St Thomas Aquinas and the Church – His Extrinsic Authority

“A singular force and power to cure the evils which afflict our age.”

St Thomas Aquinas and the Church
Part II: His Extrinsic Authority

See here for Part I: St Thomas and the Church – His Intrinsic Authority

In this essay…

– The nature of extrinsic authority
– The adoption of St Thomas by the Church and her councils
– His position in educational establishments
– His status as the measure of all other authors
– The Church and her doctors
– Later doctors and theological development
– The examples of Ss Alphonsus Liguori and Robert Bellarmine

Image: St Thomas with the four great Latin Doctors, Augustine, Gregory, Ambrose and Jerome; contemplating the Blessed Sacrament carried by a saint. de Bie, Wiki Commons CC.

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Part II

In the previous part I surveyed the papal endorsements given to St Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical and theological synthesis, using Fr Ramirez OP’s 1952 study, The Authority of St Thomas. St Thomas is called “The Common Doctor”, because of the universality, power and safety of his doctrine. But these qualities are intrinsic to the man and his work: in this part, I shall survey the extrinsic authority which he has received from the Church.

This extrinsic authority is seen in the way that St Thomas’s doctrine has been adopted by the Church in her dogmatic definitions. It is also seen in her requirements that educational establishments adopt his synthesis in teaching – an adoption that was always encouraged and sometimes made a matter of law

Extrinsic Authority

Ramirez writes of “extrinsic authority”:

“This authority which may also be called dogmatic corresponds to the conformity of a theological or philosophical doctrine with revelation. It is measured by the approbation and commendation of the Teaching Authority of the Church whose function it is to judge such conformity.”[1]

What is the relationship between the authority of an individual doctor and that of the Church?

The weight of this type of authority is wholly derived from the authority of the Church.”[2] (Ramirez’s emphasis)

Understanding the Church as the source of this extrinsic authority is important. Let us start by considering how St Thomas’s doctrine has been adopted by the Church for her doctrinal decrees.

The Adoption of St Thomas by the Church and her Councils

Pius XI declared that the Church has made his doctrine “her own and has adorned herself with it and has illustrated her immortal doctrine with it”.[3] Nowhere is this clearer than in what the popes have said and done at the ecumenical councils.

Leo XIII tells us that at the Council of Trent, the Summa Theologica lay open on the high altar with the Scriptures and pontifical decrees, so that “from it might be sought counsel and reasons and answers”. Leo XIII calls this “the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors.”[4]

In 1870, Pius IX, noted the importance of St Thomas’s doctrine for Catholic dogma:

“[T]he Church, in the Ecumenical Councils held after his death, so used his writings that many of the decrees propounded found their source in his works and sometimes even the same words were used to clarify Catholic dogmas or to destroy rising errors.”[5]

Leo XIII goes further still:

“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.”[6] (Emphasis added)

St Pius X also taught that “the Church has not held a single Council, but he has been present at it with the wealth of his doctrine”.[7] He warned that if the principles of St Thomas’s philosophy are removed, impaired or doubted,

“[I]t must necessarily follow that students of the sacred sciences will ultimately fail to perceive so much as the meaning of the words in which the dogmas of divine revelation are proposed by the magistracy of the Church”.[8]

Let us see how the popes have acted on this in Canon Law and other exhortations.

Position of St Thomas in Educational Establishments

The 1917 Code of Canon Law gives the following canon:

Canon 1366 § 2.

Professors shall treat studies in rational theology and philosophy and the instruction of students in these disciplines according to the system, teaching, and principles of the Angelic Doctor and hold to them religiously.

The same obligation is imposed on Religious:

Canon 589

§ 1. Religious correctly instructed in lower disciplines shall diligently pursue philosophical studies for at least two years and sacred theology for at least four years, adhering to the teachings of D[om] Thomas according to the norm of Canon 1366, § 2, according to the instructions of the Apostolic See.

But this did not begin in 1917. Since very early (at least his canonisation), the popes have commended his doctrine in this way, with growing force and frequency – until we eventually see the above “universal” legislation in the Code.

