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Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pre-eminent Guardian and Glory of the Catholic Church

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by Tonny-Leonard Farauanu

I shall be found keen in judgement, and in the sight of rulers I shall be admired. When I am silent they will wait for me, and when I speak they will give heed; and when I speak a greater length they will put their hands on their mouths. Through wisdom I shall have immortality, and leave an everlasting remembrance to those who come after me.
(Wisdom. 8: 11-13)

I. INTRODUCTION

Even a short analysis of the theology of the Catholic Church can prove how much the words quoted above describe Saint Thomas Aquinas. Among theologians he is by far the most authoritative voice, and his teaching is so much esteemed by the Church that Summa Theologiae, during the Council of Trent, was laid open on the altar together with the Holy Bible and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs. No other writings have ever received such a great honour.
In the present essay we will try to show the reasons for which Saint Thomas is so much esteemed in the Catholic Church. We will use four Encyclicals (Aeterni Patris of Pope Leo XIII, Pascendi Dominici Gregis of Pope Pius X, Studiorum Ducem of Pope Pius XI, and Fides et Ratio of Pope John Paul II), the Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici of Pope Pius X and the Address[1] given by Pope John Paul II at the Angelicum in 1979. We divided our essay in five parts: after this short introduction (ch. I), we will speak about Saint Thomas as teacher of philosophy and theology (ch. II), followed by an analysis of his sanctity of life (ch. III). The fourth chapter will be concerned with the perpetual value of Saint Thomas’ doctrine, in relation with the development of philosophy and theology, and finally we will end with some conclusions.

