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Think Thomas Aquinas is too hard to read? This free video course can help


Gentile da Fabriano | Public Domain

John Burger - published on 08/23/19

Aquinas 101 is a new initiative to bring the wisdom of the 13th-century philosopher to 21st-century problems.

If the name Thomas Aquinas rings a bell for you, you might well be thinking, “Oh. Long, drawn-out philosophical arguments in Latin. I’m not up for that.”

But St. Thomas Aquinas’ reputation as a philosopher who’s hard to grasp is unwarranted, says Fr. Gregory Pine. And he’s out to prove that Aquinas is totally accessible.

Fr. Pine, a member of the same religious order that Aquinas joined in 1244, the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, works for the Thomistic Institute, which has developed a free video course called Aquinas 101. The course launches next week, and people can sign up for it right now.

The Washington, D.C.-based Thomistic Institute promises that the free course will help the viewer “engage life’s most urgent philosophical and theological questions with the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the end, you’ll be able to read Aquinas on his own terms and to master the essentials of his thought.”

“All told it’ll be 85 short videos (with accompanying readings and recommended resources and listening),” Fr. Pine said in an interview. “The idea is that it’ll give you a basic mastery of the essentials of Aquinas.” The videos will introduce St. Thomas and his philosophy and walk viewers through his masterwork, the Summa Theologiae — specifically, through the topics of God and Creation; Principles of the Moral Life; the Virtues, and Christ and the Sacraments.

Each email, for those who enroll in the free course, will come with selected readings and recommended listening and resources, Fr. Pine added.

The 13th-century philosopher’s relevance for the challenges of the 21st century can’t be overstated. “People speak about crises in the world and in the Church,” Fr. Pine said. “I think there’s a desire sown deeply in the heart of man to know the truth and to have a life that reflects that truth, or we could just say–to be wise. I think we are born with a native understanding, a native belief that reality is knowable and that we can actually have access to the meaning of things. If there’s one thing you can say about St. Thomas Aquinas it is that he is wise—and that he has a very clear, orderly and articulate vision of reality, which he communicates to his students.”

Fr. Pine admitted that Aquinas’s language is “a little bit jargony, and it seems a little bit antiquated.” But that shouldn’t be off-putting.

“What people discover is that St. Thomas is a wise friend, and if you make the initial commitment, the initial investment of some time, it ends up being super fruitful, in giving you the habits of mind and heart to know and to love well,” he said.

It might seem obvious, but Fr. Pine emphasized that what distinguishes Aquinas is that he thinks of all things in light of God. That is an important distinction that makes him a valuable voice for the 21st century.

“I think the current tendency that you observe in many quarters is to think of most problems as political problems, and that politics ends up becoming the most important science; it’s like the first philosophy, or a foundational commitment, as a result of which, we invest our efforts in human solutions that are divorced from a transcendent vision of reality,” the priest said. “Politics is good—don’t get me wrong. It’s the science of how men and women are ordered to the common good in a polity. But there are other common goods that transcend that of the state. St. Thomas refers to God as the common good of the whole universe.

“So, St. Thomas professes that there’s a more fundamental question to address than ‘How do we arrange our civic responsibilities and this-worldly relationships?'” Fr. Pine continued. “We are really only intelligible, in general and to ourselves, in light of our origin and end, in light of God. So the way he orders the Summa Theologiae, he starts with God, and moves from God to the procession of creatures from God and the moral life—how we return to God through Christ and the sacraments, whereby we come ultimately to the loving vision of God.”

While Aquinas’ thought can be appreciated by most anyone in society, for Catholics, he has a particular resonance. In one particular area, which has been in the news lately, he has much to offer. The Pew Research Center recently published survey data showing that a very large number of self-identified Catholics in the United States believe Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is only “symbolic,” rather than a Real Presence as the Church teaches.

What would St. Thomas say to that? The saint lived right after the Fourth Lateran Council, which used the language of transubstantiation to describe what happens at the Catholic Mass: the change from bread and wine to Jesus’ body and blood, Fr. Pine said. “His treatise on the Eucharist is a masterpiece of philosophical and theological insight. I suspect many people don’t believe in the Real Presence because they don’t even understand the claim, much less the explanation. St. Thomas can help with both. He was known to have struggled with the issue in prayer and study.

“Ultimately, the doctrine of the Real Presence makes sense because God reveals it, not because it corresponds to our opinions on the matter of how changes in substance should go,” Fr. Pine concluded. “We can use reason to show that the doctrine is not incoherent. We can use reason to show how it squares with Scripture. We cannot use reason to prove it. For that we need faith, but it is reasonable to believe, because we know that Truth Himself speaks truly, and in light of that judgment we assent to what it is that He reveals.”

Aquinas 101 is a project of the Thomistic Institute, which fosters Catholic intellectual life on mostly non-Catholic college campuses through lectures and other activities.

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