Descartes set himself out to examine the whole nature of things—that is, to make a complete philosophy. The Catholic Church is itself a complete philosophy on all that concerns the chief interests of man; but the Catholic church does not set up to provide a philosophical system, still less a philosophical system which shall be necessarily true in its explanation of the material universe.
Scholasticism, as it is called, or Thomism (from the final great work of St. Thomas Aquinas), might be called “the official philosophy” of the Church, as it had stood throughout the later Middle Ages: but it was (and is) important to distinguish between the “official” acceptation of Thomism and the invariable teaching authority of the Faith. For instance, in St. Thomas’ philosophy and that of his predecessors, the Real Presence is expressed in the term “Trans-substantiation”; but no Catholic is bound to accept the scholastic doctrine of substance, and so long as the truth of the Real Presence is maintained (i.e., that the whole of the Humanity and Divinity of Our Lord is present in the Blessed Sacrament after the words of Consecration, and in either element; and that the original bread and wine wholly cease to be), Catholic doctrine is satisfied.
Now, Thomism had naturally declined with the decline of the Middle Ages. Scholastic disputation had degraded into what were often puerilities and debates, nearly always tedious and half the time futile. It was indeed disgust with the dryness and lack of vitality of the school teaching which had largely accounted for a revolt among the younger scholars. Descartes, a whole lifetime after the beginning of the Reformation, set out to begin, if he could, the whole thing over again—to ask and settle all those questions which scholastic philosophy had also examined from the very roots. He even started with the discussion as to whether man himself, the mind originating the discussion, existed or no. He took as his starting point the undoubted truth that since man thinks, he is; and on that he would base his system. In the expansion of that system he insists upon only accepting knowledge that is “proved,” and that is where he had so great an influence upon all the thought which followed for three hundred years; for all the modern scientific habit until that of yesterday proceeded from Descartes. He himself had no doubts upon the Faith, but his insistence upon the axiom that our acceptation of truth must depend upon external proof of it or upon deductive reasoning from observed constant natural “laws” did make profound inroads upon ordinary belief. It was from this attitude of mind that all that is called the “rationalistic” attack upon the Faith has ultimately grown.
~Hilaire Belloc: Characters of the Reformation, Chap. I—Nature of the Reformation.
René Descartes (1596 – 1650): French philosopher,
mathematician, and scientist.
Portrait by Frans Hals. Oil on panel, c. 1649;
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.