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The Letter was published on 5th December 1974. The Latin text appeared in the Italiam edition of L’Osservatore Romano the following day. This translation is that of Matthew O’Connell which appears in The Pope Speaks, Vol.19, n.4, 1975, p.287-307. The Latin text of the letter may be viewed also at the Vatican web address—
The Latin footnotes have been simplified slightly with assistance from the O’Connell translation.

Beloved Son, Our best wishes and Apostolic Benediction!

1. St Thomas Aquinas, rightly called ‘a light for the Church and the whole world’, has been the object of special attention and veneration during 1974. For this year marks the 700 th anniversary of his death at the monastery of Fossanuova on March 7 th, 1274, while on his way to the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons at the bidding of Our Predecessor, Blessed Gregory X. The anniversary has been the occasion for new research, publications and conferences in many universities and houses of higher studies, especially here in Rome where the Order of Preachers, St Thomas’s own religious family, sponsored an impressive congress. The picture of the great hall of the Papal University of St Thomas Aquinas filled with scholars from all over the world, is still vivid in Our memory. On that occasion We congratulated these men on their noble work and encouraged them to continue it; in their presence We also contributed Our share of praise to the great Doctor of the Church. A short time later We called attention to “the extraordinary, even if unforeseen, ‘return’ of St Thomas, which has confirmed the wisdom of the supreme Magisterium in declaring him to be the authoritative, irreplaceable guide in philosophy and theology”.[1] For there are numerous indications that his teaching arouses deep interest in men’s minds, even today.

2. Our purpose in this letter is to explain Our earlier statement more fully by pointing out a number of elements in the teaching of Aquinas which are very important for the defence and deeper understanding of divine revelation. Because of these elements the Church has in the past recommended him, and recommends him today to our contemporaries, as a master in the art of thinking (to use Our own description of him[2]) and as a guide both in integrating philosophy with theology and, more generally, in properly and suitably ordering the higher and more difficult forms of knowledge.

We must therefore give Our explicit approval to those who maintain that, even 700 years after his death, the holy Doctor is to be venerated not only as a supreme genius and teacher of the past but also for the continuing relevance of his principles, teaching and method. At the same time We wish to point out the reasons for the scientific authority attributed to him by the Magisterium and ecclesiastical institutions, and especially by many of Our predecessors who have not hesitated to call him the ‘Common Doctor of the Church’, following the precedent set in 1317.[3]

Our motive in following the Magisterium’s long and venerable tradition is not simply respect for the authority of Our predecessors. We are also impelled by the objective value of his teaching, by the profit to be derived (as We Ourself can testify) from the study and consultation of his writings, and by the power of his teaching to persuade and form the minds of students, especially the younger ones. We Ourselves experienced the truth of this last statement when We exercised an apostolate among Catholic university students who had been inspired by Our predecessor of happy memory, Pius XI, to apply themselves to the study of the Angelic Doctor.[4]

3. We are aware that not all of our contemporaries share Our view. But We know too that their distrust or repugnance is often due to a superficial and casual acquaintance with his teaching; in fact, at times those who reject him have not even read and studied his works. Therefore, like Pius XI, We urge all who wish to form a mature judgement in this matter: ‘Go to Thomas’![5] Obtain and read his works, not simply to find safe nourishment in his rich intellectual treasures but also, and especially, to gain a personal grasp of the sublimity, abundance and importance of the doctrine contained therein.


4. To form a correct estimate of the perennial influence of St Thomas’s teaching on the Church and scholarly circles it is not enough to acquire a direct and full knowledge of his writings. We must also take into account the historical and intellectual context in which he lived and did his work as teacher and writer.

It will be helpful here simply to recall the major features of that period for against this background the chief teachings of the holy Doctor in the areas of religion, theology, philosophy and social thought will stand out the more clearly.

Some have characterised the period as a ‘proto-renaissance’, and indeed the spiritual forces which would later reveal their full innovative power seem to have been already at work throughout the period of Aquinas’s life [1225-1274].

5. The historian of the social and political scene is quite familiar with the events which radically changed the face of Europe: the victory of the Italian communes over the ancient rule of the medieval empire which was now in its decline; the promulgation of Magna Carta in England; the establishment of the Hanseatic League embracing those free cities of northern Europe which were engaged in shipping and commerce; the progressive change in the Frankish kingdom; the economic development in the wealthy cities, among which Florence was one of the more remarkable; the intellectual development in the great universities, among them the school of theology in Paris, the school of civil and canon law in Bologna and the school of medicine in Salerno; the spread of the scientific discoveries and philosophical treatises of the Spanish Arabs, and finally, new relations with the East after the Crusades.

This same period saw the beginnings, in both communes and the national monarchies, of the intellectual and political development that led in the 14 th and 15 th centuries to the modern states we know today. The Christian commonwealth, based on the unity of religion throughout Europe, was giving way to a new and intensely nationalist spirit that soon permeated the whole life and activity of the European civic community. Things were thus much different from the situation in the Middle Ages, which were dominated by the relationship between two supreme, interrelated and mutually helpful powers: the papal and the imperial. After the death of Aquinas, Dante Alighieri would vainly urge that relationship as the perfect model for the political order.

The 13th century saw a notable tendency to assert the autonomy or freedom of the temporal order from the sacral and spiritual order, and therefore of the State from the Church. It also saw in almost every area of life and culture an ardent pursuit of temporal values and a new interest in earthly realities that deepened as human reason threw off the control of religious faith. On the other hand the growth of the mendicant orders in this same century led to a widespread spiritual movement of renewal; inspired by love of poverty and guided by study of the Gospel, the movement caused Christians to realise more fully the need of returning to the authentic spirit of the Gospel.

