Just before the start of September, the Thomistic Institute, a project of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, launched Aquinas 101, an online course in Thomism. Intended to be the very opposite of intimidating, Aquinas 101 makes the best of Thomism accessible and digestible with short videos in small doses from dynamic Dominican friars, known for their preaching and teaching.
To get a better sense of how this new initiative plans to reach hearts and minds, Angelus News spoke to Father Gregory Pine, OP, assistant director for campus outreach at the Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: People are busy. Why take time for an online course in Thomas Aquinas?
Father Gregory Pine, OP: Ultimately, because we want to be wise, and we often don’t know where to begin. We wish we had the habits of mind and heart that would infuse a little contemplative verve into our lives, but we don’t know where to turn. Turn here.
Lopez: What can I expect to learn from your videos?
Pine: You’ll learn the essentials of St. Thomas’ teaching, which is a synthesis of the whole Catholic Intellectual Tradition. It was said of St. Thomas Aquinas that he seemed to have inherited the intellect of all.
He is able to synthesize the riches of Scripture, tradition, Greek philosophy, Jewish and Islamic thought, the early Church Fathers, and his contemporaries in a way that is coherent and true and that give you a vision of all of theology.
Lopez: What’s practical about St. Thomas Aquinas?
Pine: St. Thomas sees all things in light of God. Whereas many today are tempted to reduce most considerations to politics, management, bureaucracy, or therapy, St. Thomas sees everything as proceeding from God and returning to him. He’s a real theologian, and he is able to communicate that wisdom in marvelous fashion.
Lopez: What if someone reading this is generally intimidated by Aquinas?
Pine: The point of the course is to overcome the intimidation. The goal is that, by the end, you’ll be able to read St. Thomas on his own terms. It fashions for you the tools of learning and you can do it in the privacy of your own home.
Each lesson also affords you the opportunity to “Ask a Friar.” So, we’ll be able to walk you through it. Admittedly, St. Thomas seems intimidating: 13th century . . . jargon . . . speculative theology. The thing is, once you learn a couple of words and concepts, the whole thing opens up before you. It’s marvelous.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite among his writings?
Pine: There is really nothing quite like the “Summa Theologiae.” A few minutes each day with it are sufficient to have a habit of contemplative study, which deepens an interior life and enriches the life of prayer.
Lopez: You’ve worked with college students. How can Aquinas help them with the challenges they face, beyond, say, a prayer before study?
Pine: I think the university is a place of serious fragmentation. You can spend four years in an institution of higher learning and never broach the most significant questions in life. Who is God? Why were we created? What is happiness? What is distinct about the Christian claim?
St. Thomas helps you to approach life’s most significant questions in a way that is attuned to what is. Truth, on St. Thomas’ terms, is the conformity of our mind to reality.
St. Thomas has no interest in crafting an overly facile or elegant theory if it doesn’t correspond to what is. He knows that the truth serves only its slaves. And so, he is able to help those who follow after him to engage questions of deepest import with a fidelity to the real, as both revealed and reasoned.
This is a salve for the sad, lonely, and anxious. It’s an invitation into a wider circle. It’s the beginning of communion.
Lopez: How can Aquinas help us pray, particularly in the wake of tragedy or suffering?
Pine: St. Thomas is a contemplative and would argue that every human person has a contemplative vocation. With the world in shambles around us, it’s easy to permit a frantic spirit to inform our apostolic labors.
In St. Thomas’ understanding, God doesn’t need our prayers to achieve his ends. He could achieve all that he wills directly. Rather, our participation in his work is itself his gift . . . it makes us more like him, it affords us the opportunity to be more than mere recipients in the drama of salvation . . . to be also agents.
And so, our prayers work within this contemplative vision. We learn what it is that God wants from us first by considering God, and then setting about the task.
Lopez: How can Aquinas help us with those recent Pew Research Center results about Catholics not knowing and believing in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist?
Pine: St. Thomas lived right after Lateran IV, which used the language of transubstantiation to describe the change from bread to the Lord’s body and from wine to the Lord’s blood. His treatise on the Eucharist is a masterpiece of philosophical and theological insight.
I suspect many people don’t believe in the Real Presence because they don’t even understand the claim, much less the explanation. St. Thomas can help with both. He was known to have struggled with the issue. In times of difficulty, when writing the treatise, he was known to rest his head on the tabernacle itself. We would do well to follow in turn!
Lopez: Does Aquinas has anything to offer the Church post-Theodore McCarrick?
Pine: St. Thomas has a beautiful theology of the priesthood. In his understanding, a priest is ordained to give divine things. By baptism and confirmation, we are outfitted to receive divine things, but holy orders make a man suited to communicate them.
And a priest is called to conform his life to the mysteries that he communicates in order to be a better sign of the realities he administers. This he does by his own ongoing conversion. So, yes, priests should be holy. That being said, St. Thomas is not scandalized by the fact of bad priests. God’s plans will ultimately not be defeated by bad priests.
You can sign up online at aquinas101.thomisticinstitute.org