Why St. Thomas?

Introducing a new CWR column, titled “St. Thomas for Today”, which will offer a Thomistic perspective on topics of current interest, review works by Thomists, interview contemporary Thomists, and offer portraits of great Thomists of the past.

Detail from "Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas" (1631) by Francisco de Zurbaran [WikiArt.org]

The Church has given the title “doctor” to some of her saints. In Latin doctor means “teacher” and the doctors of the Church are teachers of a very special sort. Pius X calls them “our great teachers” and “interpreters of revealed doctrine.”1 According to widely accepted criteria, doctors of the Church are people recognized by the Church for their orthodoxy, eminent sanctity, and (with a few exceptions) their excellence as scholars.

As Pius X’s remark suggests, the doctors of the Church are primarily teachers of theology since theology is concerned with understanding and explaining revelation. But some of the doctors of the Church are likewise teachers of philosophy. This is because revelation re-proposes or assumes many philosophical truths: that God exists, that human beings have a definite and permanent nature, that some ways of life are good for us and others aren’t, etc. So, the Church has always had a deep interest in philosophy too, as John Paul II reminds us in Fides et ratio (1998).

The doctors of the Church are typically distinguished from the “fathers” (although some fathers are also doctors). But the latter play basically the same role, the main difference perhaps being the fact that they were key in the formation of the Church’s doctrine in the early centuries of her life.

The ecclesiastical hierarchy – the bishops and pope – rely on the fathers and doctors of the Church to guide them in their own teaching duties. But lay people too should, of course, look to them for guidance in understanding Catholic doctrine, whether it has been defined or not.

Doctor communis ecclesiae

Among Catholic teachers, both fathers and doctors, the Church has consistently taught that St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) is, in a sense, the first. This understanding of St. Thomas emerged fairly early. Thomas died on March 7, 1274 and was canonized 49 years later by John XXII on July 18, 1323. At a consistory in Avignon at the beginning of the canonization process in 1318, Pope John said of Thomas that he would count it “a great glory for us and our Church if we were to inscribe this saint into the catalogue of saints.” And the reason for this, said the pope, was that Thomas

more enlightened the Church than all the other Doctors; a man can profit more in a year from his books than [from studying] the teaching of the others his whole life.2

During the Council of Trent (1545-1563) it is reported that Thomas’s Summa theologiae was placed on the altar alongside the Scriptures and papal decrees. On this practice Leo XIII comments in Aeterni Patris (1879):

[T]he highest praise that Thomas has received – entirely unique to him and not shared with any other Catholic doctors – is that the Council fathers of Trent made it part of the order of the conclave to place on the altar, next to the codices of divine Scripture and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas in which they could seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.

Pius V proclaimed Thomas a doctor of the Church on April 15, 1567. As Pasquale Porro observes, the pope did this at a time when “among the Latins, only Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great enjoyed this dignity.”3 Three years later in the papal bull In eminenti Pius declared Thomas’s theological doctrine, “which has been received by the Catholic Church,” to be “greater than all others.”4

Leaping ahead to the twentieth century, in a 1904 letter to the Pontifical Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pius X again expresses the Church’s mind with respect to Thomas’s status. He calls Thomas the “leader and master of Christian philosophy and theology” and tells us that his “divine genius fashioned weapons suited to protect the truth and defeat the many errors of the times.” Pius continues:

Indeed, those principles of wisdom, useful for all time, which the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church handed down to us, have been organized by no one more aptly than by Thomas, and no one has explained them more clearly.5

In the same vein, Pius XI remarks on the appropriate title for Thomas in Studiorum ducem (1923):

We commend not only the title “Angelic Doctor” but also the title “Common” or “Universal Doctor of the Church” for Thomas, whose doctrine the Church has made her own, as many documents of every kind attest.

Moving forward to Vatican II and the postconciliar magisterium, we see that that there is no essential change in the Church’s judgment about Thomas. Paul VI, who approved and promulgated the Council’s teaching, stresses its recognition of Thomas’s doctrinal primacy in the conciliar documents Optatam totius (on priestly formation) and Gravissimum educationis (on Catholic education).6 In his 1974 apostolic letter Lumen ecclesiae, which commemorates the 700th anniversary of Thomas’s death, Paul himself explains that in canonizing and conferring the title “doctor” on him, the Church

intended to recognize in St. Thomas’s doctrine the particularly elevated, complete, and faithful expression of her magisterium … The Church, in sum, confirms St. Thomas’s doctrine with her authority and uses it as a most preferred instrument, thus extending to him, more than any of her other renowned Doctors, the light of her own magisterium.7

Pope Paul’s statement is just as strong as any of those of his predecessors and perhaps even stronger than theirs.

