Aristotle, Meet Aquinas

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is not only my confirmation patron but also my hero. My wife commissioned a lovely portrait of him that hangs in our living room. Aquinas has been victimized in some ways by his success; his writings became so influential in the time between Trent and Vatican II that his theological approach began to seem trite and threadbare. It was so very easy to forget that in his own day, Aquinas’s writings were regarded as fresh, bold, and cutting edge.

Aquinas faced a very delicate theological problem: How to handle the growing popularity in the margins of the Church of the writings of Aristotle. Aristotle had a somewhat checkered reputation. For one, he had broken with his own master Plato over many issues, though Plato had been far more popular among the Church fathers—especially St. Augustine. Worse still, Aristotle (being a pagan) believed in an eternal world that was never created and also seemed to endorse the idea that men reasoned not through their own individual minds, but through a single collective mind. Could such a writer ever be reconcilable with Catholic teaching?

The problem was not just academic, since two brilliant Muslim scholars were using the writings of Aristotle to do some anti-Christian theological saber rattling—basically saying that since Christianity could not assimilate the work of Aristotle, it was an unreasonable religion. St. Thomas knew that the Church could never allow reason and faith to be separated.

To make a long story short, St. Thomas wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica to answer this counterclaim, as well as to synthesize the ideas of St. Augustine and Aristotle. Needless to say, it was a smashing success! What makes Aquinas’ writings so valuable is not just Thomas’ concision and brilliance in expressing himself, but how he was able to engage the ideas of those he disagreed with—giving them a fair hearing and showing them precisely why their logic was flawed. Seldom did he resort to polemics or name-calling or straw-man-style argumentation, though it was not unfashionable in his day to do so.

St. Thomas is an excellent model for the Catholic theologian. One has to hold fast to the deposit of faith as it has been revealed by God and taught in the Church. Without this, the theologian, in going out on a limb, will cut himself off from the tree that supports him. We’ve seen plenty of this in our own age. But he shouldn’t hold on so tightly to the past that he is afraid to address contemporary problems or engage the ideas of his own time. He must be faithful to the Tradition while looking afresh at old truths in new ways and to pursuing new lines of inquiry to help advance the Church’s understanding. It’s a difficult balancing act, but St. Thomas did it about as well as it can be done.

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