Why the Church gives St. Thomas primacy of place in Catholic education

by Edy Morel de la Prada

In philosophy systems come and systems go—many, many systems. So what has made the Church, from among all of them, give preference to the method and doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas? For, as St. Thomas rightly says, “the goal of philosophy is not to know what philosophers have said but to know things as they really are.”1 Could it be that the Church has seen in St. Thomas’ work the best realization of his own principle?

My attempt in this article is modest, but I think it essential to the discussion initiated by Rebecca Bratten in the February 13th issue of the Concourse; that is, to consider, in the first place and as the indispensable point of reference, what the Church has said on the principles and method (these rather than “system” are the terms the Church uses) of St. Thomas, and why. For to deal with philosophy in a Catholic university is to deal with philosophy in the mind of the Church. What is it? Is there a better or even best philosophy that can serve as a basis for the evaluation and assimilation of valid elements in other philosophies? Truth can be found in every system. What is essential is a sound perspective from which not merely to refute fallacies, but, very importantly, to assimilate what is valid in any system. Does St. Thomas provide a good—even the best—basis for this task?

It is important to keep in mind that the Church is not speaking primarily about St. Thomas as an authority, but rather about the way in which he does philosophy. Yet, to further clarify: my stance in this matter is not born of blind assent to Church statements, but of critical reflection, which has led me to see the great wisdom of the Church in promoting the principles and method of St. Thomas, along with a basic trust in her accumulated wisdom in speaking with respect to the acquisition of fundamental natural truths. For if the Church is truly, as John Paul II puts it, “the expert on man,” then she must be an expert on the principles by which man can know truth.

In taking such a “Magisterial survey,” one is faced truly with an “embarrassment of riches” in statements of praise and promotion, which, as we have pointed out, focus not on the man, but on the way he does philosophy. I have of course made a selection which I am sure is far from the best that could be made.

We could begin our reflection by considering an allocution of John Paul II, in which he considers Aeterni Patris, the Encyclical of Leo XIII subtitled, “On the restoration of Christian philosophy according to the method of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Leo maintained in continuity with tradition the validity, and moreover the excellence, of a Christian philosophy. He held that Revelation in no way violated philosophical principles, but was rather the “friendly star” of philosophy. John Paul makes Leo’s words his own, saying: “The recommendation of Leo is still valid: ‘those who to the study of philosophy unite obedience to the Christian faith are philosophers indeed; for the splendor of the divine truth, received into the mind, helps the understanding and not only detracts in no wise from its dignity, but adds greatly to its nobility, keenness, and stability.’”2

Elsewhere, also referring to Leo, John Paul declares: “The immortal Pontiff recalled that the method, the principles and the teaching of Aquinas had, down the centuries, been specially favored not only by learned men but by the supreme teaching authority of the Church… If today also, he insisted, philosophical and theological reflection is not to rest on an ‘unstable foundation’ which would make it ‘wavering and superficial’... it will have to draw inspiration from the ‘golden wisdom’ of St. Thomas… Now that a hundred years of the history of thought have passed we are able to appreciate how balanced and wise were these appraisals. With good reason, therefore, the Supreme Pontiffs who succeeded Leo XIII, and the Code of Canon Law itself ...have repeated them and made them their own.”3

In the same paragraph, the Pope goes on to tie this reflection to the objectives of the Second Vatican Council, saying, “The words of the Council are clear: the Fathers saw that it is fundamental for the adequate formation of the clergy and of Christian youth that it preserve a close link with the cultural heritage of the past, and in particular with the thought of St. Thomas; and that this in the long run, is a necessary condition for the longed-for renewal of the Church.”

