St. Bernard and Peter Abelard

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience November 4, 2009

During his general audience on Nov. 4, Pope Benedict XVI continued his discussion of the differences in the monastic and scholastic approaches to theology, which developed in the 12th century. He spoke about Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard in order to illustrate these differences.

Both men, the Holy Father pointed out, considered theology as “faith seeking understanding.” However, Bernard emphasized “faith” whereas Abelard stressed “understanding.” Their respective approaches — Bernard’s “theology of the heart” and Abelard’s “theology of reason” — were not without tension. They represent, therefore, the importance of healthy theological discussion and humble obedience to the authority of the Church.

Theology must respect the principles it receives from Revelation as it uses philosophy to interpret them, Benedict explained. Whenever theological disputes arise, everyone, particularly the magisterium, has a responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the faith.

Dear brothers and sisters,

In my last catechesis, I presented the principal characteristics of 12th-century monastic and scholastic theology, which, in a certain sense, we could call “theology of the heart” and “theology of reason,” respectively.

An extensive and sometimes heated debate arose among representatives of each theological current, represented symbolically by the dispute between Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard.

Faith Seeks Understanding

In order to understand the dispute between these two great teachers, it is helpful to recall that theology is the search for a rational understanding — insofar as possible — of the mysteries of Christian revelation, which we believe through faith — fides quaerens intellectum, that is, faith that seeks intelligibility, to use a traditional definition that is both concise and effective.

Whereas St. Bernard, a typical representative of monastic theology, places the emphasis on the first part of the definition, that is, fides or faith, Abelard, who is a scholastic, stresses the second part, that is, the intellectus or understanding through reason.

For Bernard, faith itself is endowed with an intimate certainty, based on the testimony of Scripture and on the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. Moreover, faith is reinforced by the testimony of the saints and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the soul of each believer.

When there is doubt or ambiguity, faith must be protected and enlightened through the magisterium of the Church.

Thus, Bernard found it difficult to agree with Abelard and, in a more general way, with those who would subject the truths of faith to the critical examination of reason — an examination which, in his opinion, posed a grave danger: intellectualism, the relativizing of truth, and the questioning of the truths of faith themselves.

Bernard perceived in such a procedure an audacity taken to the extreme, the fruit of the arrogance of human intelligence that claims to “grasp” the mystery of God. Sorrowfully, he wrote the following in one of his letters: “Human cleverness grasps everything, leaving nothing to faith. It confronts what is beyond it; it scrutinizes what is superior to it; it breaks into God’s world and alters the mysteries of faith instead of casting light upon them. What is closed and sealed it does not open; rather, it uproots it; and what it does not find explainable, it considers as nothing and refuses to believe in it” (Epistola CLXXXVIII,1: PL 182,I,353).

Union of Heart and Mind With God

According to Bernard, theology has only one purpose: to promote the living, intimate experience of God. Theology is, therefore, an aid to loving God ever more and ever better, as expressed in the title of his treatise De Diligendo Deo, regarding our duty to love God.

Along this path there are different stages, which Bernard describes in detail up to the highest, when the soul of the believer is inebriated on the heights of love.

The human soul can attain here on earth this mystical union with the Divine Word, a union the Doctor mellifluus describes as a “spiritual wedding.” The Divine Word visits the soul, eliminates any last resistance, and enlightens, enkindles and transforms it. In such a mystical union, the soul experiences great calm and tenderness, and sings to her Spouse a hymn of joy.

As I pointed out in my catechesis dedicated to the life and teaching of St. Bernard, theology for him could be nourished only in contemplative prayer, in other words, by the affective union of the heart and mind with God.

Abelard’s Role in Theology

On the other hand, Abelard, who, by the way, is the one who introduced the term “theology” in the sense that we understand it today, had a different perspective.

Born in Brittany, in France, this famous 12th-century teacher was gifted with a lively intelligence, and his vocation was study. He dedicated himself first of all to philosophy, and then applied the results he acquired from this discipline to theology, which he taught first of all in Paris, the must cultured city of his time, and subsequently in the monasteries where he lived. He was a brilliant speaker; his lectures were attended by literally crowds of students.

He had a religious spirit but a restless personality, and his life was full of dramatic events: He challenged his teachers, and he fathered a child with Eloise, an educated and intelligent woman.

He oftentimes engaged in debates with his fellow theologians and was even condemned by ecclesiastical authorities, although he did die in full communion with the Church, to whose authority he submitted with a spirit of faith.

It was St. Bernard who contributed to the condemnation of some of Abelard’s teachings during the provincial synod of Sens in 1140, and he also requested the intervention of Pope Innocent II. The abbot of Clairvaux rejected, as we recalled, Abelard’s overly intellectualist method, which, in his eyes, reduced faith to a mere opinion detached from revealed truth.

Bernard’s fears were not unfounded and were, in fact, shared by other great thinkers of his time. Indeed, an excessive use of philosophy rendered Abelard’s doctrine of the Trinity dangerously fragile and, thus, his idea of God.

In the field of morals, his teaching was not devoid of ambiguity, as he insisted on considering the intention of the subject as the only basis for describing the goodness or evil of moral acts, thereby ignoring the objective meaning and moral value of the acts, resulting in a dangerous subjectivism. This aspect, as we know, is highly relevant today, when culture often seems to be marked by a growing tendency toward ethical relativism: At any given moment, only the “I” decides what is good for me.

Nonetheless, we must not forget the great achievements of Abelard, who had many disciples and who made a decisive contribution to the development of scholastic theology, which eventually expressed itself in a more mature and fruitful way during the following century. Nor must we underestimate some of his insights, such as, for example, his affirmation that non-Christian religious traditions already contain some form of preparation for welcoming Christ, the Divine Word.

Lessons for Today

What, then, can we today learn from the oftentimes heated confrontation between Bernard and Abelard, and, in general, between the monastic and scholastic approaches to theology?

First of all, I believe it shows the usefulness and the need for a healthy theological discussion within the Church, especially when the questions being debated have not been defined by the magisterium, which, nonetheless, continues to be an essential and inevitable reference point.

St. Bernard, and even Abelard himself, always recognized without any hesitation the authority of the magisterium.

Moreover, the condemnations Abelard received should remind us that, in the field of theology, there should be a balance between what we may call the architectonic principles, which are given to us through Revelation and which, because of this, always maintain their primary importance, and the interpretative principles proposed by philosophy (that is, by reason), which have an important function, but only as a tool.

When this balance between the architecture and the tools of interpretation breaks down, theological reflection runs the risk of becoming marred by error. It is then up to the magisterium to exercise the needed service to truth, for which it is responsible.

Besides, we have to point out the fact that — among other reasons — Bernard’s concern for protecting simple and humble believers, who must be defended when they are in danger of being confused or led astray by opinions that are too personal or by freewheeling theological arguments that might endanger their faith, led him to “take sides” against Abelard and to request the intervention of the magisterium.

Finally, I would like to recall that the theological dispute between Bernard and Abelard concluded with a full reconciliation between the two, thanks to the mediation of a mutual friend, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, about whom I spoke in a previous catechesis.

Abelard showed humility in acknowledging his errors, and Bernard exercised great benevolence. The attitude that prevailed in both men must be taken to heart when a theological controversy arises: that is, safeguarding the faith of the Church and ensuring the triumph of truth in charity.

May this attitude also be ours today when we confront disputes within the Church — always having as our goal the quest for truth!

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