Sunday, 14 October 2018

Dominican Education

 A talk at celebrations marking 150 years of the Dominican school at Köszeg, Hungary

12 October 2018


Saint Dominic’s intuition

To understand what the specific characteristics of ‘Dominican education’ might be let us look firstly to Saint Dominic himself to see how he engaged in the activities of learning and teaching. Dominic’s life was turned upside down by the shock he experienced when he encountered the Albigensian heresy in the south of France in the early years of the 13th century. The Albigensian heresy was just one form of a particular tendency that is always lurking around the boundaries of Christianity, a tendency to spiritualise human and Christian life at the cost of denigrating the physical and material world. In doing so this tendency under-values and even despises the body, marriage and sexuality, dismisses the Incarnation of the Son of God and Christ’s ongoing presence in the sacraments, rejects the body which is the Church with its obvious limitations and illnesses as all bodies are limited and prone to sickness.

So the first intuition of Dominic is to defend the goodness of the physical creation, to show the coherence of God’s plan of creation and redemption, and to convince people of the reliability of nature and reason. This is a first characteristic of Dominican education: trust in the intelligibility of nature and the reliability of reason. If nature and reason are to be trusted because they come from the hands of a loving God, then human beings too are to be trusted because they come from the same hands and are destined to share the divine life in God’s eternal kingdom. So a second key aspect of Dominican education is already clear: Dominic trusted people, trusted the workings of thought and understanding in them, trusted the movement of the Holy Spirit to enlighten and to strengthen all who sincerely seek to know what is true.

Study, conversation, disputation

His own teaching methods centred on shared study, conversation, and disputation. His project in response to the heresy was, from the beginning, a communitarian one. A great Dominican of a later generation, Albert the Great, spoke about the joy of searching together for the truth. When Dominic sent his first disciples to the university centres of Europe he sent them in the first place to study. From the early sources we see in the first Dominicans a never-ending need and desire for education. The first convents of the Order were all schools. Each one had its professor or teacher, called a ‘lector’ or reader, whose lectures were attended not only by people in the neighbourhood but by the friars of the convent who were obliged to be permanent students. There is always more to be known and understood about the world, about human life and experience, and about what God has revealed.

We see Dominic in conversation on many occasions. Famously, he spent a night in discussion with an inn-keeper at Toulouse, arguing about the teachings of Albigensianism and the orthodox teachings of the Church. With his bishop, Diego, he engaged in a crucial conversation with Cistercian legates whom the Pope had asked to lead a campaign of preaching against the heresy. Their work was failing and it was failing because their methods was not in accordance with the gospel.  They were relying on an impressive display of wealth and power. Diego and Dominic saw that they needed to return to the greatest of teachers, Jesus himself, and to remember his instructions for the mission: it was to be undertaken in simplicity and poverty, in fraternity and trust, in constant study and contemplation.

Dominic and his companions engaged also in disputations, more formal and confrontational conversations, in which the arguments of each side were put to various tests, not least the test of public opinion. Sometimes these disputations went well for the new band of preachers and sometimes they did not go so well. But the way forward was clear: a renewed preaching of the gospel, a new evangelisation if you like, in which the tasks of study and preaching were undertaken in a common life of prayer and contemplation.

Thomas Aquinas following Dominic

It has sometimes been pointed out that the mission of great charismatic saints of the Church has often been supported by another great figure whose task is to give philosophical and theological expression to the insights and intuitions of the charismatic person. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this many years ago pointing to examples like Antony of Egypt and Athanasius of Alexandria who wrote Antony’s life, Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure, and in the case of the Dominicans, Dominic and Thomas Aquinas.

When reflecting on ‘Dominican education’ it is tempting to begin (and perhaps to end!) with Thomas but I think it is essential to turn first to Dominic, to recall the original and originating insights that gave rise to the Order which Thomas was later so determined to join. Thomas saw something of great importance in the life and mission of the preaching friars and he put his own extraordinary gifts at the service of that life and mission. In the words of Damian Byrne, Master of the Order, ‘it was the genius of Thomas Aquinas to carry forward Dominic’s fundamental orientation and to broaden the basis of theological education in the Order through his study of Aristotelian philosophy, which enabled him to give an intellectual foundation to the theology of the goodness of creation and the rejection of dualism’ (The Role of Study in the Order, Letter of 25 May 1991).

Thomas on teaching

When Thomas speaks about teaching in his Summa theologiae he does it at a point in the work that may seem surprising. He considers it when he is speaking about ways in which some creatures can share with God the work of guiding creation. Within the creation there are creatures that are intelligent and free, made in the image and likeness of God, and so capable of understanding truth, of choosing goodness and of appreciating beauty. The human being is one such creature (the others are the angels). Education normally means the process by which some human beings teach other human beings, sharing knowledge with them, assisting them in understanding and helping them to put this knowledge and understanding at the service of human development.

For Thomas the work of the teacher is analogous to that of the medical doctor. Just as the doctor cannot do the body’s healing for it but can assist, from outside, through the remedies and practices that she can recommend, so the teacher cannot do a student’s understanding for him or her, but can assist, from outside, through the various skills and practices that are involved in pedagogy. For some things we do not need teachers, Thomas says, because we find them out for ourselves. But for other things we need help, people who will point us to sources of information, who will explain to us how to understand things, who will if necessary show us how to do things.

As in all his work there is in Thomas’s account of education a deep respect for the dignity and capacity of the individual human person. Teaching and learning involve real work and are creative in bringing about in the world things that did not exist before. Education is not just the unveiling of what has always been there. Nor is it a kind of ‘plugging in’ to some common store of knowledge, opening a kind of channel along which knowledge can flow. Learning and teaching are much richer activities which bring about real changes in the world and so they belong to the creature made in the image and likeness of God. That creature has capacities not only of understanding and freedom but also of initiative and creativity. Many teachers will say that their greatest joy is to see students going beyond anything that they themselves have achieved, growing beyond them in knowledge and understanding, and contributing new things to the world through their gifts and inventiveness. Where has it come from? It is the student’s own ability, gifts of nature and grace, but facilitated, stimulated and helped along by the teacher.

