About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

"The Great 'Surprise' of St. Thomas" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | July 5, 2010

Print-friendly version

"This was the great 'surprise' of St. Thomas that determined the path he took as a thinker. Showing this independence of philosophy and theology and, at the same time, their reciprocal relationality was the historic mission of the great thinker." -- Benedict XVI, Audience, June 16, 2010 ("For a Broad and Confident Vision of Human Reason," Wednesday Audience, L'Osservatore Romano, English, June 23, 2010.)


For the past several years, Benedict has been systematically devoting many of his regular Public Audiences to the Fathers, Doctors, and Theologians of the Church. Benedict is an enormously erudite man. He is familiar with the classical contexts in which the various Church Fathers wrote and judged the import of revelation. Benedict himself is much taken with Augustine and Bonaventure, but his interest in and knowledge of Aquinas is profound. It is Aquinas that he discussed in a recent Audience, one that is a worth much reflection.

Aquinas (d. 1274), aided by the rediscovery of Aristotle in his time, is significant both for his teaching and for his method of approaching theological and philosophical questions. The pope points out that Aquinas writes against the twelve-century background of the earlier Church Fathers who basically approached the overall questions of life through Plato. This "Plato" included everything in one whole vision. Plato was then seen and understood in the light of revelation which was seen to illuminate and guide all else that was already known.

The word 'philosophy' was not, therefore, an expression of a purely rational system and, as such, distinct from faith but rather indicated a comprehensive vision of reality, constructed in the light of faith but used and conceived of by reason; a vision that naturally exceeded the capacities proper to reason; but as such also fulfilled it.

This approach sees everything as fitting together. It does not confuse, but can be confusing if we are not aware of what is going on here.

Aquinas was different because of the rediscovery of Aristotelian texts. It suddenly appeared that most things could be explained by a classical philosopher who was not privy to Old or New Testament revelation. This seemed shocking. Aristotle was persuasive. He seemed to cover everything. Thus, there was no need of revelation. This is the issue to which Aquinas addressed himself.

What had to be done was to unravel the sources of knowledge of things. What belonged to reason and what to faith? Earlier thinkers were not much concerned with the source of a thing, but whether it was true. Aquinas was convinced that what could be learned by reason was good and valuable, that it was not a bad thing to see what came from where.

Seeing the different sources clearly, they could then be properly distinguished and related. Thomas' "surprise" was to show that philosophy and faith were independent yet related. Both concerned the same world, the same truth. It was this approach that was recommended by modern popes as the fit way to deal with knowledge and faith.

Thus, we can take all the truths that we can find in an Aristotle, test them ourselves by our own reason. We then see that knowledge from faith, reflected in the same thinking, generally deepens, clarifies, and directs them to a fuller understanding of the same reality. Aquinas was struck by this result. He concluded that the reason for this relationship was that both faith and reason originated in the same source, in a Logos, who is responsible both for creation and redemption.

We recognize that the "cognitive" processes of faith and reason differ, but belong to the same world. "Reason receives a truth by virtue of its intrinsic evidence, mediated or unmediated; faith, on the contrary, accepts a truth on the basis of the authority of the Word of God that is revealed." Once something is revealed, it can be thought about. Our reason aids us in this reflection. Faith is directed to intelligence; is does not set itself up against it, however inadequate our reason is in comprehending absolutely everything in its own being. Faith and reason hold in common that their objects and sources do exist. They are.


Aquinas understands two sources of knowledge. One begins from principles known to the mind as such. The theoretical and practical first principles, on which all subsequent reasoning depends, are: A thing cannot be and not be at the same time; do good, avoid evil. Some sciences, moreover, are necessary that others exist, such as the relation of mathematics and music. Sacred doctrine is like this. It begins from a prior principle, "the science of God," that is, from God's own Logos insofar as He chooses to reveal something to us. Both approaches have their own validity and do not in principle contradict each other, though this non-contradiction must be shown so that we can see its point.

Mindful of something in Fides et Ratio, the pope adds: "Faith, in fact, protects reason from any temptation to distrust its own abilities, stimulates it to be open to ever broader horizons..." If there is any characteristic of our time, it is not too much trust in reason, but too little. Ironically, the principal advocate of reason in its fullest sense in the modern world is precisely the Church, which has at stake how all things fit together.

The Church does not avoid any principled question of truth no matter what its origin—science, philosophy, other religions. Thus the pope adds that reason can conclude God exists but not that He is love, though the two are not in principle contradictory. In fact, they complete each other. In a sense, Aristotle's god who moves all things by being loved and known is more "God" when seen in the light of the revelation of the Logos as itself love.

