Fighting Nominalism


Hey everyone,
On other threads I have heard about running across and there being widespread Nominalsim (Sp?) among Catholics. They are as some say “Cafitiria Catholics” or simply arn’t that inthused. While the only one that I have ever run across was my “19th Century European History” Teacher, at least that I have noticed, I would like to now what I could do to reverse this horrid trend. I know there is prayer but, what else could I do? I would hate to run across a nominal and just let 'em walk away without doing something (even the smallest thing). Does anyone have any suggestions? Please and Thanks you and God Bless.


I assume you are not talking about nominalism then. Nominalism was the name to the philosophy and theology of the later middle ages when the break-down of the Aquinas and Scotus syntheses was felt to not be tenable. Ockham was a leading aristotlean nominalist and as a philosophy it has never really been condemned.

Interestingly, even many neo-Thomists are struggling with nominalist problems reintroduced today through science and other brnaches of philosophy, such as Armand Maurer, head of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in his article on Thomism and Evolution.


Etienne: you are the leading Thomist that we all know about. Thanks for the definitions.

As for the lackluster brothers and sisters…IMHO Apologetics is lacking…for the more we know the more we fall in love with the truth revealed by Christ through his body the Church. Laziness in knowing the faith and laziness in personal devotion is the culprit in my mind. But as the knowledge of the faith increase, the devotion should also follow. By the way, prayer is still our greatest ally in conversion. We’re not alone, the faithful religious and lay breathe oxygen into this body by the grace that God pours out from our asking.

Hope that helps a bit.

in XT.


I think what OP meant to refer to were people who were nominally Catholic, as in Catholic in name only. There are many people like this in positions of power. Politicians often refer to themselves as Catholic. In Canada there are a whole slough of nominally Catholic politicians who openly defy, and in some cases mock, Church teachings (Paul Martin, Jean Cretien, etc.) … and yet they call themselves Catholic! In the States the obvious example would be John Kerry.

Nominally Catholic people are not just politicians. Unfortunately this kind of “Catholic” is in vogue in many areas. These people misrepresent the Church on a large scale. For some it is out of ignorance and apathy, and for others it is out of a hatred of the Church. Either way, the effect is the same on society. Society doesn’t have any idea what Catholics are like anymore. Catholics used to be witnesses to the Word and examples of virtue in their communities merely by living their faith. Now that everyone and their second cousin twice removed calls themselves Catholic, whether they are or not, people are confused.

I think the only way to fight a trend like this is to make it very clear what the Church stands for. Perhaps, as the Holy Father has said, the Church will become smaller and stronger. Perhaps the chaff will be separated from the wheat during his pontificate. Perhaps we should all pray that those who are nominally Catholic will discover the depth and richness of the Faith and fall in love with God, transforming their lives, and show the world that the Catholic Church is truly One and Holy.

God bless,



Well, Montie, at the stage in which you are now, it is best to just concentrate on immersing yourself into the faith and let others alone. It’s great that you want to do something, but I think you need a bit more time in the Church and experience of fellow Catholics before taking that plunge. It’s like someone who has just gone through RCIA announcing he or she wants to be a priest or religious. The bishop would advise such a person to live their faith for a year or two before making that kind of commitment, which is what you should do, too.

As to what those of us who are experienced in the faith can do, we can be examples of true Catholicism in our own lives. We can join small groups at our parishes and help spread the good news of the truths of the Catholic faith. We can be supportive of our priests and religious, especially when they bravely face down heterodoxy and are persecuted for it.

If we are able, we can also host a Bible/CCC discussion group in our homes, with our pastors’ approval. We can help with social service activities of the parish and be an example of a true Catholic there, too. There are lots of ways we can help our fellow Catholics who are confused by our culture and are woefully uninformed about the true teachings of their own Church.


I am sorry Aquinas but I am not REALLY Etienne Gilson. Doctor Gilson died back in the 1970s and I am a great admirer of him though I find myself frequently differing from him in some areas of epistemology…in that field I fear I am a little more nominalist (mostly out of a dislike for Aquinas’ platonism in the area of forms)!

