Essay / On This Day

Cajetan's Birthday

Today (February 20) is the birthday of Thomas Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), an Italian Dominican cardinal active during the Renaissance and early Reformation era.

His birth name was Giacomo de Vio, but when he became a Dominican he took the name Tomasso (perhaps after the famous Dominican Thomas Aquinas, whose work he would devote himself to expounding). Then when he became bishop of his own birthplace, he began to be called after its name, Gaeta (in Naples), which comes into Latin as something a lot more like “Gaetanus” or with some elision, “the Cajetan.” Then when he became a cardinal, he had that title inserted into his name, as is the custom. And that’s how Ciacomo de Vio became Thomas Cardinal Cajetan.

If you’ve never heard of him, then from this historical distance an easy way to grasp Cajetan’s importance is to recall that he took part in two celebrated public debates with famous opponents, representing the Roman Catholic church against the new movements of the Renaissance and the Reformation, respectively. First, in 1494 he debated Pico Della Mirandola (1463-1494), whose Oration on the Dignity of Man is called the Manifesto of Renaissance humanism. Then, in 1518, Cajetan conducted the examination of Luther at the Diet of Augsburg (the following year, he helped draft the declaration of Luther’s excommunication).

But these are just the flashiest public controversies that Cajetan was involved in. Most of his reputation, then and now, depends on his scholarly activity and his many books. His chief work was probably his definitive commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia, a work that succeeds in clarifying and tidying up many problems that had been plaguing interpreters of Aquinas. Cajetan’s most influential advances were his clarification of the principle of analogy, and a distinction about distinctions within types of distinctions –Something readers of the Summa had been needing, especially since Duns Scotus had scored points against Aquinas and shaken up the Thomistic synthesis. A major focus of Cajetan’s Summa commentary was to demonstrate that the Thomist system had weathered the Scotist attacks. Cajetan worked on this project from 1507-1522.

You might expect that a cardinal who scholasticized the scholastics, and who was sent out to smack down the Humanists and the Protestants as fast as they could pop up, would be one of those “loyal sons of The Church” types who toed the party line and made sure everybody else did, too. And you’d be right.

But Cajetan was also full of surprises. He published some positions on Aquinas and on Aristotle that were controversial even among the Dominicans, for example. And while he opposed the excesses of Renaissance Humanism, he was a great supporter of the “back to the sources” movement in language and literature, with a keen interest in making progress by recovering lost wisdom. He was friendly with Erasmus, and made use of Erasmian scholarly tools. This, too, drew suspicion from churchmen to his right.

Finally, his controversies with Protestant Reformers showed him that the only way to defeat this movement would be to refute it from a superior understanding of the Bible itself, not just the traditions of its interpreters. As a result, he devoted himself to a major project of Bible interpretation, writing impressive commentaries on much of the Bible. In these commentaries, Cajetan tried to model a way of being loyal to the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, while also exercising considerable independent judgment. He chose not to write commentaries on the Old Testament apocrypha, saying that since Jerome did not admit books like Judith, the Maccabees, and Tobit, he would not treat them as canonical. This position of Cajetan’s would be refuted by the time of the Council of Trent.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes some of the other worrisome bits of Cajetan’s commentaries: his

freedom and wide departure from the Fathers and the theological schools created distrust and alarm. In his critical interpretation, for instance, he ventured an allegorical explanation of the first chapters of Genesis, and he seemed more than three centuries in advance of his day in questioning the authenticity of the last chapter of St. Mark, the authorship of several epistles, viz., Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude, the genuineness of the passage of the three witnesses of (1 John 5:7), etc.

Not having read his commentaries firsthand (I think they are only available in Latin), I do not know what considerations drew Cajetan to these positions, or how he framed them. But even in summary form, we can see a researcher who wanted to find things out for himself. He had been very successful at building on the foundations of the Roman Catholic tradition (commentaries on Aquinas), but he came to see the necessity of examining those foundations themselves (commentaries on Scripture). He seems to have been trying to buy some elbow room for responsible biblical interpreters to maneuver in, rather than locking down everything in sight, just because the Protestant barbarians were at the gate. The next generation of Catholic authorities would invest more in the locking-down procedures, bringing even Cajetan, the defender of Rome against all attackers, under intermittent clouds of suspicion.

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