St. Thomas Aquinas and Us

[A blessed feast of St. Thomas Aquinas! On this his feast day, I share (attached below) a biographical sketch of the Angelic Doctor by Bertha Catherine Madott.  Her point about Aquinas’s then-controversial approach to theology is a helpful reminder of an important chapter in Catholicism’s rich intellectual history. 

 As one of the most articulate of the scholastics, St. Thomas Aquinas helped shift Western Christianity’s understanding of theology from an emphasis on deductive reasoning and on a reliance on Scripture as an authority in its own right, to inductive reasoning. The Church Fathers and monastic writers usually quote or allude to Scripture.  Aquinas does so rarely.  This helps explain why the scholastic approach was difficult for some thinkers to accept.  But it helps account for the fact that the West developed the notion of academic inquiry and the university.  (See nearly any of Rodney Stark’s recent books for his research on scholasticism’s role in the development of universities.) 

This development also meant that the link Scripture formed between liturgy, lectio divina, and theological reflection was weakened. I don’t think this had to be the case, but it’s pretty much what history shows was the case.   

As Newman claimed, the genius of monasticism, represented by St. Benedict, is a poetic genius. That of the scholastics, represented by St. Dominic (or it could be Aquinas as well), is a scientific genius.  The 12th/13th-c shift to scholasticism had the effect of taking some of the wind out of the sails of liturgy as poetry.  (Yes, Aquinas’s reflections on the Holy Eucharist did result in the poetry of Pange lingua. But note that the poetry isn’t integral to the liturgy itself.) 

It was also at around this time that mysticism does a shift towards private mystical experiences. The mysticism of the Fathers and of monasticism doesn’t really support private experiences per se since everything is linked to the liturgy (which is a common activity, i.e., shouldn’t result in hyper-emotionalism or one’s private visions or ecstasies, pace the Pentecostalists, Charismatics, etc.) As Andrew Louth and a few other writers have shown, mystical literature from the 12th century on generally becomes more extreme (to use my word).  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Church Fathers of the East, wrote of spiritual darkness but balanced it with the cataphatic.  The extreme kenosis of Sts. John of the Cross or, in our time, St. Teresa of Calcutta would have seemed skewed to the Church Fathers and to the age of monasticism. (Or at least, no one seems to have been interested in writing about it.)  The RB is all about discretion and moderation.  Apparitions, visions, dark nights of the soul, etc. aren’t really our cup of tea. 

And when people refer to English reserve, I think they’re looking at something that has patristic/monastic roots.   If patristic/monastic spirituality has something to say about spiritual abnegation or kenosis, it’s less about dark nights of the soul or an apophatic nada and more along the lines of dealing with the noonday demon of acedia and being faithful to prayer in and out of season. Though St. Julian of Norwich’s use of the word “homely” doesn’t exactly mean a domestic, “homey,” quotidian quality, it’s not too far from that sense either and might therefore serve as a descriptor of what patristic/monastic spirituality offered and can still offer.]

Bertha Catherine Madott:

Today … it takes a real act of imagination to see [St. Thomas Aquinas] once again as a rebellious youngster, a trail-blazing scholar, and a true innovator. It is equally difficult to imagine the uproar that developed when the young Thomas arrived home in the habit of a Dominican. […] Thomas’ family was prepared for him to enter the religious life and, in view of their exalted position in society, it was expected that he might even be made an abbot of the Benedictine house at Monte Cassino. But to embrace the poverty of the Domini canes, the “dogs of God,” to live virtually like a beggar, to tramp the roads from Naples to Paris in the company of other disreputable vagabonds—this was too much for the Aquino clan, and forceful measures were taken to dampen the young man’s enthusiasm, including kidnapping and imprisonment.

To tempt the young man’s unacceptable vocation, an attractive lady of easy virtue was introduced into his room, but when she was driven away with a blazing torch and even more fiery words, the Aquino family started to take Thomas a little more seriously. Eventually he succeeded in reconciling his family to his choice (it is said that his sisters helped him escape from captivity by means of a large basket and some rope) and so began the career of the man we now call the “Angelic Doctor.”

Just as we have no problem today understanding the numbers of women and men who have been followers of Dominic and Francis, we have also become almost contemptuously familiar with the works of Aristotle, as legions of first-year university students are annually exposed to small but indigestible chunks of his writing in introductory philosophy courses. No one considers this revolutionary anymore; instead, these ancient writings are merely tolerated so that everyone can eventually get on [to] the really exciting stuff, found in the works of the more “modern” philosophers.

We have forgotten that, until the twelfth century, the writings of Aristotle were virtually unknown in the West, and Greek philosophy was represented almost exclusively by Plato. Thomas Aquinas, blessed with a broad education, an enquiring open mind and a capacity for clear systematic discourse, arrived on the scene in Paris at just the right moment, when enough of the new learning was finally available for study. In this setting he began his life’s work. It eventually culminated in the Summa Theologica, that calm, rational study of the Christian faith as considered in the light of the philosophical revolution inspired by Aristotle’s writings. This great work, along with his other textbooks, commentaries and lectures, is now considered the height of orthodoxy. When it was first written, violent controversies raged around it; books were burned at Oxford, and certain parts even banned by one outraged bishop.

Seven hundred years later, the dust has settled, the old antagonists are long gone and St. Thomas Aquinas is venerated as the patron of schools and universities. How appropriate! What better role model for students than one who once shocked his family, vociferously championed the new learning and dearly loved a good argument?

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