The skills of the teacher: signs, questions, love

One can summarise Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of pedagogy, of teaching methods, with the phrase ‘putting imagination at the service of reason’. Part of the appreciation of creation that comes from Saint Dominic’s insight is the conviction, supported philosophically by Aristotle, that all human understanding begins in sensation and remains always dependent on sensation. The highest philosophical and even theological understanding depends always on the simplest activities of which human beings are capable: seeing, hearing, and touching, remembering and imagining. Any teacher knows the truth of this. To explain something we need to illustrate it with a story or an image, with a sign or a symbol, something that speaks to sensation and imagination, so that our intellectual understanding can make progress.

The greatest teachers, Thomas says, do their work by giving good signs, illustrating well what it is they are trying to help the students to understand. It means good stories and good pictures, good physical presentations especially when it is something abstract that is being taught. The great teachers work also by asking good questions, the best possible questions. We think of the learners as the ones with the questions and it is important that they have time to put their questions. It is important that every question be respected. One of the comments of a teacher that I remember from my schooldays was this, that there is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers. But part of the teacher’s skill is also to ask good questions, better questions than those the students themselves come up with. It is a very effective way to stimulate the minds of those who are learning to present them with perplexing and difficult questions, paradoxical questions, questions that puzzle.

As well as giving good signs and asking good questions, a teacher must also love the people he or she sets out to teach. Vincent McNabb was a well-known Dominican of the English province who preached regularly in public in London, engaging in conversations and disputations with anybody and everybody. Speaking to a group of Dominicans he said ‘if you do not love the people you are preaching to then shut up, go away, and preach to yourself’. We can say the same about teaching. If you do not love the people you are teaching then it is better to take your briefcase, go away, and try some other profession. Another comment by a teacher which I have always remembered was made to me by a Dominican brother when I began to teach almost forty years ago. ‘Don’t forget’, he said, ‘that you are not in the first place teaching theology, you are teaching people’.

The greatest teacher of all

It is a very important point with many practical implications for successful teaching. When Thomas Aquinas finally puts the question, ‘so who is the greatest teacher of them all’, and gives as his answer ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, the reasons for this evaluation are the criteria just mentioned: signs, questions, and love, these are the techniques or strategies of the teacher and we find nobody better at these things in the history of humanity than Jesus. The other candidate would be Socrates, regarded by the pagan world as the greatest of teachers. Notice that neither of these wrote books. They wrote directly onto the hearts of their students, Thomas says, and this is far more effective teaching than writing onto paper (or we might add onto the screen of a computer). The signs Jesus gave are his parables and miracles, the ways by which he led his disciples to understand what he was teaching them. The questions he put were stimulating and thought-provoking: ‘who do you say that I am?’, ‘what do you want me to do for you?’, ‘will you also go away?’, ‘do you want to be healed?’. And of course there is nobody who has loved his students as Jesus loved his disciples.

All of this comes together in the Cross, Thomas says, and he is not the only one to say that everything of importance that we need to learn, we learn from the cross of Jesus, in the scientia crucis. There Jesus gave the disciples, and the whole world for all time, the most powerful sign, the most paradoxical question, revealing the greatest possible love for the Father and for humanity. Thomas quotes Augustine speaking about Jesus as a teacher who on the Cross is sicut magister in cathedra, like a professor on his chair. The Cross of Christ continues to perplex the world, presenting us with the most fundamental question about life, giving us the most startling sign, drawing us into the deepest love.

Dominican Educational Institutions

In the 800 years of its existence there have been hundreds of educational institutions established and managed by the Dominicans. Still today in all regions of the world there are universities and colleges, academies and schools, centres for research and teaching, where Dominican men and women work as administrators, teachers or chaplains. There are the houses of study of the Order itself concerned particularly with philosophy and theology, as well as centres for specialised research at high academic and intellectual levels. There are schools for the deaf, an area in which Dominican sisters have been pioneers in various parts of the world, as well as schools for the poor, for children with special needs of various kinds, and vocational schools that help young men and women to develop the knowledge and skills they need for satisfying work and for building up the communities to which they belong.

The principles that guide all this research, learning and teaching can be summarised as trust and love. We see these principles emerging in the intuition of Dominic and we see them in Thomas’s intellectual development of that intuition. There is trust in God in the first place and in the truth of God’s creation, in its coherence and intelligibility. In one place Thomas says that truth is strong in itself and nothing can prevail against it. Such a conviction explains the openness and courage with which he engaged with all kinds of texts and arguments, not afraid of any research or conclusions, because the truth is an objective reality and it is what all people seek to know.

This trust implies also a trust in the capacity of human reason to come to knowledge of the truth. It would make no sense to be a teacher unless we had this double trust: in the truth itself as an objective and intelligible reality, and in the capacity of human beings to grow in their knowledge and understanding of that truth. We must be obedient to the truth when we come to see it, whether it is demonstrated in the various ways in which scientific truth can be demonstrated, or shared with us by reliable witnesses in the various ways in which we come to possess all kinds of knowledge.

Along with trust, the other basic principle is love which lies at the heart of the Gospel and which is – as our created nature itself reminds us every day – the reality or experience in which our deepest fulfilment is to be sought. Teaching can happen where truth is loved and where people are loved. Jesus teaches this by his example and by his words. We are not to set any limits to the reach of our love just as we are not to set any limits to our searching for truth. Who is my neighbour? We all know the answer Jesus gave to that question. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan, educating us to see that our neighbour is any human being in any kind of need, our neighbour is any human being who reaches out to us in friendship, fraternity or collaboration.

