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St Thomas Aquinas and Pope Leo XIII

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the anniversary of the death of St Thomas Aquinas in 1274, and the traditional date of his feast. In the post-Conciliar revision of the calendar, he was moved to January 28th, the anniversary of the translation of his relics to the Dominican Friary of Toulouse, France, but many of the Dominican Order’s houses still keep his feast on this older day.

In 1879, about a year and a half into his long reign (over 25 years, the third longest in the Church’s history), Pope Leo XIII issued one of his most important encyclicals, titled Aeterni Patris, on the revival of scholastic philosophy. (The date of its publication, August 4, was in those days the feast of St Dominic, the founder of St Thomas’ religious order.) It begins with a long explanation of what the Church teaches about the utility of philosophy, and its traditional role as “the handmaid of theology,” which may briefly be summed up with this quote from paragraph 4. “(P)hilosophy, if rightly made use of by the wise, in a certain way tends to smooth and fortify the road to true faith, and to prepare the souls of its disciples for the fit reception of revelation; for which reason it is well called by ancient writers sometimes a stepping-stone to the Christian faith, sometimes the prelude and help of Christianity, sometimes the Gospel teacher.” The Pope then traces out what the Church Fathers “added … to the patrimony of philosophy”, an intellectual tradition which culminates in the medieval Scholastics, who “addressed themselves to a great work – that of diligently collecting, and sifting, and storing up, as it were, in one place, for the use and convenience of posterity the rich and fertile harvests of Christian learning scattered abroad in the voluminous works of the holy Fathers.”

Among the Scholastics, St Thomas is “the chief and master of all”, and it was the special purpose of this encyclical to encourage the rediscovery of him as the Church’s most important teacher of philosophy. It is he who “collected together and cemented, (and) distributed in wonderful order” the teachings of all the most important philosophers and theologians who had preceded him, and “so increased (them) with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.”

“Philosophy has no part which he did not touch finely at once and thoroughly; on the laws of reasoning, on God and incorporeal substances, on man and other sensible things, on human actions and their principles, he reasoned in such a manner that in him there is wanting neither a full array of questions, nor an apt disposal of the various parts, nor the best method of proceeding, nor soundness of principles or strength of argument, nor clearness and elegance of style, nor a facility for explaining what is abstruse. … single-handed, he victoriously combated the errors of former times, and supplied invincible arms to put those to rout which might in after-times spring up. Again, clearly distinguishing, as is fitting, reason from faith, while happily associating the one with the other, he both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each.”

The Pope goes on to note the many ways in which the Church has commended Thomas’ teachings, such as the religious orders that have made the study of him a requirement for the whole order in their statues, and particularly those which have a reputation for learning, such as the Dominicans, who count Thomas as one of their own, the Benedictines and the Jesuits. Likewise, many Popes have “celebrated his wisdom”, among them, his confrere St Pius V, who made him the first medieval Doctor of the Church. Likewise, the various ecumenical councils, and particularly the great council of the Catholic Reformation held at Trent, during the sessions of which St Thomas’ Summa Theologica was kept on the altar alongside the Bible.

Finally, the Pope exhorts the bishops of the world “to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”

Aeterni Patris was a rousing success at the time of its promulgation, and did lead to an authentic and extremely fruitful revive of the study of scholastic philosophy in general, and of St Thomas in particular. We cannot help but wonder how much better the Church’s intellectual culture would be today if the same heed had been paid to St John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia.

The Vision of St Thomas, by Santi di Tito, 1593, in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence. 

One of the most famous episodes of St Thomas’ life was beautifully described by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI during a general audience held on June 2, 2010, part of a long series of audiences on great theologians and other important figures in the Church’s history. I had the great fortunate to be present for this; Pope Benedict spoke like the kind of professor whose lectures people remember 20 years after they graduate, learned and passionate about his subject, and eager to share that passion with his listeners. The most beautiful moment, though, was at the end, when the Pope told the following story.

The life and teaching of St Thomas Aquinas could be summed up in an episode passed down by his ancient biographers. While, as was his wont, the Saint was praying before the Crucifix in the early morning in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, Domenico da Caserta, the church sacristan, overheard a conversation. Thomas was anxiously asking whether what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. And the Crucified One answered him: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What is your reward to be?”. And the answer Thomas gave him was what we too, friends and disciples of Jesus, always want to tell him: “Nothing but Yourself, Lord!”

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