St Thomas Aquinas, Universal Doctor – Sermon by Fr Edward Leen CSSP, 192313-min read (inc. footnotes)

St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas, Universal Doctor – Fr Edward Leen CSSP
The Holy Wrath of St Thomas Aquinas – G.K. Chesterton
On the Five Qualities of Prayer – St Thomas Aquinas
True Law – According to the Teaching of St Thomas Aquinas
What is Thomism? The Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses

The Fioretti of St Thomas:
Part I: His Life
Part II: His Death
Part III: The Miracles after his Death

We are launching our Week of St Thomas Aquinas today, in honour of his feast (7 March), with this sermon by Fr Edward Leen CSSP, reprinted with permission from the Bellarmine Forums.

Image: St Thomas, by Crivelli. Wiki Commons.

St Thomas, Universal Doctor

Fr Edward Leen – preached November 1923

SAINT THOMAS was born in the year 1225 and died in the year 1274. During that brief period of forty-nine years he accomplished a work almost superhuman in its proportions and absolutely epoch-making in its consequences. One can realise the vast proportions of his work by considering that the Summa Theologica, his chef d’œuvre, constitutes only a sixth part of his writings; the far-reaching consequences of his achievement can be judged from the fact that the Church, the divinely constituted guide of mankind, has made his teaching her own, and by setting the seal of her authority on it, has made the glory of her schools consist in their ability to explore and bring to light the principles and the thought of the Angelic Doctor. Leo XIII, appalled at the dangers that had begun to menace the social fabric even in his time, owing to the general acceptance of the false theories that were contained in germ in the systems of thought that arose from the decay of scholastic philosophy, saw no remedy for the existing evils except in a vigorous revival of Thomism. His successor, Pius X, of venerated memory, became more insistent still, and went so far as to impose the Summa Theologica as the text book to be expounded in the principal centres of ecclesiastical studies. Benedict XV, continuing the same tradition, ordained (in Canons 589 and 1366 of the New [1917] Code) that all teachers of philosophy and theology were to train their pupils according to the method, doctrine and principles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The late Holy Father, Pius XI, in a well-known encyclical, confirms and reiterates the injunctions of his predecessors.[1] Furthermore, from the time of John XXII, who equivalently declared that the “articles” of Saint Thomas were veritable miracles of wisdom, this has been the constant and unvarying attitude of the Papacy towards the writings of Saint Thomas.

Most Catholics are aware of this singular prestige enjoyed by our saint and, being familiar with it, accept it as something normal and calling for no particular comment. And yet, it surely is an extraordinary phenomenon, the causes of which it is our duty to explore. If we are to give practical effect to the solemn and repeated injunctions of the Popes, we should strive to gain an insight into the reasons that urge them to bestow such favour on the doctrine contained in the Summa. Why, from amongst so many eminent doctors and theologians who have illustrated the Church by their virtues and their teaching, is Saint Thomas singled out and given such a unique position? The answer to this question is to be sought in the title of Universal Doctor of the Church, bestowed on him already from the earliest times, which Pope Pius XI confirmed in the encyclical already mentioned.

Saint Thomas is a universal doctor, not only because he has excelled in all departments of theology, but also because he has supplied or suggested a solution for all the problems that challenge the human mind. He is our guide, not only in questions of dogma but also in questions of ethics, politics and economics. He is supreme, not only in theology, but also in philosophy taken in its widest possible sense, as the effort of the intelligence of man to assimilate and express to itself every form and aspect of reality. Saint Thomas gathers up all the acquirements of the speculation of all ages, fuses them into a harmonious whole by the penetrating fire of his genius and constructs, by the force of his originality, out of these materials a philosophic structure which is altogether his own and marks the culminating point of human intellect in its apprehension of Being in all its manifestations.

Saint Thomas as a child constantly asked the monks, his teachers, “What is God?” Arriving at maturity, the whole force of his magnificent intelligence was applied to the furnishing of an answer to the question of his childhood. Seeing from the beginning of his student days that intelligence and being were two correlative terms, one existing for and being defined in terms of the other, he bent his will to the proper function of intelligence, which is, as be phrases it himself, to express intelligently to itself (or, in a bolder phrase, to become intentionaliter) all that is. In virtue of the complete domination he enjoyed over the movements of his senses, as the reward of his angelic purity, his reason worked in perfect serenity. The mind of Saint Thomas, obliged by the limitations of its nature to find its object in the concrete presentations of sense, had by reason of its marvellous limpidity, little difficulty in seizing its object in all its purity unobscured by the particularities of its setting. Thus discerning, in each particular, a manifestation of being, he was able to read in this to a certain extent the nature, constitution and implication of being taken in its universality. His mind then merely employing the sense-given as a starting point, quickly transcended, in rapid flight, all the created and concrete forms of existence, and fixed its gaze on that which is Being Itself, Pure Being, Pure Existence – God Himself.

