The Angelic Doctor

Saint Thomas Aquinas

    Saint Thomas Aquinas was a man who was regarded as stupid - dubbed the "dumb ox" he became the most brilliant scholar in the history of the Church. Few saints were more revered than this learned Dominican who contributed so much to Holy Mother Church in writings and songs. He is best known for the great tome on theology "Summa Theologica," which incorporates three parts covering the entire teaching of the Church in regards Faith and Morals. He also penned the awe-inspiring Benediction hymns of "O Salutaris Hostia" and "Tantum Ergo." He is known as the "Angelic Doctor."

    The great Saint Thomas was born of noble parents at Aquino near Naples in Italy, in 1225; his century was replete with great names and Christian works, yet he dominates it by the power of his thought and the perfection of his works. In his childhood he was the provider for the poor of the neighborhood during a famine; his father, meeting him in a corridor with the food he had succeeded in taking from the kitchen, asked him what he had under his cloak; he opened it and fresh roses fell on the ground. The nobleman embraced his son and amid his tears, gave him permission to follow thereafter all inspirations of his charity.

    The young student, like the holy man Job, made a pact with his eyes and forbade them to see anything which might favor in his heart any desires for a life of ease. At the University of Naples he led a retired life of study and prayer, and continued his charities, giving all he had which was superfluous. He was recognized already by his professors as a genius, but it was Saint Albert the Great who later said of his disciple whom some called “the mute ox”, that “some day the lowing of this ox will resound throughout the entire world.”

    At the age of nineteen he received the Dominican habit at Naples. His family opposed this choice, and he was set upon by his brothers on his way to Paris. They attempted in vain to remove his holy habit, but he was taken in custody and obliged to suffer a two years’ captivity in their castle of Rocca Secca. Neither the caresses of his mother and sisters, nor the threats and stratagems of his brothers, could shake him in his vocation. His older sister was won over by him and renounced a brilliant marriage to embrace religious life; later she was Abbess of her convent in Capua.

    While Saint Thomas was in confinement at Rocca Secca, his brothers endeavored to entrap him into sin, but the attempt only ended in the triumph of his purity. Snatching from the hearth a burning coal, the Saint drove from his chamber the courtesan whom they had concealed there. Then marking a cross upon the wall, he knelt down to pray. Immediately, while he was rapt in ecstasy, an Angel girded him with a cord, in token of the gift of perpetual chastity which God had given him. The pain caused by the girdle was so sharp that Saint Thomas uttered a piercing cry, which brought his guards into the room. But he never related this grace to anyone save Father Raynald, his confessor, a short time before his death. Thus originated the Confraternity of the Angelic Warfare, for the preservation of the virtue of chastity. Thomas, also an expert chemistry scholor, was freed to continue his studies.

    Saint Thomas went to Cologne to study under St. Albert the Great, and afterwards was sent with him to Paris by Pope Innocent IV, where for several years he taught philosophy and theology. The Church has ever venerated his numerous writings as a treasure of sacred doctrine; in naming him the Angelic Doctor she has indicated that his science is more divine than human. The rarest gifts of intellect were combined in him with the most tender piety. Prayer, he said, had taught him more than study. His singular devotion to the Blessed Sacrament shines forth in the Office and hymns which he composed for the feast of Corpus Christi. To the words miraculously uttered by a crucifix at Naples, “Well hast thou written concerning Me, Thomas. What shall I give thee as a reward?” he replied, “No other reward except Thyself, O Lord.” Saint Thomas was loved for his unfailing gentleness and his readiness to lend his services or great lights to all who sought them.

    In 1268 Thomas lectured in Rome, then Bologna while still attending to the public business of the Church. In 1271 he returned to lecture in Paris, where he was also by the French Monarch King Louis VIII, his kinsman, on affairs of state. In 1272 the commands of the chief of his order and the request of King Charles brought him back to the professor's chair at Naples. All this time he was preaching every day, writing homilies, disputations, lectures, and finding time to work hard at his great work the Summa Theologica. Such rewards as the church could bestow had been offered to him. He refused the archbishopric of Naples and the abbacy of Monte Cassino. In January 1274 he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to attend the council convened at Lyons, to investigate and if possible settle the differences between the Greek and Latin churches.

