Keeping the Feast; In Praise of St. Thomas

Happy Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Confessor and Doctor of the Church!

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Apotheosis of Santo Tomás, Francisco de Zurbarán (1631)

In Praise of Aquinas

That Thomas Aquinas is considered the greatest Catholic theologian and one of the most eminent Saints in the Church may need no defense, but we thought it at least fitting, on the good Doctor’s feast day, to offer a catena of Papal accolades from across the ages, drawn in part from Bowring’s helpful survey (here):

Pope John XXII. “[Aquinas’] life was saintly and his doctrine could only be miraculous… because he enlightened the church more than all the other doctors. By the use of his works a man could profit more in one year than if he studies the doctrine of others for his whole life.”

Pope St. Pius V. “[Aquinas is] the most brilliant light of the Church… [whose writings are] the most certain rule of Christian doctrine, by which he enlightened the Apostolic Church in answering conclusively numberless errors.”

Pope Benedict XIII. “[Aquinas’] works made the Church illustrious with wonderful erudition, since they march ahead and proceed with unimpeded step, protecting and vindicating by the surest rule of Christian doctrine, the truth of our holy religion.”

Pope Leo XIII. “This is the greatest glory of Thomas, altogether his own and shared with no other Catholic Doctor, that the Fathers of Trent, in order to proceed in an orderly fashion during the conclave, desired to have opened upon the altar together with the Scriptures and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas whence they could draw counsel, reasons and answers…”

Pope St. Pius X. “[Aquinas is] the leader and master of theology, whose divine genius fashioned weapons marvelously suited to protect the truth and destroy the many errors of the times… Indeed those who depart from Thomas, especially in Theology, seem to effect ultimately their own withdrawal from the Church… As We have said, one may not desert Aquinas, especially in philosophy and theology, without great harm; following him is the safest way to the knowledge of divine things… If the doctrine of any other author or saint has ever been approved at any time by Us or our predecessors with singular commendation joined with an invitation and order to propagate and to defend it, it may be easily understood that it was commended only insofar as it agreed with the principles of Aquinas or was in no way opposed to them.”

Pope Benedict XV. “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.”

Pope Pius XI. “Indeed, We so approve of the tributes paid to his almost divine brilliance that we believe Thomas should be called not only Angelic but Common or Universal Doctor of the Church. As innumerable documents of every kind attest, the Church has adopted his doctrine for her own… It is no wonder that the Church has made this light her own and has adorned herself with it, and has illustrated her immortal doctrine with it… It is no wonder that all the popes have vied with one another in exalting him, proposing him, inculcating him, as a model, master, doctor, patron and protector of all schools… Just as it was said of old to the Egyptians in time of famine: ‘Go to Joseph,’ so that they should receive a supply of corn to nourish their bodies, so to those who are now in quest of truth We now say: ‘Go to Thomas’ that they may ask from him the food of solid doctrine of which he has an abundance to nourish their souls unto eternal life.”

Pope St. John Paul II. “[T]he Magisterium has repeatedly acclaimed the merits of Saint Thomas’ thought and made him the guide and model for theological studies… The Magisterium’s intention has always been to show how Saint Thomas is an authentic model for all who seek the truth. In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason.”

Pope Benedict XVI. “[T]his was the great work of Thomas, who in that moment of encounter between two cultures — that moment in which it seemed that faith should surrender before reason — showed that they go together, that what seemed to be reason incompatible with faith was not reason, and what seemed to be faith was not faith, in so far as it was opposed to true rationality; thus he created a new synthesis, which shaped the culture of the following centuries.”

Decrying the Diminution of Aquinas

Given such accolades over the centuries, it is deeply to be regretted that one of the grave impoverishments during and after the Second Vatican Council was the near-wholesale abandonment of scholastic theological method in general, and the doctrine of St. Thomas in particular. What had been considered one of the Church’s greatest riches for over half a millennium was rapidly discarded, and the great reverence and deference once shown to the Common Doctor is only just beginning to recover.

