750 years after St. Thomas Aquinas began his masterwork, its influence is still felt throughout the Church
When it comes to works of Catholic theology, there are few more significant than the Summa Theologica, a massive medieval compendium of theology written by St. Thomas Aquinas. Its author, who is not only a saint but also a Doctor of the Church, began composing this remarkable work in 1266 — 750 years ago.
“No single theological work in the history of Catholicism has had the impact of the Summa,” Bernard McGinn told Our Sunday Visitor. McGinn, now retired from teaching the history of Christian theology at the University of Chicago, is the author of “Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Biography” (Princeton University Press, $24.95).
Some of St. Thomas’ thinking was once considered heretical by some Church authorities, but the Summa (as it is known for short) went on to take a quasi-authoritative status within the Church that remains unparalleled. The current anniversary offers a good opportunity to take a closer look at this remarkable work.
Thomas Aquinas, born near Rome in 1225, was a friar of the Order of Preachers (also known as the Dominicans, after its founder, St. Dominic), which was still rather new when Thomas joined as a young man. Though some of his fellow friars took his quiet personality to suggest he was dim-witted, he was soon recognized by his superiors to be quite brilliant. (One legend says that his renowned teacher, St. Albert the Great, once scolded Thomas’ fellow friars. “You call him the dumb ox, but his teaching will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”)
After studies in Paris and Cologne, Thomas was assigned to teach theology to the friars, preparing them for their preaching apostolates. He was, in essence, a teacher of preachers.
He wrote prolifically, penning scholarly commentaries on Scripture, philosophy and doctrine. In his mid-30s, he wrote his well-known work of apologetics, the Summa Contra Gentiles, and several beautiful hymns on the Blessed Sacrament that are still used today. In 1265, at age 40, Thomas was sent to teach at Santa Sabina, the Dominican school in Rome. It was there, about a year later, that he set to work composing a grand summary of all of theology.
“After teaching theology for several years, Thomas felt that the standard textbook — Peter Lombard’s ‘Sentences’ — was not really conducive to good learning,” McGinn said. “He wanted to produce something better, a text that would allow for more effective teaching of theology. That was the Summa.”
Some of the work was handwritten by Thomas himself, but much of it was dictated to friars who painstakingly transcribed what he spoke aloud. It would become his greatest accomplishment.
An abrupt end
Thomas’s style is renowned for its clarity and rigorous logic. Working from what was already known, he probed for what else could be learned. For “what is already known,” he drew from the Bible (cited in the Summa more than any other source) and the Church Fathers, as well as Christian, Hebrew, Muslim and “pagan” sources. Particularly strong is the influence of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle.
But Thomas never actually finished the massive project. There is even record of the day he stopped working on it: Dec. 6, 1273. The standard account says he experienced a mystical vision on that day. Some modern historians wonder if something more commonplace was involved — perhaps a stroke or a mental breakdown under the stress of his enormous workload. These latter explanations do not exclude the more divine one.
Whatever it was, when his fellow friar asked him why he had stopped writing, Thomas is said to have responded, “Reginald, I cannot, because all I have written seems like straw to me.”
Thomas wrote nothing after that day, and he was dead three months later (which supports the idea that a more physical issue was involved in the first place). Other scholars later brought the work to completion.
Thomas’s Summa was soon adopted for use within the Dominican order. But it was not received quite so readily everywhere else.
A serious philosophical rivalry existed in the 13th century between the Dominicans and another prominent order, the Franciscans, and the new Summa stepped right into the middle of it. The dispute centered on whether and how much of Aristotle’s thinking ought to be incorporated into Catholic theology. The Franciscans were very cautious about Aristotle, while the Dominicans (including Thomas’ Summa) were far more open to it.
In 1277, just three years after Thomas’ death, the bishops of both Paris and Oxford, influenced by Franciscan thinking, issued condemnations of ideas they considered heretical. The condemnations were not directed specifically at Thomas, but there was no doubt to anyone familiar with his work that it was included.
But the suspicions of Thomas did not last long. He was canonized in 1323 by Pope John XXII, and his fame continued to grow after that.
“The pope who canonized Thomas Aquinas pointed to the Summa as all the evidence that was needed to make him a saint,” said Paul Symington, who teaches philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. “He said it was a work of unparalleled beauty and depth and coherence.”
Thomas was recognized as a Doctor of the Church in 1567. By that time, the Summa was a standard theological text throughout the Church. One legend says that at the Council of Trent, in the 16th century, a copy of the Summa was set up on the altar right beside the Bible to express the Church’s reliance on these two great sources of truth.
“We know that never happened. But the Summa did indeed have great importance within the Church by that point,” McGinn said.
The Summa’s popularity ebbed and waned over the centuries. It received a major boost from Pope Leo XIII, who, in an encyclical in 1879, called Thomas “the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic Faith” and insisted on a privileged place in theology and philosophy for his thinking.
Since then, its popularity has continued to rise and fall, but the work always retains a revered place.
“The Summa keeps bouncing back, rising to the top, being rediscovered through the centuries,” Symington said. “It is truly remarkable.”