Previous Next

Article: Is Saint Tomás Aquinas still relevant today?

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), humanist, philosopher, theologian, saint and mystic continues to be important and significant in particular for philosophy, theology, and spirituality today. The Angelic Doctor continues to be relevant for the whole Church: he is Doctor of the Church and Patron of Catholic Schools. The outstanding Dominican of the 13thcentury is still – as Vatican II calls him - a special master and guide. St. Paul VI describes St. Thomas Apostle of truth, and St. John Paul II, outstanding philosopher, “master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology.” Pope Benedict XVI talks of Aquinas Thomas as an outstanding model for theologians. Pope Francis - like his predecessors - quotes often St. Thomas Aquinas in his documents: for instance in his controversial Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love, St. Thomas is cited about twenty times. Furthermore, the great theologians of our time, including Rahner, Chenu, Congar, Schillebeeckx, Gustavo Gutierrez, Clodovis Boff, etc. highly recommend to all students of philosophy and theology the Universal Doctor Thomas Aquinas.

Certainly, the Angelic Doctor is not – and should not be considered - “the exclusive doctor” of the Church: there are in all 35 more doctors of the Church, including the incomparable St. Augustine. St. Thomas’ way of doing philosophy and theology is a way open to all, conversing with all, and learning from all.  We recommend to study St. Thomas – always enlightening - not to repeat him but to re-create him in our time. 

A great theologian of the 20thcentury,  Yves Congar, writes: “St. Thomas is a master of thought, a model of loyalty and intellectual honesty, a man of dialogue, the symbol of open-mindedness, and the genius of reality. We should remain faithful to his spirit… St Thomas is proposed as a master [by Vatican II]. This does not mean simply repetition and the exclusion of other theologians. Rather it means that we study under his guidance; we follow his spirit.” 

            Not long ago, I asked the Dominican students in Macau this question: If St. Thomas would live in our time, what would he do? One student answered: “Many young Europeans would be inspired by him and entered the Dominican Order.” Another student responded: “He would be simply like one of us.” One of the most repeated answers – differently formulated - is: “I think he would surely use internet or laptop to communicate with his friends. He would be a prominent professor. He would enjoy community life. He would go where the Provincial asked him, but I do not think he would like spicy food… I don’t know whether he would drink beer and wine or not, but he would drink something for certain.”

In their individual answers, the majority of the student theologians refer to the Summa Theologiae orSumma Theologica, the masterpiece of the Angelic Doctor. These are some of their answers: “I think he would not write the Summa Theologicatoday”; “I believe he would still write the SummaTheologiaebut the context of it would not be exactly the same as we have it now. He would surely pay more attention to current problems, such as global warming, ecumenism, and relativism”; “On one hand, he would develop some parts of the Summa; on the other, he would remove some parts of it; he would develop more current issues like “the just war theory,” abortion, social justice, capital punishment, euthanasia.” Personally, I would love that he could finish the incomplete Third Part (III) of his sublime Summa!

The Summa Theologica is “like the pyramids of Egypt (Lacordaire), like “the ordered columns in the naves of a cathedral” (S. Pinckaers). Some years ago, I read the news that the translation of the Summa in Japanese had been finished: 45 volumes, 20 of them – including the last ones - by philosopher Ryosuke Inagaki who, when asked if the work was difficult, answered: “It was not hard. Thomas’ writing is like a piece of Bach, with a rhythm that makes it easy to approach.” Inagaki himself published a pocket edition of the Summaentitled My Way of Life. Why this title? He replies:This title really brings out the defining feature of the Summa Theologica. St. Thomas wanted to write a roadmap for people who really and truly seek happiness.” Two other interesting answers from my simply professed young students: “St. Thomas Aquinas is still alive today; he is present within you and me;” “Inspired by his creativity and faithfulness to truth, love, justice, and peace, we all can be St. Thomas of the 21stCentury.”

The Angelic Doctor, who according to Chesterton produced “books enough to sink a ship or to stock a library” is indeed still relevant today. However, his writings will not be fully meaningful to us unless we re-encounter in faith the God who inspired St. Thomas (S. Pinckaers). The Dominicans - with so many others who love him - are obliged to show Thomas’ relevance today. Thomas Aquinas continues teaching us many permanent significant points on God, Christ, creation, the human person, happiness, virtue, grace, love, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are asked to make those points significant for our time, for our world, which is permeated by globalization, technology, relativism, violence, injustice, insensibility to the poor and the different, materialism and consumerism. 

