Society of Jesus and Thomism

Source: District of Asia

In December 1916, the newly elected Superior General of the Jesuits, Rev. Fr. Włodzimierz Ledochowski (1866–1942) obliged the whole order with “On Following the Doctrine of St. Thomas,” a letter of some 40 pages on the importance of Thomism. The following is an extract from his letter.

Truly it happened by a special Divine Providence that our Holy Father, his first companions, and others among our first masters were taught at Paris and Salamanca by professors of the scholastic system as it had been restored in accordance with the mind of St. Thomas; and that they became so proficient therein as to spread far and wide the good name of the Society at Rome and in the Council of Trent. Wherefore, when St. Ignatius in writing his Constitutions pondered the proper regulation of sacred studies and the choice and determination of a guide and teacher for the Society's schools, he did not hesitate very long, but from his own personal experiences at Paris where the new Salamanca school had been established shortly before his coming, set his mind and heart instinctively, as it were, on Aquinas. Accordingly, he laid down the rule that in theology "the scholastic doctrine of St. Thomas" should be studied, so that in this wise we may embrace the doctrine "which is safer and more approved, and all may think and say the same thing in so far as possible, according to the Apostle."

What our Holy Father had briefly outlined in the Constitutions needed more accurate determination and expression in a manner conformable to his own intentions, the more so as he states that the Master of the Sentences, whose opinions are not infrequently at variance with those of Thomas, is to be expounded also, and certain other statements of his could give occasion to an interpretation which would scarcely be correct. This task was accomplished by the Fifth General Congregation and, from the principles which it established, by Father Aquaviva in our famous Ratio Studiorum.

In the establishment of these most wise laws all the best theologians of our Society at the time collaborated, men who were fully acquainted with the mind of our Holy Father Ignatius. These laws ordain, in the first place, that in philosophy and theology we are to stay within the limits of the scholastic doctrine; secondly, they proclaim St. Thomas to be the Society's own Doctor; lastly, they point out the manner in which we are to follow him. Thus the Society was the first after the Order of Preachers to adopt St. Thomas as its own special Doctor, although with the revival of studies in the sixteenth century other orders were choosing for themselves other guides, some one, others another.

It will be helpful at this point briefly to quote the very words of the Congregation and the Ratio Studiorum by which the principles behind these laws are established. First of all the Fifth Congregation in its forty-first decree unanimously determined that "the Doctrine of St. Thomas in scholastic theology is to be followed by our professors as being the more solid, the safer, the more approved and the more in harmony with our Constitutions." Wherefore in the first rule for the choice of opinions it adds: "Let our teachers follow the doctrine of St. Thomas in scholastic theology; in the future let no one be appointed to a chair of theology unless he be well disposed towards St. Thomas; those, however, who are but faintheartedly attached to this author or are even averse to him, should not be given the office of teaching." This was again confirmed in the fifty-sixth decree and in the Ratio Studiorum, where much that is supremely wise is laid down concerning this subject. To pass over all the rest, the fourth rule makes the following recommendation to the Prefect of Studies: "Let him make himself thoroughly conversant with the book of the Ratio Studiorum and see to it with all care that its rules are observed by all the students and professors, but those rules especially which are laid down for theologians with respect to the doctrine of St. Thomas, and for philosophers with respect to the choice of opinions." The second rule thus enjoins professors of scholastic theology: "Let Ours by all means follow the doctrine of St. Thomas in scholastic theology and regard him as our own doctor, and let them make every endeavor to the end that their hearers become as well affected as possible towards him." The sixth rule gives this direction to professors of philosophy: "Let them never speak of St. Thomas except with reverence, giving him a ready following as often as they reasonably can, or departing from him respectfully and reluctantly if in any matter his doctrine should be less acceptable."

The laws regarding the manner of following St. Thomas are summed up in these two precepts: (1) Ours should by all means regard St. Thomas as their own special Doctor, and therefore should hold to his opinion in all propositions of greater moment; (2) in all other propositions Ours are free, but in such wise that they do not depart from him except with greatest reluctance and only very rarely.

The wisdom which established these norms is evidenced by this fact too, that through all the years they called for no amendment and clearly indicated to our theologians and philosophers the path that was ever safe. Therefore, whenever through human fallibility these fell into some error or doubt, the Generals unfailingly insisted on the accurate observance of these rules; but there was no need in the early Society for General Congregations to legislate on this subject. Only in the eighteenth century, when peripatetic and scholastic philosophy were generally abandoned in many Catholic schools and almost held up to ridicule, did the sixteenth Congregation emphatically admonish us again that we were to abide by the decrees which order us to cling to peripatetic philosophy, and despite opposition even from ecclesiastics, yes from ecclesiastics of eminent rank, the Fathers General took strong measures to ensure the execution of this decision.

Nor did the restored Society make any change in this ruling, but re-established its schools in accordance with the plan of the ancient Ratio Studiorum. This Ratio was subsequently revised by Rev. Father Roothaan. Nevertheless, he left those rules unchanged which ordain the retention of St. Thomas' doctrine. Nor was there question of drawing up a new Ratio Studiorum, as he himself observes in his introductory letter, but rather of bringing our old one up to date. And though in other matters certain emendations were deemed advisable by reason of the circumstances of the times, the laws on following the discipline of the Angelic Doctor were kept wholly intact and their force was no less binding than of old.

