The Church has told us countless times to go to St. Thomas for guidance in matters of philosophy and theology.  Over the centuries this authoritative counsel has been a source of motivation for countless schools and seminaries, teachers and scholars.  But just who was this saint, what were the main lines of his life, and what are the characteristics of his major works?  Such questions are ever more relevant as fewer know their answers.  That is the reason for the following all-too-brief account.

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The seventh son of a noble family, Thomas was born in 1225 at Roccasecca in Italy, near Aquino, not far from the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, where as a boy he received instruction in liberal arts, literature, and catechism.  At the age of 14, Thomas commenced his undergraduate studies at the University of Naples, where newly-discovered works of Aristotle were studied more eagerly and freely than was the case in Paris.  In Naples he encountered radiant friars of the newly-founded Order of Preachers, whose life of poverty and preaching he embraced in 1244.  His parents having already marked out their son as future abbot of Monte Cassino enriched with all rights and privileges appertaining thereunto, Thomas’s decision to join a band of poor itinerant preachers was not greeted with enthusiasm.  Thomas was kidnapped by his brothers and kept for a year at the family estate to get him to change his mind, but he remained firm in his resolve.

In the autumn of 1245, Friar Thomas entered the University of Paris, where he began a period of studies under the tutelage of Albert the Great, a Dominican famed for his encyclopedic knowledge and his proficiency in Aristotle.  Thomas accompanied Albert to Cologne in 1248 to continue his studies, and there he was ordained to the priesthood.  As Thomas was a quiet and studious pupil with a stout physique, he earned at this time the nickname “dumb ox”; yet Albert, impressed by his pupil’s unusual gifts, is said to have remarked: “We call him the dumb ox, but the bellowing of that ox will resound throughout the whole world.”  Returning to Paris in 1252 to complete his advanced degree, he was granted special permission in 1256 to take a chair in theology at the University, despite protests from the incumbent professors who distrusted Dominican and Franciscan “upstarts.”

Under orders from his superiors, Thomas went to Italy in 1259 to spend several years working for his order and for the papal court.  During this time he produced the first of his great mature works, the Summa contra gentiles (a summary of Catholic theology refuting pagan and heretical errors), and worked on numerous other projects, including a line-by-line commentary on the four Gospels, the Catena aurea, woven mainly from Patristic sources.  This work reveals a marvellous familiarity with both Latin and Greek Fathers: Thomas drew upon 22 of the former and a whopping 57 of the latter.

Meanwhile, intense theological controversies were brewing in Paris, owing in large part to an extreme Aristotelianism that threatened to divorce reason from faith, and an equally extreme conservatism that could not come to grips with newly discovered pagan learning.  In response to the crisis, Thomas, again at his superiors’ request, returned to that city in 1268 for an unusual second term or “regency” as professor of theology.

“Straw” worth saving

Among the duties of a medieval professor was the holding of strenuous public debates or quaestiones disputatae at which all faculty and advanced students were present as interlocutors.  The “determination” of the questions was left to the master, who, on the day following the dispute, handed down his considered judgment on the issues.  Either a glutton for punishment or an angel in superhuman endurance, Thomas initiated numerous debates in both of his regencies, sometimes to clarify pressing questions of the day (for example, the true nature of evangelical poverty; the immateriality of angels; the personal possession of intellect), and other times to advance the knowledge of traditional subjects (truth, the soul, evil, divine power).  At the end of his Roman period and the beginning of his second Parisian regency, Thomas began work on his monumental Summa theologiae; but, as if this project and the academic debates were not enough to keep him busy, he produced at the same time a series of detailed commentaries on the major works of Aristotle to help out struggling students.  Throughout his career, Friar Thomas also responded generously to requests for his “expert opinion” on legal, canonical, philosophical, or theological topics—advice he was well qualified to give, having committed to heart the Bible as well as the writings of the Fathers and the philosophers.  (It was said that when Friar Thomas first arrived at a monastery or priory he had never been to before, his first stop was at the chapel, and, immediately afterwards, he was off to the library to seek out any books he had not seen before.  Having secured these volumes, he promptly committed their contents to memory.)

