The Return of Thomism?

Some leading thinkers in the Church feel our current crisis stems, at least in part, from our neglect for half a century of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274). Now the Pope has just devoted three important talks to the philosophy and theology of Thomas.

True, it would certainly be too much to say that Pope Benedict XVI wishes a return to Thomism as a way to help confront the grave crisis the Church is currently passing through — a crisis marked by a type of emotional, irrational thinking utterly foreign to the careful method and clear mind of St. Thomas Aquinas.

So I will not say (yet) that the Pope is attempting to “rehabilitate” Thomas as an antidote to the mental “muddiness,” of what passes for much of modern Catholic intellectual life.

That would be an exaggeration.

But it would be too little to overlook as ordinary, and so insignificant, the Pope’s three recent lectures on St. Thomas Aquinas at his Wednesday General Audiences.

The Pope has focused attention on St. Thomas during June — June 2, June 16 and today, June 23 — and his talks contain considerable material for reflection. Here are excerpts.

Of significance is the Pope’s reference to Thomas’s mystical experience toward the end of his life, when he felt he had been in direct contact with the divine, and so came to feel that all the words he had written were “as straw” in comparison with the reality he had experienced directly.

Such an experience reminds all of us that it is the divine life itself that is the end, not words or ideas or concepts or even doctrinal formulations about that life.

This, too, is the legacy of Thomas.


The First Teaching of Benedict on St. Thomas (June 2)

The “great work” of St. Thomas Aquinas was to show not only that faith and reason are compatible, but also that there is “a natural harmony” between the two, Benedict XVI said at his general audience on June 2.

“The Church has been justified in consistently proposing St. Thomas a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology,” Benedict said.

He noted that St. Thomas is called the Doctor Angelicus “perhaps because of his virtues, in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life.”

Thomas was born between 1224 and 1225 near Aquino, in present-day Lazio. In 1245, Thomas entered the Dominicans, and was sent to Paris to study theology under St. Albert the Great.
During his stay in Paris, St. Thomas “made contact with all of Aristotle’s works and with his Arab commentators,” the Pope explained, “which had been ignored for a long time. They were writings on the nature of knowledge, on the natural sciences, on metaphysics, on the soul and on ethics, rich in information and intuition that seemed valid and convincing,” he continued. “It was a whole complete vision of the world developed without and before Christ, with pure reason, and it seemed to impose itself on reason as ‘the’ vision itself.”

It was in this context that “two cultures met,” the Holy Father noted, “the pre-Christian culture of Aristotle, with his radical rationality, and the classic Christian culture.”

And it was also in this context, Benedict XVI added, that St. Thomas Aquinas “carried out an operation of fundamental importance for the history of philosophy and theology, I would say for the history of culture.”

The Pope explained that St. Thomas “studied Aristotle and his interpreters in depth,” he obtained improved translations from the original Greek texts, and no longer relying on the Arab commentators, he provided his own commentaries on “the Aristotelian works, distinguishing what was valid from what was doubtful or to be refuted all together.”

“In short,” the Holy Father said, “Thomas Aquinas showed that there is a natural harmony between Christian faith and reason.”

“This was the great work of Thomas,” he continued, “who in that moment of encounter between two cultures — that moment in which it seemed that faith should surrender before reason — showed that they go together, that what seemed to be reason incompatible with faith was not reason, and what seemed to be faith was not faith, in so far as it was opposed to true rationality; thus he created a new synthesis, which shaped the culture of the following centuries.”

The Pope noted as well that attributed to St. Thomas are the liturgical texts for the feast of Corpus Domini: “Thomas had an exquisitely Eucharistic soul. The very beautiful hymns that the liturgy of the Church sings to celebrate the mystery of the real presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist are attributed to his faith and his theological wisdom.”

Regarding his death, the Holy Father said that “the last months of Thomas’ earthly life remained surrounded by a particular atmosphere — I would say a mysterious atmosphere.”

“In December 1273,” Benedict continued, “[St. Thomas] called his friend and secretary Reginald to communicate to him the decision to interrupt all work because, during the celebration of Mass, he had understood, following a supernatural revelation, that all he had written up to then was only ‘a heap of straw.’

“It is a mysterious episode, which helps us to understand not only Thomas’ personal humility, but also the fact that all that we succeed in thinking and saying about the faith, no matter how lofty and pure, is infinitely exceeded by the grandeur and beauty of God, which will be revealed to us fully in Paradise.”

The saintly theologian died a few months later in 1274 while traveling to Lyon, where he was to participate in the Second Council of Lyon, convoked by Pope Gregory X.

“The life and teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas could be summarized in an episode handed down by the ancient biographers,” Benedict XVI concluded. “While the saint, as was his custom, was praying in the morning before the crucifix in the Chapel of St. Nicholas in Naples, the sacristan of the church, Domenico da Caserta, heard a dialogue unfolding.

“Thomas was asking, worried, if what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was right. And the Crucifix responded: ‘You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What will be your recompense?’

(Image, St. Thomas Aquinas, by Fra Angelico. St. Thomas was only 49 when he died in 1274.)

“And the answer that Thomas gave is that which all of us, friends and disciples of Christ, would always wants to give: ‘Nothing other than You, Lord!'”

The Second Teaching of Benedict on St. Thomas (June 16)

The moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas is timely even today, Pope Benedict XVI said on June 16 in Rome, stressing the saint’s emphasis on natural law — that is, law that all human beings can assent to because they see it and understand it based on the faculty of human reason all human beings share.

