On January 28, we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian the Church has ever known.
He is an intellectual giant whose understanding of sublime truths has been made accessible to us through the work of Dr. Woodbury and his followers. Our Catholic culture has been deeply influenced by his teaching which is still eminently relevant to our times. Above all, St. Thomas is one of the glorious saints of the Church and we, as members of the communion of saints, are united with him and share in his merits.
St. Thomas is concerned with sacred theology , the science about God, the perfect good and of our relationship with him. He teaches us about everlasting happiness and the way to reach this happiness, the state in which we possess perfectly the perfect good.
The study of St. Thomas is a quest for wisdom, the highest gift of the Holy Spirit. In the readings for the Mass of St. Thomas Aquinas, his love of wisdom is expressed through the poetry of the Old Testament:
I esteemed wisdom more than sceptres and thrones;
Compared with her, I held riches as nothing.
I have loved wisdom more than health or beauty,
Preferred her to the light since her radiance never sleeps.
When St. Thomas wrote the Summa Theologiae, a work intended for "beginners", his motive was to make sacred doctrine popular because "man's most urgent need is to know truths about God." (A Tour of the Summa)
The Church has constantly taught that there are many philosophical truths about God which we could know by reason alone: "The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason" (CCC,286)
St. Thomas understood quite well that most of us, caught up in the business of everyday life, have little time to think about philosophical matters.
As Chesterton puts it: "St. Thomas takes the view that the souls of all the ordinary hard-working and simple-minded people are quite as important as the souls of thinkers and he asks how all these people are possibly to find time for the amount of reasoning that is needed to find truth" (The Dumb Ox).
With our natural reason we can know of God's existence, of his love for us as our Creator, of his continuing love, his Providence, which keeps us alive. We know that we have a desire for a good that will make us perfectly happy, a perfect good.
Through revelation man can get to know accurately certain truths about God which his reason may or may not have reached after many years of philosophical study. However, supernatural truths are beyond our reason and could never have been known without revelation. Without revelation we would not know that God, our loving Creator, is also a loving Father; that "the Son of God became man in order to make man divine" (Summa), that God the Holy Spirit lives in us and sanctifies us. Without revelation we would not have the certitude that our longing for a perfect good will be fulfilled in the Beatific Vision, when we will possess "the good that excludes every evil and fulfils every desire" (Summa).
The evidence of our reason points to our need for God: revelation ensures that we know with absolute certainty that this need will be fulfilled and so we are preserved from falling in the "life is absurd", "life is meaningless" fallacy.
So St. Thomas argues that "it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation."
St. Thomas showed us that faith is reasonable, not contradicting reason but going beyond it: "By clearly distinguishing reason from faith, yet at the same time harmoniously linking the two, he preserved the right and dignity of each" (Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris).
Faith is not blind but based on reason. Our dignity as persons and our elevation to share in God's own life are integrated in this balanced approach.
The close link between philosophy and theology and the importance of studying St. Thomas are emphasised by Pope John Paul II in an address to students at the Angelicum: "Not even theology, can abandon the teaching of St. Thomas" (Centenary celebration of Aeterni Patris).
Today's educator would love the balanced approach of St. Thomas in his attitude to man: "It was a very special idea of St. Thomas that man is to be studied in his whole manhood; that a man is not a man without his body, just as he is not a man without his soul (Chesterton, The Dumb Ox).
There have been times in the history of the Church when the body was despised and rejected, seen as a burden to the soul. St. Thomas, however, affirms that man is a balance and union of body and soul and that the union between body and soul is unto the good of the soul. This truth had been dimmed or forgotten when heresies such as Puritanism or Jansenism spread even among the faithful. Vatican II as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church restate this truth. Man...is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day (CCC, 364).
St. Thomas' principles on the relationship between science and faith are still valid. The Church does not hesitate to acknowledge that there are limitations in the teachings of St. Thomas insofar as that teaching uses examples which are associated with medieval ideas in cosmology and biology. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to dismiss St. Thomas as irrelevant and obsolete.
St. Thomas' teaching that the Church cannot be right theologically and wrong scientifically remains. There can be no contradiction between faith and science because truth is one: the truth of the supernatural world and the truth of the natural world cannot conflict. We find the same principle in the documents of Vatican II as well as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God (CCC, 159).
What we believe by faith is based on divine authority so the truths of the faith are of the highest certitude. Sometimes through wrong reasoning we arrive at some conclusion which is opposed to our faith and we are tempted to reject some higher divine truth.
St. Thomas teaches that we cannot pick and choose, otherwise we are no longer Catholics: He who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will.
There can be no such thing as faith in some truths only: To reject any article of the faith is to reject the faith itself.
Clearly the study of St. Thomas is most relevant to modern man if he is to see the convergence of faith and reason in the one truth. It is not surprising that the Church has consistently stressed the necessity of studying St. Thomas: The words of the council are clear: the Fathers saw that it is fundamental for the adequate formation of the clergy and of Christian youth that it preserve a close link with the cultural heritage of the past, and in particular with the thought of St. Thomas; and that this, in the long run, is a necessary condition for the longed for renewal of the Church (Centenary of Aeterni Patris).
The notion of commitment involving both mind and heart is very close to St. Thomas' notion of faith.
He teaches that both intellect and will are involved in the virtue of faith. There must be knowledge because, obviously, Of the unknown there is no desire. However, faith without love is dead faith. It is possible to make an act of faith without having charity. Through charity the act of faith is made perfect and becomes living faith.
The splendid intellect of St. Thomas led him to explain and defend clearly and logically the truths of the faith. Yet, having given his explanation of the mystery which the Church most appropriately calls transubstantiation (Paul VI, Credo of the People of God), he exclaims in the Pange Lingua:
Through his word...
the golden wheat became his flesh,
Wine of the grape his sacred blood.
How could this be done, dear master?
Faith alone could understand.
The intensity of St. Thomas' love for the Eucharist vibrates in the Eucharistic hymns Pange Lingua and in the Adoro te Devote: Devoutly I adore thee, O hidden God!
Those hymns were composed for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, a feast in which we celebrate the supreme gift of love which comes from the heart of Christ.
St. Thomas understood well the greatness of the Eucharist when he taught that the Eucharist is the perfection of the spiritual life and the end toward which all the other sacraments are oriented.
Great are the titles of St. Thomas. He is called the Common Doctor, the Angelic Doctor, the Heavenly Patron of the Highest Studies. Greater than his knowledge, greater than his influence is his glory as a saint, a glory which is in proportion to the love of God he had during his life of faith.
Altarpiece in Fossanova Abbey, Italy,
depicting St. Thomas teaching from his deathbed.|
Love for Christ in the Eucharist animated his life and as he received for the last time the God whom he knew by faith, he made a final act of faith and love in his last words:
I receive you,
price of my soul's redemption and food for my journey.
For love of you I have studied and kept vigil, toiled,
preached and taught...
Audrey English is a mother of seven, schoolteacher, and an occasional contributor to the Catholic press in Australia. She has also written a number of educational textbooks.
This article posted April 1997. It was published in Universitas, Vol 1 (1997), No. 2.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
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