Saint of the Week: St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence
St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

Happy Feast of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)! I find myself surprised that I did not write about him when the Weekly Saints category was active, although he does come up a few times elsewhere, most especially ‘Pange, Lingua‘ and ‘Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Bible study‘. St Thomas is worth getting to know, especially these days with a Thomist resurgence in Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, epitomised by a Catholic friend whose response to my eagerness over a Victorian exposition of the 39 Articles said, ‘We have St Thomas for that’.

St Thomas Aquinas was born into a wealthy family of lesser nobility in the Lazio region of Italy. As the younger son in the family, he was destined for life the cloisters, like his uncle, abbot of Montecassino (St Benedict’s [saint of the week here and here] monastery in Campania). He was sent to Montecassino at age 5, where he was instructed in theology and philosophy. His family’s dream was that he would ascend to the abbacy in his uncle’s footsteps.

At age 19, however, he rebelled against his family’s wishes and chose instead to join the fairly new Order of Preachers — the Dominicans. Benedictine monasticism was a prestigious affair — long-established and wealthy, the Order had many monasteries that were major landowners throughout Europe. Indeed, so wealthy were Benedictines that they never stopped getting in trouble for it! See, e.g., this excerpt from St Bernard’s (saint of the week here) excoriation of Cluniac Benedictines a century earlier.

Dominicans, on the other hand, were only a few decades old. Honorius III’s approval of St Dominic’s (saint of the week here) order was only fully approved in 1216. Dominicans are a mendicant order of friars like Franciscans. This means that they beg for food to survive. They live in priories, not cloistered monasteries, and consort with rabble and mobs. They do sordid, public pious acts like public preaching or debating heretics. They were also in on the ground floor at the start of the Inquisition, and this didn’t make them especially popular — as St Peter Martyr of Verona (d. 1252) found out the hard way.

Dominicans are not prestigious in the 13th century, anyway.

Thomas, with his background in philosophy and love of God, joined anyway.

Dominicans are, as it turns out, unafraid of philosophy.

In 1245, Thomas went to Paris to study — at the time, Dominican philosopher Albertus Magnus was active there. Three years later, Thomas followed Albertus to Cologne where, an apprentice professor, he taught Old Testament. 1252 saw him back in Paris studying to become a Master in theology. At this time, he continued lecturing on the Bible and also wrote his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, one of the standard theological texts and tasks of the age. Besides this and his biblical commentaries, Thomas wrote his work De ente et essentia for his fellow Parisian Dominicans.

1256 saw Thomas’ appointment as regent master in theology at Paris and promptly launched a defence of the mendicant orders. He held this post until 1259, writing several of his philosophical and theological works, as well as beginning the Summa Contra Gentiles.

In 1260 at Naples he was made general preacher in that province, and 1261 had him teaching poor Dominican friars in Orvieto who could not afford an education such as he had acquired. I like this about him and the Dominicans, in fact. Anyway, at Orvieto is when he put together the Catena Aurea, a patristic catena commentary on the Gospels (listed under ‘Biblical Commentaries’ here). He also produced the liturgy for the new feast of Corpus Christi at this time.

1265 he was called to Rome by Clement IV to serve as papal theologian. He also served as a teacher at the newly-founded studium provinciale at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, which was a training institute for Dominicans of the Roman province in higher levels of philosophy and theology. Amongst the various theological works he wrote during his time at Santa Sabina, St Thomas began the Summa Theologiae while he was there.

This, of course, is his most well-known writing and his greatest achievement.

The Summa Theologiae is a meticulously constructed text of theology and philosophy that systematically treats almost every subject of Chrisitan theology. Because God made all things, the theology of the Summa ends up producing a philosophy for understanding almost the entire world. Like all of St Thomas’ works, it is deeply steeped in Aristotelian ideas and methods, but also richly informed by Scripture and the Fathers. Not necessarily an easy read, it can be richly rewarding. Sadly, St Thomas was unable to complete his task despite working on it for so many years.

From 1268-1272 he was in Paris again, teaching. This time, in his sights were Averroist philosophers who had taken up an extreme version of Aristotelianism that he felt was incompatible with the Christian faith. His quarrels at this time also brought him into conflict with the Franciscan theologians St Bonaventure (saint of the week here), John Peckham, and William of Baglione — this last one slandering him as, in fact, an Averroist. Many disputations were thus created during this second regency in Paris.

His final phase of activity was from 1272 until his death, when he moved to Naples and established a studium generale — a general training institute for the whole Dominican order.

In 1273, everything changed for this prolific writer and philosopher-theologian. I quote The Catholic Encyclopedia:

On one occasion, at Naples in 1273, after he had completed his treatise on the Eucharist, three of the brethren saw him lifted in ecstasy, and they heard a voice proceeding from the crucifix on the altar, saying “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord” (Prümmer, op. cit., p. 38). Similar declarations are said to have been made at Orvieto and at Paris.

On 6 December, 1273, he laid aside his pen and would write no more. That day he experienced an unusually long ecstasy during Mass; what was revealed to him we can only surmise from his reply to Father Reginald, who urged him to continue his writings: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value” (modica, Prümmer, op. cit., p. 43). The “Summa theologica” had been completed only as far as the ninetieth question of the third part (De partibus poenitentiae).

He went to sleep in the Lord on 7 March, 1274.

He is one of the greatest theologians of all time, certainly of the mediaeval world. My first-year undergraduate philosopher teacher was surprised and delighted when he encountered such quality philosophy in the Middle Ages (chronological snob that he was). His influence extends everywhere, and whatever he says is worth being very careful over before you reject it. He was also a tireless Christian, seeking to educate his fellow friars in the ways of God’s truth and help others out of the paths of error.

Would we were all so committed to the paths of Christ’s truth.

His works are available in English here.

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