by Walter Principe

Summer 1992, Vol.44 No.2, pp. 110-131

Walter Principe, C.S.B., professor of medieval studies at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto and noted expert in historical theology, spirituality and christology, delivered this address at Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, Missouri, on March 12,1992.

Many elements of Thomas Aquinas' theology address vital issues for contemporary Christians who seek a spirituality that is meaningful in today's world.

When I saw the sign announcing this lecture, (1) I thought that someone had playfully added a graffito with the word worldly, but then found out that this was an attempt to make a concise title for the wordy description I had sent to your dean, Sr. Diane Kennedy. That description had been: An attempt to explore some of the ways that Thomas Aquinas' theology can contribute to the spirituality of Christ's faithful living and ministering in secular society or in the world. (2)

The term world or worldly has had a considerable history in Christian thought and spirituality. The Johannine gospel and the first letter of John frequently rail against the world and the worldly. On the other hand, the same gospel has this great text:

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the only-Begotten Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the World to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him (3:16-17).

In the middle ages the theme of contempt for the world (contemptus mundi) was frequently developed, especially among monastic authors. Until quite recently it affected Christian spirituality, often producing in Christ's faithful living and working in the world an unhealthy tension between their "spiritual life," their life of Christian prayer and worship, and their family life, their work life, their life of leisure and recreation. Catholic Action movements earlier in this century were an attempt by workers, students, and family members to bring the Gospel into their daily lives and to help reshape the institutions they worked and lived in and the attitudes of the people they met there. This and some other forces I shall mention -- among which was the influence of Thomas Aquinas' thought through some of his more enlightened disciples -- led to the dramatically new outlook of the document of Vatican II on the Church in the World of Today (Gaudium et Spes).


I should like to begin my remarks by describing how I understand the term spirituality. Spirituality is often used today to speak about the doctrine or tradition of some acknowledged leader or example of spirituality, e.g., the spirituality of St. Paul or of St. Francis of Assisi or of St. Benedict. Sometimes, along the same lines, one speaks of the spirituality of a group, e.g., Dominican spirituality, Jesuit spirituality, priestly or lay spirituality. But this use of spirituality for a doctrine or tradition is on a second and derived level. If there were no primary or original level of spirituality, that is, a really lived spirituality, there would be no doctrine or tradition to pass on by teaching or to examine in study. It is this primary or original level, the existential level, that I wish most to speak about here.

There are many attempts today to define spirituality on this level. My own attempt is to define or describe spirituality as "life in the Spirit" -- life in the Holy Spirit -- but with the immediate addition: "as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and daughters and sons of the Father." This definition can, I think, be derived from chapter 8 of Paul's letter to the Romans, which in The New Jerusalem Bible is entitled: "The Christian's spiritual life -- the life of the spirit." The whole chapter bears careful meditative reading. Here are some of the sections that are most important for our purpose.

What the Law could not do because of the weakness of human nature, God did, sending his own Son in the same human nature as any sinner to be a sacrifice for sin, and condemning sin in that human nature. This was so that the Law's requirements might be fully satisfied in us as we direct our lives not by our natural inclinations but by the spirit.

Those who are living by their natural inclinations have their minds on the things human nature desires; those who live in the spirit have their minds on spiritual things. And human nature has nothing to look forward to but death, while the spirit looks forward to life and peace, because the outlook of disordered human nature is opposed to God, since it does not submit to God's Law, and indeed it cannot, and those who live by their natural inclinations can never be pleasing to God.

You, however, live not by your natural inclinations, but by the spirit, since the Spirit of God has made a home in you. Indeed, anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. . . . (3-9)

One could go on quoting the whole of this marvelous hymn to God's love for us and God's call for us to live in our spirit by the Holy Spirit. The whole chapter should be a subject of meditation in relation to our topic.

In the texts that have been quoted there is a translation problem that The New Jerusalem Bible wrestled with, that is, the translation of pneuma and sarx (spiritus and caro in the Vulgate Latin), terms used by Paul to describe a tension that he sees in Christian life. Where other translations usually speak of "spirit" and "flesh," this one speaks of "spirit" or "spiritual" but translates sarx (caro) as "natural inclinations" or "disordered human nature." Why not the more literal translation of sarx as "flesh"? Because the translators were aware of how much harm has been done in the history of Christianity by misreading Paul on this point, a point that is most important for our concerns with spirituality in a secular society.