    Though suffering from illness, he at once set out on the journey; finding his strength failing on the way, he was carried to the Cistercian monastery of Fossa Nuova, in the diocese of Terracina, where, after a lingering illness of seven weeks, he died on the 7th of March 1274.

    The famous poet Dante in his Purgatorio, XX 69, asserts that Thomas was poisoned by order of Charles of Anjou. Villani quoted the same belief, and the Anonimo Fiorentino described the crime and its motive. But Muratori, reproducing the account given by one of Thomas's friends, gives no hint of foul play.

    Aquinas was canonized in 1323 by Pope John XXII, and in 1567 Pope St. Pius V ranked the festival of St. Thomas with those of the four great Latin fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory. No theologian save Augustine has had an equal influence on the theological thought and language of the Western Church, a fact which was strongly emphasized by Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical of August 4, 1879, which directed the clergy to take the teachings of Aquinas as the basis of their theological position. In fact, many do believe Thomas has been more influential than Augustine in theological and philosophical thought in challenging the supremacy of the sciences. In 1880 St. Thomas was declared patron of all Roman Catholic educational establishments. In a monastery at Naples, near the cathedral of St. Januarius, is still shown a cell in which he was said to have lived.

    The writings of Thomas are of great importance for philosophy as well as for theology, for by nature and education he is the spirit of scholasticism incarnate. The principles on which his system rested were these. He held that there were two sources of knowledge -- the mysteries of Christian faith and the truths of human reason. The distinction between these two was made emphatic by Aquinas, who is at pains, especially in his treatise Contra Gentiles, to make it plain that each is a distinct fountain of knowledge, but that revelation is the more important of the two. Revelation is a source of knowledge, rather than the manifestation in the world of a divine life, and its chief characteristic is that it presents men with mysteries, which are to be believed even when they cannot be understood. Revelation is not Scripture alone, for Scripture taken by itself does not correspond exactly with his description; nor is it Church Tradition alone, for Church Tradition must so far rest on Scripture. Revelation is a divine source of knowledge, of which Scripture and Church Tradition are the channels; and he who would rightly understand theology must familiarize himself with Scripture, the teachings of the fathers, and the decisions of councils, in such a way as to be able to make part of himself, as it were, those channels along which this divine knowledge flowed. Aquinas's conception of reason is in some way parallel with his conception of revelation. Reason is in his idea not the individual reason, but the fountain of natural truth, whose chief channels are the various systems of heathen philosophy, and more especially the thoughts of Plato and the methods of Aristotle. Reason and revelation are separate sources of knowledge; and man can put himself in possession of each, because he can bring himself into relation to the church on the one hand, and the system of philosophy, or more strictly Aristotle, on the other.

    The conception will be made clearer when it is remembered that Aquinas, taught by the mysterious author of the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius, who so marvellously influenced medieval writers, sometimes spoke of a natural revelation, or of reason as a source of truths in themselves mysterious, and was always accustomed to say that reason as well as revelation contained two kinds of knowledge. The first kind lay quite beyond the power of man to receive it, the second was within man's reach. In reason, as in revelation, man can only attain to the lower kind of knowledge; there is a higher kind which we may not hope to reach.

    But while reason and revelation are two distinct sources of truths, the truths are not contradictory; for in the last resort they rest on one absolute truth -- they come from the one source of knowledge, God, the Absolute One. Hence arises the compatibility of philosophy and theology which was the fundamental axiom of scholasticism, and the possibility of a Summa Theologiae, which is a Summa Philosophiae as well. All the many writings of Thomas are preparatory to his great work the Summa Theologica, and show us the progress of his mind training for this his life work.

    In the Summa Catholicae Fidei contra Gentiles he shows how a Christian theology is the sum and crown of all science. This work is in its design apologetic, and is meant to bring within the range of Christian thought all that is of value in Mahommedan science. He carefully establishes the necessity of revelation as a source of knowledge, not merely because it aids us in comprehending in a somewhat better way the truths already furnished by reason, as some of the Arabian philosophers and Maimonides had acknowledged, but because it is the absolute source of our knowledge of the mysteries of the Christian faith; and then he lays down the relations to be observed between reason and revelation, between philosophy and theology. This work, Contra Gentiles, may be taken as an elaborate exposition of the method of Aquinas. That method, however, implied a careful study and comprehension of the results which accrued to man from reason and revelation, and a thorough grasp of all that had been done by man in relation to those two sources of human knowledge; and so, in his preliminary writings, Thomas proceeds to master the two provinces. The results of revelation he found in the Holy Scriptures and in the writings of the fathers and the great theologians of the church; and his method was to proceed backwards.

