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The Synthetic Impulse in Catholic Life

December 22, 2020 24 min read
By Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores Bishop of Brownsville
Farmhouse at Sunset

The following was delivered as the second annual Saint Hildegard Lecture on February 24, 2017, hosted by the University of Mary's Catholic Studies program. Bishop Daniel Flores prefaced the lecture by describing it as "a brief journey of the mind, engaging St. Hildegard, St. Thomas Aquinas, social justice, charity, and why we should listen to children, farmers, and poets."


Saint Hildegard was a woman of intense prayer, immense energy, great practicality, and extraordinary imagination. As an abbess, she directed her community, and at the direction of Pope Eugene III (the Cistercian pope), she wrote down her mystical visions; her work includes musical compositions, liturgical drama, poetry, moral instruction, and writings on medicine, botany, and animal and human anatomy.

The breadth of her writings indicates that she was keenly interested in practical things, like biology. She was interested in keeping people, especially her sisters, healthy, and in keeping the farm animals well cared for. But she ascends, so to speak, to artistic expression, moral counsel, and the contemplation of the mysteries announced in Sacred Scripture.

Her mind was like a Jacob’s ladder where her thoughts ascended and descended. She moved from the sublime to the earthiest practicalities, without seeming to have encountered a distasteful endeavor among them. The image of the ladder is purposeful, because it suggests that in her mind these things are all related, that is to say, connected in a real way such that an active mind can discern the path to and from widely diverse realities.

We have come a long way intellectually, socially, and culturally since the twelfth century when she was living, praying, milking cows, writing poetry, music, and letters to princes. Historians still wonder how she derived such a comprehensive approach to reality. They also wonder where she learned to write in Latin, given the fact that she did not have the education of someone like Heloise, Abelard’s friend. Nor did she have much exposure to what was occurring in cultural centers like Rome or Paris.

She was naturally gifted, of that there can be no doubt, but I would like to focus on the simple fact that her gifts found fertile ground to grow and develop within a culture that assumed the relatedness of things. The Catholic synthetic impulse, by which I mean a purposeful concern for the deeper connections that bind all that exists, is prior to formal education, and forms the habits of the soul prior to the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, music, biology, medicine, morality and mystical contemplation. St. Hildegard witnesses to this.

For a Catholic the synthetic impulse that I will argue is somewhat natural to human beings becomes robust and fruitful with baptism into the faith; it comes with looking at life and reality from the gut awareness that the source of all that is, is the Good God; this good God loves immensely, and was interested in a garden at creation, not a wild and chaotic forest of beings related only by a competitive need to survive. Hildegard had this fundamental confidence in the relatedness of all things. Her faith gave her access to the mind of God. Even children have this access: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” We all have this access, and we so all have this impulse to see things under the light of the good God who loves immensely. If we do not have it, it is because somewhere along the way we stopped permitting the basic intuitions of nature and of the grace of the faith to impact our way of seeing, thinking, and acting.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the towering figure of monastic theology who I want to mention in passing, died during Hildegard’s lifetime. We are perhaps somewhat familiar with the controversies involving him and Abelard, arising from Abelard’s early exposition of a kind of nominalism. Controversies of these kinds began in earnest in the intellectual hubs of Europe in Hildegard’s time, and they continued for some time thereafter. At their center, these had to do with just how to account in rigorous fashion for this relatedness of all things. How is Scripture related to Aristotle? Revelation to philosophy? Bernard and Abelard clashed mightily on these questions. But primarily this was not a clash about texts or authors, it was a clash about how things and their relations can be accounted for in different ways.

Hildegard died in 1179. St. Thomas was born in 1225. I remember as an undergraduate taking metaphysics class from Dr. Frederick Wilhelmsen, a brilliant teacher and renowned Thomist. He lectured one day on the Thomistic distinction between the synthetic act of the mind and the analytic act of the mind. I have never forgotten how he put it: There are two ways to know a frog: you can watch it jump and swim, or you can kill it, dissect it, and jab at its artificially preserved parts. Dr. Wilhelmsen obviously thought our age was excessively analytical and insufficiently synthetic. His sympathies were with watching the frog jump.

