A term coined from the Greek words [symbol omitted]λη (matter) and μορφή (form) and used to designate the Aristotelian-scholastic teaching that all natural or physical bodies are composed of matter and form as essential substantial principles. Apart from its philosophical importance, the doctrine has been used extensively by Catholic theologians to explain transubstantiation, the soul-body relationship, and various points of sacramental theology. This article sketches the salient features of the doctrine and then outlines its principal applications in Catholic theology.
Doctrine. Hylomorphism (sometimes spelled hylemorphism) is usually opposed to atomism, which attempts to explain all natural changes and the properties of bodies in terms of atoms or some purely material principle, and to dynamism, which attempts to explain similar phenomena in terms of energy or some purely formal principle. Hylomorphism, as opposed to such monistic doctrines, is dualistic in character. It maintains that the substance and activity of things found in the physical universe must ultimately be explained in terms of two principles, one material and the other formal, traditionally referred to as primary matter and substantial form, respectively. As coconstituting substantial principles, these are not to be confused with elements, which enter into the structure of compounds but are not their essential constitutives (see principle; element). No inconsistency need be involved, however, in invoking both an essential composition and a structural composition in explaining the properties of bodies.
Primary matter, as the material principle, is undetermined, passive, and purely potential; the same in all bodies, it serves to explain such common features as extension, mass, and inertia. Substantial form, as the formal principle, is determining and actualizing; it accounts for the specific properties and characteristics that serve to differentiate one type of body from another. Primary matter and substantial form unite under the influence of their reciprocal causality as intrinsic principles and go to make up secondary matter—a term used to designate a corporeal substance of some determined nature, such as marble. Secondary matter, in its turn, is regarded as the recipient of accidental forms, or accidents, that further modify the substance without changing its nature; an example of such further modification is the shape imposed on marble by a sculptor.
The existence and characteristics of primary matter and substantial form have been established traditionally by an analysis of the changes taking place in the order of nature, particularly those of the type recognizable as sub stantial change. Other arguments in support of hylomorphic composition also have been proposed—some metaphysical, based on the application of the doctrine of potency and act to material substance; others logical, based on the analysis of modes of predication respecting subjects of change; and still others phenomenological, based on the classification of various opposed properties of bodies, such as their activity and passivity and their individuality and common essential characteristics.
When classical atomic theories of the mechanist and determinist type were in the greatest vogue among scientists, before the advent of quantum mechanics, some thinkers rejected hylomorphism as in conflict with reigning scientific theories and attempted to replace it by a more concordist doctrine referred to as hylosystemism. With the advent of quantum theory and the various philosophical interpretations placed on the uncertainty principle, however, together with developments in high-energy physics, particularly the discovery of large numbers of so-called elementary particles, hylomorphism has again found favor among scholastics interested in the philosophy of science and its problems. (For a fuller explanation and justification of hylomorphic doctrine, see matter and form; matter; form.)
Applications. From the beginning of the 13th century on, with such thinkers as william of auxerre, philip the chancellor, and william of auvergne, Aristotelian terminology worked its way gradually into theology. The climax of the Aristotelian development was reached in the teachings of albert the great and of thomas aquinas during the high scholastic period, the latter in particular making extensive use of matter and form as well as the related doctrines of potency and act and of essence and existence in his theological elaborations. The Thomistic influence persists in Catholic theology to the present, and serves to explain much of its terminology. Yet the concepts of matter and form have not always been understood exactly as Aquinas proposed them, there being considerable controversy over such topics as the unity of substantial form in composites. Though agreeing on fundamental doctrines, the Franciscan school opposed Aquinas in a number of particulars, as did F. Suárez in a later thought context.
An important theological application of hylomorphism is in explaining what happens during the Eucharistic rite of transubstantiation. Medieval theologians regarded bread and wine as single substances composed of primary matter and substantial form. In their view, when the words of consecration are spoken, under God's action the single substance of bread is converted into the substance of Christ's Body in such a way that the substantial form of bread no longer remains; the primary matter is likewise changed, so that only the accidents of bread remain after the conversion has been effected (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3a, 75.6–8). Modern Catholic theologians, making use of scientific analyses, no longer regard bread and wine as single substances but otherwise employ a similar conceptual framework when explaining the effects of consecration (see tran substantiation).
Another theological application of hylomorphism is in explaining how the human soul is united to the body (see soul-body relationship), a teaching that has been further developed in conjunction with the doctrines of the hypostatic union and of the immortality of the human soul (see immortality). The teaching on sanctifying grace as an accidental and supernatural form of the soul is also based on matter-form concepts. The same may be said in an analogous way for much of sacramental theology, where the notion of a matter and a form proper to each Sacrament has its historical origin in hylomorphism.
See Also: hylosystemism.
Bibliography: g. meyer and e. gutwenger, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 5:556–58 a. m. moschetti, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 2:1235–36. m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952) 1:526–542, 2:63–79. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 10.1335–55.
[w. a. wallace]