Why do we study St. Thomas Aquinas?
One of the main tasks in the evangelization of culture is to conform the mind of man to the mind of God. This entails that we should have the mind of God; we should have the mind of the Church. Thus, the main goal of our intellectual formation is to conform ourselves to the mind of the Church. This necessarily requires that we should “arrive at the certainty of truth founded on the objective reality of things”[i] which serves as our basis in “attaining a deeper understanding and interpretation of the person and of person’s freedom and relationship with the world and with God”[ii].
This knowledge is indispensable to our evangelizing endeavor in the contemporary world inundated with different systems of thoughts and ideologies that distort and obfuscate the view and conception of man, of freedom and of God. Pope Leo XIII says that whosoever turns his attention to the bitter strife of these days and seeks a reason for the troubles that vex public and private life must come to the conclusion that a fruitful cause of the evils which now afflict, as well as those which threaten us lies in this: that false conclusions concerning divine and human things, which originated in the schools of philosophy, have now crept into all the orders of the State, and have been accepted by the common consent of the masses[iii].
Benedict XVI describes our world today as a collapse of civilization that seeks for the truth due primarily to the self-limitation of reason[iv], in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt[v]. Relativism has become the central problem for faith in our time[vi], for we are in a cultural situation that exalts subjectivism as a criteria and measure of truth[vii].
We are indeed facing a “crisis of truth[viii]”. “The humanization of God and the divinization of man characterizes the modern systems of thought. Man takes the place of God. Man becomes the measure of all things. Man now measures God. Man forgets and abandons the philosophy of commonsense that tells us “we are not ‘God-makers’ but ‘God-made’”[ix].
This collapse of truth has further reverberations to all aspects of man’s life. St. John Paul II declares, “many shipwrecks in faith and in the consecrated life and recent past and many current situations of distress and perplexity have their origin in a crisis of philosophical nature”[x].
So, what should we do in the face of this challenge? St. John Paul II is strongly convinced that we should “recover philosophy’s original vocation and responsibility in forming thought and culture”[xi].
A very staunch Thomistic philosopher in our time Father Cornelio Fabro re-echoes the voice of the Church in beckoning us that this effort of recovering philosophy’s original vocation entails a radical and decisive return to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Why St. Thomas Aquinas? What are the main characteristics of Thomistic thought?
The Church herself faithfully adheres and strongly recommends the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas for the following reasons:
1. Orthodoxy of His Teachings. “The works of the Angelic Doctor contain the doctrine, which is most in conformity with what the church teaches”[xii]. For that matter, “the Church has recognized the doctrine of St. Thomas the particularly high, full and fair expression of the Magisterium and the sensus fideiof the whole people of God”[xiii]… “The ecumenical councils, also, where blossoms the flower of all earthly wisdom, have always been careful to hold Thomas Aquinas in singular honor. In the Councils of Lyons, Vienna, Florence, and the Vatican one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided over the deliberations and decrees of the Fathers, contending against the errors of the Greeks, of heretics and rationalists, with invincible force and with the happiest results. But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors, is that the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration”[xiv].
The Second Vatican Council specially mentioned St. Thomas in some of its documents encouraging the faithful for a staunch adherence to St. his doctrine and principles in order “to explain as fully as possible the mysteries of salvation, to learn to deepen them and to discover their connection, through speculation”[xv]. Thus, “in those schools dependent on her (the church), she intends that by their very constitution individual subjects be pursued according to their own principles, method, and liberty of scientific inquiry, in such a way that an ever deeper understanding in these fields may be obtained and that, as questions that are new and current are raised and investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, that there may be a deeper realization of the harmony of faith and science”[xvi].
In honoring St. Thomas is not only an evident esteem for him, but also recognizes the authority of the teaching Church[xvii]. For it has come to light that there were not lacking among the leaders of heretical sects some who openly declared that, if the teaching of Thomas Aquinas were only taken away, they could easily battle with all Catholic teachers, gain the victory, and abolish the Church, which is impossible[xviii].
God has willed that by the strength and truth of the Angelic Doctor, “all heresies will be driven away, confounded and condemned”[xix]. For, “his teaching above that of others, the canonical writings alone excepted, enjoy such a precision of language, an order of matters, a truth of conclusions, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error”[xx].
2. Realism and Objectivity. Realism is the main feature of Thomistic thought. Its prevailing characteristic is that it is always in search of truth.[xxi] It is faithful to the voice of created things, which builds the edifice of philosophy and faithful to the voice of the Church to construct the building of theology[xxii]. “In Thomism is, so to speak, a sort of natural Gospel, an incomparably firm foundation for all constructions of scientific inquiry, because Thomism is characterized primarily by their objectivity; theirs are not buildings or lifts purely abstract spirit, but buildings that follow the real momentum of things…. never decay the value of Thomistic doctrine, because to do so would have to decline the value of things”[xxiii].
3. Openness and Universalism. The philosophy of St. Thomas deserves to be accepted with convictions by the youth of our day by reason of its openness and universalism; characteristics that are hard to find in may trends of contemporary thought[xxiv]. The Thomistic thought has an openness to the whole of reality in all its parts and dimensions, without either reducing reality or confining thought to particular forms or aspects (and without turning singular aspects into absolutes) as intelligence demands in the name of objective and integral truth about what is real.
