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Class 2

Problems in the reading Saint Thomas

The last time we stopped on the explanation of the difficulty in the reception of Saint Thomas. We have categories coming from modern philosophy which hamper the understanding of Saint Thomas. In the modern classification, we have a division between moral and dogmatic theology; between moral and spiritual theology; and between philosophy and theology. These divisions are not really present in Saint Thomas. If we have these preconceptions, we arrive at false conclusions. For some critics, Saint Thomas’s treatise on happiness seems too philosophical, as is his treatise on acts. The treatise on emotions seems to be outside of the realm of morals, whereas for Saint Thomas this treatise is very important for reasons we will see later. Next, we have a treatise on the virtues, the dispositions to do good acts arising from within, whereas many textbooks treat morals as a list of obligations. Next is the treatise on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Then there is a treatise on sin, and another on law and moral law. The law of the Gospel is often dismissed as an appendage in post-Tridentine books. Finally, Saint Thomas has a treatise on grace, which was transferred in the post-Tridentine period to dogmatic theology.

In the manualist tradition, the most Christian — the most theological — aspects of Saint Thomas’s teaching were banished to other disciplines like spiritual and dogmatic theology. Is the core of Saint Thomas’s teaching Aristotle or the Gospel? Is it a theological philosophy or a philosophical theology? The commentaries of Cardinal Cajetan on the Summa (in the 16th century) called the more evangelical aspects of the summa good for spiritual reading, but not for his dialogue with Luther.

The Notion of Sacra Doctrina

Most 20th century Thomists were philosophers, whereas Saint Thomas’s main job was a Biblical teacher. So to interpret correctly his Summa, we must take into consideration his commentaries on Scripture. It is possible to study the Summa purely philosophically within the study of the history of philosophy, but we will neglect the foundation of the work. Our modern understanding makes us unaware of the theological emphasis of the Summa. In the first question, Saint Thomas begins with Sacra Doctrina, which encompasses more than we understand today by theology. He uses it often in connection with Scripture and he calls it a science. He occasionally uses the word theology, aware that theology anticipates something much greater, sacra doctrina, which uses theology, metaphors, Scripture, and anything that can lead us more deeply into the mysteries revealed by God. Sacra doctrina encompasses theology, Scripture, the preaching of the Popes, Doctors, and Fathers. This instruction, sacra doctrina, is called science. This is used differently than today, where it means the studying of phenomena with means of study. It is also different from Aristotle’s use. For Aristotle, it was a certain knowledge, where the mind makes a judgment (going beyond an intuition), a judgment made within a process of reason, and that this process is inter-subjectively transmittable. This science searches for the necessary reasons of truths, the causes, asking the question "why?" Modern scientists are afraid of final causality.

Saint Thomas uses these Aristotelian processes to describe science, but sacra doctrina isn’t a science because it uses these methods. Rather, it is because it transmits a sure knowledge coming from the source of all knowledge, God himself. So the Latin scientia should be translated "knowledge" and not "science." It concerns truths, knowledge, which has been given by God. So Saint Thomas isn’t trying to jam theology into Aristotle’s philosophy, which would subordinate the superior truths of faith to the lesser claims of knowledge. Saint Thomas ascribes the primary role to revelation, knowledge coming directly from God, which confers to sacra doctrina the status of scientia. God reveals the mysteries of himself and his plans bestow to the believer knowledge of our salvation and invite him to participate in the knowledge of God himself. These divine mysteries Saint Thomas calls sacra doctrina. Some sciences draw their knowledge from other sciences, Saint Thomas says, whereas sacra doctrina draws its knowledge from sacred scripture, an expression of divine wisdom having been given to humanity. Both the private guidance of people by the Holy Spirit and the public revelation of God are divine, but the knowledge required in sacra doctrina comes from effort in scrutinizing the divine knowledge and communicating it to other people. This scrutiny cannot be chaotic if it is to be transmitted.

With the aid of precise notions from philosophy, we compare what has been revealed by God to what has been attained by reason, attempting to see the inner logic of what has been revealed by God. This is why sacra doctrina satisfies our reason. We can reflect on the revealed mysteries. Our reason may fall into error, but we cannot deny reason the opportunity to understand these revealed truths. But this reasonable investigation into matters of the faith must been undertaken in faith. If our reason were to try to judge faith by rational criteria, it would ruin faith. It would be a replacement of faith by human wisdom, against which Saint Paul warned.