In 1346, Clement VI expressly forbade the Dominican order “even to dare to withdraw from the doctrine of St Thomas.”[9]

Innocent VI (d. 1362) stated that “anyone who has attacked [the doctrine of St Thomas] has always been suspected as to the truth.”[10]

In 1368 Bl Urban V praised the saint and ordered the new University of Toulouse to follow St Thomas.[11]

Later on, when establishing the Theological College of St Denis in 1756, Benedict XIV forbade the professors there to teach any doctrine other than that of St Thomas.[12]

Leo XIII said that trying to base Catholic education on “the changeable basis” of other authorities nourishes “dissension and disagreement [and] great harm to Christian knowledge”.[13]

The revival of Thomism is normally attributed to Leo XIII, but St Pius X did much to establish his place in Catholic education. He ordered the Professors of the Theological Faculty of Fribourg to “deal only with the sources of Sacred Doctrine and well-based Philosophy from the rich vein of the Angelic Doctor”.[14]

In 1914 he demanded that study of Theology in universities, colleges, seminaries and all other such institutions revive “the old system of lecturing on the actual text of the Summa Theologica – which should never have been allowed to fall into disuse”.[15] St Pius X wrote that those professors who were teaching on the basis of their own “authority and judgement”, had “therefore a changeable foundation,” which led to contradictory opinions causing “great injury to Christian learning”.[16] This is because, as we saw, the expressions used at the Church’s councils have depended on St Thomas’s principles:

“If such principles are once removed or in any way impaired, it must necessarily follow that students of the sacred sciences will ultimately fail to perceive so much as the meaning of the words in which the dogmas of divine revelation are proposed by the magistracy of the Church.”[17]

St Pius X said that taking the Summa as the main teaching source and inculcating a “deep affection” for it in their students was the only way that Theology would:

“be restored to its pristine dignity, and the proper order and value will be restored to all sacred studies, and the province of the intellect and reason flower again in a second spring”.[18]

He also wrote to the College of St Anselm in Rome: “We desire and command that the Professors of the College of St Anselm always follow the doctrine of Aquinas in philosophy and theology, and use the text itself in their lectures”.[19]

Benedict XV continued this sentiment, praising the Theological College of Bologna for their respect for St Thomas.[20] We have already seen the canons in the 1917 Code of Canon Law for which he was responsible. He also wished that that Aquinas be “conscientiously regarded as leader and master by students for the Church.”[21]

Pius XI later spoke of the canons mentioned, calling them “providentially determined” and declaring that it should be “religiously and inviolately observed”.[22]

Pius XII commended this “greatest genius of the Middle Ages”[23] as the patron of students of Catholic schools, claiming that Thomistic doctrine possessed “an innate excellence… and a singular force and power to cure the evils which afflict our age”.[24] He condemned it as “deplorable”, that a philosophy thus “received and honored by the Church, is scorned by some, who shamelessly call it outmoded in form and rationalistic.”[25]

The papal commendation of St Thomas extended even to the laity. Benedict XV praised Fr Pegues for his Catechism based on the Summa, declaring that “the singular wisdom” of St Thomas “was suitable to be offered directly not only to the clergy but to all who wish to extend their study of religion, and to the people generally as well”.[26] Ramirez writes:

“Using this occasion the Pontiff declared that Thomas is the Master and Doctor of the whole Church, i.e., of all the faithful, clergy, laity, the wise and the unlearned, and of all time.”[27]

Pius XI praised the bishops of Emilia for introducing St Thomas to the laity in their courses in St Thomas’s teaching.[28] He said the provisions of canon law previously discussed “unreservedly sanctioned” St Thomas’s method, doctrine and principles. Ramirez compares this idea to the canonisation of a saint.[29]

The measure of all other writers

One consequence of this “canonisation” is that by the twentieth century, St Thomas had come be treated as the measure of all other writers. In 1892, Leo XIII said to the Jesuits:

“[I]f any of those authors [of the Society of Jesus] whom we have praised, disagree with the doctrine of the Common Doctor, there should be no doubt as to which is the right path to follow, namely, the path of Aquinas.”[30]

Pope St Pius X declares the unique position of St Thomas as the measure of all other writers and theologians:

“If the doctrine of any author or saint has ever been approved at any time by us or our predecessors […] it may easily be understood that it was commended to the extent that it agreed with the principles of Aquinas or was in no way opposed to them.[31] (Emphasis added)

We need not understand this striking statement to exclude development and further building on the foundations laid by St Thomas, as we shall see shortly. What is excluded is anything that contradicts those foundations. Pope St Pius X explains further what he means:

“[T]he capital theses in the philosophy of St. Thomas are not to be placed in the category of opinions capable of being debated one way or another, but are to be considered as the foundations upon which the whole science of natural and divine things is based.

