189. A Biography of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Is It Also A Radiography of Roman Catholicism?

Like it or not, “there is no way to escape Thomas”. With this annotation, the Canadian historian Bernard McGinn introduces his book Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). The volume is by one of today’s most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity and has an original cut. It is not an introduction to Aquinas, nor an essay on the Summa as such, but is instead a biography of this outstanding work. The Summa consists of one and a half million words and is divided into 2668 articles. Moreover, it has had over a thousand commentaries in history (only the Bible has received more), thus becoming a catalyst for theological and philosophical thought over the centuries.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, it was conceived by Aquinas to be an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church—and it was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death. The Jesuit Bernard Lonergan called the Summa a “synthesis of medieval culture”.

Thomas Aquinas’ World
In the first chapter, McGinn explores the intellectual world in which Thomas Aquinas lived. He particularly emphasizes the role of scholastic theology, i.e. a teaching method and style centered on the analysis of different quaestiones (issues, questions) on the basis of the waving and screening of various auctoritates (authorities). Scholastic theology had become a coherent and teachable model of inquiry. The leader of this tradition was Peter Lombard (1096-1160) with his Sentences, a work which had become the standard textbook of theology at the medieval universities and that Thomas commented upon extensively.

The second chapter presents a succinct biography of Thomas and a quick introduction to his writings (over a hundred works attributed to him). Here, McGinn argues that the traditional association of Thomas Aquinas with Aristotelianism must be intertwined with the impact of Platonism on his thought through Boethius and Dionysius the Areopagite and, above all, Augustine. In Thomas, the easy classifications do not respond to the complexity of his philosophical and theological universe.

The Summa is a full-fledged scholastic work. Each article of which it is composed poses the question to be examined, exposes a series of arguments contrary to the position one wants to support, cites an authoritative text, argues in favor of a solution and, finally, responds in detail to possible objections. Beyond the scholastic structure of the argument, in Thomas the central point is his acceptance of the Aristotelian starting point according to which science (and therefore also theology) is “certain knowledge through causes”. The entire procedure is guided by reason, which does not reach to revealed truths (like the Trinity), but which for everything else (including the existence of God) is the instrument for knowing. Reason proceeds in a circular motion: it starts from (Aristotelian) principles, argues up to conclusions, and returns to principles with a deeper understanding of the principles themselves. Even “sacred doctrine”, for Thomas, works in a similar manner. It is clear that, at the bottom of this approach, one finds the recognition of the full feasibility of human reason as a natural capacity. Although touched by sin, human reason remains the reliable instrument for all knowledge (even knowledge of God).

Exitus-Reditus, But Where is Sin?
To understand the heart of the theology of Aquinas, very enlightening pages are dedicated to the movement of the Summa based on the exitus-reditus model: all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). This is the macro-structure of the Summa and the grand-motif of Thomistic theology. The movement starts with God and goes back to Him as a circle.

In this Thomist view there are two basic problems, which McGinn does not discuss and which can only be briefly touched on. The first is the cyclical, rather than linear trend of its trajectory: the Bible presents a plotline not of returning to the starting point, but of arriving at a goal that is no longer the starting point. The New Jerusalem is not the initial garden of Eden; the eschaton is no longer “in the beginning”. The Omega of the story is no longer its Alpha. In the biblical plot there is a historical-redemptive progress from creation to the new creation, more than a return to the origin.

The second problem is that, in the Thomist scheme of exitus-reditus, the breaking of the covenant (and therefore the breach of sin) is missing. There is creation (going out), there is redemption (coming back), but sin is missing. Obviously Thomas has a theology of sin, but sin has no “architectural” importance. It is inside the back-and-forth movement, without a directional upheaval. For this reason, the Thomist tradition has been able to summarize its own worldview with the adage: “grace does not remove nature, but perfects it”; between nature and grace there is a distinction of order, but not a breach caused by sin. For this reason, Thomism does not have a tragic understanding of sin and its consequences. For this reason, the relationship between nature and grace in Thomistic Roman Catholicism underestimates the effects of sin and has an optimistic view of human capacities in cooperating with salvation. The grace of reditus corresponds to the nature of the exitus, but what about sin? In the context of this overall optimism, the Roman Church has built its inflated self-understanding and its sacramental mediation.

In light of these remarks, it is perhaps clearer why the new wine of the Protestant motif of “creation-fall-redemption” cannot fit in the old skin of Thomism of the exitus-reditus motif. Sin entered the world and altered it to the point that redemption is not an elevation of nature nor an addition to it, but can be biblically explained in terms of regeneration, life out of death, light out of darkness, salvation out of reprobation. Therefore, one can begin to perceive why the difference between Thomism and the evangelical faith touches on a crucial, structural, foundational point, even in the presence of terms and themes that are sometimes overlapping.

