SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS CONFESSOR, DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH1226-1274
Feast: January 28
The Italian family of Aquino traced its ancestry back to the Lombard kings and was linked with several of the royal houses of Europe. Landulph, father of Thomas Aquinas, held the titles of Count of Aquino and Lord of Loreto, Acerro, and Belcastro; he was nephew of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and also connected to the family of King Louis IX of France, whose life precedes this; his wife, Theodora, Countess of Teano, was descended from the Norman barons who had conquered Sicily some two centuries earlier. Thomas himself, at maturity, was a man of imposing stature, massive build, and fair complexion, and appeared more of a Norseman than a south Italian. The place and date of his birth are not definitely known, but it is assumed that he was born in 1226 at his father's castle of Roccasecca, whose craggy ruins are still visible on a mountain which rises above the plain lying between Rome and Naples. He was the sixth son in the family. While Thomas was still a child, his little sister, who slept in the same room with him and their nurse, was instantly killed one night by a bolt of lightning. This shocking experience caused Thomas to be extremely nervous during thunderstorms all his life long, and while a storm raged he often took refuge in a church. After his death, there arose a popular devotion to him as a protector from thunderstorms and sudden death.
A few miles to the south of Roccasecca, on a high plateau, stands the most famous of Italian monasteries, Monte Cassino,[l] the abbot of which, at the time, was Thomas' uncle. When he was about nine years old the boy was sent to Cassino, in care of a tutor, to be educated in the Benedictine school which adjoined the cloister. In later years, when Thomas had achieved renown, the aged monks liked to recall the grave and studious child who had pored over their manuscripts, and who would ask them questions that revealed his lively intelligence and his deeply religious bent. Thomas was popular too with his companions, though he seldom took part in their games. He spent five happy years in the school at Cassino, returning home now and again to see his parents.
On the advice of the abbot, when Thomas had reached the age of fourteen, he went to the University of Naples to begin the seven years' undergraduate course prescribed in all European universities. He lived with his tutor, who continued to supervise his life.
Under a famous teacher, Peter Martin, Thomas went through the Trivium, the three-year preliminary training in logic, rhetoric, and grammar, which also included the study of Latin literature and Aristotle's logic. This was followed by four years of the Quadrivium, which comprised advanced work in mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy or astrology. In addition to these subjects, there was also some study of physics under a celebrated scholar, Peter of Ireland, and extensive reading in philosophy. It was then the custom for pupils to recapitulate to the class a lecture they had just heard. Thomas' fellow students observed that, when his turn came, the summary he gave was usually clearer and better reasoned than the original discourse had been.
All this time Thomas was becoming more and more attracted to the youthful Dominican Order, with its stress on intellectual training. He attended its church and became friendly with some of the friars. To the prior of the Benedictine house in Naples Thomas confided his desire to become a Dominican. In view, however, of the almost certain opposition of his family, the prior advised him to foster his vocation, and wait for three years before taking any decisive step. The passage of time only strengthened Thomas' determination and early in 1244, at the age of nineteen, he was received as a novice and clothed in the habit of the Brothers Preachers.
News of the ceremony, which took place before a large assemblage, was soon carried to Roccasecca. The members of his family were indignant, not that Thomas had joined a religious community, but that he, scion of a noble family, had chosen one of the humble, socially scorned, mendicant orders. His mother, especially, had expected that he would become a great churchman, possibly abbot of Monte Cassino. Appeals were sent to the Pope and to the archbishop of Naples; the Countess Theodora herself set out for Naples to persuade her son to return home. The friars hurried Thomas off to their convent in Rome, then sent him on to join the Father General of the Dominicans, who was leaving for Paris. The countess now sent word to her other sons, who were serving with the army in Tuscany, to waylay the fugitive. Thomas was overtaken as he was resting at the roadside, and was forcibly brought back. He was kept in confinement in the castle of San Giovanni. His sisters were allowed to visit him, and although they tried to undermine his resolution, before long they were won over to his side, and secretly got books for him from the friars at Naples. During his captivity Thomas studied Aristotle's <Metaphysics>, Peter Lombard's <Sentences>, and learned by heart long passages of the Bible. His brothers tried to break his resistance by introducing into his room a woman of loose character. Thomas seized a burning brand from the hearth and drove her out, then knelt and implored God to grant him the gift of perpetual chastity. His early biographers write that he at once fell into a deep sleep, during which he was visited by two angels, who girded him around the waist with a cord so tight that it waked him. Thomas himself did not reveal this vision, until, on his deathbed, he described it to his old friend and confessor, Brother Reginald, adding that from this time on he was never again troubled by temptations of the flesh.