The center of Benedict’s talk was reason — which, in Greek, is translated as logos — and human reason in particular. Both Aquinas, and this Pope, are persuaded that human reason, even if marred due to the Fall of man, and sin, is yet capable of grasping truth, of being in relationship with Truth.

The Pope explained that Thomas’s work was to show the “independence of philosophy and theology and, at the same time, their reciprocal rationality.”

“Reason can recognize [the natural law], considering what is good to do and what is good to avoid to obtain that happiness which is in each one’s heart, and which also imposes a responsibility toward others and, hence, the search for the common good,” he said. “In other words, the virtues of man, theological and moral, are rooted in human nature.

“Divine grace supports, sustains and drives the ethical commitment but, on their own, according to St. Thomas, all men, believers and non-believers, are called to recognize the exigencies of human nature expressed in natural law and to be inspired in it in the formulation of positive laws, that is, those issuing from the civil and political authorities to regulate human coexistence.”

Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of natural law and its responsibilities, saying that when these are denied, “the way is opened dramatically to ethical relativism on the individual plane and to the totalitarianism of the state on the political plane.”

The concept of human reason proposed by Thomas is “trustworthy,” Benedict said, “because human reason, above all if it accepts the inspirations of the Christian faith, is a promoter of a civilization that recognizes the dignity of the person, the intangibility of his rights and the strength of his duties.”

Benedict concluded, however, with a reminder that St. Thomas’ profound thought and teaching stemmed from his “lively faith and his fervent piety.

He was a thinker and a saint, the Pope recalled, who prayed to God in ways such as this: “Grant me, I pray, a will that seeks you, a wisdom that finds you, a life that pleases you, a perseverance that waits for you with trust and a trust that in the end succeeds in possessing you.”

The Third Teaching of Benedict on St. Thomas (June 23)

Today, the Pope took up the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas’s theological masterpiece.

During today’s general audience, celebrated in the Paul VI Hall, the Pope delivered the last in a series of three catecheses on the figure of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Holy Father explained how St. Thomas’ masterpiece, the “Summa Theologica“, contains 512 questions (“Quaestiones“) and 2,669 articles in which the saint “precisely, clearly and pertinently” outlines the truths of faith as they emerge from “the teachings of Holy Scripture and of the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine.”

This exertion “of the human mind was always illuminated — as St. Thomas’ own life shows — by prayer, by the light that comes from on high.

“In his ‘Summa‘”, the Pope said, “St. Thomas starts from the fact that God exists in three different ways: God exists in Himself, He is the principle and end of all things, so all creatures come from and depend upon Him. Secondly, God is present through His Grace in the life and activity of Christians, of the saints. Finally, God is present in a very special way in the person of Christ, and in the Sacraments which derive from His work of redemption”.

“St. Thomas dedicates special attention to the mystery of the Eucharist, to which he was particularly devoted,” Benedict continued. He encouraged people “to follow the example of the saints and love this Sacrament. Let us participate devotedly in Mass in order to obtain its spiritual fruits; let us feed from the Body and Blood of the Lord that we may be incessantly nourished by divine Grace; let us pause willingly and often in the company of the Blessed Sacrament”.

Benedict continued: “What St. Thomas explained with academic rigour in his main theological works such as the ‘Summa Theologica‘ was also expressed in his preaching,” the content of which “corresponds almost in its entirety to the structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Indeed, in a time such as our own of renewed commitment to evangelisation, catechism and preaching must never lack the following fundamental themes: what we believe, i.e., the Creed; what we pray, i.e., the Our Father and the Ave Maria; and what we live as biblical revelation teaches us, i.e., the law of the love of God and neighbour and the Ten Commandments”.

“In his brief ‘Devotissima expositio super symbolum apostolorum‘, St. Thomas explains the importance of faith. Through it, he says, the soul is united to God… life is given a clear direction and we can easily overcome temptations. To those who object that faith is foolish because it makes us believe something that does not enter into the experience of the senses, St. Thomas offers a very detailed response, claiming that this is an inconsistent objection because human intelligence is limited and cannot know everything.

“Only if we were able to have perfect knowledge of all things visible and invisible would it be foolish to accept truth out of pure faith,” said the Pope. “Moreover, as St. Thomas observes, it is impossible to live without entrusting ourselves to the experience of others, when our personal knowledge does not extend far enough. Thus it is reasonable to have faith in God Who reveals Himself, and in the witness of the Apostles.”

Commenting on the article of the Creed concerning the incarnation of the Divine Word, St. Thomas teaches that “the Christian faith is reinforced in the light of the mystery of the Incarnation; hope emerges more trustingly at the thought that the Son of God came among us as one of us, to communicate His divinity to mankind; charity is revived because there is no more evident sign of God’s love for us than to see the Creator of the universe Himself become a creature,” Benedict said.

“St. Thomas, like all saints, was greatly devoted to the Blessed Virgin”, Pope Benedict concluded. “He gave her a stupendous title: ‘Triclinium totius Trinitatis‘; in other words, the place where the Trinity finds repose because, thanks to the Incarnation, the three divine persons dwell in her as in no other creature, and experience the delight and joy of living in her soul full of Grace. Through her intercession we can obtain any kind of help.”

Dr. Robert Moynihan


Dr. Robert Moynihan is an American and veteran Vatican journalist with knowledge of five languages. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.

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