The Summa at the Core of the Roman Catholic System
The second part of the book is dedicated to the biography of the Summa across the centuries, from the first wave of Thomism immediately following Thomas’s death up to the neo-Thomism of the 19th-20th century. McGinn remembers in particular Tommaso de Vio, Cardinal Gaetano, at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who clashed with Luther. It is well known that the German Reformer had an unquestionably negative understanding of Thomism. For him, Thomas was “the source and foundation of all heresy, all error and the obliteration of the Gospel”. It is also interesting that at the Council of Trent a copy of the Summa was placed next to the Bible, symbolically signifying the elevation of Thomas’s work to a source of authority for the Roman Church. No wonder Thomas was recognized as a “doctor of the church” by Pope Pius V in 1567. From that point on, Thomas became an immovable cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology. On the basis of the Summa, the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine would have built his anti-Protestant apologetics that became standard up to the first half of the 20th century. Neo-Thomism found in Leo XIII a pope who wrote the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), in which he officially elevated the thought of Thomas Aquinas to be the normative theological system for Roman Catholicism.

McGinn recalls the controversies over the “modernists” who were not so much opposed to Thomas as to a “triumphalistic” or “authoritarian” form of Thomism. In the twentieth century, McGinn identifies four strands of Thomism still existing in the Roman Church:

  • “Strict-Observance Thomism” (in the wake of Aeterni Patris: R. Garrigou-Lagrange, the “sacred monster of Thomism”);
  • “Recovered Thomism” (M.-D. Chenu, Y. Congar, H. de Lubac);
  • “Metaphysical Thomism” (J. Maritain, E. Gilson);
  • “Transcendental Thomism” (P. Rousselot; J. Maréchal, K. Rahner).

Although Thomism is a legacy that is variously assimilated and understood, its permanent and pervasive influence on Roman Catholicism is undeniable. McGinn refers to the fact that Aquinas is cited in the texts of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) 734 times (the second most cited father is Augustine with 522 citations) and is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) 61 times. Moreover, according to Thomas G. Guarino in The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), the real theological mind behind Vatican II is not a modern theologian but Thomas Aquinas himself. It was Aquinas who “furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure (les assises et la structure) of their thought; again, “while Thomistic language was absent at Vatican II, Thomist ideas were in plain sight”. A modernized form of Thomism, perhaps away from the rigidity of 19th century Neo-Thomism, but always within the same tradition expanded in dialogue with the modern world, was and is the framework that provides “the bases and the structure” of Rome. Furthermore, John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) is a quintessentially Thomist reflection on the relationship between faith and reason.

Although no longer monumental (perhaps) and certainly not monolithic, Thomism is still “substantial” for Roman Catholicism, representing its main theological backbone. Giving the Summa a central place in the work of Thomas Aquinas and coming to terms with its “biography” allows us to access the radiography of what lies at the heart of Roman Catholicism then and now. When we deal with the Summa and its impact across Church history we should be aware of the fact that we are not dealing with a generic work belonging to the “Great Tradition” which is common to all strands of Christianity. We are dealing with a specific account of it that Roman Catholicism consistently calls its own.

185. Fides et Ratio (1998): Three Theses on the Roman Catholic Synthesis Between Faith and Reason

The publication of the encyclical letter “Fides et Ratio” (FR) on 14 September 1998 by John Paul II brought to the attention of the religious world and public opinion a theme of fundamental importance for Christianity, i.e. the relationship between faith and reason. This document is considered to be one of the most important contributions given by the Roman Catholic Church to the interplay between theology and philosophy, Christianity and culture, and the Church and the world. These “theses” are an attempt to highlight its main message and to critically assess it from an evangelical perspective.

1. FR Is Important for What It Says and for What It Omits to Say
FR shows the vastness and depth of Roman Catholic wisdom in a condensed and meditated form. In the classic style of the encyclicals, FR is a document that brings together a series of ideas woven into a discourse that tends towards a synthesis. To address the question of the relationship between faith and reason, FR lays the foundations starting from the reading of some biblical data, taken above all from the Wisdom literature and from Pauline writings. These biblical references are put in a theological framework that makes use of some patristic sources summarized in the expressions “credo ut intelligam” (i.e. I believe in order to understand) and “intelligo ut credam” (i.e. I understand in order to believe).

FR makes abundant use of references to texts, authors, and schools in the history of the church and more general intellectual history. Understandably, the text abounds in quotations or references to the pronouncements of the Catholic magisterium over the centuries[1]. However, FR extends beyond magisterial boundaries, and the choice of thinkers, philosophers, theologians[2], and schools of thought[3] mentioned or cited is interesting. This foundation is followed by a historical analysis of the trends of thought that shaped Western culture.

