By JOEL PADGETT
CONNECTING FAITH AND LIFE
Today, Catholics celebrate one of the great doctors of the Church: St. Thomas Aquinas. Although he was born some 800 years ago, his contributions to the Church are perennial. In fact, I think that if we all took a few pages out of his book, the whole world would be better off because of it – and a little less polarized. It goes without saying that he was a true intellectual giant in both philosophy and theology. However, the way in which he approached seeking and sharing the truth is incredibly important as well.
St. Thomas Aquinas represents the best of the philosophical and theological method known as Scholasticism. Without getting bogged down in technicalities, let it suffice to say that it is a very analytical, disciplined and rational method. Consequently, it is capable of expressing its results with great precision and clarity of language.
When I was studying philosophy and theology in Rome, the majority of my classes were Thomistic, so I became well acquainted with the method. Some of my fellow classmates fell head-over-heals in love with Thomism. However, if I’m being honest, it took me a while to learn to appreciate its value. I lacked the discipline to appreciate it; and, at first, I simply wrote it off as “splitting hairs” and tedious. That all changed one day during a conversation with a professor of mine. He said, “If you don’t learn anything else from Thomas, at least learn how to make good distinctions.” And to this day, that is the one thing—in addition to the excellent content of Thomas’ philosophy and theology—that I really took away from studying Aquinas.
The ability to make good distinctions is no little thing. It is capable of giving credit where credit is due, while always calling a spade a spade. And it never throws the baby out with the dirty bath water. In other words, it speaks the truth in charity.
Always truth. Always charity.
In arguing philosophical or theological questions, Aquinas consistently took this approach. He wasn’t afraid of engaging anybody in conversation. He always sought to present his opponents’ arguments in the best light possible. He tried to understand where they were coming from, even when he seriously disagreed with them. It didn’t matter if they were pagan philosophers or other Christians. He could hear them out, and then say, “I agree with what you are saying up to this point, but I disagree with you regarding this precise aspect.”
And then, he could go on and express why. He had no need of “strawman arguments” that simply tear people down. His goal was to come to discover a deeper, fuller understanding of the truth. As Catholics, we have no need to fear the truth. We believe that the truth will set us free (cf. John 8:32), and that, ultimately, Jesus Christ is the Truth (cf. John 14:6). In fact, we’re continually encouraged to seek the truth with determination, humility and sincerity.
However, to seek the truth in our relations with others requires more than simply going with one’s gut or throwing out emotional responses. The ability to make good distinctions and to foster good dialogue requires good formation, and good formation takes a lot of time and energy. It was the lesson that I resisted when I first picked up St. Thomas, but one that I have been striving to learn (however poorly) ever since.
Aquinas teaches us to build our foundation on faith and reason. He also teaches us to go to the sources. Today, it is easy to be led astray by a cacophony of charismatic voices that range from one extreme to the other; but we can never go wrong in relying on Sacred Scripture, tradition, and the official teachings of the Church.
At the end of the day, if we sincerely seek truth in charity, it will gradually bring about greater unity among everyone. It is something of a paradox that, by making good distinctions and being more precise about where true divisions lie, one can actually foster greater unity because ultimately, people have more in common than what divides them.