Happy Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelic Doctor

Today, January 28, marks the annual celebration of the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, source, inspiration and patron of the Thomistic Philosophy Page. Saint Thomas was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Saint Pius V in 1567, and over the centuries, the Church has conferred on Saint Thomas three doctoral designations: the Angelic Doctor, the Common Doctor and the Doctor of Humanity (the last conferred by Pope Saint John Paul II). Thomas Aquinas College continues to make available a homily by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P, in which he admirably elucidates these three titles and the propriety of ascribing them to Saint Thomas.

His title of the Angelic Doctor is certainly, if somewhat ironically, the most commonly used (instead of Common Doctor). I allude to two reasons for his designation as Angelic in an essay I wrote about Thomas’s teaching on Angels, which surprisingly has become the second most popular essay (after one on Natural Law) on the Thomistic Philosophy Page in the last three years (when I have had access to accurate site traffic data):

The fact that Saint Thomas is called the Angelic Doctor is not due to his cherubic physique alone. Rather, he spent a considerable amount of space in the Summa Theologiae, among other places, discussing the nature, activities and moral state of angels. Often, he would use the nature of the angels to illuminate the nature of human cognition by referring to angels as the extreme of what is possible for an intellectual nature to be. He also discusses them for their own sakes, but all the time keeping his remarks bound by the limits of the definitive teaching of Sacred Scripture, and by the rigors of consistent thinking.

As I say, this essay on Angels is surprisingly popular, and it is linked to by some rather theologically suspect sites. But Thomas’s equally surprisingly lengthy and lucid treatment of angels can, perhaps, remind or introduce to those who seek in angels spirituality without or apart from the God of Spirit, the One who created these spiritual being. His treatment of angels, too, may disabuse people (even functionalists) of the belief in some kind of “spiritual matter” of which angels are supposedly composed. This ill-conceived belief, it seems to me, was really a source of consternation to the Angelic Doctor, since he devotes considerable space and energy to refuting the idea throughout his career, starting in the early work On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia). I recount some of Saint Thomas’s reasoning about the bodilessness of angels in responding to a question submitted to me on Resurrected Bodies and Angels.

Another reason for the Church conferring on Saint Thomas the title Angelic Doctor comes from his life-long and extraordinary purity, and the manner by which he was blessed with such admirable and ardent chastity:

At about the age of nineteen, Thomas joined the Dominican Order, the Order Friars Preachers. His noble family was not pleased with this choice, however, since the friars, with their extreme poverty and itinerant lifestyle, were not held in very high esteem. When his mother set out for Naples in order to retrieve Brother Thomas from the clutches of the Dominicans, the friars sent him to Rome, but Thomas was captured by his brothers, soldiers in the Imperial Army.

Angels girding the young Brother Thomas

He was taken to a family castle and imprisoned for nearly two years as his family tried to dissuade him from carrying through his resolution to continue as a Dominican. His brothers even sent a prostitute into his cell, but Thomas drove her away with a burning brand he took from the fire, and drawing a cross on the wall in charcoal, knelt in prayer imploring God to free him of such temptation.

After acting in this way to preserve his chastity, two angels visited him and bound him with a blessed cincture which preserved him from temptations of lust throughout the rest of his life. 

His Dominican brothers discovered at his death the relic of the cord that Saint Thomas received from the angels and which he wore his whole life, and afterward they displayed it for veneration by the faithful to implore Saint Thomas’s intercession in resisting temptations to lust and for aid in growing in chastity.

Eventually the Angelic Warfare Confraternity grew out of these pious devotions, and it enjoyed varying degrees of popularity and support over the centuries. Today, all Dominican provinces, at least in the US, encourage this devotion and enrollment in the confraternity, especially among young people who are beset by such temptations on the internet, and many of whom suffer from addictions of this kind. I think this is a very good legacy of the Angelic Doctor, but I am astonished that the devotion of the Cord of Angelic Warfare, as it sometimes called, is so enthusiastically promoted by the Order of Preachers. When I was a novice in the Order almost 40 years ago, an older friar who was teaching us the history of religious life openly mocked the devotion, and I was certainly never encouraged to enroll in the confraternity (which I think must have been inactive at the time), though my superiors obviously did try to instill chastity in us who were in formation, but through more ‘enlightened,’ psychologically-informed means. I think prayer and penance, though, are indispensable in achieving self-mastery, in addition and as a means to mental integration and maturity.

There are, then, ample reasons Saint Thomas Aquinas is the Angelic Doctor, from his philosophically informed theology of spiritual substances (angels), to the angelic assistance he received in living a life of cherubic chastity. Sanctus Thomas Aquinatis, ora pro nobis.

Published by Joe Magee

I earned my PhD in 1999 and published my dissertation in 2003. I invented the Variably Expanding Chain Transmission (VECTr) which was patented in 2019 (US 10,167,055).

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