It is not surprising, given these kinds of papal endorsements, that the Jesuit theologian Joseph de Guibert should write the following about Thomas’s authority in the Church:

Simply embracing the doctrine of St. Thomas we embrace the doctrine most commonly accepted in the Church, reliable and approved by the Church herself (with a few familiar exceptions). Where no grave reason prevents it, the authority of St. Thomas suffices to prefer his opinion.8

I could go on for quite a long time quoting all of the papal statements about the exceptional nature of Thomas’s teaching and its authoritativeness for Catholics. So far, for instance, I have said nothing about John Paul II, who reaffirms Thomas’s important doctrinal position in the Church and declares in Fides et ratio that in Thomas “the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought.”9 But there is no need to multiply the quotes since I think that the several to which I’ve drawn your attention are enough for you to get the idea.

As I understand her position, the Church isn’t telling us that we should not read and try to learn from other Catholic (or non-Catholic) philosophers and theologians. She is telling us, rather, that in our pursuit of truth Thomas should be taken as our principal guide among philosophers and theologians. What that would look like in the concrete would certainly be up for discussion.

Thomas’s “philosophy”

I’m a philosopher and this new column will mostly be philosophical. I say “mostly” but not “exclusively.” Any Catholic philosopher worth his salt cannot be ignorant of theology and needs to engage in it from time to time. So, although you can expect this column to be mostly philosophical, you should also expect to find some theology in it too. Whether there will be a lot of theology or a little I cannot at the moment predict.

The philosophy in this column will be Thomistic. If you don’t know Thomas well you might wonder what he has to teach us about philosophy or whether he has anything at all to teach us about it. It is common among modern scholars to observe that Thomas did not think of himself as a philosopher and there is a lot of debate about whether or in what sense we can attribute a philosophy to him. I’m not aware of any place in his texts where Thomas tells us that philosophy is his profession. In one place he tells us that he is carrying out “the duty of a wise man” (sapientis officium) who seeks to make known “the truth that the Catholic faith professes” (veritatem quam fides Catholica profitetur). In another place he says that he is a “teacher of Catholic truth” (Catholicae veritatis doctor).10 And in still another place he says that he is a “teacher of theology” (theologiae doctor).11

Should we conclude from these descriptions of his work that philosophy simply isn’t Thomas’s business? That would be a pretty awkward step given what I hope to do in this column! Before we take it let’s go a little further into the texts where Thomas offers the above descriptions.

Obviously, in each case Thomas is presenting himself as a teacher. If we read the rest of the texts under consideration, we find that what Thomas wishes to convey to his students are the truths that he has learned about God and the relationship creation bears to God. In the Summa contra gentiles Thomas explains that these truths are of two sorts. The first sort are beyond the abilities of our natural cognitive powers. To know these truths we need the help of revelation and grace. We can call these truths “supernatural.” Thomas says that the Trinity would be an example. We could add to this list, among other things, the Incarnation and the Sacraments.

The second sort of truths are not beyond are natural cognitive powers, says Thomas. In theory, we can know them without the help of revelation and grace. Thomas tells us that they “have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers led by the natural light of reason.” We can, therefore, call these truths “natural.” God’s existence and oneness are examples he provides of them.

Thomas says that the way that he, as a teacher, will proceed to make these natural truths known is by way of demonstration using the natural light of reason. In other words, he will be following the method of the philosophers. Clearly, then, Thomas does philosophize in his work. To be sure, this philosophizing is, for him, always in the service of the “the truth that the Catholic faith professes,” that is, it is philosophizing in the service of theology. But it is philosophizing nonetheless.

In Thomas’s view, philosophy (and theology) can help us not only to know the truth but to recognize and overcome error. He sees it as his task to help in both regards. “The twofold duty of the wise man,” he says, is “to meditate on and speak the divine truth” and “to refute the opposing error.”

Looking over the body of Thomas’s work, we see that his philosophizing doesn’t occupy just a small, well-circumscribed part of his output. It takes up a large part of his three major works: his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the Summa contra gentiles, and the Summa theologiae. And many of Thomas’s works, considered in themselves, are purely philosophical: all of his commentaries on Aristotle, the De ente et essentia, and the De principiis naturae, for instance, are in this group.

