The Philosophical Catechism of Fr. Cornelio Fabro: A Fabrian Overview

A Fabrian Overview

I. From the historical-genetic point of view, the most remarkable aspects of Fabro’s thought should be considered in relation with his sources (St. Thomas, Kierkegaard) and with his principle interlocutors (Hegel, Heidegger). Their consideration is also necessary for the reconstruction of both his speculative itinerary and his project of essential Thomism. In addition one ought to note as his profound and principle inspiration a disinterested and passionate love of Truth, together with his unconditional fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church, the only true Church of the living God, pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). The speculative elements that polarize Fabro’s essential Thomism, with the seal of that Aristotelian primacy of the ‘intuition’ of act, are esse and freedom, the discovery and developments of which are guided by the metaphysical notion of participation.

II. According to Fabro the essence of Thomism is adequately expressed in the metaphysical notion of participation, which confers upon it the character of a definitive synthesis of Christian thought and places it within the conditions of fully satisfying the metaphysical exigency of the relation between ‘the finite’ and ‘the infinite’ proposed by modern thought.

The Thomistic notion of participation is a metaphysical and not a physical notion, since it does not refer to the taking of a quantitative part, but rather to the realization – in a derived and composed fashion – of that which the participated perfection realized fully in it self. Furthermore, it is not a repetition of the Platonic formula, but rather a profound transformation of that formula by means of its vital – as opposed to artificial – incorporation into Aristotle’s metaphysic of act and potency. For this reason, for Fabro, Thomism arises as an emergent synthesis, and above all, as a comprehensive superseding of both platonic verticalism and Aristotelian horizontalism. In this sense, the pairings of ‘participant-participated’ and ‘potency-act’ end up identifying with each other and projecting themselves on to all levels of the structure of finite reality, while at the same time founding composition, similarity (analogy), and dependency (causality). Nevertheless, Fabro recognizes in the notion of participation a methodological primacy in the posing and resolving of theoretical problems, even if the binomial of act-potency sheds more light upon the posterior moment of the harmonious systematizing of conclusions.

Following Saint Thomas, Fabro carefully distinguishes two fundamental modes of participation, namely, predicamental and transcendental. In the first, each participant has in itself the formality (formalidad) in all of its essential content, while that which is participated in exists only in the participating subject: and thus univocal and predicamental participation. In the second mode, however, each participant possesses a likeness though to a lesser degree with the participated, which subsists in itself, per essentiam, outside of them both: analogous and transcendental participation. While the first manner of participation takes place in the realm of finite being, the latter is that which occurs between ens (beings) and the Ipsum esse subsistens, or in other words, between the creature and the Creator.

III. Consequences of participation are composition, multiplication and similarity, as much in the transcendental order as in the predicamental, as much in the order of being as in the order of operation.

The first level of composition is that of the being (ens) as such. Since the being (ens) is not the Ipsum esse, participation assumes in the Thomism of Fabro the role of ratio propter quid in the demonstration of the real distinction and composition of essentia et esse, as the participating subject and the participated act respectively. Esse, therefore, has the role of act in the primary constitution of the being (ens), and presents itself as a participation in God – as pure act and subsistent being. In relation to the act of being, the essence is considered as potency, in such a way that the act of being is act and only act, and it must be recognized as such in the whole line of metaphysical thought: act of being which is participated and inhaerens in the ens per participationem, act of being which is subsistens in the ens per essentiam.

IV. The notion of participation is also the basis of the predicamental multiplication of the essence in corporal beings and of their realization ‘to a greater or lesser degree of perfection’ Fabro calls ‘formal univocity and real analogy.’ The formal identiy of the being guarantees its belonging to the same species, whereas the matter as real subject of the form, allows the form to realize itself more or less perfectly: all men are equally men, but not all men are the same.

V. The notion of participation, however, is not limited to the clarification of the moment of constitution and structure of the being, but also extends to the problems of its foundation and production, in both the transcendental and predicamental order, thus projecting itself into the realm of causality.

The proper cause tou/esse is the ipsum esse subsistens: act of being is the proper effect of God. On the other hand, while underlining the absurdity implied in speaking of an instrumental collaboration in the transcendental production of esse, one must nevertheless attribute to the secondary cause a true predicamental influence in the production of the act of being, through the education of the form on the part of the agent. In this manner, the Aristotelian principle ‘forma dat esse’ acquires a new meaning: the form gives, to be sure, the esse formale, but, first and foremost, it gives the esse ut actus, insofar as it is through the mediation of the form that being (ens) participates in act of being. Therefore, though no creature can cause esse absolute, it can, however, cause esse in hoc, in as much as secondary causality has the emergence of the individual form as its proper effect.

