Thomas Aquinas: The Common and Universal Doctor

(This year marks the 701st anniversary of the canonization of Saint Thomas Aquinas, on July 18th, 1323, by the Avignon Pope, John XXII. Good thing, too, for Pope John was one of the pontiffs accused of material heresy, surmising in a private letter that souls may not fully exist between death and the final judgement, an opinion corrected dogmatically by his successor, Benedict XII, in his apostolic constitution, Benedictus Deus, that souls are judged right after death, and continue to exist until the resurrection. It was Saint Thomas who had posited that God provided what was needed for the soul to ‘act’ – think, perceive, contemplate – without a body. Here are some thoughts on the universal doctor of the Church, and may we rejoice in his light. Pope Francis has offered indulgences for those who show devotion to Saint Thomas during these two years of anniversary, under certain conditions, which we will post).

In his landmark 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II titled his chapter on the great Doctor – called ‘Universal’ for the breadth and scope of his knowledge – The enduring originality of the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which gives at least some glimpse of an answer to why we still study his works in Latin, now eight centuries old.

The question is a legitimate one, for there have been countless theologians and philosophers in the Church’s two millennia, yet the 13th century Dominican friar Thomas d’Aquino is the one most recommended, most celebrated, the one who really consolidated the intellectual patrimony of the Church, bringing together faith and reason – like Odysseus bending the unbendable bow, to use Josef Pieper’s vivid analogy – into a harmony, by which the human intellect ascends to the height of truth.

Thomas’ whole life – from the age of five, when he was offered as an oblate to the nearby monastery of Monte Cassino – was wholly dedicated to truth, and the Truth. No compromising or dilly-dallying, no wandering off, just prayer, work, teaching and writing. In his later teenage years, he joined the recently-founded, and for its time radical, Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, whose main charism was study and preaching. Before his untimely death just shy of his fiftieth year – like most saints, he did a lot in a little – Thomas produced a prodigious corpus of theological and philosophical writings that are nearly miraculous in their breadth, clarity and scope, often keeping three scribes scribbling at once, which provide the basis of thought for all future students of theology and philosophy.

That is why the thought and methodology of Saint Thomas – what we generally mean by ‘Thomism’ – have been proclaimed and prescribed by the Church in the highest and most authoritative of terms. His Summa was placed on the altar at each session of the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563). Thomas is also put forward as the ‘master’ of studies in the documents on education and on the formation of priests in the Second Vatican Council, and is also prescribed as the primary teacher of theological studies in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  In both the Council and the Code, Thomas is the only person spoken of by name besides Christ and Our Lady.

And here is what the great Pope Saint John Paul II had to say:

Saint Thomas was impartial in his love of truth. He sought truth wherever it might be found and gave consummate demonstration of its universality. In him, the Church’s Magisterium has seen and recognized the passion for truth; and, precisely because it stays consistently within the horizon of universal, objective and transcendent truth, his thought scales “heights unthinkable to human intelligence”. (Fides et Ratio, #44)

High praise indeed, from one of Thomas’ disciples, for the great Pope’s writings are filled with references to the Angelic Doctor. As the Holy Father continues:

Rightly, then, he may be called an “apostle of the truth”. Looking unreservedly to truth, the realism of Thomas could recognize the objectivity of truth and produce not merely a philosophy of “what seems to be” but a philosophy of “what is” (ibid.)

Yet there are so many Catholics who have scarcely heard of Saint Thomas, to say nothing of having read him. All too often, their approach to truth is emotionalist, subjectivist, mushy and ill-formed. On the other hand, to continue with Pieper, the two hallmarks of Saint Thomas, are precision and clarity, the truth distilled to its essence. There are no ways comparable to forming the human intellect than a careful reading of Thomas, especially his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica.

In his own understated manner, Pope John Paul II laments this neglect of one of the Church’s greatest minds:

If it has been necessary from time to time to intervene on this question, to reiterate the value of the Angelic Doctor’s insights and insist on the study of his thought, this has been because the Magisterium’s directives have not always been followed with the readiness one would wish. In the years after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic faculties were in some ways impoverished by a diminished sense of the importance of the study not just of Scholastic philosophy but more generally of the study of philosophy itself. I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians.

At the same time, Thomas was also a great mystic and poet, composing the Office for Corpus Christi – the Pange Lingua, Adoro Te Devote, O Salutaris, and a number of other timeless, divine hymns flowed from his soul while on retreat in the great mountain-top cathedral at Orvieto. He once declared that he had learned more at the foot of the Cross than from all the books he had ever read – and he read quite a few. A man rapt in God, totally given, to whom we owe more than we could ever imagine.

Thomas stopped writing after a vision on the feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6th, 1273, after which he declared ‘all I have written seems to be as straw’. He wrote no more, until his death on March 7, 1294, on his way to the Second Council of Lyons. Before breathing his last, he offered a final gift, a commentary on the Song of Songs for the Cistercian monks at Fossanuova who had cared for him, and in whose monastery he went to God, perhaps as innocent as he was on his baptismal day.

He was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323, fifty years after his death (soon, in those days). When someone objected that his life did not display the expected external wonders of a saint, one of the cardinals retorted: Tot miraculis, quot articulis: ‘There are as many miracles, as there are articles‘. Just so.

Pope Saint Pius V (a fellow Dominican) declared Thomas a doctor of the Church on this day, January 28th, 1567, the same day his relics had been transferred to the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse in 1369 where they rest to this day (even if the building, alas, is no longer a church).

We should follow the great advice of the great Pope, and all of the Church’s Magisterium. The novelist Flannery O’Connor said that she read one article before bed each night. Not a bad way to end the day. One way or the other, delve a little into the mind of the great Thomas, and say a prayer for all those trying to get the truth across to a world so immersed in falsity. We could use a lot more of his precision and clarity to cut through the current obfuscatory and mendacious fog. The truth will indeed set us free.

Sancte Thomas, ora pro nobis! +