On Aquinas, Philosophy and Theology

Faith “Protects Reason From Every Temptation to Mistrust Its Own Capacities”

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 16, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
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Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to continue a presentation of St. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian of such value that the study of his thought was explicitly recommended by the Second Vatican Council in two documents, the decree “Optatam Totius,” on formation for the priesthood, and the declaration “Gravissimum Educationis,” which deals with Christian education. However, already in 1880, Pope Leo XIII, who greatly esteemed [Thomas] and was a promoter of Thomistic studies, wished to declare St. Thomas the patron of Catholic schools and universities.
The main reason for this appreciation lies not only in the content of his teaching, but also in the method he used, above all his new synthesis and distinction between philosophy and theology. The Fathers of the Church had found themselves faced with different philosophies of a Platonic type, in which a complete vision of the world and of life was presented, including the question of God and of religion. In confronting these philosophies, they themselves elaborated a complete vision of reality, starting from the faith and using elements of Platonism, to respond to the essential questions of man. They called this vision, based on biblical revelation and elaborated with a correct Platonism in the light of faith, “our philosophy.” The word “philosophy” was not, therefore, the expression of a purely rational system and, as such, different from faith, but it indicated a comprehensive vision of reality, constructed in the light of faith, but made by and thought out by reason; a vision that, it is true, went beyond the capacity proper to reason, but that, as such, was also satisfying for it.

For St. Thomas the encounter with the pre-Christian philosophy of Aristotle (who died around 322 B.C.) opened a new perspective. Aristotelian philosophy was, obviously, a philosophy elaborated without knowledge of the Old and the New Testament, an explanation of the world without Revelation, by reason alone. And this consistent rationality was convincing. Thus the old form of the Fathers’ “our philosophy” no longer worked. The relationship between philosophy and theology, between faith and reason, had to be thought out again.

There existed a complete and convincing “philosophy” in itself, a rationality preceding faith, and then “theology,” thinking with the faith and in the faith. The pressing question was this: Are the world of rationality, philosophy thought out without Christ, and the world of faith compatible? Or do they exclude one another?

There was no lack of elements that affirmed the incompatibility between the two worlds, but St. Thomas was firmly convinced of their compatibility — more than that, that a philosophy elaborated without the knowledge of Christ almost awaited the light of Jesus to be complete. This was the great “surprise” of St. Thomas, which determined his path as a thinker. To show this independence of philosophy and theology and, at the same time, their reciprocal rationality was the historic mission of the great teacher. And thus we can understand why, in the 19th century, when an incompatibility between modern reason and faith was forcefully declared, Pope Leo XIII indicated St. Thomas as the guide in the dialogue between the one and the other.

