08 June 2010

Benedict XVI on Thomas Aquinas (and Aristotle)

Last Wednesday the Bishop of Rome turned his attention to the person of Saint Thomas Aquinas during his Audience Address, the text of which follows, via Zenit, with my emphases:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

After a few catecheses on the priesthood and my latest trips, we return today to our principal theme, namely, to the meditation on some of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages. We saw recently the great figure of St. Bonaventure, Franciscan, and today I would like to speak of him whom the Church calls the Doctor Communis, namely St. Thomas Aquinas.

In his encyclical "Fides et Ratio," my venerated predecessor, Pope John Paul II recalled that "the Church has been justified in consistently proposing St. Thomas a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology" (No. 43). It is not surprising that, after St. Augustine, among the writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas is quoted more than any other -- some 61 times! He was also called the Doctor Angelicus, perhaps because of his virtues, in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life.

Thomas was born between 1224 and 1225 in the castle that his family, noble and wealthy, owned in Roccasecca, on the outskirts of Aquino and near the famous abbey of Montecassino where he was sent by his parents to receive the first elements of his instruction. A year or so later he transferred to Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily, where Frederick II had founded a prestigious university. There he was taught, without the limitations in force elsewhere, the thought of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, to whom the young Thomas was introduced, and whose great value he intuited immediately.

But above all, during those years spent in Naples, his Dominican vocation was born. In fact, Thomas was attracted by the ideal of the order founded not many years earlier by St. Dominic. However, when he was clothed in the Dominican habit, his family opposed this choice, and he was obliged to leave the convent and spend some time with the family.

In 1245, now older, he was able to take up again his path of response to God's call. He was sent to Paris to study theology under the guidance of another saint, Albert the Great, about whom I spoke recently. Albert and Thomas forged a true and profound friendship and they learned to esteem and wish one another well, to the point that Albert wanted his disciple to follow him also to Cologne, where he had been invited by the superiors of the order to found a theological study. Thomas now made contact with all of Aristotle's works and with his Arab commentators, which Albert illustrated and explained.

In that period, the culture of the Latin world was profoundly stimulated by the encounter with Aristotle's works, which had been ignored for a long time. They were writings on the nature of knowledge, on the natural sciences, on metaphysics, on the soul and on ethics, rich in information and intuition that seemed valid and convincing. It was a whole complete vision of the world developed without and before Christ, with pure reason, and it seemed to impose itself on reason as "the" vision itself; hence, it was an incredible fascination for young people to see and know this philosophy. Many received with enthusiasm, and some with acritical enthusiasm, this enormous baggage of ancient learning, which seemed to be able to renew the culture advantageously, to open totally new horizons. Others, however, feared that Aristotle's pagan thought was in opposition to the Christian faith, and they refused to study him. Two cultures met: the pre-Christian culture of Aristotle, with his radical rationality, and the classic Christian culture.

Certain environments were led to refuse Aristotle, as well as the presentation that was made of this philosopher by the Arab commentators Avicenna and Averroes. In fact, they were the ones who transmitted Aristotelian philosophy to the Latin world. For example, these commentators had taught that men do not have a personal intelligence, but that there is only one universal intellect, a common spiritual substance for all, which operates in all as "the only one," hence, a de-personalization of man. Another disputed point made by the Arab commentators was that the world is eternal like God. Understandably, endless disputes were unleashed in the university and ecclesiastical realms. Aristotelian philosophy was being spread, even among simple people.

Thomas Aquinas, in the school of Albert the Great, carried out an operation of fundamental importance for the history of philosophy and theology, I would say for the history of culture: He studied Aristotle and his interpreters in depth, obtaining new Latin translations of the original texts in Greek. Thus, he no longer relied only on the Arab commentators, but could read the original texts personally, and he commented on a great part of the Aristotelian works, distinguishing what was valid from what was doubtful or to be refuted all together, showing the consonance with events of Christian revelation and using Aristotelian thought at length and acutely in the exposition of the theological writings he composed. In short, Thomas Aquinas showed there is a natural harmony between Christian faith and reason. And this was the great work of Thomas, who in that moment of encounter between two cultures -- that moment in which it seemed that faith should surrender before reason -- showed that they go together, that what seemed to be reason incompatible with faith was not reason, and what seemed to be faith was not faith, in so far as it was opposed to true rationality; thus he created a new synthesis, which shaped the culture of the following centuries.

