Save Saint Thomas, Save the Church
By Matthew Bellisario 2012
By Matthew Bellisario 2012
Pope John XXII in 1323, only 49 years after Aquinas’ earthly passing, proclaimed St. Thomas a Saint. He wrote, "We believe that Brother Thomas is glorious in heaven, because his life was holy, and his doctrine alone is a miracle." This Saturday , Jan 28th (in the new calendar, March 7th in the old. I celebrate them both!) is the feast day of the greatest theologian the Church has ever produced, Saint Thomas Aquinas. In 1567 Pope Pius V declared him a Doctor of the Church. He was however given an even higher title by the Church, that of the Angelic Doctor, or The Universal Doctor. These are titles that have yet to be given to anyone other than him. It is no secret that Saint Thomas’ works have been used by the Church to help explain and defend the truth of Christ to the world. In fact, his work was referred to in great depth during the great ecumenical council of Trent, and his line of thinking was used to formally further explain and define dogmatic truths of the faith which included the Eucharist, the Mass, the Sacraments and the unity of the Church. He was a sure safeguard against the errors of Protestantism, and men such a Luther despised him because his knack for getting at the truth of things, which often made a folly of Luther’s bloated ego and the heretical theological positions he held. The Church in fact survived the Protestant Revolt and came away all the stronger because of the Church’s use of St. Thomas’ thought. The method of St. Thomas became time tested as the Church made its way through history, refuting the errors of the world effectively. Looking to modern times, six popes in a row, from Pius IX to Pius XII all hailed him and his thought as an indispensable asset to aiding the human intellect in understanding the Catholic faith.
It was August of 1879 when Pope Leo XIII launched his monumental encyclical ‘Aeternis Patris’, which was directly aimed at combating modernism in the Church. The document sought to ensure that all of the clergy in the Church be firmly rooted in the mind of St. Thomas. "Let, then, teachers carefully chosen by you do their best to instill the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas into the minds of their hearers; and let them clearly point out its solidity and excellence above all other teaching. Let this doctrine be the light of all places of learning, which you may have already opened, or may hereafter open. Let it be used for the refutation of errors that are gaining ground." Pope Leo XIII clearly understood that the very foundations of the Church were being shaken by new philosophical systems which were not rooted in objective truth. He warned of the grave situation that the Church found itself in, “...both by reason of the gravity of the subject and the condition of the time, we are again compelled to speak to you on the mode of taking up the study of philosophy which shall respond most fitly to the excellence of faith, and at the same time be consonant with the dignity of human science.”
Pope Pius X then followed suit with an even more extreme response to the modernist crisis. He wrote five hard hitting documents all attacking the danger of modernism, as well as proposing St. Thomas as the antidote. The first was ‘Acerbo Nimis’ (April 14, 1905) which stressed the importance of proper catechetical formation. In the document Pope Pius X referred to the Council of Trent to illustrate his point. Next on July 3rd of 1907 he launched ‘Lamentabili Sane’, which was also referred to as a Syllabus of Errors. In it he listed 65 of the most noxious errors plaguing the Church. He followed that in September of the same year with the groundbreaking Encyclical ‘Pascendi Domenici Gregis.’ In this document Pope Pius X did is best to clarify the gravity of the situation, and also proposed a clear course of action to stop the modernist incursion. “In the first place, with regard to studies, We will and ordain that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences...And let it be clearly understood above all things that the scholastic philosophy We prescribe is that which the Angelic Doctor has bequeathed to us, and We, therefore, declare that all the ordinances of Our Predecessor on this subject continue fully in force, and, as far as may be necessary, We do decree anew, and confirm, and ordain that they be by all strictly observed. In seminaries where they may have been neglected let the Bishops impose them and require their observance, and let this apply also to the Superiors of religious institutions. Further let Professors remember that they cannot set St. Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment.” We see here that it is very clear that the actual survival of the Church’s effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel is rooted in the perennial wisdom of Thomism.
