Seminarians at St. Joseph’s College Seminary major in Philosophy, and their studies extensively cover the two greatest influences of Catholic Theology – St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
God’s Grace Swooping Down
Augustine, a fourth century Bishop, spent a rebellious childhood avoiding his mother’s Christian influence. As a young man he even joined Manichaeism, a religion which encouraged a hedonistic lifestyle. It is said that his devout mother, St. Monica, rejected him in righteous anger over these actions. But after a vision, she reconciled with him. Her greatest wish was to see her son become a Christian, and she spent seventeen years tearfully begging God for his conversion. Through her persistent prayer, God’s grace eventually broke through to Augustine’s hardened soul. He chronicled his story of conversion in the classic, “Confessions of St. Augustine.”
As a priest, Augustine spent four decades living an austere lifestyle that was a complete change from his wayward youth. He advocated for education, and he fought tirelessly against harmful ideologies, especially Manichaeism and the schismatic Donatists. His writings helped to solidify the Church’s teaching on the doctrines in question at the time, such as original sin, the importance of grace, the Holy Trinity, free will and predestination, and what constitutes a just war.
Heavily influenced by the works of Plato, Augustine’s philosophy explored the hierarchy of the spiritual to the physical. Because of his own experiences during his sinful youth, Augustine had a tangible understanding of God’s grace, reaching down to elevate humanity from its concupiscence.
Man’s Mind Looking Up
St. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, grew up quite piously during the 13th century. When he wanted to join the poor, young Dominican order, his family abducted him and sent a prostitute to his room in an attempt to sway him from his vocation. Thomas never succumbed to their tactics, however, and scared the woman from his room by grabbing two burning logs from the fireplace to form a cross. Eventually, his mother “allowed” him to escape one night, and he pursued his vocation.
Thomas was a large man, and not very sociable. He was often lost in thought, which made him an absent conversationalist. Mistaking his silence for stupidity, his classmates nicknamed him the Dumb Ox. This nickname is now ironic, as it refers to one of the most brilliant minds in all of Church history. Throughout his life, Thomas wrote key documents of Church teaching, most notably, the Summa Theologiae.
Heavily influenced by the works of Aristotle, Thomas sought to reconcile the human-based approach to understanding with Divine Revelation. At the time, it was believed that all higher knowledge came from God, but Thomas was fascinated by the fact that the pagan Aristotle could use reason to explore intricate sciences and even uncover information about the human soul. In his extensive writings, Thomas used this logic-based reasoning to defend key truths of the Faith. In the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII positioned Aquinas’ writings as the basis for seminarians’ education.
For St. Joseph College seminarians, studying these great philosophers covers two poignant approaches to theology. Augustine teaches us the awe of God coming down to sanctify man, while Aquinas starts with the proper understanding of man and how that leads us up to God. Centuries later, both of these great thinkers are forming the base of a solid, orthodox foundation for our future priests.