The relevance of St. Thomas for Today’s Theological Challenges

Fr. Thomas Joseph White is the Rector Magnificus of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome

An Interview with Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Master of Sacred TheologyMagister in Sacra Theologia

Fr Thomas Joseph White stresses the importance of Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic tradition in the face the crucial challenges of theology today.  The following interview was granted to the media of Ordo Praedicatorum. Father is the Rector Magnificus of the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (The Angelicum) in Rome. He received the degree of Master of Sacred Theology[1]  of the Order of Preachers in 2023. 

Magister in Sacra Theologia

1 – What does it mean to you to have received the Magister in Sacra Theologia from the Master of the Order?

As I understand, the Magister in Sacra Theologia was created in 1303 by Pope Benedict XI, and has a long, complex history in the Order of Preachers, one to which many great figures contributed. It seems helpful to recognize this lineage, which can elicit a sense of promise and hope for the ongoing collective life of the Order. According to the contemporary constitutions, the Magister in Sacra Theologia is conferred on friars in order to mark the importance of the Dominican Order’s commitment to academic theology, philosophy, and related disciplines, especially when this work makes a contribution to the wider mission of the Catholic Church and the common good of the academy. Perhaps in this regard, I’ve made a modest public contribution to academic discussions in Christology and Trinitarian theology, principally in the English-speaking world. When I think of the many great theologians and philosophers who were awarded this honor before me, I feel it is undeserved in my case, but I’m very grateful all the same to the Master, his council, and to the members of my province. I take the MST as a personal calling (which I will fail at without God’s help) to a greater love and knowledge of God and to a more consistent and fervent fraternal service of others. 

2 – As a Master of Sacred Theology and a Thomist, in your opinion, what would be the

current theological proposal of the Order to the Church and the world?

Happily, the Order has a variety of proposals to make, which are alive and well, in scriptural and patristic studies, the analysis of medieval traditions, modern systematic theology, Church history, canon law, and philosophy, both “perennial” and contemporary. The intellectual life of the Order is a polyphony, not a monotony. At the same time, we can safely say, based on both history and the constitutional approach of the Order, as well as the continued insistence of the magisterium, that the study of St. Thomas and the promotion of Thomistic philosophy and theology have a central (but never exclusive) role in the Dominican Order. This much is non-controversial.

            In addition, I would say that theology in the Church today suffers from three crucial challenges: First the absence of sufficient reference to historical monuments of theology, including knowledge of scripture, patristic developments, and the development of dogmatic teachings. There is a historical amnesia and an absence of true historical learning that affects Catholics of all stripes, be they more “progressivist” or “traditionalist.” Second, there is an absence of sufficient engagement with rigorous philosophical reflection, including metaphysics and philosophical anthropology, as well as the study of nature. We cannot address our secularized contemporaries if we have no way to speak about the modern sciences or about what a human person is, within theology, from a coherent and profound philosophical point of view. This is true also for discourse about God: philosophy is necessary. Third, there is a neglect of properly systematic contemporary theology in the Church today. It is one thing to study historical trends and decisions in theology and another thing to examine theology systematically in light of new questions, like the meaning of creation in relation to the modern sciences, or the nature of the human soul in the face of artificial intelligence, or why belief in the Trinity matters in a religiously pluralistic world, where Islamic apologists and post-Christian secularists both question the rationality of the beliefs of the New Testament. 

St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Thomistic tradition, are actually helpful in all three of these regards. St. Thomas recalls monuments of the precedent tradition, from scripture and the fathers, references the councils, and engages responsibly with antecedent sources. He thinks through philosophical positions systematically, employing natural reasoning on its own terms, even within theology, and he engages courageously with new questions of his contemporary world. The tradition that follows after him shows us models of this through the centuries, embodied not least in extremely dynamic examples like that of Thomas De Vio Cajetan or Francisco de Vitoria.

3 – How is the study of the Thomistic tradition being promoted in the Church?

There are basically two things happening in Thomistic studies today. First, there is the ever-deepening historical research of St. Thomas represented by great figures like Etienne Gilson, Marie-Dominique Chenu, and Jean-Pierre Torrell.  Today this study is expanding, considering in greater depth St. Thomas’s historical sources, both patristic and philosophical, including the Arabic sources, and concentrating in new ways on his biblical commentaries. In addition, this academically successful intellectual movement is now recovering a historical sense of the famous commentators of the Thomistic tradition, like those just mentioned, showing how they developed ideas from St. Thomas in conversation with other schools of thought (Franciscan or Jesuit) or later challenges of historical culture (the challenge of Protestant theology, the missions to the Americas, the rise of the Enlightenment). Here we can note that something positive has transpired successfully for St. Thomas in modern academic life that we find in almost no other major medieval or ancient figure, except perhaps for Aristotle and Augustine. This is good news, but not a reason to ignore other major figures like Albert and Bonaventure, Scotus and Ockham, who require further attention.