After a tremendous mystical experience traditionally said to have occurred on the feast of St. Nicholas (December 6) in 1273, Thomas found himself utterly unable to write or dictate any more of the Summa.  “All I have written now seems like straw in comparison with what I have seen,” he told his secretary Reginald of Piperno.  “Straw” refers to the chaff, the outer husk, as compared with its kernel or inner core; Thomas felt keenly that limited human words were utterly inadequate to the infinite mystery of the God whose glory had been opened for a moment to his eyes.[1]  Thomas became ill en route to the General Council of Lyons and died, on March 7, 1274, at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova after having received the last sacraments.  His final words in the presence of the Blessed Eucharist are well worth pondering: “I receive Thee, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive Thee, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, labored; I have preached Thee, I have taught Thee. . .if I have taught anything poorly on this sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave this life.”

In a time such as ours when routine disobedience to the teaching of the Church has become the norm among clerics in many dioceses, we are rightly amazed and challenged by the sheer self-denial and humility implied in Friar Thomas’s attitude at the threshold of his passing into eternal life.  Obedience is the only criterion for him, as it was for Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Thomas is completely detached from all his work, all his writings, all his life; he asks the Church to decide what is worth saving and what should be discarded.  The humanistic concept of authorship, which is not far from Pilate’s “what I have written, I have written,” is absent from his mind.  I am sure we could all use a dose of this unshakable confidence in the divinely-guided wisdom of the Catholic Church.

Thomas the Saint

Our picture of the life of this great thinker would be incomplete if we failed to remember several things about Thomas the saint.  As a “Master of Theology”—which in the Middle Ages meant one who had attained great proficiency in understanding and interpreting the Bible—Thomas not only taught classes on the word of God but preached many sermons, often to simple unlettered people, and wrote detailed commentaries on Scripture for the benefit of fellow preachers.  As those who knew him testified, Thomas was a man of palpable holiness, humble, obedient, and selfless in seeking the kingdom of God.  Nor was he a cold reasoner, however rationalistic some of his later disciples may have been.  In response to a request from Pope Urban IV he composed a magnificent Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, containing hymns which are counted among the most beautiful specimens of medieval poetry, full of unction and tender devotion.

So well did he write on the angels and so pure was his practice of the Christian life that he earned the title “Angelic Doctor” soon after his death; and so profound were his contributions to sacred theology that he gained a greater title still: that of Common or Universal Doctor of the Church.  Canonized in 1323, Thomas thereafter received the accolades of every pope, many of whom put him forward authoritatively as the model and chief guide for students of theology—the most notable being Leo XIII, whose encyclical Aeterni Patris (1878) inaugurated a strong renewal in the study of St. Thomas which lasted well into this century.  In spite of false impressions to the contrary, the Magisterium has never revoked the preeminent status of St. Thomas, as the documents of Vatican II and of recent popes bear witness.

Synthesis of faith and reason

The hallmark of Thomas’s approach to theology is the synthesis of reason and faith.  To speak of such a synthesis means that sacred theology, while based firmly on the word of God, employs truths known by reason in order to understand more deeply the mysteries God has revealed and to refute errors concerning them.  More fundamentally, however, it means that both reason and revelation are gifts of God intended to illuminate one another as man progresses on his pilgrimage towards heaven.  There is always a certain reciprocity between them: is it possible to do away with reason when trying to grasp the meaning of revelation?  (If we are supposed to believe without question every wandering preacher who claims inspiration from the Holy Spirit, we would truly be the sorriest of creatures, persuaded one day only to be deceived the next.)  The full truth of the Gospel and the Church could not be discerned, much less embraced, unless the Holy Spirit was able to work within us, within our own powers of knowing and loving.  A man whose will and intellect were absolutely corrupted—deaf to any truth, hardened to all goodness—would be no different from a plank of wood.  God creates man with an immortal soul, a reasoning mind, a capacity to know the truth and choose the good; this is the very essence of man as imago Dei (image of God).  Sin damages human nature, it cannot corrupt its essence: “nature is wounded, not destroyed” (Augustine).  It is precisely what is good and uncorrupted in man that enables him to recognize the truth when he encounters it.  The grace of God does not work by external imposition but by a renewal of the inner man and all his faculties; it confers new sanctity and confirms old sanity, joining man to God and restoring man to himself.