Her faith gave her access to the mind of God. Even children have this access: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” We all have this access, and we so all have this impulse to see things under the light of the good God who loves immensely.

Thomas himself was familiar with the Greek terms that underlie our words 'analytical' and 'synthetic', but he preferred the Latin manner of describing these two different ways of using the mind: modus resolutorius and modus compositivus, or the mode of resolution and the mode of composition. The via resolutionis starts with the thing known and reduces it to its constitutive parts. The via compositivus points toward the substance, or thing, in its actual act of existence. The via compositivus considers how the frog exists in itself and in relation to other existing things. Frogs relate to water, other frogs, snakes, people, angels, and God in different ways. Understanding its relations is an aspect of accounting for what the frog is.

The human mind resolves existing things to their basic elements: matter, form, essence, existence. But to do so, it starts by inspecting the existing thing in operation. Thomas conceived of the two acts of the mind as suited to moving from physics to metaphysics; from consideration of formed matter in motion to the consideration by abstraction to the realities operative in the particular. These realities are real, though perceived only by a purified act of intellection. These metaphysical terms like matter, form, nature, substance and existence name the commonalities that really bind us together as existing things. Through them we have access to an analogical account of similarity, and to the mystery of being partially disclosed by terms like 'beauty,' 'goodness,' and 'truth.'

For Thomas, things are related in a real way because the divine pure act of being (ipsum esse existens), God Himself, gifts all of creation with an act of existence that is in some way reflects the Giver and that serves as the metaphysical basis for the relations among all existing things. As Thomas says in the Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG IV, 42): “Thus, all creatures are nothing other than a kind of real expression and representation of those things which are comprehended within the conception of the Divine Word.”

The key here is “real expression.” Existing things in act (the jumping frog) are themselves real expressions, existing reflections and representations of the incomprehensible intelligibility and goodness comprehended in the incomprehensible Word. We are all related most basically as participants in a gratuitous gift of existence. What we know about other things is spurred by a prior existential connection that in some way assures that the ground the intellect covers is familiar ground even if we have never seen it before. It is the incomprehensible intelligibility of the Word, source of all that is, that guarantees that our meager perceptions of the relatedness of things are real and not merely contrived fancies.

The Summa Contra Gentiles, in the sense I am delimiting, is a synthetic work, as is the Summa Theologiae after it. They are both expressions of the via compositionis, that is to say contemplations of the whole as an assemblage of moving parts. But these grand synthetic opera only work because they are also expressions of the via resolutionis, that is to say, the distinguishing of elements operative within the particular realities treated. The interrelatedness of the whole reflects the realities examined in particular, each of which relates to other realities treated elsewhere.

Take for example the Second Part of the Summa Theologae, on the moral life, treated in general and in particular. It is situated between the treatment of Trinity and Creation in the First Part, and the Christological treatises of the Third Part. The relation is thus something like this: The created being, man, reflects its origin in the Trinity. The eternal dynamic of the processions of Word and Love from the Father is reflected in existing human beings. Our reflection shows itself as a capacity for self-moving in time toward the summit of expressive participation in the eternal Trinitarian dynamic. This is morality. This human reality of motion at the highest levels of his nature is by way of gratuitous gift offered in the grand suitability manifested in the Third Part, the economy of the Incarnation of the Word.

Like the Scripture commentaries, the Summae are works of synthesis made possible by a prior detailed work of analysis. If you open St. Thomas’ commentary of the epistles of St. Paul, you quickly realize that he comments each line with a prior awareness of the teleology of the entire Pauline corpus, and indeed the whole of Sacred Scripture. In short, Thomas the teacher shows us that you cannot teach the parts without first having perceived the intelligibility of the whole. And you cannot perceive something of the intelligibility of the whole if you do not know the elements operative in the parts. In Thomas, this is true of the Summa because it is first true about the Scriptures.