            The other thing happening is the rise of what we might call a contemporary Thomism, influenced by the principles of St. Thomas, that is to say his doctrinal views in philosophy and theology. Of course, figures like Jacques Maritain and Charles Journet serve as symbolic precedents for this modern trend, but there was an eclipse of interest in St. Thomas in the second half of the 20th century in many regions of the Church. Today that is changing in various ways. We see this first in so-called “analytic Thomism” in the English-speaking world (Alasdair MacIntyre, John Haldane, Eleonore Stump) which is now expanding to the European continent (Roger Pouivet, Giovanni Ventimiglia). We also find this contemporary trend in what people sometimes call ressourcement Thomism, which is the theological movement that has emerged mostly in France and the United States. Figures like Gilles Emery, Serge-Thomas Bonino, and Matthew Levering have been very influential in this regard. Their work along with others has provided impetus to a wealth of contemporary books and doctoral theses in Catholic theology concerned with Thomistic approaches to major topics in Catholic dogmatics. Consequently, we see new Thomistic writings on the theology of the Church, the sacraments, grace and human action, as well as the Trinity and Christology.

4 – In your opinion, what is the most significant contribution of St. Thomas to Christian

theology?

Some people find St. Thomas inspiring primarily as an example of the intellectual life, in the service of faith. He pays attention to sources, takes counter-positions seriously, gives good arguments, seek to establish certain principles and explain them reasonably and systematically. 

I agree with all that. However, the claim that St. Thomas is a kind of doctor communis for the Church, well beyond the Dominican Order, seems to signify something more. His actual teaching regarding the nature of reality is at stake. Here one can certainly think of his metaphysical principles, including his ontological analysis of nature and the famous distinction between essence and existence, which permit a deeper understanding of the structure of nature and of creation. His theological anthropology is remarkable, represented well by the Summa theologiae II-II. His hylomorphic vision of the rational animal and his analysis of human actions are very profound. However, St. Thomas is also a penetrating and insightful student of the mystery of the most holy Trinity and of the incarnation, the life of Christ, and of his atoning death and resurrection, as well as the sacraments. It would not be an exaggeration to say that when one reads him on these topics one comes to understand all of the Catholic tradition better, including magisterial decrees and creedal statements. This does not mean that theology ends with St. Thomas, but it does suggest that he provides a common linguistic, dogmatic, and synthetic analysis of the Catholic faith that accords with philosophical realism and common sense, and that can in turn build bridges to other theoretical disciplines and practical sciences. 

5 – Do contemporary ethical situations need the contribution of Thomistic ethics?

I basically have nothing original to say on this point. I’m convinced by the arguments of Anscombe, MacIntyre, and Pinckaers that modern ethics fell into a rut of deontology (Kant/Rawls/liberalism), and utilitarianism (Hume, Dewey). There is no way out of this dead end without a return to a genuine virtue ethics, one inherited from the likes of Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas. In addition, there is a deeper anthropology that goes with virtue ethics, that understands the human person as a rational animal, a hylomorphic compound of organic body and spiritual soul. This non-reductive but non-dualistic account is compatible with the modern evolutionary sciences but also understands the human person in terms of rational motives and free volitional loves. It is oriented toward an ethics of happiness, rather than an ethics of duty or one of mere utility and pleasure.

            In moral theology, we can see how the absence of this kind of analysis has led to an incapacity in Catholic thought to understand and take responsibility for the longstanding moral and political teaching of the Catholic magisterium. One falls inevitably into a legalistic positivism (either rigidly strict or libertine), which is effectively casuistry without anthropological foundations, or one abandons the tradition for a new anthropology of self-realization where the sincerity and authenticity of the self is what really counts ( “fundamental option” ethics) or where ethics is primarily a therapeutic exercise in self-discovery, and where moral norms can be continually re-negotiated by appeal to personal psychology and sociological trends. 

