“There was in the thirteenth century a philosopher to whom the sight of the world did not give nausea, but a joy ever new, because he saw in it only order and beauty. Man did not seem to him a Sisyphus hopelessly condemned to the liberty of the absurd, for he read in his own heart the clear law of practical reason.” – Étienne Gilson, Conference “Les terreurs de l’an deux mille” (The terrors of the year two thousand), 8 April 1948
On the 13th of December in the year of our Lord 1545 the 19th Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church opened at Trent. Over the next 18 years it would produce the most complete and thorough body of texts containing the authoritative teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith ever produced by the Magisterium at one time. It would also set up one of the most profound reforms of the Church ever endeavored upon in its history.
From it would flow some of the richest treasures of the Church in the modern day, such as the first authoritative universal Catechism (The Roman Catechism or the Catechism of the Council of Trent), which is still to be held in high regard as Pope Benedict XVI told us when he was a Cardinal, and which theoretically is still the official Catechism for Priests to use as preaching material. Saint Charles Borromeo, the compiler and editor of this Catechism, was one of the great early implementers of the council and he also nearly singly handedly created the modern Seminary system, which has been an incalculable blessing upon the Church and which became yet another vehicle for instilling the teaching of the faith as elucidated by the Council of Trent into the minds and hearts of the Priests of the following generations so that they could in turn pass it on to the faithful.
In the next four centuries the fruits of the council are too abundant to count. But let us consider just a short list of the Priest Saints that it produced: first of all the two great Doctors of the Church Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri, Saint Claude de la Colombière, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, Saint John-Baptist Marie Vianney (the Curé of Ars), Saint Anthony Mary Claret, Saint John Bosco, Saint Joseph Damien de Vuester, Saint Gabriel of our Lady of Sorrows, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Saint Padre Pio, and Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. All of these great Saints, and many more, were products of this great Council.
Now let us consider what the council Fathers placed upon the altar during the council of Trent. Firstly the Sacred Scriptures the Word of God and then the decrees of the previous 18 Ecumenical Councils of the Church, but in addition to these they placed the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The profound influence of Saint Thomas, whose Traditional Feast we celebrate on the 7th of March each year, on this council and all the councils of the Church from his time onward is unmatched and unequaled by any other Saint. And at the Council of Trent it was the most profound example of these because in many instances the texts of the documents of the Council were lifted nearly word for word from the writings of the Angelic Doctor.
There has never been a Saint who has influenced the Church to the degree that Saint Thomas has in its teaching, with the possible exception of Saint Augustine, but even he would later appear in a vision with Saint Thomas and explain that it was the Dominican (who were Augustinian Canons) who had outshone him, in particular by virtue of his great purity. His great purity of course was attributed to his being girded by two angels with a mystical cincture of purity, and it was this incident that inspired The Confraternity of Angelic Warfare.
But what has really made Saint Thomas far more influential than any of the Fathers or Doctors of the Church is the fact that he not only produced a monumental work of Theology and Philosophy he also created a system for doing Theology and Philosophy. So that since his time we have seen the development of Thomism, which has been able to take Saint Thomas’ teaching and his system and apply it to new problems and heresies that have arisen since his time. Probably the greatest example of the Theological/Philosophical sons of Saint Thomas carrying on the torch of Thomism was Saint Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri, who along with Saint Francis de Sales, are the only Doctors of the Church who’s Dogmatic and Moral Theology can match the incredible clarity of the Common Doctor.
Despite the fact that he is such an incredible and monumental Saint in the history of the Church who he really was is all too little know today. And the very best book on his life: The Man from Rocca Sicca, by Rev. Fr. Reginald M. Coffey, O.P. is tragically out of print! Still there are those devoted and faithful sons of Saint Thomas today who can share with us who this man really ways…
And for one of the truly great devotees and sons of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the modern day you must check out this page full of sermons and talks steeped in Thomistic thought by Father Chad Ripperger: https://sentrad.org/multimedia/ You can listen to a great homily on Saint Thomas himself if you check the section entitled: “Homilies given by Fr. Ripperger in Kansas City”.
