online at thomisticinstitute.org.

CWR: Discussing grace and natural law, you warn of two extremes. What are those extremes and where do we find them today? What are some misunderstandings of natural law, and why is it so important to Catholic theology and philosophy?

Fr. White: The Council of Trent in the 16th century warned against two extremes. One is the Protestant theory of “radical depravity”, which claims that the human being in the fallen state can do virtually nothing that is morally good and unselfish, and even has trouble identifying the precepts of the natural law. Today this view is represented best by post-modern skepticism of our age which posits that human beings cannot even identify common ethical principles across time and place that guide our moral thinking.

The other extreme that Trent rejected was that of Pelagianism, which claimed that the human being is capable of justifying himself by his natural moral actions, as if our nature were so healthy that we could “save ourselves” through our own ethical and political ingenuity. Evidently this viewpoint is typically represented today by many forms of secular liberalism, which disavow the need for religion or divine revelation, and that seek to maintain and advance the ends of human culture uniquely by means of political strategies and secular philosophies.

One extreme despairs of human nature and its contributions. The other extreme over-estimates the power of human nature and is marked by an unrealistic presumption. Between the two extremes, Catholicism marks out a realistic course: fallen human nature is wounded and human beings are capable both of a great deal of natural good and a great deal of moral failure, marked by weakness or by wickedness. We are not capable of saving ourselves. But the grace of Christ is offered to us to heal our human nature and to elevate it, so that we can gradually acquire over time a deep moral stability and can live habitually in the grace of Christ, with lives marked by faith, hope and charity, moral virtue, and truthfulness.

CWR: There has been much discussion lately of Christ’s human knowledge and how it relates to his divine knowledge. How do you approach this in the book?

Fr. White: I follow Aquinas on the topic of Christ’s human knowledge and have written about that more extensively in another more technical book, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology. However, the key thing to keep in mind is that Christ as man has a true human form of knowing as do we, but he is humanly aware of his divine identity and mission. This means that God the Son in his human nature is able to think in a human way about his identity as the Son of God who is one with the Father. He can communicate this self-understanding to us in human thoughts, words and images. He also is aware of his divine mission, of the mystery of the passion and resurrection and the role of the Church, which he founds intentionally during the course of his earthly life. This elevated knowledge allowed him to understand the redemptive meaning of his passion, for example, and to reveal it to the disciples.

So what is of key importance is that the historical Jesus knew in his human mind and heart who he was, and that he was never ignorant of his mission.  Behind this  human self-awareness lies his wisdom as God, which he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Wisdom of God incarnate (1 Cor. 1:24). His human mind participates in the divine wisdom that he possesses as God.

CWR: Writing about justification and sanctification, you refer to some of teachings in Scripture, the CCC, and Aquinas on participation, or deification. How important was this teaching to Aquinas? Do you think it needs more emphasis today? If so, how so?

Fr. White: The Church fathers agree that the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation is our salvation, which they characterize first and foremost in terms of “divinization”: God became human so that we might be united with God. The goal of human existence is to see God face to face, to know God in an immediate way in the beatific vision, and to possess God in spiritual intimacy by love. Christians hope to attain this by the grace of God in the life to come, but also believe that the beginnings of this life are present even now, in the intimacy of Eucharistic communion, and by virtue of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who gives us real knowledge of Christ and the Father. This emphasis on “divinization” or union with God needs to be recovered today in order to accentuate, rightly, the mystical dimension of Catholicism, and to avoid an exaggerated moralism.

Salvation in Christ is salvation from our sins, to be sure, and entails the renunciation of sin and moral transformation, but it is not simply this. It is also “elevation” by grace into the life of God, and friendship with God. This mystery of our divinization is very noble and mysterious. At the same time, Catholicism rightly remains sober about human beings in this life. Even though we can live lives of true friendship with God and mystical intimacy, we also remain deeply marked by sin, and in perpetual need of true repentance, divine forgiveness and ongoing moral struggle. The sacrament of reconciliation must play a central role in any life truly dedicated to God.

CWR: In the chapter on Social Doctrine, you begin by noting that Catholicism has always been controversial, for varying reasons, and has provoked much opposition down through time. What aspects of Catholic social teaching are most controversial today? Most misunderstood?