Such openness and universalism is a distinctive mark of the Christian faith…. Catholicity[xxv]. His mind is open to all the advances of the truth, whatever the source of their origin: it is the first facet of his universalism[xxvi]. St. Thomas himself says that the truth, whoever says, comes from the Holy Spirit, which infuses the natural, light and moves to the intelligence and expression of truth[xxvii].
4. The Perennial Value of Truth. The Thomistic philosophy faithfully abides to the perennial value of truth. It firmly holds to the position that “truth, though it is fragmentary has universal value. It means that it is valid for all people and for all times”[xxviii]. For this reason, the philosophy of St. Thomas is described as perennial philosophy or philosophy of common sense, which is “the natural norm of human rationality”[xxix].
5. The Reconciliation of the Relationship between the Supernatural and the Natural
Grace and Nature. Grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment. It does not destroy nature but elevates and perfects it[xxx].
Faith and Reason. In the doctrine of St. Thomas, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason[xxxi].
Creator and Creature. St. Thomas cogently propounded the contingency of creatures and the necessity of the Creator. God is the non-contingent and necessary ground of all contingent beings. This is contrary to the modern view conceiving God as a stiff competitor to human flourishing, which can be seen in the atheism of Feuerbach and Sartre, whose followers are so thick on the ground. This implies that creatures cannot be without God and the more creatures are united to God the more perfect they become.
St. Thomas possesses two main intellectual qualities worth adhering worthy of admiration and imitation to those who seek for the truth.
First is his intellectual magnanimity. He is “most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, and in a certain way, he seems to have inherited the intellect of all[xxxii]. “He illumined the church more than all other doctors. In his books one profits more in only one year than the study of all others during his whole life[xxxiii].”
Second is his intellectual humility. He is faithful and fully submissive in mind and heart to the divine Revelation, one that he renewed in his deathbed, in the abbey of Fossanova, on the seventh of March 1274. St. Thomas himself humbly and submissively utters, “I have preached and taught; I have never said anything against you, but if I had said anything, it has been in good faith and do not follow stubbornly in my own opinion. If something less rightly about it in the other sacraments, I trust completely to the correction of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now leave this life”.
The angelic doctor, during his lifetime had written voluminous hundreds of works and treatises that approximately consist of ten million words. Yet in all of this, he expresses his humble ignorance upon saying “All I have written seems straw to me” after having seen God in a vision.
For all the reasons stated above, the Holy Catholic Church honors St. Thomas as: Common Doctor of the Church, Angelic Doctor, Heavenly Patron of Highest Studies, Patron of Catholic Schools and Universities and Apostle of Truth. “The Church herself embraces the doctrine of St. Thomas as her own doctrine”[xxxiv]. Thus we have to be formed “under his magisterium”[xxxv], and hold him “especially as a teacher”[xxxvi].
[i] IVE Constitutions 220, cf. PDV 52.
[iii] Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Aeterni Patris, 2.
[iv] Benedict XVI, Truth, Freedom and Tolerance
[v] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Fides et Ratio,
[vi] Truth and Tolerance, 117.
[vii] (Cf. PDV. 52).
[viii] Carlos Walker, The Missionary Pope, 45. (C.f., Pope Paul VI, Ecclessiam Suam)
[ix] Fulton J. Sheen, God and Intelligence, 321.
[x] St. John Paul II, Conference given to Priests and Nuns of the Parish of St. Pius V (October 28, 1979).
[xi] Fides et Ratio, 6.
[xii] Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris
[xiii] Pope Paul VI, Lumen Ecclessiae, 22.
[xiv] Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris 22.
[xv] Decree Optatam Totius on priestly formation, n. 16: AAS 58, 1966, p. 723.
[xvi] Cf. Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, n. 10: AAS 58, 1966, p. 737.
[xvii] Pius XI, Encyclical Studiorum Ducem, AAS 15, 1923, p. 324.
[xviii] Pope Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, 23.
[xix] St. Pius V, Mirabilis Deus; cf. Leo XIII, Aeteni Patris 13.
[xx] Pope Innocent VI, Sermo de S. Thoma. 37. Bucer, 14.
[xxi]Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas for the Youth of our Times. St. John Paul II’s Address at Angelicum University, December 17, 1979.
[xxii] (Address of St. John Paul II to the participants of the VIII International Thomistic Congress, September 13, 1980.)
[xxiii] Discorsi di Pio XII, vol. I, Turin 1960, pp. 668-669.
[xxiv] Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas for the Youth of our Times. St. John Paul II’s Address at Angelicum University, December 17, 1979.
[xxvi] Paul VI, Lumen Ecclesiae, 11.
[xxvii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, p.109, a. I ad 1: Ed, Leonina, v. VII, p. 290.
[xxviii] St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio.
[xxix] Carlos Walker, The Missionary Pope, p. 43; cf. Pope Paul VI Ecclessiam Suam.
[xxx] (Cf. Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 8, ad.2: “cum enim gratia non tollat naturam sed perfectat.)
[xxxi] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 78.
[xxxii] Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, Commentary on Summa Theologiae, II-II, 148, 9,4. Quoted by Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, 10.
[xxxiii] John XXII, Allocution in the Consistory, July 14, 1323.
[xxxiv] Benedict XV, Fausto Appetente Die, 4b.
[xxxv] cf. Optatam Totius, 16.
[xxxvi] CIC, c. 252 par. 3
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