II. SANCTUS THOMAS, MAGISTER PHILOSOPHIAE ET THEOLOGIAE

The Church, our holy Mother, understood from the very beginning her responsibility with respect to the diakonia of truth,[2] insofar as to her it was entrusted as to a bride the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ. Likewise, it is the Spirit of Truth who guides her and preserves her in the truth. On the other hand, it belongs to her sons, especially those who have been charged with the ministry of teaching and of preaching, to fathom the richness of her deposito fidei and to take part in her diakonia of truth. Saint Thomas Aquinas understood this great vocation and he fulfilled it more than any other son of the Catholic Church.
In the Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II explains which are the two main aspects of this diakonia of truth: to take part into the humanity’s shared struggle to arrive at truth (1) and to proclaim the certitudes arrived at (2).[3] The first aspect is mainly concerned with philosophy, one of the noblest human sciences. The human reason has the power to attain through its natural power certain truths concerning the existing things and even concerning God’s being. The second aspect belongs mainly to theology, for the fullness of truth comes from God. There are many mysteries to which the human reason has no access through its natural powers, but it needs a revelation and the supernatural help of God. Thus, philosophy and theology are like two wings through which the human intellect attains the truth. Saint Thomas Aquinas proves himself to be a great teacher both of philosophy and theology, so that almost all subsequent researches were based upon his doctrine. The Church assumed almost entirely his teaching, and he could rightly be considered “the pre-eminent guardian and the glory of the Catholic Church.”[4] We should see now why is his doctrine so eminent and important for us. First, we will analyse Thomas’ philosophy, and then his theology.
As Pope Leo XIII says, there is no branch of philosophy which Saint Thomas did not treat with “as much acumen as thoroughness,” so that “there is nothing lacking in his teaching.”[5] He treated with logic, physics, metaphysics and ethics and he proved a high knowledge of his predecessors. More than that, he was able to unify in a wonderful way all true philosophical doctrines and to refute the wrong ones. He analyses all opinions concerning a particular subject and afterwards he points out to the true one, so that one may have a unitary knowledge of what was said and especially a clear understanding of what is true. His works are distinguished through “an appropriate disposition of parts, perfection of method, firmness of principle, cogency of argument, clarity of exposition, propriety of expression, and facility in the explanation of every abstruse point.”[6] He himself noted that “wisdom is primarily the perfection of reason and it is the characteristic of reason to know order” (Ethics, I, I). Thus, the wonderful order of his thoughts proves he possessed wisdom in a very high degree.
However, the most important aspect of Saint Thomas’ philosophy is that it is concerned with “what it is”, with the objective truth. He is not mainly interested in what did the others say about something, or in some appearances, but he wants to find the truth. He defends the capacity of the human reason to know truly the essence of things: for him all knowledge acquired through senses is true knowledge. In his commentary on Aristotle, he writes: “Philosophy is not studied in order to find out what people may have thought but in order to discover what is true.”[7] Thus his philosophy is characterised by realism and objectivity.
Another important aspect of Thomas’ philosophy is that it is a philosophy of being, of actus essendi. Pope John Paul II calls it “a philosophy of the proclamation of being, a chant in praise of what exists,”[8] and one can see here all the consequences of this doctrine: its objectivity. This has also a transcendental value, for it leads one’s mind to the contemplation of God, the subsisting Being and pure Act. Saint Thomas follows mainly Aristotle’ s Metaphysics in this respect, but his mind perfected by the gift of infused wisdom is able to see more than the Philosopher. In fact, as Pope Leo XIII says, “human reason soared to the loftiest heights on the wings of Thomas and can scarcely rise any higher.”[9]
We should turn now our attention to the theology of Saint Thomas. Like his philosophy, his teaching of sacred science is very systematic and comprehensive. Pope John XXII affirms that Thomas “enlightened the Church more than all the Doctors together” and that “a man can derive more profit in a year from his books than from pondering all his life the teaching of others.”[10] His main theological work, Summa Theologiae, was recommended to be used in “all Universities, Academies, Colleges, Seminaries and Institutions enjoying by apostolic indult the privilege of granting academic degrees.”[11] As a science of faith, Thomas’ theology springs from a humble assent of his intellect to the revealed truth, which is preserved in the Tradition of the Church. Likewise, as Cajetan observes, “because he had the utmost reverence for the Doctors of antiquity, seems to have inherited the intellect of all.”[12] Saint Thomas clearly distinguishes the natural and the supernatural order of knowledge, but he does not oppose reason to faith. By contrary, he linked each to the other in “a bond of friendly harmony,”[13] so that reason, as ancilla fidei, leads to intellectus fidei. It could be said that his theology is so clear and true because it is served by his eminent philosophy.
Looking more closely to Thomas’ theology itself, one can easily observe the richness of his interpretations of dogmas. He proves a deep penetration of mysteries, a great subtlety in expounding them, and a clear perception of their unity. As he himself says, his theology comes from the contemplation of the Crucified One, in whom all things are united. He treated also with ecclesiology, moral theology, asceticism, mysticism and exegesis. He excelled so much in all these that Pope Pius XI could say that “there is no branch of theology in which he did not exercise the incredible fecundity of his genius.”[14] Thus, the same Pope follows, he should be considered “the Prince of teachers in our schools, not so much on account of his philosophical system as because of his theological studies.”[15] Likewise, Pope Leo XIII goes so far as to say that Thomas “took part” and even “presided at the deliberations and the decrees of the Fathers at the Councils of Lyons, Vienne, Florence and the Vatican.”[16]
If the best philosopher is the one who “combines the pursuit of philosophy with dutiful obedience to the Christian faith,”[17] it could be said also that the best theologian is that one who uses the most excellent philosophy in the understanding of faith. Saint Thomas proves both a humble and pious submission to God, the First Truth, and an excellent use of reason and of acquired sciences so that “his doctrine exceeds all others, with the exception of canon law, in propriety of expression, precision of definition and truth of statement.”[18] All the saints posterior to Saint Thomas enjoyed his harmonious, prudent and firm doctrine, and there are even religious orders, other than the Dominicans, of which particular theological emphasis rests upon his teaching.[19] He should therefore be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor [Doctor Communis] of the Church.[20] We conclude this chapter with the wonderful words of Pope Leo XIII:
Saint Thomas sat enthroned, like a prince in his kingdom, in all those great houses of human wisdom and the minds of all, even the Doctors, reposed with marvellous unanimity upon the teaching and authority of the one Angelic Doctor.[21]

