The Primacy of Theology and St. Thomas

Source: District of Asia

Most Reverend Mario Cordovani, O.P. (1883-1950), was an Italian Dominican priest and a highly reputed theologian. On March 7, 1904, he made his solemn profession in the order of Dominicans, and on June 9, 1906, he was ordained as a priest in Rome. From 1927 to 1932, he served as a professor of dogmatics at the Angelicum. From 1933 to 1935, he taught missiology at the Pontificio Instituto di Propaganda Fidei in Rome. From 1936 until his death, he held the position of papal theologian, serving as the Master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace. Fr. Mariano Cordovani was known for his critical stance towards the "Nouvelle Théologie." What follows is a conference he gave at the University of Angelicum, Rome on the feast of Saint Thomas in 1949.

I.  The Primacy of Theology

Today's problem is one of theology, as evidenced by the heap of errors that still persist with stubborn persistence. There is a pressing need for the intervention of ecclesiastical authority to guide even the learned back to the main roads of Catholic truth and science, from which they should never have strayed.  Popes have always stated that despite the progress and clamor of the natural sciences, diligent priests, deeply imbued with the truths of faith and filled with the spirit of God, achieve today greater and more marvelous successes in winning souls for Christ than perhaps ever before.

And yet the study of theology is not easy. If the transcendence of this object sometimes intimidates our reason, let it learn at that height, for we know that "the least that can be had of knowledge of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge one can have of the smallest things" (I, q. 1 a. 5, 2 ad 1). And that primacy is justified by the authority of God who reveals and by the certainty of his magisterium. "Although the place taken by authority based on divine revelation is the weakest against human reason, it is nevertheless the strongest" (I, q. 1, a. 8 ad. 2). That primacy is justified by the needs of Christian life and the Catholic defense, for many crises of conscience, especially in the clergy, are caused by poorly studied theology, by a theology professor who thought he could jest with this sovereign science, which, like grace, eludes those who do not respect it.

Generally speaking, when one is a student, theology is studied to pass exams, and when one is a scholar, theology is studied to teach it, not always to understand the mysteries of God a little better and to live them in the intelligent love that would blossom in wisdom and holiness. That is why theologians are not always saints, but saints are always a bit (or much) theologians. Is there a primacy of theology in order to spiritual life? 

I remember Father Schultes, who, during his illness, kept the Summa Theologica near his bed and read while meditating on the last end. I recall that dogmas generate piety, and a serious theologian who thinks and lives in contact with the mysteries cannot remain agnostic and inconsistent.

Theology, besides being a science, is true wisdom: "He who considers simply the highest cause of the whole universe, which is God, is most wise... but sacred doctrine determines properly about God, as the highest cause" (I, q. 1 a. 6). As soon as a heartbeat of love penetrates this wisdom, we are necessarily in contemplation (II-II, q. 180).

Philosophy is good, nay even necessary, but let us not forget that it is a lunar light on the world; theology is necessarily a sun that reveals a new world and makes us better understand the old one. Many have not lost the light of reason only because theological teaching prevented them.

Theology must return to guide the lives of individuals and nations, recognizing practically the primacy of God and His grace in the works of creatures. We should feel the glory of living according to Revelation and according to God.

II.  Primacy of St. Thomas

The Church has always affirmed  (Can. 1366, § 2) that the Philosophy should be taught in such a way that students are formed with a full and coherent synthesis of doctrine according to the method and principles of St. Thomas. In theology, the truth of faith, demonstrated with Holy Scripture and tradition, should be investigated and illuminated in its nature and inner reason according to the principles and doctrine of Aquinas.

This law applies to all Catholic schools, and much more is expected from you, not only in external discipline but also with intimate adherence and commitment to these excellent norms concerning all Catholic doctrine, as well as matters related to rights and social order. 

It is not difficult to see how St. Thomas truly  correspond to the personal experience that each of us can directly make. There is in his concept and phrasing an originality, freshness, and modernity that are not found in commentators or detractors.

After commenting on much of the Bible and Aristotle, after making the monumental exposition of Peter Lombard, this man, who lived always among the young, writes a Manual of Theology for the youth, which is the Summa Theologica; he writes a manual for missionaries, which is the Contra Gentiles; he writes a Compendium ad Fratrem Reginaldum, unfortunately incomplete, but it shows with what mastery and flexibility he worked in the science of God.

We are in an era of critics and destroyers; it should not be surprising to find people, old and young, who do not recognize the greatness of St. Thomas, and with great confidence advance criticism and demolition. Unfortunately, some think they have surpassed St. Thomas only because they have spoken ill of him; and they do not realize that to speak ill of a wise man, one needs a fool. Instead, anyone who reads him regularly feels that his intelligence quickly gains strength and breadth. 

God placed him like a sun in the sky of the Church: the value of every theologian can also be measured by the devotion that grows or diminishes towards St. Thomas Aquinas. He is the ideal theologian for all times.

But to understand how far human pathology and injustice towards Christian thought can go, it is enough to remember the philosopher of history, Durant, who in his treatise jumps from Aristotle to Francis Bacon, with the incredible pretence that for a thousand years darkness hung over Europe!

III. Primacy of Thomism

What is Thomism? It is the method that is characteristic of St. Thomas in conceiving and expressing the truth with clarity and nobility, with the maximum of light and the minimum of polemics, with a kindness of spirit that seems to reflect the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, it is not easy to be Thomists, not even for the Dominicans; while it is a duty to strive for it for everyone. A characteristic of this Thomist is the words: "It does not pertain to the perfection of my understanding to know what you want or what you understand, but only what the truth has" (I, q. 107, a. 2). The Thomist is the person who strives to do in modern times what St. Thomas did in his time; a person characterized not only by traditional and secure theological doctrines but especially by a perfect balance, who takes light from the treasures of the past to dispel the errors of the present and attempts new ways without an adventurous spirit.

The title of Thomist can only belong to one who has studied all the works of the Holy Doctor thoroughly and, penetrated by his spirit and following his method, pursues progress, utility, the present, and finally the perfect knowledge of God through all the ways of science.

And those who study St. Thomas will have in their hands a positive heritage that will make them more realistic, richer, with less expenditure of time and energy, and they will strongly feel that a priest cannot but be a theologian, and that a true theologian is necessarily an apostle and a saint, following the example of Aquinas.

Condensed from ‘Il primato della Teologia’ by Father. M. Cordovani OP, Master of Sacred Palace, Angelicum Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr.-Iun. 1949), pp. 105-114 by Fr. Therasian Xavier SSPX