Two wonderful talk series were given in recent years by Dr. Douglas Flippen. PhD of Christendom College and produced by the Institute of Catholic Culture, and are available to you for free…
Here is another talk from the Institute of Catholic Culture from another Christendom College professor, Dr. John Cuddeback, PhD, which is also free…
Thanks to the internet, much of the rich treasure of the teachings of Saint Thomas is available to us for free…
–Summa Theologiae – Prima Pars, by Saint Thomas Aquinas
–Summa Theologiae – Pars Prima Secundae, by Saint Thomas Aquinas
–Summa Theologiae – Secunda Secundae, by Saint Thomas Aquinas
–Summa Theologiae – Tertia Pars, by Saint Thomas Aquinas
The Catena Aurea, by Saint Thomas Aquinas – A commentary on the four Gospels collected from the works of the Fathers. Translated into English by Blessed John Henry Newman…
Now, sadly in the last century Thomism has come up against the terrible scourge of Modernism and has been nearly wiped out. The last great Thomist, and worthy son of Saint Thomas, was the Dominican Theologian: the Rev. Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964) whose works on Theology are by far the best one can recommend if one is looking for an orthodox modern Theologian to read. As far as Thomistic Philosophy one can highly recommend Josef Pieper (1903-1997), most if not all of whose works have been translated into English from the original German by now. One could also highly recommend probably one of the greatest currently living Thomistic Philosophers: Dr. Dennis McInerny, PhD. You can buy his whole Thomisic Philosophy series of books here.
To the degree that which we have departed from Saint Thomas is the degree to which we have been drifting further down the road of error and even heresy. But Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), who was a Seminary professor before being elected to the See of Saint Peter, saw the coming darkness and was probably the most outspoken proponent of Saint Thomas Aquinas since the very professor of Saint Thomas, Saint Albert the Great (a Doctor of the Church in his own right), walked the earth and was the most zealous promoter of his student once he outlived his pupil. Every Pope since him has promoted him as well, but sadly Pope Leo has not been heeded and nor have his successors. But let us see what they have to say on the matter and Ite ad Thomam! (Go to Thomas!)…
First we will take a lengthy quote from Aeterni Patris, which ought to be read in its entirety but here is probably the best section:
17. Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because “he most venerated the ancient Doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.” The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith. With his spirit at once humble and swift, his memory ready and tenacious, his life spotless throughout, a lover of truth for its own sake, richly endowed with human and divine science, like the sun he heated the world with the warmth of his virtues and filled it with the splendor of his teaching. Philosophy has no part which he did not touch finely at once and thoroughly; on the laws of reasoning, on God and incorporeal substances, on man and other sensible things, on human actions and their principles, he reasoned in such a manner that in him there is wanting neither a full array of questions, nor an apt disposal of the various parts, nor the best method of proceeding, nor soundness of principles or strength of argument, nor clearness and elegance of style, nor a facility for explaining what is abstruse.
18. Moreover, the Angelic Doctor pushed his philosophic inquiry into the reasons and principles of things, which because they are most comprehensive and contain in their bosom, so to say, the seeds of almost infinite truths, were to be unfolded in good time by later masters and with a goodly yield. And as he also used this philosophic method in the refutation of error, he won this title to distinction for himself: that, single-handed, he victoriously combated the errors of former times, and supplied invincible arms to put those to rout which might in after-times spring up. Again, clearly distinguishing, as is fitting, reason from faith, while happily associating the one with the other, he both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each; so much so, indeed, that reason. borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which she has already obtained through Thomas.
19. For these reasons most learned men, in former ages especially, of the highest repute in theology and philosophy, after mastering with infinite pains the immortal works of Thomas, gave themselves up not so much to be instructed in his angelic wisdom as to be nourished upon it. It is known that nearly all the founders and lawgivers of the religious orders commanded their members to study and religiously adhere to the teachings of St. Thomas, fearful least any of them should swerve even in the slightest degree from the footsteps of so great a man. To say nothing of the family of St. Dominic, which rightly claims this great teacher for its own glory, the statutes of the Benedictines, the Carmelites, the Augustinians, the Society of Jesus, and many others all testify that they are bound by this law.
