Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Beauty of Catholic Science

by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Saint of the Day, March 6, 1967


“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.



March 7, is the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, philosopher, theologian, doctor of the Church, patron of Catholic universities, colleges and schools. He was born at Rocca Secca in the Kingdom of Naples, 1225 or 1227; he died at Fossa Nuova on March 7, 1274.

The Martyrologium says this about him:

Saint Thomas Aquinas was illustrious for the nobility of his family, for his sanctity of life, and for his theological science. His genius and purity earned him the sobriquet of Angelic Doctor. He also the patron of Catholic schools.

Let us read a biographical note about him:

“Landulph, his father, was Count of Aquino; Theodora, his mother, Countess of Teano. His family was related to the Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, and to the Kings of Aragon, Castile, and France. A holy hermit foretold his career, saying to Theodora before his birth: ‘He will enter the Order of Friars Preachers, and so great will be his learning and sanctity that in his day no one will be found to equal him.’”

“One of the most shining examples of Saint Thomas’ lack of interest in material goods and of his passion for things of the spirit is found in the famous testimony of Bartholomew of Capua during the Neapolitan process of canonization of Saint Thomas Aquinas.”

In other words, there was a canonization process in Naples. At that time, when a saint was canonized, a diocesan process was opened in all the places in which he lived in order to uncover biographical data. And since he was from the kingdom of Naples, there naturally was a Neapolitan process, which contains the testimony below.

“Thomas goes on a pilgrimage to Saint Denis, France, with a group of Dominican students from Santiago. They cross the country and arrive in Paris from the south through the gate of Orleans, where the convent of the Friars Preachers was located; to the north lies the famous basilica that houses the tombs of the first bishop of Paris and of the kings of France.”

It is the celebrated basilica of Saint Denis, mausoleum of the kings of France.

“Returning from that promenade, they stopped on the heights of Montmartre to rest and admire the panorama of the city for a few moments. One of Thomas’ young companions dazzled by the view tells him: What a beautiful city Paris is. Thomas agrees and the other exclaims: ‘Would to God that it belonged to you…’ Saint Thomas asks, ‘What for?’ The dreamy young Dominican responds, ‘you could sell it to the king of France and with the proceeds we could build new convents for our Order.’ With a smile, Saint Thomas gives this extraordinary answer: ‘I would rather have the homilies of Saint John Chrysostom on the Gospel of Saint Mark.’”

This is magnificent! One could not desire a better affirmation of the value of intelligence-related things and how they stand over and above practical matters. Saint Thomas’s idea is this: the homilies or comments by Saint John Chrysostom would increase his discernment of things divine. So, as far as he is concerned, that collection of books is worth more than the entire city of Paris. And as if that were too little, the collection is worth more than all the Dominican convents that could be built with the proceeds. So, a good of the spirit, one more bit of knowledge about an element of Catholic truth is so profound and precious that it is worth more than building convents all over the world.

One can see Saint Thomas’s elevation of spirit and how spiritual things are superior to practical ones. In other words, all things practical – even practical apostolate – are left to a secondary plane when it comes to acquiring a new spiritual treasure. For example, when at the end of the day one acquires a new notion on a point of Catholic doctrine or a new notion about the doctrine of the Counter-Revolution, which is a point inside of Catholic doctrine, with that alone we have spent our day even better than if we had earned thousands of dollars. What a magnificent example taught by this saint!

“Saint Thomas’s life may be summed up in a few words: praying, preaching, teaching, writing and journeying. Men were more anxious to hear him than they had been to hear Saint Albert the Great, whom Saint Thomas surpassed in accuracy, lucidity, brevity and power of exposition, if not in universality of knowledge. Paris claimed him as her own; the popes wished to have him near them; those studying from his order were eager to enjoy the benefit of his teaching; hence we find him successively at Anagni, Rome, Bologna, Orvieto, Viterbo, Perugia, in Paris again and finally in Naples, always teaching and writing, living on earth with one passion, an ardent zeal for the explanation and defense of Christian truth. So devoted was he to his sacred task that with tears he begged to be excused from accepting the Archbishopric of Naples, to which he was appointed by Clement IV in 1265. Had this appointment been accepted, most probably the Summa Theologica would not have been written.

On December 6, 1273 he celebrated Mass in the chapel of Saint Nicholas in Naples. Three of the brethren saw him elevated in ecstasy and they heard a voice proceeding from the crucifix on the altar, saying “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord.” Following the Mass, He laid aside his pen and would write no more. He left the third part of the Summa unfinished and the Treaty on Penance in the middle. Upset at seeing him increasingly absent from routine tasks and lost in thought, the faithful Father Reginald of Piperno urged him to continue his writings: “Master, how dost thou abandon such a vast work undertaken for the glory of God and the enlightenment of the world?” Saint Thomas answered, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.”