III. “PER ARDOREM CARITASTIS DATUR COGNITIO VERITATIS”

Apart from his natural heritage and his assiduous work, what explains the character of Saint Thomas’ doctrine is his sanctity of life. The divine truths are understood through an infused wisdom, which makes one believing somehow connatural with them. “Per ardorem caritatis datur cognitio veritatis”[22] (The knowledge of what is true is given by the fervour of love) – this is the principle that can explain such a deep understanding of divine mysteries. In fact, he himself said that he never wrote anything without having had firstly recourse to prayer and that all his knowledge was nor acquired by his study and diligence, but it was received from God.[23] It is said that sometimes even the Prince of the Apostles was sent to instruct him.
It could be said about Thomas that the practice of virtues disposed him to the contemplation of truth, and the profound consideration of truth in turn gave lustre and perfection to his virtues.[24] It is said also that “he possessed all the moral virtues to a very high degree and so closely bounded together that they formed one whole in charity.”[25] He was known for his humility, exercised in the obedience of all brothers, in his self-effacement, in his refutation of human glory and even of the ecclesiastical honours.[26] Likewise, his chastity is famous, since the angels surrounded him with a mystic girdle. He was very much devoted to prayer and fasting, spending whole nights before the Tabernacle and searching his knowledge in the true Book, Jesus Crucified. He said the Holy Mass daily and he used to hear another Mass said by his socius or some friar as well, and in his conversation he never spoke but about God or with God. Moreover, his devotion to the Eucharist is well-known from his beautiful prayers and hymns, which are sung even in our days because of their profound theological content. Thus he could be rightly called “the poet and the panegyrist of the Divine Eucharist,”[27] or even “Doctor of the Eucharist.”[28]
In his daily life he loved his brothers, helping them in their labours, he deprived himself of his own garments to give them to the poor and even miracles happened because of his intercession. His unselfish love and purity of heart could be observed from his answer to the Lord Himself, when in an apparition He asked Thomas what reward he would like to have for all his labour. Thomas’ answer was firm: “None but Thyself, o Lord!”
It is clear therefore that his mind was well-disposed to the contemplation of truth not only by his deep knowledge of philosophy, but also by his solid virtues.

IV. PERENNIS VERITAS, PERENNIS DOCTRINA

After having seen the major characteristics of Saint Thomas’ doctrine and life, we should consider the perennial value of his teaching and of his example. We have described his philosophy as a “philosophy of being” and of “what it is”. Consequently, it has a spirit of “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).”[29] Thus, Thomas’ philosophy is universally valuable, for it is concerned “with what is true”, and the truth never changes. That is why scholastic philosophy, particularly that of Saint Thomas, was ordained to constitute the basis of the sacred studies.[30] In fact, as Pope Pius X says, “to deviate from Aquinas, in metaphysics especially, is to run grave risk.”[31] On the other hand, “those who have once grasped it [Thomas’ doctrine] are never found to have deviated far from the path of truth, and anyone impugning it has always been held suspect of error.”[32] The orthodoxy of Saint Thomas doctrine is due in great part to his intellectual humility and to the total submission of his mind to God, the First Truth, and to the teaching of the Church. It is this humility that lacks so much in all those who went astray from the truth. Likewise, the first fruit of this humility is the virtue of prudence. When reading any of Saint Thomas’ works, this prudence clearly shines out and moderates the disordered intellects in their blind and superficial movement. That is why the heretics have a particular aversion to Saint Thomas’ writings.
However, to remain faithful to scholastic philosophy and theology does not mean to reject any progress in these fields. But the scholastic teaching is a stable foundation upon which one can continue to build. Those persons who preferred to build anew rather than to augment and perfect the old by the new are in great danger and they depart from the truth. In fact, many leaders of heretical factions have declared that, if the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas were once disposed of, they could easily “engage in the contest with and vanquish all the Catholic Doctors.”[33] Thus it is easy to understand the attitude of the Magisterium of the Church when it ordains firmly that the philosophy and theology of Saint Thomas should be taught in all Catholic schools as a basis of all sacred sciences. With other words, perennis veritas – perennis doctrina.