20. And, here, how pleasantly one’s thoughts fly back to those celebrated schools and universities which flourished of old in Europe — to Paris, Salamanca, Alcala, to Douay, Toulouse, and Louvain, to Padua and Bologna, to Naples and Coimbra, and to many another! All know how the fame of these seats of learning grew with their years, and that their judgment, often asked in matters of grave moment, held great weight everywhere. And we know how in those great homes of human wisdom, as in his own kingdom, Thomas reigned supreme; and that the minds of all, of teachers as well as of taught, rested in wonderful harmony under the shield and authority of the Angelic Doctor.
21. But, furthermore, Our predecessors in the Roman pontificate have celebrated the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas by exceptional tributes of praise and the most ample testimonials. Clement VI in the bull “In Ordine;” Nicholas V in his brief to the friars of the Order of Preachers, 1451; Benedict XIII in the bull “Pretiosus,” and others bear witness that the universal Church borrows luster from his admirable teaching; while St. Pius V declares in the bull “Mirabilis” that heresies, confounded and convicted by the same teaching, were dissipated, and the whole world daily freed from fatal errors; others, such as Clement XII in the bull “Verbo Dei,” affirm that most fruitful blessings have spread abroad from his writings over the whole Church, and that he is worthy of the honor which is bestowed on the greatest Doctors of the Church, on Gregory and Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome; while others have not hesitated to propose St. Thomas for the exemplar and master of the universities and great centers of learning whom they may follow with unfaltering feet. On which point the words of Blessed Urban V to the University of Toulouse are worthy of recall: “It is our will, which We hereby enjoin upon you, that ye follow the teaching of Blessed Thomas as the true and Catholic doctrine and that ye labor with all your force to profit by the same.” Innocent XII, followed the example of Urban in the case of the University of Louvain, in the letter in the form of a brief addressed to that university on February 6, 1694, and Benedict XIV in the letter in the form of a brief addressed on August 26, 1752, to the Dionysian College in Granada; while to these judgments of great Pontiffs on Thomas Aquinas comes the crowning testimony of Innocent VI: “His teaching above that of others, the canonical writings alone excepted, enjoys such a precision of language, an order of matters, a truth of conclusions, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error.”
22. The ecumenical councils, also, where blossoms the flower of all earthly wisdom, have always been careful to hold Thomas Aquinas in singular honor. In the Councils of Lyons, Vienna, Florence, and the Vatican one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided over the deliberations and decrees of the Fathers, contending against the errors of the Greeks, of heretics and rationalists, with invincible force and with the happiest results. But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors, is that the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the “Summa” of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.
Pope Saint Pius X, clearly pointed out Saint Thomas as being a most powerful safeguard against the “synthesis of Heresies” Modernism:
“To deviate from Aquinas, in metaphysics especially, is to run grave risk.” –Pope Saint Pius X, Pascendi, 8 September, 1907
“St. Thomas Aquinas…is an authority of the highest order.” -Pope Saint Pius X, Quam singulari, 8 August 1910
Another Ecyclical which ought to be read in full is Studiorum Ducem by Pope Pius XI on 29 June 1923.
His successor also had strong words in favor of the Angelic Doctor as a safeguard against modern errors:
“[T]he Church demands that future priests be instructed in philosophy “according to the method, doctrine, and principles of the Angelic Doctor,” since, as we well know from the experience of centuries, the method of Aquinas is singularly preeminent both for teaching students and for bringing truth to light; his doctrine is in harmony with divine revelation, and is most effective both for safeguarding the foundation of the faith, and for reaping, safely and usefully, the fruits of sound progress.” -Ven. Pope Pius XII, Humani generis, 12 August 1950
And Blessed Pope John Paul II too spoke highly of him in Fides et ratio on 14 September 1998. Incidentally, one of his professors in Seminary was none other than Father Reginal Garrigou-Lagrange.
