Saint Thomas Aquinas

Every American, indeed every Westerner, whether Catholic or not, lives in a world that has been greatly changed by the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

During his childhood, his little sister was killed by a bolt of lightening, while Thomas was sleeping in the same room. He was fearful of storms and lightening the rest of his life, and today is a patron against thunderstorms and sudden death.

The child of thirteenth-century Italian aristocrats, Aquinas was nicknamed "the Dumb Sicilian Ox," because he was stout, and slow in manner. As his teachers slowly discovered, however, he was also brilliant. Against the wishes of his family, he joined the Dominican order. The family kidnapped him, and held him prisoner for two years, before finally releasing him to lead the life he chose.

At the start of the 13th century, Christian thought was divided on the relationship between faith and reason. One faction contended that faith and reason existed in completely separate realms; the other faction argued that reason must be subordinated to faith. Aquinas accepted neither theory, and instead showed how faith and reason, while separate, are complementary gifts from God. He developed proofs to demonstrate the existence of God, proofs which depended solely on logic, rather than blind faith. Other spiritual truths, while not provable by reason, could be better understood by the application of reason, Aquinas showed.

It was said that Aquinas applied geometry to theology, for his theological arguments were, like geometry proofs, meticulously-reasoned, built one step at a time from to their inescapable conclusion.

Some of Aquinas's opponents, who worried that reason might undermine faith, almost succeeded in having St. Thomas's teachings condemned. But Aquinas, and reason, prevailed. Aquinas's vindication of reason prevented attempts to suppress the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose works had only recently been rediscovered. In contrast to the totalitarian philosophy of Plato, Aristotle's newly popularized philosophy laid the foundation, in the long run, for the Enlightenment and the evolution of philosophies of democracy and limited government.

Thomas Aquinas's greatest work, the Summa Theologica (a comprehensive analysis of theology) was unfinished, but still so important that it was one of the three books laid on the table at the Council of Trent (the other two being the Bible and the Pontifical Decrees).

Aquinas did not apply his genius solely to philosophy. His immense body of writings includes dissertations on the Mass, the Rosary, the Lord's Prayer, and other spiritual topics. The final verses of two of his hymns, "O Salutaris," and "Tantum Ergo," are often sung at Benediction.

Despite his talent, he was not at all vain. When asked if he ever had excessively prideful thoughts, he replied, characteristically, that whenever such thoughts entered his head, his common sense quickly dispelled them by pointing out their "unreasonableness."

Canonized half a century after his death, he was later declared to be patron of all universities, colleges, and schools. Portrayed with a sacramental cup (representing his devotion to the sacraments), and a dove (representing his inspiration by the Holy Spirit), Saint Thomas Aquinas is honored on March 7th.

-By Dave Kopel

Kopel on Summa Theologica and the rights of self defense and resistance to tyranny.

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