Thomas is thinking metaphysically from Hildegard’s baptismal perspective: their way of seeing reality is essentially synthetic, that is to say rooted in a sense of the comprehensive relatedness that undergirds all creation.

The Summae could have been ordered in other ways because they are compositional works, manifestations of the working mind engaged in reality, exploring the relatedness of all things. They are not fictive, because however you order the exposition the order aims to reflect the relations indicated in reality. The mind seeks an ever more adequate adequatio to things that are.

Thomas is thinking metaphysically from Hildegard’s baptismal perspective: their way of seeing reality is essentially synthetic, that is to say rooted in a sense of the comprehensive relatedness that undergirds all creation. Hildegard's work and Thomas' work are related by way of the common synthetic impulse that is itself animated by the human and Catholic intuition about the relationality inherent in all of creation. You do not have to be a metaphysician to have this confidence that relationality is present and waiting to be discovered. You only have to have a sense of what the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel tells us about the good God who made all things in the Word.

Nominalisms and voluntarisms, with their dominant descendants in the physical sciences and in the psychological and sociological pursuits, have had the cumulative effect over time of stripping us of our confidence that things are essentially related. From this perspective, more universal concepts like nature and form are constructs of the mind to help us understand existing things, but these constructs are contrived as an aid: we group things according to similarities because it is convenient to the mind, not convenient to reality. We no longer have the sense that “essentially related” is a phrase that means something more than “apparently related” to my mind. We now assume that thoughts about things are related, but not things themselves. From the current dominant perspective, things knowable and knowing beings were not really made for each other. This is the expression of the greatest gulf that lies between us and St. Hildegard. She was spurred by her intuitions confirmed by faith in a good and creative God, to investigate the relatedness of things, not thoughts.

Dogs and cats may be related in some way to a prior biological category in the order carnivora, in the class mammalia, in the phylum chordata, in the kingdom Animalia. The relation here implied is about how particular animals are related to other particular animals with similar characteristics. But zoology will not speculate beyond the fact that all particular animals are composed of physical elements that combine to form living things similar enough to breed. Individuation is our starting point and our ending point in what is left of the via resolutionis and the via compositivus. We are materialists by cultural education, and individualists by virtue of the metaphysical option that by default hovers over the culture.

Today we dissect the frog in order to move from physics to biology, and biology to zoology, and then to microbiology and micro-physics until we get to what we moderns consider the basic building blocks of reality, whether they be molecules, or atoms, or some other matter-based concept. There is no greater sign of the impoverishment of our access to related modes of knowing than in the realization that since Hildegard’s time we have shifted from analysis for the sake of knowing the structure of being to analysis for the sake of resolving everything to biology and physics.

This actually represents a retreat of the intellect in the face of reality as we encounter it. We can no longer speak of significant similarities beyond the physically observable. Relationality as inscribed in the structure of created being is no longer accessible to us. We cannot know beyond what we can measure. Try to make an argument from analogy on any controversial topic today, and you will see how far we have retreated as a thinking culture. This is so because analogical argument is essentially argument from perceived relations that lie beyond the merely physical.

Well, there are many fine books written that can illuminate how we got from the analytic impulse that resolves to being, and the analytic act that resolves to atoms. The overwhelming fact, though, is that this is where we are. And this fact impacts how we as Catholics approach the relatedness of all things. Ah, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, the Lord said somewhere. Or put another way, beware of believing one way but seeing with the eyes formed in a different light.

There is no greater sign of the impoverishment of our access to related modes of knowing than in the realization that since Hildegard’s time we have shifted from analysis for the sake of knowing the structure of being to analysis for the sake of resolving everything to biology and physics.

People, though, still naturally sense a relation among things that is real and significant, though not reducible to the physical. We still sense a common humanity that binds us in some way from this flows a natural kind of compassion, and a spontaneous desire to help a neighbor in need. We still speak of how music is more than a succession of sounds, but rather an expression of a higher order of harmony and depth. Children still look at puppies and make baby-talk to them as if there were some level of connection beyond the merely linguistic. But these are examples drawn mostly out of what is left of the spontaneity of life, the aesthetic realm, and the exemplarity of children. Beware of accounts of the human reality, though, be they philosophical, psychological, sociological, or any other kind that do not account for the experience of Good Samaritans, musicians, poets and children.

