Province of St. Albert the Great, USA

A Reflection on Thomas Aquinas

(On the occasion of the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (Jan 28), one of our brothers wrote a letter  to the province invoking his memory to remind us of our call to preach the Gospel wherever we are.)

When I was discerning the Order, one of the friars at St. Tom’s (Purdue) told me the well-worn legend that St. Thomas Aquinas was such a large man that he had a special cut-out in his table so he could sit at it. Whether the legend is true or not, what is certainly true is that St. Thomas is a larger-than-life character, a massive figure in the Church and in our own tradition: one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Church, a mystic, a preeminent philosopher, a poet. His dimensions are such that he is frankly inescapable: we all have some well-cemented opinions about him, our own sense for what he thought, what his contribution is to our Church today, or what threat he or his interpreters pose, whether the Order or our province should be more or less Thomistic and what that even means, etc. But I fear that at times we are too familiar with our brother Thomas to really know him. He becomes a well-worn legend, no longer able to surprise or challenge us, let alone be a model of following Christ in the way of St. Dominic.

Given this difficulty, in this reflection I’d like to share a couple new things I have learned (or perhaps re-learned, my memory being what it is!) about Aquinas over the past few months, and how they have impacted my thinking about him.

The first thing I have learned is historical. First, a little background: the theological textbook of the Middle Ages, especially in the time of Aquinas, was Peter Lombard’s Sentences, a compilation of sayings of the Fathers of the Church organized thematically into books (and later into distinctions). The Sentences were used in the classroom for beginning theologians; and in order to become a Master of Theology one had to write a commentary on them (the equivalent to our contemporary dissertation). Aquinas did just that as a student in Paris, and this commentary on the Sentences has come down to us today.

Nothing out of the ordinary so far. A few months ago, however, one of the friars I live with pointed out to me that we also have the beginnings of a second commentary on the Sentences by Aquinas, which appears never to have been completed (it was hardly started, actually). Historians believe this second commentary was begun by Aquinas at the beginning of his time in Rome (1265-1268), while teaching at a sort of studium established by his province at Santa Sabina (apparently this studium was a sort of experiment: in response to the poor state of the intellectual life in his province, the provincial chapter established a studium in Rome which was totally under Thomas’s direction, with him alone as the teacher).

What is fascinating is that it was also during these years in Rome that Aquinas began his masterwork, the Summa Theologiae. What does this point to? Stitching these pieces together, it appears that Aquinas tried to use the Sentences to teach the friars in Rome, as was the custom all over Europe in his day. But he was dissatisfied with it, and finally gave up on it altogether. He began instead to write his own theology textbook to teach the brothers, the Summa Theologiae, a task that he would work at the rest of his life. This friar I live with vividly imagined Aquinas trying to lecture on the Sentences, while the eyes of the young brothers glazed over, and the occasional brother’s head nodded in the Roman heat. Frustrated, Thomas finally said to himself, “I can do better than this!” In fact, Aquinas basically says as much in his prologue to the Summa:

“We have considered that novices in this doctrine have often been hampered by what they have found written by various authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly also because the things such novices need to know are not taught according to the order of the discipline, but according as was needed for commenting on books, or according as an opportunity for raising a disputed question presented itself; partly, too, because frequent repetition of the same things brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers. Endeavoring to avoid these and other like faults, we shall try, trusting in God’s help, to set forth whatever belongs to Sacred Doctrine as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow.” (Shapcote English translation from

The major takeaway for me is that the great Summa Theologiae came about not as an abstract academic exercise (i.e., Aquinas leisurely sitting at his desk and suddenly saying “Oh, I know what I could write next! I’ll write a textbook!”), but as a response to the pastoral setting Aquinas was in, to the work the Order and his province had assigned to him: teaching the brothers.

The more I have thought about the other great works of Aquinas, the more this reappears as a theme. Perhaps his second most widely known work, his Eucharistic poems and liturgical prayers, were written in response to a request from Pope Urban IV. His Biblical commentaries were written because teaching the Bible was the key work of a teacher of theology—the commentaries are actually lecture notes taken by a scribe (and in the best cases reviewed and edited by Aquinas after the fact). His short treatise On the Principles of Nature was written while he was still a student in Paris, for one of his brothers who was struggling to understand physics (it is addressed “To Brother Sylvester”). His treatise on kingship (De Regno) came as a response to a request by the King of Cyprus. And his (unfinished) brief treatise on theology, the Compendium of Theology, was written at the request of his fellow friar, secretary, scribe, and longtime friend, Reginald of Piperno.