This is his famous declaration, which has also been made by other saints. They meditate and develop a whole trove of ideas, and yet after a while they receive some revelation and understand that the value of what has been revealed is such as to make everything they have written seem as straw and no longer worth developing. From this example one sees what human science is, and how superior divine science is; and the types of things that we are going to see in heaven. For when we see God face to face in heaven, everything that we know will seem like straw—completely meaningless. The saints had a kind of preview of that in their life.

Saint Theresa of Avila went so far as to throw one of her treatises into the fire, saying that reality is so superior to all she had written, that it was like straw. Seeing this, someone had to quickly grab the remaining pages from the fire so as to save as many as possible. We also see here the real beauty of Catholic science and how, even standing on its tiptoes, it does not even begin to touch revealed science and the treasures of Catholic doctrine with its fingers. Here we find yet another reason to love even more the Church, our infallible teacher.

“To this same Reginald, who wanted to see him hoisted to a high ecclesiastical position, Thomas left his spiritual testament: ‘Think not, my son, of grieving over my departure. Among the wishes I expressed to God, which were heeded thanks to Him, was to take me, his unworthy servant, from this world, in the humble condition in which I found myself and that no power should transform my life by giving it some dignity. Undoubtedly, I could still make further progress in science and be of service to others by teaching doctrine.”

“However, through the revelation made ​​to me, the Lord has silenced me because I could no longer teach, as you know, after it pleased Him to reveal to me the secret of a higher science. Thus, to me, so unworthy, God has granted more than to other doctors who have had a longer life. Consoled, I leave this mortal life sooner than others and enter into eternal life. Console thyself, therefore, my son, because I’m entirely comforted.”

Father Reginald, who assisted him, perceived that Saint Thomas was going to die and that the cycle of his existence was coming to a close. The silence of Saint Thomas clearly indicated that he no longer had anything to say and that his mission on this earth was over. So Father Reginald lamented the fact that Saint Thomas had not been made a cardinal like Saint Bonaventure. Saint Thomas answered: Me, being made a cardinal? What does that matter? I have received much more than that. I did not want to be a cardinal and even asked not to be made one; and I thank God I haven’t. But I have received much more than that. I have received, already in this life, a science so high that in the final analysis there is nothing else I stand to gain.

Even more: I will receive the great reward of being called earlier from this life. Compared with these two rewards, what office would be worth vying for? Indeed, if a man who prizes a homily more than the city of Paris, he would appreciate a revelation more than all of this world’s treasures. He would appreciate more being in heaven than on earth no matter what honors he were to receive here; so he went to heaven early and received the glory of the blessed.

The death of Saint Thomas Aquinas was really very beautiful. There is even a famous painting by Fra Angelico, if I’m not mistaken, depicting it.

“Thomas began his immediate preparation for death. Gregory X, having convoked a general council, to open at Lyons on May 1, 1274, invited Saint Thomas and Saint Bonaventure to take part in the deliberations, commanding the former to bring to the council his treatise Contra errores Graecorum, against the Errors of the Greeks. He tried to obey, setting out on foot in January, 1274, but strength failed him; he fell to the ground near Terracina, whence he was conducted to the Castle of Maienza, the home of his niece the Countess Francesca Ceccano. The Cistercian monks of Fossa Nuova pressed him to accept their hospitality and he was taken to their monastery, which upon entering he whispered this to his companion: ‘This is my rest for ever and ever: here will I dwell, for I have chosen it’ (Psalm 131:14)

“The end was near; extreme unction was administered. When the Sacred Viaticum was brought into the room he pronounced the following act of faith: If in this world there be any knowledge of this sacrament stronger than that of faith, I wish now to use it in affirming that I firmly believe and know as certain that Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, is in this Sacrament . . . I receive Thee, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied and labored. Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught. Never have I said anything against Thee: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance. Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous concerning this sacrament or other matters, I submit all to the judgment and correction of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life.”

“He died on 7 of March, 1274. Numerous miracles attested his sanctity, and he was canonized by John XXII on July 18, 1323.”

So Saint Thomas Aquinas was traveling to participate in a council and expired in a Carthusian convent in which he was lodging along his way. When he was about to die he made a comment on the Canticle of Canticles, which is exactly the part of the Bible that sings God’s love for men and men’s so much smaller love for God. So he died amid those contemplatives, most pure souls all made for God’s love and whose function was not so much to meditate about science but about love; and he, who was the Angel of the Schools, died teaching those saints about the perfection of God’s love.

Those Carthusians had all been raised up to live separated from the world, thinking only about God’s love. So it is a true little flower: Saint Thomas’ last words exalting the love of God and those reverent Carthusians imbibing those words as if each were a drop from heaven. And so the life of that great Doctor comes to a close in extreme contemplation and isolation from all worldly things. I believe that no souls were more worthy to harvest his last words than those of good and true Carthusians.