St Thomas was at the centre of the ferment in the human and divine sciences and had an attentive eye for the current political developments. He accepted without hesitation the new conditions of life in his day and saw in them the ‘signs’ of those universal principles of reason and faith by which the doings of men are to be evaluated and events are to be judged. He held that the values and institutions of this world possess a relative autonomy, even while he uncompromisingly maintained the transcendent power and superiority of the ultimate goal to which all things earthly are to be ordered and subordinated, the Kingdom of God, which is the place of man’s salvation and the basis of his freedom and dignity.[6]

6. This general outlook was accompanied by a theory of the relations between culture and religion, human reason and faith. This theory Thomas worked out in the light of the new questions being asked and the new positions being elaborated in philosophy and theology by way of response to the social and intellectual advances of the day.

During this period men were increasingly taking for granted the need of rational investigation in all areas, the kind of dialectical investigation which Abelard had been promoting at the University of Paris in the previous century. In an earlier time, people had simply accepted the authority of tradition as binding. Now they found it necessary to confront the data of tradition with the findings of reason, to discuss various opinions, to apply logic to the demonstration of propositions, to engage in passionate argument over all kinds of questions, and to analyse language in a detailed, systematic way and for purposes which seem an anticipation of the scientific approach taken in modern semantics.

In this intellectual climate disciplines first emerged which, without at all denying God’s presence and action in the natural world, attempted to explain by natural causes the ordinary course of events in our visible world. This development is to be seen in many Christian writers of the time, chief among them St Thomas’s own teacher, St Albert the Great, whom Our Predecessor Pius XII declared the patron of students of the natural sciences.[7]

7. It is true, of course, that the experimental method of scientific research was hardly at all used as yet and that the tools (though foreseen by Roger Bacon) did not exist at this time for applying natural science to the modification of matter so as to render the latter more serviceable to man. But no one any longer doubted the power and importance of rational investigation and interpretation of the created universe.

For this reason, scholarly circles welcomed the works of Aristotle which were made available first by the Arabs and later by new Christian translators. Among the latter was William of Moerbeke, a papal penitentiary and fellow Dominican and collaborator of St Thomas.[8] The works of Aristotle were models of that feeling for nature and that sound judgement or realism which, in the view of many, are valuable attitudes for the student and, in addition, an excellent basis for the new approach to philosophical and scientific research.

8. At this point, however, a serious problem arises: that of finding a new way of conceiving the relationship between faith and reason, or, to state the problem in its most general form, the relationship between the whole created order and the order of religious truth and especially of the Christian message.

In this matter there is evident danger of falling into either of two opposite errors: a naturalism which completely eliminates God from the world and especially from Man’s life, and a false supernaturalism, or fideism, which seeks to avoid any doctrinal or spiritual decline by using the principle of authority to suppress the legitimate demands of reason and the development of the natural order. In fideism, however, the principle of authority is extended beyond its proper sphere, namely, the truths of faith revealed by Christ which are the seeds in us of the life to come and which completely transcend the limits of the human intellect.

These two dangers have often arisen throughout the centuries, both before and after St Thomas’s time. In our own day they wait, like Scylla and Charybdis, for those who incautiously involve themselves in the many problems raised by the relations between faith and reason. In thus involving themselves, men may be showing the kind of innovative daring St Thomas showed in his day, but they often lack the clear vision and balance which the great doctor possessed in a supreme degree.

St Thomas was undoubtedly very bold in pursuit of the truth. He showed great liberty of spirit in dealing with new questions and the intellectual honesty characteristic of those who, while not permitting any contamination of Christian truth by a secularist philosophy, refuse to reject such philosophies a priori and without examination. In the history of Christian thought, therefore, Thomas is regarded as a pioneer on the new road to be travelled thenceforth by all philosophers and scientists. The teaching in which he gave the prophetic answer of genius to the question of the new relation between faith and reason rests on a harmonisation of the world’s secularity with the radical demands of the Gospel. He thus avoided the unnatural tendency to despise the world and its values, while at the same time not betraying in any way the basic, inflexible principles governing the supernatural order.

The whole doctrinal synthesis of St Thomas is in fact based on the golden principle which he enunciates from the opening pages of the Summa Theologiae: Grace does not diminish nature but brings it to fulfilment, while nature is subordinate to grace, reason to faith and human love to divine charity.[9] God’s grace which is the source of eternal life, presupposes and imbues with new energies[10] the whole complex of powers and faculties—existence (esse), intelligence and love—through which the vital forces of human nature are brought into play.[11] The full perfection of the natural man is therefore to be achieved in the supernatural order through a redemptive purification and a sanctification that raises man to a new sphere of being. The supernatural reaches its own definitive unfolding only in heavenly beatitude, but nonetheless it leads us even during our earthly lives to a splendidly harmonious synthesis of authentic values. The synthesis—by which We mean Christian life itself in its full form—is of course, difficult to attain, but it has an intense attraction for the human spirit.

9. St Thomas thus overcame the kind of exaggerated supernaturalism that flourished in the medieval schools and at the same time stood firm against the secularism that was being broadcast in the European universities through a naturalistic interpretation of Aristotle. He showed clearly in his teaching and in the example of his scientific approach to reality, how a full and unconditional fidelity to the word of God was to be united in teaching and in life to a mind unreservedly open to the world and its authentic values. To put it another way: He united the fervent pursuit of innovation and progress with the intention of constructing his doctrinal edifice on the solid basis of tradition.

