The Lasting Influence of St. Thomas Aquinas

For the last few weeks, I’ve presented summaries of the arguments St. Thomas Aquinas offered for the existence of God, objections to those arguments, and responses to those objections. Today, I present some words on the lasting influence of the Angelic Doctor, as well as resources for those who may be interested in learning more about him.

The Lasting Influence of St. Thomas Aquinas

            After the death of Thomas Aquinas in 1274, opponents of his teaching emerged almost immediately, especially among the Franciscans. His confreres among the Dominicans came to Thomas’ defense, joined later by the Jesuits, and for a great while these two camps defined the place of Thomas in Catholic philosophical and theological discussion. In 1277, Bishop Etienne Tempier of Paris issued a list of 219 propositions that were to be condemned for calling into question God’s omnipotence. Twenty of these propositions belonged to Thomas. This marred Thomas’ reputation for quite some time. Thomas’ opponents were largely concerned that the influence of Aristotle and Averroes would contaminate Christian teaching. Even still, Thomas would have his supporters. Dante placed Thomas’ soul in glory in his classic work, The Divine Comedy (1320), and the artist Benozzo Gozzoli placed Thomas between Plato and Aristotle in his masterpiece, “Doctor Communis” (1471), testifying to Thomas’ stature in the Church. Needless to say, Thomas’ canonization in 1323 by Pope John XXII did much to rehabilitate his place among great Catholic thinkers, a place that was inexorably secured by Pope Pius V proclaiming Thomas a Doctor of the Church in 1567 and setting his feast among the ranks of the four great Latin Doctors: Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome and Gregory the Great.

            But it was Aeterni Patris, the 1879 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, that would set in motion a Thomistic revival that would make Thomas the definitive Catholic philosopher/theologian of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. Pope Leo called for the teaching of scholastic philosophy, especially of Thomas Aquinas, in Catholic seminaries in order to counter what he saw as the destructive consequences of secular philosophy. Scholasticism, and Thomas Aquinas in particular, would be the weapon the Church would wield in defense of the faith and the instrument by which the Church would plant the seeds of a revival in Christian philosophy. Pope Leo’s call to action was heard, and Thomas was added to the curricula, not only of seminaries, but of colleges and universities world-wide, Catholic and secular.

            However, at the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), Thomas was somewhat set aside as the Catholic Church sought to reach out to Catholics and to the world with a new voice. Modern philosophers were introduced in seminaries, colleges and universities, with no one in particular able to set his or her mark on the Church so to direct the Church through the tumultuous decades of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1998, Pope St. John Paul the Great issued his encyclical Fides et Ratio, a commentary on the relationship between faith and reason. St. John Paul II reasserted the priority of Thomas for the Church’s thinking, sparking new interest in Thomas among Catholic philosophers. It remains to be seen if Thomas will impact the thinking of the Church in the twenty-first century as much as he did in the first half of the twentieth, but the outlook is encouraging.

            The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes much use of Thomas’ teaching, including nearly fifty references to the Summa Theologica alone. In particular, the Catechism points to the tradition of the Five Ways in its discussion on the existence of God, paragraphs 31 – 35:

“Created in God’s image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him.  These are called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of ‘converging and convincing arguments,’ which allow us to attain certainty about the truth. … The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end.  Thus, in different ways, man can come to know there exists a reality which is the first cause and the final end of all things, a reality ‘that everyone calls God.'”

            The lasting impact of Thomas, then, can be seen in the Church’s continued reliance on his philosophy and theology, to understand how we can know with certainty that God exists, and the Church’s continued devotion to Thomas as an example of Christian holiness and virtue. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Give to me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downward. Give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out. Give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose can tempt aside.

Bestow upon me, O Lord, understanding to know you, diligence to seek you, wisdom to find you, and the faithfulness that may finally embrace you.  Amen.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

For those interested in learning more about St. Thomas Aquinas:

Books & Encyclicals

Fides et Ratio, by Pope John Paul II, September 14, 1998, various editions.

Aquinas, A Beginner’s Guide, by Edward Feser, Oneworld Publications, 2009.

Aquinas 101: A Basic Introduction to the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, by Francis Selman, Ave Maria Press, 2007.

Aeterni Patris, by Pope Leo XIII, August 4, 1879, various editions.

St. Thomas Aquinas, by Jacques Maritain, Meridian Books, 1958.

Summa of the Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners, by Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, 1990.

Summa contra Gentiles, by St. Thomas Aquinas, various editions.

Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, various editions.

The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, by Etienne Gilson, Random House, 1956.

The Ever-Illuminating Wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute, vol. 8, Ignatius Press, 1999.

Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, Edited and translated with an introduction and notes by Ralph McInerny, Penguin Books, 1998.

Audio Books and Recordings

Natural Law and Human Nature, Lecture 12: The Thomistic Synthesis, by Fr. Joseph Koterski, The Teaching Company, Course No. 4451, 2002.

Questions of Faith: The Philosophy of Religion, Lecture 4: Arguments for God’s Existence from Nature (Cosmological Arguments), by Peter Kreeft, Barnes & Noble Audio, 2006.

Thomas Aquinas: The Angelic Doctor, by Jeremy Adams, The Teaching Company, Course No. 614, 2000.

On the Internet

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: St. Thomas Aquinas,

The Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Thomas Aquinas,


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