VI. The notion of participation offers the most perfect and precise expression for the formulation of the principle of causality in its most purified transparency, and above all, for the critical defense of its value as evident principle per se, insofar as once the terms “by participation” and “by essence” have been understood, one immediately understands the necessary linking of these same terms, and insofar as the subject “being by participation” includes, precisely, every type of effect, as much in the predicamental order as in the transcendental, in the spiritual as in the corporeal: being by participation is caused by being by essence, and more generally still: from the very fact that a being is being by participation it necessarily follows that it is caused by another. The dependency and immediate reference of being by participation to being by essence are demanded of by the very notion of participation, and are negated when one negates the value of the principle of causality: an open attempt against the principle of non-contradiction.

VII. In the field of knowledge, Fabro calls the gnoseological itinerary for the heuristic and methodological use of the notion of participation ‘intensive reflection,’ and his itinerary is strictly linked to the method proper to metaphysics, which is not deductive demonstration but resolution. While the process of abstraction isolates formalities (formalidades), reconquering in the intellect the formal purity lost in their individual realization, metaphysics proceeds in the opposite direction, considering these formalities according to their manner of being in reality. By the process of intensive reflection each formality presents itself as a virtual whole which no individual completely realizes except partially, that is, in a gradual and incomplete manner, in other words, by participation. The climactic moment of the forsaid reflection is the arrival at the intensive notion of esse as supreme plexus of all perfections and formalities. Fabro sees in the intensive notion of esse the resolutive meaning of the Aristotelian ens in quantum ens, and the expression, always in an analogous manner, of the absolute fullness of God as Ipsum Esse Subsistens, in the supreme promotion of the positive value of being as act. From this consideration also follows the methodological importance of participation and the intensive notion of esse in order to understand the famous ‘fourth way’ of St. Thomas, as well as the intimate presence of God per essentiam in all things, and the all inclusive causality that characterizes the first cause, as cause of all being, all operations, and all causality.

VIII. It is precisely because St. Thomas recognizes the absolute emergence of being as act, that Fabro considers his thought alone as capable of satisfying Heidegger’s exigency of a ‘return to the fundament’…while at the same time avoiding his accusation of ‘forgetfullness of being’… Ancient thought, as much as Scholastic thought – most particularly, the Thomistic school – and Modern thought have ‘formalized’ being. The first, because the discovery of the foundation of being was still gradual and incipient. The Thomistic school, because, setting aside the rigorous terminology of the Angelic Doctor, it began to use the terminology proper to the very enemies of real distinction, speaking of essential et existential. This semantic shift facilitated a conceptual shift and in this manner esse, transformed into the ‘existence’ of formalist Scholasticism, stopped being the constitutive ontological principle of being and become as a result postio extra causas: not a real distinction, but modal, like two states, possible and real, of the same res. Modern thought would then do nothing more than shift the foundation of the position of the realized essence, establishing it not in God but rather in a founding subjectivity.

Ever within this resolutive perspective, Fabro sustains that Saint Thomas also anticipates and satisfies the Hegelian exigency of ‘the beginning of philosophy’… Whereas Hegel departs from pure being…which is an abstraction, and must proceed to the acquisition of full being…by the mediation of nothing…one should in reality begin with being (ens). Ens is the concrete subject which contains the synthesis of essence et esse and consequently, bears that tension which leads to resolution in the Absolute as ipsum esse subsistens, in such a way that the first plexus converts into the first nexus in the speculative ascent towards God.

IX. The encounter with the plexus of ens takes place in the originary synthetic apprehension…that precedes, accompanies, and grounds all other acts of consciousness. This is an initial and pre-logical apprehension that does not take place by intellectual abstraction nor through sensible intuition, but rather through the convergence of all faculties. Since the rational soul gives the body the status of a human body, the sensitive faculties do not only interact amongst themselves, but what’s more, they can collaborate with the intellect and the will – since sense is a certain imperfect participation in the intellect. In a particular way it belongs to the cogitative, as that internal sense which borders the intellect, to incorporate meaning with the image provided by the fantasy preparing the way for intellection, and thus for contact between the intellect and the concrete material thing.

