But how can a radical—hence also critical—attitude of mind be imputed to a social group whose members were bound to obey the dictates of a supreme and absolute authority? This apparent paradox is easily resolved. The lives and the faith of the monks and friars were indeed subject to authority that was, in theory at least, absolute and spoke immutable truth. But beyond the sphere of discipline and fundamental religious belief— beyond the matters that were de fide—that authority did not undertake to direct their thought, nor did it prescribe results. In particular, it had not, in general, any motive for doing so in the department of political and economic thought, that is to say, for compelling the clerical intellectuals to expound and defend or to represent as immutable any given temporal order of things. The Church was judge of all things human; conflict with temporal authority was an ever-present possibility and very often the actual fact; the monastic orders were important instruments of Papal authority: these were no reasons for preventing them from looking upon temporal institutions as historically mutable works of man. I am far from wishing to belittle the importance of Christian ideals and precepts per se. But we need not invoke them in order to realize that monastic subordination to authority in matters of faith and discipline was compatible with extensive freedom of opinion in all other matters. We must go even further. Not only did the monks’ sociological location—outside, as it were, of the class structure—make for an attitude of detached criticism of many things; there also was a power behind them that was in a position to protect that freedom. So far as treatment of political and economic problems is concerned, the clerical intellectual of that age was not more but less exposed to interference from political authority and from ‘pressure groups’ than was the laical intellectual of later ages.
The indictment that unquestioning acceptance of ecclesiastic authority invalidated the reasoning of those monastic scholars from a scientific standpoint is thus seen to be without foundation. We have, however, still to consider a particular form of it. The analytic nature of their reasoning has often been denied on the ground that their arguments can have been only arguments from authority: subject to the authority of the Pope as they were, they had no other method left of establishing or refuting a proposition than to adduce for or against it literary authorities recognized by that supreme authority.
But this is not so. The point can be cleared up by a reference to St. Thomas. He taught indeed that authority was of decisive importance in matters involving Revelation— namely, the authority of those to whom the revelations had been made—but he also taught that in everything else (and this includes, of course, the whole field of economics) any argument from authority was ‘extremely weak.’ Of course, the scholastics all quoted copiously, but so do we. They deferred to authority—where they agreed with it—more than we do because they emphasized cooperative rather than individual opinion and attached great importance to continuity of doctrine. But this is all.