By: Fr. Bernhard Thomas Blankenhorn, OP
St. Thomas Aquinas, "The Angelic Doctor," is perhaps the most influential theologian in the history of the Catholic Church and is widely considered the greatest theologian in the history of Order of Preachers. He was born around 1225 and died in 1274. His life was one continual offering to God and neighbor, a gift of prayer, study, writing, teaching and preaching.
Thomas was born into an Italian family of nobility, subjects of Emperor Friedrich II on his border to the papal territories. Thomas was educated from an early age by the Benedictines of the neighboring abbey at Monte Cassino as a their likely future abbot. Understandably, they would have wanted the most humane abbot possible, and all the evidence is that they invested all the resources of what is arguably the most humane monastic rule in the church to form this oblate, who was given to them roughly at the age of five and stayed with them for the next ten years or so, into a pious, but also a humanly savvy man. This was surely one of the main sources for the intimate and largely benevolent insights of the later theologian into what makes humans tick, into their passions, hopes, and fears, into how their lives can succeed and where they sometimes fail. What was going to make Thomas a cherished theologian over centuries was the fruit not only of the new Aristotelian learning, but also of ancient Benedictine "humanitas."
Thomas nevertheless took the Dominican habit around the age of 18, while he was a student at the University of Naples in Italy. We don't know what precisely moved Thomas to prefer a novel group of migrant preachers and teachers to the prospect of becoming the Benedictine abbot of the most venerable abbey in Christendom, but the immediate attempt of the Dominicans to send him directly to Albert the Great let us suspect that Thomas looked forward to collaborating with this friar who was becoming a well-known expert on the Aristotelian, the Neoplatonic, and the Arabian traditions. Thomas had gone to Naples with the other students from the abbey when tensions between papal and imperial forces had engulfed Monte Cassino. There he met the new Aristotelian learning made possible by the translations and reception sponsored by Friedrich II. Thomas' early works already betray the key idea which Thomas will develop throughout his work: how this acute Aristotelian sense of human animality and human finitude can be in harmony with the Gospel of hope.
Thomas' own family members were opposed to his joining this new and unconventional band of begging friars, with its papal privileges and its often anti-imperial leanings, and they soon kidnapped him. But his mother Theodora and Thomas' brothers eventually realized that their initial plans for family control of the Aquino-Monte Cassino area under imperial protection had become impractical, and they seem to have arranged for Thomas' release.
Thomas was sent first to Paris and then on to Cologne, where he studied under the famous Dominican St. Albert the Great, as he opened a General House of Studies there in 1248. Thomas served for a while as Albert's research and teaching assistant. Recommended by Albert, Thomas, somewhat under aged and academically under qualified, returned to Paris in 1252 to take up the work required for becoming a master of theology. In 1256, in the midst of a larger controversy about mendicant professorships at the University of Paris, generally acknowledged as the greatest university of its day, Thomas had attained there against continuing opposition the degree and eventually also the recognition as master of theology. After serving as professor of theology in Paris for three years, Thomas became conventual lector in Orvieto, in close collaboration with the papal court. He then served as regent professor at a new Dominican Studium in Rome. In 1268, he returned to his old post in Paris. His last teaching assignment was in Naples (1272-1274).
As a master of theology, Thomas had three responsibilities: to lecture on Scriptural and patristic texts, to preach, and to hold public disputations. The lectures and disputations were held in a fashion which made it more easily possible to publish them in a somewhat amended version. The volume of Thomas' writing was extensive, eventually leaving three great syntheses of theology (of which only the first, the Commentary on Lombard's Sentences, reflects more or less directly his classroom work), numerous volumes of disputed questions, a dozen commentaries on Aristotle, along with other theological, philosophical, and topical writings. By the end of his life, and with generous support from fellow Dominican secretaries and academic assistants, Thomas' output must have reached roughly fifteen pages per day.
His thought may be characterized roughly as a synthesis of the Christian tradition, as found in Sacred Scripture (with which Thomas had an intense familiarity), the (often very Neoplatonic) Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine, with the thought of Aristotle, the latter system having come under increasing attack as corrosive of the belief in human dignity. Yet Thomas did not simply combine existing systems. He brought to philosophy and theology new insights, especially by reconciling the evident finitude of human life with the call to supernatural beatitude.
Later to be recognized as a genius of theology and philosophy, Thomas was a humble, simple friar, whose life was focused on Christ. He would begin his typical day by going to confession. He then celebrated Mass with a fellow friar as altar minister and then served at the Mass of the priest who had ministered at his own. He lectured on scriptural or patristic texts in the morning, and he joined the friars for lunch and later for Compline (night prayer). The remainder of his day would be spent in prayer, study, and writing, as well as the periodical afternoon "disputationes" in front of his students or even the faculty as a whole. Thomas was said to be of large build and, despite his early death, generally healthy. He was praised as being good-spirited in his dealings with others, more patient than, say, his Swabian mentor, usually quiet and focused, not without a sense of humor, usually forthcoming when answering frequent requests for expert advice, sometimes writing small theological treatises in answer to queries by the brethren or by political leaders. These opinions, too, were prepared for publication.