What emerges when we put all this together? Not an ivory-tower thinker, nor one simply pursuing a career, but a man deeply and generously involved in the world that surrounded him, responding to needs that called for his intellectual clarity, immersing himself in the theological and philosophical controversies of his day. But above all what has struck me in these months is that he was a man who responded in obedience to the call of the Order and of the Church. The Order asked him to be a teacher and he did this as well as he could; the Church requested liturgical prayers and he provided beautiful ones. He went where he was sent, applied himself with all his ability and zeal to the work he was asked to undertake, and went with eyes and ears open to what that particular pastoral setting demanded of him, and how he could best preach the Gospel there.

Now to the second major thing I have learned in these past few months: I took an excellent class this past semester on 20th century theology in which we studied the major theologians of the last century and their central questions and concerns. Though the professor is not himself a Thomist, he constantly referred to Aquinas and the way he influenced these theologians: his watermark was there in the questions they asked, how they thought about the world and the Christian tradition, how they did theology, etc. I was struck, too, by the sheer number and diversity of these great thinkers who received their foundational formation in theology by studying the thought of St. Thomas. And I don’t just mean Dominicans, though we could name many who contributed in significant ways to theology: Congar, Chenu and Schillebeeckx who had such an influence on Vatican II, and also Garrigou-Lagrange and Arintero who helped re-acquire the mystical tradition in theology. But outside the Dominicans, too: the great Polish Jesuit Erich Przywara, and the better-known Jesuits Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), whose first contacts with Catholic intellectual life (especially through Przywara) included an engagement with Aquinas. Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II). And we could add many others to this list!

At first glance, it may seem odd to see this list of modern theologians lined up together because their own views and interests were so varied—indeed, some of them had major conflicts among themselves! Some of them may be better known to us for accomplishments in other fields: for instance, de Lubac or even Congar may be better known to us as Patristics scholars than as Thomists. But for all of them Aquinas served as the “way in” to theology. He helped them inherit the theological tradition, showed them how the parts of theology hang together as a whole, taught them how to think theologically and thus go on to consider other theologians and a broad array of questions and arguments. Nor was he only helpful to them at the beginning: as they developed as theologians, he continued to be a key conversation partner and touchstone for them. They mined his thought for insights that could help them. Furthermore, the insights of these recent theologians have not remained solely in academia, cloistered in the ivory tower. No, they have impacted every aspect of the life of the Church: our everyday ministry for the sake of the Gospel. Our work as preachers at our campus ministries, schools, and parishes, has been shaped by them, who were in turn shaped by St. Thomas.

For me, then, this class and the list of theologians above has been a powerful witness to the ongoing vitality and viability of Aquinas’s thought. Eight centuries later, he continues to be able to form minds and hearts in the Christian tradition so that they can bear fruit in their engagement with their own time. He is still a master teacher, still initiates believers into the task of theology (and philosophy, for that matter) with astounding dexterity and results.

Doubtless through the centuries (and before him, too) he has been surpassed in particular areas of his thought: we might argue that St. John of the Cross (himself trained in the thought of St. Thomas!) has a more developed theology of the spiritual life, or that the Salamanca school of Francisco de Vitoria, Bartolomé de las Casas and companions (themselves, too, trained in the thought of St. Thomas!) have a more developed political theology that more explicitly spells out the dignity of all human beings, or that Congar has a more developed ecclesiology. And as a good teacher, I think Aquinas would rejoice to see his students flourishing and excelling him in these ways! Aquinas certainly is not the only doctor of the Church, nor did he mark the end of theological development; quite the contrary, his thought has served as the springboard for many of the theological developments that have come after him. This is not to say that Aquinas is only a springboard, or that he has been surpassed in everything: his theological insights continue to be among the keenest and most fruitful in Christian history, and his vision of the whole Christian life—an integrated whole rather than a mere conglomeration of particular teachings—is still breathtaking. But what I have become convinced of in these past months is that his distinctive mark as a doctor of the Church, the contribution that has never been surpassed, is in being the master teacher of theology, the great pedagogue of the tradition. And this gift that Aquinas—and through him the entire Dominican Order—has offered to the Church and to the world was born of a lifelong act of humble obedience, of the work he produced not by simply doing what he wanted to do, or what he thought he should do, but in responding to his pastoral setting and the work he was asked to undertake.

In that, my dear brothers, he can be a model for us all—whether we are scholars or not. He can teach us now how to live in the footsteps of St. Dominic by living out our vow of obedience, which is at the heart of our religious life as Dominicans. Our brother Thomas Aquinas can teach us to trust that God is at work in putting us where we are, and that our task is to preach the Gospel there, however we can.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!