Monday is the Memorial of the “Angelic Doctor,” the Dominican scholar Thomas Aquinas. He lived for 50 years (1224-1274), dying in southern Italy while on his way to an ecumenical council that hoped to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. His presence at that council might have made an extraordinary difference.
No one remembers him for that; instead, if you know his name, it’s because of his Summa Theologica, a multi-volume analysis and synthesis of Catholic doctrine expanded and explained by use of the newest, hottest form of philosophy of that day: Aristotle. As a small (perhaps not so small) example, the use of Aristotle’s categories and Thomas’ understanding of the Eucharist gave us the theological concept of transubstantiation.
Thomas’ approach in the Summa was consistent and highly “academic.” In an area of theology he might propose 5-6 topics for discussion, and then he would take them one-by-one. He’d begin by proposing an idea in a negative form: “It seems that [X] is not true…” Then he would offer 3-4 reasons why his negative statement was right. He would then “unload” with a quote from either Scripture or the Church Fathers, prefaced by “But on the other hand…”
This would lead to an interpretation of “the other hand,” followed by refutations of all the reasons he’d offered for the truth of his alternate statement. That being finished—let’s move on to the next proposition.
Why am I sharing all this with you? The reason is simple: Aquinas knew how to give proper respect to judgments and understandings that he disagreed with. This is exactly what our society (and, sadly, too often, our Church) seems to be incapable of. When I was teaching, I would tell students that I had no respect for their opinions—in fact, I had no respect for the principal’s opinions (I said that several times with him standing at the door of my classroom!). Then I would continue: “Opinions mean nothing. Show me the facts that underlie what you think; only then can we discuss intelligently.” Opinions are mostly nothing more than biases and pre-judgments, too often based on emotion.
It’s why the quote I used to introduce our ecumenical dialogue this past Sunday is important. St Peter Faber was one of the original Jesuits who went to Germany to interact with the Lutherans (this was the 2nd generation of the Reformation). I will repeat his words: “It is necessary for anyone who wants to help heretics [sic!] in the present age to hold them in great affection and love them very truly. One must…exclude all thoughts and feelings tending to discredit them. One must also win their good will and love by friendly discussion and conversation about matters on which we do not differ, taking care to avoid all controversial subjects that lead to bickering… The things that unite us ought to be the very basis of our approach.” In this light, I recommend that everyone re-read St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 14. Our Church needs to re-learn this lesson, as does our ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, as does our country.