Because of his excellent intellectual gifts, Thomas was recalled to Paris as professor of theology in the Dominican chair. Here he also began his literary production, which he continued until his death, and which is something prodigious: commentaries on sacred Scripture, because the professor of theology was above all interpreter of Scripture, commentaries on Aristotle's writings, powerful systematic works, among which excels the Summa Theologiae, treatises and discourses on several arguments. For the composition of his writings, he was helped by some secretaries, among whom was Brother Reginald of Piperno, who followed him faithfully and to whom he was tied by a fraternal and sincere friendship, characterized by great confidence and trust. This is a characteristic of saints -- they cultivate friendship, because it is one of the most noble manifestations of the human heart and has in itself something of the divine. Thomas himself explained this in the Summa Theologiae, in which he wrote: "Charity is man's friendship with God primarily, and with the beings that belong to him" (II, q. 23, a.1).

He did not stay a long and stable time in Paris. In 1259, he participated in the General Chapter of the Dominicans at Valenciennes where he was member of a commission that established the program of studies for the order. Then, from 1261 to 1265 Thomas was in Orvieto. Pope Urban IV, who greatly esteemed him, commissioned him to compose the liturgical texts for the feast of Corpus Domini, which we celebrate tomorrow, instituted after the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena. Thomas had an exquisitely Eucharistic soul. The very beautiful hymns that the liturgy of the Church sings to celebrate the mystery of the real presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist are attributed to his faith and his theological wisdom. From 1265 until 1268, Thomas resided in Rome, where, probably, he directed a Studium, namely a House of Study of the Order, and where he began to write his Summa Theologiae (cf. Jean Pierre Torrell, "Tommaso d'Aquino. L'uomo e il teologo" [Thomas Aquinas: The Man and the Theologian], Casale Monf., 1994, pp. 118-184).

In 1269 he was recalled to Paris for a second cycle of teaching. The students -- understandably -- were enthusiastic about his lessons. A former student of his said that a great multitude of students followed Thomas' courses, so much so that the classrooms barely succeeded in containing them. He added, with a personal annotation, that "to listen to [Aquinas] was for him a profound happiness." The interpretation of Aristotle given by Thomas was not accepted by everyone, but even his adversaries in the academic field, such as Goffredo di Fontaines, for example, admitted that the doctrine of Brother Thomas was superior to that of others for usefulness and value, and that it served as a corrective to those of all the other doctors. Perhaps to extricate him from the lively discussions under way, his superiors sent him once again to Naples, to be at the disposition of King Charles I, who intended to reorganize university studies.

In addition to studying and teaching, Thomas was also dedicated to preaching to the people. And the people willingly went to hear him. I would say that it is truly a great grace when theologians are able to speak with simplicity and fervor to the faithful. The ministry of preaching, moreover, helps the scholars of theology themselves to a healthy pastoral realism, and enriches their research by lively stimulation.

The last months of Thomas' earthly life remained surrounded by a particular atmosphere -- I would say a mysterious atmosphere. In December 1273, he called his friend and secretary Reginald to communicate to him the decision to interrupt all work because, during the celebration of Mass, he had understood, following a supernatural revelation, that all he had written up to then was only "a heap of straw." It is a mysterious episode, which helps us to understand not only Thomas' personal humility, but also the fact that all that we succeed in thinking and saying about the faith, no matter how lofty and pure, is infinitely exceeded by the grandeur and beauty of God, which will be revealed to us fully in Paradise. A few months later, always more absorbed in a thoughtful meditation, Thomas died while traveling to Lyon, where he was going to take part in the ecumenical council called by Pope Gregory X. He died in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, after having received the Viaticum with sentiments of great piety.

The life and teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas could be summarized in an episode handed down by the ancient biographers. While the saint, as was his custom, was praying in the morning before the crucifix in the Chapel of St. Nicholas in Naples, the sacristan of the church, Domenico da Caserta, heard a dialogue unfolding. Thomas was asking, worried, if what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was right. And the Crucifix responded: "You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What will be your recompense?" And the answer that Thomas gave is that which all of us, friends and disciples of Christ, would always wants to give: "Nothing other than You, Lord!" (Ibid., 320).

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