For Paul, the spirit in us is the whole human person, considered in every aspect, in so far as that whole human per ' son is led or moved or inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. This includes our bodies, our emotions, our human activity, which is usually bodily and emotional in some way - everything in us as influenced by the Spirit. Sarx or flesh, on the other hand, is not our body or the material element in us, but everything in our totality as human persons that is opposed to the leading, moving, or inspiring activity of the Spirit - hence the translation "natural inclinations" or the other better one, "disordered human nature." (3)

Therefore, for Paul the elements in us closer to matter -- our bodies, our emotions or passions, our bodily activities -- can be and are spiritual if they share in our total service of God in and by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, that which is most immaterial in us -- our minds, our intellects, our wills -- can be flesh or fleshly if they are opposed to the Holy Spirit. In fact, in Colossians 2:18 the Pauline text, speaking about some proud teachers who were boasting about visions they claimed to have had, says that they are "puffed up by their mind of flesh" (noûs tês sarkos). Here the text explicitly associates whatever is opposed to the Spirit with the nogs or mind, the highest and most immaterial faculty of the human person.

Too often, however, and very early in Christian history, Paul's doctrine was misread as if he were opposing the life of our soul as something good to the life of our flesh or body as something evil. The same misreading has also affected two sayings of Jesus reported in Matthew 10:28 and 16:26, in which Jesus speaks of body and soul or of losing one's life. Now the word for "soul" (psyche) is not that which is the spiritual principle of Greek philosophy; it is, rather, the concept expressed in Hebrew by nephesh, that is, the seat of supernatural life and the object of supernatural salvation. To "lose one's soul," therefore, is to lose the totality of one's self as a living, conscious subject, including the body and emotions springing from sense powers. To "save one's soul" is to save the totality of one's self. That is why the resurrection of the whole being, including the body, is so important in biblical teaching.


Already in the Fathers of the Church we begin to see this misreading and deflection of thought and terminology. In order to urge people to holiness, many of the Fathers mixed the biblical message with Stoic philosophy, Platonist philosophy, and sometimes traces of Gnosticism or Manicheism, even though they fought these latter two doctrines. Stoics looked on the feelings, the emotions, and the body as impediments to virtuous living. The ideal was apatheia -- lack of feeling. Our English word apathy is rooted in this Greek word.

For their part, Platonists and neo-Platonists saw the sensible world as a shadow of the really real, the true reality found in the unchanging world of ideas, which for them was the realm of the immaterial, the spiritual in the sense of that which is opposed to the material. Change, and history working itself out through change, were considered a weakness and a falling away from the realm of the unchanging and eternal, the spiritual. The 'One' was their highest reality. Therefore they had trouble with the 'many', with diversity, and sought to reduce or lead all multiple, diverse things back to the 'One'. Gnostics and Manicheans both despised the material and the bodily, seeing them either as the product of sinful error among the gods or as the creation of an evil creator god.

Both eastern and western Fathers were influenced in varying degrees by these currents of thought. They adopted Stoicism and Platonism with great enthusiasm because these doctrines seemed to point to a lofty elevated life. In the West some of this filtered through Fathers such as Ambrose and Augustine -- great persons who have served us well in so many ways, but who also established certain patterns that have not been helpful. Augustine's Platonism led him to stress the world as a place of signs pointing to the truly real. For Augustine, one finds this truly real -- ultimately God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- by going from the exterior world to the interior, going within oneself, and then moving from the lower to the higher in oneself and from there to God. The truest spiritual life is led in the interior of the mind, and Augustine constantly moves along what Anton Pegis has called the "Augustinian highway," from without to within, from oneself to God. Hence a tendency to see true life in the Spirit as interior life.

Another important influence on attitudes in spirituality was the doctrine of original sin, especially as developed in the west. Original sin and its dire effects were, according to Augustine, passed on through the marriage act because, however good marriage is in itself, intercourse inevitably involves some disorder or sin, at least a venial sin. Pleasure in marriage had to be justified for Augustine by reason of the good of children, although Augustine does include among the goods of marriage the fidelity of the couple to each other as well as the symbolic quality of their marriage, that is, its symbolizing the union of Christ and the Church, which was seen as the reason for the indissolubility of marriage.

Anselm in the late eleventh century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century strongly modified Augustine's close link between original sin and disordered concupiscence by stressing that the initial disorder of the human will to God was central. Nevertheless, Augustine's influence remained strong, so much so that Luther's basic personal problems grew out of his attempts to come to terms with Augustine's doctrine of concupiscence in relation to original sin. Earlier than Luther, in the twelfth century, Peter Lombard, a theologian whose Book of Sentences became the standard textbook for theologians in the universities of Europe, summarized the role of sacraments as follows: some sacraments, such as baptism, are both remedies against sin and confer grace; other sacraments, such as the holy eucharist and orders, simply confer grace; but there is one sacrament that is only a remedy against sin, and that is Matrimony! (Sententiae in IV libris distinctae, d.2 cap.1). Hardly a positive spirituality for marriage or for lay persons having to live in a secular or even a religious society!


