Saint Ignatius High School

Teaching Thomas

Why do teachers introduce 17-year-olds to historic theologians and scripture stories that are tough to comprehend? Read this week's Thought from the Tower to see why Jim Brennan "teaches Thomas" to his classrooms.

Teaching Thomas

Sacraments class has begun in earnest for our juniors at Saint Ignatius. As one would expect, we will be looking at the meaning of the sacramental symbols, the effects of the sacred rituals, and their origins in Scripture. But in the last few years, at the request of our department chair Joe Betz ‘01, we have increasingly used primary sources to supplement our textbook as we encourage the boys to delve deeper into our faith.

In addition to Scripture, those sources include excerpts from the writings of the early Church Fathers: Augustine, Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, among others. It’s important for the students to see the richness and depth of our Catholic Christian tradition and we’ve had good success in asking the students to engage those texts. Largely transcribed homilies, the writings are accessible—even centuries later—because they were addressed to audiences not unlike our own, struggling to understand what it means to follow Christ in a world that isn’t terribly supportive of the Christian vision.

In addition to the Fathers, the juniors will be unpacking some of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas—an exercise many will continue in the Christian Manhood course they will take as seniors. Though he wrote hymns and certainly delivered homilies, the 13th-Century Dominican friar is better known for his longer, more detailed theological and philosophical works such as the Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologiae. Which is a euphemistic way to say that reading him is difficult.

So why introduce 17-year-olds to a writer who will be tough to read? Why—echoing generations of Catholic educators—do we tell them to “read your Thomas”? Because in both his method and his conclusions, he offers insights into who God is and what He asks of us.

That the Mystical Body of Christ is bleeding members, though alarming, is not a shock to those who have been paying attention. But what is especially disconcerting are the numbers of young people who are moving away from the Church. Studies show that contributing factors to this exodus include the belief among our youth that the Church is anti-intellectual, that there is a conflict between religious faith and scientific thought, and disagreement with the Church’s moral teachings—especially in the area of sexual ethics.

We’ll address the last point at some other time, but suffice it to say that Thomas knew that the Devil hits below the belt.

Nonetheless, to the claim of anti-intellectualism, a reading of Thomas shows mental rigor, precision of thought, and a breadth of understanding—characteristic of the Dominican, but not unique to him—less often seen in writers today. He’s hard to read at times because he often presumes a depth of understanding of concepts that is hard to acquire from a TikTok video or Facebook Reel. To the seeming conflict between religious faith and science, Thomas echoed the African Proverb that “Truth knows not the mouth from which it is spoken.”  

Thomas was open to Truth…St Paul had taught that “[God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what He has made” (Rom. 1:19), and Thomas took that seriously. As such, he was open to what might be revealed in the natural world.

Because Thomas saw all truth as being one, because all truth comes from the One. There was, in his mind, no conflict between reading and learning from pre- and non-Christian philosophers like Aristotle and Maimonides and fulfilling his role as a Christian philosopher and theologian. The same would hold true of his attitude toward what was revealed in nature: the subject of what would later be called “scientific inquiry.”

Perhaps the greatest gift studying Thomas confers is receiving a framework by which to think.  In his Summa, Thomas employed a format that is, at first, challenging to navigate. First presenting the topic he would discuss in the form of a question, he immediately noted a number of answers contrary to the one he would eventually give.  (These responses represented some of the best thinking on the topic at the time.)  Noting an authority that better represented his position (a passage from Scripture, a philosopher, or a theologian), he would then give his well-reasoned, clear, and logical answer.  An answer, by the way, usually influenced by the thoughts of those with whose conclusions he disagreed. The article ended with a point-by-point rejoinder to the objections raised earlier in the piece.

Therein lies the beauty and the genius of Thomas: he took seriously those with whom he disagreed. Called the “Dumb Ox” by his classmates because of his girth, he also acquired that title because he tended to be quiet.

He listened.

When one reads Thomas, she or he marvels at the responses he gives to the objections that are raised. While some challenges are dismissed out of hand, in the vast majority of cases he has seen in them some point on which he can agree. It is also clear that concerns voiced in the objections influenced his thought.

In the cultural, religious, and political “debates” raging today, one rarely gets the sense that the opponents are really listening to each other.  My experience is that most people want or are striving for the same things: an end to poverty and war, stability within families, and a sense of purpose and belonging to name but a few.

Introducing the boys to St Thomas is meant to provide them with one more tool in their theological tool boxes. Studying him cannot—and should not—replace their study of Scripture, the Fathers, and contemporary writers.  To do so would be to violate the method and ignore many of the very sources Thomas himself used.

How do we bridge the supposed intellectual divide between religious faith and a scientific mindset? How do we acquire the skills and desire to listen to those with whom we disagree so that we not only get along but actually work together toward solving some of the problems that vex our society? How do we learn to argue points in clear and persuasive ways? How do we find common ground on important, but divisive issues?

There is no simple answer to these questions, but I know one thing that will help:

Read our Thomas.

A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.