Philosophy has an ancillary function in theology, namely, that of providing precise concepts and the knowledge discovered by reason. It has a secondary role in theology, that of a handmaid. The arguments put forward to defend theological truths don’t give the truths of faith their ground, but can make critics and adherents see that they are reasonable. Our faith is gets its ground because God has revealed it. The knowledge that God shares with human beings is the subject of sacra doctrina. The method to understand it must accord with the capacities and hungers of man. But the main source of what theologians have to say is the self-expression of God. God is the subject matter. Saint Thomas rejects other theologians’ thoughts that the sacraments, the redemption, the Church, etc. are the subject matter of theology. For Saint Thomas, the focus must be on God. The whole of the Summa gives us an answer to the question of Who is God. We can study ancillary subjects in theology, the history of spirituality, Biblical archaeology, ethics, etc., but this is not the sacra doctrina that Saint Thomas is studying. Saint Thomas is studying God, not just as the metaphysical source of everything, but as the revealer of himself who engages in a dialogue with human beings.

Such a notion of theology is very purifying. Von Balthasar said that any theology must have the character of adoration, of a doxology. God cannot be a neutral object of study. We cannot reduce Him so. The point of departure must be your knees. The subject matter must bring with it an attitude, a fascination. We base ourselves on a revealed gift. He is mysterious. We will never comprehend him, which is an invitation for us to love. A revealed mystery, rather than acquired knowledge, brings fascination and nourishment of our faith.

Why Saint Thomas wrote the Summa

Saint Thomas wrote the Summa to answer the question whether we need something beyond the study of philosophy. He says we need a study that is ordered to the end outside of the capacities of our intellect. He just states this, he doesn’t prove it. We need a theology going outside of the realm of rational thinking and philosophy. He places the thesis that salvation is the end of our life. Without an answer to the question of our destiny, there is no point in asking any questions about any science. If we don’t know that we’ve been destined for God, that there’s a point to our life, there’s no point in studying anything. We can use knowledge in other spheres to help us in our purpose.

Saint Augustine says that theology must do the following four things: generate, nourish, defend, and strengthen salutary faith. Sacra Doctrina has a specific function towards faith, to generate it, to get reason to bow before the mystery, in a decisive way for the spiritual life. Theology won’t give us faith, which is a gift, but it will help us to bow down. Sacra Doctrina is to nourish faith, to encourage perseverance. It defends faith against accusations coming from the world, saying the reason is the ultimate arbiter. Sacra Doctrina cannot prove the revealed truths, because then it would be knowledge, but it can show that it is reasonable, and that it doesn’t distort human nature. It also strengthens faith, bringing us more deeply into the mystery.

Saint Thomas describes theology, hence, in maternal terms, to generate, nourish, defend, and strengthen the great gift of God. If we are to exceed the limits of our reason, we need a support to undertake the risks of faith. So theology uses philosophical concepts to give us support. Theology leads the hand of the believer into the divine mysteries. So Saint Thomas’s practical end was to widen the intellectual horizon of his students so that their faith would grow. This is much more important than the pastoral formation of future priests. We won’t find great texts for catechesis, marriage preparation, etc.

Chenu’s Misreading of the Summa

What was Saint Thomas’s principal project as he wrote the Summa? The way he wrote it conditions our understanding of it as a whole, and particularly of the moral section. Fr. Chenu applied to it the Platonic concept of exitus-redditus, which Saint Thomas mentions in his commentary on the sentences. He claims that Saint Thomas put his theology into an Aristotelian straight-jacket, to satisfy the Aristotelian methodology of science. If this were to hold, then the secunda pars would be a philosophical work. Such an enterprise would be an agnostic subordination of faith to reason. The secunda pars, hence, would lend to a Pelagian interpretation of our natural human efforts bringing us back to God.

The fact that the morals sections is built on the (acquired) virtues and not on the commandments does not tell us what Chenu thinks it does. The virtues describe a catalog of good activity by which we return to God. Why does Saint Thomas discuss so many (>50) virtues? Why does he list the obligations that the corresponding virtues entail? Is not this a nominalist game, by saying there’s a virtue and then deducing an obligation? This would be similar to Luther’s interpretation of the old Law, namely, to convince that we cannot keep them — only Christ could. If we see them, rather, as good dispositions, then such a reading is frustrating, for wouldn’t it be too taxing in a human point of view?