FR is interesting in what it says but also in what it omits to say. Its silences are just as revealing as its explicit citations. The catholicity of Rome is not all-encompassing, but responds to the selective logic of Roman catholicity. Above all, it is worth noting the lack of any reference to evangelical Protestant authors or sources. There is no citation of the Protestant Reformers, and the same negligence can be extended to Protestant orthodoxy (XVII century), to philosophers such as Jonathan Edwards, or to neo-Calvinism (e.g. A. Kuyper and H. Bavinck). On the one hand FR tries to include the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy (n. 74), while on the other hand it excludes that of Protestantism. Evidently, the Roman Catholic center of gravity of Thomism, on which the encyclical rests, may lean in one direction but not in the other.

2. FR Understands the Relationship Between Faith and Reason on the Basis of the Nature-Grace Interdependence
From its beginning, FR has an unmistakable Thomistic inspiration. The encyclical can be considered to be an authoritative affirmation of the importance of Thomism for the Roman Catholic worldview. Without the scaffolding provided by Thomism, FR would be unthinkable. FR is explicit in supporting the “enduring originality” of Thomas’s thought (nn. 43-44). It endorses the philosophical framework of the 1870 dogmatic constitution “Dei Filius” of Vatican I (nn. 52-53), the 1879 encyclical “Aeterni Patris” (n. 57), and the Neo-Thomistic renewal of the twentieth century (nn. 58-59). Thomism is the trajectory that joins together medieval Roman Catholicism to the post-conciliar one. It represents “the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought” (n. 78).

FR does not stop at indicating the “enduring originality” of Thomism, but understands the relationship between faith and reason on the basis of the Thomist interdependence between nature and grace. The latter is upstream from the former. In a programmatic sentence, FR affirms that “as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason” (n. 43; see also n. 75). Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism, and the oil of anointing that convey grace), in the ability of reason to develop a “natural theology”, in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened by sin, nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism in whatever is natural to be graced. The nature-grace interdependence is particularly evident in the way FR conceives the autonomy of reason and the weak consequences of sin.

2.1 FR Credits Reason with an Unsustainable Autonomy
The encyclical reaffirms the Thomist thesis sanctioned by Vatican Councils I and II of the existence of two orders of knowledge, each of which has its own principles and objects of knowledge (nn. 9, 13, 53, 55, 67, 71, 73, 75, 76). Faith and reason therefore operate in distinct, though not separate, spheres. If, on the one hand, reason has its own area of autonomy with respect to faith, on the other, faith cannot disregard the contribution of reason which, while pertaining to another order of knowledge, is nevertheless indispensable for a correct exercise of faith. Reason opens up to faith and faith is grafted onto reason. In line with the Thomist vision, FR considers faith something beyond the “natural” realm of reason and brings it to completion.

According to FR, if properly understood and practiced, there is no conflict between faith and reason but only harmony and collaboration. It is no coincidence that the encyclical begins with the programmatic statement according to which “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (n. 1). FR argues for the autonomy of reason. This autonomy reflects “the autonomy of the creature” (n. 15) and manifests itself on methodological (nn. 13 and 67) and normative (nn. 67, 73, 77) levels. Within the Thomist framework in which “Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy” (n. 16), autonomy is conceived as “legitimate” (nn. 75 and 79) and “valid” (nn. 75, 106).

From an evangelical perspective, the Thomist picture of FR is flawed because it envisions an unwarranted autonomy to reason. According to the Bible, all of existence, reason included, must be lived coram Deo, and this excludes the idea that reason can be divorced from faith as if it were a self-subsisting faculty or detached from the reality of God. Life in its entirety finds its frame of reference in the broken or re-established covenant with God. Any human activity is experienced in the context of the covenant between God and man. Reason, therefore, is essentially religious: either in a broken-covenantal framework due to sin, or in a reconciled-covenantal framework given by Jesus Christ.

2.2 FR Weakens the Significance of the Noetic Effects of Sin
In continuity with the non-tragic vision of sin proper to Thomism, FR also presents a biblically deficient doctrine of sin in relation to its impact on reason. The fragility, fragmentation, and limitations of reason are recognized (nn. 13 and 43), as well as an inner weakness (n. 75) and a certain imperfection (n. 83). Sin intervenes on the structure of reason, bringing wounds, obstacles, obfuscation, debilitation, and disorder (nn. 23, 82, 71). However, according to FR, the “capacity” of reason to know the transcendent dimension “in a true and certain way” (n. 83) remains as well as its ability to grasp some truths (n. 67), to rise towards the infinite (n. 24) and to reach out to the Creator (n. 8). The very fact that FR often refers to reason in an absolute sense highlights the effective intangibility of reason with respect to sin. Ultimately, FR is an invitation to nurture “trust in the power of human reason (n. 56), demonstrating the fact that sin has had only a marginal impact. According to FR, even if touched by sin, reason has retained its potential and its autonomous status.