Thomas maintained affectionate ties with his family. Returning to Naples around 1272, Thomas was appointed by Charles of Anjou to a chair of theology in Naples, and Thomas had occasion to renew his own family contacts in the vicinity. Thomas showed a similar affection toward his students and his Dominican brothers, maintaining and in one case founding Studia for them and, as in some cases, defending them against undue critique (as with Peter of Tarentaise, who after Thomas' death would become Pope Innocent V. for several months)
Thomas' prayer, like his personality, seems for all its depth to have been simple. He is said to have had particularly strong devotion to St. Paul and St. Agnes. Convinced that the latter had been instrumental in the cure of his ailing Dominican socius, Reginald, Thomas arranged for the funding of a yearly celebration by the brethren in her honor. Thomas was said to have prayed intently before every significant endeavor. His prayer displayed three main traits: it was linked with his apostolate of study, it was notably Eucharistic (Thomas would play a central role in re-working the liturgy of Corpus Christi), and it was often focused on the symbol of the crucifix (where the supernatural and human finitude intersect).
Thomas was not just a man of great intellect and simple prayer. He also may be counted among the great mystics. Toward the end of his life, though he often appeared absent-minded, even in public, he also seems to have experienced something ecstatic while celebrating Mass. Finally, on December 6, 1273, during the time in which he was completing the section on sacraments in his great Summa Theologiae, he experienced a transforming vision during Mass. He stopped writing on his works in progress. Some three months later, he died.
His secretary and socius, Reginald, will report the much quoted phrase, "All that I have written seems like no more than straw." After this episode, Thomas wrote only one more small work: fittingly, a letter to the abbot of Monte Cassino answering questions which had become controversial at the abbey regarding the ability of providence to know future contingents without becoming deterministic and robbing human beings of their freedom and contingency. The monks seemed convinced that they faced a quandary: either there was human freedom, but God was not involved in the world; or, more likely, what seemed to be human freedom was no more than the unavoidable result of divine determination. Within their confines, cloisters can at times of controversies become something like pressure cookers, and Bernard, the abbot, asks Thomas to help alleviate some of the less constructive pressure. In this short, "expert opinion", Thomas' answer is in many ways typical of his work and shows that he could still practice theology even after the events of December. His response draws on the ancient wisdom of Boethius in a new service of mercy, confirming the faith of those struggling here with intellectual doubt. Thomas' letter to Abbot Bernard even includes a rare play on words. If the monks grasp the meaning of eternity vis-a-vis time, they will solve their problem "quasi fide occulata", as if with a faith which has come to see (by reason). Normally, "fides occulata" meant no more than "eye-witness", a frequent topic in visitation reports about who was doing - or not doing - what. Here, Thomas has added a "quasi" to show that he is expanding the conventional meaning. Thomas, who had received so much from the monks at Monte Cassino, saved his last work as a means of thanking them.
Soon after Thomas died on March 7, 1274, having been injured on the way to the Second Council of Lyon. The philosophical faculty at Paris asked the Dominican Order for the permission to bury Thomas' remains their own halls. The theologians were less approving. Thomas' theology had become a matter of increasing controversy in the final years of his life and in the first decades after his death. Nevertheless, he was declared a saint in 1323.
As for Thomas' thought, its influence has varied through the centuries. Reacting against often severe criticism of Thomas' positions, the Order of Friars Preachers recommended "Thomism" as its common doctrine in the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century, at the Council of Trent, Thomas' thought emerged as a crucial tool for the explication of Catholic doctrine; at this time, almost 300 years after Thomas' death, the Summa Theologiae came to replace the patristic anthology of Peter Lombard's Sentences as the chief text for theological systematics. Yet Thomism declined after Trent, until Pope Leo XIII called for its revival in 1879, leading as well to the formation of the so-called "Leonine Commission", which has produced critical editions of many of Thomas' works and, since the 1960's, has set standards for what the critical edition of a widely diffused medieval text should be. Interest in Thomism declined again after Vatican II. Although the Council recommended Thomas' thought, the excessively dogmatic and ahistorical appearance of much of "Neo-Thomism" (1879 - 1962) led to a negative reaction. Yet the study of Thomas has experienced a revival in recent years, partly due to the work of Dominicans at the Angelicum in Rome, in Toulouse, France, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C., and at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at Berkeley, California. Another important factor has been the wider development of mediaeval studies. Ironic as it might seem, the disappearance of the need to ascribe every insight to the "doctor communis" has freed the way to study the particular place of Thomas in the controversial context of his times. This can provide new possibilities for a wider systematic reception in the thought of our own day as well.
In this sense, the Catholic Church continues to look to St. Thomas Aquinas for insight into the mysteries of the faith, as evidenced by the "magisterial" references to Aquinas in the new Catechism or the encyclical, Fides et Ratio, but also by academic publications on philosophy and theology. Thomas' life and thought continue to inspire his fellow friars as they devote their lives to prayer and study, to preaching and teaching, for the salvation of souls.
- Torrell, Jean-Pierre, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, Volume 1: The Person and His Work, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1996.
- Tugwell, Simon, O.P., Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings, Paulist Press, New York, 1988.
- Weisheipl, James A., O.P., Friar Thomas D'Aquino, second ed., Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1983.