Don’t be afraid of Thomism

St Thomas Aquinas

Modern theologians, especially in the post-war period, often spoke as though the Catholic Church would have 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 Amazon synod’s working document which seem cut from this dubious theological method simply because this method has not yet died in the Church.

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 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 each year, and each 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, DC, 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 the Aquinas way.

The course is called Aquinas 101, and there are 86 video lessons planned. Those who enrol (at aquinas101.thomisticinstitute.org) will receive by email two lessons each week, walking them through the basics of the Summa Theologiae. For those who want to go deeper, each lesson will provide further reading and an “Ask the Friar” feature for those who have specific questions.

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!

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A recent poll reveals that while white Catholics sadly mirror national divisions on abortion, Hispanic and Latino Catholics paint a more complicated picture. Hispanic Catholics are the ethnic group least likely to support the legality of abortion, but drilling down into the data shows that Hispanic Catholics born outside the US were far less likely to support the legality of abortion (59 per cent oppose abortion) than if they were born inside the US. In a political climate where it is simply assumed that Hispanic immigrants are a reliable voting block for Democrats, the data suggests that they are not natural allies of the party of Planned Parenthood.

The conclusion drawn in America magazine’s reporting on the data is commendable as far as it goes: immigration and abortion are both about human dignity, and are better bedfellows than partisan issues. That conclusion is, however, a political wish that seems distant from political reality. It also doesn’t help to explain why the Hispanic population stands out, in contrast to white Catholics, or why being born in America would weaken those familial attachments that undergird their support for pro-life legislation.

One possible explanation that moves in this direction, however, might be found in Mary Eberstadt’s new book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, which presents a new approach to thinking about the collective “primal screams” of our identity politics as a scream “born of familial liquidation”. In a fascinating essay at quillette.com called “The Great Scattering”, Eberstadt previews her thesis that “our macropolitics have become a mania about identity because our micropolitics are no longer familial”.

The inverse of that claim would be that where the micropolitics of the family still have a significant claim on people’s lives, they will be less drawn into the “primal screams” of identity that so distort our politics – including the politics of abortion, as Eberstadt explains.

While Eberstadt’s argument is directed at identity politics more broadly, it strikes me that it also inclines to a good explanation for why Hispanic Catholics not born in the US are so profoundly pro-life. On Eberstadt’s argument, if Hispanics have retained those “familial forms of socialisation that for many people no longer exist”, it would follow that by suffering less from the kind of bleak isolation “born of familial liquidation” that Eberstadt sees, they would also be less likely to support the bleak and devastating familial liquidation of the unborn.

CC Pecknold is associate professor of theology and a fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC