- Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia1
THE EXERCISE to which I will dedicate myself—namely, the study of the “presence” of Saint Thomas Aquinas in a pontifical text—is a perilous one for a Catholic theologian. It is perilous first of all from the methodological point of view. According to what criteria, indeed, can one identify the presence or influence of St. Thomas in a document such as the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (March 19, 2016)? I have chosen to limit myself to the explicit references to St. Thomas.2 But it is clear that this method is reductionistic, for it leaves in the shadows everything in the document that springs from the profound fertilization of general Catholic culture and magisterial teaching that has transpired through many centuries of symbiotic activity with Thomism.
This exercise is additionally and particularly perilous from the point of view of its ends. Indeed, three temptations lie in wait for the Thomist theologian presented with a pontifical text. The first, the mildest, is the effect of a professional deformation on the part of the historian of doctrine. It consists in evaluating the interpretation and use of Thomistic texts by [End Page 499] the Magisterium from the sole point of view of the historical-critical method. Now, while it is undeniable that a magisterial document should show itself attentive to the demands of an exact, scientific exegesis of texts, its end is not to recreate Thomistic doctrines in their most perfect or pristine form. Its purpose is rather to draw upon certain of these doctrines in order to represent the teaching of the Word of God for the benefit of the life and holiness of the Christian people.
The second temptation is to judge the content of a pontifical document in the light of Thomism, that is to say, according to its conformity or not to the teaching of St. Thomas. In a very un-Thomist way, this ignores the fact that a theologian’s authority—no matter how great it may be—does not lie at the same level as the Magisterium’s authority, for theology receives its object from the Tradition as the Magisterium teaches it. Nevertheless, if the Magisterium has the authority to discern and “declare” the Tradition, it does not create the Tradition ex nihilo. The Tradition has a preceding, intrinsic objectivity. If one can use a comparison taken from Aristotelian philosophy of nature, the Magisterium gives the Tradition its form and makes of it a living Tradition, the norm for the faith of today’s believers. But the Magisterium informs a matter that is not a pure potentiality, malleable according to its own will, but rather a matter that already presents dispositions such that it is not apt to welcome just any form. The Magisterium cannot simply claim, as is attributed to Pius IX, “I am the Tradition.” The logic of Tradition is thus bipolar: it is necessary to discern what truly constitutes the Tradition by the light of the current Magisterium, but it is also necessary to interpret the teaching of the current Magisterium according to the data of the Tradition. Now, the theology of St. Thomas as a scientific elaboration of the Tradition, an elaboration whose high worth has been recognized by the Church herself, is an important witness of this Tradition. Conformity to the teaching of St. Thomas is therefore not without importance when one tries, as one should, to interpret the teaching of the Magisterium by the light of the Tradition. Such conformity is a criterion, among others, [End Page 500] that allows one to test and confirm continuity within the living Tradition of the Church.
The third temptation for Thomists falls under the banner of ecclesiastical sociology. It consists in reading the texts of the Magisterium while “counting points,” that is to say, searching within the uses that the current Magisterium makes of the texts and theses of the master from Aquino for a confirmation of his theological authority. Related to this temptation is one found among other persons—interested very little in Thomism but aware of his authority in the Church—a temptation, also entirely...