From an evangelical point of view, the encyclical does not account for the biblical teaching regarding the radical and tragic effects that sin has determined in every area of ​​life, including reason and the exercise of reason. For the Bible, sin has introduced a total distortion to the point that there is no longer any reason that is only partially affected by sin, but all reason is entirely imbued with sin. The noetic effects of sin undermine any confidence in the intrinsic capacities of reason and require abandoning any claim of absolute or partial neutrality of reason with respect to sin. The only hope that can be cultivated lies in the message of the salvation of Jesus Christ, which is aimed at the redemption of reason through the regeneration of the reasoning subject and the biblical reformation of the criteria of reason.

3. FR Explicitly Rejects “Scripture Alone”
The encyclical is very critical towards numerous trends of thought present in today’s world. Among these, the pope lists the danger of “biblicism”, which is defined as a “fideistic tendency” which “tends to make the reading of Sacred Scripture or its exegesis the only truthful point of reference” (n. 55). Here is the full text:

One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles”. Scripture, therefore, is not the Church’s sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.

The recognition of the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium as the combined reference point for Roman Catholicism places the encyclical in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-1563),which rejected the “Scripture Alone” principle of the Reformation. The point is further reinforced when John Paul II writes that “theology makes its own the content of Revelation as this has been gradually expounded in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church’s living Magisterium” (n. 65).

In FR we find the traditional doctrine that the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the evangelicals of the following centuries rejected, i.e. Scripture is with and under the Tradition of the Church past and present. The re-presentation of the Tridentine doctrine that is in direct contrast to the Reformation (even though it is not explicitly referred to) is central to FR. It shows that while renewing itself, Roman Catholicism never reforms itself in the light of Scripture. In short, FR reproduces the dynamics of the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine, i.e. updating without changing.

FR thinks of “Scripture Alone” as a danger. In the light of this contrast, it must be acknowledged that the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium is not compatible with the evangelical conviction that Scripture is the ultimate criterion for faith and reason. Either the former is true or the latter. Whereas FR, in continuity with Tridentine Catholicism, incorporates the Bible into Tradition and allows the Bible to speak only through the voice of the Magisterium, the evangelical faith recognizes the Bible as “norma normans non normata”, i.e. the rule that rules without being ruled.

FR stems from the Thomistic commitment of Roman Catholicism that presents severe problems for the evangelical faith at some fundamental points. While being full of interesting observations and comments, FR is not a reliable document to begin to frame the relationship between faith and reason in a biblical way.

Short Bibliography
L. Jaeger, “La foi et la raison. A propos de la letter encyclique: «Fides et ratio»”, Fac-Réflexion 46-47 (1999) pp. 35-46.

M. Mantovani, S. Thuruthiyil, M. Toso (edd.), Fede e ragione. Opposizione, composizione? (Roma: Las, 1999).

R.J. Neuhaus, “A passion for truth: the way of faith and reason”, First Things 88 (1998) pp. 65-73.

C. O’Regan, “Ambiguity and Undecidability in Fides et Ratio”, International Journal of Systematic Theology 2:3 (2000) pp. 319-329.

A. Howe, “Faith and reason”, Evangelical Times (April 1999) pp. 14 and 30.

E.J. Echeverria, “Once Again, John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio”, Philosophia Reformata vol. 69/1 (2004) pp. 38-52.


[1]E.g.:

– Councils: Synod of Constantinople, Chalcedon, Toledo, Braga, Wien, Lateran IV, Lateran V, Vatican I, Vatican II;

– Encyclicals: “Redemptor hominis” (1979), “Veritatis splendor” (1993), “Aeterni patris” (1879), “Humani generis” (1950), “Pascendi dominici gregis” (1907), “Divini redemptoris” (1937), “Dominum et vivificantem” (1986);

– Apostolic Letters: “Tertio millennio adveniente” (1995), “Salvifici doloris” (1984), “Lumen ecclesiae” (1974);

– Liturgical texts: Missale romanum;

– Other Magisterial texts can be found innn. 33-34, 41, 43, 52, 54, 61, 67, 92, 94, 96-97, 99, 103, 105-106.

[2] (in order): Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Origen, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Dionysusthe Areopagite, Pascal, Aristotle, Tertullian, Francisco Suarez, John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Edith Stein, Vladimir S. Solov’ev, Pavel A. Florenskij, Petr J. Caadaev, Vladimir N. Lossky, Kierkegaard, Bonaventura, pseudo-Epiphanius.

[3] (in order): Idealism, Atheistic Humanism, Positivist mentality, Nihilism, Fideism, Radical Traditionalism, Rationalism, Ontologism, Marxism, Modernism, Liberation Theology, Religious and Philosophical traditions of India, Cina, Japan, other Asian and African Countries, Eclectism, Historicism, Scientism, Pragmatism, Postmodernity.