A Salesian Thomist, Giuseppe Adda, questioned Chenu’s understanding and stressed the theological underpinning of the secunda pars, which is a theological work that merely uses the help that philosophy can provide. The real reason that Saint Thomas wrote the Summa was because of the need for a good systematic moral theology (according to Boyle). The secunda pars, the practical part of the Summa concerned with human action, received its theological ground in the prima pars, and this moral section has to be considered in that context. The practical benefit that Saint Thomas had in mind had to do with the faith that needed to be generated, nourished, and strengthened. Saint Thomas’s is not a vain curiosity. If we have to have the courage to persevere, we need to have reasons for this. Today, on the other hand, there is a distrust of speculative theology. We focus more on emotional experience. The mind of the ancients tried to obtain the ontological perspective. Today, we discuss how things appear, rather than how they necessarily are. The social sciences aren’t based on a rigorous methodology. So when Saint Thomas speculates about truth — to penetrate and concentrate it, to grasp it — it must entail a careful observation.

The Divisions of the Summa

What is the basic subject matter of the secunda pars? Did Saint Thomas only occasionally glimpse at God, being principally concerned with a philosophical treatment of human morals? Saint Thomas was intent on searching for God. Human acts are only a way that God reveals himself to us. He looks at human moral acts to learn about God. If human acts were the point, the secunda pars would be a philosophical work. It would be a theological ethics, to use a 20th century term. From the first article of the Summa, he is dealing with Sacra Doctrina, with God. This should influence the way we read the Summa. Today we have a different way of thinking. Saint Thomas divides the summa like the branches of a tree, but every branch is conditioned by the trunk and the stem. He still remembers it when he writes later. We need to have things repeated time and time again to see the connection. Saint Thomas didn’t think in that way. This makes it difficult for us to read him.

He divides the Summa into three parts, and the division is distinctly theological. God is seen in his fecundity, ad intra and ad extra, in his activity. The prima pars shows God as Trinity and Creation. The secunda pars shows the fecundity of God within human beings. The tertia pars shows the divine fecundity in Christ and in the sacraments. There is a different manifestation of God in himself, in us, and in Christ and the sacraments. The division is strictly theological. The prologue stresses this division, first God, then man, then Christ; God in Himself, God present through grace within man’s activity, and God present in Christ though the hypostatic human, respectively. These three modes of presence are distinct.

The moral section, hence, doesn’t consist in morals as such, but studies God under the point of observation of the movement of rational creatures to God. God is seen to be present in the interior movements characteristic of human beings. If we have the chance to meet a real saint, transformed by good, we see God’s physical presence in her like we see the mountains, but we also see a special and distinct beauty present in her acts still different than the presence in Christ. Thus the secunda pars will look at the presence of God in the sanctified human being. How does the grace of God transform the saint?

In describing the moral movement of man, Saint Thomas uses the term "motus" rather than "motio." Motus is more passive, though it doesn’t deny a movement from within. Saint Thomas’ term and study encompasses both the internal and the external movements. Human good action is somewhat active and somewhat passive. God doesn’t appear only as the end of the movement, the redditus, he is both the principal and the end of human movement. This effect grants something special to the secunda pars. The moral theology of the secunda pars is a study of God as he reveals himself in human activity to us through faith. We are free and rational, and we make moral choices. We can do this naturally; so the study of action can be investigated philosophically.

But what happens when that capacity opens up to beatification? The accompanying presence of God is the source of true happiness. We’re not dealing with dogmatic additions to philosophical descriptions. We’re dealing with a total reorientation of morals, with the divine enrichment of acts with God as the formal principle. When human acts saturated from within by grace, they become use ecclesial and build up the Church, making the divine love of God real and apparent in the love of real human beings. So there isn’t a question of looking at human acts with the mere assistance of divine understandings. But Saint Thomas looks at the divine hand present in human acts done in grace. But this can be understood only in faith, as he said in the first question of the Summa.

Theology doesn’t study acts as they are executed by human beings, but looks at God in people who are acting in their dependence on God at the beginning, during, and at the end of the act. In God there is no division into the actions and the act of God. So Saint Thomas could study the actions of God and the angels in the prima pars. In man, the divine presence is drawn out in time, and that’s why he needed the room to describe it. The prologue to the secunda pars offers a study of God as shown in his image, the human person, who is a free, independently-minded and active person. Saint Thomas uses a quotation from Saint John Damascene, who became famous for the defense of icons: the image of God in the human person is composed of three elements: the person is capable of undertaking acts out of oneself, because he wants to; he has free choice; and his acts flow from his intellect. Such actions are an image of God, when we do good acts because we want to, flowing from our knowledge of the good and free choice. These actions must be mature, so that the acts might be good. So, according to Saint Thomas, the moral life of people is a rich theological locus speaking of God. We will need to see their creative, virtuous action. Saint Thomas brings in the commandments very briefly, after discussing the virtues. He’s trying to show the fecundity of God in human actions.