In his theological work, St. Thomas presupposes and makes concrete this rationality. Faith consolidates, integrates and enlightens the patrimony of truth that human reason acquires. The trust that St. Thomas accords to these two instruments of knowledge — faith and reason — can lead back to the conviction that both proceed from the one source of all truth, the divine Logos, which operates both in the realm of creation as well as in that of redemption.
Together with the agreement between reason and faith, it must be acknowledged that they make use of different cognitive procedures. Reason accepts a truth on the strength of its intrinsic evidence, indirect or immediate; faith, instead, accepts a truth based on the authority of the Word of God who reveals himself. At the beginning of his Summa Theologiae St. Thomas writes: “The order of the sciences is twofold; some proceed from principles known through the natural light of reason, such as mathematics, geometry and similar ones; others proceed from principles known through a higher science: as perspective proceeds from principles known through geometry and music from principles known through mathematics. And in this way the sacred doctrine (namely, theology) is a science because it proceeds from principles known through the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and of the saints” (I, q. 1, a. 2).
This distinction ensures the autonomy both of human sciences as well as of the theological sciences. However, this is not the equivalent of separation, but implies rather a reciprocal and advantageous collaboration. Faith, in fact, protects reason from every temptation to mistrust its own capacities, it stimulates it to open to ever more vast horizons, it keeps alive in it the search for foundations and, when reason itself applies itself to the supernatural sphere of the relationship between God and man, it enriches its work. According to St. Thomas, for example, human reason can without a doubt attain to the affirmation of the existence of one God, but only faith, which receives divine Revelation, is able to attain to the mystery of the Love of God, One and Triune.
On the other hand, it is not only faith that helps reason. Reason also, with its means, can do something important for faith, rendering it a threefold service that St. Thomas summarizes in the preface of his commentary to Boethius’ De Trinitate: “To demonstrate the foundations of the faith; to explain through similarities the truth of the faith; to refute the objections that are raised against the faith” (q. 2, a. 2). The whole history of theology is, fundamentally, the exercise of this effort from the intelligence, which shows the intelligibility of faith, its internal articulation and harmony, its reasonableness and its capacity to promote the good of man. The correction of theological reasoning and its real cognitive meaning is based on the value of theological language, which is, according to St. Thomas, primarily an analogical language. The distance between God, the Creator, and the being of his creatures is infinite; the dissimilarity is always greater than the similarity (cf. DC 806). Despite this, in all the difference between Creator and creature, there is an analogy between created being and the being of the Creator, which enables us to speak with human words about God.
St. Thomas based the doctrine of analogy, as well as his exquisitely philosophical arguments, also on the fact that with Revelation, God himself has spoken to us and has, therefore, authorized us to speak of him. I consider it important to recall this doctrine. In fact, it helps us to surmount some objections of contemporary atheism, which denies that religious language is equipped with an objective meaning, and maintains instead that it has only a subjective or simply emotional value. This objection results from the fact that positivist thought is convinced that man does not know being, but only the functions of reality that are experienced. With St. Thomas and with the great philosophical tradition, we are convinced that, in reality, man does not only know the functions, object of the natural sciences, but he knows something of being itself — for example he knows the person, the you of the other, and not only the physical or biological aspect of his being.
In the light of this teaching of St. Thomas, theology affirms that, though limited, religious language is equipped with meaning — because we touch being — as an arrow directed toward the reality it signifies. This fundamental agreement between human re
ason and Christian faith is recognized in another basic principle of Aquinas’ thought: divine grace does not annul but supposes and perfects human nature. Human nature, in fact, even after sin, is not completely corrupt, but wounded and weakened. Grace, lavished by God and communicated through the Mystery of the Incarnate Word, is an absolutely free gift with which nature is healed, strengthened and aided in the pursuit of happiness, the innate desire in the heart of every man and every woman. All the faculties of the human being are purified, transformed and elevated by divine grace.
An important application of this relation between nature and grace is recognized in the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is very timely. At the center of his teaching in this field, he puts the new law, which is the law of the Holy Spirit. With a profoundly evangelical focus, he insists on the fact that this law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to all those who believe in Christ. To such grace is joined the written and oral teaching of the doctrinal and moral truths, transmitted by the Church. Stressing the fundamental role in moral life of the Holy Spirit’s action, of grace, from which the theological and moral virtues flow, St. Thomas makes one understand that every Christian can attain the lofty prospects of the “Sermon on the Mount” if he lives an authentic relationship of faith in Christ, if he opens himself to the action of his Holy Spirit. However — Aquinas adds — “even if grace is more effective than nature, still nature is more essential for man” (Summa Theologiae, Ia, q, 29, a. 3), due to which, in the Christian moral perspective, there is a place for reason, which is capable of discerning the natural moral law. Reason can recognize [this law] considering what is good to do and what is good to avoid to obtain that happiness which is in each one’s heart, and which also imposes a responsibility toward others and, hence, the search for the common good. In other words, the virtues of man, theological and moral, are rooted in human nature. Divine grace supports, sustains and drives the ethical commitment but, on their own, according to St. Thomas, all men, believers and non-believers, are called to recognize the exigencies of human nature expressed in natural law and to be inspired in it in the formulation of positive laws, that is, those issuing from the civil and political authorities to regulate human coexistence.
When the natural law and the responsibility it implies are denied, the way is opened dramatically to ethical relativism on the individual plane and to the totalitarianism of the state on the political plane. The defense of man’s universal rights and the affirmation of the absolute value of the dignity of the person postulate a foundation. Is not the natural law precisely this foundation, with the non-negotiable values that it indicates? The Venerable John Paul II wrote in his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” words that remain very timely: “It is therefore urgently necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy, to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person: values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect and promote” (No. 71).
In conclusion, Thomas proposes to us a broad and trustworthy concept of human reason: broad because it is not limited to the spaces of the so-called empirical-scientific reason, but open to the whole being and hence also to the fundamental and inalienable questions of human living; and trustworthy because human reason, above all if it accepts the inspirations of the Christian faith, is a promoter of a civilization that recognizes the dignity of the person, the intangibility of his rights and the strength of his duties. It is not surprising that the doctrine about the dignity of the person, fundamental for the recognition of the inviolability of man’s rights, matured in realms of thought that took up the legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas, who had a very lofty concept of the human creature. He defined it, with his rigorously philosophical language, as “that which is most perfect found in the whole of nature, that is a subsistent subject in a rational nature” (Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 29, a. 3).
The profundity of St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought stems — let us never forget it — from his lively faith and his fervent piety, which he expressed in inspired prayers, such as this one in which he asks God: “Grant me, I pray, a will that seeks you, a wisdom that finds you, a life that pleases you, a perseverance that waits for you with trust and a trust that in the end succeeds in possessing you.”
 [Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:] 
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Continuing our catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, we turn to the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which the Church has consistently upheld as a model of sound theological method. Thomas’ insistence on the harmony of faith and reason respected the autonomy and complementarity of these two ways of knowing the truth which has its ultimate origin in God’s Word. Faith sheds fuller light on the truths which reason is naturally capable of knowing, while drawing from revelation a supernatural knowledge of the divine mysteries and the Triune God himself. Reason for its part serves to demonstrate faith’s credibility, to defend its teaching, and to show its inner consistency and intelligibility. The complementary relationship between faith and reason reflects the truth that God’s grace build on, elevates and perfects human nature, which is thus enabled to pursue the felicity which is its deepest desire. Thomas’ conviction that we are naturally able to acknowledge the principles of the natural moral law remains timely, since that law, grounded in the truth of man’s nature, is the basis of respect for human dignity and universal human rights. Saint Thomas is the patron of Catholic schools and universities; let us ask him to obtain for all of us the wisdom and understanding born of a deep and living Christian faith!
I am pleased to greet the English-speaking visitors present in today’s audience, especially the many parish and student groups. I offer a warm welcome to all who have come from Hong Kong, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!
©Copyright 2010 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana
 [In Italian, he said:] 
I greet, finally, young people, the sick and newlyweds. Dear young people always draw from Christ present in the Eucharist the spiritual food to advance along the way of sanctity; for you, dear sick people, may Christ be the support and comfort in your trial and suffering; and for you, dear newlyweds, may the sacrament which has rooted you in Christ be the source that nourishes your daily love.
 [Translation by ZENIT]

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