At last, influenced by the remonstrances that came from both the Pope and the Emperor, his family began to yield. A band of Dominicans hurried in disguise to the prison, where, we are told, with the help of his sisters, Thomas was let down by a cord into their arms, and they took him joyfully to Naples. The following year he made his full profession there, before the prior who had first clothed him with the habit of St. Dominic. Somewhat later, the powerful Aquino family obtained from Pope Innocent IV permission to have Thomas appointed abbot of Monte Cassino without resigning his Dominican habit. When Thomas declined this honor, the Pope expressed a willingness to promote him to the archiepiscopal see of Naples, but the young man made clear his determination to refuse all offices.
The Dominicans now decided to send Thomas to Paris to complete his studies under their great teacher, Albertus Magnus, and he set out on foot with the Father General, who was again on his way northward. Carrying only their breviaries and their satchels, they made their way over the Alps in midwinter, and trudged first to Paris, and then, it is thought, on to Cologne, where Albertus was lecturing. The schools there were full of young clerics from all corners of Europe, eager to learn and discuss. The humble, reserved newcomer was not immediately appreciated by students or professors. In fact, his silence at disputations and his bulky figure won him the name of "the dumb Sicilian ox." A fellow student, out of pity for his apparent dullness, offered to explain the daily lessons, and Thomas thankfully accepted. But when they came to a difficult passage which baffled the would-be teacher, he was amazed when his pupil explained it clearly. Albertus once asked his pupils for their views on an obscure passage in the mystical treatise, <The Book of Divine Names>, by the ancient author known as Dionysius the Areopagite. Albertus was struck by the brilliance of Thomas' explanation. The next day he questioned Thomas in public and at the close exclaimed, "We have called Thomas 'dumb ox,' but I tell you his bellowing will yet be heard to the uttermost parts of the earth." He forthwith had the young man moved to a cell beside his own, took him on walks, and invited him to draw on his own stores of knowledge.
It was at this period that Thomas began his commentary on the <Ethics> of Aristotle.
The general chapter, which decreed that Albertus should go to Paris to take the degree of Doctor and occupy a chair in the university, arranged that Thomas should accompany him. They set out, on foot, as always; they ate by the roadside the food given them in charity, and slept wherever they found shelter, or even under the stars.
At the Dominican convent in Paris Thomas proved himself an exemplary friar, excelling in humility as he did in learning. Albertus drew such crowds to his lectures that he had to deliver them in a public square. It is likely that Thomas was always present. He made one intimate friend in Paris, a Franciscan student, later to be known to the world as St. Bonaventura, the "Seraphic Doctor," as Thomas was to be the "Angelic Doctor." The two seemed to complement each other perfectly. Bonaventura was the elder by four years, but they were at the same stage in their studies, and both received the degree of Bachelor of Theology in 1248.
That same year Albertus went back to Cologne, accompanied by Thomas, who lectured under him, and, as a Bachelor, supervised the students' work, corrected their essays, and read with them. Thomas exhibited a marvelous talent for imparting knowledge.
After he had received Holy Orders from the archbishop of Cologne, his religious fervor became more marked. One of his biographers writes, "When consecrating at Mass, he would be overcome by such intensity of devotion as to be dissolved in tears, utterly absorbed in its mysteries and nourished with its fruits." It was at this period that he became celebrated as a preacher, and his sermons in the German vernacular attracted enormous congregations. He was also occupied writing Aristotelian treatises and commentaries on the Scriptures. In the autumn of 1252, Thomas returned to Paris to study for his doctorate. On the way he preached at the court of the Duchess of Brabant, who had requested his advice on how to treat the Jews in her dominion. He wrote for her a dissertation urging humanity and tolerance.
Academic degrees were then conferred for the most part only on men actually intending to teach. To become a Bachelor a man must have studied at least six years and attained the age of twenty-one; to be a Master or a Doctor, he must have studied eight more years and be thirty-five years of age. But when Thomas in 1252 began lecturing publicly in Paris, he was not yet twenty-eight.
