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The Popes on Thomism

from Dr. A.M. Woodbury's Introduction to Theology ©


Finally, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when peace was again restored, the study of both positive and speculative theology gradually began to flourish, and later on a special incentive was offered for the advancement of theology by the Vatican Council in its condemnation of Positivism and agnosticism. The fruits of this were seen in Modernism, condemned by Pius X. This Sovereign Pontiff, like Leo XIII, again highly recommended the study of St. Thomas' works and wrote: "But we warn teachers to bear in mind that a slight departure from the teaching of Aquinas, especially in metaphysics, is very detrimental. As Aquinas himself says, 'a slight error in the beginning is a great error in the end.' " (Encyclical Pascendi et Sacrorum Antistitum.)

A. Also the Code of Canon Law enacts: "Let professors handle the studies of rational philosophy and of theology and the education of students in these disciplines utterly according to the conceptualization, doctrine and principles of the Angelic Doctor, and religiously cleave thereto" (Canon 1366, n. 2).

B. The same is enacted in the new law for the conferring of academic degrees promulgated by Pope Pius XI in the Encyclical Deus Scientiarum Dominus.

C. Pope Pius XI recalls the forementioned prescription of Canon 1366 in his Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, saying that for "a learning adequate to the requirements of the age ... there is required both instruction and education in scholastic philosophy 'according to the conceptualization, doctrine and principles of the Angelic Doctor,' " this in the year 1935.

D. Well known to all students of theology are the notable recent commentaries on the Summa Theologiae written by Buonpensiere, Del Prado, Billot, Mattiussi, Jannsens, Paquet, Garrigou-Lagrange, Ramirez and others, as well as innumerable monographs devoted to one or other of the doctrines of St. Thomas.


All these - and innumerable other - testimonies whether of Popes or of approved theologians to the value and necessity of adherence to, and profound study of, the doctrine of St. Thomas most manifestly proclaim its moment and significance.

A. Nevertheless, during the years immediately following the war of 1939-1945, a certain number of writers, even Catholics, chiefly under the influence, or from the inspiration of Existentialism, have conducted a campaign for the abandonment of Thomism and even of scholastic theology and philosophy generally.

a. These writers object against St. Thomas:

a1. First, that he, so to speak, tied down the content of divine revelation, or locked it up in, Aristotelic concepts, thus confining it to a particular and closed or narrow and progressively outmoded philosophical system, whereby it is distorted and cramped.

a2. Secondly:

a2a. either that Thomism is false, or at least inadequate to reality and to the life of the mind and to the moral life,

a2b. or at least that it is unacceptable to the mind of modern men.

b. To which it must be answered:

b1. First, that the philosophy of St. Thomas is not mere Aristotelianism, but is an infinitely superior synthesis wherein is contained indeed eminently what is valuable and true in the philosophy of Aristotle, synthesised with the most profound and illuminating intuitions of Plato and enriched with the developments elaborated by Plotinus, the great Denis, St. Austin and other great masters.

b2. Secondly, that the principles and concepts which St. Thomas employs for the explaining of the revealed doctrines are not merely Aristotelic (or Platonic), but are HUMAN, that is, connatural to the human intellect as it apprehends reality - it is merely accidental to such principles or concepts that they be first exactly expressed and formulated whether by Aristotle or by Plato or by Boethius or by any other.

b3. Thirdly, that Thomism is not a 'system' as this word is used of other philosophical doctrines (v.g. subjectivism, materialism, idealism, positivism, etc.), that is, it is not a closed body of doctrine incapable of development consistent with its principles, but is, especially by reason of its doctrine of the analogy of being, an OPEN explanation of the real, capable of assimilating whatsoever newly discovered truth and of being developed coherently with its principles without limit, no newly discovered truth remaining outside its virtualities.

b4. Fourthly, that Thomism, profoundly, faithfully and adequately exposed, is the only philosophy which is acceptable to the unprejudiced mind of modern man.

B. Indeed Pope Pius XII writes in the year 1950:

a. "It is not surprising that the Church will have her future priests brought up on a philosophy which 'derives its conceptualization, doctrine and basic principles from the Angelic Doctor' (C.I.C., Canon 1366, n. 2). One thing is clearly established by the long experience of the ages - that St. Thomas' philosophical system is an unrivalled method, whether for conducting the beginner through his early steps, or for the investigation of the most recondite truths; moreover, that his teaching seems to chime in, by a kind of pre-established harmony, with divine revelation - no surer way to safeguard the first principles of the faith, and turn the results of later healthy developments to good advantage. Deplorable, that a philosophy thus recognized and received by the Church, should, in our day, be treated by some minds with contempt." (Encyclical Humani Generis).

b. "The greatest stress must be laid on philosophy and theology 'according to the conceptualization of the Angelic Doctor,' (C.I.C., Canon 1366, n. 2), with such additional matter as the needs and errors of the day require. These subjects are of the greatest consequence and advantage both to priests and people." (Menti nostrae).

Dr. Austin M. Woodbury, SM ©

Dr. A.M. Woodbury, SM, Ph.D., S.T.D. (1899-1979) was a leading Catholic philosopher and the inspiration for the 1985 establishment of the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 1997. It was published in Universitas, Vol 1 (1997), No. 1.
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