'Kinship' is another way of referring to the relationality inscribed in things. There is a kinship between nature and music, for example. We forget about the great metaphysical tradition from the Ancients to Augustine and Thomas that explored this relationship. We sense an unnamed nostalgia when we see the filming of nature put to music. We do not know how to account for this without a sense that harmony, luminosity, and proportion are aspects of being that both transcend and undergird individuation. Without a culture that begins from the notion that things are related, we reduce this unnamed nostalgia to mere sentiment or to the pre-figured pattern present in the perceiver.

Children know better when they dance and smile, often in the company of puppies, at certain tunes and become sad at others. But that brings me back to St. Hildegard. A child’s intuition about the relatedness of things is something she had and so do children today. Only it seems we get educated out of that sense by the fourth grade. Likewise, a perception that the drama of nature is somehow related to music is something she experienced, and we do too. Think of those excellent BBC Planet Earth shows, where the swimming of penguins and walruses is put to music. Only we no longer let the intuition spur our searching for the source of the relation.

Fairy Tales and modern fantasy are among the final preserves of the mind open to the relatedness of things. Perhaps that is why so much modern child-psychology looks upon these with suspicion, if not disdain. The perilous realm is perilous in great part because things are intensely related. Gollum is like Frodo in ways the story only intimates; there is something deeper there. More significantly, Frodo is like Gollum in ways that make us uncomfortable in a way that is probably good for us to contemplate. The Elves and the Orcs are sprung from the same stock, one free to hear the whispers of brooks and bushes, the other cruelly bred to destroy the beauty of both. My grand-niece tries to talk to the dog. She is on to something the rest of us have forgotten. The kinship among all existing things is real, and mysterious.

In each of these examples taken from ordinary experiences – a realist never disdains ordinary experience and never disrespects what ordinary people live – everyday life has developed a different account of the relatedness of things. We tend to put the source of the relation in the mental constructs present in the ones perceiving and not in the things themselves. Somewhere along the way, the culture learned to start from the assumption of non-relation, and began to think of other ways to account for the lingering sense that relatedness is a mysterious yet central category of existence. So now we imagine that when we see birds fly at the approach of a storm and think of Mozart’s Symphony in G-minor, it is a soothing construct of the imagination, not an intuition about the mystery at the heart of reality. Part of the problem here is the lack of intellectual respect afforded the human imagination. We relate it to unreality, whereas Augustine or Thomas related it to human sensibility and intellection.

The misery of this kind of non-account for relationality is particularly evident in the social and political order. It is true that people retain a spontaneous if tenuous sense that we are connected at deeper levels than mere convenient association. Nevertheless, our wider culture has no basis to talk about mutual concern and compassion apart from the language of purely willed associations. These willed associations all pursue a via resolutionis that resolves to the isolated individual to whom can be attributed rights but within whom links to the world outside themselves are increasingly difficult to account for apart from willing them. We speak of the atoms of society, but we find it difficult to speak of human nature as essentially connected and hence inherently relational. We live in a culture of tenuously expressed human compassion, or at worst, of willed isolation from what affects my neighbor. "Not my problem."

Why? Because if metaphysical universals like matter, form, nature and existence are mental constructs that may be useful for grouping things, then we are not in fact related to each other, or to all other existing things. It only took a couple of centuries to move from the abandonment of these metaphysical categories as naming something real, to an inversion of the via resolutionis to the reduction of all things to their radical individuality. Today, this appears primarily as a reduction of all individuality to a material category.

Faith is meant to direct the gaze of the mind, not replace the work of the mind... What modern academics do not often appreciate is how much faith it takes to conceive of the world as essentially unrelated: it is an act of faith, and a very dark world.

