Thursday, May 7, 2009

John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas

Edited by Michael Dauphinais & Matthew Levering, 259 pages hardcover, Sapientia Press.

John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas is a collection of scholarly essays by different authors. It makes a very important contribution to the understanding of John Paul II's teachings. One writer in the book notes that the encyclical Evangelium vitae “with its biblically centered argumentation, draws upon Aquinas's theology of law at the very hinge of its discussion.”

Avery Dulles writes that in Love and Responsibility, John Paul's pre-papal book on sexuality, “From Aquinas he takes over the idea that love is ordered to that which is objectively true and good. He formulates a personalistic norm to the effect that one may never use other persons as means to an end...Wojtyla grounds this principle in the metaphysical insight that the person has inviolable intrinsic dignity.”

Dulles thus highlights the bridges that John Paul made between Thomism and personalism. This is important because central to Catholic thinking is the constant connection of its theology and traditional philosophical methods with modern ways of thinking. John Paul succeeded in tying a medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas, with a most modern philosophy.

Pope John Paul II was schooled in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and the centuries of development of the philosopher's thought, known as Thomism or neo-scholasticism. The pontiff was also schooled in more recent philosophy, especially personalism, which emphasized the importance and dignity of the human individual, though personalism often differs from Western individualism by often emphasizing spiritual values over materialistic ones.

Thus the late pontiff's writings are usually a mix of Thomism and personalism. He emphasizes the eternal, unchanging truths of the Church, in the style of Thomism, but applies these truths to the individual, and strives to show how they amplify the dignity of the person. His Theology of the Body is the best example of his mixture of the eternal truth with the individual human.

John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas reaquaints us with John Paul's major books and encyclicals by taking this philosophical reading of them. The book reviews and deepens our knowledge of writings that we think we've already digested.

Dulles writes of Veritatis splendor that it “invokes the authority of St. Thomas in maintaining that natural law is a participation in the eternal law of God...Although he speaks of natural law and divine law, he avoids all legalism. He accepts from St. Thomas the idea of natural law as the light of natural reason imprinted upon our minds by God.”

This book does more than unearth John Paul's links with Aquinas. It also places the late pope within the history of modern philosophy by discussing phenomenology, personalism, utilitarianism, Plato, and medieval scholasticism.

Michael Sherwin in his essay sums things up best: “John Paul did not speak of truth and freedom in only one way, but followed the Gospel of John in applying the terms analogically.”

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