Weekly General Audience June 2, 2010
During his general audience on June 2, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages. He spoke about St. Thomas Aquinas, whose life and teaching are revered as an outstanding model for theologians.
As a young man, Thomas was introduced to the recently rediscovered works of Aristotle. Much of his scholarly life was devoted to studying Aristotle’s authentic teaching, discerning its valid elements and demonstrating its value for Christian thought.
After entering the Dominican order, Thomas taught theology in Cologne, Paris, Rome and Naples. He was a prolific writer, and his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, reveals his conviction of the natural harmony between faith and reason. At the same time, Thomas was able to successfully preach to the crowds of faithful who flocked to hear him.
Dear brothers and sisters,
After several catecheses devoted to the priesthood and my latest trips, today we will return to our main topic — a reflection on some of the great thinkers from the Middle Ages. Most recently, we examined the great St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan. Today I would like to speak about the one whom the Church calls Doctor Communis: St. Thomas Aquinas.
In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, my predecessor, the Venerable Pope John Paul II, referred to the fact that “the Church has been justified in consistently proposing St. Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology” (No. 43). It is no surprise that among the writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas is quoted more than any other writer except St. Augustine — some 61 times! He has also been called Doctor Angelicus, probably because of his virtues, especially the sublimity of his thinking and the purity of his life.
His Early Years
Thomas was born in 1224 or 1225 in the castle that his noble and wealthy family owned in Roccasecca, on the outskirts of Aquino, near the famous abbey of Montecassino, where his parents sent him for his initial education. He later moved to Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily, where Frederick II had founded a prestigious university. There, the young Thomas was introduced to and was taught — without the limitations in force elsewhere — the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose great value he immediately perceived.
Above all, though, his vocation as a Dominican is rooted in the years he spent in Naples. Indeed, Thomas felt attracted to the ideals of the order, which St. Dominic had founded only a few years before. However, when he took the Dominican habit, his family opposed his decision, and he was forced to leave the friary and spend some time with his family.
In 1245, now an adult, he was able to resume the path he had chosen in response to God’s call. He was sent to Paris to study theology under the guidance of another saint, Albert the Great, of whom I recently spoke. Albert and Thomas forged a deep and genuine friendship. They came to esteem each other as true friends, to the point where Albert wanted Thomas, his student, to accompany him to Cologne, where the superiors of the order had sent him to establish a school of theology. During that time, Thomas got to know all of Aristotle’s works for the first time as well as those of his Arab commentators, which Albert was clarifying and explaining.
The Influence of Aristotle
During that period, the encounter with Aristotle’s works, which had been unknown for a long time, had a deep impact on the culture of the Latin world. Aristotle’s writings were focused on the nature of knowledge, on the natural sciences, on metaphysics, on the soul and on ethics, and were replete with seemingly valid and convincing information and insights. Overall, it was a complete vision of the world developed without and before Christ — based on pure reason — and seemed to impose itself on reason as the vision.
Therefore, young people experienced an unbelievable fascination to see and know this philosophy. Many received with enthusiasm — or rather with uncritical enthusiasm — this enormous store of ancient learning that seemed to have an advantageous effect on renewing culture and to open totally new horizons. Others, however, feared that Aristotle’s pagan thought contradicted the Christian faith and refused to study him. It was an encounter between the two cultures: the pre-Christian culture of Aristotle, with his radical rationality, and classic Christian culture.
Certain circles felt obligated to reject Aristotle also thanks to the way his Arab commentators, Avicenna and Averroes, presented him. Indeed, these two men were the ones who passed Aristotelian philosophy on to the Latin world.
For example, they taught that men do not have personal intelligence. Instead, there would be a single universal intellect — a common spiritual substance for all — that operates in all as “the only one,” stripping man of his individual personhood. Another problematic argument made by these Arab commentators was that the world is eternal, like God. Understandably, endless disputes were unleashed within the academic world and within the Church. Aristotelian philosophy was being spread even among uneducated people.
A Synthesis of Thought
Thomas Aquinas, following Albert the Great, carried out a task of fundamental importance in the history of philosophy and theology, I would even say for the history of culture itself: He studied Aristotle and his interpreters in depth, obtaining new Latin translations of the original Greek texts. Thus, he no longer relied exclusively on the Arab commentators, but could read the original texts personally. He commented on a great part of Aristotle’s works, separating what was valid from what was doubtful or to be discarded, demonstrating its agreement with Christian revelation, using Aristotelian thought with great breadth and intelligence in arranging his theological writings.
