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Silence Speaks

It is well-known that Thomas Aquinas ceased writing his Summa Theologiae before completing it. When asked why, a long tradition recounts that he told his secretary, Reginald of Piperno: "After what I have seen today I can write no more: for all that I have written is but straw."

When some of my own students have used that quote as an excuse for not engaging in the demanding labor of theology, I've retorted: you can only say it when you've completed 7/8ths of the Summa.

In his fine new book on Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas: a Portrait, Denys Turner writes at greater length and with greater insight:

Theology matters only because – and when – there is more to life than theology, and when that "more" shows its presence within the theology that is done. So Thomas fails to finish, thereby exhibiting the presence of this "more" in the most dramatic way possible – by leaving space for it. His final sentence is not an empty and disappointing failure to finish. It is an apotheosis. By his silence Thomas does not stop teaching theology. He does not stop doing theology. On the contrary, by his silence he teaches something about doing theology that he could not have taught by any other means.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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"Finally, may I remind you that what I have called the 'notion of creation' is not intelligible to us.  We do not understand what creation means.  We merely point towards it in the process of qualifying to death the notion of God-making-the-world.  For the world to be created is for it to exist instead of nothing.  And we can have no concept of nothing.  We can have no concept of creation (any more than of God), but this will not, I trust, prevent us from talking about them."  --Herbert McCabe, OP, “God and Creation,” New Blackfriars (2012).

I spent about forty-five minutes last night watching a video of this recent presentation on "Thomism after Vatican II"  by Fr. Thomas Joseph White. I found it useful for me and you might like to watch it.

An architectural addendum.  When we moved here to the Diocese of Charleston, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist had an uncompleted bell tower.  They simply ran out of money.  I loved it.  Though no one intended it, the visual lacuna was a potent reminder of how each Christian life is an unfinished work in progress.  They completed the bell tower and spire in 2009.  I like bells, but the apophatic architecture somehow was more articulate.

See also: Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 1999).

Finally, Father--Lighten up a little!  I think a better challenge would ask students not for 7/8 of the Summa, but for the final 1/8.  Write less, impress me even more.

It is said that before Thomas said this Christ had spoken to him with these words: "Thomas, you have written well of me. What shall be your reward?" Thomas answered, "Lord, nothing but yourself." It is only in comparison to the reward of Christ himself that Thomas later concluded that all he had written was "straw." It was precisely the demanding labor of theology (and philosophy) that brought him to that point. Sancte Thoma, ora pro nobis!

In the early 50' when I was in graduate school at Catholic U., the then Dean of the School of Philosophy, Ignatius Smith, O. P. (affectionately known as "Iggy")  was scornful of the story about Reginald and the straw.  Iggy thought that Reginal had made it up, or maybe someone else had:-)

Could be.  The medievals were know to tell pious tales.

Oh, how I miss Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J. Here's one of his reflections on Aquinas: 

Iggy thought that Reginal had made it up, or maybe someone else had

Thomas didn't live long after the day he stopped writing. He died about three months later and had been seriously ill for the last half of that time. One modern speculation is that he may have had a stroke that prevented him from continuing to work on the Summa. 

In May, I was at Fossanova, where the Carthusians took him in for the last weeks of his life, when he was too sick to continue on his journey. 

John Hayes,

Thank you for the link to Thomas Joseph White's presentation. Well worth watching!

Steven Millies,

I'll go with the 1/8th. I'd lighten up even more if you tell me that 1/8=a pint.



While on the subject of St. Thomas, I note that one of the most important developments in studies of his thought is a renewed focus on his biblical commentaries, which had been relatively neglected in favor of his great Summas and his commentaries on Aristotle.  I remember David Knowles referring to him as "a great medieval philosopher," when he was first and foremost a theologian who knew he had to think his way through a whole lot of questions that people now tend to think of as distinctly (and almost proprietarily) philosophical.  Bernard Lonergan thought that it was in the biblical commentaries that Aquinas was most spontaneously a theologian, and I've found that to be true.  He has wonderful throw-away lines prompted by a biblical phrase or verse.

As for that famous experience and his last three months of life, Jean-Pierre Torrell, his latest biographer, runs through various hypotheses of what happened and inclines himself toward Weisheipl's view of "a physical and psychological breakdown as a consequence of the overwork that Thomas had imposed on himself for a long time."  Torrell's own conclusion: "if we have to choose among them, Weisheipl's thesis, which suggests an extreme physical and nervous fatigue, coupled with mystical experiences that marked his last year, may be the most plausible."


