St. Thomas recommends the Dominican life – Part II

January 19, 2013

It has been a while since our last installment, in which we started to give the context of St. Thomas’s treatment of the religious life in his Summa Theologiae. We had seen that, by virtue of being treated in the Secunda Pars (Second Part), the religious life has something to do with “the rational creature’s advance towards God.” St. Thomas further introduces the Secunda Pars as being about the realization of God’s image, the image in which man has been created and by which man shares in the faculties of knowing and willing. It is through this knowing and willing that man plays a part in his own advance towards God, and the process of conforming the intellect and will to God is the subject of this Secunda Pars.

We also pointed out that the first five questions are foundational for the whole Secunda Pars, giving the last end of human life, which is the happiness that can be found in God alone. The happiness of which he speaks is not merely a fleeting pleasure but rather the deep and profound contentment or fulfillment of becoming what one is meant to be, i.e. of reaching one’s final end. The Latin word is beatitudo, which could also be translated as “beatitude” or “blessedness.” It is in this state of beatitude that the image of God will be perfected in us.

In preparing to give a talk recently, I re-read the very first question of the Summa, which speaks of how sacred doctrine, though primarily a theoretical science, is also a practical science. The Secunda Pars is the part of the Summa that addresses practical matters, and St. Thomas foreshadows these first five questions in the very first question of the Summa (a. 5, c.): “The purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint, it is nobler than other sciences.” The first part of that line struck me: “the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss.” Sometimes people think that St. Thomas is dry and boring, but I must say that this line caused me great excitement. It is so contrary to what we normally think of when we hear the word “practical.” Sacred doctrine, though primarily theoretical, is practical insofar as it brings us to heaven, our final end. All other practical sciences pale in comparison. This focus on the end of happiness in God has not always been as emphasized as it should be in Catholic moral theology, but St. Thomas places it as the foundation of his treatment of the moral life. Although some (false) caricatures might portray the religious life as anything but happy, it is precisely in this context of happiness that St. Thomas treats of it.

In the remainder of the Prima Secundae (First Part of the Second Part), St. Thomas treats of the principles of the moral life: first, of human acts, both those which are proper to man as well as the passions, which are common both to man and animals, and then of the intrinsic principles of human acts, which are habits of virtue and vice, followed by the extrinsic principles of human acts, which are law and grace. After this, in the vast majority of the Secunda Secundae (Second Part of the Second Part), St. Thomas treats of each of the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and moral virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) in detail, as well as the opposing vices and the corresponding gifts of the Holy Spirit regarding each of those virtues. At the very end of the Secunda Secundae, he treats of “those things which pertain especially to certain men,” starting with gratuitous graces relating to knowledge, speech, and the working of miracles.

With the final two subsections of these things pertaining especially to certain men, we have come to the point to narrow our focus. First, we have the division of life into active and contemplative. The final subsection treats of man’s various states and duties, in particular of the state of the perfect, under which he treats the religious life. Lest we leave a wrong impression regarding this last point, let us be clear that St. Thomas does not claim that those entering the religious life or those in the religious life are “the perfect.” It is rather that the form of the life is especially directed toward perfection. By his placement of the religious life at the end of the Secunda Secundae, we see that St. Thomas views the religious life as a privileged form of the realization of the image of God in man.

Having seen the bird’s eye view of the first 412 questions of the Summa in these first two posts, we are now ready to land and explore the terrain of St. Thomas’s treatment of the religious life. In our next post, we will cover the distinction between the active and contemplative life.

See also: St. Thomas recommends Dominican life – Part I

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