In the liturgical year, the Church sets aside this day for the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Over the centuries, the Church has venerated him as a magnificent saint, theologian, and even as the “Angelic Doctor.” In Fides et Ratio (On Faith and Reason), Pope John Paul II says that a “special place” (art. 43) belongs to St. Thomas in the tradition of philosophy and theology; indeed, the Church has, for many centuries, upheld his work with a certain primacy in theological debate and discussion. In our current modern age, which rejects a traditionally philosophical and theological approach to the world, in the lines of Aristotle and Aquinas, it is fitting to reflect on the perennial importance of St. Thomas Aquinas. In particular, I would like to reflect on the faith of Aquinas, as revealed in his treatment of theology, and then draw out conclusions for what that means for us, living in a modern, atheistic world.
First, Aquinas’s systematic approach to theology is critical for understanding him as a theologian, and moreover, the proper way for approaching theology. The most renowned work of Aquinas is the Summa Theologiae, which is an impressive collection of hundreds of different articles addressing nearly every question concerning Catholic doctrine. This work is arranged systematically, starting first in the Prima Pas (First Part) with the question of the nature of sacred doctrine, and then proceeding quickly into the existence of God. The ordering of this document is very wise: we must first know that God exists before we can discuss anything else with regard to him and his Church. Aquinas then proceeds into the Trinity and creation, and from there, he takes us into the Prima Secundae (First of the Second Part) and Secunda Secundae (Second of the Second Part), which discuss the nature of man and the theological and cardinal virtues, respectively. Having finished his thoughts on the pinnacle of creation (man), Aquinas then discusses the Incarnation and Christ in the Tertia Pars (Third Part); Christ, being both God and man, reveals man to himself and unites himself to each man individually (see John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, art. 8). In the Supplementum Tertiae Pars (the Supplement to the Third Part), which remained unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death, he begins discussing the seven sacraments of the Church, the supernatural means by which man unites himself to God through communion in Christ, the God-man. As such, we can see that this systematic approach to theology not only reveals Aquinas’s deep faith in God and his Church, but also offers us a pedagogy for penetrating the mysteries of our faith more deeply. If we wish to discover the truths of the Gospel, then we cannot approach the topic in bits and pieces; rather, we must take the whole of doctrine in a systematic way, and this will lead us more deeply into the integral nature of the faith.
Second, Aquinas approaches the faith within the tradition of the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and philosophers, particularly the philosopher Aristotle. When we read Aquinas, we cannot help but marvel at the many references to the theologians of the Church’s traditions; it is awe-inspiring to consider the many other documents and sources that Aquinas read to write his own works. While some may argue that we venerate Aquinas to the exclusion of other thinkers and theologians, this can hardly be the case, since Aquinas himself engaged the great theologians, such as Augustine, Origen, and Pseudo-Dionysius. In a way, we would not be able to venerate Aquinas’s works as we do, if they did not contain so many other great theologians and philosophers from the past. Moreover, this reverence for the tradition in Aquinas shows that he was not creating something “new” in theology, something that came only from himself. Rather, he was reiterating the Church’s teachings in a systematic way, relying on the Scriptures and Church Fathers. He did not divide himself from tradition; rather, he was part of the tradition and presented it in a “refreshing” way, although we ought to use that word with caution. The fact that Aquinas relied heavily on the Scriptures is evident in that he was a profound and prolific Biblical commentator, which many do not realize. Therefore, in Aquinas, we find a model for approaching theology: we ought to approach theology within the whole of tradition, not excluding certain parts because they are uncomfortable or displeasing.
Thirdly and finally, Aquinas’s work is integral and all encompassing, which is related to the fact that he writes within the tradition of the Church. In this context, what I mean by integral is that Aquinas does not merely present the faith as a list of facts, or even as a list of rules to be followed. Rather, woven into Aquinas’s work is a dialogue with the Church Fathers who have come before him, in addition to others with differing viewpoints, including the Muslim philosophers, Avicenna and Averroes, and the Jewish philosopher, Avicebron. Even though Aquinas was many times disputing these individuals, it shows that he was aware of the larger tradition, outside the Catholic faith. Additionally, the articles of the Summa are questions, in which Aquinas offers three or more objections, the proper answer to the question, his response, and then his response to the objections. Aquinas had a penetrating understanding of seeing the differing possibilities in responding to a question, but then the ability to recognize the ultimate truth of the matter.
While we have already made some allusions, the question still remains: what does Aquinas’s approach to theology and the faith mean for us in the modern day, a time when “faith” can mean almost anything to anyone, and when many individuals do not even recognize God’s eternal presence and dominion? Aquinas reminds us that we cannot approach the faith as if we can “pick and choose” between the doctrines we like and the doctrines that we do not like. The faith has been handed down to us from the Apostles, who received it from Christ, and while there are developments in doctrine, the substance of the faith does not change. Aquinas reminds us of this reality in his many writings, which systematically describe the entirety of the faith. Moreover, when we engage with others in the search for truth, we must always remember that there is truth, found in the Catholic faith. If we dialogue with others about the Catholic faith, we cannot leave it “open-ended,” as if there were no real answers; rather, alongside Aquinas, we ought to bear in mind that there is a true answer, and we must always keep that before our minds’ eye when we are discussing the faith.
In the last analysis, Aquinas teaches us many lessons about how to approach the Catholic faith, just through a simple overview of his methodology. Nevertheless, Aquinas’s great works would be impossible without his own great faith, devotion to our Lord, and love for our Blessed Mother. Knowledge springs from love, and thus, Aquinas must have loved our Lord very deeply in order to be such a profound wellspring for Catholic doctrine. Perhaps one of the best ways that we can imitate Aquinas is to foster a genuine prayer life, return to the sacraments if we have fallen away, and participate in the sacred liturgies of the Church with awe and reverence. If we wish to know our Lord and our faith more deeply, then we must first begin in prayer. Accompanied by prayer, we can begin to study the works of Aquinas, which will help us to recover a systematic, traditional, and integral understanding of Catholic theology and the faith.