I agree on the importance of Thomas' biblical commentaries. As complement to that is the renewed recognition of the importance of his Dominican context for appreciating his thought and pedagogy.

Turner entitles the first chapter of his study: "A Dominican." He says, among other things, "Thomas's conception of the theological task is inseparable from his vocation to follow the poor Christ as a friar preacher." "Theology is for Thomas a discipline, a rule-governed intellectual practice with a purpose: contemplata aliis tradere, which is a Dominican conception of theology through and through."

I think the link given by John Hayes to the lecture by Thomas Jospeh White, OP, is instructive for its linking of speculative theology, spirituality and evangelization: an endeavor in the spirit of Thomas.

I've been re-reading Alisdair MacIntyre's Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry this summer. It is a dense, but masterful reminder of what St. Thomas accomplished in his syntehsis of the Augustinian and Aristotlian traditions. 

Releveant to this post, MacIntryre emphasizes the way that Aquinas viewed himself as engaged in a craft (techne in Aristotle's vocabulary), one in which conclusions were always provisional. St. Thomas saw himself as advancing conclusions that weren't final formulations of theological doctrines, but were the most adequate possible given his present place in the tradition of enquiry. MacIntyre faults a number of neo-Thomists following Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris who focused too much on Aquinas' particular conclusions and not enough on his method and his understanding of theology as craft.

Interstingly MacIntyre also notes the significance of St. Thomas' biblical commentaries:

"When Aquinas wrote the Summa he prepared himself for the task of writing the parts concerned with detailed moral enquiry in the IIa-IIae by writing a commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics at the same time he was also continuing his exposition of St. Paul's epistles. It was the systematic character of Aquinas' insistence upon giving, within the same extended structures of argument, their due both to Pauline doctrine and to Aristotelian theory which resulted in his producing a work whose genre separated it both from the conventional orthodoxies of the thirteenth-century curriculum and from the Averroist program."

I know that there are probably simple ways to find out the following for myself, but I'm lazily turning to all of you regular readers of Aquinas: How much his work is available on line, especially the biblical commentaries?

I had both MacIntyre's Three Rival Versions and Turner's Aquinas with me to read on the train from Washington last night.  But after a busy day of contending with sociological data (see the Paul Moses post above) and also enjoying good company, I fell asleep instead. 

Peter --

I googled Aquinas' works in English and came up with this Duquesne bibliography.  Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much online of Thomas' theology.  There's lots of his philosophical stuff in English.


Here's the Etheereal Classics library's holdings in English.  They include Thomas' commentaries on Matthew and mark in English..



Here's the Corpus Thomisticum, Leonine editioin (Latin).


I'm really surprised at how relatively little of the theology has been translated.




Nearly all of Thomas' works are available in English online through the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Here's the link:

Thanks to LPM for the link!

LPM ==

Thanks, that's a treasure trove!!

I agree with David Tenney  "MacIntyre faults a number of neo-Thomists....who focused too much on Aquinas's particular conclusions and not enough of his method".

Indeed, there is a profound disagreement among theologians, who study and understand Thomas, about Aquinas's holistic ethical method and whether the proximate end of the act or the agent's actual intention-to-end is the major over-riding moral factor specifiying voluntary human action. Consider the following:


How does the proximate end of the act of choice, the exterior act, its material aspect, become the decisive over-riding factor that morally specifies the one unified act of the will, and not the formal aspect of the will, the agent’s ulterior end? Apparently, for traditionalists the answer seems to be that the intention-to-proximate end is the agent’s immediate end-goal that the reason has presented to the will as good. The agent then choses an exterior act as the best means to achieve this immediate intention-to-end (the object forming intention-to-proximate end) based on council-deliberation, an act of reason.

This raises a fundamental question that traditionalists have not answered.

If the agent is motivated to formulate an end-goal and commits to this end-goal by an act of the will called intention first (e.g., before this so-called object forming proximate end of the exterior act that has not been chosen yet) and we believe Aquinas when he says that the agent’s intention-to-end is the reason the agent chooses a means-act to realize his intention-to- end/goal, then: What specific criteria defines this object-forming intention-to-proximate end of the exterior act, when it is not the natural end of the act and not the agent’s ulterior intention-to-end? 

Either something is wrong with the interpretation of Aquinas by traditionalists or they don't have an adequate answer to what John Paul II asserted but did not substantiate in Veritatis Spendor 78.