A Dominican understanding of education will therefore be theological in the first place. But it is a theological conviction about the capacity of human reason to come to knowledge of the truth. Presenting a theological vision might seem like a threat to the independence of reason, to the freedom of intellectual endeavour. But understood properly it is not so. We can describe a Dominican understanding of education as a form of Christian humanism in which faith and reason, the two wings that carry us to knowledge and truth, are working together in a harmony which is difficult to describe completely in words but which we recognise when we see it in practice. It honours faith and it honours reason. It values teaching and it values research and demonstration. In the Dominican vision faith and reason are not opposed sources of knowledge. Rather are they complementary, reason within faith articulating and understanding more deeply what is believed, faith within reason extending its reach and strengthening reason’s confidence in the value of the truth it comes to know.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Homily and the New Evangelization

Although the word ‘homily’ can be used for any sermon, our focus here is the homily in a more precise sense, namely the preaching done in the course of a liturgy.  When we think of the preaching work of Jesus we probably first imagine him out and about, on the road, by the lake, on a mountain, or in people’s homes. But we know that he taught also in the Temple and in the synagogues (Mark 1:21; Matthew 13:54; John 6:59; 18:20) and that it was his custom to visit the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16).

Jesus’ Homily in the Synagogue at Nazareth
            The homily Jesus gave in the synagogue at Nazareth may be taken as the prototype or pattern for any homily (Luke 4:16-30). The Introduction to the Lectionary identifies four aims for the homily (§41) and at Nazareth Jesus addresses all four. These aims are
·                    to lead the hearers to an affective knowledge of Holy Scripture
·                    to open them to gratitude for the wonderful works of God
·                    to strengthen the faith of the hearer
·                    to prepare them for communion and for the demands of the Christian life.
            How does Jesus’ homily at Nazareth meet these aims? First, he chose a text from the Book of Isaiah, the passage which speaks of the Spirit of the Lord coming to anoint the Lord’s messenger, deputing him to evangelise the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to bring sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’, Jesus says, and we are told that they ‘wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth’ (Luke 4:21-22). Literally it means the words about grace that he spoke. The passage from Isaiah tells of the grace, or favour, of the jubilee year in which a fresh beginning makes new life possible. They are heartened and encouraged by this. Later in the Gospel of Luke we hear of disciples whose hearts burned within them as he opened the Scriptures for them (Luke 24:32) but already at Nazareth all spoke well of him.
            ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. This may be taken as the fundamental task in preaching a homily, to show how the Scripture that has just been read is being fulfilled in the lives of those who are listening.  The second aim of the homily is to open people to gratitude for the wonderful works of God. These works are read about in the Scripture readings not just to recall great events in other places and at other times but with a view to showing how they continue to be effective here and now. The Word of God is ‘sacramental’, therefore, bringing to pass in the lives of believers the realities of which it speaks. We might say that it is good news only when those who listen are helped to see how the Word that has been proclaimed is working in their lives.
            Jesus preaches in order to strengthen the faith of those who hear: this is the third aim of a homily. The text of Isaiah was presumably already well known to his congregation and he seeks to interpret its meaning for them. The difference in his teaching, we are told elsewhere, is that Jesus spoke with authority and with wisdom, often confirming what he taught by signs and wonders (Mark 1:27; Matthew 13:54; Luke 13:10). But at Nazareth his preaching breaks down and the situation becomes complicated.
            So what went wrong? (This is presuming that something did go wrong: perhaps what happened is an example of how effective preaching can be!) Thinking of the fourth aim of the homily, we can see that Jesus is trying to prepare them for communion and for the demands of living according to his new way, but this does not go down well with them. If there is to be encouragement in the preaching of a homily there is also to be challenge. Gracious words call to generous living: to be holy as God is holy, compassionate as God is compassionate, loving one another as Jesus has loved us.
            On the one hand Jesus in his homily says that the promises of God’s grace are being fulfilled even as they listen. These promises are being fulfilled in him, in his presence among them with his teaching and his works of power. Who would not be strengthened and encouraged?
            On the other hand he begins to explain the implications of this time of grace by showing how it calls his listeners beyond their place of comfort to reckon with deep and demanding aspects of God’s gracious work. He reminds them of how earlier prophets brought God’s word and power beyond the confines of Israel. His preaching breaks down as he invites them to break open their hearts and lives, to be receptive once again to the grace of the Living God. The ancient text has come alive and its blessings are welcomed but its demands are not. The mood turns from wonder to anger and he must pass through the midst of them to get away.

The Evangelizing Word, Ancient and New
            What might we learn about the homily and the new evangelization from this experience of Jesus at Nazareth? A first point worth pondering is that he is at home, ‘where he had been brought up’ (Luke 4:16). Home ought to be the place where he is most welcome but it becomes a place that rejects him. We can take ‘home’ to refer to places where the liturgy of the Church continues to be celebrated and where homilies continue to be given. We might think that such places have no need for the ‘new evangelization’ but are rather places from which it is done. ‘Home’ in this sense refers to countries, individuals, parishes, religious communities, and so on that have become content with their appropriation of the Word of God. When one speaks within a liturgy is one not preaching to the already converted? Won’t the new evangelization be done elsewhere, on the road, by the lake, on a mountain, on television and radio and the internet, but not in synagogues, or temples, or churches where people have already been evangelized?
            It is true that the homily is part of the ordinary teaching and life of the Christian Church. As such it becomes routine and can be predictable.  The Word that has found a home with us is in danger of becoming domesticated by us: we think we know what it is about, what its demands are, and what its reach is. One of the reasons why a new evangelization is needed is because people seem to have become tired of Christianity. It is aimed at individuals, communities and cultures that are ‘post-Christian’: they have heard and even tried the gospel but for various reasons have become lukewarm about it or perhaps given it up altogether. For them, the gospel message has lost its bite and its sting.
           One challenge from the new evangelisation to homilists is to show how the Word with which people have become comfortable remains a two-edged sword. Another is to show how the Word to which people have become indifferent continues to offer grace, light and life.
            Homilies given at liturgical celebrations of rites of passage provide opportunities to take up these challenges. People not yet evangelized will be present at such events as will people whose faith has grown weak or even died. At baptisms, weddings, confirmations, receptions into the Church, ordinations, religious professions, and funerals, as well as at Masses celebrated for graduation events, conferences, anniversaries, jubilees, and so on the one who speaks the homily has an opportunity to preach the good news to people who have never heard it and to those who might hear it afresh.
            In fact the term ‘evangelize’ is used in the text from Isaiah that Jesus quotes at Nazareth. The Spirit has anointed him to bring good news to the poor. This is what the term evangelization means, bringing good news. People may fail to receive this news either because it does not seem good to them or because they do not regard themselves as poor in ways that this news can do anything about. Much effort is put into making the good news seem good again. Part of this is helping people to see how the ways in which they know themselves to be poor are in fact met and healed by the Word of God present in Jesus. It may also mean helping people to realize that they are poor in ways they did not suspect.
            An essential part of the new evangelization is to keep the goodness of the gospel alive and fresh in those who already believe and have committed themselves to following Christ. All the great documents on evangelization from Paul VI to John Paul II to Benedict XVI agree that an essential element in it is the witness of vibrant and joyful Christian communities following Christ in faith, hope and love. The routine preaching of homilies is crucial in sustaining the life and witness of such communities.

