Thomas Aquinas: The Doctor of the Church

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Aquinas would craft a systematic theology that did with the matter of faith what Aristotle had done with the natural world.

On the church calendar of saints, today is the commemoration of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the great Scholastic thinker, out-sized personality, and patron saint of schools and students. It would be hard to overestimate his influence on the church today. If you’re Catholic he’s your lodestar guiding your theology. If you’re Protestant it was his approach the Reformers’ theology pushed back at.

Thomas was born into a noble family in Roccasecca, Italy, but didn’t stay there long. His parents sent him to the monastery at Monte Cassino for his. His intellectual acumen didn’t go unnoticed, and his abbot informed his parents that, like Harry Potter, he was destined for great things. The theological prodigy began his studies at the University of Naples when he was fourteen.

Thomas’ physical shape grew to outpace even his intellect. As an adult, he weighed around 300 pounds. Referring to both his size and his lackadaisical attitude, his university classmates gave him the nickname of bovem mutum (Silent Ox). Although he often seemed inattentive, he could virtually recite lectures chapter and verse.

At nineteen Thomas took his monastic vows to become a Dominican, the order that emphasized preaching and combating heresy. His parents were none too happy. It resulted in no mere private familial tête-a- tête. It became a fracas that involved kidnapping and house arrest, his brothers tempting him with a prostitute, and a flight to Rome under cover of darkness. Finally, the pope intervened by telling all the parties to keep their hands off.

Thomas was sent to study under Albertus Magnus at the University of Paris. Not only did he find release from his parental issues there, his teacher also recognized his potential. Albertus Magnus said of him, “We call this man a dumb ox. Well, the deep lowing of this dumb ox will become so thunderous that the centuries will resound with their echo.” When Albert was sent to Cologne, Thomas followed him and was ordained a priest in the German city on the Rhine.

Sent back to Paris to teach theology, Thomas was ordained a priest and received his doctoral degree in 1257. He saw his vocation as having two goals: First, he would defend the truth against every opponent. Second, he would craft a systematic theology that did with the matter of faith what Aristotle had done with the natural world. He would attempt to answer every question. His second goal led to his greatest work, the Summa Theologica.

The Thomistic system divides the world into three categories: things that can be known only through philosophic reasoning, things that can be known only through revelation, and truths that can be arrived at only through a combination of revelation and reason. The Summa digs into the third category by asking questions that the first two couldn’t tackle. Thomas used the “Scholastic method” in answering each question: state the question, name the wrong answers to the question, cite the views of the scripture and the church fathers, make your own case, and go to town on your opponents' misguided answers.

Herbert Kaufman once said, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” It was no different in medieval Paris where the factions and fights were bitter, and Thomas found himself in the middle of most of it. The last decade of his life was spent as a sort of itinerant thinker. He taught in Bologna, Rome, and other Italian cities. At one point the pope sought to appoint him as an archbishop, but he declined. He wound up living in a Dominican convent in Naples and teaching at his alma mater.

In the winter of 1273, as he added to the already lengthy work of his Summa, Thomas grew weak. It was clear he couldn’t teach or even write anymore. He had the medieval equivalent of a teaching assistant working with him who urged him to keep writing. But Thomas replied, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that everything that I have written appears to me as worthless straw.” We don’t know if he was recanting what he’d written or if he simply saw human works as nothing compared to God’s glory.

A month later, in January 1274, Thomas was traveling to one of the church’s conclaves but never reached the council. He collapsed en route and was taken to an abbey not far from his birthplace at Roccasecca. He died there on March 7 and was only 49 years old. When he received last rites, he said, “I have written and taught much about this very holy Body, and about the other sacraments in the faith of Christ, and about the Holy Roman Church, to whose correction I expose and submit everything I have written.”

While Aquinas’ life was over, the controversy over him did not end. His body was embalmed and placed in storage. Because some had accused him of heresy, burial in a consecrated place was iffy. Fifty years after his death and about as long after the first condemnation of his teaching, the pope initiated the process of his canonization. When there were objections over no one having observed a Thomas-connected miracle, one of the cardinals defended him, saying there were as many miracles as there were articles in his Summa Theologica.

Eventually Thomas’ body was transferred to the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France. He was reburied in the basilica, and in 1974 (500 years after his death) his remains were brought back to the Jacobins where they rest…for now. His death date was originally set as the commemoration festival, but because it usually landed within Lent it was moved to January 28, the day his relics were transferred to Toulouse.

In 1567 the pope named Thomas a Doctor of the Church, adding him to the ranks of the greatest teachers: Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory. In 1879 the Roman church declared that all teaching must come into line with Thomas. Aquinas’ hegemony over church doctrine became a problem for a German monk in the sixteenth century, which is another story altogether.