by Dr. A.M. Woodbury, SM

One of the great masters of the Thomistic tradition was Cardinal Cajetan (1468-1534). Dr. Woodbury was once asked to give a brief sketch of his life and for the benefit of our readers we reprint it here.


Thomas de Vio, more usually known as Cajetan, lived at a time pregnant with enormous consequences. During his lifetime Vasco da Gama and Columbus opened up the new worlds of the Far East and the West. The armies of Islam swept over South-East Europe and threatened the whole of Christendom. Italy was torn by internal strife and Rome itself was sacked by the Imperial troops of Charles V. The unity of Catholicism in France was threatened by the rise of Gallicanism, while in Germany an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, triggered off the protestant revolt against the Church. Later in England King Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the Church.

In spite of his scholarly activity in the fields of philosophy and theology Cajetan nevertheless played an active and important part in many of the great problems and crises of that momentous time. A number of his theological works dealt with the immediate problems and controversies of the period, while in the course of his later life he was advisor to four Popes, namely, Julius II, Leo X, Adrian VI, and Clement VII, and was despatched on two occasions as Papal Legate to deal with momentous events in Northern Europe.


Thomas de Vio was born in 1468 at Gaeta, site of an ancient Roman watering place on the coast between Rome and Naples; hence his surname, Cajetan. At the age of 16 he entered the Dominican Order and began his teaching career at Pavia at the age of 23. He taught later at the University of Padua. During his teaching life he was much occupied with the defence of Thomism against the attacks of Scotus, whose doctrines and arguments were at the time being ardently propagated by Trombetta, and also against the Averroists, such as Pomponazzi and Vernias. In 1510 Cajetan was elected Master General of his Order. During his Generalship, he made great efforts to promote scholarship in the sacred sciences throughout the Order and also to maintain strict religious discipline.

In 1517 he was made a Cardinal by Pope Julius II. It was in the following year that he was sent to Germany with the aim of leading Luther back to the Church and correcting his errors. Cajetan, in spite of early promise, could do nothing with Luther. In 1519, Cajetan was made Bishop of his native town, Gaeta. From the accession of Pope Clement VII in 1523 his influence in Papal circles waned notably, since Pope Clement VII failed to appreciate the advice of the great Cardinal. Therefore, till his death in 1534, Cajetan devoted his principal energies to his intensive writing.


In his literary career, in which he wrote 157 works, three periods may be distinguished:

The first period runs from 1491 to 1499, and is devoted chiefly to philosophical works. It is during these years that he brought out his famous works, the Commentary on St. Thomas' Being and Essence, his celebrated treatise on analogy, and some of his noted commentaries on Aristotle.

The second period is from 1499 to 1523. Most of his works at this period are theological. His immortal commentary on the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas was begun in 1507 and completed in 1522.

The third period was from 1523 till his death in 1534, and was devoted chiefly to scriptural works.

The most famous of Cajetan's works and those in which his genius is most conspicuous are his tremendous commentaries on St. Thomas, which Pope Leo XIII ordered to be printed in the Leonine edition of St. Thomas, and next his "De Nominum Analogia," which has often been called the Pons asinorum for philosophers.


Cajetan clothed the most profound understanding of philosophical and theological truth in a most succinct and at times almost epigrammatic form. The leap from proposition to proposition that was most obvious to him is very often far from obvious to his reader, save after a labour of much patient thought. Indeed, Cajetan at times is so difficult an author to follow that the joke has long been widespread in the schools, "If you wish to understand Cajetan, read St. Thomas."

No one of a philosophical genius to be compared with his has appeared among our race throughout the last seven hundred years. And more than anyone else he "depthed" St. Thomas.

- Dr. A.M. Woodbury, SM

(Reprinted from The Academician, Vol. 6, No. 2, July, 1965)

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 May 1999. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 1.
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