Despite his imposing girth, there was nothing stodgy about Saint Thomas Aquinas. January 28 saw the commemoration of one of the Church’s greatest thinkers of all time, and one of the most attuned to the problems and questions that face us today. Like many saints, Thomas never seems to go out of style. In fact, his witness is surprisingly modern, and offers lessons that are critical to today’s society. Here are ten reasons why Thomas Aquinas is a true Catholic rock star deserving of his title as “Common Doctor of the Church.”
1. Thomas was an intellectual cage fighter.
Thomas had such absolute confidence in the truth that he believed in its power to stand up to every inquiry and argument. He displayed remarkable courage in defending truth, taking on all comers and stacking the odds against himself.
A key example of this are Thomas’ two stints as at the University of Paris, where he would literally take on not only his students, but other scholars as well, in debates that later formed the basis of his Quaestiones disputatae, or disputed questions, and the Quodlibeta, or discussions on various issues. Thomas was immensely popular as a teacher and lecturer, and students would fill the lecture hall to bursting just to able to hear him and question him. They would do their best to stump him, bringing forward every possible objection to his positions, which he would then entertain and answer.
Moreover, Thomas was something of a radical. He gave up the possibility of an ecclesiastical career to join a new, ragtag group of begging friars: the Dominicans. As itinerants, the preaching friars drew much criticism because people were not used to seeing monks outside the monastery. His family found his choice humiliating and desperately tried to dissuade him from this ignominious course, going so far as to lock him up, but Thomas stubbornly persevered in his resolve.
2. Thomas was open-minded in the extreme.
There is nothing further from the real Thomas Aquinas than certain modern Thomists who consider his work to be a “closed system,” rather than a dynamic, ever evolving engagement with the intellectual world.
Thomas read everything, and considered all positions, believing firmly that he could learn something from everyone. He engaged Jewish philosophers, Muslim scholars, Plato, Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church and the great Christian thinkers of his time, like Saint Bonaventure and Saint Anselm.
Despite his open-mindedness, Thomas never fell into the modern error of thinking that keeping an open mind means never arriving at personal convictions. He was a man who stood firmly on the foundation of a truth that he had discovered—the truth of Jesus Christ and his Church—and all his dialogue, debate and study served to cement his beliefs more and more firmly, rather than shaking them loose.
3. Thomas was eminently fair.
One of the things that first strikes readers of Thomas’ Summa Theologiae is the way that Thomas laid out the best possible version of his adversaries’ arguments. He is often so convincing in articulating his opponents’ thought that one wonders how he will escape from their seemingly impervious nets.
We live in an age where politicians and academics alike often set up straw men, only to shoot them down, and where cheap shots seems part and parcel of debate. In Thomas Aquinas we find the original “fair and balanced” portrayal of friends and foes alike, and a truly impartial reading of the best arguments his adversaries could throw at him.
4. Thomas had absolute confidence in the unity of truth, and the compatibility of faith and reason.
It is unsurprising that Saint John Paul II pointed to Thomas Aquinas as a model for understanding the relationship between faith and reason in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. Thomas was comfortable with the natural sciences and never felt threatened by what scientists might find out about the natural world.
Thomas was not a compromiser. Embracing reason did not lead him to downplay faith, and his profound faith never led him to doubt the power of reason. Thomas was fearless not because he was convinced of his own intellectual abilities, but because he had an unshakable confidence in Truth itself.
Thomas refused to accept any contradiction between faith and reason. He saw them as two ways of approaching the same truth rather than as two separate truths, as some of his contemporaries, such as Siger of Brabant, held. For Thomas, grace perfects nature, and does not contradict or replace it.
Pope Benedict XVI said that showing that a natural harmony exists between Christian faith and reason “was the great achievement of Thomas” and in so doing he created “a new synthesis which formed the culture of the centuries to come.”
5. Thomas was well-rounded (not just physically).
Because of his astonishing powers of reason, Thomas is often assumed to have been a dry academic, and students are often surprised to find out that he possessed a sensitive, artistic soul. He was deeply devout and spiritual, and composed poetry and prayers, as well as some of the most enduring liturgical hymns in Catholic history. He was famous not only for his teaching, but also for his preaching, and people would travel long distances to hear his sermons.
Pope Urban IV commissioned Thomas to compose the liturgical texts for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which was established after the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena. Thomas had an exquisitely Eucharistic soul and composed the most beautiful hymns that celebrate the mystery of the real presence of the body and blood of the Lord in the Eucharist.