A subtle but telling witness to this postconciliar shift can be observed in the handling of his liturgical feast, even the relocation of which is significant: The Church traditionally celebrated Aquinas’ Feast on March 7, since the great Saint died on this day in 1274 while traveling to assist at the Second Council of Lyons. March 7 is thus his “heavenly birthday,” upon which he entered his eternal reward to make intercession for us.

Furthermore, it is uniquely fitting that such a date should often fall in the midst of the Church’s Lenten observance; for as a master of theology, Aquinas often spoke of the value of asceticism – the disciplining of the passions – as a twofold means to greater freedom of intellect in order to perceive divine truth, and strength in the will in order to choose in accord with that truth. It was therefore a most instructive act of Providence that the good Doctor should go to God – and his earthly commemoration should frequently occur ever after – in the midst of the Church’s great season of fasting, abstinence, and increased spiritual discipline.

When the calendar of Saints was revised after Vatican II, the Saint’s feast was moved to January 28 (supplanting the date of the old Feast of the Translation of his relics); making it impossible to observe his feast in a penitential season. Yet perhaps most telling were the changes made in the readings and proper prayers of the day.

We here compare only the change made to the Collect, which stands as a kind of “orienting prayer” amid the various proper prayers (or orations) for a given feast. The traditional Latin of the Vetus Ordo is given below with a translation, while the Novus Ordo proper is offered in the current approved English version from the USCCB:

VETUS ORDO (VO): DEUS, qui Ecclesiam tuam beati Thomæ Confessoris tui mira eruditione clarificas, et sancta operatione fœcundas: da nobis, quæsumus; et quæ docuit, intellectu conspicere, et quæ egit, imitatione complere.

O God, through Whom Thy Church is made resplendent by the miraculous erudition of Thy blessed Confessor Thomas, and made fruitful still by his holy labours: grant, we pray, that what he taught we may grasp with our intellect, and what he practised we may fulfill by imitation.

NOVUS ORDO (NO): O God, who made Saint Thomas Aquinas outstanding in his zeal for holiness and his study of sacred doctrine, grant us, we pray, that we may understand what he taught and imitate what he accomplished.

A few changes stand out:

  • The NO does not maintain Aquinas’ learning as miraculous. The NO here betrays a consistently rationalist paradigm, as one of its striking features is the removal of every allusion to miracles in the propers of Saints. Even feasts of Our Lord and Lady were not spared: the orations for Our Lady of Lourdes no longer mention her apparition, those of Our Lady of the Rosary no longer mention her Rosary, the Transfiguration orations no longer mention the voice of the Father speaking from the cloud, and Christ’s raising of Lazarus has vanished.
  • The NO omits any mention of the Church. The entire focus of the VO collect for Aquinas is the edification of the Church: The Church is “made resplendent” and “fruitful” by God’s gifts in and through His “blessed Confessor,” as her assembled members request certain favors. In contrast, the NO considers the Saint in isolation, with no reference to his being in or for the Church, while her praying members are “disembodied” as it were, to an unspecified “we.”
  • The NO replaces Aquinas’ present efficacy with his past historical example. Whereas the VO exults in the glorification and fructification of the Church actively occurring in and through Aquinas’ scholarship and labors, the NO instead recalls the Saint and his work as static things of the past, which offer edifying example to the present; a marked shift to a more natural, humanist perspective.

In the face of these and so many other changes to customs that have affected the Church in the past sixty years, one may do well to end with the related teaching of Aquinas regarding changes to human law, outlined in Summa II.I.97:

It is absurd, and a detestable shame, that we should suffer those traditions to be changed which we have received from the fathers of old… Human law is rightly changed, in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal. But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave.

Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. Such compensation may arise either from some very great and every evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful… In establishing new laws, there should be evidence of the benefit to be derived, before departing from a law which has long been considered just.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Pray for Us!

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