Two other historical forces affected spirituality for lay persons. In the fourteenth century, theology became divorced from the living sources of scripture and sound patristic tradition, losing itself instead in endless subtle disputations. This drove those seeking nourishment for the life in the Spirit to split their consideration of spirituality from theology. This led to the development of "spiritual theology" or "the theology of the spiritual life" over against the theology of the schools. Although such a development might seem a harmless and even necessary development, a continuation of the type of theology favored in the monasteries, what it did in effect was to separate spirituality from many areas of theology that are absolutely essential to a full life in the Spirit.

The new spiritual theology tended to stress the area of prayer, asceticism, mortification, practice of specific virtues, the laws of growth in holiness -- all very good, but too often divorced from the great mysteries of faith on which true life in the Spirit must feed. Thus the rich doctrines of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in trinitarian theology and in their missions and indwelling were not examined so thoroughly as they should have been, nor were they integrated into spiritual life. Christ, His grace and His Headship, as well as a sound theology of His saving work, frequently failed to be examined carefully in themselves and therefore lacked a beneficial and corrective influence on uncritically assumed tenets and practices in spirituality. For example, the practice of persons seeking holiness offering themselves to God as 'victim souls' to be punished for the sins of others grew out of a false theology of Christ's saving work, as if Christ saved the human family by being punished by God for our sins rather than by His loving obedience to the Father in fidelity to the message of the Gospel, a fidelity and obedience pushed to the point of death. Again, sacraments and liturgy were neglected as important elements of life in the Spirit. In the area of grace, one could find elements of practical Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, that is, that the human person starts things off in the spiritual life and calls on God for help only when the going gets difficult.

A reversal -- entirely in line with the fundamental orientation of Aquinas' scriptural commentaries and his Summa theologiae -- is going on today. This trend opposes the isolation of spiritual theology from the important theological themes that should help it. Theology once again is feeding more deeply on scripture and the great saintly theologians of the past and is more concerned with the life of the Christian in the Spirit. Some working in spirituality are insisting that any spiritual guidance must include attention to the whole theological dimension and, beyond that, attention to the sociological, psychological, and cultural elements that operate in the present and in any spiritual writer of the past who is studied and used. Spirituality is seen as embracing the life of the whole person. Social life -- life in the family, at work, in recreation, in society as a whole -- is viewed as integral to spiritual life. This is as much a part of the life of the Spirit in a Christian as is her or his personal devotion and the elements that go into this. The two cannot be separated; they were not so separated by Thomas Aquinas, and in this he teaches us important lessons.

The second historical force is one that I consider perhaps the most basic to my topic. It is the growing recognition of the intrinsic value and worth of the natural created order. This recognition began in the twelfth century and took on new vigor in the thirteenth century, especially in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and has grown ever since. The result was that the realm of nature, and with it the role of the secular, began to be asserted more strongly. The autonomy of the natural, the independence of the secular in relation to the sacred and in particular to the Church became one of the major foci of western cultural history as well as, of course, an area of political and economic conflict. As this long struggle continued, and as an ever-increasing growth of marvelous achievements took place in the created order and in secular humanism, the necessary distinction between the sacred and the secular tended to become more and more a separation and even an opposition. Hence there grew a constantly greater hostility and isolation of the Church from the secular realm. Christ's faithful lay persons were caught in the midst of this conflict. Wanting to live by faith and the Spirit, how were they to function in a society constantly more impatient with the Church and its 'interference' in human progress?

The Augustinian line that flourished in most of western Christian spirituality, except for the Thomist line, viewed nature and creation as so wounded by original sin that it is full of vanity and has worth only if it is healed by the grace that comes through Christ and His Church. In this line of thought, created reality tends towards nothingness. God must be there with grace continually to keep creation from fading into the nothingness of sin. Of course, not all creation is evil, but its function as a good is to arouse our minds to think of God and stimulate our hearts to praise God. The political and social orders are to serve God; this often was taken to mean that they should serve the Church. Such a spirituality could provide little help for the lay person intensely involved in the secular sphere. It called such lay persons to condemn much of the very area where they had to work out their lives.

