Looking over the websites of Newman Guide-approved Catholic liberal arts colleges that a younger friend of mine was weighing going to a few years back, I noticed a pattern. While this pattern was stronger at some colleges than at others, a wildly disproportionate number of faculty at most of them, especially in Great Books courses, “specialized in Aristotle and Aquinas” or presented themselves in their faculty bios as having expertise in Aristotelianism, Thomism, or both. There is of course nothing fundamentally wrong with this; Aristotle and Aquinas are two of the most important philosophers in history and both have been extremely influential on Catholic thought.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Aquinas in particular was held up as having a special acumen and authority in papal documents like Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) and St. Pius X’s motu proprio Doctoris Angelici (1914). The period from roughly 1880 to 1940 was something of a golden age of Neo-Scholastic and Neo-Thomist theology. During this era, there were few, if any, approved ways of philosophically situating Catholic belief, especially on moral issues, without referring back to St. Thomas’s ideas and methodologies.
It’s understandable, therefore, that faculty members of conservative Catholic universities, many of whom idealize this stage in Catholic history in general, would be interested in recuperating that. However, the constant drumbeat of specialization in Aristotle, St. Thomas, or both, with occasional guest appearances from St. Augustine or St. Jerome, feels less like preeminence and more like conformity.
In some circles this goes beyond a hyperemphasis on Aquinas himself into an attempt to return with a vengeance to the era of Neo-Scholasticism in particular. See this glowing profile of Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, whose perspective on St. Thomas is described by Bishop Robert Barron–himself an Aquinas fan– as “strict, rationalistic, somewhat ahistorical, very deductive, and somewhat defensive.” This is in spite of the fact that even before Vatican II other leading Neo-Thomists like Cornelio Fabro were saying that the project of demonstrating Aquinas’s continued importance was nearing completion and the time had come to shift into a more historical and contextualized Thomism–exactly the Thomism of conciliar figures like John Paul II! (La nozione Metafisica di Participazione secondo San Tommaso d’Aquino, 1949, p. 5.)
Not only does Aquinas come in for feting as a uniquely correct or authoritative theologian, he is something of a Catholic cultural icon even in contexts that have nothing to do with academic theology, Eucharistic piety, or anything else for which he is widely known. I’ve heard people suggest him as an intercessor for needs ranging from minor health complaints to family members in danger of losing their faith, as if he were a medieval-Marian-piety-esque jack-of-all-trades. Even in the heyday of pre-Vatican II Neo-Scholasticism he did not have a cultus of this kind; those were the days in which church after church, at least in the United States, saw a statue of St. Anthony and a statue of St. Thérèse installed on either side of the sanctuary. A popular cultus of Aquinas is in itself welcome because it indicates a more erudite Catholic laity, but looked at in combination with the trend towards attempting to rehabilitate the “Aquinas knows best” current in Catholic philosophy, it begins to look like an awful lot is being placed on the Dumb Ox’s admittedly broad and sturdy shoulders.
Why is this? A simple answer, as I alluded to above, is that there was a time when St. Thomas’s positions and reasoning style were seen as not only examples but exemplars of sound theology, and sound theology is a major issue in the Church, especially in the corners of the Church that think that the current magisterial authorities lack it. There is a disproportionate overlap between Catholics whose experience of the faith emphasizes formal theology, those who take conservative or traditionalist views on what that theology ought to express and how it ought to express it, and those whose formation in the faith was heavily influenced by practices developed in Neo-Scholasticism’s period of dominance. All three categories also overlap disproportionately, perhaps especially among laypeople, with Catholics who are interested in serving the Church as educators or in various media apostolates.
All of this, combined with the fact that Leo XIII and Pius X really did speak extremely highly of Aquinas in terms of his quality of thought and reliability as a theological and philosophical authority, produce an intellectual environment in which St. Thomas has a stature almost like that of Karl Marx in pre-1950s leftist political thought: if he speaks directly to something, he’s right about it unless proven beyond all reasonable doubt otherwise, and if he doesn’t speak directly to something, figuring out what he might have or would have thought about it is a surefire way to arrive at a sound position. Of course, eventually even diehard communists mostly came to acknowledge that Marxism was not actually a complete worldview in and of itself that could be applied to every imaginable scholarly question, and I expect that eventually even diehard Catholic traditionalists will acknowledge this about Thomism. Certainly the fact that there is at least one dogmatically defined subject (discussed below) on which Aquinas was wrong means that it’s already impossible to elevate him quite as much as Marx used to be elevated on the far left.
So what’s the problem? Simply put, the problem is that even if Thomas Aquinas is generally a reliable key to Catholic theology and attendant areas of philosophy, and even if the sense that he’s more than that, some sort of para-magisterial authority in his own right, is probably a passing phase in Catholic thought, he still should not be overemphasized at the expense of other thinkers who might illuminate certain issues better. St. Bonaventure’s contemplations on the “book of Scripture and the book of Nature” and the relationship between Time and Eternity might, for instance, better situate environmental theology than anything in Aquinas. I have also seen those particular concepts applied to the rationales underlying the sacrament of marriage. Non-Scholastic anonymous mystical texts like The Cloud of Unknowing and Revelations of Divine Love, many of which are written in late medieval vernacular English, might provide keys to ecumenical contact with Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and even Judaism and Islam, as might much of St. Teresa of Ávila’s body of work.
Let us accept for the sake of argument the idea that Aeterni Patris and Doctoris Angelici have a high degree of authority themselves, so that we have to take it as a principle of belief that Thomism is a foundational philosophy without which Catholic doctrine simply cannot be adequately understood. This still does not justify overemphasis on Aquinas and Thomism to the point of completely neglecting other currents in Catholic philosophy.
