Thomas Aquinas: Patron Saint of (so-called) Heretics

stthomas2Today is usually a pretty big deal for students of theology. When I was doing some philosophy studies as a Franciscan postulant, the seminary where my classes were held was closed on this feast day. Thomas Aquinas, who today is remembered for his genius, theological acumen, and universal orthodoxy, wasn’t always received with such illustrious acclaim. Those familiar with the contentious debates about the place of theology among other arts and sciences during the early years of the nascent University of Paris will know well that Thomas was essentially “silenced” and viewed as a suspect theologian within three years of his life.

The angelic doctor died in 1274 and by 1277 the Parisian Condemnations, round two, which focused mainly on Aristotelian postulates and other increasingly influential ideas, focused on twenty of the angelic doctor’s doctrines and indirectly targeted a number of Thomas’s other ideas, essentially condemning his method in the process (the correlative engagement of the theological tradition with the metaphysical and epistemological work of Aristotle and his arabic commentators). In fact, for a time even the Dominican Order forbade his work from being read — my, how times have changed! It was thanks to a number of later Dominicans and other theologians seeking to highlight the genuine and important insights of Thomas that eventually led to his acceptance and canonization.

While this is simply a quick snapshot of the complicated beginnings of Thomistic theology — there are plenty of books and articles about these matters if you’d like to learn more — I mention it with good reason today.

I’m frequently amazed by the ironic embrace of Thomas Aquinas by some theologians and other Christians who see him as the bastion of orthodoxy and the intellectual center of the authentic vita evangelica. I actually don’t dispute this, for I believe he was both an intellectual giant, rightly deserving the title “Doctor of the Church” alongside Bonaventure and Augustine, and a holy individual. However, quickly do many of these same people forget the troubled past of this man from Aquino County in modern-day Italy. Similarly, many of those who hail Thomas as the icon of methodological orthopraxis and theological orthodoxy conveniently forget to recall his term served, largely posthumously, as a heretic.

Thomas engaged the “modern” philosophy and sciences of his day, arguing by means of his theological method that such insight — “pagan” though it was — was nevertheless a bearer of truth that could helpfully inform the Christian theological enterprise.

How many people today are viewed, judged, and written off as “heretical” or “unorthodox” theologians because of their own contemporary following in the footprints of Thomas Aquinas?

There are the big names, particularly those pre-conciliar theologians who were suspect or condemned and then called upon for guidance during Vatican II. But there are also many others, including women and men today, who are similarly dismissed or viewed with askance glances of doubt and suspicion.

Last fall I was talking with a gentleman who, interestingly enough, was a former student of René Girard. An intelligent and faithful man, our conversation stumbled into so-called “postmodern philosophy,” particularly the contemporary continental schools of thought tied to thinkers like Foucault and Derrida. When I expressed my appreciation for their insights, noting too that I was less amiable to certain aspects of each thinker’s work, and that I believed each had something to contribute to Christian theology, he was taken aback. These men were “atheists,” “nonbelievers,” “hostile to religion,” etc. etc., which was simply a modern way to talk about how Aristotle and the Muslim Aristotelians Thomas Aquinas drew insights were viewed by many in the thirteenth century!

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that truth is found in many places, traditions, cultures, and faiths. And that we should be open to these insights, particularly as they are beneficial in our quest to know the living God through the Spirit that continues to move in our world and intellectual history.

On this feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, may we remember that so-called heresy not pertaining to direct refutation of creedal dogmas is generally in the eyes of the beholder. Don’t rule out the possibility that we can indeed learn from others and remember that theology is not simply a repetition of catechetics or the reinvention of the wheel-of-faith. The practice of theology, as demonstrated by Thomas, is a faithful journey into understanding better who God is and who we are.

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9 Responses to “Thomas Aquinas: Patron Saint of (so-called) Heretics”

  1. Bill Taylor Says:

    Thanks Dan,
    An excellent article putting many ideas in perspective. The one thinker you didn’t mention was Scotus.
    Peace,
    Bill

    • BTW — Not only has Scotus not been condemned, but he was also consulted more than Thomas was at the Council of Trent (it was really only after Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th Century that Thomas gained the hegemony that he enjoys today)

      • Bill Taylor Says:

        Dan,
        Thanks for the reply. Keep up the great work you are doing. Be sure to pace yourself and take care of Dan. You can’t be good for others if your not good for yourself.
        Bill

  2. Father,
    Thank you for this beautifully written piece. I’d forgotten that Thomas was in so much hot water back in the day. Resurrection comes in many forms, no? Your understanding of St. Thomas supports my belief that the Holy Spirit is everywhere in the Church: among believers who have a prophetic voice as well as those whose views are linked to settled doctrine and belief. Happy Feast Day!

  3. Dan, I so appreciate this post. Having been formed in a Domincan parish at a critical time in my adult life, and having discerned a Dominican vocaiton (we see how that worked out!) I have a special appreciation for Aquinas. Like you, I am always intrigued by the “proof-text” version of him that is held up as an almost final sign of orthodoxy!

  4. Dan, thank you for a wonderful post. I see many similarities between St. Thomas Aquinas and my favorite 20th century priest/theologian/mystic Teilhard de Chardin in their brilliance in making the Catholic faith richer and more intellectually robust by incorporating the contemporary sciences of their periods.

    While it may be too much to hope for Teilhard de Chardin to be awarded the same stature of St. Thomas Aquinas, I hope that Teilhard’s vision will continue to be incorporated into mainstream Catholic theology.

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

  5. Bonnies beat UMASS in Olean!!! Awesome!

  6. It’s funny – I had a rousing blog kerfuffle with some “ultra-orthodox” dude on just this subject about 9 months ago. He postulated that progressive Catholic ideas should be rejected outright as they are intellectually shallow. I reminded him that there have been many progressive Catholic thinkers throughout the history of the Church including Aquinas, Catherine of Sienna, Theresa of Avilla, John of the Cross, Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar etc… No light-weights these… Even as there are those called to uphold the Tradition handed to us, there are those called to venture forth and explore new vistas of Faith in light of current understandings. Without this tense dynamic, the Faith would either become brittle and ossified or diluted in a sea of passing fads…

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