Thomas was not interested simply in new ideas and questions or in the new positions and oppositions of reason in regard to faith. He was also concerned to study carefully the Sacred Scriptures in respect of which, indeed, he had been carrying out exegesis since the beginning of his career as master at Paris, and together with the Scriptures, the works of the holy Fathers and other Christian writers, the theological and juridical tradition of the Church and the philosophies both of antiquity and of the more recent past (not only Aristotelian philosophy, but Platonic, neo-Platonic, Roman, Christian, Arabic and Jewish as well). He would allow no break with the past, for that would have been, in his eyes, to cut himself off from his roots. Instead, he made St Paul’s words part of his very being: Remember that you do not support the root; the root supports you. (Romans 11:18)

For the same reason he was most submissive to the teaching authority of the Church, the function of which is to preserve the rule of faith[12] and to determine its precise meaning for all the faithful and especially for theologians. The Church has a divine mission to do so and an ongoing assistance that Christ has promised will never fail the shepherds of his flock.[13] St Thomas held, moreover, that in the teaching office of the Roman Pontiff resided the supreme authority to resolve in a definitive way all questions concerning the faith.[14] For this reason he asked, as he lay dying, that all his writings be submitted for the Pope’s judgement; perhaps he expressed such a wish because he was fully aware of the vast scope and bold originality of his work.[15]

10. St Thomas saw it as his life’s purpose to pursue the truth and serve it with all his powers and he carried out his mission in an extraordinary way by his teaching and his writing. His zeal won for him the well-deserved title ‘apostle of truth’ and the privilege of being proposed to all the teachers of the world as their model. But beyond this he stands before us also as a marvellous example of the Christian scholar who, in his openness to the new forces shaping his age and his response to the new demands of a developing culture, thinks it in no wise necessary to abandon the path marked out by faith, tradition and the Magisterium. All of these, after all, bring him the riches of antiquity and bear the seal of divine truth. In remaining faithful to this divine truth the Christian scholar does not reject the truths which reason has uncoverd in the past or the present for he knows (as the Angelic Doctor tells us) that the truth whoever may speak it, originates in the Holy Spirit: Every truth, no matter who utters it, is from the Holy Spirit, since he bestows the natural power of knowing and moves the person to understand and express the truth.[16]

11. Thomas’s deep roots in divine faith also kept him from ever being a slavish follower of human teachers, ancient or modern. Even Aristotle is no exception. St Thomas’s mind was certainly open to all truth, from whatever doctrinal source it might come; that is a first element in his universalism. But there is a second, equally important, that perhaps shows his personal genius even more clearly: the supreme freedom with which he approached all authors, refusing to let himself be overawed by the statements of any earthly authority. This liberty and independence of mind in philosophy is a mark of his real greatness as a thinker.

His first concern in philosophy was the truth and his judgement on any opinion was based not on the authority of the speaker but on the reasons given for the position.[17] Consequently, he was completely free in dealing with the views of Aristotle, Plato and others and never became an Aristotelian or a Platonist in any strict sense of these terms.

The independence of mind clearly allies him with those who follow the strict procedures and methods of the positive sciences. It also enabled Aquinas to detect and avoid the pitfalls of Averroism, to fill in the lacunae and correct the defects of Plato and Aristotle, and to construct a theory of knowledge and an ontology which are flawless in their objectivity and balance.[18]

The attitude of Thomas to all the great masters of human thought manifested itself in three ways. First, he had an immense admiration for the intellectual patrimony these men had gathered, augmented and passed on to others.[19] Second, he recognised the value and significance but also the limitations of the work of each thinker.[20] Finally, he was compassionate towards those who, like the wise men of antiquity, lacked the light of faith and were prey to an anguish no human power could alleviate as they asked the great questions about human life and especially about man’s ultimate end,[21] in comparison with whom the humblest old lady who believes in the truth of Christianity is utterly free of that anxiety and is far more enlightened by God than were those great men of genius.[22]

12. St Thomas himself, though his keen-eyed search for truth led him to the highest regions the human mind can reach, nonetheless accepted like a child the lofty and ineffable mysteries of the Christian faith. He used to kneel before the crucifix and the altar and ask God for the intellectual power and the purity of heart that would enable him to gain clear insight into the hidden mysteries of the Godhead.[23] He freely admitted to having gained his knowledge of those mysteries more by prayer than by study,[24] and so vivid was his sense of God’s transcendence that for him the basic premise of all theological research was the acknowledgment that in this life we understand God more perfectly in proportion as we realise that he is beyond the grasp of our intellect.[25] This statement is not to be regarded only as the first principle and foundation of the method that produces an ‘apophatic theology’. It is also a sign of Thomas’s own intellectual humility and spirit of adoration.

St Thomas thus combined a deep Christian spirit with an acute speculative mind that welcomed all the knowledge gained in antiquity or more recent times. It is no wonder then that amid the crises of the 13 th century he was able to find new ways of properly relating reason and faith; that in the moment of need he prevented theology from deviating under the pressure of new philosophical opinions; that he rendered untenable any ambiguous harmonisation of rational and revealed truth; finally, that he refuted the dualists who by their doctrine of the ‘double truth’ (the truths of reason and the truths of faith, though contradictory, may both be maintained on different grounds by Christians) were destroying the unity of Christian man and already giving their support to tensions which, once the balanced teaching of St Thomas had been abandoned, would rend the whole of European culture.[26]

13. In bringing to completion a work which marks the high point of medieval Christian thought, St Thomas did not labour in isolation. Both before and after his time many other brilliant teachers worked toward the same goal, among them St Bonaventure (the seventh centenary of whose death is also being celebrated this year), St Albert the Great, Alexander of Hales and Duns Scotus. Yet there can be no doubt that in God’s providential plan St Thomas represents the high point of all Scholastic theology and philosophy and that his works are the main foundation on which all Christian teaching in the Church, then and now, can firmly rest and safely grow.

To St Thomas, then, the Common Doctor of the Church, we give our heartfelt acclaim during this seventh centenary of his death, in gratitude for what he accomplished for the good of the whole Christian people and in public acknowledgment and praise of his imperishable greatness.