Besides, on the occasion offered by the publication of the Letter Aeterni Patris, in which Leo XIII recommended to all the acceptance of the doctrine of St. Thomas, the Twenty-third General Congregation in its fifteenth decree manifested its ready and entire compliance with the order of the Supreme Pontiff and at a single stroke solemnly ratified whatever had been prescribed in this field by our Holy Father St. Ignatius and by the Congregations, because it was of the opinion that in this wise it would most perfectly meet the wishes of the Supreme Pontiff. Because this decree was praised and approved by the Supreme Pontiff before its promulgation and subsequently too in the letter Gravissime Nos, it seems opportune to quote it here verbatım: "Since a few years back our most Holy Lord Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris laid down the rule by which studies in Christian schools are to be brought back under the guidance of the Angelic Doctor to their pristine wisdom, the Society of Jesus, here assembled in General Congregation for the first time since the publication of that encyclical, deems it right that it should in solemn and public attestation put on record its entire compliance of filial obedience and assent. Therefore, in the conviction that it could take no action more acceptable to His Holiness or more efficacious to the fulfillment of His desires than the renewed confirmation of those measures which our predecessors long ago adopted unto this end, at the instance of Very Reverend Father General, the Congregation decrees that the prescriptions laid down by our Father St. Ignatius in his Constitutions, Part IV, Chapter 14, No. 1, and by the Fifth Congregation in the forty-first and fifty-sixth decrees retain their full force and consequently are to be carefully observed; to wit, that Ours are by all means to regard St. Thomas as their own special Doctor and are obliged to follow him in scholastic theology. It furthermore declares that the thirty-sixth decree of the Sixteenth Congregation and the thirteenth decree of the Seventeenth Congregation concerning the teaching of Aristotelian philosophy still have the force of law; and consequently adherence must be given to that philosophy which is prescribed in the same decrees as being most useful to theology. . . . This decree has been submitted to the Supreme Pontiff by our Very Reverend Father General. His Holiness has given it His hearty approval and strongly urges on all its exact observance."

Lastly, in the year 1892 the same Supreme Pontiff, Leo XIII, issued the Apostolic Letter Gravissime Nos by which, as we read in the very title, "the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus with respect to the acceptance of the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas are ratified." In this letter, with that wonderful kindness towards the Society and esteem for its Institute which was His, He exercised His supreme authority to confirm our system of studies, with respect to the choice of doctrine to be made, in the following terms: "This system in truth appears to Us so reasonable and so timely that even were it not prescribed by the laws of the Society, We Ourselves would have made it obligatory; and with Our Apostolic Authority this obligation We herewith establish and proclaim." In a later verbal pronouncement, too, He asserted that He had no other intention in this letter than to give our laws their supreme sanction. Therefore, while this letter imposes no new precept, still it can hardly be questioned that it establishes a new obligation of obedience to the old ordinations and takes away from the Society and her Superiors the power to introduce any change in the laws respecting this matter without the express permission of the Apostolic See; on the other hand, it gives to all her sons a new incentive for the faithful observance in the future, too, of those same laws. ་

How scrupulously our great authors, being as they were men "of lofty virtue and genius," obeyed these norms will be readily evident if we recall how numerous were the first-rate commentators on St. Thomas whom our Society produced. The famous Francis Toledo, a man distinguished for his learning and subsequently a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, can with all justice be considered the father, as it were, of theology in the Society. When he lectured at Rome on the sacred science, the Scholastics were assembled from all Italy and from other Provinces to hear him. In words whose meaning we cannot escape he points out the place that is due the doctrine of St. Thomas. For in the introduction to his Enarratio on the first part of the Summa Theologica, speaking of scholastic doctrine, he states: "We must study this doctrine with much zeal and diligence because we know by experience that in those regions where it first began to suffer banishment heresies sprang up in rankest profusion and there too they reached their zenith. This should be for us a most cogent reason for applying ourselves to it with might and main." Thereupon after some observations on the Master of the Sentences, he thus concludes: "For our part, with the divine assistance we shall take as the subject of our lectures, not the Master, but rather St. Thomas," the Summa particularly, "a work of highest profit, one that is beyond all power of adequate praise." Moreover, in the preface to his Commentarium in Physicos Aristotelis Libros he puts down the following: "Surely a model in everything will be Blessed Thomas in whom there is assiduous care in exposition and dignity of doctrine coupled with piety, a wide, manifold, and solid erudition and besides an unparalleled method in the handling of entire treatises. Not only in his commentaries on Aristotle, but even much more in the Summa Theologica, the Summa contra Gentes, the Quaestiones Disputatae, as well as in all his other works, he singlehandedly brings as much light to bear on philosophy, to say nothing of theology, as all other commentators (with all respect for others I say this) have been able to adduce. In this critique I do not think I detract a whit from the praise of any of them, if I assert of St. Thomas what each one of them, were he alive and present, would himself probably say of him."