In the Church's life this breakdown is reflected in the reduction of charity from a robust gift of social cohesion to an individually willed act of selflessness. There is not much urgency to it, not like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is only me, wanting to help. In a profound sense the magisterium of the current and last several pontificates has been dedicated to recovering the authentic sense of the word "charity".

Catholic moral teaching, including the Social Justice magisterium, presumes a metaphysics of human nature in relation, and proposes a healing and strengthening of these relations by faith, hope, and charity. The Church stubbornly insists that willing can only affect how we choose to deal with what is a prior existential relatedness. When social relations are conceived as fundamentally and only voluntary, they are subject to severance for whatever provocation the willed relations might unpleasantly cause. The “I do not want to deal with you” that is an ever present temptation to fallen nature becomes a normative response. When there is no intellectual respect for the human intuition that like it or not we are related, and willing otherwise does not change that reality, we end up with what Pope Francis calls the culture of indifference. Indifference perceives no claim of relation, and in this culture kills by neglect.

It is much easier to deny solidarity among peoples when relations are conceived as originating in willed associations between individuals only. The mind cannot alter reality but it can choose not to see it completely. It is as if we are living in an age when the blind spot we have chosen by predilection is exactly the unwillingness to see that all existing things are related in a real and significant way. We experience this chasm in the pro-life debates and in the debates surrounding the just treatment of immigrants. We dehumanize and then dispose of persons that the culture of radical individuation tells us are related to me only to the extent I will the relation. Even the natural created order, the trees and brooks, are foreign to us; they are in some sense adversarial and objects of willed subjugation.

The first casualty of the long intellectual and cultural boat ride across the gulf that separates us from St. Hildegard is the sheer human joy of pursuing the signs of relationality we know are present in things that may at times appear disparate and unrelated. It is the confidence in the relatedness of things that is the birthright of a human being, and is immensely fortified by the baptismal graces that flow from faith. The loss of this kind of spiritual and intellectual joy is the fruit of first the deconstruction and then the denial of metaphysics. It now expresses itself in an intellectual culture of endless disciplines and sub-disciplines happily unconcerned with what a colleague across the campus may be doing or thinking.

In each of these examples taken from ordinary experiences – a realist never disdains ordinary experience and never disrespects what ordinary people live – everyday life has developed a different account of the relatedness of things.

Even in a Catholic institution, disciplines can become citadels that privilege one account of a thing as if it were the only account. We take human beings apart: man as biological organism, man as affected by sensual impressions, man as creative, man as laboring creature, thinking creature, man as mortal, man as immortal. All these express aspects of the mystery that is man, but perhaps Dr. Wilhelmsen was correct to suggest that we have prioritized analysis and have forgotten to step back to watch the man jump, laugh, cry, sing, work, sweat, create, hope, pray, and die. Yet, the analytic act and the synthetic act of the mind are intimately related in ways suggested by Thomas’ Scriptural commentaries and his Summae. Analysis must push to try to account for the whole of the actually existing being in relation to the rest of creation.

Faith is meant to direct the gaze of the mind, not replace the work of the mind. This is as surely true today as it was in St. Hildegard’s time. The difference, though, lies in the fact that Hildegard knew she had faith, and worked from there. What modern academics do not often appreciate is how much faith it takes to conceive of the world as essentially unrelated: it is an act of faith, and a very dark world. In our current context, I would like to make a few suggestions about how to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees and how to follow the Catholic synthetic impulse.

First, I think this synthetic impulse naturally respects the way children see things. Children are naturally realists with a healthy dose of imagination. These are the ingredients of a synthetic mind. They watch things be and live and move and they are amazed. Let yourself be amazed by a child being amazed. Chesterton talked about this frequently. Talk to children as often as you can.

Closely allied to this is a renewed attentiveness to the poor. Not as a category of persons in similar circumstances, but as people who are connected to us, are like us, and have something to teach us. The poor that I know are keenly aware of their dependence on the kindness and generosity of others and on God for survival. And, to be perfectly blunt, the poor tend to be more spontaneously kind and generous than is the norm for modern polite society. "Dios cuida al que cuide a un pobre," as my Grandmother would say. "God takes care of the one who takes care of the poor." Unfortunately, the more resources we have the more likely we are to forget that the reciprocity of human relations is basic to us and to the economy of divine providence. Without this awareness we construct the illusion of self-sufficient individuation.