14. It is not only when we consider the historical and cultural context of Aquinas’s activity that he appears so eminent. His greatness is also to be found in his teaching which has retained its surpassing excellence through the ages from the 13 th century to our own day. Over the centuries the Church has recognised the perennial value and importance of Thomistic teaching; it has done so especially at certain solemn moments, such as the Ecumenical Councils of Florence, Trent and Vatican I,[27] the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law[28] and in Vatican Council II to which We shall return.

Our predecessors, moreover, and We Ourself have frequently confirmed the authority of St Thomas. All should be aware that this approval does not spring from a blind zeal for traditional doctrine with its supposed ignorance of historical development and a fear of progress. It represents rather a careful choice based on objective considerations that are intrinsic to the philosophy and theology of Aquinas. These considerations justify us in seeing in him a man whom God in His wisdom has given to the Church, a man who by the originality and power of his work set Christian thought on a new track, especially in regard to the relationship between reason and faith.

15. A brief summary of the reasons referred to must suffice. There is, first of all, the cognitive and ontological realism that is the chief characteristic of St Thomas’s philosophy. We may speak also of a critical realism which, based as it is on sense knowledge and therefore on objective reality, gives an authentic, well-grounded meaning to the notion of existence (esse). This realism also makes possible the further intellectual activity in which sense data, though universalised, are not lost sight of so as to plunge the mind into the dialectical vortex of merely subjective knowledge and then, inexorably, into a more or less complete agnosticism.

The first object of the intellect is being, says the Angelic Doctor in a famous passage.[29] On this basic principle St Thomas builds a theory of knowledge whose most important novelty is that it balanced analysis and evaluation of both sense experience and the authentic data garnered by consciousness in the process of knowledge. St Thomas’s doctrine can therefore be described as a ‘philosophy of being’, for being is considered both in its transcendentality and in the conditions required for its existence. This philosophy, as is well known, also enables Aquinas to develop a theology of divine Being as self-subsistent and self-revealing in the divine Word, in the events which make up the economy of salvation and especially in the mystery of the Incarnation.

Our predecessor, Pius XI, praised this ontological and cognitive realism when he spoke these significant words to university students: In Thomism we have what might be called a natural Gospel and a very solid basis and framework for the whole doctrinal structure. For it is characteristic of Thomism to be concerned first and foremost with the objective order. The intellectual structures it builds are not pure abstractions but follow the lead given by reality itself… Thomistic teaching will never lose its superiority and power, for that could happen only if reality itself were to lose its superiority and power.[30]

16. For such a philosophy and theology to be possible the human intellect must of course be able to know the true. The intellect, basically a healthy faculty, is endowed with a certain sense of being. It tends toward union with being in every experience, great or small, of things as they are; it seeks to take the latter into itself and then to consider the ultimate reasons and causes which provide a definitive explanation of these realities. As befits a Christian philosopher and theologian, St Thomas sees in every being a participation in the absolute Being Which creates, sustains and activates from above the whole of created reality, all life, every thought and every act of faith.

On the basis of these principles Aquinas exalts human reason and thereby provides the student of theology with a powerful aid. At the same time he makes it possible to penetrate and gain a deep understanding of numerous truths which he himself quickly grasped with his sharp mind.

The same may be said of Thomas’s positions on the transcendental properties and analogy of being; the structure of finite being as composed of essence and existence; the relation between created realities and the divine Being; the causal role of created beings which depends dynamically on the causality exercised by God; the full ontological reality of the activity of finite beings, a reality which affects all parts of philosophy and of doctrinal, moral and ascetical theology; the organic structure and finality of the whole created order.

If we raise our eyes to the realm of divine truth itself, we must say the same of Thomas’s positions with regard to the notion of God as subsistent Being whose hidden interior life is made known to us through revelation; the defence of divine transcendence against every form of pantheism; the doctrines of creation and divine providence, in which St Thomas not only passed beyond the images and darkling shadows of anthropomorphic language but also, as we would expect from a man of his balanced genius and spirit of faith, effected what we today might call a ‘demythologisation’ but which might more correctly be described as an examination—rational in character but directed, supported and motivated by faith—of essential truths of Christian revelation.

By his method and by the positions he took St Thomas enhanced the activity of human reason and at the same time most effectively served the faith, as Our predecessor Leo XIII said of the Angelic Doctor in these memorable words: By clearly distinguishing reason from faith, as is only proper, yet at the same time harmoniously linking the two, he preserved the rights and dignity of each. Reason, carried to its human heights by the soaring mind of Thomas, can hardly rise higher, while faith can hardly expect reason to supply it with greater helps than it derived from Thomas.[31]

17. There is a further reason for the abiding power and importance of St Thomas’s teaching. Having once made the universality and transcendence of certain supreme notions the basis of his philosophy (the notion of being) and theology (the notion of divine Being), he logically refused to construct a doctrinal synthesis that is self contained and limited. Instead he so organised his teaching that it can be continually enriched and augmented. His work of integrating the findings of ancient and medieval philosophy as well as elements, far fewer in number, from the old natural sciences can be done again and again with regard to any valid contribution of philosophy or the most advanced natural sciences of later times. This possibility is confirmed by the experience of many authors who have found in St Thomas’s teaching excellent aids for integrating numerous particular conclusions of philosophy and science into the framework provided by a universalist vision.

18. We must insist again on one point. The Church does not hesitate, of course, to acknowledge certain limitations in the teaching of St Thomas, especially insofar as that teaching is closely bound with medieval ideas in cosmology and biology. At the same time, however, she warns us that not all philosophical and scientific opinions can claim an equal place in a Christian view of the world or can even claim to be Christian at all. Thomas did not grant that prerogative even to the philosophers of antiquity, among them the Aristotle so dear to him; he did not accept their teachings entirely and uncritically. In their regard, Aquinas followed principles which are still valid for determining whether or not Christians may accept a contemporary philosophical or scientific doctrine.