The Importance of Failure
            The ones most in danger of domesticating the Word of God, in whom familiarity is most likely to breed contempt, are those who handle it from day to day. Teachers, catechists, deacons, theologians, readers, priests, and sisters – all can become so familiar with the Word and so committed to particular ways of communicating it, that in them also it can lose its sting and become domesticated.
            To be applauded for one’s ability to present the Word of God is a mixed blessing. Experience shows that praise is very often quickly followed by rejection or indifference: think of Jesus, Paul, and all great preachers of the gospel. This is why those moments in which preaching breaks down are to be welcomed. We have seen how Jesus’ homily at Nazareth broke down. In the Gospel of John we see that a much longer homily on the bread of life, which he gave at the synagogue in Capernaum, also ‘failed’: ‘after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him’ (John 6:66).  In the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Paul preaching at Athens and making good headway with an audience of philosophers and other intellectuals, until he began to speak of resurrection, and judgment, and eternal life (Acts 17:22-34).
            The breaking open of the Word cannot happen without the breaking open of hearts and lives. This applies in the first place to those who would think of themselves as ‘evangelizers’.  If the Word is true, and we believe that it is, then its grace can only flow where the barriers to truth are being removed. There are countless ways in which human beings defend themselves against truth, ways in which we are blind, imprisoned, oppressed and poor. One of the dangers for people involving themselves in the life of the Church is that they can turn holy things into obstacles between themselves and God. Saint John of the Cross speaks at length about this in his Dark Night of the Soul. The deadly sins are never more deadly, he says, than when they have our spiritual desires to work on.
            So we must be ready for moments when the work of teaching and evangelizing breaks down. It is admirable and right that we engage with the movements of thought in our culture, seeking to ‘take all thought captive for Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). But we must remain alert for the moment of breakdown. Inevitably there will be something in what we preach that people will find objectionable, offensive, extreme, ridiculous, out-dated, a threat to common sense, or infuriating for some other reason. This is the world that is within us also and this adds to the difficulty: the first people needing evangelization are those who would evangelize others.
            Paul speaks about his state of mind and heart when he arrived in Corinth after his bruising experience in Athens. He came, he says, in fear and trembling, deciding that in his preaching he would not use arguments that belong to philosophy but would claim to know nothing except Christ crucified, a foolishness and weakness that are the wisdom and the power of God. There is sense in speaking of making the gospel ‘relevant’ to people’s lives, of showing how it connects with them. On the other hand the gospel is not a wisdom of this age that is passing away: if it is for this life only that we have hoped in Christ then we are, of all people, the most unfortunate (1 Corinthians 15:19). We must also, therefore, be ‘irrelevant’ because we are called to preach a gospel that does not just endorse and confirm all that we find in place but that promises a new life in a new heavens and a new earth.

Contexts of the Homily
            We are considering the homily in a specific sense, to refer to preaching done within a liturgy. The Irish Dominican liturgist and theologian Philip Gleeson has written that ‘homilies are worse than useless if they do not humbly serve the celebration of which they are a part’ (p.144). He quotes the German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg who says ‘the sermon should serve, not dominate, in the Church. It should serve the presence of Christ which we celebrate in the Eucharist’.  All that is involved in a good celebration of the liturgy is therefore relevant to the homily since it is the context in which the homily happens. Not everything depends on the homily, however, even for the purposes of evangelization, since many other aspects of the liturgy – the music, the symbolism, the times of quiet, the great prayers of the Church, the assembly itself – might well be more effective in calling people to gratitude and to deeper faith.
            Another context of the homily is the lifestyle of the preacher. In an earlier moment of new evangelization, the beginning of the 13th century, the Order of Preachers was established precisely with this conviction: that the credibility of preaching depended not just on the knowledge and understanding a preacher might have of the Word and of people’s lives, but also on the witness of the preacher’s own life. Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of this when he discusses the lifestyle of Jesus.  How ought Jesus to have lived considering his mission of bringing good news to the poor?
            The best possible form of life, Aquinas says, is the one whereby a person is called to share with others, through preaching and teaching, what has been contemplated. Jesus’ mission was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37) and this required a public life of preaching. Jesus had to live openly among people, therefore, and not as a monk or hermit. He had to live a balanced life of prayer and preaching since preaching without prayer would be meaningless. Because he came to free people from the oppressions of sin, Jesus had to live among sinners, sharing the living conditions of the people and conforming to their circumstances. He lived among them in poverty rather than in power and wealth since poverty is appropriate to the task of preaching. Jesus taught the apostles that they must live in simplicity and detachment if they were to carry through effectively the mission he was entrusting to them.
            This wider context of the homily – living among people, sharing their lives, in prayer and simplicity – was the way in which Jesus needed to live if he was to fulfill his mission, and he also lived like this, Aquinas says, ‘to give an example to preachers’. We can also say that because he passed on to them the mission he had received from the Father, the bearers of good news in any age and in any place are best advised to live like this if their work of evangelization is to be fruitful.

