“Grant me, O Lord My God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you.”
– St Thomas Aquinas
Who was St Thomas Aquinas?
At the sixteenth-century Council of Trent the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas was placed upon the altar alongside the Bible, not as its equal, but as an authoritative interpretation of the faith revealed in Sacred Scripture. Its author had entered the Dominican Order at Naples probably as a late teenager in perhaps 1242. Family opposition delayed his studies by a year or more, but he was soon a talented student at Paris where he attended the lectures of his fellow friar, St Albert the Great. He accompanied Albert to Cologne in 1248, but returned to study and teach at Paris where he became a Master of Theology in 1256. He was a prolific author.
When William of St Amour attacked the friars as false prophets, Thomas came to their defence. He lectured on individual books of the Bible and on disputed theological questions. At Orvieto and at Rome during the 1260s, Thomas reflected on how best to give student friars a coherent overview of Catholic theology, and began work in 1266 on his magisterial Summa Theologiae.
Although unfinished at his death in 1274, the work would prove to be amongst the most influential books of theology ever written. In its explication of Scripture, in its appeal to theological authorities such as St Augustine, in its use of Aristotle and Arabic philosophers, and in its detailed and patient attention to objections against the different propositions advanced by the author at each stage of his exposition, the Summa manifests the fruitful interplay of faith and reason. Its anthropology, rooted in Christian revelation and illuminated by Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, offers a coherent vision of salvation in Christ by the merits of his Passion and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Through the grace of God and in his Church men and women acquire a new maturity. Growth in the theological and moral virtues enables them to live generously and amicably with each other and with God. Indeed, at the heart of the Christian religion God extends to us the gift of his friendship through our sanctification in Christ.
Collect for Saint Thomas Aquinas
O God, who made Saint Thomas Aquinas outstanding in his zeal for holiness and his study of sacred doctrine, grant us, we pray, that we may understand what he taught and imitate what he accomplished. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Deus, qui beatum Thomam sanctitatis zelo ac sacræ doctrinæ studio conspicuum effecisti, da nobis, quæsumus, et quæ docuit intellectu conspicere, et quæ gessit imitatione complere. Per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia sæcula sæculorum.
What’s so special about the Summa Theologiae?
Thomas spent three years working on the Summa Theologiae in Rome. It is a Christian theology, a sustained presentation of the Christian faith, and it might be asked why it came to stand out from the many other works of theology that were written before and since. One reason is the ease with which Thomas gathers the best of what earlier traditions had taught. On any particular question, he weaves into a new pattern all that the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and the findings of the philosophers had established. His mind is clear and spacious, and his heart is strong and generous. His interest is the truth about which he is passionate in such a way that he remains remarkably free and remarkably courageous. He values common sense, does not engage in argument for its own sake, is always kind to those with whom he disagrees and shows that he never lost a sense of wonder before the mysteries of creation and grace.
It is also relevant, then, that Thomas was a saint. Pope Benedict XVI, before he was Pope, wrote about what he called an essential connection between theology and holiness. Theology is concerned with the knowledge of God and so it is logical, Benedict wrote, that it should be connected with holiness. He illustrates what he means with some examples from history. In the relationships between St Antony of Egypt and St Athanasius, between St Francis of Assisi and St Bonaventure, and between St Dominic and St Thomas Aquinas, we see charismatic founders and reformers (Anthony, Francis and Dominic) whose spiritual insights were developed by saints with different gifts who came after them (Athanasius, Bonaventure and Thomas). Thomas is unthinkable, Pope Benedict says, without the passion of Dominic for the Gospel and for evangelization.
We can put it like this: Thomas develops a philosophical and theological basis in support of St Dominic’s reaction to the Albigensian heresy, a reaction that had led to the founding of the Order of Preachers in the first place. At the heart of that heresy (a heresy that is never far away) is a dualistic understanding of reality that regarded the spiritual world as belonging to a good God and the physical world as belonging to an evil one. It therefore emptied the physical world of meaning, despised the body, and distorted many of the teachings of the Gospel.
Thomas’s contribution was to present a fresh understanding of what creation means and a fresh understanding of how the human person is to be valued. One of the great students of St Thomas in the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton, suggested that if Thomas were to be given a title such as the Carmelites are given, he would be called ‘Thomas of God the Creator’. In creation the glory of God is revealed for no purpose other than to rejoice in the glory of God. No single creature can express all the goodness and beauty that God is and so there are many different kinds of creature to teach us many different things about God. Creation shows that God’s goodness is ‘self-sharing’, that it radiates and reaches out. There are creatures, therefore, whose task is to show this aspect of God’s goodness. These creatures are angels and human beings who consciously communicate truth and goodness to other creatures and so have a share in God’s management and direction of creation.