    He began with Peter Lombard (who had reduced to theological order, in his famous book on the Sentences, the various authoritative statements of the church upon doctrine) in his In Quatuor Sententiarum P. Lombardi libros. Then came his deliverances upon undecided points in theology, in his XII Quodlibeta Disputata, and his Quaestiones Disputatae. His Cutena Aurea next appeared, which, under the form of a commentary on the Gospels, was really an exhaustive summary of the theological teaching of the greatest of the church fathers. This side of his preparation was finished by a close study of Scripture, the results of which are contained in his commentaries, In omnes Epistolas Divi Apostoli Expositio, his Super Isaiam et Jeremiam, and his In Psalmos.

    Turning now to the other side, we have evidence, not only from tradition but from his writings, that he was acquainted with Plato and the mystical Platonists; but he had the sagacity to perceive that Aristotle was the great representative of philosophy, and that his writings contained the best results and method which the natural reason had as yet attained to. Accordingly Aquinas prepared himself on this side by commentaries on Aristotle's De Interpretatione, on his Posterior Analytics, on the Metaphysics, the Physics, the De Anima, and on Aristotle's other psychological and physical writings, each commentary having for its aim to lay hold of the material and grasp the method contained and employed in each treatise.

    Fortified by this exhaustive preparation, Aquinas began his Summa Theologica, which he intended to be the sum of all known learning, arranged according to the best method, and subordinate to the dictates of the Church. Practically it came to be the theological dicta of the church, explained according to the philosophy of Aristotle and his Arabian commentators. The Summa is divided into three great parts, which shortly may be said to treat of God, Man and the God-Man. The first and the second parts are wholly the work of Aquinas, but of the third part only the first ninety quaestiones are his; the rest of it was finished in accordance with his designs. The first book, after a short introduction upon the nature of theology as understood by Aquinas, proceeds in 119 questions to discuss the nature, attributes and relations of God; and this is not done as in a modern work on theology, but the questions raised in the physics of Aristotle find a place alongside of the statements of Scripture, while all subjects in any way related to the central theme are brought into the discourse.

    The second part is divided into two, which are quoted as Prima Secundae and Secunda Secundae. This second part has often been described as ethic, but this is scarcely true. The subject is man, treated as Aristotle does, and so Aquinas discusses all the ethical, psychological and theological questions which arise; but any theological discussion upon man must be mainly ethical, and so a great proportion of the first part, and almost the whole of the second, has to do with ethical questions. In his ethical discussions Aquinas distinguishes theological from natural virtues and vices; the theological virtues are faith, hope and charity; the natural, justice, prudence and the like. The theological virtues are founded on faith, in opposition to the natural, which are founded on reason; and as faith with Aquinas is always belief in a proposition, not trust in a personal Saviour, conformably with his idea that revelation is a new knowledge rather than a new life, the relation of unbelief to virtue is very strictly and narrowly laid down and enforced.

    The third part of the Summa is also divided into two parts, but by accident rather than by design. Aquinas died before he had finished his great work, and what has been added to complete the scheme is appended as a Supplementum Tertiae Partis. In this third part Aquinas discusses the person, office and work of Jesus Christ, and had begun to discuss the sacraments, when death put an end to his labors. He was only 49 when he was called home to Heaven and exactly 49 years later he was canonized by John XXII and, in proclaiming Thomas a worthy Doctor of the Church in 1567, St. Pius V established his feast day on the day of the Angelic Doctor's death: March 7th.

Note: Parts of the above were taken from on Catholicism's greatest theologian. For those truly interested in theology, who are confused by the modern theologians who have led so many astray, we strongly recommend thee work by the Angelic Doctor of the Church Saint Thomas Aquinas: his masterful Summa Theologica

Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis] Some of the sources taken from: Dictionary of Saints, John J. Delaney (Doubleday); Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894; Saints of the Roman Calendar, Enzo Lodi).

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas on March 7