Aristotle and other philosophers, once they had been corrected in certain areas and then adapted, could be and still can be accepted because of the evidently universal validity of their principles, their careful attention to objective reality and their acknowledgement of one God distinct from the world. But the same cannot be said of every philosophy or scientific view. At times the basic principles governing a philosophy or scientific position cannot be harmonised with religious faith due to an underlying monism or a denial of transcendent reality or subjectivism or agnosticism.

It is regrettable indeed that many doctrines and systems of our day are thoroughly irreconcilable with Christian faith and theology. But here again St Thomas comes to our aid by showing us how particular elements in these systems can be used in the ongoing development and completion of Christian teaching or, at least, how these systems can stimulate us to reflection on points earlier ignored or inadequately explained.

19. The method St Thomas followed in comparing and assimilating the views of others can also be a model for today’s student. It seems clear that Thomas engaged in an intellectual dialogue with all the wise teachers of antiquity and his own time, both Christian and non-Christian. He carefully examined their assertions, opinions, doubts and difficulties; he enquired into the intellectual causes and bases of these and not infrequently looked as well to the social and cultural context of their thinking. Then he would set forth their ideas, especially in the various Disputed Questions and the two Summas. He did not, however, think of these ideas primarily as difficulties to be solved or objections to be answered. He was interested rather in presenting the dialectical process by which he had been led to certain positions through arguments requiring careful reflection and examination. At times, in a serene and noble spirit, he entered the lists when there was need of defending some truth ‘against the errors of…’, ‘against the pagans’, ‘against those who attack…’ and so forth. But even on such occasions he was at the same time always carrying on a conversation and doing it with a mind fully alert and ready to recognise and accept the truth, no matter from what source it came. More than once he felt impelled to give a more favourable and benign interpretation to views which the debate had shown to be untenable. It was in this fashion that he managed to construct a magnificent, carefully organised edifice of doctrine which is universally valid and makes him a teacher even for our own time.

20. We turn now to a final quality which contributes greatly to the perennial usefulness and superiority of St Thomas’s teaching. This is the lucid, terse and pointed style which he acquired and perfected in the course of teaching, debating and writing his books. It will be enough to quote the words of the ancient Dominican liturgy for his feast day: Brevity and pleasing eloquence; doctrine that is heavenly, sure and clear.[32] Such a style is not the least reason why our contemporaries may profitably turn to St Thomas for help. The language of today is often too complicated and obscure or too clumsy and disordered or even too ambiguous to serve as a vehicle for brilliant thinking and as a bond between those whose calling it is to assimilate and communicate the truth.


21. During the 700 th anniversary of St Thomas’s death it will be profitable to recall the Church’s view of his role in the proper organisation of philosophical and theological studies. This will in turn make it clear why the Church has required Catholic schools to regard Aquinas as their Common Doctor in these areas and to follow his teaching.

The Roman Pontiffs gave authoritative support to St Thomas’s doctrine even during his own lifetime. They protected the teacher himself and defended his teaching against his opponents. After his death, when some of his views had been condemned by local authorities, the Church did not cease honouring this faithful steward of truth and approved the veneration of the faithful for him by declaring him a saint on July 18, 1323, and Doctor of the Church on April 11, 1567.

22. By these actions the Church was acknowledging the teaching of St Thomas to be a complete, faithful and sublime expression both of her own doctrine and of ‘the sense of the faith’ that is inherent in the people of God as a whole. For in Thomas the teaching of the Church and ‘the sense of the faith’ had found their splendid manifestation in a man who was endowed with all the necessary gifts and had come on the scene at an opportune historical moment.

To put the matter briefly: the Church officially approves the teaching of the Angelic Doctor and uses it as an instrument superbly adapted to her purposes, thus casting the mantle of her own magisterial authority over Aquinas, as she does (even if in lesser degree) over her other great doctors. Our predecessor Pius XI made this point when he wrote in his encyclical Studiorum Ducem: The entire Christian universe is interested that this centenary [the 600 th anniversary of St Thomas’s canonisation] be worthily observed… since, in honouring St Thomas, they deal not only with his glories but with the teaching authority of the Church.[33]

23. It would take far too long to list all the expressions of veneration that the Church or the Popes have bestowed on St Thomas. It will be enough here to recall that at the end of the last century, when the imbalance between faith and reason ws producing results that all could see, the Church and the Popes once again urged the example and teaching of Aquinas as promoting the unity of religious faith, culture and civic life in new ways adapted to a new age.

The Apostolic See invited and encouraged a renaissance of Thomistic studies. Our predecessors, beginning with Leo XIII and following the impetus he had given in his encyclical Aeterni Patris, have recommended the study of St Thomas and a love for his teaching. Their intention has been to show that his doctrine is in harmony with divine revelation[34]; that he united faith and reason while preserving the rights of each[35]; and that the importance given to his teaching, far from discouraging the zealous quest for truth, stimulates it and guides it along safe paths.[36] The Church has, moreover, shown a preference for the teaching of St Thomas by declaring it to be her own[37] (this is not at all to say that one may not follow another school recognised by the Church[38]) and preferring it on the basis of centuries old experience.[39] Even today the Church makes the teaching of the Angelic Doctor the basis of the theological training given to those whose role it will be to confirm and strengthen their brothers in the faith.[40]

24. The Second Vatican Council on two occasions recommended St Thomas to Catholic schools. In discussing the training of priests the Council said: In order to cast light as completely as possible upon the mysteries of salvation, the students should learn to go into them more deeply and to perceive the connection between them through the use of speculation with St Thomas as their master.[41] Then, in its Declaration on Christian Education, the Ecumenical Council exhorted schools of higher learning to give careful and attentive consideration… to the latest modern questions and research so that a more profound vision may result of how faith and reason work together towards the one truth. In this context the Council immediately goes on to say that in this matter the schools are to follow the lead of the Doctors of the Church and especially of St Thomas Aquinas.[42] This was the first time an Ecumenical Council had recommended an individual theologian, and St Thomas was the one deemed worthy of the honour.