That’s interesting: to say that for the renewal of the Church it is a necessary condition that the youth “preserve a close link ... particularly with the thought of St. Thomas.” Yet in this the Pope would seem to be merely echoing John XXIII, who in the midst of the preparations for the Council he convened said, “but if all the things we desire so ardently are to come about the first thing necessary is to study the work of St. Thomas Aquinas carefully.”4 And while this may seem obvious, when popes, generation after generation, put something on the category of primacy or first thing, we should leave it there. The general crisis we currently experience in the Church can largely be traced to the unwillingness to do this.

John Paul II continues, “the reason why the philosophy of St. Thomas is pre-eminent is to be found in its realism and its objectivity: it is a philosophy of what is, not of what appears. What makes the philosophy of the Angelic Doctor so wonderfully apt to be the handmaid of faith is that it has gained possession of truths of the natural order, which have their origin in God the Creator, just as truths of the divine order, which have their source in God as revealing. This does not lessen the value of philosophy or unduly restrict its field of research; on the contrary, it allows it to develop in ways that human reason alone could not have discovered. Hence the Supreme Pontiff Pius XI… did not hesitate to declare: ‘In honoring St. Thomas something greater is involved than the reputation of St. Thomas, and that is the authority of the teaching Church’...”5

Lest it remain unclear to what kind of “honoring” he referred, two years later Pius XI directed that Pontifical universities impart to their students “the full and coherent synthesis of philosophy according to the method and the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas; in the light of his teaching, furthermore, the different systems of the other philosophers are to be examined and judged.”6 The Second Vatican Council continues this emphasis, directing that all priestly candidates (the future leaders of the Church) be trained on the patrimony of perennially valid philosophy.7 For the definition of perennially valid philosophy the Council refers the reader to the Encyclical Humani Generis, where Pius XII substantially identifies it with—no surprise at this point—“the method, doctrine and principles of the Angelic Doctor,” saying that his philosophy is “singularly pre-eminent” in teaching students and in safeguarding “the genuine validity of human knowledge, the unshakable metaphysical principles of sufficient reason, causality, and finality, and finally the mind’s ability to attain certain and unchangeable truth.” 8

Regarding what constitute the essential aspects of St. Thomas’ thought, the Church allows much freedom to scholars, yet she has not remained silent on the matter. In 1914, with the Pope’s blessing, she released a set of 24 theses, which while by no means exhaustive, “plainly contain the principles and major propositions of the Sacred Doctor,”9 and are therefore a precious guide in evaluating the true Thomistic quality of different authors or works.

Let us finish where we started, with John Paul II, as he recalls that most essential characteristic of true Thomism, which is never, in the mind of Thomas or of the Church, a closed system, but an open set of principles which allow one to approach and understand any aspect of reality: “The philosophy of St. Thomas deserves to be attentively studied and accepted with conviction by the youth of our day by reason of its spirit of openness and of universalism, characteristics which are hard to find in many trends of contemporary thought. What is meant is an openness to the whole of reality in all its parts and dimensions, without either reducing reality or confining thought to particular forms or aspects (and without turning singular aspects into absolutes)...The basis and source of this openness lie in the fact that the philosophy of St. Thomas is a philosophy of being, that is, of the “act of existing” whose transcendental value paves the most direct way to rise to the knowledge of subsisting Being and pure Act, namely to God. On account of this we can even call this philosophy: the philosophy of the proclamation of being, a chant in praise of what exists…St. Thomas puts philosophy moving along lines set by this intuition, showing at the same time that only in this way does the intellect feel at ease (as it were “at home”) and that, therefore, it can never abandon this way without abandoning itself.”10 In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II categorically asserts that St. Thomas, “continues, in fact, to be the master of philosophical and theological universalism.”11 (All emphases in the originals).

