The Dominican Story

II. Dominican Contributions to the Intellectual Life of the Church

by fr. Gregory Anderson, OP (

Over the 778 years of its existence the Dominican Order has made great contributions to the life of the Church. We can be proud of them, proud in the sense that we take pleasure and satisfaction in the accomplishments of our brothers and sisters. Its greatest contributions have been in the field of the intellectual life of the Church in the fields of theology, both dogmatic and moral, Scripture and Canon Law.

This tendency to the intellectul life goes back to our roots. St. Dominic grasped right from the beginning that preachers of divine truth had to be well trained in theology if they were to be effective. He did not want any of his men to get into the pulpit without knowing what they were talking about. One of the first things he did when the Order was just in its infancy was to take himself and his first followers to attend the lectures of Alexander Stavensby, an eminent English theologian who lectured at the Cathedral School in Toulouse. Lecturing was the method of instruction used by medieval university professors.

In 1217, one year after the founding of the Order, St.Dominic sent seven friars to Paris where there was a major university. He preferred to send his men to university centers, cities such as Bologna, Palencia, Montpellier and Oxford. As we have seen, he recruited many professors and students from those universities, men such as Jordan of Saxony, Raymond of Pentafort and Reginald of Orleans. As it turned out, most of the early members of the Order were men of university background and training.

In each house a lector was instituted to give lectures at which all the members were obliged to attend. Since Pope Honorius III gave to all priests of the Order faculties to hear confessions anywhere in the Church, the major subject was moral theology. To assist the lectors and students a number of books of moral cases were written. The best of these, and the one most widely used was one by St. Raymond of Pennafort.

In 1223, a remarkable young German, small in stature but gigantic in brain power, was drawn to join the Order by Jordan of Saxony. He was St. Albert the Great, one of the most extraordinary geniuses of all time. He had attended the University of Padua, the greatest center for the study of the natural sciences. There he was in his glory, for he had, since his early years, an insatiable curiosity about the world about him. He poked into and tried his hand at just about everything. Sister Jean Dorcy, O.P., in her book St.Dominic's Family, says:

He wrote on botany, astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology, georgraphy and meteorology; he made maps and charts and experimented with plants; he studied chemical reactions; designed instruments to help with navigation; and he made detailed studies of birds and animals. (page 87)

His greatest contribution to human knowledge, however, was to theology. Before his time, Christian theology was based on the philosophy of Plato or, following the leadership of St. Augustine, on Neo-Platonism. Strange to say, the philosophy of Aristotle had been forgotten and his works lost in Europe. They had been kept alive in Moslem countries, especially in Moorish Spain where many learned commentaries had been writen on them. In the early twelve hundreds Aristotle's works were once again becoming known in Europe.

Albert saw in Aristotle's philosophy a better and stronger basis for Christian theology and he hastened to take advantage of them. He utilized those translations from Greek into Latin that had already been made and commissioned the others from William of Moerbeke, a Dominican Greek scholar.. He also produced a series of commentaries on most of the writings of Aristotle along with works of his own. During all this time he was founding a Dominican House of Studies in Cologne, serving as Provincial of the German Province and, later on, as the Bishop of Ratisbon, a position he resigned after two years to return to the discipline of the Order. St. Albert, incidentally, was canonized by a Moto Proprio of Pope Pius XI. who named him a Doctor of the Church and made him the patron of natural scientists.

In 1243, a bulky, lumbering giant of a young man received the habit of the Order. He was Thomas Aquinas, the one who was destined to bring Albert's pioneering work to its fruition. He had studied under St. Albert at Cologne and they had become fast friends. Using Aristotle's principles he was able to synthetize the Church's teaching and the writings of the Fathers of the Church into one magnificent whole --- the Summa Theologica. His towering genius made such incredible contributions to the life of the Church, not only in theology, but in other areas such as poetry. We still sing his hymns to the Eucharist in the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He is so well known that we need not go into greater detail about him.

Albert and Thomas so completely dominated this period that other outstanding theologians, such as Roland of Cremona who died in 1259, Robert Kilwardby who died in 1280, Hugh of St. Cher who died in 1263 and others of their caliber are almost forgotten.

This tradition continued on into the next century with men who are too numerous to mention, although none of them are shining lights in the intellectual history of Europe. For the most part, they based their work on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and kept his principles alive and basic to the proclaiming of divine Truth.

The towering figure of the fifteenth century was St. Antoninus, the Archbishop of Florence, who lived from 1389 to 1459. His is one of greatest names in moral theology. In his Summa Moralis, moral theology came of age But there were many others who were deeply inbued with the theological spirit of the Order. Incidentally, it was during this century that Dominicans at the University of Salamanca developed the theories about the roundness of the earth that strongly influenced Columbus and it was a Dominican Archbishop that sponsored him at the court of Isabella and Ferdinand.

This same University of Salamanca produced a series of great Dominican theologians whose speciality was international law. The most outstanding of these was Francisco de Vitoria who is commonly recognized as the "Father of International Law." Associated with him was the distinguished scholar, Domingo Soto. Among their students were Melchoir Cano and Domingo Banez, who is chiefly remembered as being the confessor and advisor to St. Teresa of Avila in her work of reforming the Carmelite Order. Their works also greatly influenced the eloquent defense of the American Indians by Bartolome de Las Casas, one of the great names in Latin American history.

The giant of the century was Thomas de Vio Cajetan, born in 1468 and died in 1534. He was not only the greatest commentator on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, but a cardinal of the Church and the spokeman for the Pope in the discussions with Martin Luther. He almost won Luther over and Luther admired and respected him for the rest of his life.

The traditon kept rolling on into the seventeenth century with John of St. Thomas, also a distinguished commentator on the works of St. Thomas. It opened with Cajetan as Master which insured that the emphasis would still be on the intellectual life. Dominicans had a great deal to do with the decrees of the Council of Trent and, of course, Pope St Pius V was the moving force behind the implementation of its work. He was the one who issued the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Index of Forbidden Books and the revision of the Liturgy. He also declared St. Thomas a Doctor of the Church.

During this period, emphasis was more and more placed on the teaching of the doctrines of St. Thomas Aquinas in our Houses of Study. Dominican students for the priesthood to this very day study St. Thomas, pure and simple. We have seen inour own times a great number of distinguished Dominican theologians who have had a great influence on the thought of our day. Garrigou-Lagrange was the top theologian back in the twenties and thirties. In Moral Theology we studied Prummer and Merkelbach who were the authoritive moralists of the time -- and they are still good..

In more recent times we have produced men like Dominque Chenu, Yves Congar and Schillbecxk. Chenu and Congar especially made tremendous conributions to Vatican Council II. Just recently, Congar was elevated to the rank of Cardinal. Although he is now deceased, it was an honor that he richly deserved. At one time, he was silenced by the Holy See and could not publish or teach. He humbled accepted that and now he has been vindicated in wonderful way.

The tradition still continues. We still have our schools. The Angelicum in Rome is the finest theological institution in the world. Pope John Paul II got his doctorate there. Most provinces have their own houses of study, as our Western Dominican Province does --- The Dominican School of Philosphy and Theology. It has become the best philosophical and theological faculty in the country.

At present, Dominican scholars are emerging who will some day take their places with the great men of the past. In our province, we have men like Augustine Thompson, Aquinas Schenck and Robert Christian who are gaining an international reputation. So the tradition begun by St. Dominic himself has continued on down through the cenuries and is very much alive today.

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