What is absent in all these models is a deeper understanding of human nature, human inclinations, and happiness achieved through the rational pursuit of moral excellence, or virtue. Today the ongoing disputes about the reception and interpretation of Veritatis Splendor and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church are integrally tied up with this history of confusion in ethical philosophy and moral theology. 

The other thing to note here is that basically the entire corpus of the Church’s modern social doctrine, on political life, the common good, human dignity and rights, the various goods that make up society, the meaning of morality and legislation, the family and freedom of religion, are all derived more or less directly from the teaching of St. Thomas. It is only by starting from his thought that one can begin to understand this modern tradition developed from Leo XIII onward. The applications of St. Thomas in this domain also have the advantage of allowing for a unified and integrated moral theology that sees personal spiritual life and individual ethical behavior as something inextricably tied to political life and to the common good. Such a view is realistic and helps one avoid artificial polarizations in the Church and in public life. The Gospel is about the whole of life, and accordingly the Church challenges us in all things. God cares about our holiness of life through personal prayer, liturgical fidelity, chastity, stewardship of money, social justice and peace, environmentalism, and the preservations of the arts. We cannot alleviate some of these goods and privilege others exclusively. The measure of our moral lives is the human person and the community, moved inwardly by faith, hope and charity, turned toward God as the primary good.

6 – What theological challenges do we face today?

In the global north we continue to face the challenge of religious indifference, increased secularization, the rise of materialism/scientism, and a number of ethical threats that arise from material consumption, media saturation, and a new bioethics of the manipulation of human life. There is also the risk of an increasingly intolerant secular political framework that seeks to extract religious voices from public culture, including the universities. How can we analyze and respond constructively (and not merely condemningly) to these cultural challenges? 

Meanwhile, while paying attention to the modern secular challenges, academic theologians often ignore the growing cultures that are emergent majorities. The Catholic Church has yet to engage seriously on an intellectual level with the Islamic religious tradition, in the way it has, say, with Marxism or Enlightenment rationalism. There is also the real challenge of a deeper understanding and interpretation of Hindu religious traditions, and of engagement with mainstream Chinese culture today, which represents an immense opportunity for evangelization, but that also requires analysis and understanding. Also, what is the future of African Christianity, which will be so vital to the future of the Catholic Church, and how can we understand better the discoveries and new possibilities for vibrant Catholic theology from an African ambit? 

While underscoring all these relevant theological issues of the current moment, it remains important to recall the essential. None of the issues above can be addressed or reflected upon constructively if one does not first possess a deep knowledge of the Catholic tradition: the dogmatic teachings of the magisterium, the scriptural and patristic fonts, the core discernments of the theological schools, and best representatives of modern Catholic dogmatic and moral theology. Without this prior foundation, which remains primarily of ancient Mediterranean and medieval European origin, it is near well impossible to make progress in the science of Catholic theology. A global Catholic theology needs to take account of both these poles of influence, in realistic ways.

7 – Is there anything you would like to add?

If the reader has made it this far, I can thank him for his patience. I’m so grateful to the Order of Preachers for the honor of serving as a Catholic priest seeking to receive from the traditions of St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Catherine of Siena. Gratitude is the fitting action for a person who has received grace. The Dominican theological insistence on the primacy of grace in all good human action ordered toward God seems to be true to me, both theoretically and in my own sense of dependence upon God. 


Fr. Thomas Joseph White is the Rector Magnificus of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome. Originally a native of southeastern Georgia in the US, Fr. White studied at Brown University, where he converted to Catholicism. He did his doctoral studies in theology at Oxford University. He was awarded Magister in Sacra Theologiaby the Dominican Order in 2023 and Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa by The Catholic University of America in 2022. He is the author of various books and articles including Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press, 2011), The Incarnate Lord, A Thomistic Study in Christology (The Catholic University of America Press, 2015) Exodus (Brazos Press, 2016), The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University Press, 2017), The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God (Catholic University Press, 2022), and Principles of Catholic Theology. Book 1: On the Nature of Theology (The Catholic University of America Press, 2023)He is co-editor of the journal Nova et Vetera, a Distinguished Scholar of the McDonald Agape Foundation, and a member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. 


[1] Master of Sacred Theology is an honorary degree granted by the Master of the Order at the recommendation of the General Council in accordance with certain requirements. The title dates back to 1303, when Pope Benedict XI, a Dominican, created it so that the Order of Preachers could grant the faculty of teaching theology. Today it is an honorary and exclusively academic title, but it is the highest recognition of excellence in the sacred sciences within the Order of Preachers.

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