Audio file

Commencement Address
By Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Archbishop of Vienna
June 8, 2002

(official text)


Cardinal Schonborn
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

I hope you have learned a lot at Thomas Aquinas College, and, above all, the one thing found in the heart of every happy Christian human life, namely, friendship. And that is what I would like to talk about – not only because I have learned in my own life that friendship is the most valuable of all goods, but because I am convinced that St. Thomas Aquinas made friendship the central point of all his theological works, by defining charity, doubtless the epitome of Christianity, as friendship. On what subject could a bishop, himself bearing the word friendship on his episcopal crest, speak more appropriately at Thomas Aquinas College than charity as friendship, according to St. Thomas Aquinas.

It is certainly not necessary to introduce St. Thomas Aquinas in this college. But I should like to share and weigh up some thoughts with you which have pursued me for many years. For I believe that the tractate on love in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologica is in a sense the key to the theology of the Summa as a whole. I believe that in this tractate, a focal point, all the great themes and motifs of Aquinas are gathered together. Naturally, in the short space of this address it is impossible to present the whole tract. But I should at least like to try to present some of the core thoughts of Question 23, devoted to the nature of charity.

St. Thomas begins his tractate on charity immediately with the question whether this is friendship. Following his usual method, he starts with objections to this assumption. As ever, when St. Thomas tackles a major theme, these have some weight. He deliberately seems to present the counter-arguments as strongly as possible, in order to make his reply clearer and better founded. (Dear students, you have certainly learned a lot about this method, not making the opponent seem bad and small, but putting his arguments forward as strongly and cogently as possible, thus emphasizing the seriousness of the battle for truth. St. Thomas never felt it necessary to do down those who thought differently to himself, for he was convinced that the light of truth shines brightly enough to prevail.)

For Thomas, it is self-evident that charity is the center and the epitome of Christian life, for the commandments to love God and one's neighbor are the heart of the law and hence the will of God. But that love is friendship is anything but self-evident. Can there be friendship between God and man, if a characteristic of friendship is to live together with one's friends? We should love God, but to have friendly relations with God is not simply the way things are, and is not self-evident.

The second objection also sees friendship as a narrower concept than that of love. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. So we can love them, but we cannot live in friendship with them. The third objection follows a similar approach. I can indeed love sinners with the love of God. But can I therefore also already share friendship with them?

The objections aim to show that friendship is something more limited than love. Love knows no limits, it spreads to God and all humankind. Friendship, on the other hand, is only possible with people similar to ourselves and those to whom we are bound by good will.

The core argument for the thesis of St. Thomas is found in the parting words of Jesus at the Last Supper, when the Lord says to the Twelve: "I no longer call you servants . . . instead, I have called you friends"(John 15:15). I chose these words of Jesus as my episcopal motto at my consecration: "Vos autem dixi amicos." The reason the Lord called his apostles "friends" is, according to Thomas, purely and simply his love. Thus love, as given by Jesus to his disciples, proves to be friendship.

The following argumentation in the main part of the first article for me is one of the greatest and most beautiful texts in all the theology of the Summa. With a few strokes, not only is his teaching on friendship sketched out, but the ultimate goal of all the ways to salvation is seen in building up a friendship between God and man. Let us look a little at the lines of argument.

Thomas had already asked the question in the Prima Secundae whether love (amor) is properly and appropriately divided into love of friendship and love of concupiscence (amor concupiscentiae). For Thomas deals first with love under the aspect of passion (passio) as the basic form of the passion of desire (concupiscibilis). He had already clarified in Question 26, Art. 4 of the Prima Secundae that love which is friendship is undoubtedly superior to love which is desire. For desire relates to something that I want. But in the love of friendship, it is more a matter of the good that I desire for another. Love is better realized when I wish for the good of another, rather than for myself.

Article 1 of Question 23 proceeds from this question. Thomas begins by quoting the farewell speech (John 15:15): "I will not now call you servants . . . but my friends." But what kind of friendship is Jesus speaking of and giving to his friends? The "Philosopher," (that is, Aristotle), provides the clue.

