The Angelic Doctor - Thomas Aquinas
by Fr. Brian Mullady
Much has been written about St. Thomas Aquinas and his thought and influence on the Church. Unfortunately, the focus of these writings is more often the result of scholarsí preconceptions than of the truth of the man himself. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was born in Southern Italy into a noble family in a time of great political and theological upheaval. Educated by the Benedictines at Monte Casino, he entered the Dominican Order and spent his life as a teacher and scholar. There is a story that he had a vision of Christ on the Cross and was asked by Our Lord what reward he wanted for all he had done and written. St. Thomas answered, "Non nisi te, Domine"-only you, Lord.
Thomas, the Model
For centuries, St. Thomas has been recommended as a standard for Catholic thought by saints, popes, and, more recently, the latest Code of Canon Law. Sadly, this has led scholars to make him a model for how to think, but not necessarily what to think. Often his followers have sacrificed what he thought so that they might enlist him as a support for some contemporary philosophy, and so have not done justice to the master.
It is time to set the record straight.
St. Thomas is a Doctor of the Church, but a most unique one. For one thing, his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, was reverenced on the altar together with the Bible at the Council of Trent because the Council Fathers thought it clarified many questions relating to the faith. When St. Thomas was canonized, the devilís advocate at the canonization process objected that there were no miracles, to which one of the cardinals answered, "Tot miraculis, quot articulis"-there are as many miracles in the life of St. Thomas as articles in the Summa.
With praise such as this, it seems futile to say merely that we should be like St. Thomas in his attempt to integrate reason and faith, but not think the way he thought about this. Though it is true that the Church does not canonize any particular philosophy, the popes have generally recommended the "perennial philosophy" of the Middle Ages, in which is included St. Thomas. Indeed, many of his ideas have become the Churchís commonly accepted explanations of things (e.g., the definition of the natural law given in Veritatis Splendor). Though St. Thomas is not the final authority, any theology worthy of the name could not contradict his philosophical positions and remain Catholic. Some principles, therefore, are important in any attempt to appreciate why St. Thomas has always been so highly regarded.
Faith and Reason
First, he was a theologian before all else. The courses he taught as a professor were commentaries on Sacred Scripture, and the Word of God thus came first in his life. Many have valued St. Thomas for his contributions to Catholic philosophy, and justly so. But if they reduce his contribution to Catholic thought merely to his philosophical explanations, they fail to appreciate that faith was central in his discussion of reality.
Second, in a time when truth is regarded merely as a subjective expression of a personís needs, St. Thomas sounds the clarion call that truth is objective. This is certainly the case with truths of faith, but also the case with truths of reason, for both nature and grace come from the same First Truth, who is eternal. Some have thought, wrongly, that when St. Thomas gave five proofs for the existence of God-beginning with manís observation of nature and his attempt to explain it-he was motivated by a pious intention to read Christian truths into pagan authors like Aristotle, who did not really think them. This would make St. Thomas either intellectually dishonest or so intellectually limited that he could not understand what Aristotle was saying.
Instead, when St. Thomas gives five proofs for the existence of God at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae, he really thinks that the same God who revealed Himself as "I Am Who Am" to Moses on Mount Sinai can be discovered by pagan philosophers using merely human reason. When St. Thomas used the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle-especially Aristotleís realistic and sense-experience-based metaphysics as the grounding for theological reasoning-it was not because he thought every philosophy of the "spirit of the age" could be adapted to Christian usage. In fact, the philosophy of Aristotle was about as far as one could get from the spirit of the age in St. Thomasís time. He used Aristotle because he thought what Aristotle said was objectively and perennially true. For St. Thomas, Aristotle had discovered the fullness of truth open to reason alone.
By Any Other Name
St. Thomas is called the "Angelic Doctor" because he wrote a great deal about angels. Indeed, his use of the philosophy of Aristotle to distinguish essence and existence in angels (to show how they could be created, but without matter) was among his principal contributions to the history of philosophy.
St. Thomas has been called the "Common Doctor" because he unified Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and philosophy in a neat synthesis that scholars have studied ever since.
He is called "Divine Thomas" because those who have studied his works feel they have met not only a genius, but someone who must have been inspired by God to write as much as he did with such depth, power, and faith.
It is a sign of his humility that he almost never shines through his voluminous pages personally, but rather sticks to the objective problem. Thus he reverses the egoism of our existentialist age, which tends in some cases to sacrifice the truth in favor of personal experience. Bishop Fulton Sheen, a great Thomistic scholar, once remarked that the problem of modern philosophy is that modern thinkers tend to view the universal as "an impoverished sense experience." The rose smells less sweet because it can be defined. Such a position has more in common with Kant than with Aquinas, who defines salvation as "the enjoyment of God."
Adhering to God
In recent days, Pope Benedict XVI has severely criticized the "dictatorship of relativism" and has called for a return to a metaphysics that promotes objective truth. The witness of St. Thomas should be the foundation of this return. Though so highly versed in reason that he could comment on most of the works of Aristotle, and so intellectual that he could synthesize such disparate sources as Scripture, St. Augustine, Plato, and Aristotle, St. Thomas always remained a humble servant of the truth and the Church. In his last words, he submitted one of his deepest and most influential treatises on the Eucharist to the "judgment of the Roman pontiff."
His legacy and example demand that we not merely imitate him, but also study what he actually said. For as such diverse authorities as St. Ignatius of Loyola and John Paul II have constantly noted, when the Church reads St. Thomas, theology always comes back to secure moorings.
Since the master is more succinct and eloquent than the student, the best summary of his ideal of life should be given by him:
Because our perfection consists in our union with God, we must have access to the divine to the fullest extent possible, using everything in our power, that our mind might be occupied with contemplation and our reason with the investigation of divine realities. As Psalm [73:28] says: "It is good to adhere to my God." So Aristotle rejects the opinion of those who held that we should not meddle with what is divine, but only with what is human. "But we must not follow those," he says, "who advise us, being human to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accord with what is best in us." (Commentary on Boethiusís De Trinitate, 2, 1, ad corp.)
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Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., is a mission and retreat preacher from the Western Dominican Province. He is an adjunct professor of theology at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, CT. This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2006 issue of Lay Witness Magazine. Copyright © Catholics United for the Faith
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