Some analogies from other areas of scholarly inquiry might help demonstrate why. Darwin is foundational to modern biology and without his work the field cannot be adequately understood; the same is true of Mendel, and, in physics, of Einstein. Yet there are biologists who don’t specialize in natural selection or genetics, and physicists who don’t specialize in special or general relativity. Indeed, there are historians and philosophers who look at the historical development of biology or physics and focus mostly or entirely on events before Darwin’s, Mendel’s, or Einstein’s lifetimes!
In the humanities, it’s impossible to understand current practices in translating East Asian literature into English without some familiarity with the life and times of Arthur Waley, yet there are plenty of non-Waley-experts who translate from Chinese or Japanese or Korean; I am one myself. The core principles of modern art make no sense unless you know a bit about Picasso, but plenty of modern artists and critics of modern art hate Picasso. In almost no other field of knowledge is a single figure as unimpeachable about next to everything or as held up as deserving a completely unique degree of attention as is Aquinas in the conservative understanding of Catholic philosophy.
What makes this especially frustrating is that there are theological issues on which Aquinas was simply wrong, and his Franciscan interlocutors simply right. The Immaculate Conception is the most famous example; Aquinas and, following him, the Dominican Order opposed the idea, whereas the Franciscans, known for their devotion to the Seven Joys of Mary, advanced it. This was a legitimate subject of theological debate at the time and Aquinas’s arguments just happen not to have carried the day, so it isn’t something over which he can be accused of heterodoxy, but that example is more than enough to refute the idea that we must defer to him on literally every subject on which he holds forth.
Sexual morality is another example; the atheist polymath Bertrand Russell points out in his History of Philosophy that Aquinas argues for the indissolubility of marriage on grounds that nobody believes anymore (that “the father is useful in the education of the children, (a) because he is more rational than the mother, (b) because, being stronger, he is better able to inflict physical punishment” (p. 462)). Aquinas’s argument here is actively repellent to our values today, yet this doesn’t mean that teaching on lifelong monogamy can’t be adequately supported. Russell and J.R.R. Tolkien (Letters #43) both make clear that the actual reason to believe in this principle is because it’s taught as divine revelation (Tolkien accepts this divine revelation; Russell does not), and so Aquinas is reasoning backward and coming up with rationales that don’t actually have to be followed to support his “conclusion” (really a premise that he wants to find an axiom for).
Yet even this isn’t a criticism that today’s Neo-Neo-Thomists concede, at least not readily. Carl Anderson’s commencement address at Thomas Aquinas College, delivered barely a week ago, includes a claim that secular philosophy descending from the Enlightenment philosophes simply ignores Aquinas. Anderson contrasts the thought of Aquinas with “wokism” — a concept he associates with modern philosophies. He asserts that “Being newly ‘woke’ means feeling no need to climb the heights of Christian philosophy with St. Thomas Aquinas since that philosophy has meaning only within the false consciousness of the Christian.” Anderson’s message implicitly suggests that secular philosophers fear that if they acknowledged Aquinas, they would have to admit how obviously right he is about everything. However, even if we restrict ourselves to the question of the basic rationality of Christian belief, Russell is one example of a philosopher who is obviously aware of his arguments on this point, and just as obviously is unconvinced of them.
I don’t mean to suggest that Catholics should reject Aquinas’s quality as a philosopher just because Bertrand Russell—an irreligious philosopher who cannot accept reasoning back from divine revelation as an acceptable practice because he does not believe in divine revelation—rejects it. Rather, I use Russell as an example of the ways in which Aquinas’s thought is not necessarily a “magic bullet,” even on issues where he was not actually wrong.
Aquinas doesn’t always provide the best imaginable argument for a position; his methodology doesn’t always follow the shortest and most unimpeachable possible route from point A to point B. Even aside from what’s divinely revealed, Aquinas might have argued, perhaps, for the indissolubility of marriage based on the fact that in the marriage vows one promises “till death.” According to this line of thinking, if the vow is valid it should be taken at its word, because promises are meant to be kept. I don’t think even Bertrand Russell could have dismissed that as invalid on its own terms.
We should also note that the Eastern Orthodox have a fully developed theology of the Eucharist that doesn’t rely on Thomistic or Aristotelian-Thomistic concepts like the substance/accidents language. Thomas’s grounding in natural law limits his ability to take straightforward “relational” stances on certain moral subjects. This is despite the fact that, again, he pays less attention to the “book of Nature” than Bonaventure and other Franciscan scholastics do.
Leo XII and Pius X were entirely right that Thomism provides a good philosophical grounding for Catholicism, and that if you don’t have any understanding of Thomas Aquinas or his philosophy then the philosophical underpinnings for modern Catholic dogmatics really don’t make much sense. Even so, it is overstating the case to present Thomism as—similar to how Marxism was once thought of by many—a complete and self-sufficient system of thought that has something both full and correct to say about any possible question (if only the system could be applied properly).
Nothing except the deposit of faith itself can serve all those purposes, and even the deposit of faith is liable to development. Even still, the deposit of faith does not automatically and immediately tell us what to do about or how to think about every new issue that arises as the world spins on. On top of everything else, Thomas Aquinas was known for his humility, and he himself would likely not want to be thought of as so uniquely authoritative. He has his own authorities—Aristotle, of course, and Augustine, and the Jewish theologian Maimonides, whom he refers to simply as “the Rabbi”—and, after a mystical experience, is supposed to have said that all he had written “appeared to be of little value” compared to direct experience of God’s Being.
Regarding St. Thomas Aquinas, it is precisely his humility that allowed him such inside into divine realities and the depths of the Catholic religion. He never tried to serve his own agenda before God’s, even if occasionally he did so anyway out of human imperfection. His modern followers should always keep in mind this example that he sets.
Image: St. Thomas on an altarpiece by the Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.