The popularity of the lectures of the young Dominican inflamed a situation which was already acute. The secular or non-monastic clergy, who from the early years of the universities had furnished the bulk of the teaching staffs, saw dangerous rivals in the eloquent and popular young friar preachers, who were often less conventional in their methods and approach. They appealed to Rome to forbid the intrusion of either Franciscans or Dominicans into what they regarded as their particular preserve, and Innocent IV in 1254 withdrew all favor from the two orders. However, he died at about this time and his successor, Alexander IV, was to prove friendly to the friars. The opposition to their admission to teaching posts in the universities grew even more bitter with the publication of a libellous tract, <On the Dangers of These Last Times>, by William de Saint-Armour, in which both the ideas and the organization of the mendicant orders were denounced. Representatives of the two orders were now summoned to Rome, Thomas being chosen as one of the Dominican delegates. He pleaded with such success that the decision was given in their favor. The Pope now compelled the university authorities to admit Thomas and Bonaventura to positions as teachers and to the degree of Doctor of Theology. This was in October, 1257, when Thomas was thirty-two years old.
From 1259 to 1269 Thomas was in Italy teaching in the school for select students attached to the papal court, which accompanied the Pope through all his changes of residence. As a consequence, he lectured and preached in many Italian towns. In 1263 he probably visited London as representative from the Roman province at the general chapter of the Dominican Order. In 1269 he was back again for a year or two in Paris.
By then King Louis IX held him in such esteem that he consulted him on important matters of state.
The university referred to him a question on which the older theologians were themselves divided, namely, whether, in the Sacrament of the altar, the accidents remained in reality in the consecrated Host, or only in appearance. After much fervent prayer, Thomas wrote his answer in the form of a treatise, still preserved, and laid it on the altar before offering it to the public. His decision was accepted by the university and afterwards by the whole Church. On this occasion we first hear of his receiving the Lord's approval of what he had written. Appearing in a vision, the Saviour said to him, "Thou hast written well of the Sacrament of My body," whereupon, it is reported, Thomas passed into an ecstasy and remained so long raised in the air that there was time to summon many of the brothers to behold the spectacle. Again, towards the end of his life, when at Salerno he was laboring over the third part of his great treatise, <Against the Pagans (Summa Contra Gentiles)>, dealing with Christ's Passion and Resurrection, a sacristan saw him late one night kneeling before the altar and heard a voice, coming, it seemed, from the crucifix, which said, "Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wouldst thou have?" To which Thomas replied, "Nothing but Thyself, Lord."
After his second period of teaching in Paris he was recalled to Rome, and from there was sent, in 1272, to lecture at the University of Naples, in his home city. On the feast of St. Nicholas the following year, as he said Mass in the convent, he received a revelation which so overwhelmed him that he never again wrote or dictated. He put aside his chief work, the <Summary of Theology> (<Summa Theologica>), still incomplete. To Brother Reginald's anxious query, he replied, "The end of my labors is come. All that I have written seems to me so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me."
He was already ill when he was commissioned by the Pope to attend the general council at Lyons, which had for its business the discussion of the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. He was to bring with him his treatise, <Against the Errors of the Greeks>. On the way he became so much worse that he was taken to the Cistercian abbey of Fossa Nuova near Terracina. Yielding to the entreaties of the monks, he began to expound the "Song of Songs," but was unable to finish the interpretation. He made his confession to Brother Reginald, received the Viaticum from the abbot, repeated aloud his own beautiful hymn, "With all my soul I worship Thee, Thou hidden Deity," and in the early hours of March 7, 1274, gave up his spirit. He was only forty-eight years of age. On that day his old master, Albertus Magnus, then in Cologne, burst suddenly into tears in the midst of the community, and exclaimed: "Brother Thomas Aquinas, my son in Christ, the light of the Church, is dead! God has revealed it to me."
Thomas was canonized by Pope John XXII at Avignon, in 1323. In 1367 the Dominicans got possession of his body and translated it with great pomp to Toulouse, where it still lies in the Church of St. Sernin. Pope Pius V conferred on Thomas the title of Doctor of the Church, and Leo XIII, in 1880, declared him the patron of all Catholic universities, academies, colleges, and schools. Among his emblems are the following: ox, chalice, dove, and monstrance.
Of his writings, which fill twenty volumes, we cannot here speak at length. As a philosopher, the great contribution of Aquinas was his use of the works of Aristotle to build up a rational and ordered system of Christian doctrine, his method of exposition and proof being scientific and lucid. He would first state the problem or question under consideration, next, one by one, fairly and objectively, the arguments against his own point of view, often citing the authorities on which they rested. Then came a statement of his own position with the arguments to support it, and, finally, one by one, the answers to his opponents. The general tone of his arguments was invariably judicial and serene. To him faith and reason could never be contradictory, for they both came from the one source of all truth, God, the Absolute One. The most important of his books were the <Summa Theologica> and the <Summa Contra Gentiles>, which were written between 1265 and 1272. Together they form the fullest and most exact exposition of Catholic dogma yet given to the world. Over the former he labored for five years, and left it, as we have said, unfinished. Almost at once it was recognized as the greatest intellectual achievement of the period. Three centuries later, at the momentous Council of Trent, this work was one of the three authoritative sources of Catholic faith laid down before the assembly, the other two being the Bible and the Decretals of the Popes. No theologian save Augustine has had so much influence on the Western Church as the "Angelic Doctor."