This conflict of attitudes is well expressed by Gabriel Marcel in his Journal métaphysique, dated 5 March 1933:

My most intimate and most unshakable conviction -- too bad for orthodoxy if it is heretical -- is that, whatever so many spiritual and learned men may have said, God in no way wants to be loved by us in opposition to the creature, but wants to be glorified through the creature and starting from the creature. That is why I cannot bear so many spiritual writings. That God, who is set up against all that is created and who is in some way jealous of his own handiwork, is but an idol in my eyes. It is a relief for me to have written this. And I declare that until I retract this I shall be insincere whenever I seem to state anything contrary to what I have just written. (qtd. Bultot, 54)

Marcel wondered about the orthodoxy of his view. It is too bad that he did not know Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas better because he would have found exactly his own viewpoint in them. To be sure, they did not neglect sin and the disorder it has introduced into human affairs and into human persons throughout history, but their major contribution was to accept nature and, so to speak, give nature its due. Although they did not work out all the implications of their positions, their attitudes and doctrines prepared the way for a spirituality that is appropriate to lay people living and working in secular society. Leo XIII's fostering of the study of Thomas Aquinas helped bring his views into relation with modern society, and the successive teachings of the popes and other leaders influenced by Aquinas gradually helped the Church to come to a more realistic appraisal of, and even cooperation with, the secular society that had so long been mistrusted and condemned. Thinkers in the Thomistic line, such as Maritain, Gilson, Chenu, Congar, Rahner and others, furthered this more positive view of nature and secular achievements and activity, always for the Christian within the working of grace but respecting the role of the natural order and secular values that go with it.

For Thomas and his followers there is no self-contained natural order with its own absolutely final end. The absolutely final end of all men and women consists in the beatific vision overflowing in love, and no one can be truly happy without achieving this end. Albert and Thomas and their followers agree with Augustine and all others on this (see ST 1-2.3.8). For Thomas, however, there are intermediate or connatural ends to nature and to secular activity that can be identified and respected (see ST 1-2.68.2). These limited or intermediate finalities or ends of natures and human institutions are worthwhile in themselves and must be respected. When we do this, when we develop these intermediate finalities to the full, we give greater glory to God than if we simply use them as a tool of the Church or religion.

Long ago Irenaeus of Lyons had said that the glory of God is the human person become fully alive. (4) Teilhard de Chardin developed similar notions in his book, The Divine Milieu. So often, he said, our work was seen as simply something to be done with a good intention, something to be offered up in the morning prayer. It didn't matter what we did -- one's intention was the important thing. Monks wove baskets to keep them busy while they prayed; then they took the baskets apart and started over again. No, Teilhard said, our work done in the world is part of one's loving service of the Lord. The kind of work, its effects and influence on society are all important to the advancement of human history towards its fulfilment in Christ. Therefore one's work is integral to one's life in the Spirit -- to one's spirituality. Gustave Thils, a Louvain theologian, also did much work on what he called "the theology of earthly realities." Others developed a theology of work.

All this fed into the Second Vatican Council and resulted in its accepting in a new positive way the advances made in the secular sphere as well as its encouraging Christians to work in the world for its advancement. History and society are not just hockey rinks or baseball fields where Christians can go and play games without the final outcome mattering one bit so long as they play in such a way as not to fall into sin and thereby lose their 'souls'. No, work in human society is part of the development of human history, part of the coming of the kingdom or rule of Christ. The Risen Lord directs all history to its goal or fulfilment, but this can be achieved without baptizing every element of human history or making it all explicitly Christian.

So for Thomas the work that Christ's faithful do in the world is their appropriate way to give glory to God. This is accomplished not just by offering it with a good intention, though it is well to recall this, but by seeing whatever one is doing through to its perfection -- not always an easy job given the tendencies within and without us (think of businessmen or politicians having to operate in a society that could be called 'worldly' in the negative sense).


(a) Giving value to the uniqueness of each person's spirituality

A profound doctrine of Thomas Aquinas is important for every Christian and especially for Christ's lay faithful. Thomas says that "the person, that is, someone subsisting in a rational nature, is the most perfect reality in all nature" (ST 1, q.29, a.3). In his view, each person is unique; each is constituted as a person by a unique act of existing and therefore each has a personal existence and history, a personal development and holiness, to be achieved under God's gracious help, that is his or her own. No one else can give the particular and special glory to God that each person is called to give uniquely in and through his or her personal history.