Secondly, pay attention to poets and writers and other expressive artists. Whether they know it or not, poets and painters live in the environs of the Word made Flesh, in all of his cosmic splendor and human poverty. This is so because they craft words and images together with creative care, and in doing so are reflecting the creative act of the Word. In him all things are related; in poets, words relate to things, and things relate to other things. In painters and sculptors, images reflect perceptions rooted in what is. They can speak beyond themselves because they live in this mystery of words and reflections and creation. They always have. They did so in pre-Christian times, and they do so in post-Christian culture.

You can learn a lot from a non-Christian poet about how the world can be perceived, and if you listen closely, you can hear the cry that the poet may not even be aware of that begs for a redeemer.

Thirdly, get to know a farmer. The natural rhythms of nature are increasingly distant from the experience of many. Yet, the environs of nature mark the reality from which arise both human survival and creativity. The analytic act and the synthetic act are operative every day in the life of a farmer, or any person (like St. Hildegard) who works closely with nature. Only, like most things St. Thomas talked about, they are operative in ordinary life before they are the object of metaphysical and theological reflection.

Finally, pay close attention to the saints. They are the Good Samaritans of the Church’s calendar, and their response to life is saturated with spontaneity and joy at how all things are, and how they relate. Charity is the proper perfection of the soul formed in faith. And charity is the gift of knowing how to relate and wanting to. It is that simple. St. Lawrence loved the poor, as did St. Francis, and every saint you can name. They perceived and enacted by grace what Thomas describes in the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae. Thomas could describe it first of all because of the exemplarity of Christ. Yet, all the saints showed him what the mystery of human life at its optimal expressions can look like. The Word made flesh, and those who keep his company, witness to the truth about relations.

In St. Hildegard we see operative a truly remarkable expression of this vigorous charity, the virtue of knowing how to relate. It permeated how she saw life, thought about it, and how she acted. A theologian, philosopher or an artist could talk easily to the Abbess, and the Abbess could converse easily with them. The Abbess could talk to a farmer or a child, and they could converse happily with her. We might overlook how truly amazing this was. All too frequently we see that not every theologian and philosopher can talk to each other, much less to an artist; nor can any of them always speak comfortably with a farmer or to a child. The artist may not suspect that his expressive impulse is closely related to the farmer’s craft or the child’s fears of the dark. And the theologian or philosopher may not think the farmer or the child or the poor have much to say about how things are, perhaps because they have not read the latest journal. And this may be because the theologian, the philosopher and the artist no longer see with eyes capable of perceiving the kinship of all things. In a simple yet profound sense, every Christian is called by grace to be the mediator of a related world that struggles to live up to its relations. If we listen to the deeper impulses of the faith, we should be able to find joy in the simplest things, and in contemplating the grandly expressive relation between all things that are. We, like the Abbess, should be able to converse with anybody.


Bishop Flores offered a list of books that have helped to form his thought on the topics he covered:

  • Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098–1179 A Visionary Life, Second Edition, Routledge, 1998.
  • Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty, Eerdman's, 2008.
  • William Franke, Dante and the Sense of Transgression, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.
  • Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, The University of Chicago, 2008.
  • Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1952.
  • John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
  • Charles Péguy, Los Tres Misterios, Introducción de Javier del Prado Biezma, Ediciones Encuentro, S. A., Madrid, 2008.
  • Arturo Pérez-Reverte, El Pintor de Batallas, Alfaguara, 2013.
  • Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, Ignatius Press, 2005.
  • Larry Seidentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Javier Sicilia, La Confesión, El diario de Esteban Martorus, Penguin Random House, 2009, 2016.
  • Frederick D. Wilhelmsem, The Paradoxical Structure of Existence, University of Dallas Press, 1973.

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