            We have been considering the homily, a particular kind of preaching done within a liturgy. We have seen how this description applies to some of the preaching recorded in the New Testament. It may seem that preaching in this sense will more often than not be to people who are already committed to the faith and are practising it. But even routine homilies are opportunities to reach others who are not so convinced as well as to strengthen the faith of believers and challenge them to a more generous following of Jesus.
            For the new evangelization it is clear that people need to understand the function of the homily and that those entrusted with it should be very well prepared. We have seen how St Thomas Aquinas says that this requires prayer, sharing people’s circumstances, and living in simplicity.
            Documents of the Church on evangelization, on the liturgy, and on preaching, offer practical advice about the means through which the homily may be done well. Most recently we have the post-Synodal exhortation Verbum Domini whose section on ‘The Liturgy, Privileged Setting of the Word of God’ (§§52-71) is relevant to what has been considered in this chapter. ‘Our own time must be increasingly marked by a new hearing of God’s word and a new evangelization’, Benedict XVI says in Verbum Domini §122. The homily within a liturgy is one of the ways in which that new hearing, and that new evangelization, are done.


Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, chapter 3, II and III, §§135-159, Vatican Press 2014

Gleeson, Philip, OP, ‘The Homily: Serving, not Dominating’, in Vivian Boland OP, ed., Watchmen raise their voices: A Tallaght book of theology, Dominican Publications, Dublin 2006, pp. 135-44

Heille, Gregory, OP, The Word on the Web –

Hilkert, Mary Catherine, OP, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination, Continuum, London and New York 1997

Monday, 27 January 2014


This article is published in Encyclopedia of Political Theory, edited by Mark Bevir, Sage Puhlications, 2010, Volume Three, pages 1361-68

The term ‘Thomism’ may be understood in two senses. In one it refers to the ‘school of Thomas Aquinas’, an unbroken tradition since 1274 in which people study, teach and promote the thought of Aquinas. In the other sense it seeks to identify the doctrines that distinguish adherents of this school. These distinctive doctrines are, in the first place, metaphysical and theological, rather than political, although it can be argued that a distinctive political philosophy emerges from the application of Thomist doctrines to questions of government.

Here ‘Thomism’ is treated in both senses. In the first it requires identifying the important personalities and significant events in the history of the school of Thomas Aquinas. In the second it means considering the philosophical and theological teachings of Aquinas that are relevant to political philosophy, in particular his understandings of natural law, of the distinction between nature and grace, of the human person, and of that in which human flourishing consists.

A School in History
Early followers

Aquinas did not gather a group of disciples to promote his thought and it is clear that he never intended to found a ‘school’. His secretaries and pupils finished some of the works left incomplete at his death. Reginald of Piperno wrote the remainder of the Summa theologiae using earlier writings of Aquinas and edited some of his Scripture commentaries. Two of Aquinas’s main political works were incomplete and their subsequent editions much interfered with, his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics was finished by Peter of Auvergne, and his De regno ad regem Cypri (On Government to the King of Cyprus, also known as De regimine principum) by Ptolemy of Lucca.

Although Aquinas nowhere presents a complete political philosophy, some distinctions introduced by him begin to be used with effect in early 14th century treatises on government. The distinction between Church and state, for example, is placed on a new footing on the basis of Aquinas’s distinction between grace and nature, as is also a distinction between royal (regimen regale) and political government (regimen politicum), something he learns from Aristotle. Royal government belongs with what Walter Ullmann calls the ‘descending’ theory of government (sovereignty from above), whereas political government opens the door for the ‘ascending’ theory (sovereignty from below). There is a practical political wisdom in Aquinas’s preference for a monarchy ruling in collaboration with an aristocracy chosen by the people. His familiarity with the practical realities came through his family’s involvement in the struggles between Pope and Emperor, as well as through his contacts with those directly involved in government both ecclesiastical and secular. Nor should the particular form of government enjoyed by the Dominicans be overlooked: many, though by no means all, Thomists have been Dominicans, members of the same Order as Aquinas, and so sharing his experience of its democratic, representative and capitular form of government.

Dante Alighieri may be regarded as an early follower. Although Aquinas was not canonized until 1323, Dante’s Paradiso, written two years earlier, already places Aquinas in a privileged place in heaven. Likewise Dante’s work on government, De monarchia, has been described as Thomism in practice. The idea of state sovereignty begins to take hold in Dante, in other writings of the period, and in the Papal decree Pastoralis cura of 1313. To what extent Aquinas and his followers reflect movements inspired from elsewhere and to what extent they contributed to instigating or strengthening those movements is a matter for debate.

One of the early Thomist to write on royal and papal power was John of Paris (John Quidort) who drew Thomist principles to their logical conclusion, arguing for the autonomy of the state as a natural political community in which the king is chosen by the will of the people. John was suspected of heresy on other matters though died before action could be taken against him.

Renaissance and Early Modern Thomists

A school of Thomists in northern Italy before the Reformation shared the general interest of Thomists elsewhere in the central concerns of Aquinas’s philosophy and theology, but some of them were particularly interested in the practical and moral aspects of his thought. This no doubt reflects also the particular political constitutions and concerns of the city-states from which they came. Aquinas’s acceptance of Aristotle meant a theory was available for what was already observed in practice in many places. From the perspective of moral and political philosophy the most important of these early renaissance Thomists is Saint Antoninus, archbishop of Florence, who wrote much on questions of justice, law and economics.

Although their own form of government was democratic and based on representative chapters of friars, Dominicans tended to support the supremacy of the Pope against conciliarist ideas. At the same time Thomists made very important contributions to the development of international law in the 16th century. Francisco de Vitoria and his colleagues at Salamanca, supported by Cajetan, especially when he was Master of the Order in Rome, rejected the idea that the Emperor or even the Pope had a universal right to wage war and appropriate the goods of other political communities. They replaced the medieval notion of a universal jurisdiction of the Church with natural law as a universal lex gentium (‘law of nations’). Vitoria spoke of a global commonwealth or respublica which could enact the law of nations. The customs, treaties and agreements that make up this law are binding on individuals and come close to what natural law requires. In fact natural law had developed in relation to, and informed by, such ideas of a lex gentium. Though they continued to think of a state properly speaking as something less than a world community, their thought defended the rights of Muslim and pagan states, for example, against unjust aggression on the part of Christian states.