In his understanding of creation, Thomas draws on the resources of philosophy as well as theology to re-think how the biblical, Christian doctrine may best be presented. He was able to develop a mysticism of creation itself, in which God is understood to be present not only in special people, places or experiences, but everywhere and always. As creator, God is mightily active ‘deep down things’, for if God were not constantly willing the world’s being, and empowering its activities, there would be nothing. Creation itself then – the nature of things as we come to understand and appreciate them through science and philosophy – is another book in which the mystery of God is intelligible to us, however dimly.
Doctor of Humanity
Thomas also developed a fresh understanding of how the human person is to be valued. Pope John Paul II suggested that Thomas could rightly be called ‘doctor of humanity’. He is clearly a doctor of divinity the Pope said, but his greatness consists as much in what he says about the human as in what he says about God. Thomas is one of the foremost representatives of a Christian humanism that has always flourished in the Church.
All creatures bear a trace of their Maker but human beings are created in God’s ‘image and likeness’. This is seen, Thomas says, in human intelligence and moral responsibility as well as the ways in which we share in God’s creativity. Only God can create in the strict sense of the term but human beings can invent and initiate many things as well as co-operating with God in the creation of new human beings. As participants in providence we are God’s partners in the unfolding of the world’s history. No longer merely servants, we are brought into friendship with God through faith in Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
In considering what it means for the human being to be the image of God, Thomas says a remarkable thing. Although the angels are more perfect images as regards intelligence and freedom (in which the image primarily consists), human beings are fuller images of God than the angels and this is because they have bodies. There is a permanent tendency in Christianity to think that human beings must become spiritual if they are to grow closer to God and, understood properly, this is of course true. But in his great life of St Thomas, G.K. Chesterton says that Thomas and St Francis together ‘saved the Church from spirituality’. What Chesterton means by ‘spirituality’ is all those distorted views of human and Christian life that end up despising, undervaluing, and even rejecting the physical existence of the human being.
But, says Thomas, the human being is a fuller image of God than the angel because he is a creature with a body. There are two ways in which this bodiliness makes us fuller images of God. Because human beings generate or procreate other human beings, they reflect this fact about God, that within God there is generation and the procession of persons. Angels do not generate or procreate other angels and so here is something about God that human beings represent within creation and angels do not. A second difference, again dependent on us having bodies, is that the presence of the soul in the body – fully present and active in all parts of the body – teaches us something about the presence of God in creation since God is present and active in all parts of it.
There are other ways in which Thomas shows why he is regarded as a ‘doctor of humanity’. In speaking about the life of heaven he says that, although the separated soul is already perfectly happy in the vision of God, the ‘wellbeing of the soul’s bliss’ requires that it be reunited with its body in the resurrection. He cannot imagine a human being as anything other than a bodily creature. Our way of being, of experiencing, of knowing, and of loving is bodily. We have no knowledge or understanding that is not dependent on sensation. Our minds are most comfortable with the scientific knowledge of this world. Here is where we are at home, and when we stretch our minds to consider purely spiritual realities, in particular God Himself, then we can only do it with great difficulty. Such light will be more like darkness to us, Thomas says, and the outcome of all our searching for God is to be united with God in this life ‘as with something unknown’.
Union with God is the goal of human living, a goal we approach and attain through right action. While human beings are free and responsible for what they choose, Thomas does not overlook the reality of sin and its consequences. He speaks of desire and virtue as the internal principles of human action, of law and grace as its external principles. Where many Catholic and Christian accounts of morality have been based on the commandments, Thomas builds his account around the virtues, the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. It is one of the most original aspects of the Summa Theologiae that it thus re-presents the moral teaching of the Gospel using categories drawn from philosophy, in particular from what Aristotle says in his Ethics. It is this Christian ‘moral theology’ that stands at the heart of what Thomas wanted to do in writing this great work.
One distinguished student of Thomas’s work, Fr Leonard Boyle OP, says that in composing the Summa Theologiae he ‘attempted to set the regular training in practical theology in the Dominican Order on a more truly theological course. Inasmuch as man was an intelligent being who was master of himself and possessed of freedom of choice, he was in the image of God. To study human action is therefore to study the image of God and to operate on a theological plane. To study human action on a theological plane is to study it in relation to its beginning and end, God, and to the bridge between, Christ and his sacraments’ (The Setting of the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas, 1982, pp.15,16)
Want the Saint of the Day sent straight to your inbox? Sign up for our Saint of the Day emails and we’ll help you get to know the saints by sending you an email on the feast or memorial of every major saint, and on the optional memorial of select other saints. Opt out at any time.