Aquinas adds that just as the variety of creatures makes a more perfect universe and gives more glory to God, so the variety and differing intensity of God's grace in the lives of persons contributes more to the beauty and perfection of the Church (and so to God's glory) than if everyone had the same kind and degree of grace (ST 1, q.1 12, a.4). This means that each of us has a unique role to play, a unique destiny. I, living and working in a particular time and place with a particular kind of activity, give glory to God. And none of this can be separated from my life in the Spirit.

(b) An ecological principle

The theme in Thomas that has been mentioned with respect to persons can also serve as a basic principle for ecological concerns. Thomas is no monist; he exults in the diversity of creatures (as well as of individuals) since more glory is given to God by this diversity, one species of creatures showing forth God's wisdom and goodness in a way that others cannot (ST 1.47.1; cf. 1.44.4). (Here we should note that Thomas' spirituality is not only a God-originating spirituality but also a God-oriented spirituality -- creation is cherished and given its due but his spirituality is not a creation or creation-centered spirituality.) Preserving each individual species is for Thomas a service of God's glory, and for Christ's faithful lay persons who should especially be interested in ecology, this teaching can be a way of linking their ecological concerns with their life in the Spirit.

(c) The wholeness of the human person: passions or emotions as sharing morality

Another historical influence in the west was the penetration of the Aristotelian distinction of soul and body in terms of human psychology. The danger was that Aristotle's immaterial soul would be linked with the spiritual, while the material body would be linked with the fleshly. When this happened, it reenforced the earlier misreading of Paul and Matthew that had already been influenced by other philosophies. Now the spiritual life would be thought of as the life of the soul, the bodily elements being considered as outside the spiritual.

We must always remind ourselves that Thomas Aquinas was not simply an Aristotelian. Although he used the Aristotelian soul-body distinction rather than the Platonic psychology of spirit, soul, and flesh, his own distinct and original philosophy of being (esse) led him far beyond Aristotle. Thomas views the human person as an integral whole in which body and soul are united in and by the human person's one, unique act of existing (esse or actus essendi). Aquinas strongly rejected any dualism in the human person, whether that of Platonism, Stoicism, Manicheism, or badly applied Aristotelianism.

As a result, Aquinas saw the sense appetites, as well as the passions or emotions flowing from them, as good when ordered from within by the virtues of moderation (temperance) and courage (fortitude). The passions or emotions share in the moral goodness of well ordered actions chosen by the will or in the moral evil of disordered actions chosen by the will. The passions or emotions are not ordered, as it were, from outside by repression or a domineering rule coming from the will, but rather by a sweet interior movement of virtue -- this to be sure, only after training, discipline, and asceticism (see ST 1-2.24.1 & 3). When these virtues are possessed in a high degree of intensity (Christ is the supreme exemplar of this), passionately strong acts can flow spontaneously because they will be well-ordered from within by the virtues. This was the case when Christ was angry, when he loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus even to the point of shedding tears of sadness over Lazarus' death, or when he showed amazement at the centurion's faith (see ST 3.15). A modern Catholic psychiatrist, Conrad Baars, laments the fact that Thomas' doctrine was not followed in practice. He sees whole generations of Catholics warped by the repressive views inherited from other spiritual traditions in Catholicism (29-33).

All this affected the whole attitude toward spiritual life. As has already been said, spiritual life was conceived more as an interior life to be led in separation from the changing, unsubstantial, and even wicked world. The ideal therefore often became the life of monasteries and convents withdrawn from the world and society. There was, it is true, a sense of vocation developed by some writers for lay persons. This is seen in the guilds and in the ideals of knighthood. But by and large spirituality for lay people working in society -- which itself was considered something to be sacralized and not left secular --was patterned as much as possible on that of monks or friars or other religious.

The effects of this can be seen in Catholic piety and spirituality, even in the earlier part of our own century. Priests spoke of their pastoral duty as the cure of souls, or asked how many souls there were in a parish. Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux's otherwise excellent autobiography was entitled La vie d'une âme (The Life of a Soul), and translations of books by French authors often used the word 'soul' instead of referring to the whole human person. Also, most of the spiritual treatises that appeared in the earlier decades of our century were written by and for monks and other kinds of religious. Therefore, they often reflected a fear of the world as a place of danger or temptation, a place from which to retire in order to foster spiritual life.