It would thus be false to accuse St. Thomas of viewing the human intellect and will as if they were “unfallen.”  He is well aware that sin has wrought terrible damage, and that, however much man tries to acquire virtues and adhere to what is right, he cannot succeed without God’s help.  Thomas’s theology is centered on God alone, the first beginning and last end of all things (the First Part of the Summa theologiae); from this vantage, it focuses on man striving to perfect the imago Dei within him by a harmonious interaction of free will and grace (the Second Part of the Summa); and in between the infinite God and finite man stands the figure of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the Mediator who is God’s perfect self-revelation and the path and goal of human righteousness (the Third Part).  The fact that man can acquire natural knowledge of God shows that the Creator has remained, as he always was and is, closer to us than we to ourselves.  As St. Paul declared to the Athenians: “He is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your poets have said, for we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:27-28).  Even the pagans are without excuse if they fail to gain true knowledge of God from His creation (Rom. 1:20-21, Wis. 13:1-9).  To prepare the way for revelation, God sows throughout the world seeds of truth which can take root and grow in human hearts, opening them towards the better seed of the Gospel whose fruit is everlasting life.

The confidence with which St. Thomas leans upon rational arguments must be understood within this greater context of God’s love for man, the Shepherd’s desire that no sheep should go astray.  There can be no darkness so dark that the divine light no longer shines in it.  This is also the context which enables us to appreciate the extensive use Thomas makes of pre-Christian philosophers.  Rather than dismiss them as unregenerate pagans, Thomas, in union with the entire Christian tradition up to his time, sees them as witnesses to the truths accessible in the Book of Nature, which, coming from the hand of a wise and loving God, can never contradict the Book of Revelation.  Just as the world is God’s work, so is the preaching of Christ; and just as reason is God’s first and most abiding gift to man, so the Gospel is reason’s ultimate salvation, not its destruction.  The pagans could not know the Savior who had not yet come or had not yet been preached, but, by following the footprints of God in the world, they did apprehend the existence of a sovereign spiritual being, supremely true and good, and in this way they too “preached an unknown God” (Acts 17:23) whom Christ made known in the fullness of time.  The wisdom of Jesus Christ is foolishness to the Gentiles only when they have closed their minds to God’s prior revelation of Himself in the world.

The Summa theologiae

The Summary of Theology, arguably the greatest work of St. Thomas and one of the most influential books in Catholic intellectual history, comprises some 3,122 articles or specific queries on doctrine, grouped into thematic questions.  Thomas set to work on this enormous project in the years 1265-66, and was nearing completion of the final portion in December 1273 when he underwent the aforementioned mystical experience that left him unable to write any further.  After Thomas’s death in March of 1274, his students completed the final portion, now referred to as the “Supplement,” by re-arranging material from his earlier commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

The purpose of the Summa is stated in the opening prologue: the teacher of Catholic doctrine should instruct beginners in a manner and order that reflects the interrelationship of the various truths of the faith, avoiding useless repetition and confusing digressions.  The breadth and profundity of the Summa indicates the real intended audience: graduate students of theology who have already received a grueling training in logic, physics, metaphysics, and Sacred Scripture.  Although some segments of the Summa are directly accessible to nonspecialists, other segments are all but unintelligible without ample prior training.  For this reason, it is wiser for the modern beginner to read a trustworthy general introduction to the thought of St. Thomas along with a few of his easier works before moving on to tackle the Summa itself.

The overall structure of the work is one of beautiful simplicity: the first part (prima pars) speaks of God in Himself and God as the origin and goal of creation in its entirety, the second part (secunda pars) of man’s return to God by means of virtue and grace, and the third part (tertia pars) of Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life through whom man returns to God.  The work traces out a broad circle of going forth and coming back: the procession of all things from the Creator and the providentially orchestrated return of creation, especially of man, to God through the Mediator who is true God and true man.

The prima pars falls into three main sections: God in Himself (qq. 2–26), God as Trinity (qq. 27–43), and God as Creator (qq. 44–119); the last of these is in turn divided into three sections: the production of creatures (qq. 44–46), the distinction of creatures (qq. 47–102, wherein we find treatises on the angels, man, and other corporeal creatures), and the governance of creatures by divine providence (qq. 103–119).  The secunda pars is divided into two major parts: human acts considered in general (the prima secundae, consisting of 114 questions on the final end of man, acts, passions, habits, virtues, vices, laws, and grace), and human acts considered in particular (the secunda secundae, consisting of 189 questions going into more detail on the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues, the active and contemplative states of life, and different offices or stations of Christians).  The tertia pars falls into a threefold division: the Savior himself (qq. 1–59, comprising the mystery of the Incarnation and thus the life and death of Jesus), the sacraments or means of sanctification given by the Savior (qq. 60–90; Supplement, qq. 1–68), and the immortal life won for us by the Savior (Suppl. qq. 69–99, on the Last Things).