On September 1st of 1910 Pope Pius followed through on his end of the deal when he made all clergy throughout the Church subject to his newly crafted ‘Oath Against Modernism.’ In the document, he not only made the clergy swear to adhere to all of the formal teachings of the Church, but he also bound them to his two documents, ‘Lamentabili Sane’ as well as ‘Pascendi’ which obviously included the clergy’s command to put the teaching of the Angelic Doctor at the heart of their study. Part of the Oath included, “Furthermore, with due reverence, I submit and adhere with my whole heart to the condemnations, declarations, and all the prescripts contained in the encyclical Pascendi and in the decree Lamentabili...” The line in the sand had been drawn and this lethal defense of Saint Thomas would deal a hard hitting blow to the new arch-heresy of modernism. Under Pius X’s watch modernism was for the most part kept firmly in check. Keeping with the leitmotif of his papacy, the Saint ended his Papacy with yet another parting dose of Aquinas is his Motu Proprio, ‘Doctoris Angelici.’ In it he wrote these sobering words of wisdom, "The chief doctrines of St. Thomas' philosophy cannot be regarded as mere opinions—which anyone might discuss pro and con, but rather as a foundation on which all science of both natural and divine things rests. If they are taken away, or perverted in any way, then this necessarily follows: that the students of sacred studies will not perceive even the meaning of those words whereby the divinely revealed dogmas are uttered by the teaching of the Church." Unfortunately Pope Pius X’s warning would come true many years later after the very commands he gave during his entire papacy were later ignored by many in the Church.
Pope Benedict XV followed Saint Pius X and also hailed St. Thomas and his work as indispensable to the Church for all ages. “...the eminent commendations of Thomas Aquinas by the Holy See no longer permit a Catholic to doubt that he was divinely raised up that the Church might have a master whose doctrine should be followed in a special way at all times.” Likewise his successor on June 29th, 1923, Pope Pius XI rolled out his Encyclical ‘Studiorum Ducem’ which again held St. Thomas in the highest esteem. The document opened with, “In a recent apostolic letter confirming the statutes of Canon Law, We declared that the guide to be followed in the higher studies by young men training for the priesthood was Thomas Aquinas. The approaching anniversary of the day when he was duly enrolled, six hundred years ago, in the calendar of the Saints, offers Us an admirable opportunity of inculcating this more and more firmly in the minds of Our students and explaining to them what advantage they may most usefully derive from the teaching of so illustrious a Doctor.” The document again explained why the Church’s effectiveness in the world remained largely on the clergy’s adherence to the teaching methodology of St. Thomas Aquinas. “...a combination of doctrine and piety, of erudition and virtue, of truth and charity, is to be found in an eminent degree in the angelic Doctor and it is not without reason that he has been given the sun for a device; for he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues.”
Not only was Aquinas to be the illuminating light for the clergy, but for the entire Church. Pope Pius XI continued, “We propose to comment briefly in this Letter on the sanctity and doctrine of Thomas Aquinas and to show what profitable instruction may be derived therefrom by priests, by seminarians especially, and, not least, by all Christian people.” The document made it clear that there was no substitute for Aquinas, “in the first place, who has provided a better explanation than he of the nature and character of philosophy, its various divisions and the relative importance of each?...His teaching with regard to the power or value of the human mind is irrefragable...Such a doctrine goes to the root of the errors and opinions of those modern philosophers...The metaphysical philosophy of St. Thomas, although exposed to this day to the bitter onslaughts of prejudiced critics, yet still retains, like gold which no acid can dissolve, its full force and splendor unimpaired...There can be no doubt that Aquinas raised Theology to the highest eminence...Thomas is therefore considered the Prince of teachers...For in the first place he established apologetics on a sound and genuine basis by defining exactly the difference between the province of reason and the province of faith and carefully distinguishing the natural and the supernatural orders...The other branch of Theology, which is concerned with the interpretation of dogmas, also found in St. Thomas by far the richest of all commentators.” In these brief yet telling soundbites I have quoted from the document, we begin to see a common opinion among all of these popes; there was to be no substitute for the Angelic Doctor, period.
