The Catholic University of America

President Garvey's Remarks
Patronal Mass in Honor of St. Thomas Aquinas
Jan. 27, 2015

 
  University President John Garvey

The Mass of St. Thomas Aquinas is a good way for us to start a new semester because it invites us to reflect on the life of our Patron. I want to close with a reflection on the academic vocation.

The Summa Theologica, surely the best known of St. Thomas’s works, begins with a startling prologue:

"Our intention in the present work is to propound the things belonging to the Christian religion in a way consonant with the education of beginners. For we have noticed that newcomers to this study are commonly hampered by the writings of different authors—partly because of the proliferation of superfluous questions, articles, and arguments; partly because the things they need to know are taught not according to the order of learning, but instead as is required for the exposition of texts or as opportunities for disputing certain questions . . . . Partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers."

Anyone who has dipped into the Summa might laugh at the suggestion that it was intended for beginners. It is no “Theology for Dummies.” But a little background might help to clarify what St. Thomas meant.

He began working on the Summa when he was sent to teach at a studium for his Dominican brothers, first in Orvieto and then in Rome. By then he was already a well known theologian. He had been a teacher at the University of Paris, an intellectual center in the 13th century. The brothers Thomas taught in Orvieto and Rome were not academics. Their principal work was preaching and hearing confessions. It was Thomas’s job to prepare them for this work. The Summa grew out of this experience. Its systematic treatment of theology was designed to ground the work of his Dominican brothers in the pulpit and the confessional.

Thomas’s example shows that the academic vocation is not a game. It’s not something we win by racking up the highest GPA or making the most clever arguments. Don’t get me wrong. St. Thomas was a pro at making distinctions and winning arguments. But he understood that these are tools of the academic trade, not the end product.

For St. Thomas the goal of studying theology was to acquire the knowledge we need to direct our lives toward God, our final goal. So it made sense for him to think of his brothers who directed people to God when he was writing the Summa. How we study, Thomas recognized, must be connected to how we live.

When it’s not, our studies can be like conversations in an echo chamber. The reverberations build and build until the sound is unintelligible. Our human experiences give us the object and aim of our studies. In this we should imitate St. Thomas Aquinas.

I wish you all a happy and healthy semester.

 

 

 

 

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