Each individual quaestio, “something to be sought or inquired into,” is made up of one or more articuli or points for discussion.  Each articulus takes the form of a topic proposed, several objections raised against the answer Thomas will give, a sed contra or authoritative statement (usually taken from the Bible, the Fathers, or a philosopher), a corpus or response in which Thomas articulates his position, and finally replies to the initial objections.

Thomas’s lasting relevance

St. Thomas’s three great theological compendia (Summa contra gentiles, Compendium theologiae, and Summa theologiae) stand among the greatest treatments of Christian doctrine in all ages; few other works explain and defend Christian doctrine so clearly and thoroughly, answering objections from every imaginable angle, including some that seem characteristically “modern.”  The discussions of key topics—for example, the existence of God, the fittingness of the Incarnation, the nature of the sacraments, God as the final end of human life—are well worth the time and energy of the apologist who wishes to meditate on the foundations of the Catholic faith and gather arguments for meeting objections against it.  The study of St. Thomas builds up important habits of mind: crafting logical arguments, piercing to the heart of a disagreement, anticipating difficulties and misunderstandings before they occur, and above all, appreciating the mutual reinforcement of reason and revelation.

Nearly the whole array of Thomas’s writings have a relevance to apologetics, but some are particularly well-suited for learning about and defending the faith.  Among his more accessible works are the sermons on the Apostle’s Creed, the Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, the Commandments, and the Sacraments, and his “shorter Summa,” the Compendium of Theology.  Nothing dispels Protestant prejudices against St. Thomas more quickly than an impartial study of his scriptural commentaries (a number of which have been translated into English), where he emerges as a skilled interpreter and passionate lover of the word of God.  In the Summa contra gentiles, Thomas enunciates his wise principle that with heretics we should argue from both Testaments, with Jews from the Old Testament, and with pagans from natural reason—and Thomas proceeds to do just that, taking up each question from the vantage of reason, then Scripture.  As a result, the Summa contra gentiles is a goldmine of apologetic arguments.  The Summa theologiae is similarly useful as long as one knows where to look for answers to one’s questions.  As a rule, it is best to read small portions of Thomas many times until one understands them, instead of racing ahead to cover many pages; rich fare is better digested when eaten slowly.

One occasionally hears protests against the writings of St. Thomas: they are too old, they fail to address peculiarly modern issues, they make mistakes in matters of detail (like biology or astronomy), they represent a doomed attempt to “sum up” the infinite wealth of Christian doctrine in neat arguments.  These objections miss the target.  The truths of our faith and the essence of man never change, and Thomas is concerned with what is true always and everywhere; as a result, his writings breathe an air of serene timelessness that keeps them above the shifting fashions and narrow concerns of each passing age.  Far from being irrelevant, the writings of Thomas are more relevant than ever, as modern man grows more and more forgetful of the fundamental truths of nature and grace to which Thomas devotes his attention.  Issues we like to think of as “modern” are usually little more than age-old problems dressed in the latest mode.  Thomas’s mistakes in matters of detail can be easily corrected in light of subsequent scientific knowledge or Church teaching, without affecting the substance of Thomistic theology.

It should always be remembered that Thomas never intended to provide a complete and self-sufficient system to which nothing more could be added.  He intended his works to be convenient and trustworthy sources of sound knowledge for students and teachers of Christian doctrine; and so well did he succeed, that all who study him with due effort can count on much fruit from their labors.  This is why the Church always sends us to him as a master of truth and a model of holy truth-seeking.  We will be richer for having walked with him, poorer for having walked away from him.  Let us take good advice from the Popes and walk with the Angelic Doctor.


[1] For a detailed treatment of this experience and its significance, see my article “Golden Straw: St. Thomas and the Ecstatic Practice of Theology,” Nova et Vetera [Eng. ed.] 2 (2004): 61–89.

The post The Life of St. Thomas Aquinas and His Greatest Work appeared first on OnePeterFive.

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