After just over 17 years, Pope Pius XI’s papacy came to an end, and his successor, Pope Pius XII, likewise spared no expense in promoting St. Thomas Aquinas as the remedy for the modernist assault on the Church. Not only did he publish documents to combat the new wave of modernist theologians, he also shut many of them down. For example, under his papacy In 1954 the Master General of the Dominican Order in Rome, Emanuel Suarez, was sent to Paris by the command of the Holy See. Three Jesuit Provincials from Paris, Lyons and Toulouse were removed from office including the four new theologians, Boisselet, Feret, Chenu and Congar, who were expelled from Paris, France. Likewise in 1954, Pope Pius XII condemned what the German theologian Karl Rahner had written in his 1949 article titled “The many Masses and the one Sacrifice.” Pope Pius XII did his best to keep many of these "new" theologians away from the faithful by trying to stop the publication of their modernist heresies. These actions were preceded by his well oriented Encyclical, ‘Humanis Genris.’ The document, although similar to those penned by his predecessors, also took aim at modernist philosophy, and hence also the theological ideas of individual theologians such as the wily French Jesuit, Henri de Lubac. De Lubac, was also an avid defender of the condemned ideas of Pierre Telhard de Chardin, who also promoted a deficient philosophical line of thinking which stood truth on its head. As a result, de Lubac held to an improper view of nature and grace, which was rooted in his modernist philosophical method of thought.
It is worth quoting paragraph 32 of the encyclical ‘Humanis Generis’ at full length to appreciate the condemnation of his line of thought. “How deplorable it is then that this philosophy, received and honored by the Church, is scorned by some, who shamelessly call it outmoded in form and rationalistic, as they say, in its method of thought. They say that this philosophy upholds the erroneous notion that there can be a metaphysic that is absolutely true; whereas in fact, they say, reality, especially transcendent reality, cannot better be expressed than by disparate teachings, which mutually complete each other, although they are in a way mutually opposed. Our traditional philosophy, then, with its clear exposition and solution of questions, its accurate definition of terms, its clear-cut distinctions, can be, they concede, useful as a preparation for scholastic theology, a preparation quite in accord with medieval mentality; but this philosophy hardly offers a method of philosophizing suited to the needs of our modern culture. They allege, finally, that our perennial philosophy is only a philosophy of immutable essences, while the contemporary mind must look to the existence of things and to life, which is ever in flux. While scorning our philosophy, they extol other philosophies of all kinds, ancient and modern, oriental and occidental, by which they seem to imply that any kind of philosophy or theory, with a few additions and corrections if need be, can be reconciled with Catholic dogma. No Catholic can doubt how false this is, especially where there is question of those fictitious theories they call immanentism, or idealism or materialism, whether historic or dialectic, or even existentialism, whether atheistic or simply the type that denies the validity of the reason in the field of metaphysics.”
Pope Pius XII like his predecessors had held firm to the merits of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Never has there been more praise from the Church for any theologian as there has been for Saint Thomas. Even as great as Saint Augustine was, by God’s grace, Saint Thomas enhanced and surpassed the wisdom of St. Augustine. Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical ‘Aeternis Patris’ “Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because “he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all...The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.” We must realize that the Church has never relied on anyone in the Church to the extent that it has on Saint Thomas. Entire ecumenical councils have used his thought to further define and guide the Church’s doctrine. The Church has used his methods to further develop moral theology and give answer to critical moral questions. So we honor the happy feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas. On March 7th, I will again honor the Feast of St. Thomas. Perhaps he should just be given two feast days! We can do no harm in honoring this great Saint every chance we get. We should invest our energies into reading and studying the work and methods of this unique and splendid Saint. His work has had the ability to recognize and convey the truths of the Catholic faith like no one else’s ever has. We should likewise imitate him in his holiness, and in the way he integrated study and prayer, not viewing them as separate works, but one flowing from the other. Many today have adopted the errors of modernism in the Church. The reason this has happened is that many have long ignored the great Angelic Doctor. It is plain to see according to the successors of St. Peter, from whom I have extensively quoted here, there is to be no substitute for Saint Thomas Aquinas and the principles of reality that he so beautifully brought to light. There has been no more important time in history to awaken those in the Church to the life, thought and work of Saint Thomas Aquinas. There has been a motto going around the internet, “Save the liturgy, save the Church.” I think it is more appropriate to say, “Save Saint Thomas, save the Church.” Happy Feast of Saint Thomas!