Not every love, he says, has the character of friendship. For love to constitute friendship it must have the quality of benevolence (benevolentia). As long as we desire something only for ourselves, this is a kind of concupiscence. If it is said that someone loves wine, it would be ridiculous to maintain that this was friendship. The wine is not loved for itself, but because of the joy it gives me. Thus Thomas also excludes the possibility of friendship between a man and a horse. (However, I am not sure if he read the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis thoroughly enough – otherwise he would have written differently about the friendships of boys and horses!)

The crucial element, however, is not benevolence, for friendship exists only when there is mutual benevolence, since "friendship is between friend and friend," and this well-wishing is founded on real communication. We all know the painful experience of how friendships can fade when they are not constantly nourished by the mutual exchange of conversation and meetings.

But can there really be a mutual exchange between God and man? Is not the distance between God and man infinite, and hence insurmountable? It is precisely this which forms the most profound conviction of Christian faith, that God really conveys something of himself to us, and furthermore has given himself to us in his Son and the Holy Ghost. God really communicates his life to us, and so there is a true mutual community.

More specifically: thus it is possible to build up a friendship on the basis of this present of God's communication, fundari amicitiam ("build up a friendship"). If there is a phrase that sums up the entire Summa Theologica, it is in my opinion fundari amicitiam. God wishes to build up a friendship with his creation. The whole way of human Christian life has its deepest sense in the building of friendship with God. And the entire ethics of communication between men is summed up in this idea of building friendship.

You will remember, dear students, how important the prologue to the second book of the Summa is. It is there that man's whole path is presented under the aspect of man's likeness to God. Man is made in God's image and he is therefore called upon to realize this image by moving freely towards his goal. In the sense of this prologue we can specifically say that the whole sense of human life is in realizing this image through friendship with God. And Thomas immediately shows that this building of friendship has a very concrete place: community and hence friendship with Jesus Christ. In him, God has fully communicated with us humans. Thus it is a matter of building friendship with God in a concrete way, as friendship with Jesus Christ, who came to the world to make us his friends.

In the following, we shall have to consider how in fact all of St. Thomas's lines of thought come together and blend in this fundari amicitiam. Before we turn to this major complex of questions, let us briefly look at the answers St. Thomas gives to the three Objections.

First, it is true that at least in the life of the body there is no direct community with God. But there is indeed such community in the spiritual life. For our life is now hidden with Christ in God, as the Apostle says (Col. 3:3). Thus we already have community with God, though incomplete, and which will be perfected in the divine vision of God.

As regards the second Objection, St. Thomas here already justifies the possibility of loving one's enemies. There can be no friendship with an enemy; this is possible only between friends. But in a certain way, the friends of my friends also become my friends, even if they are not directly to my taste. If friendship links us to God, then resulting from this friendship we also love those for whom God did not hesitate to make the gift of his Son, even if they are our enemies.

As regards the third Objection, the same as above applies also to love for sinners. Even if direct friendship with them seems inappropriate, the love God has for them (and for us, as we are also sinners) is sufficient reason to regard them with God's love and in this light to love them with the love of friendship.

This first basic article of the tractate on charity provides us with the essential tag, fundari amicitiam. Let us now examine the character of friendship between God and ourselves, how it can grow and develop fully.

In the second Article of Question 23, the teaching on charity as friendship between God and man is radically deepened. The point of departure is the statement by Peter Lombard, the Master of the Sentences, that charity is not something created in the soul, but the Holy Ghost himself dwelling in the mind. In other words, God himself is charity within us. Because of its greatness and overwhelming significance, charity cannot be something that is created, but must itself be divine, God himself. At a first glance this appears very pious and sublime, but Thomas makes it clear that in this way charity is not increased but is basically diminished. How?

If the Holy Ghost within us were himself charity, this would not be an act or habit (habitus) of man. For it would not be up to us, a matter of our will, to show charity; it would not be we who were loving, but God would be loving himself within us. Here we come upon a central point of St Thomas's picture of man, from which lines proceed to all areas of man's life. Charity would not be charity, would not be friendship, if it did not proceed from man as an act of will and reason. If we were moved to love, so to speak, as a passive tool in the hand of the craftsman, then this would not be charity, for, as the first Article showed, if love is friendship, then an essential part of it is that it is mutual.