" What specific criteria defines this object-forming intention-to-proximate end of the exterior act, when it is not the natural end of the act and not the agent’s ulterior intention-to-end? "

Michael B. --

You had me until this question.  What do you mean by "specific criteria defines . . ."?  Could you give us an example, please. 


Fr. imbelli's post was picked up by Andrew Sullivan today.

I was interested by Sullivan's quote from Joseph Pieper


The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the expressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech…


The mind of the dying man found its voice once more, in an explanation of the Canticle of Canticles for the monks of Fossanova. The last teaching of St. Thomas concerns, therefore, that mystical book of nuptial love for God, of which the Fathers of the Church say: the meaning of its figurative speech is that God exceeds all our capabilities of possessing Him, that all our knowledge can only be the cause of new questions, and every finding only the start of a new search.

I wasn't able to find that commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, but eventually found this footnote in Maritain's book, saying it was lost.


The divine touch had been too profound to permit him to give himself thenceforth to his ordinary works. Nevertheless, he forced himself to compose, on his way to the Council of Lyons, his brief Responsio ad Bernardum abbatem; and on his deathbed he did for the monks of Fossanova his second commentary (now lost) on the Canticle of Canticles. (I say his second commentary, not his third, for of the two commentaries attributed to Saint Thomas only one is authentic.)

Ann --

This is a complex issue and I will not do justice to a proper explanation in a short commentary. However, I will attempt to make this clearer.

When it comes to interpreting Aquinas, the theological arguments of traditionalists fall into largely two groups (at least). One group says that the moral object is specified by the choice of an act where the proximate end is its natural end (e.g., to take the anovulant pill is to infer that the intention and end of the agent is contraception because the pill suspends ovulation and sexual intercourse is non-procreative). However, Aquinas taught that the proximate good and end intended by the agent indicates the essence of the human act whereas the relation to the natural end, which corresponds to what is physicaly caused is "accidental". Here, accidental does not mean irrelevant, although it does indicate that Thomas's understanding of natural law is not centered in the non-frustration or normativity of natural ends. 

The other argument of traditionalists is that the moral object is the proximate end of an act of choice, where the proximate end is not the natural end of the chosen exterior act (e.g., this is not what Aquinas taught), and not the agent's ulterior intention-to-end. If so, I posit the question: What is this proximate end of the chosen exterior act? What criteria does one use to define it? How is this proximate end the absolute defining moral factor specifying a voluntary human act?

This question is at the root of the problem because John Paul II in Veritatis Spendor 78 asserted, without substantiation, that the morality of the voluntary human act is the proximate end of the act of choice (of the exterior act that is being choosen to acheive the agent's intention-to-end). 


Many theologians believe that neither the proximate end of the act of choice or the ulterior intention-to-end of the agent is the sole and overriding moral factor giving specification to voluntary human action. Rather, both the morality of the exterior act and interior act of the will, as the agent’s intention-to-end, are necessary for specifying the total human activity. They are part of an integrated moral method that includes the proper roles of: reason (emphasis-added) and goodness, due matter and circumstances, due proportion, and the formal and material aspects of the will. This, I believe, is a better understanding of the moral realism of Aquinas’s ethical decision-making process.


> The Church asserts that it is moral and licit for a woman to take the anovuant pill for the pain of endometriosis because her intention and end is to relieve pain. In his case, the proximate end of the act of choice, as the natural end of taking the pill, namely suspending ovulation, is "accidental" to the morality of her choice act. More importantly, she can have sexual intercourse during the pill taking period which could be a lifetime and which will render the marital act to be non-procreative.

However, if she takes the pill to regulate her fertility to achieve her good intention-to-end of "no more children for good reasons" (Pius XII's Address to the Midwives exempted couples from their procreative obligations in marriage for good reasons), the Church says her intention and proximate end is contraception and immoral. In this case, her "ulterior intention-to-end", e.g., no more children for good reasons, does not specify her act of choice, but its "so-called" proximate end which is to suspend ovulation, making sexual intercourse non-procreative.

> If a seropositive husband uses a condom to protect his spouse from AIDS, the Church says the agent's proximate end and intention is contraception, and not to safe-guard her spouse's life? 

Perplexed? Just think how average Catholics view such an explanation. There are other theories that are proported to be in accordance with Aquinas, such as virtue ethics. However, I will not go into this because it leads to other serious fundamental questions that are in profound tension with human experience, reason and a holistic reading of Aquinas.

Does this help?





If a seropositive husband uses a condom to protect his spouse from AIDS, the Church says the agent's proximate end and intention is contraception, and not to safe-guard her spouse's life? 