Domingo de Soto is another key figure among the Salamancan Thomists. His work On Justice and Right was the most often printed and widely distributed book of legal and political theology in the 16th century. He said that he could not see where Spain’s ‘right’ to its colonies in the new world came from. He developed Vitoria’s notion of natural right adding to it a notion of personal liberty. The question of balancing individual rights and liberties with the requirements of the common good moved to the centre of political philosophy. Early modern Thomism is marked by a tension between the priority to be given to the common good (a prioritization that makes politics the highest practical science) and the fact that each individual exists not purely for the political community but for his own sake (propter seipsum, the anti-totalitarian principle). The latter side of this tension is seen for example in the rejection by all Thomist theologians of the use of force in the process of evangelisation: to enforce conversion to Christianity, Soto says, would be ‘against the natural right of freedom’.

Under the influence of Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotle’s thought, these 16th century Thomists replaced another medieval political conception – rule by persons with a divine mandate – with a modern one – an international rule of law based on the natural law to which all human beings have access and which recognizes individual human beings as bearers of rights and duties. It may seem paradoxical that this understanding which undoes all theocracy is itself theologically founded, based ultimately on the conviction that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Although they move beyond Aquinas, their work is based on the principles of his political thought. They developed what they had received particularly 1) in speaking of subjective rights or freedoms complementary to objective right, and 2) in giving a universal scope to notions of right and liberty which apply to everyone ‘by nature’ (see Roger Ruston).

The humanizing influence of Aquinas’s thought is seen in another important Thomist of this period, Cardinal Thomas de Vio, known as Cajetan. His views on slavery stand out as enlightened for his time. In response to Spanish actions in the New World he said that what was going on amounted to robbery on a grand scale. The lords of these new lands, in place before the Europeans arrived, and although they are unbelievers, are lawful lords, he said. Slavery is the continuous affliction on a living human being of personal violence and the enslavement of the people of the new world is unjust and immoral.

Another key figure of the period is Bartolomé de las Casas, conquistador turned Dominican friar and later Bishop of Chiapas in Mexico. With the support of Cajetan and others his agitation and writings eventually gained the response of Pope Paul III’s encyclical Sublimis Deus (1537), one of the milestone statements in the process of weakening the acceptance of slavery by Christian rulers. Not that it brought disagreement to an end: even in 1550 and 1551 de las Casas was obliged to debate with the Jesuit Sepulveda on the question of the full humanity, and therefore of the rights and liberties, of the native peoples of the Americas.

Thomism in Decline

Although Aquinas continued to be recognized as an important figure, later thinkers, even while regarding themselves as ‘Thomist’, departed significantly from some of the characteristic principles of his thought. Thus Francisco Suarez, an original thinker in the philosophy of law, developed it in an unThomistic direction, locating the essence of law in the legislator’s will rather than in an ordinance of reason. Two difficulties explain this move, one the fact that intellect and will are both involved in the explanation of law and their relationship can be taken in different ways, the other the fact that Aquinas’s account of natural law leaves the origin of obligation unclear. The post-Reformation period wanted clearer answers to questions about will and obligation and Suarez’s account of natural law can be understood as an admirable attempt to provide such answers. However he concedes so much to new ideas – developing a modern understanding of freedom as ‘active indifference’, for example – as to make his fidelity to Thomism questionable.

Protestant thinkers struggled with the same questions. ‘Keeping God in’ seemed now to require a voluntaristic understanding of natural law so that when Hugo Grotius came to reject such an understanding of law he felt able to take a further step and regard natural law as something self-standing, having its meaning and force ‘even if there is not God’. But the question of obligation remained unanswered, a gap Kant sought to fill with his categorical imperative.

Richard Hooker is the most important of the ‘Anglican Thomists’. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity he acknowledges his debt to medieval political philosophy, accepts Thomist ideas of natural law and of power deriving from the community, and adapts the notion of universal harmony to the nation-state. John Locke acknowledges Hooker’s work in his Second Treatise on Civil Government although on natural law Locke is more influenced by Pufendorf.

Locke set limits to the claims of absolute monarchy and showed that government is responsible to the people it governed. This is what Aquinas taught also though Locke’s basis for it was different. Beginning with the idea that every ‘man’ (the term is deliberate here) is endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and estate, the function of government became for Locke that of giving effect to and preserving these rights. In practice the focus moved to property, which then came to be regarded as an absolute right and the basis for other civil rights (so only men of property were entitled to representation in parliament). Lockean government moved in the direction of an oligarchy of the propertied classes. Aquinas warned about the possibility of any form of constitution becoming tyrannical, including the aristocracy that becomes oligarchic, as well as offering a more profound reflection on the basis of the right to private property, a right that for him is relative and not absolute.

The differences that had by now emerged between Aquinas’s presentation of natural law and those found in modern political philosophy are connected with voluntarism, with the idea of a ‘state of nature’ prior to the political order, and with an understanding of law as setting limits to conflict rather than explaining the positive contribution of the human creature within a theological, cosmic harmony. Thomist ideas carried little weight in this new perspective, the highest good is no longer a matter of concern, the common good is simply the sum of individual interests rather than a qualitatively different good, and the human group is inherently problematic rather than naturally collaborative. In modernity, then, the distinction Aquinas made between the natural and supernatural orders becomes a full-blown separation and even opposition between a ‘sacred’ and a ‘secular’ order, the implications of which continue to be worked out in contemporary political struggles and philosophy.

The Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke is another example of an Anglican whose political philosophy may well have been informed by Aquinas’s thought, by however circuitous a route (he would have known Hooker at least). Burke appeals to principles that are obviously congenial to the thought of Aquinas, notably in impeaching Warren Hastings (for his treatment of Indians) ‘in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated’ and ‘in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed’.