Thomas sees the natural truths we have been talking about as presuppositions of the supernatural truths. That is why he calls the former the praemabula fidei or “preambles of the faith.” If God did not exist, then what the Church says about the Trinity would be at best an interesting story. It wouldn’t be a literal account of reality. So, our belief in the Trinity (a supernatural truth) presupposes our belief in God’s existence (a natural truth). By demonstrating God’s existence, philosophy can show that this presupposed belief is reasonable and that talk about the Trinity cannot be dismissed out of hand (even if it deals with a truth that surpasses reason’s natural power).

Leo XIII and Aeterni Patris

One of the main inspirations of this column is Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, which I quoted earlier. In Aeterni Patris Pope Leo reflects on philosophy’s role in the Church’s teaching mission. Of all the natural helps to the Catholic faith that God has given to us, Leo says that of philosophy is the most important.

He tells us that philosophy can offer, on the one hand, a path to the Catholic faith insofar as it can open our eyes to the reasonableness of the faith, and on the other hand, he says that it is for the Church a powerful ally against error.

Evidently, Leo’s view of philosophy is the same as Thomas’s. He sees it as serving a theological purpose by guiding us to the truths of the Catholic faith and unmasking errors opposed to them.

But there is more to say about Thomas and Aeterni Patris. In this encyclical Leo singles out Thomas’s philosophy as the most valuable one that the Church has at her disposal. “Reason,” says Leo, “borne on Thomas’s wings to the upper limit of human capacity, can hardly ascend higher, while faith could hardly expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which it has already obtained from Thomas.”

To Leo’s mind, the mediaeval “scholastic” thought that drew on the wisdom of the Church fathers and pagan antiquity and rigorously deployed reason in the service of faith is the exemplar to which we should all look. But Leo sees Thomas as the leader of the scholastics:

Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because “he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.” The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.

Besides proposing Thomas’s philosophy as a guide in matters that pertain more directly to the faith, Leo also insists on it as an indispensable guide in political and social questions, in understanding the nature and purpose of the liberal arts, and in inquiring about the principles of the physical world.

Toward the end of the encyclical Leo calls on Catholic universities to “defend [Thomas’s] doctrine and use it for the refutation of the dominant errors.” And asks them to ensure that “carefully selected teachers” introduce it “to the minds of students and make clear how [Thomas] surpasses others in solidity and excellence.”

Truth

Thomas famously says in his commentary on Aristotle’s De caelo et mundo that “the study of philosophy aims not at knowing what men think, but at what is the truth of things.” I agree with Thomas. The most important reason to study Thomas himself is that we believe he can be a light in our pursuit of truth. If I spend a lot of time in this column working through what Thomas has written and pass on his teaching, it is because of this.

But discussing Thomas’s texts is not the only thing I will be doing. I intend also to comment from a Thomistic perspective on topics of current interest both in the Church and the culture generally. So, in the next two installments of the column I will be weighing in on the contemporary debate over the merits and demerits of political liberalism, a debate to which I have already contributed elsewhere (here, here, and here).

Besides topics of contemporary interest you can expect to see some discussion of more standard philosophical topics: God’s existence, the human soul, the problem of evil, and so on.

I will also be interviewing contemporary Thomists of note and offering portraits of great Thomists of the past. And, as I have done in this inaugural column, I will be looking again at magisterial teaching on Thomas.

Objections

Before concluding these remarks, following good Thomistic practice, I would like to entertain some objections to what I have been saying.

Some people might simply object to more Thomism. Haven’t we Catholics overdone it with Thomas? There are a lot of other good Catholic philosophers and theologians we could be engaging.

I agree that there are a lot of other good Catholic philosophers and theologians to engage and I hope to bring some of them into my column too. But the emphasis on Thomas comes first of all from the Church herself. You may wish that other Catholic thinkers had been privileged in the way that Thomas has, but they haven’t. If we think that the Church’s consistent and firm recommendation of Thomas has been a mistake, then what other settled dispositions of the mind of the Church do we have a problem with? How do we decide which ones we’ll go along with and which ones we won’t?

All the same, as I said earlier, I don’t see the Church telling us that Thomas should be our exclusive guide in philosophical (and theological) questions but our principal guide.

A related objection might be that the focus on Thomas tends to crowd out contemporary philosophers. Should not our philosophy be a living philosophy rather than a “museum philosophy”?

Philosophy is concerned first of all with truth and not with whether the people who can help us in our pursuit of truth are alive or dead. That’s completely irrelevant. If contemporary philosophers have had new insights into truth or have corrected past beliefs, well and good, let’s learn from them. As Leo XIII says in Aeterni Patris:

We hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned, ought to be received with a willing and grateful mind. […] If anything is taken up with too great subtlety by the scholastic doctors, or is too carelessly stated, or if there be anything that ill agrees with the discoveries of a later age, or, in a word, is improbable in whatever way, it does not enter our mind to propose those things for imitation by our age.