To name some of his most celebrated hymns, Thomas wrote Panis Angelicus, Adore te Devote, O Salutaris hostia, Pange Lingua, and Tantum Ergo Sacramentum.
6. Despite his brilliance, Thomas was neither vain nor conceited.
One thing that was never disputed, even among his adversaries, was Thomas’ humility. In all his studies and scholarship it was never “about him.” Thomas was the antithesis of J. K. Rowling’s character Gilderoy Lockhart, the Hogwarts professor whose autobiography was titled “Magical Me.” If Thomas had written an autobiography, a more apt title would have been the words of John the Baptist: “He must grow greater; I must grow smaller.”
Humility is tough even for people of modest qualities, which makes Thomas’ virtue all the more striking. It would be tough not to feel superior to others when you have several personal secretaries writing simultaneously as fast as they can to keep up with your dictation, as Thomas did.
Thomas’ modesty made him characteristically understated. He called his masterful Summa Theologiae an introductory textbook for beginners. One Englishwoman, after reading a section of Thomas’ work titled “The simplicity of God,” is said to have remarked drily, “If that is his simplicity, I wonder what his complexity is like.”
7. Thomas had an insatiable desire for learning.
Aristotle famously began his Metaphysics with the line: “All men desire to know.” This was eminently true of Saint Thomas. From a very young age he was inquisitive, wanting to know everything he could. He was a voracious reader, and would go through books as soon as he could get his hands on them, which was quite an enterprise in an age before the printing press, much less Amazon.com.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Thomas’ inquisitiveness was the subject matter that interested him. He didn’t care about useless factoids, but wanted to study the big questions. He is reputed to have shouted out in class as a young boy: “What is God?”
Later, Thomas would distinguish in his writings between what he called curiositas (a vice) and studiositas (a virtue). A curious person, Thomas contended, has a superficial interest in ephemeral questions (the sort that could be found in People magazine). The studious person, on the other hand, has an interest in eternal questions, and is willing to expend the time and effort to really understand them.
8. Thomas possessed an incredible ability to structure and organize his thoughts.
Our age of stream of consciousness blog-writing and literary expressionism makes us appreciate Thomas’ orderly thought and precise expression all the more.
Thomas had an exceptionally logical mind, and was able to reason and write in an organized and systematic way. His Summa Theologiae has been likened to a Gothic cathedral, because of its beauty, ingenuity and harmony. Though never flowery, the beauty of his writing comes from the clarity of his thought and the concision of his expression.
When the “devil’s advocate” at Thomas’ canonization process objected that there were no miracles, one of the cardinals answered, “Tot miraculis, quot articulis”—“there are as many miracles (in his life) as articles (in his Summa).
9. Thomas possessed not only knowledge, but also true wisdom.
We live in an age with virtually unlimited access to “facts,” literally at our fingertips. We can call up information from our smart phones in a matter of seconds, accessing data on geography, history, mathematics, pop culture, or current events.
Though Thomas possessed a prodigious memory and a penetrating intellect, these were not his most precious intellectual gifts. Unlike so many in this generation as well as ages past, Thomas could sift through what he knew, culling what was truly important and leaving aside what was not of eternal value. He understood that what mattered was not knowing many things, but understanding what was truly important.
Though the expression “quid hoc ad aeternitatem?” (what does this have to do with eternity?) is attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, it could just as easily apply to Thomas, since it was a maxim that he lived by. He judged the value of things from the perspective of eternity, not from passing fads or merely earthly concerns.
Near the end of his life Thomas abandoned his extensive writing projects and gave himself up to contemplation, saying at one point: “All I have written is so much straw.” This reveals much about Thomas’ humility, but it highlights especially that in the light of the greatness and beauty of God, all we can say about Him seems to be nothing compared to He Who Is.
10. Thomas was a theological optimist and a man of deep Christian hope.
Despite knowing the evils of his time, perhaps better than any other, Thomas never gave in to pessimism or hand-wringing. He struggled mightily against the pessimistic heresies of the Albigensians, and the soon-to-appear Protestants, with their radical distrust of human reason and free will.
We can know, Thomas said. We can achieve good things. We can merit. For Thomas, confidence in God meant confidence in truth, confidence in reason, confidence in mercy.
Against the pessimism of his age, Thomas possessed a deep trust in the absolute goodness of God. God didn’t make evil, Thomas knew, and had redeemed man because of his overwhelming and abiding love for us. Like the ancient Easter Proclamation of the Exsultet, Thomas believed firmly in the felix culpa—the happy fault of Adam that won for us such a redeemer. Thomas also believed, with Saint Paul, that where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more, and that for those who love God, all things work together for good.