As far as We ourself are concerned, it will be enough to quote among various statements, the following words which We spoke on one occasion: Those whose function it is to teach… should listen reverently to the Doctors of the Church, St Thomas chief among them. So great is the genius of the Angelic Doctor, so unalloyed his love of truth, and so profound his wisdom in penetrating, shedding light on and unifying among themselves even the loftiest truths, that his teaching is a most effective means not only of safeguarding the foundations of the faith but also of promoting its development along secure, healthy and profitable lines.[43]

25. St Thomas, as We have explained, has indeed left his mark on past centuries. But does he have anything to offer to our age? Many of our contemporaries, more openly than men of other times, deny or doubt that the Gospel has any relevance to them. And it is not only non-Christians who feel this way. Some Catholics share the feeling as they compare their beliefs with those of modern society and with the principles which are the basis of their own secular culture. The objections are often raised in the name of modern linguistic analysis and people like to claim that the language or vocabulary of faith has become obscure and meaningless.

To these challenges We should add the constantly renewed attacks upon the great works which contain the syntheses of Scholastic teaching. Frequently, however, no adequate distinction is made between the faith itself and its theological elaboration. The language of Scholastic theology is often said to be unacceptable and indeed incomprehensible, since it depends on an ancient philosophy and is an interpretation of views of the world and the human condition which are poles apart from our own. Nor could it be otherwise (the objection runs), since the natural sciences, technology, social relations, culture, political life and so on, have all changed radically in the meantime. There has been a transformation in the rational method for handling philosophical questions and applying the powers of the human mind to the things of faith. A theological system from that now distant age is not adapted to reality as perceived at the present stage of human development, nor can we now use the words which the authors of those systems and their contemporaries used in identifying reality. Consequently, although the medieval mentality was still alive until quite recently, the theological thinking of St Thomas or any other Scholastic writer has now become too difficult for us. It requires time and effort of any who would familiarise themselves with it, and has turned increasingly into a preserve for specialists.

The recent Ecumenical Council was well aware of this development and deliberately adopted a new standpoint for the Church’s reflection on herself and on her presence in a world she knows to be very different from before. Are we therefore to say that St Thomas should now be numbered among those who are an obstacle rather than a help to the spread of Christian faith and truth?

To avoid this question or to minimise its importance is certainly to betray the spirit of St Thomas Aquinas who always sought eagerly for every possible source of knowledge. We are convinced that were he among us today he would be no less eager to investigate the forces that are bringing about changes in man, his conditions, his manner of thinking and his way of life. Whatever would help him now to speak of God more worthily and persuasively than ever before would be in his eyes a cause for rejoicing. Yet in all this he would never lose that serene, magnanimous sense of security which faith alone can bestow on the human mind.

The Church’s scholars—and We include professors and researchers in the sacred sciences—are much more keenly aware today than in the past of the deep and comprehensive changes that have occurred and of the serious need of evaluating, in the light of the present, what for centuries had been regarded as the essentials of the Christian religion. Consequently, they are less ready to listen to St Thomas. It seems useful, therefore, to add to the praises this man of genius will always deserve some words on the necessity and proper manner of using his works today if we are to profit by his spirit and thinking.

26. First, we should avoid the mistake only too often made of thinking it as easy to approach the teaching of the Scholastics today as it was in the past. It is not enough to present a material summary of that teaching using the formulas, the set of problems and the kind of exposition which were customary in an older day. Such an approach not only does not guarantee fidelity to an author’s teaching; it also renders more difficult the very understanding we so much need today, and can even deprive of their power the seminal ideas presented to the mind for assimilation.

Those especially, therefore, whose ecclesiastical calling obliges them to the study and teaching of theology must energetically apply themselves to the indispensable task of making the Angelic Doctor’s teaching understood in all its vitality outside the narrow confines of the classroom. By doing so they can be guides to those who have not themselves the leisure for this deeper study, yet need to know the main lines of Thomas’s teaching, its doctrinal balance and especially the spirit that permeates and shapes all his writings. This work of renewing and adapting the doctrinal patrimony of Scholasticism generally and of St Thomas in particular must evidently be carried on within the broader perspectives provided by Vatican II in the passage already quoted from its Decree on Training for the Priesthood. This means that dogmatic theology must draw its essential nourishment more extensively from the rich sources of Sacred Scripture; it must avail itself more fully of the very substantial contributions of the holy Fathers, eastern and western; it must be aware of its position within the history of dogma; it must be in closer touch with the life of the Church and with her liturgy; finally, it must respond more sensitively to the needs of contemporary man and his changing condition.

27. Those who wish to be St Thomas’s disciples today have a further obligation: to take careful account of the chief concerns of those who are looking for a deeper understanding of the faith. Unless this is done, the faith cannot affect, much less be a vital influence on, their minds. For unless we attentively study the doctrines abroad today we will be unable to make an accurate comparison of similarities and difficulties with a view to analysing and expounding the various subjects which occupy men’s thoughts and on which theology can shed a very helpful light.

