Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience March 17, 2010

During his general audience on March 17, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. The Holy Father focused on the theology of St. Bonaventure in relation to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Dear brothers and sisters,

This morning, I would like to continue my reflections from last Wednesday by examining in depth other aspects of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s teachings.

He is an eminent theologian who deserves a place alongside another very great thinker of his time: St. Thomas Aquinas. Both men pondered the mysteries of divine revelation, placing great value on human reason’s capabilities in the fruitful dialogue between faith and reason that characterized the Christian Middle Ages, thereby making it an era of great intellectual activity as well as an era of faith and ecclesial renewal, which often is not adequately appreciated.

There are other similarities between the two men. Both Bonaventure, a Franciscan, and Thomas, a Dominican, were members of the mendicant orders. As I pointed out in previous catecheses, the freshness of their spirituality renewed the entire Church of the 13th century and attracted many followers.

Both men served the Church diligently, passionately and lovingly, so much so that both were invited to the Ecumenical Council of Lyon in 1274, the same year in which both men died — Thomas while he was en route to Lyon and Bonaventure during the council itself.

In St. Peter’s Square, the statues of these two men are parallel to each other, right where the colonnade opens away from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica — one on the left wing of the colonnade and the other on the right.

But despite these similarities, we can perceive two different approaches to the study of philosophy and theology in these two great saints, which show the originality and depth of both men’s thought. I would like to point out some of these differences.

Different Emphases

The first difference has to do with their concept of theology. Both of these doctors of the Church raised the question as to whether theology is a “practical” discipline (i.e. for guiding human action) or a theoretical, speculative discipline.

St. Thomas reflected on two possible yet opposing responses. The first says that theology is a reflection on faith and the purpose of faith is that man may become good and live according to God’s will.

Therefore, the purpose of theology would be to guide man on the right path. Consequently, it is basically a practical discipline.

The other position says that theology seeks to know God. We are God’s handiwork; God surpasses everything we do. God is at work whenever we act rightly.

Therefore, theology is substantially not about our doing, but about knowing God.

The conclusion that St. Thomas reached is that theology entails both aspects. It is theoretical because it seeks an ever-greater knowledge of God, and it is practical because it seeks to orient our lives towards goodness. But knowledge has primacy: We first have to know God before we act in a godly way (Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 1, art. 4). This primacy of knowledge over praxis is significant in St. Thomas’ fundamental approach.

St. Bonaventure’s answer was very similar, but with a different emphasis. He was familiar with the arguments of both sides, as St. Thomas was.

However, in answering the question of whether theology is a practical or a theoretical discipline, he made a threefold distinction, not just between theory (primacy of knowledge) and practice (primacy of action), but introducing a third element, which he calls “wisdom,” affirming that it includes the other two elements.

He goes on to say that wisdom seeks contemplation (the highest form of knowledge) and has as its intention ut boni fiamus (that we should become good) above all, then, to become good (see Breviloquium, Prologus, 5).

“Faith,” he adds, “is in the intellect in such a way that it causes affection. For example, to know that Christ died ‘for us’ does not simply remain knowledge, but necessarily becomes affection and love” (Proemium in I Sent., q. 3). His defense of theology runs along the same line, as a reasoned and methodic reflection on faith.

Faith, Reason and Love

St. Bonaventure lists some arguments against simply “doing” theology, which were, perhaps, widespread even among some Franciscan friars back then and which are also present in our own time.

Reason, it was said, drains away faith and does violence to God’s word. We should listen to God’s word rather than dissecting it (see St. Francis of Assisi’s Letter to St. Anthony of Padua).

In response to these arguments against theology, which show the perils that exist in theology itself, Bonaventure says that it is true that there is an arrogant way of engaging in theology — a pridefulness that places reason above God’s word.

But true theology, the reasoned work of true and good theology, has a different origin and is not born from rational pridefulness. He who loves always desires to know his beloved deeper and better. True theology is not spurred on in its study by pride. Sed propter amorem eius cui assentit (it is motivated by love of him to whom it has given its assent) (Proemium in I Sent., q. 2) and the desire to better know the beloved.

This, he said, is the fundamental intention of theology. For St. Bonaventure, then, ultimately it is the primacy of love that counts.

Consequently, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure have different definitions of man’s ultimate destiny, his complete happiness. For St. Thomas, the supreme goal towards which our desire is oriented is to see God. In this simple act of seeing God, all problems find their solution. We are happy; nothing else is necessary. For St. Bonaventure, on the other hand, man’s ultimate destiny is to love God — the encounter and the union of his love and ours. For him, this is the most adequate definition of our happiness.

Along the same lines, we might say that the highest category for St. Thomas is truth, whereas for St. Bonaventure it is goodness. Yet, it would be wrong to see a contradiction between these two positions.

For both, what is true is also what is good and what is good is also what is true. To see God is to love and to love is to see. Thus, it is a question of different emphases within a fundamentally common vision.