Bringing to bear on this object a mind purified by prayer, elevated by contemplation, and synthesising in itself the wisdom of all times and of all men, he discovered and unfolded a knowledge of God and His Attributes such as up to his time had not been discovered, and which shall never be surpassed. Bathed in the light of the knowledge of this Pure Existence, his mind proceeded to the contemplation of all the modes or forms of being that proceeded from the causality of this First Cause of Being. Having as comprehensive a grasp as it can be given to human intelligence to have, of God as First Source of all beings, he found it easy, in the light of the First Principle, to explain and lay bare the principles that underlie the constitution of all created or participated existence. It is this procedure of contemplating all things in the light of God Himself, of considering all outside of God from the point of view of their Creator, that gives to his system its wonderful unity, simplicity and strength. A mind that is forced, step by step, to mount up through the scale of creatures, obliged to explore from below each order of created being in its turn, forced to seek after the final object of the intelligence by fixing its gaze continually on imperfect and often-times distorted images of it in the perversions of created freedom, can scarcely arrive at its term, and even if it does, it is bound to be encumbered with a number of false apprehensions which will necessarily dim its final vision of the Truth.

The Summa Theologica is Saint Thomas’ masterpiece. But it would be a mistake to think that it stands apart from his other writings. What is so remarkable about this great saint is that his mind seems to have reached its maturity at a bound, and to have not known or needed any development. It is, except in insignificant details, the very same doctrine that is found in his earliest work, his Commentaries on the Books of Peter Lombard, and in that final work which has made his name immortal. The Summa Theologica simply casts into a form accommodated to the use of the schools the invariable teaching of the Angelic Doctor. An analysis of its contents may be of interest even to the uninitiated, and will serve to illustrate what has been said above relative to the procedure followed by the mind of Saint Thomas.

His object in this great work, as he himself tell us, is to impart a knowledge of God, and that not only as He is in Himself, but also as the Fount and Origin, as well as the Final End, of all created things, and especially of rational creatures. In other words the subject of the book is Pure Being, and then all created participations of being. Bringing to bear in this subject the light of Faith and the light of Reason, the great doctor lays before us God in Himself, in His Existence, in His Activity, in the mysterious fecundity of His Inner Life which issues in the Processions of the Blessed Trinity. Next comes the consideration of God in the work of His creation. In order there first appears the luminous world of pure spirits, the Angels, then the material world, and finally man, who touches on the confines of both. After having called forth this triple world from nothingness, God is seen in His work of sustaining, governing and directing it by His Divine Providence. Having set forth the nature, powers, and fate of the angels, Saint Thomas next considers man in the exercise of that existence, which will draw him to, or separate him from, his Creator. The moral being of man is subjected to a minute analysis. This involves the consideration of the free acts by which it is evolved or diminished and of the form of grace which supernaturalises it and enables it to tend towards the Beatific Vision as its final end. Man is not merely an individual; he is a member of society; hence his activities have to be analysed in their twofold aspect. These activities are grouped under the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity and the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. It is in this part of the Summa that Saint Thomas shows to greatest advantage his power of penetrating to the constitutive, intelligible elements that lie wrapped in their concrete envelope in every department of reality. It is awe-inspiring to follow that wondrous mind in its ordered and majestic progress over the order of things that arises from the free agency of men. With unerring precision the order which in the designs of the Creator should exist in this universe is abstracted, analysed, laid bare, and finally synthesised into a soul-satisfying unity. The analysis of order postulates the analysis of disorder, for the study of individual and social perfection necessitates an enquiry into the causes destructive of this perfection. Sin, its nature, its effects, and its consequences in the separation of the creature from the Creator must be examined – but always considered in relation to God and in His light. Finally the Creator takes pity on His fallen creature, and, becoming incarnate, traces out the path that man must follow in his endeavour to return to the Beatitude for which he was created. The way of return is by the sacraments and the Church.

This cursory view of Saint Thomas’ great work makes it abundantly clear why he merits the title of Doctor Communis, or Universal Teacher. Since all reality is one form or other of being, he who has fully grasped the principles of being has mastered reality. He under-stands all that is, and is capable of guiding and instructing others as to the way in which any form of reality is to be approached and dealt with. For Saint Thomas reality fell into four great divisions – God, the material world, man, and society. God was the supreme reality, and the other three are participated modes of reality. Looking upon society, not as an aggregation of units, but as an entity, and furnished with the principle of the analogy of being, the great philosopher could see, beneath all the external appearances that corporate life assumes amongst men, the great underlying principle by which that corporate life is constituted in itself. In the light of these first causes one can investigate in detail the various activities in which social life finds its expression. This study reveals the laws to which men must conform in their mutual relations if the fabric of society, which man needs for the evolution of his human life, is not to disintegrate. What always is, determines what should be. Understanding society as a form of being or reality, it is easy to determine what is required in order that it should exist. The mind which has penetrated the inner meaning of reality has, as well, seized the constitutive elements of every form it assumes in the world and the relations in which these different forms stand to one another. In other words, a study of Saint Thomas serves as an infallible guide in solving all the problems that arise from the consideration of man in the political or economic aspect.