V. CONCLUSION

Having witnessed the great unity between the teaching of the Church and the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, one can conclude with the words of Pope Pius XI, who declared that “in honouring Saint Thomas something greater is involved than the reputation of Saint Thomas, and that is the authority of the teaching Church.”[34] On the other hand, Saint Thomas is a great model for all those who received the call to teach and preach in the Church. “How beneficial” – exclaims Pope John Paul II – “it would be for the Church of God if also today all Catholic philosophers and theologians followed the wonderful example of the Doctor communis Ecclesiae!”[35] We live in a difficult time, when so many erroneous doctrines, sometimes issued even from the sons of the Church, make dangerous our path towards the truth, and therefore towards life as well. It is a time when the spiritual food is poisoned and the truth perverted. That is why today, as in the time of famine in Egypt when people were sent to Joseph, the Church says: “Go to Thomas, and ask him to give you from his ample store the food of substantial doctrine wherewith to nourish your souls unto eternal life.”[36]

________________________________________
[1] John Paul II, “Perennial Philosophy of S. Thomas for the Youth of Our Times”, apud Ronda Chervin and Eugene Kevane, Love of Wisdom – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (San Francisco, Ignatius Press), pp. 493-500.
[2] Vide Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Fides et Ratio, introduction.
[3] Ibidem.
[4] Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Aeterni Patris.
[5] Ibidem.
[6] Ibidem.
[7] Saint Thomas Aquinas, De Coelo et Mundo, I, lect. 32, ed. R. Spiazzi, no. 228, apud Pope John Paul II, Perennial Philosophy of Saint Thomas for the Youth of our Times (vide note 1), p. 499.
[8] Ibidem, p. 497.
[9] Leo XIII, op. cit., pp. 205-06.
[10] Apud Pope Pius X, Doctoris Angelici.
[11] Ibidem, p. 220.
[12] Apud Pope Leo XIII, op. cit.
[13] Vide Pope John Paul II, Perennial Philosophy . . . , p. 494.
[14] Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Studiorum Ducem.
[15] Ibidem.
[16] Pope Leo XIII, op. cit..
[17] Ibidem, p. 198.
[18] Ibidem, p. 207.
[19] Ex.: the Benedictines, Carmelites, Augustinians and the Society of Jesus. Vide Pope Leo XIII, op. cit..
[20] Vide Pope Pius XI, op. cit..
[21] Pope Leo XIII, op. cit..
[22] Saint Thomas, In John, V, 6, apud Pope John Paul II, Perennial Philosophy . . . , p. 500.
[23] Pope Leo XIII, op. cit..
[24] Pope Pius XI, op. cit..
[25] Ibidem.
[26] Vide ibidem.
[27] Ibidem.
[28] Ibidem.
[29] Pope John Paul II, Perennial Philosophy . . . , p. 497.
[30] Vide Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, (Boston: Pauline), p. 57.
[31] Ibidem.
[32] Pope Leo XIII, op. cit..
[33] Theodore Beza and Martin Bucer, apud Pope Leo XIII, op. cit..
[34] Pope Pius XI, on the occasion of the sixth centenary of the canonisation of Saint Thomas, apud. Pope John Paul II, Perennial Philosophy . . . , p. 499.
[35] Pope John Paul II, Perennial Philosophy . . . , p. 495.
[36] Pope Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem, loc. cit..

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