Why Pastors Should Engage Thomas Aquinas

Thomas’ theological intellect shone on doctrinal matters in countless ways.

A question arises. How much was Thomas a ‘career academic’, dedicated to establishing ‘the truth’? And how much was his mission to serve God in and through serving the church? Thomas of course would distinguish these tasks while not separating them.


Thomas’ early life was one of riches to rags. Born to nobility in southern Italy, he needed to escape to Paris and be trained as a Dominican, at the still new House of Studies there. Three years later, in 1248, he moved with his mentor Albert the Great to Cologne after the latter’s call to replicate the Dominican house. Thomas received grounding in Philosophy, mostly based on the philosophy of Aristotle, with a Neo-Platonic addition that would be significant in his theological imagination. By 1250 he had been ordained as a priest. He returned to Paris and between 1252 and 1256, Thomas was based at the Dominican House of St Jacques, a little out from the main conglomeration of study houses on the left bank of the Seine. Some controversy about political allegiances made him leave not long after he had become Master through teaching a full course of theology through the Sentences of Peter Lombard (the standard ‘textbook’).

Back in Italy, at Naples then Orvieto then Rome, it seemed that his calling was at first more philosophical (although with reference to themes of creation, providence, humanity) and then pastoral. The second, largest part of the Summa Theologiae is devoted to questions of ‘moral theology’, such as the difference between courage and foolhardiness: virtue is to be found in moderation between extremes, yet needs the framing and inspiration of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

In Rome, after finishing his Commentary on Dionysius’ Divine Names, and the De Potentia 1264 (dealing with divine power, creation and Trinity—developing and sharpening the first Summa –Summa Contra Gentes)he started work on the Summa theologiae in Rome at Santa Sabina during 1265. He returned to Paris as master in 1269. There he had some problems to address, as one who espoused Aristotle in a way that for his opposite number in the Franciscan Order, Bonaventura, seemed suspect. Thomas tended to allow for the eternity of the world, the necessity of ‘fate’ and the idea that all intellectual creatures share in one ‘Intellect’. Indeed, around this time Thomas wrote ‘ “that the world is not eternal” can only be held by faith and cannot be proven, just as with the Trinity’ (ST 1, Q46, a2). The Franciscan Pecham opposed this. Thomas himself answered that something’s being held on faith did not make it less true. His move in 1272 from Paris to the Dominican house of studies at Naples was no real promotion but a reaction to the unpopularity of his openness to certain views.

However, his worth was recognized in the Pope’s request that he write against the Greeks in defense of the filioque and related matters for the upcoming ecumenical council of Lyon, even though unlike Bonaventura whose gifts were also administrative, he was not made a cardinal. While sketching his theology of the eucharist as an extension of Christology [sacraments as the ‘relics of Christ’s passion’ which cause grace to be drawn out from the potential of the human being] he first suffered a stroke during Mass, set out for Lyon with his Contra errores Graecorum in February, but died on March 7 at Fossanova (Cistercian) abbey.

Head and Heart

A question arises here. How much was Thomas a ‘career academic’, dedicated to establishing ‘the truth’? And how much was his mission to serve God in and through serving the church? Thomas of course would distinguish these tasks while not separating them.

He was also famous for drawing distinctions: between being and existence, between the active and the contemplative life (Mary and Martha need each other, but Mary’s part is better), between nature and grace, between a number of causes which neither drew God down into being a player in the universe nor shut him out of it altogether.

Thomas’ theological intellect shined on doctrinal matters in countless ways. For example, his notion of the Trinity spoke of the three divine persons who are distinct in terms of their relations, existing in respect to each other while always being co-equal in divinity. One might say it is God’s way of existing, a triune way. Likewise, Thomas taught that the Incarnation can be thought of as divine and human sharing a common existence (esse), that is, that of the hypostasis, or personal subsistence of the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Moreover, Thomas did not think that the more piety one had or aspired to, the less one should be clear about accuracy in the reception and transmission of truth, both doctrinal and spiritual-moral.

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