I would hazard the opening poster to not think too poorly of the nominalists! (Nominalism comes from the latin word for name, hence in this thread: Catholics in name only).

I think that even the term nominalism is a little harsh. The great majority of Catholics do not agree with the magisterium of the church on some issue, either through ignorance or through scholastic honesty. Simply put, a few “problems” with certain teachings isn’t enought to say a person is Catholic IN NAME ONLY.

Even my namesake: Etienne Gilson, clashed with the magisterium but in general was above reproach by the bishops because of his celebrity (reminds me of the (Chesterton?) quote “a rich man will never hang”). Gilson’s good friend Maritain openly descented from the magisterium on contrapection in letters to Cardinal/Abbot Journet. It was said that if Dom David Knowles had lived in the Middle Ages, if he died young he would have died a Saint, and if he died old, he would have died at the stake. And Gilson should have been made a Cardinal.

Without a doubt study and persuit of the truth will eventually lead closer to God; however, to quote Gilson, “Christianity is not a philosophy.” Neither is it a theology or a series of beliefs. Christianity is a community united by the Son of the living God. Christianity in some form therefore is the Church.



I didn’t know that Maritain had it rough. And I was teasing regarding the name…as you can tell I’m not Aquinas but owe my orthodoxy to him. Prior to that I was syncretic.

In a followup to your ideas…Chesterton said that Christianity is different from other “world religions” because it gives to mankind a picture.

When I was studying theology on my own I always wondered why the Catholic faith never fully endorse a theological system; the Platonic, then Thomistic, and now by our late Great JP II, Christianized Phenomenology (don’t know of the proper term for it)…but I came to the realization that a philosophical method although it allows us to see more deeply the revelation of the Incarnation is a perspective and cannot in any way fully explain the ‘Mystery’. I’m pretty happy with that.

Thanks for the breakdown.

in XT.


For fear of taking this thread off topic, allow me to begin with something on topic.

What can we do about (let’s call them cafeteria Catholics instead of nominalists) about the Cafeteria Catholics? Short of becoming a Saint like St. Francis de Sales or developing an all encompassing philosophy/theology; there is not much other than pray and study for yourself.

I hazard again apologetics though, because it is quite possible that the reason for the descent is more well founded than the reasons for the ascent and we don’t want any discussion to be down-graded to what Aquinas called the irrisio infedelium…a defense of the faith so lacking in logic that it brings shame to the faith!

Try studying the actual issues in order to engage cafeteria Catholics or protestants or atheists. Dom David Knowles, Martin D’arcy and Anthony Kenny all agree that Thomas Aquinas is often defended more out of piety than actual philosophical agreement. If you are challenged on contraception, look into the history of contraception to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. If you are challenged on confession, look into the development of the sacrament of reconciliation to give a more TRUTHFUL reply.

Remember dogmatism never convinces anyone, especially in the sceptical world we live in.

And Aquinas, when you stated that about Etienne I figured YOU knew I wasn’t Dr. Gilson but I wanted to avoid any confusion because the rules of the forum are that I cannot claim to be someone that I am not (and many people here might mistakenly think my actual name is Etienne Gilson even though he died 3 decades ago).

I also think that we are in agreement roughly about the relationship of philosophy and the faith, despite Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris and Maritain’s book “Aquinas: Angel of the Schools”. Not to be confused about the beautiful encyclical and the horrible book.

I like Gilson’s analogy that theology and revelation operate as scaffolding to help build a philosophy but in the end the scaffolding must be removed and the philosophy stand on its own.

Of course the measure of a philosophy cannot be its abililty to be reconciled with Revelation. But philosophy can and does shed light into the mysteries of the faith. Unlike Tertullian who said Jerusalem and Athens have nothing to do with eachother, Catholicism always has had a good relationship with philosophy despite the efforts of some Catholics like St. Bernard.


And of course I forgot to mention Maritain’s clashes.

Firstly it should be noted that he vehemently opposed the church’s involvement in the civil war in Spain and clashed a few times with bishops on it and even with the conservative political group with which he belonged (whose name escapes me now).

Also, this article on Maritain and contraception is interesting:


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