Tag Archives: thomas aquinas

Quandary of Teaching Truth

A lie is ‘saying the false in order to deceive,’ according to St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s become a modern-day life-art. Catholics are being cajoled into accepting the notion that ‘niceness’ and tolerance mandate silence or mitigating what they know as simple Catholic Truth. It’s a great acid test, and many of us get cut off at the pass in the guillotine of guile. It’s infected our workplaces, political banter, even many Catholic schools and parish programs. A few priests in our area who still preach unblemished truth are shunned, reported, and denied certain priestly assignments. What a cross they carry, but for love of Christ and His flock. But when these ‘unpopular’ padres say Mass, the Church is packed. That says something indeed.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

When we know the truth about Catholic teaching, we have a duty to proclaim it. But often when we do – as parents, teachers, writers, speakers, neighbors, even to families – we get a walk down a thorn-thicketed garden path. The ‘feelings police,’ and many running school and parish programs, will demand we retract ‘harshness’ and serve it afresh with ‘support’ of others and nice-guy compromise. Revisionist Catholicism has become the new golden calf.

About 10 years ago, I thought my mid-life calling might be to detox from communications deadlines and corporate crisis strategy and teach high school. My own kids were teenagers, and I applied to teach religion and English at an all-boys Catholic prep school. So when they hired me for the term as a substitute teacher, I was jazzed. It had to be right.

In a junior morality class, I was to teach formation of conscience. But as I studied the instructor materials, it was really the ol’ ‘I’m okay-you’re-okay’ values-clarification game. Nah. I decided to skip the facade, and tell them the truth on the moral situations we were to discuss. It was a critical time in their lives to be aware of – and hopefully embrace – Catholic truth. The stakes were already high.

The pivotal subject on a balmy Monday? Dating and marriage. Nice appetizer before lunch.

Suddenly, I had their rapt attention. These rammy 17-year-old guys, a week before their junior prom, all stared at me in shock as I explained church teaching on courtship and purpose of marriage, and what healthy dating should resemble. And the ringer – serious sin. I rained on their spring parade, but they didn’t move – they were engrossed. Arms shot up, with question after question. The discussion got loud and boisterous. They couldn’t get enough of what they’d somehow missed, when the Church had decided all these things, what Christ had to say … all of it.

“I never heard any of this stuff,” one bulky baseball player admitted. “Wow.” He had some thinking to do. When the bell rang, they still didn’t move.

On his way out into the hallway, another guy said, “This was amazing. I hope you get to teach here for good.”

But I didn’t. It was too much for the department head to take, such veritable Catholic talk. But it made a great difference, in just a short time.

 CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s editor.

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.

MOST AUTHORITATIVE WORK, WITH BIBLE AND PAPAL DECREES

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.

EACH DISCUSSION TOPIC BEGINS WITH STRONGEST OPPOSITION

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.

UNFINISHED DOCTRINAL ‘SYMPHONY’

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.

How to Think Like Aquinas: The Sure Way to Perfect Your Mental Powers

Kevin Vost
Sophia Institute Press, 256 pages

 

Do you want to think like St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest minds in Catholic history? His Summa Theologica runs over 3,000 pages in one popular edition, and even a freely paraphrased abridged version takes up over 500 pages. A wonderful shortcut is a letter the 13th century philosopher is credited with having written to a young monk on “How to Study.” Author Kevin Vost walks you through that letter and what it reveals about how to think, dissect arguments, and — yes — study and learn. Who knows? It might even give you the confidence to tackle the full Summa!

 

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