Dominican, scholar, Doctor of the Church
Patronage: academics; Catholic schools, colleges and universities; chastity; pencil makers; students
Also known as: Doctor Angelicus; Doctor Communas
Thomas Aquinas is called Doctor Angelicus and Doctor Communas for his great teachings. The 1917 Code of Canon Law lists only Thomas Aquinas as required for the training of priests, “according to his method, doctrine and principles,” and the 1983 Code states that Thomas is to be taken “in particular as their teacher.” Catholic children are taught to invoke St. Thomas at the beginning of study. At a phenomenal rate, Thomas synthesized in the light of sacra doctrina (God’s truths revealed in Scripture): Plato, Aristotle and their interpreters; the other classical Greek and Roman thinkers; all preceding Fathers of the Church and contemporary theologians; Arab and Jewish philosophers and texts.
He is regarded as the chief synthesizer of philosophy and theology for the Catholic Church, and his early death may have been caused by overwork. About a thousand years following St. Augustine’s City of God, Thomas provided the Church a second grand synthesis: a system of sacra doctrina in the context of all knowledge available in the West at the time, coupled with a strong method of ordering, reason and argument. Also, Thomistic angelology became that of the Catholic Church and remains so.
Thomas Aquinas was born Tomasso Aquino into the local, central Italian gentry in Roccasecca near Aquino. At the age of six he was sent to study at the famous Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. When he was 14 he entered the University of Naples, a school known for being innovative and for being one of the first conduits of Aristotle’s complete works, which had only recently entered the Western world via Arabic translations. At 18 Thomas decided to join the Dominicans, a new order of mendicant monks especially committed to study, teaching and preaching. His family attempted to foil this decision by detaining him for almost two years, but they failed to deter him.
He rejoined his Dominican brethren and soon was sent to Paris, where he transcribed the lectures of the Dominican scholar Albert (St. Albert the Great) on Dionysius the Areopagite, a strong influence on Thomas’s angelology. From 1248 to 1252 Thomas lived at the priory of the Holy Cross in Cologne, studying with Albert especially the works of Aristotle, impressing his teachers and superiors. Tradition says he was called “the dumb ox” because he was physically heavy and had a silent, reserved manner.
Albert reportedly told his classmates: “we call this lad a dumb ox, but I tell you that the whole world is going to hear his bellowing!” Thomas was then sent back to Paris to prepare to teach Dominicans. He received a license to teach in 1256 and first worked as an apprentice professor lecturing on Scripture. Next he was promoted to teach from the official university textbook for theological instruction, the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Throughout his years of official teaching and writing, Thomas carried on a “moonlighting” project: his line by line commentary on Aristotle’s texts.
In 1257 he was made a professor of theology and for the next few years lectured on the Bible and worked on a series of discussions based on classroom debates. These became some of his earliest written works, the so-called Disputed Questions, and On Spiritual Creatures, his earliest comment on angels. From 1258 to 1269 Thomas taught in various cities in Italy: Naples, as Dominican preacher general; Orvieto in the curia of Pope Urban IV (r. 1261–64); and in 1267–68 at Viterbo with Pope Clement IV (r. 1265–68). In 1269 he returned to Paris to resume his teaching post; and he wrote volumes. In addition to his incessant work, he was devoted to prayer and to the life of his religious order.
Thomas’s complete writings include biblical commentaries, his series on Aristotle and polemical tracts. His most famous works are two enormous treatises covering the whole range of Christian doctrine and its philosophical background: the Summa Contra Gentiles (“on the truth of the Catholic faith against the unbelievers,” supposedly commissioned as an aid to Dominican missionaries among Muslims and Jews); and the Summa Theologica, ranging over God, creation, angels, human nature and happiness, grace, virtues, Christ and sacraments. Begun in 1266, it remained unfinished at his death. He intended it to be a simple manual for students; it turned into the greatest theological document ever written in the Church. Organized into three parts, it contains 38 treatises, 612 questions, 3,120 articles and about 10,000 objections.
The Summa Theologica amazed Thomas’s own and subsequent generations with its orderly system, unflagging intellectual eagerness and sustained clarity. He acquired a reputation for supernormal mental capacity. One report said he dictated to more than one secretary on different subjects at the same time; another insists that he composed even in his sleep. In December 1273 he suddenly abandoned his usual routine and neither wrote nor dictated anything else. When urged by his serving companion to return to work, he reportedly replied: “No, Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” This remark has often been blown out of proportion.
Most probably, he had suffered a stroke or breakdown from nervous exhaustion caused by overwork. Soon he was called to attend the Second Council of Lyons as a Dominican theologian. He set out in late December, and became ill on the way. He lodged with his niece in Maenza, but after two months it is said he told her “if the Lord is coming for me, I had better be found in a religious house than a castle.” He was taken to a nearby Cistercian monastery, where he died in a guest room on March 7. When it was protested at the canonization proceedings for Thomas Aquinas that few miracles were attributed to him, Pope John XXII (r. 1316–34) declared that every proposition he wrote was a miracle. It struck Thomas in his early study of Aristotle that philosophers had arrived at truths about God that are equivalent to some revealed truths. The first question that Thomas takes up in Summa Theologica is: What need is there for any science other than those that make up philosophy? The question makes sense only if one knows those philosophical sciences.The answer is: We cannot arrive at the revealed content of Christian faith merely by philosophical argument. Philosophical argument, however, is the most convincing way to present all truths. Thomas’s reasoning and communication method was firmly grounded in Aristotle’s, and his major teacher Albert was an Aristotelian thinker as well.
He approaches theological issues like a philosopher. Other writings include De Ente et Essentia (On being and essence); De Regimine Principium (On kingship); Contra Impugnantes Religionem, defending Mendicant Orders; De Perfectae Vitae Spiritualis, on the spiritual life; De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas, against the Averroists; Quaestiones Disputatae and Quaestiones Quodlibetales, debated questions for lecture halls; and commentaries on Aristotle. Thomas’s treatment of angels fits into the schematic typical of all his thinking and writing: a synthesis of sacra doctrina, what can be assumed true from Scripture as revealed by God (theology), and what can be assumed true on the basis of common experience of the world (philosophy). He applies to angels the same grid he applies to God, creation, the soul, etc., involving language and distinctions common to philosophic discourse: cause and effect, general and principle causes, matter and form, essence and being.
Thomas organized angels into a hierarchy of triads: seraphi, cherubim and thrones in the first order; dominations, virtues and powers in the second order; and principalities, archangels and angels in the third order. Thomas had a major impact on the importance of dreams. Siding with Aristotle, Thomas considered our knowledge of the world to come through our senses. Because of biblical tradition, he had to acknowledge that some dreams could come from God. For the most part, he said, dreams came from demons, false opinions and natural causes such as conditions of the body. It was not unlawful to divine from dreams as long as you were certain that the dreams were from a divine source and not from demons.
Like St. Jerome, Thomas is said to have had lifechanging dreams or visionary experiences that altered the course of his work. During his composition of Summa Theologica, he struggled with completing a theological passage. One morning he suddenly dictated it with ease. He told his scribe that he had had a dream in which he dialogued with the apostles SS. Peter and Paul, and they told him what to say. Thomas Aquinas’s symbols are the chalice, dove, monstrance and ox. In art he is often depicted as a Dominican, holding a book or a church, with rays of light streaming from his chest.