Here's Fr. Lombardi's attempt at clarifying (not very well) what Benedict said in his interviews for the Seewald book (i didn't find an English version)

Allo stesso tempo il Papa considera una situazione eccezionale in cui l’esercizio della sessualità rappresenti un vero rischio per la vita dell’altro. In tal caso, il Papa non giustifica moralmente l’esercizio disordinato della sessualità, ma ritiene che l’uso del profilattico per diminuire il pericolo di contagio sia "un primo atto di responsabilità", "un primo passo sulla strada verso una sessualità più umana", piuttosto che il non farne uso esponendo l’altro al rischio della vita.

In ciò, il ragionamento del Papa non può essere certo definito una svolta rivoluzionaria.

Numerosi teologi morali e autorevoli personalità ecclesiastiche hanno sostenuto e sostengono posizioni analoghe; è vero tuttavia che non le avevamo ancora ascoltate con tanta chiarezza dalla bocca di un Papa, anche se in una forma colloquiale e non magisteriale.

Michael --

Thanks, that does help.  But I think we'd need a huge blackboard to even sketch the structure of these arguments.  From what you say, I'm not sure the official folks really understand Thomas.  They don't seem to distinguish clearly between the/an end of a whole moral process and the end of the means, nor between 1) the end of an act of choice and 2) the end of the whole process, a good which might  or might not be identical with 1).

As to "virtue" ethics, there are many kinds and I'm not sure you can have a sound virtue ethics without Aristotle's metaphysics to ground it.  But ethics isn't my main interest and I don't really know.  

I'm also pretty doubtful about the George-Finnis brand of natural law, even given that I know little about it.   Sounds like just another brand of emotivism with some virtues tacked on as appendages.  

Thanks for this posting. Too bad it is not in English.

B16 was not saying that sex outside of marriage was morally right but if a prostitute used a condom to protect her so-called client from AIDS that such an act was one step toward a better morality under these specific circumstances.The statement by Benedict XVI was interpreted by many that the Church might be considering a change in its teaching regarding the use of a condoms under certain circumstances. However, this was quickly denounced by the Vatican. 

It is interesting to note that Martin Rhonheimer, one of the most prominent philosophers  in the Church today, and advisor to popes John Paul II and B16, argued that the use of condoms by seropositve husbands to protect their spouses from AIDS was permissible. Nevertheless, the Church continues to teach that condom use as a means to birth control or as a protection from AIDS is immoral regardless of the circumstances. 



Michael --

I didn't know that Rhonheimer came out for condom use in those circumstances.  Haven't read much of him, but even the little bit I read convinced me that he's a heavy-weight -- even if he is Opus Dei and works  for an Opus Dei school  :-)  I wonder how he got away with saying that.  Guess it just shows that who you know is what counts in Rome.

Ann -- thank you for responding. You said it well. The Vatican folks, as well as many theologians, do not understand these differences. Nor do they know how to respond to the many concrete cases that demonstrate the Church has no adequate and intelligible answers to these inconsistencies and contradictions. 

When we deal with ethics, as in Aquinas, we are also dealing with Aristotle but with a different starting point, namely, God and our eternal destiny with him. When we discuss virtue we also have to discuss the role and nature of grace, and that is another subject that continues to perplex me and many of us. If grace is a gift from God as a means to our ultimate end in Him, how is it given? Is it freely given or must we ask for grace? Do each of us receive the grace we need for our salvation, or does it depend on our spiritual condition? If grace is given to all Christians, how does it bring us to the truth when there are differences in the fundamental tenents of faith and morals?  What is the role of grace in virtue?

The best we can do is to be open to the Spirit and our practical reason grounded in our faith, to help us discern the truth, the right and the good. This often takes a lifetime. In the meantime, I leave my sinfulness, ignorance and moral dilemmas on the alter of Christ and ask him to guide me because I cannot do it alone.




Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have read most of Martin Rhonheimer's books and have struggeled to understand him. His philosophy is most in line with the Magisterium. However, he has issued many controversial (e.g., according to traditionalists) arguments about the moral permissiblity of condom use by seropositive couples and self-stimulation for semen fertility analysis. In these cases I agree with him, while on many other issues I do not. For example, he supports Humanae Vitae and almost every other sexual ethical teaching. I find most of his theories and opinions lack cogency and in many ways are incosistent without adequate explanation (to put is politely).

So, if you consider the community of traditionlsits, there is no concensus of argument around the morality of volunatary human action. 




