I just finished watching The Tender Bar starring Ben Affleck, Ty Sheridan, and Daniel Ranieri (among others) on Amazon Prime Video. Overall, I liked the movie with pretty good performances from a pretty good cast. But, at one point JR (Sheridan), the story’s protagonist and narrator, complains about having to read Aquinas in his studies at Yale, to which Affleck’s character, Uncle Charlie says:
“What? Thomas Aquinas. Needed to believe there was a God, so he offered the world concrete proof. If you didn’t believe his concrete proof, the Church would cut your nuts off. What are you worried about?”
While it is heartening to see that students at Yale in the mid-1980’s were still reading St. Thomas Aquinas, and that a Hollywood movie would see fit to mention this fact, as someone who has studied Aquinas, his ‘concrete proof,’ and the Church in which he served as a priest and teacher, I have to say that this comment fails to grasp how he distinguished proof from belief, and indeed the sense in which it could be said that he “needed to believe there was a God.” To begin with, Saint Thomas acknowledges that what can be known about God from natural reason alone “would only be known by a few [learned people], after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” (Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 1, a. 1). Neither Aquinas, nor indeed any churchman living during his time, would have thought failing to grasp (or “believe”) what was so difficult to attain would warrant any punishment, much less the need to “cut your nuts off.” And one “needed to believe there was a God” only to the extent that it would be a prerequisite to accepting the salvation that God offered.
Moreover, I do not believe that medieval authorities ever imposed the penalty of castration for religious-related crimes, nor that it would have been a crime to dispute the conclusions of a particular theologian’s arguments. Aquinas views were not well accepted in his own time, except by his Dominican confreres (and this was not universal), with some of his teachings even apparently being condemned by the Stephen Tempier, Archbishop of Paris in 1277, some three years after Aquinas’ death. As far as I know, no one has ever lost a testicle for having opposed Aquinas’ thought, which were very much opposed by some of his contemporaries, most notably Scotists.
But don’t get me started on the Scotists!
So if a Hollywood movie is going mention Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Church of the 13th century in the course of a coming-of-age story set in the waning decades of the 20th, the film’s producers should devote more than 18 seconds of their over 100 minutes to giving some context to the Angelic Doctor’s thought and provide some deeper understanding of philosophy and theology beyond demonstrating the dismissiveness that results from the autodidacticism of the proprietor of the films’ eponymous establishment.
C’mon! Why do we watch movies if not for accurate references to medieval philosophers and theologians?
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