In light of this unique standing, the Pope observes, “Is it to be feared that by favoring the philosophy of St. Thomas one will undermine the right to exist that is enjoyed by different cultures or hinder the progress of human thought? Such a fear would clearly be groundless because the methodological principle invoked above implies that whatever is real has its source in the “act of existing;” and because the perennial philosophy, by reason of that principle, can claim in advance, so to speak, all that is true in regard to reality.”12

Some voices today (among whom perhaps Miss Bratten finds herself), in the name of moderation, would make the philosophy the Church has given pre-eminence to, at most, one among equals. One advocating primacy for St. Thomas is made to be an “extreme conservative,” and thus the Church, who confirms and promotes this primacy, is, oddly, made to appear as an intruder in the philosophical discussion. But to make something the Church has made primary merely one among equals, is not moderation.

And as to whether there is a Christian Philosophy: the Church’s mind—and the minds of many Catholic philosophers (see for ex., La Filosofia Cristiana, by Luigi Bogliolo, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995)—appears quite clear, in spite of the current controversy,13 and so I do not think it is legitimate to close the debate on the contrary side.

The Church does not promote what She does not love, and She does not love as “pre-eminent” what She does not know very well. I trust the Church’s love for St. Thomas. Franciscan University should not fear to give his principles and method the preference the Church gives them. If FUS is to live up to its reputation of being the best Catholic University anywhere,14 she ought to give her students what John Paul II explicitly calls “the best philosophy,”15 which “can and should be followed and updated without betraying its spirit and fundamental principles.”16 FUS should not fear to follow he whom Paul VI called “the Master of thinking well.”

In short, what should FUS give St. Thomas? What the Church gives him: preference which is not exclusivism, for were it so, it would be the very negation of Thomism.

Edy Morel de la Prada is a graduate student in the MA Theology program

  1. De caelo et mundo, I, 22 ↑
  2. John Paul II, allocutionThe Method and Doctrine of St. Thomas in Dialogue with Modern Culture, LOR, Oct. 20, 1980, pp.9-11, no.4 ↑
  3. John Paul II, allocutionPerennial Philosophy of St. Thomas for the Youth of Our Times, LOR, Dec. 17, 1979, pp.6-8, no.5 ↑
  4. Allocution, September 18, 1960 ↑
  5. Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas..., no.8 (cf., Encyclical Studiorum Ducem, June 29, 1923) ↑
  6. Deus Scientiarum Dominus, May 24, 1931 ↑
  7. Optatam Totius, no.15 ↑
  8. Pius XII,Humani Generis, esp. nos. 48-50 ↑
  9. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1914, pp.383-386 ↑
  10. Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas..., no. 6 ↑
  11. p.31 ↑
  12. Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas..., no.7 ↑
  13. For an overview of this widespread controversy, see Ronda Chervin and Eugene Kavana’s Love of Wisdom, (Ignatius Press, 1988) esp.335-337 and 359-367 ↑
  14. Cf. John Cardinal Connor’s address at the Baccalaureate Mass in May, 1993 at Franciscan University ↑
  15. Oct. 20, 1980, pp.9-11, no.4 ↑
  16. Ibid., no.6 ↑

issue cover

Related articles:

Same issue

Same topic: st. thomas & catholic philosophy

I,1 To Systematize or not to Systematize: Philosophy at a Catholic University, Rebecca Bratten I,3 The freedom of Catholic philosophers: Why we need not necessarily give primacy to St. Thomas, Richard Gordon I,4 St. Thomas and freedom: a reply to Richard Gordon, Edy Morel de la Prada I,4 St. Thomas and Catholic connaturality, Michael Waldstein I,5 Thomism and intellectual freedom, Kathleen van Schaijik I,6 Chairman addresses the question of Thomism in Franciscan University’s philosophy department, John F. Crosby I,6 Thomism, Courtney Scharfe I,7 A respectful reply to Dr. Crosby, Edy Morel de la Prada I,7 Finding common ground between Thomists and non-Thomists in Catholic philosophy, John F. Crosby II,3 On dwarfs, giants and little boys, Jules van Schaijik II,4 Why the little boy is more apt than the dwarf, Richard W. Cross II,5 Thomas not just a doctor, but a saint, Jim Fox

Same author