A summary of the “capital theses” of his philosophy can be found in the “24 Thomistic Theses” approved by St Pius X in 1914.

Ramirez summarises St Thomas’s unique position, citing Pius XII:

“St Thomas’ authority in both philosophy and theology is entirely unique. Among all the doctors of scholastic philosophy the palm is reserved for St Thomas, and he holds a principal position.”[32]

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The Church and her Doctors

We have already seen that the popes hold St Thomas up as the safest and surest guide in theology and philosophy, and that this logically means that no other scholastic doctor can be considered as equal to him in authority or safety. Where else does this leave other doctors and authorities?

The answer lies in understanding the relationship between these doctors and the Church. We saw earlier that Ramirez observes:

The weight of this type of authority [of a Doctor] is wholly derived from the authority of the Church.”[33] (Ramirez’s emphasis)

He then quotes St Thomas himself – although I shall give a longer text from a different translation:

“The custom of the Church has very great authority and ought to be jealously observed in all things, since the very doctrine of catholic doctors derives its authority from the Church. Hence we ought to abide by the authority of the Church rather than by that of an Augustine or a Jerome or of any doctor whatever.”[34]

What does this mean for SS Augustine and Jerome, and for St Thomas himself? And given what the Church has said of St Thomas, what does it mean for later doctors such as St Robert Bellarmine, or approved theologians like Cardinals Franzelin and Billot? Ramirez says:

“When the authority of the Church consistently and over a long period approves and commends the doctrine of anyone for all the faithful, it makes that doctrine its own, and invests it with its own authority.”[35]

In such a case, the Church is clearly not creating the truth of such a body of doctrine, but rather recognises it and is “authoritatively proposing it to be followed and imitated.”[36] Ramirez gives an interesting comparison, relevant to another modern controversy:

“The manner of such approbation is similar to that by which the canonization of one of the faithful by the Church does not create but supposes the sanctity of the person. The Church merely recognizes that sanctity, and authoritatively proposes it for veneration and imitation.”[37]

Later doctors and theological development

Some act as if St Thomas represents the end of theology. They act as if he addressed every important question that could be asked, and that any question not directly considered by him is somehow unimportant or unsettled.

Ramirez writes:

“Thomas is not proposed for imitation in such a way that his followers and disciples may sleep and take their rest or be sluggish, but, imitating his work and industry, they should intensely apply all their energy in learning and expanding the truth. As Thomas himself says: ‘A man should employ every force within him as intensely as possible to strive towards divine things, that his intellect may be free for contemplation and his reason for the investigation of reality.’ And again: ‘the human mind should always be moved more and more intensely to know God according to its measure,’ i. e. as far as it possibly can.”[38]

How do we reconcile the supreme authority of St Thomas in philosophy and theology with this? Leo XIII tells us that our duty to follow St Thomas (and, in later legislation, for all seminarians and religious to be formed in his doctrine) does not exclude the possibility of developing and extending his ideas, or of investigating further distinctions and nuances within his body of doctrine:

“[T]he best method of philosophy is that which by thought finds new truths, and does not at the same time neglect the wisdom of the ancients: and We declare that everything wisely said should be received with willing and glad mind, as well as everything by whomsoever profitably discovered and thought out.” [39]

St Thomas may represent the pinnacle of theology, but the reality is that the Church has continued to approve and commend other Doctors has continued throughout history. It is the Church who bestows her authority on St Thomas, and it is not as if her authority was exhausted in this action. Similarly, certain new questions have arisen since St Thomas’s day which have required further clarification – and the Church has made some of those clarifications her own just as surely as she has made St Thomas the Common Doctor. These things are not mutually exclusive. In The Concept of Sacred Theology, Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton explains the purpose of declaring a man a “Doctor of the Church”:

“Not only does the Church declare that there is no serious error in any of his work, but by the very fact that he is constituted as a Doctor, she commends that portion of his writing on which he may be said to have specialized and because of which he is entered upon the list of Doctors.”[40]

The most famous example of this is, of course, St Alphonsus who is “the” doctor of moral theology. Fenton writes:

“In the field of moral theology the Church has given special approval to the writings of St Alphonsus Liguori. This unique approbation has been stated in a negative manner, by the declaration that the Church has never found anything worthy of censure in his writings.”[41]

St Robert Bellarmine

In a similar sense – although to a lesser degree – this applies to St Robert Bellarmine, who could be said to be “the” doctor of controversy and by extension, ecclesiology. Although he by no means invented his own theory of ecclesiology – which is very evident even in early catechisms and before – it was his systematisation that was adopted by the Church at Vatican I, in encyclicals such as Satis Cognitum, Mystici Corporis Christi and elsewhere, and by the general body of theologians.

