It Matters What You Think

I wrote here recently about the Thomistic Institutes, an initiative of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C., which organizes lectures and conferences by first-rate, orthodox Catholics at nearly fifty (and growing) of the most prestigious colleges and universities in America. And expansion to parts foreign is on the way. Many readers wrote to express their appreciation of this much-needed network – but also to ask: What to do if nothing of that sort is available nearby?

There’s now an answer.

Today, August 26, Aquinas 101 – a website created by the same Dominicans – goes live (click here, and prepare yourself for a bracing experience). The series will eventually consist of eighty-six brief lessons, carefully geared for study by anyone of normal capabilities and interest.

Did I mention that the course is open to everyone – and free?

This is an accessible, well-crafted introduction to the greatest of all Dominican thinkers, St. Thomas Aquinas, which will not only put you in touch with the man who has most shaped Catholic thought for centuries, but will help you see how that body of thought has great relevance to some of the most neuralgic questions we face.

For example, a lot of people today, even Christians, even Catholics, have fallen into some basic confusions about the nature of Faith and Reason. As an early lecture in the series explains, this leads – on the one hand – to skepticism (we can’t really know anything about God), but also – on the other hand – to what has been termed “fideism,” that we just believe without knowing what we believe in.

Both are natural reactions in a post-truth age, but a searching Catholic will not want to let his or her thinking remain stuck in our current social funk. There are better and “truer” ideas about truth, so to speak, that Aquinas and others provide us.

You’ve probably seen the recent survey that shows how few people, even among practicing Catholics, believe in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Many regard it as a mere “symbol.” Ultimately, the Eucharist is a deep mystery, but holy and gifted men like Aquinas have used the various tools of the tradition and of human reason to offer serious, rational approaches to what ultimately transcends us – and all Creation.

Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, recently commented on the survey that he didn’t believe in the terms like substance, accident, matter, and form that Aquinas uses to explain the Eucharist. But without some form of explanation or solid description, it’s no wonder that the Eucharist appears symbolic and belief in it becomes “fideistic.”

Many have rejected those concepts because they believe modern science has discredited them. In fact, science has not done so and cannot do so because the way the Scholastic thinkers use those terms is philosophical. It does not and cannot conflict with science – ancient, modern, postmodern, or anything to come, ever. But you would have to have studied what those terms mean and how Faith and Reason are related to know why.

The number one reason young people today say they have abandoned real religion and call themselves “spiritual not religious” is because they believe science has made traditional religion untenable.

You can sit around and lament that so many have been taken in by this simplistic fallacy. (“Ex-Catholics” are the second largest religious group in America; and “Nones,” i.e., people who say they have no formal religious affiliation, are probably the fastest growing religious category in our society.)

Or you can decide to do something about it, starting with yourself.

It’s no light matter to study St. Thomas, of course, who in several places in his vast works admits that not everyone is suited to study philosophy or theology. But this series has been put together fully aware of the difficulties. As the site explains about this kind of study: “It’s not as hard as you think. In fact, once you get the hang of it, Aquinas’s thought sheds light on some of the most important questions. You will even find that he has become your friend and a trusted guide in the ways of wisdom.”

Imagine speaking of wisdom these days and actually affirming that “it matters what we think,” as the Church has always held.

Catholics and Protestants, for example, differ over many things. But classically, you might say that it all comes down to that central formula of Luther’s: sola Scriptura Scripture alone as constituting the faith: versus Scripture and Tradition, or Bible and Church, or Faith and Reason.

In the last department, there have been serious Protestant philosophers, of course, and Protestant theologians like John Calvin or Karl Barth, who undertook deep rational reflection. Still, at the end of the day, it wouldn’t entirely be a stretch to say that – of all the forms of Christianity – the one that has most consistently across centuries cultivated both faith and reason is Catholicism.

And among Catholics, the most intellectually fertile group for almost a thousand years has been the Dominican Order. The list of saintly brainiacs and mystics is a long one: St. Dominic himself, Matthew of Paris, Raymond of Peñafort, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Siena, Fra Angelico, Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, Cardinal Cajetan, Rose of Lima, Martin de Porres, Pius V (whose long rule gave popes the white habit), Louis de Montfort, Lacordaire, A. G. Sertillanges, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Vincent McNabb, Aidan Nichols, and many more in modern times.

There are other schools of Catholic thought besides the Thomists and Dominicans, of course. But if you were to familiarize yourself with any of the figures cited above, it would give you a valuable formation in Catholic thinking and practice – and a powerful perspective on many perennial questions as well as current controversies.

The Dominican House has made it easy for you to study Aquinas, the greatest of them all, now. Go to the site and enroll. It’s free; you can study at your own pace from home; there are no grades. What have you got to lose? And just think of what you stand to gain.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.