The enduring originality of the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas
43. A quite special place in this long development belongs to Saint Thomas, not only because of what he taught but also because of the dialogue which he undertook with the Arab and Jewish thought of his time. In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them.(44)
More radically, Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment,(45) so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an “exercise of thought”; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice.(46)
This is why the Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology. In this connection, I would recall what my Predecessor, the Servant of God Paul VI, wrote on the occasion of the seventh centenary of the death of the Angelic Doctor: “Without doubt, Thomas possessed supremely the courage of the truth, a freedom of spirit in confronting new problems, the intellectual honesty of those who allow Christianity to be contaminated neither by secular philosophy nor by a prejudiced rejection of it. He passed therefore into the history of Christian thought as a pioneer of the new path of philosophy and universal culture. The key point and almost the kernel of the solution which, with all the brilliance of his prophetic intuition, he gave to the new encounter of faith and reason was a reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order”.(47)
44. Another of the great insights of Saint Thomas was his perception of the role of the Holy Spirit in the process by which knowledge matures into wisdom. From the first pages of his Summa Theologiae,(48) Aquinas was keen to show the primacy of the wisdom which is the gift of the Holy Spirit and which opens the way to a knowledge of divine realities. His theology allows us to understand what is distinctive of wisdom in its close link with faith and knowledge of the divine. This wisdom comes to know by way of connaturality; it presupposes faith and eventually formulates its right judgement on the basis of the truth of faith itself: “The wisdom named among the gifts of the Holy Spirit is distinct from the wisdom found among the intellectual virtues. This second wisdom is acquired through study, but the first ‘comes from on high’, as Saint James puts it. This also distinguishes it from faith, since faith accepts divine truth as it is. But the gift of wisdom enables judgement according to divine truth”.(49)
Yet the priority accorded this wisdom does not lead the Angelic Doctor to overlook the presence of two other complementary forms of wisdom—philosophical wisdom, which is based upon the capacity of the intellect, for all its natural limitations, to explore reality, and theological wisdom, which is based upon Revelation and which explores the contents of faith, entering the very mystery of God.
Profoundly convinced that “whatever its source, truth is of the Holy Spirit” (omne verum a quocumque dicatur a Spiritu Sancto est) (50) Saint Thomas was impartial in his love of truth. He sought truth wherever it might be found and gave consummate demonstration of its universality. In him, the Church’s Magisterium has seen and recognized the passion for truth; and, precisely because it stays consistently within the horizon of universal, objective and transcendent truth, his thought scales “heights unthinkable to human intelligence”.(51) Rightly, then, he may be called an “apostle of the truth”.(52) Looking unreservedly to truth, the realism of Thomas could recognize the objectivity of truth and produce not merely a philosophy of “what seems to be” but a philosophy of “what is”.
(44) Cf. Summa contra Gentiles, I, 7.
(45) Cf. Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 8 ad 2: “cum enim gratia non tollat naturam sed perficiat”.
(46) Cf. John Paul II, Address to the Participants at the IX International Thomistic Congress (29 September 1990): Insegnamenti, XIII, 2 (1990), 770-771.
(47) Apostolic Letter Lumen Ecclesiae (20 November 1974), 8: AAS 66 (1974), 680.
(48) Cf. I, 1, 6: “Praeterea, haec doctrina per studium acquiritur. Sapientia autem per infusionem habetur, unde inter septem dona Spiritus Sancti connumeratur”.
(49) Ibid., II-II, 45, 1 ad 2; cf. also II-II, 45, 2.
(50) Ibid., I-II, 109, 1 ad 1, which echoes the well known phrase of the Ambrosiaster, In Prima Cor 12:3: PL 17, 258.
(51) Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Æterni Patris (4 August 1879): ASS 11 (1878-79), 109.
(52) Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Lumen Ecclesiae (20 November 1974), 8: AAS 66 (1974), 683.
And finally a short quote from a Wednesday General Audience of our dearly beloved Pope Benedict XVI on 2 June 2010:
“The life and teaching of St Thomas Aquinas could be summed up in an episode passed down by his ancient biographers. While, as was his wont, the Saint was praying before the Crucifix in the early morning in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, Domenico da Caserta, the church sacristan, overheard a conversation. Thomas was anxiously asking whether what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. And the Crucified One answered him: ‘You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What is your reward to be?’. And the answer Thomas gave him was what we too, friends and disciples of Jesus, always want to tell him: ‘Nothing but Yourself, Lord!‘”