We have already seen the place accorded to St Thomas at the Church’s Councils; how the Summa Theologica lay open on the altar at the Council of Trent; and how Leo XIII and St Pius X talked as if he was present or presided at all the councils since his death. In a like manner, Bellarmine’s biographer Fr James Brodrick SJ writes:

“At Trent, the Bible and St. Thomas ruled the debates; at the Vatican [I], the Bible, St Thomas and Bellarmine.”[42] 

Nor is this just the opinion of the saint’s biographer. Pope Pius XI, when proclaiming St Robert Bellarmine a Doctor of the Church, wrote:

“He appeared even up to our times as a defender of the Roman Pontiff of such authority that the Fathers of the [First] Vatican Council employed his writings and opinions to the greatest possible extent.”[43]

Even the excommunicated Döllinger, the great nineteenth century enemy of the papacy, recognised this, condemning Vatican I for “doing nothing but defining the private opinions of a single man—Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.”[44]

Fr John Hardon SJ, one-time writer at the American Ecclesiastical Review before the Council, said that Döllinger’s idea was “false but suggestive”, and observed:

“Most of the Council’s business had to deal with the origin and nature of the one true Church. Moreover, Bellarmine’s ecclesiology was the main source from which the Fathers of the Council drew their decrees and definitions.”[45]

From this he concludes:

“We should not overlook what St. Robert Bellarmine has to say about a subject [ecclesiology and the Mystical Body of Christ] in which the Church herself considers him the outstanding authority.”[46]

As an example of this, Hardon writes:

“Pope Pius XII, in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis, confirms this authority when he quotes St. Robert to support his explanation of why the social Body of the Church should be honored with the name of Christ.”[47] 

The difference in value between Bellarmine and others on these subjects is very great, and we do not do well to neglect his contribution to ecclesiology – especially during this especially ecclesiological crisis. This is seen all the more clearly when those diverging from St Robert’s conclusions on ecclesiology try to claim him as their authority.

The point of interest for this article, however, is that the pre-eminence of St Thomas does not exclude other doctors clarifying and deepening certain branches of theology – such as that branch which deals with the nature and constitution of the Church.


Even with those caveats, St Thomas Aquinas holds an absolutely unique place in the Church. The gravity of the issue and the consistency of the praise for St Thomas cannot be written off as exaggerations.

The popes teach that his doctrine and principles are free from error and grant complete safety and security to the Faith. They claim that they are nothing more than the synthesis and ordering of the wisdom of Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, and natural reason – in other words, the Christian revelation, authentic tradition and true philosophy.

In his measures against the modernists, St Pius X’strictly ordains’ the teaching of Thomistic philosophy as the basis of theology, reminding professors that setting aside St Thomas, especially in metaphysics, leads to “grave detriment”[48] and seems to be “aiming at parting company with the Church.”[49]  

The Ecumenical Councils since his death (excepting, of course, Vatican II) have followed his method and doctrine, and the Popes have claimed that Thomas himself presided at them. Their decrees and definitions have been expressed in his terms, and are liable to be misunderstood when one attempts “to move beyond” the Common Doctor.

The popes have imposed his doctrine on universities and seminaries, in speeches, letters, encyclicals and canon law.

He is the measure of all authorities, and St Pius X declares that it should be clear that commendations of any other saint or theologian only apply in so far as they do not contradict St Thomas. It is illegitimate to attempt to “move beyond Thomas” by contradicting (for example) the 24 Thomistic Theses.

Ramirez summarises all this as demonstrating:

“[T]he Church concedes the highest theological authority to Thomas alone over the other ecclesiastical writers of all times… his canonical authority… is truly the greatest over each and every one of the Fathers and Doctors.”[50]

He quotes Salaverri: “in Theology… the authority of St Thomas is entirely matchless and greater than that of any other Doctor or Theologian in the Catholic Church”.[51]

There are some who reject St Thomas and his synthesis as cold or rationalist. This attitude is a failure to think with the mind of the Church, consistently expressed by the authorities cited. As we have seen, St Pius X said, departing from St Thomas is the beginning of a departure from the Church and from Christian truth.