Thanks for this posting. Too bad it is not in English.


My iPad battery was about to give out. I'm home now, so here's a quick translation (all improvements are welcome)

At the same time, the Pope considered an exceptional situation in which sexual activity represented a real risk to another person.  In such case, the  Pope didn't approve the disordered sexual activity, but considered that the use of a condom to diminish the danger of infection would be " a first act of responsibility", "a first step on the road to a more humane sexuality",  rather than not using it and exposing the other to losing his life. 


In this, the reasoning of the Pope certainly can not be considered revolutionary.


Many moral theologians and many authoritative church figures have supported and now do support similar positions. However, it's certainly true that we haven't yet heard this so clearly from the mouth of a Pope, even in a colloquial and not magisterial form 


It's unclear who, exactly, Benedict was talking about. In he German and Englih versions of the book, it was male prostitutes. In the Italian version, female prostitutes.


Fr.Lombardi was quoted by the NYTimes as saying "“Whether it’s a man or woman or a transsexual,”


I've never seen anything that clarified whether Benedict meant that married couples could use condoms if one was HIV positive or had AIDS - or only if the sex was outside of marriage and thus already sinful. 

I do not claim any particular competence in philosophical ethics, but the following from Denys Turner on Aquinas makes sense to me. Turner writes:

"for Thomas, if the normatively human is to become once again visible to us, it is not by means of some image of 'natural man' recovered by a theoretical reconstruction of what the good person looks like from within the debris of our fallen condition. As Aristotle thought, the only option is by looking to how the 'good person' actually lives, if you can find one – which, of course, Aristotle cannot. But Thomas can. And this is why that massive second part of the Summa theologiae, containing perhaps the most comprehensive account ever written of the virtues that constiute the good life, and so of the habits and practices of the happy person, makes sense in terms of theological and pedagogical structure only insofar as it is read in relation to Christology, but more particularly the sketch of the life of Christ, of the Summa's third part. For in Christ alone is the visibility of the normatively human restored" (p. 187).

Alongside the renewed appreciation of the importance of Thomas's scripture commentaries, and of his Dominican context, there is the realization that the telos of the Summa is the Tertia Pars on Christ. Yet, unfortunately, many never quite make it there.

the telos of the Summa is the Tertia Pars on Christ. Yet, unfortunately, many never quite make it there

i'm a little less than half-way through Turner's book, so i'm just reading his comment that early twentieth-century theologians, like Barth, had trouble coming to terms with Thomas's decison to discuss God and then the Trinity before discussing Christ

Turner goes back to his usual explanation that you have to see the Summa as the structure for a course to be taught in a fixed amount of time and that the sequence is a pedagogical decision rather than a judgement about the relative importance of the subjects. 

When a person chooses a voluntary human action (e.g., to achieve a good end/goal and intention in circumstances), how does one discern if the act is virtuous? Is virtue subjective or objective? If the act is good, is it virtuous?


Virtue is abstract and this fact led many Catholics, especially in the 1950s, to devotions and ascetics with the belief that these so-called virtuous spiritualities were caused by grace. When virtue enters in a Church teaching, it can lead to perplexing questions. For example, is sexual intercourse in marriage the virtue of chasity/temperance as the Church teaches? Many theologians believe that not every voluntary human action points ot "one" virtue. There are many virtues working at the same time with the objective of shaping the good character of the person that will lead them to making a right and good choices in circumstances.


With respect to virtue, how do we discern the mean of virtue as Aristotle taught? Interestingly, Aquinas taught that there is no normative mean of virtue becase what is considered temperate for one person can be considered extreme for another. The mean of virtue could be closer to one extreme or another, or in the middle or mean, but this depends of circumstances. 


The normativity of what is human and good might be found in Jesus Christ, but his Gospel is not a moral manual for complex everyday moral dilemmas where the good is to be done and evil avoided. As Aquinas taught, "Good is presneted to the will as its object by the reason; and in so far as it is in accord with reason, it enters the moral order, and causes moral goodnes in the act of the will; because the reason is the principle of human and moral acts, as stated in Q.18, A. 3)."


In Yiu Sing Lucas Chan's book "The Ten Commandments and the Beatiudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life", he demonstrates that the 10 Commandaments and the Beatitudes reflect a wide host of virtues. One gets the feeling that it is almost impossible to practice all of the virtues as they relate to the Commandments and Beatitudes, even though most Catholics strive to live holy and upright lifes. For me, we need a practical application of virtue, not more abstraction.




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