(d) The human person as image of God and of the Trinity

When it comes to the human person's deliberation and choices in her or his human activity (the very stuff of our spirituality so long as we do not shut spirituality into some narrow area divorced from all human activity and its moral quality), Aquinas' teaching on the human person as image of God and of the Trinity is crucial. Father Ignatius Eschmann, my wonderful Dominican professor at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, used to go into near-ecstasy as he quoted and then carefully analyzed the short preface Thomas Aquinas wrote at the start of the prima secundae of his Summa theologiae. He did so because he saw in this simple statement the overreaching view governing all that was to follow about the end of the human person, human will, the human passions, the virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, vices, and commands. In this prologue Thomas says:

The human person (homo) is made unto God's image (Ad imaginern Dei [note the force of the accusative implying a dynamic tendency and activity]). This, as John Damascene indicates, means that as image the human person is an intellectual being endowed with freedom of choice and with power to act through his or her self [i.e., as primary or responsible agent]. We have spoken about the exemplar of the human person, that is, God, as well as of all that has come forth in creation from God's power by God's willing them. Now it remains for us to examine God's image, that is to say, the human person in so far as this human person ALSO [et! -- a marvelous two-letter word pregnant with vast implications] is the source of actions that are her or his own, in that the person has free choice and power to perform his or her actions.

So we must first examine the final end of human life, and then the means by which the human person can either reach or fail to reach this end: for the end gives us the reasons or notions whereby we can judge how human activities are ordered to that end. And since the final end of human life is declared to be beatitude, we must first consider the ultimate end taken generally, and then beatitude.

This statement shows that for Thomas each human person is the prime agent of his or her own spiritual-moral life and decisions, always of course in dependence on God but not in the first instance dependent on commands, ordinances, obedience, direction or counseling by others. It is for the human person, "a little god" (if we may so call the human person) imitating the infinite God, to exercise the mind, free choice, and movement to action. (6)

(e) Finding the will of God

If we have a unique personhood and so a unique spirituality, how do we find God's will for us as to how to live out our unique role? Too often God's will and our way of finding it is thought to be an entire divine scenario all pre-arranged, and woe betide us if we do not discover the elements of that fixed scenario and conform to its details!

Unless, however, we have a special revelation from God, what we are to do should be seen in tandem with God's will for us in this present moment. God in eternity is actively present here and now to help me find the divine will. It is here and now that I am to try to judge what is the best, the most just and loving thing to do. I am to study, gather information, try to foresee the consequences of a decision, pray over it, perhaps seek counsel -- but not by blind obedience to another or even by any obedience if I am a responsible lay person having to make a decision in my own realm.

If I do all this, trying to eliminate any personal prejudice or unruly passion, and then make my decision, I can be sure that I am in fact doing God's will. That is what God's will is for me -- to make a free decision under the influence of God's grace, using all the means available to me. Later on I might look back and think another decision might have been better. No matter -- at the time of the decision I did all I could and so I did God's will. Thomas will say very hardily that even if my conscience, my final decision about the goodness or evil of an act, is erroneous, it must be followed and one would be blameworthy for not following an objectively erroneous conscience! (7)

(f) A spirituality of prudence guided by the Holy Spirit (8)

For lay persons, a spirituality of prudence under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is more appropriate than a spirituality dominated by the idea of obedience to laws that try to cover every possibility, or of obedience to a spiritual director or authority whose competence and office cannot extend to the details of life in the secular world. Some lay persons select spiritual directors and seek to obey them in all things as if they gave forth the voice of God. This is wrong! Such a person should be sought only for assistance in self-counseling, for help in sorting things out on the way to making one's own decisions. Such an assistant should never be allowed to take over one's life and especially one's decisions.

This is firmly rooted in sound teaching by Thomas Aquinas. As has been said, for him each of us is made unto the image of God because of our intellects, our free will, our power to act through and in ourselves -- always, of course, under the influence of God's gracious help and the special aid of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in particular the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel. The prudent person -- and prudence can mean daring risk as well as care and caution! -- looks indeed to revelation, the laws of God and the Church and of society in the secular sphere, but these cannot cover individual cases. The prudent person must make a judgment taking account of all the particularities of each case.

A lay person working and living in secular society cannot abandon this role as image of God to another. Even in obeying, one must examine the law or command to see that it is truly good and not harmful in the circumstances that one knows better than any lawgiver or superior or spiritual director. If we obey, we must obey freely. Law and obedience cannot cover individual circumstances and situations. Therefore the lay person needs the maturity to make a fully prudent decision within the context that only he or she knows. No priest or other person should be allowed to dictate or direct one in one's area of personal competence and decision.