Reason also aids faith in several ways. It can show the plausibility of faith by the positions that reason arrives at by itself. It can have a deeper notion of what faith teaches by some similarity with what reason discovers. Likewise, it can examine the coherence of arguments that are leveled against the truths found in faith. If they are said to be contradictory, reason suggests why they may not be even on the grounds of reason so that they do not deny reason.


"The entire history of theology is basically the exercise of this task of the mind which shows the intelligibility of faith, its articulation and inner harmony, in reasonableness and its ability to further human good." This remarkable passage makes it quite clear that Catholicism is concerned with the good sense and intelligence of its own revelation before the bar of reason.

When, in addition, this intelligibility furthers the "human good," we suspect that it is directed ultimately to man himself, to his awareness. We are not surprised that the whole content of revelation revolves around who Christ—the Logos, true God and true man—is. It is the purpose of each human mind and of all human minds to know this origin. This is the intellectual drive behind all of our knowings.

The language we use and we find in faith is used "analogously". That is, there is infinite difference between what we know and what God is, yet there are certain reflections and similitudes. We can see a relatedness that is more than accidental. We have knowledge of reality. God knows all things. We are not dealing with two absolutely disparate worlds.

But in addition to knowledge by analogy, revelation teaches that God did speak to us. This very fact authorizes our efforts and capacities to speak and listen to Him. Even thought God is beyond our understanding, the effort to understand Him, based on what He tells us of Himself, is essential to our very being.

Benedict considers this effort to speak of God important since much modern atheism denies that "religious language has objective meaning." The root of this problem is the positivist thesis that the human mind does not know being but only experiences "functions". Aquinas indeed does not doubt that man can know and perceive the functions of being, the proper object of natural sciences. But he can also know the being, the "You" of another, not just what someone looks like from the outside. We speak to another, not just to his appearances.

Religious language is based on this speaking of one person to another. It is not realistic to say that we speak or only know another's functions. God speaking to us does not annihilate us, but opens us up to something more than what we initially conceive ourselves to be. We are "naturally" more than natural beings. All of revelation deals with grace which is designed not to eliminate us as human beings, or even perfect us in this world as if it were our final home, but to bring us to the purpose of our creation in the first place which is to know and see God. The purpose of grace and revelation is to bring us, each of us, to this end.

Human nature is not completely corrupt after original sin, though obviously it is wounded and weakened. Nature is not primarily healed by itself but through grace, a free gift on the part of God through the Mystery of the "Incarnate Word." This incarnate presence of God in the world is the ultimate source of the healing and completion of human nature. It is what clarifies and identifies the desire for happiness found in each of us.


At this point, Benedict adds a reflection on the Holy Spirit, though whom the New Law comes into each of our souls. It is though grace that doctrinal and moral truths, how we live, what we know, come together—the moral and theological virtues. Yet, Aquinas recognizes we are more familiar with our nature that is essential to man, for it constitutes the kind of being he is in his original creation. This abidingness of our nature is the reason why we can recognize the natural moral law. Our nature is still precisely a human nature.

"Reason can recognize this (natural law) by considering what it is good to do and what it is good to avoid in order to achieve that felicity which everyone has at heart, which also implies a responsibility toward others and, therefore, the search for the common good." In this sense, human nature grounds both natural and theological virtues in real being. While grace accompanies all our actions, still everyone has the capacity to "recognize the needs of human nature expressed in natural law and to draw inspiration from it in the formulation of positive laws, namely those issued by the civil and political authorities to regulate human coexistence." To deny this relation between the individual self and others ends up in an ethical relativism at the individual level or totalitarianism at the state level. This is why the basis of human dignity is not arbitrary or subject to state or individual manipulation.

Aquinas' view is not limited to empirical or calculating reason alone. It accepts all knowledge including revelation as directed to what we are. There is something basic and absolute about us and what we are. Aquinas thought that the most important thing in creation was the human person and its destiny. Aquinas was also a man of prayer and faith. He lives in the sense that it all fits together—grace and reason, our nature and our destiny, what we know on self-reflection, what we know having been spoken to by God.

The "surprise" of St. Thomas is not just that reason and revelation belong together, once God has spoken to us both in creation and redemption. It is that that this belonging together is of two persons, however unequal, both of whom respond to one another in a complete world that has the purpose of bring us each to our final communal destiny in the Trinitarian life of God. Augustine, of course, had already taught us most of these things. Aquinas knew this, but he needed to separate and indicate how things fit together in a whole that corresponds to our reason that directs us to all things, including their origin and our way to reach it in our fallen world through the Incarnate Word who redeemed us.

Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius