Commentary by Francis Petrucci Jr.
Thomas was not a Thomist. He certainly was not a Neo-Thomist. Thomism differs from St. Thomas in that it is a system of thought that appeals to the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas did not write with the purpose of being authoritative but rather he wrote in order to have his readers actually understand the questions he was discussing. The only true authority Aquinas appealed to was the authority of the Church. For example, when answering a disputation concerning the baptism of Jews, Aquinas said that it did not matter what an Augustine or a Jerome or some similar saint said, but rather that the common practice of the Church overruled all of their opinions.
If Thomas was not a Thomist, he would hardly be a Neo-Thomist if he were alive on earth today. There is something about the term “Neo-Thomism” that sounds either ridiculous or paradoxical, but I am not enough of an expert on terms and labels to determine which it is. It may be true that Thomas is new in the sense of people rediscovering him, but he is not new in the sense of people misinterpretting him. In the former case, Thomists are not as concerned with Thomas’ character as much as his theology, although on this Thomas may disagree with a Thomist. Now this does not mean the term Thomism should have a negative connotation, because any true Thomist may simply wish to communicate that they have learned a great deal from St. Thomas and that his philosophy has become part of his or hers. Perhaps they do understand his philosophy and accept it because they understand it to be true, and this would be preferrable. This essay, however, is concerned with the absurdity of separating Thomas from Thomism or possibly the absurdity of not separating the two insofar as Thomism should be separated from Neo-Thomism. From the small amount of information I have been impertinent enough to gather, it seems as though Neo-Thomism is based on a commentary of a commentary, or that instead of reading Thomas for myself, I should read a commentary on Thomas’ works or have someone else explain to me what Thomas is really saying, because in order to understand what Thomas is actually saying, a person must really apply themself.
I have often argued some theological or philosophical point with the educated Catholic, and when it becomes a very intense debate, someone will often pull out the wildcard of St. Thomas; I am guilty of it myself at times, although I am working feverishly to drop this dreadful habit. Now there are two ways St. Thomas references can be taken. The first is something to the effect of, “Well, St. Thomas says this, therefore it is true.” In the positive connotation of the term “Thomism”, we should say that this is a very un-Thomistic thing to say, or, if that is what Thomism is, then we should reject it. While it is true that I often quote St. Thomas and sometimes quote him inappopropriately out of laziness, I never intend to quote him as a final authority on the matter. I quote him for the same reason I quote Augustine, Bishop Sheen, Dr. Waldstein or anyone else; I credit these people with the quote because I am not a plagiarist. I may stumble upon a good idea that is not my idea. For example I may say, “Bishop Sheen says that God does not create sinners. Insofar as we are a sinner, we create ourselves.” I do not quote Bishop Sheen because he’s a bishop, but because I like the idea. Likewise, I do not quote Thomas because he is Thomas. If I were talking to an atheist, I may quote Thomas because he has a very good argument for the existence of God, but I quote him knowing fully well that the atheist will laugh at the “authority of Thomas.”
Now there are people who may take the character of St. Thomas to the extreme and say that the Summa is overestimated because Thomas himself said his writings were straw, and straw, in the bibical language, is that which burns quickly in the fire. This silly objection neglects the fact that Thomas was making a comparison between his works and a vision he saw, hence why he said, “as straw”. The word ‘as’ indicates a simile. Therefore, let us eliminate that error immediately. We should instead focus on how to be a proper Thomist, insofar as the term should be allowed. We should read Thomas to actually come to an understanding of matters pertaining to the Catholic faith. We should read Thomas to increase the faith we already have. We should even read Thomas to refute the arguments conjured up by those who lack common sense. We should not, however, read St. Thomas in a way that St. Thomas himself would balk at.