(g) The New Law and the gifts of the Holy Spirit

In ordering the materials of the secunda secundae of his Summa theologiae, Thomas takes a very positive view. He begins with the virtues that fasten us directly into life with God: faith, hope, and charity, and follows them with the key or cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude. Connected with these virtues are, for him, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For him the New Law or New Covenant is the inner presence and gifts of the Holy Spirit leading us to live our lives according to the Gospel -- at times perhaps according to the 'foolishness' of the Gospel. Christ's faithful all need this constant sweet help of the Spirit in our lives. To live on the high plane of faith, hope, and love directed immediately to God, we need to go beyond what our reason or perhaps even mundane views would say and be led to the higher plane of Spirit-filled activity -- true spirituality (see ST 1-2.68.2).

After these virtues infused by God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit come other virtues attached to these great virtues. And only then do the vices and sins opposed to these virtues appear, those habits and acts that can lead us away from the God-originating and God-oriented direction our lives will have so long as we do not interpose a disordered human choice in the way. Finally come the commandments -- teaching guides and helps to discipline of self that will keep the life in the Spirit from getting derailed.

What a positive view! How different from the approach of many of the older moralists insisting on obligation and commands as the basic way to approach morality. And, of course, such a dispirited moral doctrine was never seen by them or their students as spirituality, as life in the Spirit, but only a kind of underpinning on which more exalted states might build. There is no such separation of morality and spirituality in Thomas Aquinas; moral life must be life in the Spirit and life in the Spirit must be moral life.

(h) Faith in God by contrast with propositions of faith and ecclesial teaching

Important here for problems facing us today, especially Christ's faithful wondering about some official teachings of the Church, is Thomas' teaching on faith. Faith for him is the assent to the very truth of God in a very personal encounter in which it is God as First Truth that 'speaks', albeit in darkness, to the mind and in which we assent to that Truth under the sweet or perhaps scary movement of the will itself moved by God. For Thomas faith is an encounter with the Infinite Reality of God. The statements of this faith -- our creeds, definitions, etc. -- are needed for our human way of knowing and for a community of faith united in professing its faith. But these statements or propositions are not the object or end of our faith. By our faith we pass through these propositions to the very Res, the Infinite Mysterious Reality of God, One and Triune. A risky self-gift like that called for by Jesus in the Gospel, but one that relativizes, to a certain extent, the propositions or statements of faith. They grasp truly, but oh so inadequately, some tiny aspect of the infinite Mystery of God. Hence there is always room for improvement, modification, change without contradiction, of these statements, and that has happened in history. (9)

Thomas' pregnant remark about propositions of faith, "The act of the believer does not terminate at the proposition but at the Reality [of God]" (ST 2-2.1.2 ad 2) applies far more forcefully to propositions included in those official teachings of the Church that are not media for our plunging into the mystery of God by our self-gift of heart and mind. Christ's faithful need to be told and to be enabled to see that these teachings, certainly to be respected and accepted if one has no special competence or experience, are not matters of faith and can be subject to investigation and possible alteration. Even more is this true of the common theological opinions often found in our catechisms or summaries of Catholic doctrine. (10) This, I think, is an important series of distinctions that Christ's faithful people need to know and keep in mind in face of the problems they sometimes meet in the application of Church teaching to their personal lives.

(i) The presence of Christ to human history

Thomas' teaching on the active presence and influence of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, to all human history can be an important element of spirituality for those living and working in the world. In two questions at the end of his consideration of the mysteries of Christ's life, death, and exaltation, Thomas speaks of Christ, through his humanity, sharing in the ruling and judging power of the Father. This, of course, requires Christ's human knowledge and presence in some way to the course of human history. Thomas has an extraordinary teaching about how this active presence of the human Christ takes place in us. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by their gracious gift, are the principal cause of that intense modification, elevation, and heightening of our being and activity that we call grace. But, Thomas adds -- and in this he breaks new ground by comparison with all his predecessors -- the human Christ is in a certain way the cause of this same gift because his human nature serves the divinity as an instrumental cause to confer these gifts. Pursuing this idea, he makes a startling comparison between Christ's presence to confer and maintain grace and God's presence to confer and maintain our very being or existing:

Because Christ in a certain way (quodammodo) pours the effects of grace into all rational creatures, it follows that in a certain way (quodammodo) he is the principle of all grace according to his humanity, as God is the principle of all be-ing (esse). Hence, as in God every perfection of be-ing (essendi) is united, so in Christ is found every fullness of grace and virtue, through which [fullness] he is able not only to perform works of grace but also to lead others into grace. And in this way he has the notion of Head (De veritate 29.2). (11)

We should seek to reflect on and discover the active presence and influence, usually hidden, of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, in all of Christian life and indeed in all of human history. For Christ is Lord of the whole human history and of our cosmos and its development. He intervenes not to destroy the good developments of the created order but rather to further its advancement until His final coming when His rule will be visible and will be explicitly recognized by all.

