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Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?

February 5, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Some years ago I had the honor of meeting Fr. Enrico Cantore. It was around the time that his erudite work in atomic physics was being released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In preparation for his book, Dr. Cantore had spent a considerable amount of time with the great physicist Werner Heisenberg. During our conversation, Fr. Cantore described Heisenberg as a man who was not content to remain within the boundaries of science. He studied virtually every significant thinker in the Western world in his ardent search for a key that would further clarify the unicity of truth and the harmony between faith and science. Cantore once asked Heisenberg, this voracious student of the history of human thought, to name the most open-minded thinker he had ever read. Fr. Cantore informed me that Heisenberg, without hesitation, said that it was St. Thomas Aquinas.
In today’s world much credit is given to a person who is open-minded. At the same time, it has little regard for a person who has grasped and retained some measure of truth. Aquinas, according to Etienne Gilson, was blessed with two intellectual virtues to a high degree that are seldom found in the same person. He had intellectual modesty and intellectual audacity. In other words, he did not let his ego get in the way of seeing things objectively, but when he found truth, he held to it tenaciously.
The fact that Aquinas was born in the thirteenth century does not make him irrelevant to the modern world. His thought is timeless. As St. John Paul II has stated, “the Church has been justified in consistently proposing St. Thomas a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology.”
The Angelic Doctor is mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church more than anyone else — 61 times! He is the patron saint of philosophers, theologians, apologists, scholars, students, schools, colleges and universities, learning and academics, and chastity.
Maria Montessori, who did her doctoral dissertation on Aquinas, owes much to him for her revolutionary theories of education. Rollo May, the well-read psychotherapist, developed the notion of “intentionality,” one of the essential ideas on his book, Love and Will, from Aquinas’ notion of intentionality and the function of the will. Marshall McLuhan confessed his indebtedness to Aquinas concerning the order of the five senses. James Joyce acknowledged the sensory realism of Aquinas when he dubbed him “Toucher Tom.” The celebrated philosopher and poet George Santayana modeled his notion of beauty on Aquinas’ understanding of beauty as an integration of unity, proportion, and clarity. Novelist Norman Mailer paid special tribute to Aquinas for that “most excellent of phrases, the authority of the senses.”
St. Thomas’ contribution to personalism strongly influenced modern philosophers such as Maritain, Gilson, Mounier, and others.
Perhaps the universal character of Aquinas’ thought is best exemplified by an amusing reference the Thomistic political philosopher Mortimer Adler made about himself. While teaching at the University of Chicago, he described himself as a Jew teaching Catholic philosophy in a Protestant school to a group of atheists.
Aquinas is well known for establishing harmony between faith and reason. He is also well known for his five proofs for the existence of God, the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude), and the three supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. He also enumerated four kinds of law: eternal, natural, human, and divine.
Aquinas’ massive Summa Theologiae alone is a compendium of all intellectual thought up to his time. His intellectual achievement is truly a gift to humanity. Teachers of Aquinas who fail to learn from him his spirit of intellectual humility and his conviction that philosophy is more a corporate venture, misrepresent him by treating his philosophy as a complete package, not to be disputed or extended. The contemporary gibe “Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?” represents a typical failure to understand the true spirit of Aquinas without which no philosophy would be worthy of the name.
Aquinas understood the unbridgeable gap between creature and Creator, thought and existence, expression and reality, what we can know and what there remains to be known. Therefore, he did not, strictly speaking, provide a system. He offered enlightenment and a spirit that invites others to follow his lead. When he speaks of God, he argues that man’s highest knowledge is to know that he does not know God. God exists, but He is known as unknown. Moreover, anything he does know, he does not know exhaustively. Consequently, it is somewhat unfair to peg him as a Thomist. He transcends classification.
On December 6, 1273, upon returning to his cell after celebrating Mass, Thomas declared, “All that I have written seems to me nothing but straw — compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” He wrote nothing more after this vision. Yet his voluntary silence offers an eloquent testimony to his fidelity to the mysterious and unutterable character of that which is. He will not be forgotten any more than Shakespeare’s plays will be discredited, Da Vinci’s paintings will fade into oblivion, or Beethoven’s music will be deemed passé.
Despite the modesty of this great saint, he firmly believed that we can know enough to live a good life and establish a friendship with God. He outlined the essentials of what we need in one of his prayers: “Grant me, O Lord, my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you.”
In 1324, fifty years after Thomas Aquinas’ death, Pope John XXII pronounced him a saint of the Catholic Church. In 1568, Aquinas was named a doctor of the Church. Pope Leo XIII declared, in 1879, that his theology is a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine and that the clergy should take the teachings of Aquinas as the basis of their theological positions.
His feast day is celebrated January 28.

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