We seriously hinder a valid science of God and man if we overlook new ideas and limit ourselves to the thoughts of a former day. But we can do the same harm by rejecting in advance the teaching or tradition of the great Doctors and seeking our intellectual nourishment solely in the sometime deceptive doctrines of the modern age. The true followers of St Thomas have never failed to make the necessary comparison of the old and the new. How many of them, especially the experts in the Sacred Scriptures, philosophy, history, anthropology, the natural sciences, economics and sociology, openly acknowledge in their writings the extensive debt they owe the great Doctor in this respect!

28. To these two exhortations We must add a third: the need of entering into a vital communion with St Thomas himself through an ongoing dialogue with him. He comes before us today as the master of a highly effective way of thinking, for he goes to the roots, the essentials; he humbly and amicably accepts the truth no matter what its source may be; he provides an extraordinary example of how to reconcile the treasures and first principles of human thought with the lofty truths contained in God’s word. In short, he teaches us to be intelligent believers—fully and courageously intelligent. If we are the range and power of our minds will be increased. For when intelligence puts itself at the service of all those, great or small, who are the theologian’s brothers in the faith, the spiritual guidance it gives men and the glory it gives God win for it ever greater honour and light.

29. As we indicated earlier, if anyone is to be a faithful disciple of St Thomas today, he may not simply attempt to duplicate, using only the means our times afford, what St Thomas did in his day. If a man tries today to imitate St Thomas but merely travels a parallel road and accepts nothing from him, he will hardly succeed in his effort; at the very lest, he will not bring the Church and the world the new light they need. There can be no authentic, fruitful fidelity unless we receive from St Thomas himself the principles which act as beacons, shedding light on the more important philosophical questions and rendering the faith more intelligible to our age. Thomas’s main positions and dynamic ideas must likewise be accepted. Only in this way will the teaching of the Angelic Doctor, when confronted with advances in the secular disciplines, profit by a process of reciprocal fecundation and develop a rich new life. As an outstanding theologian in the Sacred College of Cardinals recently put it: The chief reason for honouring St Thomas has always been that we ourselves may grasp the truth he served and, in proportion to our capacity, show its ability to integrate into itself the later discoveries of the human spirit.[44]

30. These, then, are the great achievements of St Thomas We wish to commemorate during this anniversary year in the confidence that they can still be immensely valuable to the Church. We do not wish to end this letter, however, without recalling that, in the words of his first biographer, this holy Doctor of the Church “not only stimulated his students to a love of knowledge by the clarity of his teaching,”[45] but also gave an outstanding example of holiness for imitation by his contemporaries and posterity. We need only recall the words he spoke as his short earthly pilgrimage was drawing to its close, for they are a splendid seal upon his life: I receive You, price of my soul’s redemption and food for my journey. For You have I studied, watched and toiled. I have preached You and taught You. Nothing have I ever said against You, or, if I did, it was in ignorance and I disown it. If I have ever spoken wrongly of this or the other Sacraments, I submit it all for correction to the Holy Roman Church as whose loyal son I now pass from this life.[46]

Precisely because Thomas was a saint—and indeed the saintliest of the learned and the most learned of the saints[47]—Our predecessor Leo XIII not only made him our teacher and guide but also appointed him heavenly patron of all Catholic schools of every type and level.[48] That title We are only too happy to reaffirm.

It is Our desire that this year’s auspicious observances in honour of so great a man should bear salutary fruit that will profit the Order of Friars Preachers and bring advantage and progress to the Church at large. Therefore, to you, dear son, to your fellow religious, and to all teachers and students in ecclesiastical schools who strive to follow the course We have indicated, We gladly grant the Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of heavenly light and strength.

At St Peter’s in Rome, November 20, 1974, in the twelfth year of Our pontificate.

Paul VI, Pope


[1] Address to the members of the Commission in charge of the Index Thomisticus: cf. L’Osservatore Romano, 20-21 May, 1974

[2] Address to the International Thomistic Congress at Rome on the seventh centenary of the death of St Thomas . L’Osservatore Romano, 22-23 April, 1974

[3] Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem: AAS15, 1923, p.314. Cf. J. J. BERTHIER,SanctusThomasAquinas «Doctor Communis» Ecclesiae,Rome, 1914,pp. 177 et seq.; J . KOCH, Philosophiscbeund theologische Irrtumhten vox 1270-1323: Mélanges Mandonnet,Paris 1930, t. II, p. 328, n. 2; J. RAMIREZ, De auctoritate doctrinaliS. Thomae Aquinatis,Salmanticae 1952, pp. 35-107

[4] Cf. M. CORDOVANI, San Tommaso nella parola di S. S. Pio XI: Angelicum VI, 1929, p.10

[5] Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem:AAS 15, 1923, p. 323

[6] Cf SummaTheologiae,I-II, q.21, a. 4, ad 3

[7] Pius XII, Apostolic letter Ad Deum per rerum naturae: AAS 34,1942, pp. 89-91

[8] Cf. M. D. CHENU, Introduction à l’étude de Saint Thomas d’Aquin,Paris 1950,pp. 183 et seq.; translated as Towards Understanding Saint Thomas, by A.-M. Landry O.P. and D Hughes O.P., Chicago, 1964, pp. 214-22.

[9] Summa Theologiae , I, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2

[10] Summa Theologiae, I-IIæ, q. 94, a. 2

[11] Summa Theologiae, II-IIæ, q. 24, a. 3, ad 2

[12] Summa Theologiae , II-IIæ, q. 1, a. 10, ad 3

[13] Summa Theologiae, ib., a. 10 and Luke22: 32 which St Thomas quotes.