His work was not confined to the fields of dogma, apologetics, and philosophy. When Pope Urban IV decided to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi, he asked Thomas to compose a liturgical office and Mass for the day. These are remarkable both for their doctrinal accuracy and their tenderness of feeling. Two of his hymns, the <"Verbum Supernum"> ("Word on High") and <"Pange Lingua"> ("Sing my Tongue") are familiar to all Catholics, because their final verses are regularly sung at Benediction; but there are others, notably the <"Lauda Sion"> ("Praise Zion") and the <"Adoro Te Devote"> ("With all my Soul I Worship Thee"), hardly less popular.
About his attainments Thomas was singularly modest. Asked if he were never tempted to pride, he replied, "No." If any such thoughts occurred to him, he said, his common sense immediately dispelled them by showing him their absurdity. He was always apt to think others better than himself, and never was he known to lose his temper in argument, or to say anything unkind. As a young friar in Paris, he was once mistakenly corrected, by the official corrector, while reading aloud the Latin text for the day in the refectory. He accepted the emendation and pronounced what he knew to be a false quantity. On being asked afterwards how he could consent to make so obvious a blunder, he replied, "It matters little whether a syllable be long or short, but it matters much to practice humility and obedience."
During a stay in Bologna, a lay brother who did not know him ordered him to accompany him to the town where he had business to transact. The prior, it seemed, had told him to take as companion any brother he found disengaged. Thomas was lame and although he was aware that the brother was making a mistake, he followed him at once, and took several scoldings for walking so slowly. Later the lay brother discovered his identity, and was overcome with self-reproach. To his abject apologies Thomas replied simply, "Do not worry, dear brother.... I am the one to blame. . . . I am only sorry I could not be more useful." When others asked him why he had not explained who he was, he answered: "Obedience is the perfection of the religious life; for by it a man submits to man for the love of God, even as God made Himself obedient to men for their salvation."
<The Goodness of God>
<First Article. Whether goodness belongs to God?>
<We proceed thus to the First Article:->
<Objection 1> . It seems that goodness does not belong to God. For goodness consists in limit, species and order. But these do not seem to belong to God, since God is vast and not in the order of anything. Therefore goodness does not belong to God.
<Obj. 2>. Further, the good is what all things desire. But all things do not desire God, because all things do not know Him; and nothing is desired unless it is known.
Therefore goodness does not belong to God.
<On the contrary>, It is written (Lamentations iii,25): The Lord is good to them that hope in Him, to the soul that seeketh Him.
<I answer that>, Goodness belongs pre-eminently to God. For a thing is good according to its desirableness. And everything seeks after its own perfection, and the perfection and form of an effect consist in a certain likeness to its cause, since every cause creates its like. Hence the cause itself is desirable and has the nature of a good. The thing desirable in it is a participation in its likeness. Therefore, since God is the first producing cause of all things, it is plain that the aspect of good and of desirableness belong to Him; and hence Dionysius attributes goodness to God as to the first efficient cause, saying that "God is called good as the One by Whom all things subsist."
<Reply Obj. 1.> To have limit, species, and order belongs to the essence of a caused good; but goodness is in God as in its cause; hence it belongs to Him to impose limit, species, and order on others; wherefore these three things are in God as in their cause.
<Reply Obj. 2.> All things, by desiring their own perfection, desire God Himself, inasmuch as the perfections of all things are so many approaches to the divine being, as appears from what is said above. Of those beings that desire God, some know Him as He is in Himself, and this is true of the rational creature; others know some participation in His goodness, and this belongs to sense knowledge; and others have a natural desire, but without knowledge, and are directed to their ends by a higher knower
<The Cause of Evil>
Second Article. Whether the Highest Good, God, is the Cause of Evil?
<We proceed thus to the Second Article:->
<Objection 1.> It would seem that the highest good, God, is the cause of evil. For it is said (Isaiah xlv,5,7): I am the Lord, and there is no other God, forming the light and creating the darkness, making peace and creating evil. It is also said (Amos iii,6), Shall there be evil in a city which the Lord hath not done?