Thomism after the French Revolution

There is a revival of Thomism from 1879 with the publication of Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, which argued that a return to scholasticism, in particular to the thought of Aquinas, was the best response to 19th century philosophical difficulties about faith and reason. This ‘Leonine Thomism’ as it is sometimes called reached its fullest development by the middle of the 20th century

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain is the most important Thomist political philosopher of this revival. In fact it was politics that led to conflict with his mentor, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Maritain wrote in many areas of Thomistic philosophy, particularly epistemology and metaphysics but with important ventures into the philosophy of education and political philosophy. Garrigou-Lagrange taught in the areas of metaphysics, dogmatic theology and spirituality and his extensive account of Thomism the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique has nothing to say about political philosophy. In the 1920s Garrigou-Lagrange organised ‘Thomistic circles’ that were attended by the young Maritain. They collaborated with other French medievalists, philosophers and theologians in the development of new approaches to Aquinas but fell out over the Spanish Civil War and Vichy. It shows at least this much, that Aquinas’s political philosophy, schematic as it is, is not one that falls on either side of the ‘right-wing’ / ‘left-wing’ divide in modern politics but is concerned with more fundamental questions that inform political practice leaning in either direction.

Maritain advocated what he called an ‘open Thomism’ which would be conservative and yet progressive, faithful to the teaching of Aquinas and yet capable of assimilating the insights of modern philosophy and science. He was convinced that in Thomism were to be found the principles for a realistic and existentialist metaphysics which alone, he believed, could provide the basis of a political and ethical philosophy that would do justice to the dignity of the human being and his relationship with God. Maritain sought then to present a philosophy of being, of society and of politics that would be open also to the gospel’s message of love.

His many works in political philosophy include True Humanism, Man and the State, Freedom in the Modern World, Christianity and Democracy, Moral Philosophy, and The Rights of Man and Natural Law. He developed a Christian social philosophy of what he called ‘integral humanism’, a valuing of the human person that was also theological, that called for a brotherhood of all peoples, and that respected human dignity and rights. In the ideological turmoil of the 20th century Maritain said that a new Christendom could only be established by a humanism that was heroic. He is without doubt a democrat and he re-defines the basic political concepts of Thomism – the body politic, the state, the people, and sovereignty – so as to make them serviceable for the defence of democracy. Freedom becomes a central concept in Maritain’s political philosophy.

Yves Simon is another important twentieth century political philosopher who, with Maritain, sought to move the axis of Thomist social and political theory towards liberal democracy (John P.Hittinger). Simon sees in Aquinas’s view that law is properly enacted only by one who has care of a whole community the seed of the ‘transfer’ or ‘transmission’ theory of power, explicitly proposed by the Jesuit Thomists Suarez and Robert Bellarmine. This theory regards government as legitimately established through a transmission whereby the people transfer power to the rulers and this provides the basis for democratic authority.

Maritain’s ‘personalist democracy’ was criticized by Aurel Kolnai whose alternative political philosophy, ‘metaphysics of political conservatism’, also appeals to Aquinas and to the importance for him, as for all medieval thinkers, of the notions of hierarchy, privilege (grace) and liberty. Kolnai’s work is in response to any tendency to regard political life as capable of concerning itself with the fullness of human flourishing. The higher realms of human experience in art, philosophy and spirituality reach far beyond the concerns of politics, he says.

Maritain was the first Thomist to contribute significantly to thinking about questions of authority and freedom in the context of modern ‘pluralistic’ societies. A fundamental question is whether the modern nation-state coincides, and to what extent, with what Aristotle and so Aquinas meant by the state. The Catholic philosopher and theologian Robert Sokolowski thinks that these two conceptions of the state are irreconcilable, the modern Hobbesian Leviathan being, appropriately, a totalitarian monster where Aristotle’s polis is a humane community of persons in which reason can be exercised, prudence decide that forms and constitutions are required as circumstances change, and prepolitical communities (or civil society) be respected.

Sokolowski makes no mention of Aquinas and argues that political philosophy has been short-changed by Leonine Thomism. Maritain and Simon stand out as exceptions, he says, in a school for which political philosophy practically disappeared, with just a few questions such as just war and capital punishment being treated, and then as part of ethics rather than in a political philosophy as such. As a philosopher Sokolowski is a phenomenologist rather than a Thomist but his work is interesting in showing how a Catholic understanding of the (Aristotelian) state, critical of the Hobbesian alternative and dependent on the crucial notion of the person, can be developed without any Thomist mediation.

To be noted also is the extensive involvement of Dominicans in issues of social justice. Dominique Pire won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958 for his work on behalf of displaced persons after World War II and he is just the most distinguished of a large group of thinkers and activists from many parts of the world, all of them educated in the school of Aquinas. Francesco Compagnoni and Helen Alford have edited a substantial but by no means comprehensive record of Dominican involvement in such work.

Distinctive Doctrines

Distinctive doctrines of Thomism are, in the first place, philosophical, even metaphysical, to do with understandings of being and of the knowledge of being. Thomism is a moderate realism with a common sense confidence in the ability of human beings to come to know their world and appreciate to some extent how they ought to live if they are to flourish within it. The natural philosophy, metaphysics and moral philosophy that characterize Thomism are closely dependent on Aristotle. Thomists have always regarded themselves as Aristotelians, keeping abreast of expanding knowledge of Artistotle’s philosophy even when it came to be seen that Aquinas’s knowledge of it was limited. One of the significant movements in Thomism through the twentieth century has been a fresh realization of Aquinas’s indebtedness to Neoplatonism for important aspects of his philosophical theology.

In the early twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church identified twenty-four theses in Thomistic philosophy that were to be subscribed to by all Catholics as essential foundations for the theological teachings of the Church. This was a controversial position, even within the Church, and did not last long. Other attempts to identify the doctrines of Thomism have been made but it is striking that political doctrines tend not to feature in these lists. That of James A.Weisheipl is an exception. Beginning with the distinction between nature and the supernatural he lists ten principles of ‘Thomistic Philosophy’ and ten of ‘Thomistic Theology’. The sixth philosophical principle reads:

By nature man (sic) has the right to cooperate with other men in society in the pursuit of personal happiness in the common good; this pursuit of happiness is guided by conscience, laws both natural and positive, and virtues both private and public.

Thomistic doctrines that are most important from the point of view of political philosophy, then, are natural law, the distinction between nature and the supernatural, happiness, the virtues, and the notion of person.

