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St. Thomas Aquinas Print E-mail
By James Schall   
Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas is celebrated on January 28 (today, if you’ve lost track), the day his body was transferred to Toulouse in 1369. He was born at Roccaseca, across from the Abbey of Monte Cassino, in 1225. He died at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova on March 7, 1274.

Christof Cardinal von Schönborn, in a favorite passage, once said that Aquinas was the “only man ever canonized simply for thinking.”

The breviary for Aquinas’ feast cites an exposition he once made on the Creed. It begins with a question each of us has wondered about: “Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us?”

We often come up against the question of suffering in the lives of those we know or in own lives. Suddenly, unexpectedly, we read these lines. Our attention is quickly expanded. We are reminded a) that Christ suffered and b) that He suffered “for us.” Reading these words, we are alert. Christ did not “need” to suffer unless it was “for us.” We return to the initial formulation of the question: “Why did the Son of God ‘have’ to suffer for us?”

The wonderful thing about Aquinas is that he answers his own questions. He does not think a man is a profound philosopher simply by bringing up endless queries. One is only a philosopher when he answers such questions as posed or arrives at a point where he knows that he, with his own mind, cannot answer them.

This seeming impasse means that he is still open to an answer that he cannot himself, along with other philosophers, provide. It also means that, unlike many philosophers, he does not exclude the totality of the evidence available to him. This exclusion is the besetting aberration of the modern mind.

Thus, after posing his question, St. Thomas continues: “There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.”

Aquinas found a relation between the “need” of Christ’s suffering and our own way of living. Put another way, we first encounter the “need” in our own lives before we are presented with a possible answer, one that the philosophers did not themselves pose. Yet, with Aristotle, they were aware of an endemic “wickedness” that recurs in human nature, that is, in each of our own lives, if we would look at them.

St. Augustine said that Christianity was not needed to explain what the virtues were. The philosophers explained them well enough. What they could not explain was how to live the virtues once we knew what they were.

Aquinas was a great pupil of the ever restless Augustine. So “Why did the Son of Man suffer for us?” Two reasons are given: 1) Our sins need a “remedy,” 2) We need an “example” of how to live. And this “example” of how to live, Christ Himself, suffered. He suffered “for us.”

Everyone has been tempted to ask: “Why could not the Son of Man have chosen a less graphic way?” It is a fair question. The simple answer is that He probably could have. But He chose the one way that was best for the finite beings we are. Anyone with insight into himself knows that he is both sinful and has sinned.

A student e-mailed me: “The book really got me thinking on the existence of evil and volition, viz. sinning. However, I’m beginning to think this idea is antiquated. It seems in this society that very few people can do wrong. A man who keeps a mistress is simply following his heart or a woman with a heroin addiction is just sick. People who do down right mean things are diagnosed with behavior disorders.”

The suffering of the Son of Man is designed to redeem us by atoning for our specific, personal sins. The reach of these sins, in fact, is clear whether we acknowledge it or not, even though the disorders of our society manifest it every day – if we would see them. As Plato said, all disorders of the public sphere begin in our own souls.

“Why did the Son of Man suffer for us?’ Aquinas had it right: To counteract or remedy these sins, so that we could see them in ourselves, and to give us an example of how to live. The philosophers, if they are honest, if they are thorough, know that we know what sin is. They do not know what to do about it and, often, do not want to listen to the one source that does.

Or, to put it another way, Aquinas tells us not only that we should not sin, but we should think about why we should not. That’s only one of the many good reasons why we celebrate him each year on this day.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by William Dennis, January 28, 2009
In the words of JP II man has lost his sense of sin.  Our actions have no culpability but rather are the result of genetic defects or behavioral disorders. This dualistic approach to man's being begs the question of Hell's existence and the need for Christ's death.  Do some philosophers who have rejected Thomism understand the meaning of chaos and nilhism?  Has the prospect of genetic engeenering replaced prayer and forgiveness? Oh! Only if the Great Philosopher were here today! Great article!
written by Mark, January 28, 2009
Your student's observation perfectly crystallizes the situation in which society finds itself today. What is ironic, and you point this out, is that the individual can still recognize sin even if he refuses to acknowledge it as such. Great article!

I also wanted to express my appreciation for "The Mind that is Catholic". I just finished it. I really enjoyed considering the "unseriousness of human affairs" and reading the Narnia chapter: I plan to take another look at dragons and St. George.
written by Matt Peterson, January 28, 2009
Thanks so much for this. A deep breath of truth, causing the corresponding delight that comes from such. Love the site and articles such as this.
Organic Tory
written by Stephen MacLean, January 28, 2009
Fitting it is that Schall should celebrate the accomplishments of Aquinas, for both exemplify a trait D.J. Kennedy commended in ‘St. Thomas Aquinas and Medieval Philosophy’: ‘He was indeed a singularly blessed genius, but he was also an indefatigable worker, and by continued application he reached that stage of perfection in the art of writing where the art disappears.’
written by J. Smith, January 28, 2009
A decisive reason for why mankind has lost his sense of sin is because Thomas Aquinas placed the Moral Ten Commandments of Divinity subordinate to materialistic natural laws from which the Papacy has constructed its religion. 1) Eternal Law 2) Natural Law 3) Positive Law 4) Divine Law is his philosophical order allowing the Papacy to redefine what sin is and its moral remedy by tinkering with Divine Moral law as revealed in the Scriptures. See EX 20 in the Catholic Bible with its catechisms.
written by Kevin, January 28, 2009
The reality of sin in no way elminiates the possibility that individual actions, though objectively wrong, may be subjectively incupable. All the criteria, including an objectively gravely sinful act, due deliberation, and full consent, must be met if the act is to be judged as mortal sin. We must not be too quick to judge, for instance, a heroin addict as a sinner.. We may condemn the act, not the man. To what degree, e.g., has our loss of the sense of sin reduced sin's culpability?

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