Dealing with man as an individual or under the monastic aspect, a twofold consideration presents itself. In the actual order of Divine Providence man enjoys, to a certain extent, a dual nature. He is not merely a rational creature; he is also made by sanctifying grace participant of the Divinity. He possesses that existence which is in its constitution an effect of Pure Existence; and as well he shares in that Being which is, by its constitution, Imparticipated Being – man is that which is being only by analogy, and he enjoys at the same time a participation in that which is Pure Being. Saint Thomas, owing to his profound analysis of the concept of Being, was able to expound with wonderful clearness, and lay bare the radical distinction between the natural and the supernatural – that is, being as it is in us, and being as it is in God. As a consequence he has explained, as no other master has done, the relations that exist between the two and the manner in which their laws can be harmonised. The greatest achievement of this great master of theology was the co-ordination of nature and grace. With unerring precision he has drawn the characters that constitute the final perfection in each order. And finally he has set forth in the minutest detail the conditions that base the elevation of natural perfection to the supernatural – that permit the assumption of the human by the divine. Hence it is that Saint Thomas is not only the Prince of Theologians and Philosophers, he is also the consummate guide in the mystical life. No spirituality that is not based on his principles can be stable or lasting. Whereas that which derives its character and method from his theology will bear the unmistakable likeness of the sanctity of the Saviour, He Who was, in one and the same Person, true God and true Man – divine and human.

In conclusion it may be said without exaggeration that there is no department of human life or action, social or individual, which cannot, by the application of the teaching of the Doctor Communis, be established on the lines that are in accord with the Divine Idea. In his writings, especially in the Summa, will be found the principles, through the operation of which perfection can be secured in personal, family, economic and state life, as well as in art, science and literature. Under his guidance it becomes clear how all these may attain their fullest possible natural development, whilst remaining subordinate to and directed towards the supernatural. The admiration, then, which the Church calls on us to show towards our saint is meant to be no idle one, but eminently practical. It is her desire and intention that we should be filled with eagerness to make the acquaintance of, and assimilate, this wonderful wisdom, which contains in it, if applied to existing conditions, the complete regeneration of society. It is our duty not to rest idle by the side of this vast treasure; we must strive to make it our own and utilise it for the direction of personal and social activity, with the conviction that in this way lies the restoration of universal order for which all are sighing, and towards which the world will continue to grope in vain unless it consents to have its searchings lighted by Him Who bears the title of Sun of Wisdom.

Fr Edward Leen CSSP

With thanks again to the owner of the Bellarmine Forums for permission to republish this text, which he made available.

St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas, Universal Doctor – Fr Edward Leen CSSP
The Holy Wrath of St Thomas Aquinas – G.K. Chesterton
On the Five Qualities of Prayer – St Thomas Aquinas
True Law – According to the Teaching of St Thomas Aquinas
What is Thomism? The Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses

The Fioretti of St Thomas:
Part I: His Life
Part II: His Death
Part III: The Miracles after his Death

SELECTED TEXTS FROM ST THOMAS AQUINAS

Summa Theologica Trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (5 vols.) Ave Maria Press, Hardback (and UK readers) and Paperback (and UK readers). Also online at New Advent and iPieta.

Summa Theologiae, Aquinas Institute (8 vols.) Latin-English, based on the English Fathers’ translation, without the Supplementum parts. (And for UK readers) Supplementum I-68 (and UK readers) Supplementum 69-99 (and UK readers)

St Thomas Aquinas – Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas Institute in 2 vols: Vol. I (Books I-II) and Vol. 2 (Books III-IV) and for UK readers here and here. Budget single-volume from Aeterna Press (and for UK readers) and online at iPieta or Aquinas.cc

Aquinas – Opuscula I, from the Aquinas Institute (UK readers), containing the following:

St Thomas Aquinas – Catena Aurea (and for UK readers). 4 vols, line-by-line commentary on the four Gospels from the Fathers of the Church, assembled by St Thomas Aquinas and translated by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Published by Baronius Press.

Tradivox VI: Aquinas, Pecham, and Pagula (UK readers), including St Thomas Aquinas’s Catechetical Instructions. An arrangement of other Opuscula in catechetical form. (ca. 1260)

St Thomas Aquinas’s scriptural commentaries are being published by the Aquinas Institute in English and Latin. Here are some of the options below – they are online here, and it is possible to buy single volumes of the commentaries below:

Anger – The Doctrine of the Mystical Body According to the Principles of St Thomas Aquinas (and for UK readers). Internet Archive. Draws together several texts for which there is a bit of a lacuna in the Summa itself.

Glenn – A Tour of the Summa. A compressed one-volume account of the Summa. (UK readers)

Pegues – Catechism of the Summa Theologica for the use of the Faithful (and for UK readers)

G.K. Chesterton – St Thomas Aquinas. Classic biography. (UK link)

Foster – The Life of St Thomas Aquinas – Biographical Documents (UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

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[1] This sentence was added by Fr. Leen when revising his text for publication.

2 thoughts on “St Thomas Aquinas, Universal Doctor – Sermon by Fr Edward Leen CSSP, 192313-min read (inc. footnotes)

  1. JKE

    I wonder if it would be possible to format your posts with a print mode option for those of us who wish to minimize staring at screens.

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