But aside from this, to regret such clarity is to desire ambiguity. This is utterly perverse, as the mind was made for knowledge, and the apprehension of reality. As St Thomas himself writes: “The greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth.”[52]

St Thomas Aquinas: Pray for us!

Selected texts on St Thomas Aquinas (click to expand)

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 – 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.

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

St Thomas Aquinas and the Church – His Intrinsic Authority
St Thomas Aquinas and the Church – His Extrinsic Authority

The “Angelic Warfare Confraternity” of the Cord of St Thomas – Translation of an 1863 pamphlet
“The Angelic Warfare Confraternity” – Robinson OP, 1941

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


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For the full references, see the footnotes of the first part.

[1] Ramirez 20-21

[2] Ramirez 21

[3] Pius XI, Allocution to Roman Academy, 1923, in Ramirez 39

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pius IX, Letter to Fr Raymond Bianchi, 1870, in Ramirez 26.

[6] Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, 1879, n. 22

[7] St Pius X, Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici, 1914, available at

[8] Ibid.

[9] Clement VI, At the Dominican General Chapter, 1346, in Ramirez 22.

[10] Innocent VI, Sermo de S. Thoma, Quoted in Leo XIII Aeterni Patris.

[11] Bl Urban V Copiosus, 1368, in Ramirez 22-3. See also: “We wish, and the purpose of the present letter is, to enjoin upon you that you follow the doctrine of the Blessed Thomas as the true and Catholic doctrine, and endeavor to spread it with all your power.” Bl. Urban V, Bull Laudabilis Deus, 1368, in Ramirez 24.

[12] Benedict XIV Bull Pretiosus, 76, in Ramirez, 25.

[13] Leo XIII, Letter, 1886, in Ramirez 27.

[14] St Pius X, Letter to Fr Pegues, 1907, in Ramirez 30

[15] St Pius X, Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici, 1914, available at

[16] Ibid., quoting Leo XIII Qui te 1886.

[17] St Pius X, Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici, 1914, available at

[18] Ibid.

[19] St Pius X, Motu proprio Praeclara, in Ramirez 33.

[20] Ramirez 34.

[21] Benedict XV, Fausto appetente, 1921, and Letter 1918, in Ramirez 33

[22] Pius XI, Officiorum Omnium 1922, in Ramirez 37.

[23] Pius XII, Allocution to the Congress on Humanistic Studies, Rome, 1949, in Ramirez 44.

[24] Pius XII, Letter to Fr Gillet, 1942, in Ramirez 43

[25] Pius XII, Humani Generis, 1950 n. 32

[26] Benedict XV, Letter 1919, in Ramirez 35.

[27] Ramirez 35

[28] Pius XI, Letter, 1925 in Ramirez 38

[29] Ramirez 21.

[30] Leo XIII, Brief Gravissime nos, 248 – quoted in Ramirez 86

[31] St Pius X, Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici, 1914, available at

[32] Pius XII, Allocution to the Dominican General Chapter, 1946, and the Allocution to the Third Thomistic Congress, 1950, in Ramirez 87.

[33] Ramirez 21

[34] ST II-II, q 10. a. 12

[35] Ramirez 21

[36] Ramirez 21

[37] Ibid.

[38] St Thomas Aquinas, In Boethii de Trinitate, q.2 a. 1c, in Ramirez 97.

[39] Leo XIII, Letter to L. Vives, 1889, and Aeterni Patris, in Ramirez 97.

[40] Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, published as What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. (UK readers) p 155

[41] Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, published as What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. (UK readers) p 157

[42] Fr. James Broderick SJ, St. Robert Bellarmine, Longmans, London, 1950, Vol. I, p.188.

[43] Pius XI, Providentissimus Deus, 1931, AAS 23 (1931) 433-438. Translated by “a Catholic layman” for The Bellarmine Forums.

[44] Quoted in Fr John A. Hardon SJ, ‘Communion of Saints: St. Robert Bellarmine on the Mystical Body of Christ’, in Catholic Faith, November/December 2000. Available at:

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] “Let Professors remember that they cannot set St. Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment.” St Pius X, Pascendi 1907, 45,

[49] St Pius X, Letter to Fr Pegues, 1907, in Ramirez 83.

[50] Ramirez 46.

[51] Ibid.

[52] St Thomas, Summa Theologica Ia IIae, Q38 A4.

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