Let me add another important point! St. Thomas faced the relevant questions of his time in his famous Quaestiones Disputatae(disputed questions), such as questions on evil, truth, virtue, religious life, etc. Today we have to follow – as some are already doing well - Thomas’ practice of facing, from the perspective of reason and faith, the pervading topics of the day. We are asked to answer the questions our contemporaries ask: on the meaning of life, fundamentalism, pluralism and tolerance, dialogue, morality in liberalism and socialism, violence and war, technology and artificial intelligence, transhumanism, the absence of God, new evangelization, justice, and mercy – charitable justice. St. Thomas’ words: “Justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice is stupidity.”

The Angelic Doctor’s teachings on virtue and private property, for instance, continue fascinating many people today. Virtue ethics is a current paradigm for ethics, bioethics and moral theology. The practice of virtues gives meaning to life, freedom, character, and it makes people happy – and happier: “Happiness consists in the practice of virtue” (Thomas Aquinas). 

Thomas’ teaching on private property as subordinated to common property is very much proposed today to defend the so-called preferential option or love for the poor: God created the world for everybody, and therefore each person has a right to a share in the goods of the earth. Hence, Aquinas writes, “in case of real need, everything is common.” 

Thomas’ unwavering love for truth -veritas -is truly amazing. He was “Veritatis Eunice amator” lover of truth solely! He approached the search of truth – the Truth – intellectually and effectively: through reason and faith; through love as a way of knowing; through acquired and infused contemplation.

The Universal Doctor had three loves: the crucifix, the Eucharist and prayer (Jean-Pierre Torrell). He is not only a great philosopher and theologian but also a saint and a mystic: How was he able to write the awesome and sublime hymns to the Holy Eucharist!

 

Christ is the center of St. Thomas’ life. The Angelic Doctor says Jesus, “who possessed all, and through whom all things are, became poor, lest anyone, believing in him, would dare to boast of worldly riches. He did not wish to be made a king, for He pointed out the way of humility. He who fed all, hungered; He, who created all drink, thirsted; He, who opened up the way to heaven, grew tired on his journey; He, who ended our afflictions, was crucified; He, who awakened the dead, died for man” (Quoted by Dr. Martin Grabmann, The Interior Life of St. Thomas Aquinas). The author of the Adoro te devotee writes: “For the love of Jesus Christ I have studied, kept vigil, and struggled; indeed, it was you, Jesus, that I preached and you that I taught…”After having written 34 volumes in IV “major” and two columns, Thomas had a special encounter with Christ, a vision of God, which prompted the theologian to utter humbly: “All that I have written is straw.” It was on December 6, 1273, during the Mass of St. Nicholas in the Church of St. Dominic in Naples. After this mysterious vision, just a few months before his death, Thomas did not write anything anymore and even abandoned the instruments of writing. After the intimate encounter with the Word, Thomas kept silent, the contemplative silent love of a mystic: no more words, no more writings, just silence, total silence - the mystic’s sound of silence!  

Let me quote here three simple relevant texts for our journey. On truth: Every truth, he wrote, “regardless of who said it, comes from the Holy Spirit”: “Omne verum a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est” (I-II, 109, 1 ad 1).On love: “All things issue from charity as from a principle, and all things are ordered towards charity as to an end” (In Jn. XV, 2). Love is always the value and the virtue of life, love or charity that is peaceful, joyful and merciful and is, as Thomas proves well, the “form” and motor of all virtues. Onlife“Prius vita quam doctrina,” or first life, than doctrine. A. Sertillanges says that “learning goes hand in hand with virtue-ing. The Doctor of the Eucharist is an exemplar of intertwined learning and virtue-ing.”

Someone has said that the two main qualities that distinguish Aquinas’ writings are clarity and brevity. A wonderful exemplar for all. Nowadays, teachers, preachers, writers, leaders, politicians are asked to strive for clarity and brevity in a world overcrowded with words, noise, “fake news,” and post-truth. 

Still, our world is a hopeful word. We all struggle honestly to practice what we teach or ask others to do. As the Church prays on St. Thomas’ Feast: “Let Christ, our teacher, instruct us that, like St. Thomas, we may learn the truth and practice it in love.” 

Fr. Fausto Gómez Berlana, OP

(original text)