In short, Thomas Aquinas demonstrated that a natural harmony exists between Christian faith and reason. This was Thomas’ great achievement. In that moment of a clash between two cultures — a moment in which it seemed that faith would have to capitulate to reason — Thomas demonstrated that the two go together: what seemed to be reason incompatible with faith was not reason, and what seemed to be faith was not faith insofar as it was opposed to true rationality. Thus, he created a new synthesis, which shaped culture throughout the following centuries.
Because of his great intellectual gifts, Thomas was called once again to Paris as professor of theology in the Dominican chair. There he also began his monumental literary output, which continued up to the time of his death. It included commentaries on sacred Scripture — a professor of theology was first and foremost an interpreter of Scripture — commentaries on Aristotle’s writings, formidable systematic works among which the Summa Theologiae stands out, a series of treatises and discourses on various topics.
The Value of Friendship
Several secretaries assisted him in drafting his works, including one of his fellow Dominicans, Reginald of Piperno, who followed him faithfully and was bound to him by a sincere and fraternal friendship characterized by great confidence and trust. This is one characteristic of the saints: They cultivate friendship because it is one of the noblest strivings of the human heart and has something of the divine. Thomas himself explained this in the Summa Theologiae: “Charity is man’s friendship with God primarily, and with the beings that belong to him” (II-II, q. 25, a. 4).
Thomas was not in Paris for long. In 1259, he participated in the General Chapter of the Dominicans at Valenciennes, where he was member of a commission that established the program of studies for the order. Then, from 1261 to 1265, Thomas was in Orvieto. Pope Urban IV, who greatly esteemed him, commissioned him to compose the liturgical texts for the feast of Corpus Domini — which we will celebrate tomorrow — that was instituted after the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena.
Thomas had an exquisitely Eucharistic soul. The very beautiful hymns that the liturgy of the Church sings to celebrate the mystery of the real presence of the body and blood of Our Lord in the Eucharist are attributed to his faith and his theological wisdom. From 1265 until 1268, Thomas resided in Rome, where he most likely directed a studium, that is, a house of studies for the order, and where he began to write his Summa Theologiae (see Jean Pierre Torrell, Tommaso d’Aquino. L’uomo e il teologo, Casale Monferrato, 1994, pp. 118-184).
Popularity With the Faithful
In 1269 he was called back to Paris for a second cycle of teaching. Understandably, the students were eager for his classes. One of his former students said that such a large number of students took Thomas’ courses that the classroom could barely contain them. “To listen to him was profound happiness for me,” he added on a more personal note.
The interpretation of Aristotle that Thomas gave was not accepted by all, but even his academic adversaries — Godfrey of Fontaines, for example — admitted that the teachings of Friar Thomas were superior to others in their usefulness and value, and that they served as a corrective to those of all the other professors. Perhaps to extricate him from the vigorous debates unleashed, his superiors sent him once again to Naples to be at the disposal of King Charles I, who was intent on reorganizing the university curriculum.
In addition to studying and teaching, Thomas also devoted himself to preaching to the people. The people flocked eagerly to hear him. I would say that it is truly a great blessing when theologians know how to speak with simplicity and fervor to the faithful. The ministry of preaching, moreover, also helps those who are experts in theology to develop a healthy pastoral realism and enriches their research.
The last months of Thomas’ life here on earth were surrounded by a special — I would even say mysterious — atmosphere. In December of 1273, he summoned Reginald, his friend and secretary, to tell him of his decision to halt all his work because — after a divine revelation while celebrating Mass — he perceived that all he had written up to then was only “a heap of straw.” It is a mysterious episode, which helps us understand not only Thomas’ own humility, but also the fact that everything we can think and say about the faith, no matter how lofty and pure it may be, is infinitely surpassed by the greatness and beauty of God, which will be revealed to us in its fullness in paradise.
A few months later, while absorbed in meditation, Thomas died en route to Lyon, where he was headed to take part in the ecumenical council that Pope Gregory X had called. He died in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova after having received viaticum with great devotion.
A Lesson in Docility
The life and teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas could be summarized in an episode handed down by his medieval biographers. While the saint, as was his custom, was praying in the morning before the crucifix in the Chapel of St. Nicholas in Naples, the church’s sacristan, Domenico da Caserta, heard a dialogue that was taking place. A worried Thomas was asking if everything he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. The crucifix responded: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What will be your reward?” And the answer that Thomas gave is the answer that all of us, friends and disciples of Christ, would always wish to give: “Nothing other than you, Lord!” (Ibid., p. 320).