Saint Thomas Aquinas did what, exactly?

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Thomas Aquinas
THOMAS AQUINAS, attrib. to Botticelli.

It’s almost easier to list what he didn’t do. In a mere 49 years this 13th-century Dominican friar and later Doctor of the Church became the church’s essential theologian. That Thomas was brilliant is beyond question, but especially in his later writings he betrays an increasingly passionate keenness of vision that might have tempered the earlier intellectualism of his ideas—had he but finished his great Summa Theologica. Death, however, didn’t really put an end to this immense project, Thomas himself did.

Thomas had the advantage of studying under another great Dominican, Saint Albert the Great, and was hugely influenced by Western giants like Saints Augustine and Gregory the Great. But he also sought to mine the Eastern church fathers for their wisdom—in fact, there was hardly a source of truth he didn’t like. Thomas studied and wrote commentaries on scripture all his life. He also read liberally from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and pagan scholars, convinced there was no contradiction between truth derived from reason as from revelation. Thomas composed The Golden Chain for Pope Urban IV, linking the scripture commentaries of Latin and Greek church fathers together.

His fellow friars considered Thomas both a genius and a warm and kindly man. He was also devoted to the practice of contemplation, which was really what put an end to his writing. After an intense mystical experience three months before his death, he felt incapable of continuing what he now considered a hopelessly inadequate expression of the God he had experienced in prayer. Thomas had defined God in his works as Pure Being: the very essence of Divinity is this Be-ing. The created world and all its creatures were “spoken” and “loved” into a share of this being, which made “friendship with God” the sole purpose for human existence.

Thomas approached divine mysteries with great humility. He qualified even his most stunning theological pronouncements with mental genuflections to reflect their approximate nature only: “to some degree,” “in a certain way,” “as it were.” He rejected theology that denounced the body or the emotions, seeing both equally capable of serving God when well-ordered and disciplined.

His best thoughts on original sin, free will, the role of conscience, divine-human cooperation, the fundamental benefits of a life of virtue, the inner presence of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of salvation in Christ are basic to any parochial school education—whether we recognize them as “Thomistic” or not. It is no wonder that he was canonized a saint within 50 years of his death and named patron of all Catholic universities as well as the “Angelic” Doctor of the Church.

Tobit 4:14b-19; Wisdom 6:9-21; 7:7-30 and chs. 8 - 9; Sirach 1:1-29; Proverbs 2:1-11; 3:13-24; 8:1-9:6


Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings, translated, edited, and introduced by Simon Tugwell, O.P. (Paulist Press, 1988)
Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master by Robert Barron (Crossroad, 2008)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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