St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Patron Saint of schools and universities

As the schools and universities start a new academic year, perhaps it is appropriate to say a word or two about the patron saint of these institutions.

Thomas was an intellectual, often described as the greatest of medieval philosophers;

  • a theologian whose influence persists today
  • a university teacher who brought system and order to (at that time) a rather chaotic hit and miss approach to education
  • and a Dominican friar of profound piety.

He was born near Aquino about 1225, one of many children of a Lombardi nobleman. His search for clarity in understanding was evident as a child when he apparently asked his teacher, "What is God?" He studied at Monte Casino and Naples where he decided to become a mendicant friar. His noble relatives were so shocked that they locked him up for a year in the vain hope of inducing him to change his mind. As a Dominican friar he studied under St Albert the Great at Cologne and gained a master’s degree in theology in 1256. The rest of his comparatively short life was spent in teaching, preaching and above all in writing. He taught in Cologne, Paris and Naples and died in 1274 on his way to the General Council at Lyons.

Academic freedom

As noted in a previous article (on Meister Eckhart) the Dominicans (Order of Preachers) were the first significant democratic institution in Europe and had a constitution which was designed to adapt to new demands and situations. They put more emphasis on the spirit of service and less on meticulous observation of rules, and were the first order to declare that their laws are not binding in conscience. This allowed for individualism and spontaneity in individual service and reflected a trust in the person and in God’s providence that any error would be more than compensated by the merits of their work. It is difficult to think of a better theological basis for the valued notion of academic freedom. It is an example which many institutions of learning fall short of today. The aim of the Dominicans is ‘to be useful to the souls of our neighbours’ - a good enough motto for any teacher, and their approach to spirituality resolutely rejects the idea that higher states of holiness are incompatible with normal operation of the mind. Thomas personified these Dominican ideals. Like Dominicans in general, he valued and practised contemplation and, as one of them, also believed passionately in handing on the fruits of contemplation to others – "a far greater thing than simply contemplating".

Perfection for Thomas meant perfect charity. But he insisted that love by itself cannot unite us with God - love motivates the mind to approach God. He also maintained that God is ultimately incomprehensible but, by clarifying all that we can understand, we can come face to face with the mystery of God.

His voluminous writings include the Summa contra Gentiles, a treatise on God and his creation, and the Summa Theologica, a systematic exposition of theology of such range, depth and solidity that it earned Thomas the title Doctor communis - "universal teacher". He was canonised in 1323 and made Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius 5th in 1567.

Towards the end of his life Thomas had a religious experience which caused him to stop writing. "Such things have been granted to me that all I have ever written is made of straw". His great work, Summa Theologica, was never finished. The work of education never comes to an end.

Jim McLean
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 27th September 1998