Thomas Aquinas

Teacher of the Faith

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Thomas Aquinas
Teacher of the Faith
Detail from Valle Romita Polyptych
by Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1400)

Public Domain

Thomas Aquinas was the outstanding thinker and teacher of his own period, and among the greatest of all time. He was born to well-to-do and ambitious parents, who sent him to the abbey of Monte Cassino in the expectation that he might prosper and even become abbot. Thomas developed a profound religious faith, but, while studying in Naples, he became interested in the new ministry of the friars with their commitment to poverty and hard work in the emerging cities. That was not at all to his family’s liking, and they imprisoned him at home in Roccasecca for a year, before giving up in the face of Thomas’ determination.

In 1244 Thomas joined the Dominican Order and went to Paris. He spent the rest of his life mainly in university circles in France and Italy, writing prolifically, preaching and debating. His writings are marked by the peaceful tone in which he conducts a debate. There were no zealous attacking arguments, only a passionate commitment to underlying principles and a focus on the argument, never on the person. He is well named “the angelic doctor”, not just for the depth of his thought, but for the peace promoting spirit of his writings.

His life and his enormous output of writings mark a turning-point in the medieval church. The new friars taking the gospel into the new towns, also took over the universities, much to the annoyance of the existing teachers, who were locked into the old ways of adherence to rank and the isolation of monastery life. Thomas was also at the centre of the new theology.

Traditional theology was dominated by an outlook coming from the teaching of Plato, distrust of the senses with truth in ideas and spiritual reality. The rediscovery of Aristotle, for whom the senses are the basis of all human knowledge, led to a new way of understanding the world. Most theologians reacted against the new ideas. A few welcomed them boldly, to the point where revelation and knowledge of God were unrelated to general human knowledge. Thomas accepted the ideas of Aristotle, and endorsed the scientific exploration of the world. But Thomas also saw the limits of human reason. There are matters of faith that are not dependent on the senses. Nevertheless, there is only one truth that encompasses both. Therefore, it can be maintained that faith is not irrational, and that the world is an expression of divine truth.

Thomas’ ideas were radical and, for a time, regarded by many as heresy. His own profound religious faith and the link he saw between faith and reason gave him a deep interest in the taking of communion, where spiritual and physical so obviously meet. His hymns for communion are still sung.

BORN: 1225, Roccasecca, Italy.

DIED: 7 March 1274, Abbazia di Fossanova, Fossanova, Italy