But in this respect God enables us by communicating himself, making it possible for us to build a friendship with him. Thomas formulates this thus: To love God with charity, we need an ability which transcends our natural powers, which makes us, so to speak, connatural with God, allowing us really to love him and to be linked to him by friendship.

The expositions by St. Thomas in the second Article are models of his method, too, from which we can learn much. Only very infrequently will we find polemics in Thomas. He always attempts to present strongly the arguments of those whose views he does not share. Since he is concerned with truth and the utmost objectivity, he seeks to find the grains of truth even in very different positions to his own.

This is abundantly clear in this Article. As a young professor he wrote a commentary on the Sentences of Master Peter Lombard, which was the standard textbook at the time in the university. So he presents the thesis of the Master with respect. Equally respectful is the way in which he corrects his position: "When someone regards the matter correctly, then it follows (from the position of the Master) that it is rather damage which ensues for charity." And as regards St. Augustine, whose tradition the Master follows, Thomas cautiously says that to speak in this way (that is, to identify charity in man with God himself), was the usual way the Platonists expressed this idea, and that Augustine had been impelled (imbutus) by Platonic teachings. This had led to many errors, which Thomas here corrects, respectfully, but clearly.

Let me conclude these brief observations on Question 23 by drawing two conclusions which I would like to propose to you as graduates, and indeed to all of us.

First, your college bears the name of St. Thomas Aquinas. Not only does this make us pledge our allegiance to St. Thomas, defending his views as polemically as we can against all other possible points of view. We approach the thinking and virtues of St. Thomas to the extent that the search for truth moves us so seek for traces of it everywhere.

St. Thomas could never have integrated Aristotle so strongly if he had not been convinced that Christ, the Eternal Word, is that truth which illuminates all mankind. Wherever the light of truth is to be found, there one should question, listen, and gratefully welcome the truth that shows itself. This in turn means always being ready for the sake of truth to reveal error and to refute it. But both the welcoming of truth and the refutation of error require a great willingness to communicate. St. Thomas, in his incomparable way, carried on a dialogue with all the masters of the past and the present. There is no surer guide to a Christian culture of dialogue than St. Thomas.

Second, our Question 23 also provides, so to speak, the anthropological and theological basis for this truly Christian-humanist attitude of St. Thomas. Let us recall once more: there can only be friendship when there is genuine mutuality in freedom: mutuus amor, mutua inhaesio, genuinely with each other and in each other.

The great thing about St. Thomas' image of God is that he sees God not only as the First Cause, but also as so powerful and great as to be able to give his creatures the power themselves to be causes and to be able to act, not just passively reacting to the highest principle, to the First Cause.

Today it is particularly topical and important to study carefully St. Thomas' relationship to Islamic philosophy, especially that of Averroes. St. Thomas fought with all his might against Averroes' teaching that God was the sole cause. God is not made great by the fact that his creatures are kept small. His true greatness is shown not in the total helplessness of his creatures, but in his enabling them themselves to act as a cause.

The consequence of this view is the entire breadth of the Catholic view of secondary causes, of relative autonomy in profane areas of action. I think it can be shown that the scientific culture of strongly Christian countries is related to this view of creatures themselves having their effect. It could further be demonstrated how the western understanding of participation and democracy grew from this. The effects of Christian humanism are particularly clear in the areas of human dignity and human rights.

Of course, one should also discuss the potential dangers of this humanism which emerge whenever the dependence of secondary causes on the First Cause is denied, where the autonomy of mankind and the world overlooks that it is dependent creation, and claims an independence it does not actually possess.

I think there is no better way to study this paradox and to take it to heart than St. Thomas's tractate on charity as friendship: the paradox of freedom as a present from God to mankind, a mutuality between the Eternal and ourselves, a genuine friendship between HIM, the infinite, and ourselves, his mortal creatures.

A lot more could be said, about matters I can only touch on here! But I am sure, dear graduates, that the studies you are now ending in the College of St. Thomas Aquinas, will have brought home to you the marvellous flavour of this Christian humanism. You have learnt that it is really possible in Jesus Christ, to build a friendship, fundari amicitiam, with God and hence with each other. So today, thank God, your families, and your college, with all your hearts.