Finally, there is the “Immaculate Conception objection.” Wasn’t Thomas wrong about the Immaculate Conception? Doesn’t that show us that our estimation of him has been a bit overblown?

As far as I’m aware, the Church has never declared Thomas infallible. Her view is not that Thomas never makes mistakes but that they are rare and that he is more reliable than all the other fathers and doctors, which is still saying a lot and still reason to take him as our principal guide.

Perhaps an analogy from baseball will help to drive the point home. A good argument could be made for considering Sandy Koufax the best pitcher in the history of the game. Even if you disagree, let’s just suppose for the moment that he is. Koufax, we would then say, was better than every other pitcher. And yet, while we say that, we wouldn’t deny that he had some bad games. (In fact, over his first five seasons Koufax had a 4.16 ERA, which isn’t bad but it’s nothing special either.) So, Koufax was great even if he wasn’t perfect.

As far as the Immaculate Conception question itself goes, it’s more complex than it is sometimes portrayed. But this is not the place to try to sort it out. Maybe I’ll come back to it at some point in the future.

A few last things

This column will be primarily for an educated, but non-specialist, Catholic audience. I do hope specialists will find it engaging but I don’t see them as my primary audience. So, I will avoid being too technical.

Latin will probably show up often but always with a translation when I think one is necessary. I don’t need to tell you that Latin is an important language for western culture and for Roman Catholics. Even if you never learn it (although you should if you can), you should know some key words and phrases.

I hope above all to participate in your search for truth and to encourage you to read Thomas for yourself.

Endnotes:

1Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. 37, p. 435.

2 D. Prümmer, Fontes vitae S. Thomae Aquinatis: Notis historicis et criticis illustrati (Toulouse: Biblioplam, 1912) pp. 148-149.

3Thomas Aquinas: A Historical and Philosophical Profile, R.W. Nutt and J.G. Trabbic, trans. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of American Press, 2016) p. 403.

4 T. Ripoll and A. Bremond, Bullarium Ordinis FF. Praedicatorum, vol. 5 (Rome: Mainard, 1733), p. 245.

5Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. 36, p. 467.

6Lumen ecclesiae, §24.

7 §22.

8De Christi Ecclesia (Rome: Universitas Gregoriana, 1928), p. 326.

9 §78.

10Summa theologiae, I, prologue.

11Quodlibet I, q. 7, a. 2.


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About Joseph G. Trabbic 8 Articles
Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of Thomistica.net, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

11 Comments

  1. I think this will be an interesting and thought provoking column and I look forward to the next installment. I hope you might consider including some good books for lay people that would provide an introduction to Aquinas’thought.

  2. I am looking forward to further installments of “St. Thomas for Today.” Largely through the efforts of Dr. Edward Feser, I now possess some fluency with Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, and the “de fide” teaching of the Catholic Church regarding classical theism and divine simplicity. This has assisted me greatly in my own faith, as well as in non-professional discussions within the public square, regarding supposed conflicts with modern science.

  3. As an octogenerian whose whole life has been devoted to the study of Aquinas, I look forward to following your column. Having witnessed both the flourishing revival of Thomism in America in the 40’s to 60’s and its collapse in the 60’s and 70’s, I rejoice in the current revival, but warn against repeating the mistakes of the past that led to that downfall.
    Thomism is not a system of pat answers to be learned by rote and set forth in a doctrinaire manner as a series of deductive syllogisms from postulated definitions and principles. Using Thomist philosophy as an apologetic easily brings it into disrepute as mere special pleading. It can serve as a handmaid to theology only if it preserves its own autonomy, not fearing to question presumed theological certitudes whenever these appear to conflict with critically evaluated findings of the natural and human sciences. In particular, it must avoid being misused as an ideology to support right-wing political movements and religious traditionalism.
    Thomistic realism demands that abstract concepts be grounded in realistic, perceptual phantasms reflecting cinematically the manifold, ever-changing world of our sense perceptions. When this is not the case, our “abstract” judgments are only nominally true, and we have no “real” knowledge, but only strings of empty words.

  4. As a man dedicated to the study of St Thomas Aquinas in my retirement I gladly welcome this new column. Thank you, CWR!

  5. LIVING WATERS

    I commend the editors of Catholic World Report for daring to go out on the limb with this regular column on St. Thomas and Thomism. Thinking people in this country desperately need this fountain of living waters and will surely reward the editors of Catholic World Report for their courage.

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