[14] Summa Theologiae , II-IIæ, q. 1, a. 10. See also what St Thomas writes in his In Symbolum Apostolorum expositio about the Roman Church: “The Lord said: ‘The jaws of death shall not prevail against it…’ Consequently only the Church of Peter (who received all of Italy for his portion when the apostles were being sent forth to preach) has always been firm in the faith; elsewhere the faith has either been non existent or mingled with numerous errors, but the Church of Peter is strong in the faith and free of error. Nor should we find this surprising, for the Lord said to Peter: ‘Simon, Simon… I have prayed for you that you faith may never fail.’” [Luke 22:32] (a. 9: Ed. Parmensis, t. XVI, 1665, p. 148)

[15] Cf William of Tocco, Vita S. ThomaeAquinatis, ch. XIV in Fontes Vitae S. Thomae Aquinatis, ed. D. Prümmer O.P. fasc. II, Saint-Maximin (Var), 1924, p. 81

[16] Summa Theologiae , I-IIæ, q. 109, a. 1, ad 1

[17] Expositio super librum BoethiideTrinitate, q. 2, a. 3, ad 8 edited by B. Decker, Leiden, 1955, p. 97. Cf. SummaTheologiae, I, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2: The argument based on the authority of the faith is the strongest; that based on human authority is the weakest. Another passage makes it clear, in a few words, that Thomas the philoopher was not servile nor historicist, nor eclectic but genuinely critical in his approach to other philosophers: The point of studying philosophy is to find out not what other men think but what the truth is.In librum Aristotelis de coelo et mundo commentarium, I, lect. XXII: Ed. Parmensis, t. XIX, 1865, p. 58. Cf. Tractatus de spiritualibus creaturis, a. 10, ad 8: ed. L. W. Keeler, Romae 1938, pp. 131-133

[18] Cf. E. GILSON,L’esprit de laphilosophie médiévale, Giford Lectures, Paris 1932, 1, p. 42; Le Thomisme Introduction à la philosophie de Saint Thomas d’Aquin, Paris 1965, 6ª ed. passim. Cfr. etiam E. VAN STEENBERGHEN,Le mouvement doctrinal du XIe au XIVe siècle: FLICHE-MARTIN,Histoire de l’Eglise, vol. XIII, p. 270

[19] Cf. In XII Libros Metaphys. Aristotelis Expositio, II, lect. 1: Ed. Taur. 1950, n. 287, p. 82

[20] Cf. Ibid.

[21] Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles,L. III, c. 48

[22] Cf. In Symbolum Apostolorum Expositio,a. 1: Ed. Parmensis, t. XVI, 1865, p. 35: No philosopher before the coming of Christ, however hard he tried, could know as much about God and the requirements for eternal ilfe as any old woman knows through faith, now that Christ has come.

[23] Cf. Summa Theologiae,II-IIæ, q. 8, a. 7. William of Tocco, Vita S. Thomae Aquinatisauctore GUILLELMO DE Tocco, chapters 28, 30 & 34 in Fontes vitae S. Thomae Aquinatis,op. cit., pp. 102-103, 104.105, 108

[24] Tocco, op. cit, chapter 31, in Fontes op. cit. pp. 105-106; cf. J. PIEPER, Einführungzu Thomas von Aquin,Mænchen 1958, p. 172 ff.

[25] Summa Theologiae, II-IIæ, q. 8,a. 7

[26] Cf. J. PIEPER, op. cit.pp. 69 ff.

[27] Cf. LEO XIII, Aeterni Patris: Leonis XIII Acta, I. Rome, 1881, pp. 255-284

[28] C.I.C . [1917] can. 1366, § 2; cf. can. 589, § 1

[29] Cf. QuaestionesDisputatae. De Veritate,q. 1, a. 1

[30] Cf. Discorsi di Pio XI, Turin, 1960, vol. I, pp. 668-669

[31] Aeterni Patris: Leonis XIII, Acta, I, p. 274

[32] In festo S. Thomae Aquinatis, 2 nd Nocturne. 4 th Response; cf. J. PIEPER,Op. cit. p.116

[33] Studiorum Ducem : AAS 15, 1923, p. 324. Note what St Thomas writes concerning the relationship between the Doctors of the Church (and other theologians) and the Magisterium: The teaching of the Catholic Doctors derives its authority from the Church; we are therefore to set greater value on the authority of the Church than on the authority of Augustine, Jerome or any other Doctor. Summa Theologiae, II-IIæ, q. 10, a. 12

[34] PIUS XII, Humani Generis: AAS42, 1950,p. 573

[35] Cf. LEO XIII, Aeterni Patris, ibid.

[36] Cf. PIUSXII, Sermohabitus ad alumnos seminariorum, collegiorum et institutorum utriusque cleri,June 24, 1939: AAS 31,1939, p. 247

[37] BENEDICTUSXV, Faustoappetente die: AAS 13,1921, p. 332

[38] Cf. PIUSXII, Allocutio habita quarto expleto saeculo a Pont. Universitate Gregoriana condita, October 17, 1953: AAS 45,1953, pp. 685-686

[39] PIUSXII, Humani Generis:AAS 42,1950,p. 573

[40] C.I.C. [1917] can. 1366 § 2

[41] Optatam totius, n.16:AAS 58, 1966, p. 723

[42] Cf. Gravissimum Educationis, n.10:AAS 58,1966,p. 737

[43] Allocutio habita ad Pont. Universitatis Gregorianae moderatores, doctores discipulosque, March 12, 1964: AAS 56,1964, p. 365

[44] CHARLES Cardinal JOURNET,Actualité de saint Thomas,Praef., Paris-Brussels, 1973

[45] Tocco, op. cit., chapter 14 in Fontes op. cit., p. 81

[46] Ibid., p. 132

[47] Cf. Pius XI in Discorsi di Pio XI, Turin, 1960, vol. I, p. 783

[48] Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Cum hoc sit, De Sancta Thoma Aquinate Patrono caelesti studiorum optimorum cooptando, in : Leonis XIII Acta, II, Romae 1882, pp. 108-113