January 28th, Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
The Common Doctor, St. Thomas is often referred to as “Aquinas” after his hometown of Aquino. His most beloved title, however, is the “Angelic Doctor” – and it is this designation which inspires the greatest devotion to the saintly Dominican theologian.
Why is St. Thomas Aquinas properly called the “Angelic Doctor”, the “Angelic Thomas”, and the “Angel of the Schools”?
The titles of Church Doctors
The Doctors of the Church are often designated according to specific epithets which express their characteristic excellence.
Hence, St. Augustine is the “Doctor of Grace” as he was particularly important in developing the Church’s theology of grace. St. Francis de Sales is the “Doctor of Charity” as he was most gentle and filled with love. St. John of the Cross is the “Mystical Doctor” since his writings expound the way of mystical union with God. Et cetera.
St. Thomas Aquinas, however, is called the “Common Doctor” (not to be confused with the “Universal Doctor”, St. Albert who wrote on nearly every subject including the natural sciences). St. Thomas is called the “Common Doctor” because his learning is so great and excellent as to make him the Doctor of not merely any one specific area of theology, but rather of every area and of all theology together.
Thus, as St. Augustine holds a primacy in the theology of grace, and St. John of the Cross in spiritual theology, St. Thomas Aquinas is the sure guide and master in every area of theological inquiry. He towers above all the others as not merely the greatest theologian, but a true Angel sent from heaven to impart knowledge to the Church on earth.
Thus, St. Thomas is called, most especially, the Angelic Doctor – and this surname inspires the greatest piety among the faithful.
St. Thomas is called “Angelic” on account of his great purity. After an incident in which he gained perfect purity through struggling against a certain temptress forced upon him by his family (who were trying to keep him from becoming a Dominican), St. Thomas was girded with a mystical belt of purity by two angels.
Now, since purity is most especially a quality of the angels – who neither are given nor give themselves in marriage – it is fitting that the most pure St. Thomas should be compared to these celestial spirits.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that St. Thomas’ treatment of issues related to human sexuality is marked by his great purity, such that he is able to affirm what is good without scruple.
Moreover, St. Thomas is called the “Angelic Doctor” insofar as he is the expert on the doctrine of angels. More than any other writer (not excepting even the great St. Dionysius), St. Thomas has influenced the Church’s doctrine on the angelic spirits.
Among many notable points which St. Thomas taught regarding the angels, we specify the following:
That there are three hierarchies in which reside nine choirs of angels, that Lucifer began in the state of grace before falling, that there are more angels than specks of dust in the universe, that “angel” refers not to a nature but to the ministry of being a messenger, that each “angel” is its own species, and that angels have no bodies but are pure spirits (a point disputed even by the great St. Bonaventure).
The Angelic St. Thomas has greatly influenced the Church’s teaching and the peoples devotion regarding the angels.
Again, we assert that St. Thomas is “angelic” insofar as his wisdom is likened to that of the angels. As pure spirits, the angels are not limited to the particulars of discursive reasoning, but see the whole of doctrine as one in a single unified vision. Thus, the angels are able to grasp the great unity of all theology – and this is the essence of wisdom.
St. Thomas, likewise, excels every other theologian in this point. He is able to see the essential unity of all theology in God. Thus, even in a large work like the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas is always able to place the particular question at hand within the larger context of theology.
While the Angelic Thomas is excellent in every detail, he never once loses the forest for the trees.
Further, as the angels are far more rational than men, yet they are also far more pious. In them, learning does not work against but rather strengthens devotion. And this is true also in the case of the Angelic Thomas.
Sadly, in our own day, great learning often seems to be coupled with some level of doubt and even loss of faith – but, with St. Thomas, this is not the case. Rather, as one reads and understands the Common Doctor, he is then brought to a greater and greater devotion through this reasoning about the faith.
The great gift of St. Thomas was to connect reason with piety. We take occasion here to note that the superb Thomistic theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (some of whose works are linked in the right side-column) is also notable for this trait.
An Angelic guide
Finally, though there are many more, I will add only one further sense in which St. Thomas is rightly called “angelic” – as the angel guardian serve as guides for the soul, so too St. Thomas is a true guide for the children of the Church in all areas of theology.
The Second Vatican Council teaches this in reference to seminary training for future priests:
“In order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections.” (Optatum Totius 16)
This deeper penetration of the mysteries of faith, which the Council (and also Canon 252 of the Code of Canon Law) demands of those to be ordained priests, is meant to be accomplished with St. Thomas as teacher and guide.
St. Thomas is thus rightly called the “Angel of the Schools” insofar as he serves as a sort of angelic guardian and guide for the schools and systems of theology. So long as they remain under his protection and care, not only will they penetrate to the riches of dogmatic theology and Sacred Scripture, but their minds will be freed from the many unsound and pernicious doctrines of the modern world which far too often have crept into many books of theology and have penetrated into the minds of so many priests and laity.
When we pray to our guardian angel we ask him to be out our side “to light, to guard, to rule, to guide.” This same prayer can be appropriated to the Angelic Thomas: that his teaching may enlighten our minds, may guard us from all error, may rule over us as indeed he rules as the Common Doctor in the Church, and to guide us to the deepest penetration of the mysteries of salvation.
O Angelic Thomas, Pray for us!