Such, then, was the high regard for St. Thomas instilled into those who in the early days of the Society were being trained to be her future professors of theology and philosophy. Nor did anyone among our outstanding theologians have a different opinion. Thus, for example, speaks Gregory de Valentia in the preface to his Commentaru Theologicı: “As to the character itself of my teaching, I have usually followed the opinion of St. Thomas, as by right I was bound to do. Because in truth of all the scholastic theologians we find him to be so outstanding that not even the heretics to whom he is so doughty an adversary can gainsay it. For Theodore Beza, a Calvinist of some note, declared him not so long ago to be easily the first among the Scholastics, and by no other title do the other sectarians hold the Blessed Thomas in abomination, because it is clear to them that of all theologians whatsoever he wields the principal weapon of doctrine and authority whereby their errors are opposed."

But as it is a lengthy task to recount all the praises our authors have heaped upon St. Thomas, it will be better to recall the numerous theologians of the Society who have made a painstaking study of his doctrine and have illustrated his works, particularly the Summa Theologica, with first-rate commentaries; or those who drank deep of his learning and became proficient in sacred lore, such men as, after Toledo and Gregory of Valentia, Francis Suarez, Gabriel Vasquez, Ven. Robert Bellarmine, Leonard Lessius, Ruiz de Montaya, Adam Tanner, John de Lugo, and many another. Were their commentaries done away with, the doctrine of Aquinas would lose its noblest embellishment and its stoutest defense. Let me adduce at this point a single estimate of Father Suarez made by Cardinal Zephyrinus Gonzales of the Order of Preachers: "After St. Thomas, Suarez is perhaps the more outstanding representative of scholastic philosophy. His grasp of philosophy is the most comprehensive, universal, and solid after St. Thomas'. whose ideas he explains, weighs, develops with extraordinary clearness. But the estimate of greatest import was made by Leo XIII, the Supreme Pontiff, in his Apostolic Letter Gravissime Nos, wherein he calls our divines "the distinguished Doctors of the Society, whose praise is in the Church." For, he goes on to say, "being; as they were, men of extraordinary virtue and talent, and applying themselves assiduously to the works of the Angelic Doctor, with certain arguments they expounded his tenets in a manner full and excellent, they adorned his doctrine with the rich trappings of erudition, they made many keen and practical deductions therefrom for the refutation of new errors, adding besides whatever declarations or more exact decrees had since that time been made by the Church in this same field. The fruits of their industry no one in truth can spurn without loss to himself."

Nor indeed did the writers of our Society strive less energetically on behalf of Aquinas, when in the nineteenth century the question was being discussed of bringing back into the curriculum of the schools the scholastic doctrine of St. Thomas, which was in exile, so to speak, from the chairs of theology by reason of the effrontery of the times. Very Rev. Father Roothaan himself strove with all the means at his command to restore Aristotelian philosophy to its full dignity. Moreover, even to the present day there are imprinted on the memories of all men the names of those Fathers who followed the lead of the Holy See and of their immediate Superiors, and allowed neither toil nor trial to crush them in their endeavor to recover for the Angelic Doctor his due place of honor in the study of philosophy and theology. One man before all others it is fitting to mention here, Father Joseph Kleutgen, who composed an illustrious work in five volumes in defense of scholastic theology, and of that brand in particular which Aquinas taught. Zealously gathering together the encomiums heaped upon Aquinas by ever so many Roman Pontiffs, by Doc- tors, universities, and religious orders, he argued that as a result of this unanimous approbation, so great was the authority inherent in the theology of St. Thomas and in his philosophy as well, to the extent of its connection with theology, that whoever follows it closely need entertain no doubt that he is holding to untainted Catholic teaching and understands it correctly beyond all danger of falling into error. The same writer, who was most acceptable to Pope Leo XIII because of his great devotion and service to St. Thomas and was called by him the Prince of Philosophers, asserted that the laws of the Society and its manner of following St. Thomas fully satisfied the wishes of the Supreme Pontiffs and of the Church.

To conclude, there were other authors of Ours at this time too who attained distinction by teaching and shedding glory on the doctrine of the Angelic Doctor: Cardinal Franzelin, theologian of the Vatican Council, Father Liberatore, Cardinal Mazzella, Father Schiffini, to pass over living authors and mention but a few among those deceased.

To have pointed out briefly these ordinations of our Institute, as well as the distinguished example of our predecessors, which supply, so to speak, a vocal commentary on the Society's laws regarding the zealous cultivation of the Angelic Doctor, should be enough to stimulate our diligence anew "in the ever more intense fostering among us of St. Thomas' doctrine," according to the expressed desire of the last General Congregation. But in view of the fact that doubts concerning the manner in which we should embrace the opinions of Aquinas have quite recently arisen which never cropped up in the old Society, or at least did not take the same form and importance, and since doubts of this kind can hinder our readiness to carry out these prescriptions not a little, a more specific explanation seems to be in order of the manner in which the laws we have quoted are to be observed and reduced to practice even in this our age.