Natural Law

For Aquinas natural law is the human being’s participation in the eternal law. Such participation is intelligent and responsible, making the human being a participant in providence and not simply a passive object of it. All law is an ordinance of reason enacted by one who has responsibility for a community and made known to that community. The right to legislate positively that belongs to those who have such responsibility is part of natural law even if the natural law does not determine in advance the particular ways in which such laws should be enacted nor what their specific content should be. The state, and so political authority, is natural for Aquinas as it was for Aristotle. There is no ‘state of nature’ that precedes the political community. Natural law establishes the need for certain elements and values - e.g. possession of property by citizens, government in some form – but there is still room for contractual agreement about the ways in which these elements and values are to be pursued within a particular community. Thomist understandings of natural law bring together many strands of earlier philosophical thought, Roman jurisprudence and canon law. Such strands of thought also included important considerations of notions such as ‘right’, ‘person’ and ‘sovereignty’.

Nature and the Supernatural

Although the order of grace transcends the order of nature it does not replace that order but perfects and fulfills it, bringing nature to a fulfillment beyond its inherent capacities but still in the direction of its natural inclinations to happiness. The most important implication of this for political philosophy was a clearer distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Thus the person under grace is more than the natural human being. This has two important consequences. The human being who is a subject in the Church is at the same time a citizen in the State: there is autonomy of the natural created order within the overall economy of grace. Thus Aquinas acknowledges that there is true virtue among pagans (Summa theologiae I.II 65,2). But he believes also that true human fulfillment is found only in the order of grace so that the human person is always more than the citizen. 

The state is a relatively ultimate end in the line of the natural human instinct towards community. It is concerned with ‘the highest good’ Aristotle says, and Aquinas follows him in this. While it is not the absolutely ultimate end – which is eternal life with God, or the society of the heavenly kingdom – at the same time how can it be disentangled altogether from human seeking of that ultimate end? The state is not just for the management of evil tendencies but also for the promotion of good ones, for the encouragement of virtue.

This distinction of the good citizen and the good human being thus sets the scene for modern times. Some fear that Aquinas’s distinction contained the seeds of a disjunction between the natural and the supernatural that led eventually to secularization, the cutting of any link between nature and God. Aquinas himself did not do this, nor would his followers want to. It happens rather with Marsilius of Padua in the early 14th century with whom the link between nature and God becomes a matter of faith. Aquinas’ understanding of natural law remained essentially theological and in this he belongs more straightforwardly than does Marsilius to the traditions coming down from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Happiness and the Virtues

For Aquinas full human flourishing requires the body, not just the physical body but also the body politic of a human community. The human being does not flourish alone. Such a life would be beastly says Aristotle, though for Aquinas it is perhaps divine in the case of some unusual saints. It is for the wellbeing of our beatitude (our complete happiness) that we are bodily, Aquinas says, and our flourishing is enhanced by the companionship of friends. Life in community requires the development of dispositions or virtues if it is to be established and sustained. As the human being needs to be temperate and confident if he or she is to be mature in personal affairs, so he or she must develop especially the virtues of justice and prudence in order to participate effectively in political life, the pursuit of common goods.

The Notion of Person

One of the central questions raised by Thomism is whether the notion of ‘person’ presupposes a theological understanding of human nature and destiny. Theological controversies in the early centuries of Christianity helped to refine the meaning of ‘person’ and ‘humanity’. These notions are central in Maritain’s political philosophy, which is an important influence on the Roman Catholic Church’s acceptance of the language of ‘human rights’. Recent popes have been happy to use this terminology, beginning with John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in terris (1963). Paul VI was also significantly influenced by Maritain’s work and made his notion of ‘integral humanism’ central to the encyclical Populorum progressio (1967). John Paul II’s social encyclicals likewise emphasize the dignity of the human person and the centrality of human rights. Although he pursued doctoral studies with Garrigou-Lagrange in Rome and was much influenced by Maritain, John Paul II was not simply a Thomist. His thinking about political questions is significantly shaped also by his lived experience of Marxist-Leninism as well as by Max Scheler’s theory of value.

Contemporary Thomism

Contemporary debates appeal to Aquinas from different perspectives. Some have sought to show that his political views are compatible with forms of liberal democracy, and that his understanding of natural law is not so dependent on theological beliefs that liberal critics must reject it out of hand. On the other side are efforts to show that Aquinas is misinterpreted if he is interpreted as liberal or as liberal-compatible, arguing instead that his political views support just the kind of radical critique of which liberal democracy stands in need, and that his (theological-philosophical) understanding of natural law offers one of the few credible alternatives to the dominant philosophy of culture. Thomists of various shades are important contributors to contemporary debates about the meaning and purposes of education, for example, as well as participating in debates about war, bioethics and environmental ethics.

In the work of American students of Aquinas such as Robert P.George and Peter Augustine Lawler, of Germain Grisez, Ralph McInerny and Jean Porter, and of non-Americans influential on the American scene such as John Finnis and Alasdair MacIntyre, is to be found a range of interpretations of natural law, a variety of uses of Thomist ideas, and telling contributions to contemporary political, social and cultural debates. John Courtney Murray believed American Thomism’s most important contribution was to defend a realist epistemology, to ground the genuine human goods to which people aspire and to order freedom so that those goods might be affirmed as genuine. Thomism’s strength continues to be in affirming the naturalness of social and political life while underlining that the secular is not ultimate for human beings. On the one hand emphasizing the importance of reason and freedom, Thomist approaches seek to ensure that the state does not become totalitarian (which can happen in religious, sacred dress also of course). The tension between freedom and truth, identified so clearly by John Paul II in Veritatis splendor (1993), has its roots not in 1960s libertarianism but much earlier, in the developments from Marsilius of Padua to Thomas Hobbes and beyond to the French Revolution, a tension that has grown ever stronger between a voluntarist idea of law as will and natural law as an intellectualist idea. So Thomism, in Mark Guerra’s words, can praise the virtues of liberal democracy while moderating its dehumanizing excesses.

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