Tag Archives: theology

What Led Aquinas To Craft Greatest Theological ‘Symphony’

Today the church praises Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) among the greatest saints in heaven. But the cause for his canonization was hardly a slam-dunk.

Catholics expect miracles from their saints, some supernatural confirmation of their holiness: sudden cures through their intercession, the stigmata, or at least an instance of bilocation.

Those tasked with the study of Thomas’s life complained that his miracles were few and not that impressive.

One of the Cardinals in the room responded immediately that there were as many miracles in Thomas’s life as there were articles in the Summa Theologica, his greatest work. Every article was so well wrought that it seemed superhuman — a miracle.


The Summa is indeed a marvel. Though unfinished at the end of St. Thomas’s life, it totals more than two million words. Its influence has been profound, and it is uncontested as one of the great works of western civilization. No other non-scriptural text has received such deference as the Summa. At the Council of Trent, it was placed on the altar as an authority, alongside the Bible and papal decrees.

Thomas did not invent the summa’s form. It was a literary genre of his time, a compendium of theology, philosophy, and canon law, used as a student textbook and professional reference. The most popular one in Thomas’s day was written by Peter Lombard a century earlier, called The Four Books of Sentences. One of Thomas’s great early works was a commentary on the Sentences.

By his mid-30s, Thomas was renowned throughout Europe as a teacher and theologian. A Dominican friar, he taught students at the University of Paris, but also advised popes and kings. He gave himself entirely to the tasks, writing important works in theology and philosophy. Throughout his adulthood, his production was astonishing. He averaged a thousand words of finished, polished prose per day. So complete was his attention, his secretary recalled, that he would hold a candle in his hand while dictating as the evening grew dark — and would fail to notice when the candle burned down so far that it burned his hand! He dictated to three or four secretaries at a time, and sometimes continued to dictate while he was sleeping.

It was perhaps inevitable that Thomas would be assigned to write a textbook to replace the Sentences. Though Peter Lombard’s great work served students for over 100 years, it had obvious defects — some of the questions seemed silly and pointless; and the organization was haphazard and redundant.

Thomas was just the man to produce a supercharged and streamlined summa, for maximum clarity and efficiency

He conceived his Summa Theologica (or Summa Theologiae) in three parts: the first would consider God’s existence, nature, and creative acts; the second, morality and law; and the third, the person and work of Jesus Christ, in His earthly ministry and as it continues in the Church.


Every article is a marvel of charity and generosity. Thomas begins each discussion with the three strongest arguments against the proposition he will eventually defend. He was not interested in belittling the claims of heretics. In fact, scholars often say that the clearest and most persuasive arguments in favor of the major heresies can be found in the Summa. Thomas actually improved the arguments against orthodoxy and made them as strong as he could — before he demolished them.

He wrote Part 1 of the Summa in Viterbo, Italy, in 1267, while an advisor at the papal court. He was invited to be archbishop of Naples, but declined so he could continue work on the Summa. His superiors sent him back to the University of Paris in 1269, and he returned to lecturing on the New Testament and presiding over debates (disputations). There in Paris, he composed Part 2. In the spring of 1272 he went to Florence, Italy, for a general conference of the Dominican order. He was asked to establish a new house of studies in Naples, and it was there that he worked on the third and final part of the Summa.


But it was not to be finished. One day Thomas was at prayer, and something happened that left him shaken. Afterward he refused to take up his masterwork. His main secretary, Reginald, begged him to go on, but Thomas refused. “Reginald,” he said, “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.”

And so the Summa remained when Thomas died a few months later. Many then, and in the years to follow, mourned this as tragic. Joseph Pieper, however, a great modern interpreter of Aquinas, said that incompletion is, in this case, not a bug, but a feature! Thomas knew that all our knowledge is fragmentary, and he was suspicious of “systems” that claimed to explain everything. Still, his Summa — as the popes testify — comes as close as anything in history.