So Saint Thomas begins with happiness, and then focuses on the human will, strengthened by God so that we can act spontaneously out of the good. It would be against our dignity to be determined to do good acts. We ourselves determine the object of our willing. Grace doesn’t deny this natural function of reason, but enables the reason to function in accord with the truth of an action. This human action is enriched by the emotions, to involve my whole personality. Just because the sensual part is sensual, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have an influence on our acts. They, too, must be oriented and ordered to the good. There’s something inhuman about excluding our naturalness for a supernatural purpose. It is important in our Christian moral life not to deny aspects of our natural composition. We can misuse emotions, but we must learn to integrate them. The coordination of our spiritual and carnal faculties depends upon our integral maturity. Thus, Saint Thomas discusses virtues to show that the virtues are means to integrate our whole beings toward the good. By the virtues, our human actions are corrected. When there is generosity in our actions, these acts bring happiness. We need the gifts of the Holy Spirit as well. Next, Saint Thomas needs to describe the poisoning of this fecundity of divine grace within us. It is only at this stage when Saint Thomas discusses the moral law. Finally, he discusses the efficacy of grace. The point is how God reveals himself in the world of human activity. Seeing good works leads us to praise our Father in heaven. It is obvious why Saint Thomas focuses on good acts, because they point to God.

The goodness of God in human activity is found in the panorama of human activity. First in the theological virtues. Then the gift of divine charity is described in human moral virtues. He describes associated gifts of the Holy Spirit, and then associated contrary vices. One by one Saint Thomas describes the virtues, using the Greek methodology of the cardinal virtues. These cardinal virtues are hooked onto the main aspects of our body and soul. He then goes on to describe God’s presence in the various charisms and states within the Church. This is a fecundity not present in all Christians, but which is dependent upon a particular charism.

The execution of moral acts flows from our nature, but we have to use our brains toward the good. He doesn’t describe the study of morality with the study of law, with deductions to the obligations. It is possible to do this. Saint Thomas rather studies human acts in their free, rational and beatifying dimension. He does so to point out the role and the presence of God in these free human moral acts — an approach which liberates and enriches faith. When we see this perspective, it inspires us to live the fullness of divine charity in our life. Saint Thomas in his moral theology doesn’t moralize. His is an enunciation of the Good News. It isn’t necessary that we stress the do’s and the don’ts. This cannot be the point of departure. The departure is, rather, the Good News of God who shares his life with us, and allows us to mature, and who bathes us in love. The center of Christian moral teaching is Christ, and indeed the Triune God, who is involved in all human acts.

A Continuation of the Historical Presentation: William of Ockham and Nominalism

After the great scholastics of the 13th century, theology lost the evangelical depth of Lombard and Saint Thomas. Most of the clergy didn’t study at the universities, but most at the cathedral schools, which contained snippets from the scholastics. The further development of moral theology was marked by William of Ockham, an English Franciscan. He was called to Avignon in 1324 and saw that he had no support for his thesis, so he fled to Bavaria where the emperor was in conflict with the Pope. The influence of his theology was enormous in Europe. He gave birth to Nominalism, which was to mark late medieval scholasticism. It seemed to be a continuation of medieval theology, but it was a break.

Ockham wrote various smaller works. The understanding of the soul and of human liberty introduced by Ockham was very different: liberty was radical independence from everything outside of liberty. He divorced it from the moral law, from grace. He claimed that in morality the most important thing was to distinguish between opposites. For Saint Thomas, liberty flows from the reason and the will which together decide about action. Fro Ockham, the will is absolutely free. Liberty was the will, and hence the will was the fundamental faculty of man. An object of the will, however, was denying my liberty by drawing me. So neither the object of the will nor the natural inclinations toward truth were in conformity with liberty, nor any natural good habit, which constrained me to act in a certain way. Liberty was accomplished best when it denied its natural inclinations. So one were to resist natural inclinations to the good, which for Saint Thomas were sources of liberty. For Ockham the natural inclinations fall below morality, morality was a process of liberation from them, for they belong solely to biology. In this perspective, it is difficult to accept a natural spontaneity to goodness and happiness which boosts to liberty.

In this perspective, each act is to be viewed separately as an expression of the behavior of the will. Human behavior is a series of independent acts. There’s no question of tying them together with a purpose in life. A purpose denies liberty. Saint Thomas insists on the importance of a common finality of all acts. A purpose in Nominalism governs only each independent act. Each act could be studies independently, which led to the casuistry of the 16th and 17th centuries.


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