The Dominicans are launching a free online course allowing anyone to study one of the greatest minds in the Church
Modern theologians, especially in the post-war period, often spoke as though the Catholic Church was going to need to change in order to maintain relevance in the modern world. They did not think this change was likely to come from magisterial teaching, “from above,” but rather “from below,” that is from the lived experiences of ordinary Catholics at the margins. The more those marginal experiences seemed au courant with the prevailing cultural winds, the more reliable they were seen to be as drivers of doctrinal or pastoral change. There are aspects of the Amazonian Synod’s instrumentum laboris which seem cut from this dubious theological method quite simply because this method has not yet died in the Church.
The sensus fidelium requires that the faithful be well-formed in “the faith delivered once for all to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Or as the Catechism puts it, the sense of the faith is “the supernatural appreciation of faith” not just for some, but “on the part of the whole people” — what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” The well-spring of the Church’s life is always the missions of the Triune God, not the passions of the people experiencing something somewhere in history, whether at the center, or at the margins.
Yet there is a sense in which the old liberal theologians were correct. How a Catholic people comes to understand and act about faith matters. They got the direction wrong, mainly because they wanted to change the Church to be more like the world rather than to help the world fall prostrate before the living God. But experience matters because experience educates us. We need the right kind of experiences that lead us into reality rather than away from it. Aristotle tells us we were made to know, and that the intellect is searching to know the causes of things, and thus aims ultimately at God.
For most Catholics, their “supernatural appreciation of faith” is formed at Mass. St Thomas Aquinas once said that a holy old woman with the gift of faith knows more about God than all of the philosophers, and will have “a charity of greater dignity” than wicked theologians. St Thomas, of course, is not preferring old women to theologians. Old ladies can be wicked, and theologians can be holy. His point is that we are made holy by receiving the grace of Christ through the sacraments, and through prayer and study. So the holy old woman might be helped by the theologian, and the theologian might be helped by the old lady — but the point is that we must be formed by conforming ourselves to divine truth.
Thomas Aquinas was called “the common doctor” precisely because he provides an accessible, reliable method for training the mind to know reality “from below” conformed perfectly to the reality which comes “from above.” It’s a pity that so many of the faithful find the mere mention of Thomism or St Thomas Aquinas to be intimidating. They will read other Catholic classics they believe to be “more spiritual,” which is to say easier. But here they deprive themselves greatly of the easiest and most efficient path for healing and bathing the mind in light. One of the joys of teaching theology is introducing my students to Aquinas every year, and every year watching them learn to think the way he thinks, and finding something like a sabbath for their minds.
Flannery O’Connor is said to have read an article of the Summa Theologiae every day of her short life — habituating her mind to the kind of revelatory vibrancy of her stories. Why not us? The Dominicans in Washington, D.C., the ones I know and love best, are the brightest lights in the whole Order of Preachers today. Through their Thomistic Institute, which teaches St Thomas at prestigious secular universities across the nation, they are launching a free online course for everyone — and anyone — who wants to think with St Thomas Aquinas in this way.
The course is called “Aquinas 101,” and there are 86 video lessons planned. Those who enroll will receive by email two lessons each week, walking you through the basics of Aquinas’ masterwork, the Summa Theologiae. For those who want to go deeper in any given week, each lesson with also provide further reading, including the complete text of the Summa, and an “Ask the Friar” feature for those who have specific questions they need help with.
Converts constantly ask me what they should read, or whether they should take theology courses. They somehow intuitively know that their mind needs to be fed with true doctrine if they want to avoid conforming themselves to all the false doctrines on offer. My advice from now on will be: “Take Aquinas 101 with the Dominicans. It will help you think well about the Faith, and the rest will follow.”
St Thomas really is a common doctor. He is not just for Dominicans, or Thomists, and certainly not just for “theologians.” His way of helping the mind conform to reality is urgently needed right now for the health of the world. Tolle lege!