What does such a prodigy have to teach those of us who are not quite so gifted as he? We can imitate his generous spirit with opponents and rivals. We can imitate his holy ambition and concentration. And we can accept, as he did, the limits God might put on our achievements. God wants faithfulness, not mere success.

MIKE AQUILINA is an EWTN host and author of more than 50 books, including Praying in the Presence of Our Lord with St. Thomas Aquinas.

Philosophy and the Catholic faith

Edward Furton writes that the Church has a deep and profound appreciation of philosophy . . .

Edward J. Furton

Edward J. Furton

The Catholic Church has always had high regard for the disciplines of philosophy and theology. Every Catholic college in the country has professors of these two subjects, sometimes in very significant numbers. This is a mark of respect for the intellectual tradition of the West.

Although it’s perhaps obvious why there should be an emphasis on theology, the importance of philosophy is sometimes neglected. The great philosophers of the past — especially those of the ancient world — have profoundly influenced Church teaching. St. Aurelius Augustine, for example, was strongly influenced by Plato’s philosophy. Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas was deeply indebted to Aristotle’s thought.

Why this openness to philosophy? Primarily because we hold that faith is added to reason. Faith is neither a substitute for reason nor a contradiction to reason. God created the world, so it’s not surprising that evidence of what He expects of us should be present there. The Catholic Church thus defends the moral outlook known as “natural law philosophy.”

In this understanding of ethics, nature exists as a teleological system that moves under the governance of the Divine Providence. The word “teleological” derives from “telos” and “logos,” two Greek words which combine to mean “the study of purposes.” Catholic philosophy, in its most representative form, sees nature as a realm of purposeful motion in which all things are drawn to the good by the mind of God.

The purposes of nature show themselves in the activities of everything that exists. The spider spins a web for the sake of catching the fly. In doing so, it fulfills its own purposeful activities, which in fact involve highly complex behavior.

Even nonliving things have purposes. Were it not for gravity, the planets would not have been drawn together to form habitable worlds. Without planets, life would not have appeared. If life had not appeared, there would have been no animals — including rational animals like you and me — and therefore no arts, sciences, culture or religion.

Nature is purposeful. This is immediately obvious to any reflective mind. Certain truths of our faith can only be known through revelation, but the common moral code that God has made known to us in nature is given equally to everyone. The Ten Commandments is the essential summary of the natural law as it applies to human society, but Moses should not have had to bring those famous tablets down from the mountain. We all know these already.

Natural law morality is metaphorically described as “written on the heart,” but in fact it is known by the mind. If nature moves under the governance of the Supreme Being, then the goods toward which we are drawn are the natural aims of human action. The love of the opposite sex, for example, is a good towards which men and women are naturally attracted. From this desire there derives the objective truth that men and women are suited for marriage.

The goods of nature are purposes that move us to action. We are free to choose from among a wide range of goods, but we are not free to determine whether or not these things are goods. I may choose not eat broccoli or cauliflower, but I cannot choose to give up eating altogether. Food is a natural good of human beings. To starve myself would be to violate a fundamental law of nature.

Under the teleological conception, morality is objective. What is right and wrong can be deduced from reflection on the purposes that God has made evident to reason in nature. The laws of nature are evident to reason and therefore universally binding on all human beings — Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Perhaps there is no better example of the respect that the Church has shown philosophy than the First Vatican Council’s affirmation that every Catholic must hold de fidei (the highest standard of fidelity to the faith) that God’s existence is evident to reason. The Council affirmed that the human mind can know, independently of scripture, that there is a Divine Being. Think about that for a moment. We must hold that God’s existence is evident through reflection on nature. This doesn’t mean that every individual Catholic must find this type of philosophical argument persuasive, but only that all Catholics must affirm that this type of knowledge is possible. Behind the metaphysical idea of nature as a teleological system there lies the philosophical conviction that God governs the world as the Divine Providence.

So when someone says that Christianity is about making a leap of faith, remember the role of philosophy within Catholicism. Catholics don’t leap while floating in space without any means of support, but do so only after planting our feet on the firm ground of reason.

EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.