Fr. White: I note in the book that Catholicism is not controversial for the same reasons in every culture. Islamic culture limits the freedom of Christians because it rejects the teachings on the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. Communist cultures have oppressed the Church based on their rejection of God and divine authority, as well as the Church’s teachings on human dignity. American liberalism stands at odds with the Church’s traditional teachings on sexuality, which claim that there is an inherent relationship between sex and reproduction, that marriage is naturally monogamous and heterosexual, that it has political and public dimensions, and that not all adult sexual decisions are morally protected by rights of privacy.  It is historically naive to think that every culture in time and place takes offense at the same teachings of the Catholic Church. They differ and in fact contradict each other in this respect. This shows that the moral intuitions of a given culture (like our own in the U.S. today) cannot simply be taken for granted as the correct intuitions. The Church’s social doctrine is very far reaching, insightful, realistic and coherent. When we begin to study various aspects of it, we see that the Catholic moral teachings about human persons in relationship to God and one another are very reasonable and confront every culture with the limitations of our fallen way of thinking and our limited perceptions. The cast the light of Christ upon each of us and call all of us to deeper conversion.

To this it should be added: the confusion about social doctrine today is significant inside the Church. Leo XIII and John Paul II grounded the social teaching of the Church in a realistic theory about human persons in our  relationship to the Creator and to one another. They were first and foremost metaphysicians prior to being moral philosophers. In other words, they grounded moral claims in the order of being, and in realistic analysis of what a human person is. Without this foundation, Catholic social teaching risks to become a merely conventional set of intuitions beset by emotivism, and prey to various party ideologies.

CWR: “Heaven,” you write in the chapter on the Last Things, “will be physical and political…” In what ways? What misconceptions about heaven are you most interested in correcting?

Fr. White: The 20th century Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac in his great work Catholicism rightly emphasized the social character of human salvation. Only Christ saves the human race and we are not the saviors of one another. So in one sense salvation is always individual: the Lord is my savior. However, Christ also saves us together or collectively, by incorporating us into an ecclesial way of life, a communion that is both visible and invisible, spiritual and bodily. The sacramental life of the Church in this world, then, in this respect, is a preparation for the life of heaven, which entails communion with God but also the shared life of grace that is common to the saints. The resurrection of the body is assures the future meaning of the animal and political life of man, who is not merely a soul, but an embodied spirit who can live in community with others. However different and utterly transformed the life of the resurrection is, it still is a collective life with others. Catholic visual art from the high middle ages to the baroque demonstrates in pictorial fashion that our hope for heaven is communitarian: to live around and with the Lamb of God, the glorified Christ, united in contemplation and corporate praise of God. This is the final end of the “Catholic” or universal Church: a collective life of truth and charity by which we are united to God.

CWR: Any further thoughts about the book?

Fr. White: Thanks for focusing on this book, which hopefully is a helpful resource to give people trying to understand the faith more deeply.

About Carl E. Olson 1049 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

5 Comments

  1. What an interview!
    Full of beauty and truth. A sharp contrast with the shallowness and emptiness of the media of the secular world.
    More books to read and to brighten up this Autumn.

  2. A pretty good compendium on the Christian life. Except [what else to expect from a philosopher] the notion, a truth that God alone saves. Yet there is a mysterious truth attached. Boethius [Manlius Severinus] initiated the doctrine of Participation that by moral participation we become holy, more like God. Aquinas’ doctrine of participation teaches that God calls us to participate in His act of redemption. The reason why a priest is Alter Christus and why Laity share in the Common Priesthood of the Faithful we all receive in Baptism. The mystery. I can’t and wont attempt to explain it all. God depends on each of us to participate for the salvation of souls. Yes He alone saves. But in this world thru us as His instruments. For example if we pray and sacrifice for the conversion of sinners that act of love motivated by the Love He instills in our heart will likely effect conversion. If we don’t do such sinners will perish. This is the Lacuna. And it is most vital to understand our mission as Catholics in a world headed for self destruction.

    • Dear Pater Morello,
      You are right that in all good we do, we act as God’s Instruments in this world. But God is not dependent on us or anyone, he can save human souls completely thru his own almighty will. This I understand, was what Frater White meant to explain. This will of God is most clearly seen in the salvation of children who died soon after their birth, before they could have been baptized. God can take them into his heaven, as God is almighty. What we do, and should do, is work together so the structural sins in todays world (as you rightly say headed for self destruction) will be directed against self destruction – like political Change – re evangelization, good example of chistian families – help for those in Need so they will not fall into sin out of desperate situations – all this will Change a doomed world. But last not least God can perform any miracle he wants.
      Elisabeth Vondrous, Vienna, Austria

  3. “Yes He alone saves. But in this world thru us as His instruments”. Elisabeth Vondrous is correct in her reply that God certainly can save souls without our participation, the Apostle Paul a prime example.

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