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