Both emphases have created different traditions and different spiritualities, thereby demonstrating the fruitfulness of faith, which remains one in the diversity of its expressions.


Let us return to St. Bonaventure. It is evident that the specific emphasis of this theology, of which I have given only one example, is to be explained by the Franciscan charism.

St. Francis of Assisi, above and beyond the intellectual debates of his time, showed the primacy of love with his entire life. He was a living icon, enamored of the Lord, who made the figure of Christ present in his time. He convinced his contemporaries not with words but by his life.

In all of St. Bonaventure’s works, even his systematic works, those meant for teaching, we see and discover this Franciscan inspiration. It is evident that his thinking is rooted in his experience of St. Francis of Assisi.

But in order to comprehend how this theme of the “primacy of love” was developed in a concrete way, we have to keep in mind yet another source: the writings of the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius, a Syrian theologian of the sixth century who used the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite, referring to a figure in the Acts of the Apostles (see 17:34).

This theologian had created both a liturgical theology as well as a mystical theology and had written at length on the various angelic orders. His writings were translated into Latin in the ninth century. In the time of St. Bonaventure, that is, in the 13th century, a new translation appeared which sparked St. Bonaventure’s interest as well as the interest of other theologians of his century. Two things in particular drew the attention of St. Bonaventure:

1. Pseudo-Dionysius wrote of the nine angelic orders, whose names he found in Scripture and then systematized in an original way, from the simplest angels all the way to the Seraphim. St. Bonaventure interprets these angelic orders as steps with which created beings draw closer to God. Thus, they can represent man’s journey, his ascent towards communion with God. St. Bonaventure did not doubt that St. Francis of Assisi belonged to the seraphic order — the highest order — the choir of seraphim. That is, he was a pure fire of love. And that was how Franciscans ought to be.

However, St. Bonaventure knew all too well that this last step in man’s journey to God cannot be legislated by juridical action. He knew it is always a special gift from God. For this reason, the structure of the Franciscan order is more modest, more realistic, yet it must, nonetheless, help its members to draw ever closer to a seraphic existence of pure love. Last Wednesday, I spoke about this synthesis between clear realism and Gospel radicalness in St. Bonaventure’s thought and actions.

2. However, St. Bonaventure found another element in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, which, for him, was even more important. While for St. Augustine, intellectus (seeing with the mind and the heart) is the ultimate category of knowledge, Pseudo-Dionysius took it one step further. In the ascent toward God, it is possible to reach a point in which reason can no longer see. But in the night of the intellect, love still sees: It can see what remains inaccessible to reason.

Love goes beyond reason; it sees better and enters more deeply into the mystery of God. St. Bonaventure was captivated by this vision, which corresponded to his Franciscan spirituality.

Precisely in the dark night of the cross, the grandeur of divine love appears. Where reason no longer sees, love does.

Love for the Crucified Christ

The conclusion of his Journey of the Mind to God may seem, when read superficially, to be an exaggerated expression of devotion devoid of content. But if it is read in the light of St. Bonaventure’s theology of the cross, it is a clear and realistic expression of Franciscan spirituality: “If you now yearn to know how this happens (the ascent towards God), ask grace, not doctrine; desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of words … not light, but the fire that sets everything aflame and transports it to God” (VIII, 6).

This approach is not anti-intellectual or antirational; it implies the path of reason but transcends it in the love of the crucified Christ.

With this transformation of the mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Bonaventure founded a great school of mysticism that has greatly elevated and purified the human mind. It represents a high point in the history of the human spirit.

This theology of the cross, born from the encounter between the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius and Franciscan spirituality, should not let us forget that St. Bonaventure also shares with St. Francis of Assisi a love for creation, a joy in the beauty of God’s creation.

I would like to quote in this regard a sentence from the first chapter of Journey of the Mind to God: “He … who does not see the innumerable splendors of creation is blind. He who is not awakened by its many voices is deaf. He who does not praise God for all these wonders is mute. He who, from so many signs, does not exalt the first principle is foolish” (I, 15).

All of creation speaks out loud about God, of the good and beautiful God, of his love.

For St. Bonaventure, therefore, all our life is a “journey,” a pilgrimage, an ascent towards God. But we cannot ascend to God’s heights through our own efforts. God himself must help us. He must “pull us up.”

That is why prayer is necessary. Prayer, St. Bonaventure says, is the mother and origin of this elevation — sursum actio (an act that pulls us up).

Therefore, I conclude with the prayer with which he begins his Journey: “Then let us pray and say to the Lord our God: ‘Lead me, Lord, along your path, and I will walk in your truth. My heart rejoices in the awe of your name’” (I,1).

Register translation

Engaging a Culture Built Without God

Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, says, “To evangelize the culture means having our gaze fixed on Christ. … In this way, one can change the culture and bring about a new culture.”

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]