<Obj. 2.> Further, the effect of a secondary cause is attributable to its first cause. But good is the cause of evil, as was said above. Therefore, since God is the cause of every good, as was shown above, it follows that every evil also is from God.
<Obj. 3.> Further, as the Philosopher says, the cause of both the safety and the danger of a ship is the same. But God is the cause of the safety of all things.
Therefore He is the cause of all destruction and of all evil.
<On the contrary>, Augustine says that, "God is not the author of evil, because He is not the cause of the tendency to cease from being" I answer that, As appears from what has been said, the evil which consists in defective action is caused always by the defect of the agent. But in God there is no defect but the highest perfection, as was shown above. Hence the evil which consists in defective action, or which is caused by defect in the agent, is not attributable to God as its cause.
But the evil which consists in the corruption of things is attributable to God as its cause.
And this seems true as regards both things of nature and creatures with will. For we have said that whenever an agent produces by its power a form which is followed by corruption and decay, it causes by its power that corruption and decay. Now clearly the form which God chiefly intends in created things is the good of the order of the universe. But the order of the universe requires, as was said above, that there should be some things that can, and sometimes do, fail. Thus God, by causing in things the good of the order of the universe, consequently, and as it were incidentally, causes corruptions in things, in accordance with I Kings ii,6: The Lord killeth and maketh alive.
And when we read that God hath not made death (Wisdom i,13), the meaning is that God does not will death for its own sake. Yet the order of justice too belongs to the order of the universe; and this requires that penalty should be dealt out to sinners. Thus God is the author of the evil which is penalty, but not of the evil which is fault, by reason of what we have said.
<Reply Obj. 1.> These passages refer to the evil of penalty, and not to the evil of fault.
<Reply Obj. 2.> The effect of a defective secondary cause is attributable to its first non- defective cause as regards what it contains of being and perfection, but not as regards what it contains of defect; just as whatever there is of movement in the act of limping is caused by a motive energy, whereas whatever is unbalanced in it does not come from the motive energy but from the curvature of the leg. So whatever there is of being and action in a bad act is attributable to God as the cause; and whatever there is of defect is not caused by God but by the defective secondary cause.
<Reply Obj. 3.> The sinking of a ship is attributed to the pilot as its cause since he does not perform what the safety of the ship requires; but God does not fail to do what is necessary for our safety. Hence there is no comparison.
(<Summa Theologica>, I.)
1 On Monte Cassino, see above, <St. Benedict>, p. 134.
2 Aristotle's treatise on logic, the <Organon>, was known in Latin translation in Western Europe from the twelfth century and formed the basis of the teaching of logic in the schools. At the end of that century and through the thirteenth more of his important works became known, as new manuscripts and their translations were brought to the Universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge from Spain, where the Mohammedan and Jewish scholars had them, and from Constantinople. From this time on Aristotle ranks as the authority on most branches of knowledge through the later Middle Ages.
3 This famous work by an Italian-born bishop of Paris, known as the <Sentences (Sententiae)> was the most popular theological handbook of the period. It was a collection of opinions of the Church Fathers on well-nigh every crucial point of doctrine.
4 Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) was a scientist and scholastic philosopher, called <Doctor Universalis> because of his vast knowledge in all fields. Born in Swabia, he joined the Dominican Order and taught in various German cities before coming to Paris. He is famous for his interest in experimental and biological science and for his popularization of Aristotle.
5 St. Bonaventura, cardinal-bishop of Albano, is considered the greatest mystical theologian of the Middle Ages and one of its eminent scholars. He wrote commentaries on the Scriptures as well as a life of St. Francis. He is the intellectual light of the Franciscan Order as Thomas is of the Dominican.
6 The accidents in the case of the sacrament were the qualities perceived by our senses, the taste, color, shape, and feeling of the bread. The substance of bread, it was agreed, was changed by the act of consecration into the substance of Christ's body.
7 "The Philosopher" to Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries was always Aristotle.
8 "That which by its presence brings about one result is sometimes blamed for bringing about the contrary by its absence. Thus we ascribe the wreck of a ship to the absence of the pilot, whose presence was the cause of its safety." Aristotle, <Physics>, II, 3.
9 In Augustine's, as in Thomas' philosophy, evil was a form of negation of life and power to act, whereas goodness was affirmative, life-bringing, and active. As a thing became evil, it gradually lost its hold on the being with which God had originally endowed it and lapsed into nothingness.
10 1 Kings in the modern Protestant versions of the Bible is called 1 Samuel.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Confessor, Doctor of the Church. Celebration of Feast Day is March 7 [in the Traditional Calendar].
Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.