X. The subject insofar as it is cognizant acquires a formal objective participation in the thing known, according to the distinct levels and species of knowledge, since verum is perfectivum alicuius secundum rationem specie, sed etiam secundam esse quod habet in re. For this reason desire imparts to the willing subject a real-subjective participation in the object desired. Thus, the moment of formal introversion characteristic of knowing, comes to supplant the moment of real extroversion characteristic of desire, that moment in which with responsible dominion of self, the entire person by means of the inclination of the will directs himself to the effective attainment of the good.

XI. The notion of participation thus presents itself as capable of metaphysically establishing the dignity of the person. Having a spiritual form, man participates in the act of being not in a contingent manner but rather in a necessary one: the finite spirit is not contingent, but necessary, although ab alio. The operative version of this participated ontological sufficiency is the freedom to want, but which the will has dominion not only over its object, but also over its own action and the acts of all other faculties, including the intellect. Hence follows the Thomistic formula that expresses the superseding of rationalist intellectualism: intelligo enim quia volo. As a consequence, the will must be considered as the facultas princeps: it is the primum motor omnium virium and the potency proper to the person as such. It is because of this that St. Thomas calls the free will ‘the whole soul’ (tota anima).

 XII. In this novel reading of the Thomistic text Fabro uses Kierkegaard’s re-vindication of the act of election as the expression of the ontological and existential consistency of the singular (der enkelte) before God, as well as the Kierkegaardian affirmation of liberty as having its primary foundation in the divine omnipotence. The primacy of the will extends, therefore, not only to the horizontal sphere of means, but also arrives at the vertical sphere of the end, in such a way that between the abstract moment of the tendency towards the end in communi, and the concrete moment of the tendency to the concrete existential end, it is necessary to place the election of a concrete ultimate end (which St. Thomas calls ‘determinatio finis’), which in turn becomes the most important act of liberty as participated creativity and absolute initiative (by participation) of subjectivity. There is therefore a formal primacy, and temporal priority of the intellect, but at the same time a real, dynamic and existential metaphysical primacy of the will.

XIII. Thomism and modern thought meet then in the act of the free-will and in the re-vindication of the primacy of subjectivity. But modern thought has now diluted the ontological consistency of metaphysical subjectivity in the myth of the impersonal absolute (idealism), in the structures of the dialectical evolution of matter (Marxism), and in the simple horizontal transcendence of the mere temporal and impersonal transpiring of events (existentialism). This dissolution is one of the consequences of the principle of immanence, which is the fundamental principle of modern though and which, being by nature ‘expulsive,’ cannot avoid leading ex natura sua to atheism. Atheism is, therefore, the necessary consequence of the principle of immanence in all of the forms and direction of its projection, quite independently of the good will and the personal profession of theism of the individual philosopher.

XIV. If the principle of immanence is characterized by its exclusion of God, then the pretension of elaborating a theology based on the modern principle of conscience is absurd. Because of this Fabro strongly criticizes progressivist theology in both its new designs for moral doctrine and its negation of the elemental truths of the faith: for example, the divinity of Christ and the reality and risk of hell. In a particular way, Fabro energetically criticizes the anthropological run over…of Rahner and the twisted, falsified interpretation of the texts of St. Thomas which that famous German pseudo-theologian proposes, in which, in a Marechal-Schule fashion, he considers that the Angelic Doctor would actually be in agreement with none other than Kant.

XV. In open opposition to progressivist theology, which whether openly or secretly hostile to the magisterium of the Catholic Church is without a Catholic spirit, Fabro presents the figures of various saints, giving particular prominence to St. Gemma Galgani, a witness to the supernatural, who by her real participation in the sufferings of Jesus Christ teaches the believer to live in time with eyes fixed on eternity, and directs him to the absolute election of the Absolute.

XVI. Participation, therefore, transports itself to the supernatural order as that grace which is established and defined as a participation in the divine nature, later to be realized, in its eternal fulfillment, as ‘attingere’: thus, the more perfect the participation, the more it becomes a ‘reaching and touching by means of operation.’ Attingere is, then, the supreme realization of supernatural participation, as direct contact of intuitive vision and as possession of the Highest Good in the supreme assimilation and transformation of beatifying love.

A Fabrian Overview, Christian Ferrara I.V.E –


– Lucas G. Westman

One thought on “The Philosophical Catechism of Fr. Cornelio Fabro: A Fabrian Overview

  1. Lucas, thanks for the very interesting and informative post. Is the book, “Cornelio Fabro”, by Christian Ferraro, from which this excerpt was evidently taken, available in English? I can’t seem to find a copy. How to study Cornelio Fabro if one does not read Italian?

    Liked by 2 people

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