By this presence Jesus Christ, then, is a source of hope for persons working in society. If its natural finalities must be fostered and not simply twisted to serve the sacred, it is still under Christ's rule and presence, and this should be a constant source for us of real hope. Christ is not reserved just to churches or to a narrow spirituality. If we do need to find Him in churches, in liturgy, in personal prayer, we can and must also find Him present to all humanity, to all human striving and history.

Thomas Aquinas was a person of his times, and he needs completion and correction in various areas. But I hope that this lecture has shown that many of his basic insights and teachings can be valuable for the spirituality of Christ's faithful living in the world.


1. The sign read, in bold printed letters: "Thomas Aquinas' Spirituality," but the single word worldly, in a written hand, was added on all the signs to modify "spirituality"!

2. The terms "Christ's faithful lay people" or "Christ's faithful," used by John Paul If in his encyclical Christifideles laici after the synod on the laity, are preferable, despite their clumsiness, to the simpler term laity, whose connotation is negative since it is usually defined as "those who are not clerics."

3. The translation of sarx as "natural inclinations" is not entirely satisfactory for it gives the impression that nature and the inclinations of nature are of themselves opposed to the Spirit or to God. 'Disorderly inclination' would, in my opinion, be greatly preferable. The Jerusalem Bible, of which The New Jerusalem Bible is a revision, translated sarx as "unspiritual." Although vague, it is still preferable to "natural inclinations."

4. Adversus haereses 4.20.7; eds. Adelin Rousseau et al., Irénée de Lyon: Contre Les hérésies 4/2: Texte et traduction, Sources Chrétiennes, 100 (Paris: Cerf, 1965) 649: "Glorie enim Dei vivens homo." Irenaeus, however, added a phrase that is often forgotten: "vita autem hominis visio Dei," that is, we are most fully alive when we see God. He goes on to say that Christ, the Word of God, is the most perfect manifestation of the Father and gives life most fully to those who see God through this Word's manifestation.

5. The force of the expression, "the end gives us the reasons or notions whereby we can judge how human activities are ordered to that end,(5) should be noted. This points to Thomas' nature-based outlook that seeks moral-spiritual judgments by looking to natures of things and their finalities as well as the finalities of their actions. Later nominalism or conceptualism destroyed this intrinsicism and was forced to turn to the will of the lawgiver, to law, and hence to obligation as the basis of moral judgments, with the consequent development of casuistry as a prime tool in such judgments.

6. For this and what follows see ST 1-2.14: "On counsel" (consilium), which precedes "choice." For Thomas this act of taking counsel is done by the person as primary agent, investigating and judging what is to be done. Only in passing does he mention the usefulness of consulting others on the way to one's own decision.

7. See 1-2.19.3-4, and the remarks of T.-H. Deman in his "renseignements techniques" in Saint Thomas daikon: Somme théologique: La prudence, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1949) 496-506.

8. For Thomas on prudence see 2-2.47-56: q.52 here studies the Holy Spirit's gift of counsel. See the full commentary in Deman, quoted above.

9. This is a summary of several important articles in ST 2-2.1 & 2.

10. For more on this see my Faith, History, and Cultures: Stability and Change in Church Teachings, The Père Marquette Lecture, 1991 (Milwaukee: The Marquette University Press, 1991), and "Changing Church Teachings," Grail: An Ecumenical Journal 6 (September, 1990): 13-40.

11. The qualifications (quodommodo) are introduced by Thomas in this comparison to mark the difference between God's causality and conservation of be-ing (esse, actus essendi), in which there can be no instrumental cause, and the causality of the gifts of grace, in which Christ's humanity can play a part as instrumental cause. By what I like to call such a 'mental genuflection' before the mystery when he is applying analogical terms to God, Thomas is alerting his readers to the limitations of the comparison even while stating an important point about Christ's causality and necessary presence in the order of grace.


Baars, Conrad. "Christian Anthropology of Thomas Aquinas," The Priest 30/10 (October 1974).

Bultot, Robert. "The Theology of Earthly Realities and Lay Spirituality," in Concilium 19 (1966).

Lombard, Peter. Sententiae in IV libris distinctae. Ed. Ignatius Brady (Grottaferrata, 1971, 1981) 11, 239-40.