From: St. Dominic and His Work, by Pierre Mandonnet, O.P.,
        Translated by Sister Mary Benedicta Larkin, O.P., B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis/London, 1948.

The Doctrinal Life and the Thomistic School

THE intellectual and scholastic activity of the Preachers was too intense not to exert a profound influence, within a short time, on the general trend in great doctrinal problems and a kind of final hegemony in the domain of philosophy and theology.

Two sorts of problems were uppermost in the schools and in Christian thought at the beginning of the thirteenth century: the philosophical and the theological problems. The introduction of the scientific treatises of Aristotle, along with those of Avicenna and Averroes, posited a twofold question regarding the use of their treasures for the advancement of the learning of the age and for the safeguarding of religious faith against certain of their dangerous theories: a twofold question that could be answered only by the building of a strong Christian philosophy. Theology, which had its chief source in the work of St. Augustine, had no unity in the first years of the thirteenth century. In the course of the preceding century it had been constituted materially as a body of doctrine; but the industry of individual theologians had only divided the ideas of the Bishop of Hippo into an ever-increasing number of opinions, without any attempt at a systematic unification. Such an achievement would be possible only through the medium of an established Christian philosophy. Of paramount interest for the doctrinal life of the Church, these were the fundamental problems which the Preachers were to solve with superior mastery.

It was not the first generation of Dominicans who achieved this; but, through their intense activity, they created the intellectual milieu in which was to unfold the genius of the two men whose names are forever connected with the doctrinal synthesis then effected by the Preachers: Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. The Dominican masters who taught first in the most important academic centers established by the Order had come out of the ranks of the secular professors at the universities of Paris, Bologna, and Oxford. Their scientific culture as well as their doctrinal ideas reflected what prevailed in the scholastic environment in which they had been trained, and whatever their personal power, they did not create a new philosophical or theological movement. Many of them have left an honorable name in the history of theology. We need only mention Roland of Cremona, Hugh of St. Cher, Peter of Tarentaise, at the University of Paris; Richard Fishacre and Robert of Kilwardby, at Oxford; Moneta of Cremona, at Bologna. Yet in their writings all these masters reveal the Augustinian tone which universally pervaded philosophical and theological thought during the first half of the thirteenth century.


Albert the Great (1206-80), by his encyclopedic works and the assimilation of ancient learning, opened a new way and placed at the disposal of Christian society the knowledge elaborated by the Greek, Latin, and Arabic world, after clearing away the errors that hindered its use in the schools of the time. He solved single-handed, provisionally at least, the problem of the expurgation of Aristotle proposed by Gregory IX in 1231. Thus he exercised upon his contemporaries and the thinkers of the late medieval world, a profound influence, sufficiently attested by the title early added to his name. Submerged in the vastness of his learning, however, Albert only partially rose above the ideas current with his contemporaries, and did not arrive at a powerful synthesis of his philosophical ideas. The merit of this was reserved to his disciple, Thomas of Aquin (1225-74), who, formed under his direction (1245-52) and rapidly initiated by the universal knowledge of his master in all the great philosophical and theological problems, created a Christian philosophy and theology which the Church still uses as the foundation of her official teaching.

The approximately seventy-five works, of varying importance, which came from the pen of Thomas Aquinas, were written in less than twenty years (1254-73). In their ensemble they treat of phi10SOPby, theology, and Sacred Scripture. The Summa theologica, the Summa contra Gentiles, the Commentaries on Aristotle, and the Disputed Questions, are the most important works. It is difficult to say which is the more astonishing, the short time in which so vast a work was executed, or the power of thought to which it bears witness. Out of the elements elaborated by his predecessors from ancient times, Thomas Aquinas constructed a philosophy, vast, unified, and stable. Upon this solid foundation, he revised the science of theology and endowed it in its turn with the qualities inherent in his philosophy. In Thomas Aquinas, clarity of expression, extent of erudition, critical sense, methodical spirit, finesse of analysis, and power of synthesis attained their highest development. Through this last quality, the power of synthesis, which was his genius, and through the creation of an incomparable metaphysics, Thomas Aquinas impressed upon his work its coherent force and its marvelous unity.

Even in his lifetime, the influence of Thomas was extensive and profound. Indeed, long before his death, his school was founded, and though it would encounter many obstacles in the course of the centuries, it came more and more to identify itself with the official teaching of the Catholic Church. The Sovereign Pontiffs who gave their patronage to the doctrinal work of Thomas when he taught at the Roman Curia never ceased praising and promoting a sacred science born at the foot of their throne.

The Thomistic school had a rapid development within and even without the Order of Preachers. In the early fourteenth century, St. Thomas had already received the title of Doctor communis, which bore witness to the general triumph of his doctrine. Nor was this rapid success realized without difficulty and opposition. Thomas Aquinas personally had been obliged to engage in keen strife against the lingering Augustinianism and antichristian Averroism. After his death the partisans of Augustinianism tried to take their revenge through the action of certain prelates who were more quarrelsome than prudent; witness the condemnation by Stephen Tempier at Paris (March 7, 1277), Robert Kilwardby at Oxford (March 18, 1277), and John Peckham at London (April 30, 1286). But the Order of Preachers withstood these adversaries like a wall of brass. From 1277 on, by its general chapters, it continued to recommend and protect the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas, and the disciples of the great doctor opposed all the attacks by their writings. In 1277, Giles of Lessines, and the young hermit of St. Augustine, Giles of Rome, disciple of Thomas Aquinas, defended the theory of their master on the unity of substantial form. About the year 1280, when the English Friar Minor, William de la Mare, attacked numerous points in the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas in his Correctorium fratris Thomae, Richard Clapwell at Oxford, Hugh of Billom and John of Paris in France, refuted him energetically.


General works in defense of the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas were undertaken at the beginning of the fourteenth century, such as the work of Robert of Bologna entitled Apologeticum pro S. Thoma, and that of Hervé of Nédellec, master of the University of Paris, and later master general of the Order, who began a vast study left unfinished, called Defensio doctrinae D. Thomae. Another series of polemical works more specialized in character was also started at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the next century by various Friars Preachers against several celebrated masters, who had either directly or indirectly opposed Thomistic doctrines. Thus it was that Robert of Hereford composed some controversial studies against Henry of Ghent and Giles of Rome; that Hervé of Nédellec entered the lists against the former of these theologians; and that Thomas of Jorz, professor at Oxford and later a cardinal, defended the Thomistic school against Duns Scotus. In a word, the Order of Preachers engaged in considerable literary activity to propagate and defend the teaching of its great doctor.

Though universally won to the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the Preachers were too numerous an intellectual group not to have some dissidents. The latter belonged for the most part to the Province of Teutonia, where the endurance of the teachings of Albert the Great and certain mystical tendencies lent a predilection for certain views which savored of Augustinian Neoplatonism and of the influence of pseudo-Dionysius. Such were Ulrich of Strasbourg (d. 1277), Theodore of Freiburg (d. about 1315), John Eckhart of Hochheim (d. 1327). In France, Durandus of St. Pourçain (d. 1334) was one of the most zealous opponents; but in his turn he bad an energetic adversary in his confrere, Durandus of Aurillac.

The canonization of St. Thomas Aquinas (1323) by John XXII gave a supreme consecration to the doctrines of the great theologian; for in the eyes of the Church, the doctrine of saints has always enjoyed an exceptional authority. Thenceforth the Thomistic school, by its intrinsic value and the position given it by the Holy See, found itself in the forefront of Catholic theological teaching.