Audio file

by Rev. Romanus Cessario, O.P.
Professor of Theology
St. John’s Seminary, Boston
Homily from St. Thomas Day 2015

The Church honors certain saints as her Doctors. Sometimes the Doctors, especially those from the medieval period, receive titles that reflect special features of their teaching. Saint Thomas Aquinas enjoys three such titles.1 They are: The Common Doctor, the Angelic Doctor, and the Doctor of Humanity.

Thomas Aquinas lives as the Common Doctor.2 Since the early 14th century, the popes have recognized that Aquinas’s instruction in theology and philosophy displays the capacity to serve the whole Church. The most recent example of this ecclesial confidence in the thought of Aquinas may be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Before the 20th century, we know that the Fathers of both Trent and Vatican I depended heavily on the thought of Aquinas. The title, “Common Doctor,” should be interpreted as a sign of the Church’s appreciation for preserving the unity of truth. This title should not evoke a partisan promotion of a particular saint, even of so great a thinker as Saint Thomas. A Common Doctor shares common truths. Common truths derive from the First Truth. As Aquinas points out in Summa theologiae Ia, q. 16, art. 5: “not only is truth in God but God himself is the supreme and original truth.” Ipse est summa et prima veritas. Because Catholic tutors and students are charged with preserving the common truth of the Church by their study of it and their insistence on it, they need a Common Doctor. The unity of Catholic faith also requires that those who study sound philosophy and orthodox theology help others to see things correctly, even when a certain amount of commotion may result. In this way, well-instructed Catholics honor Aquinas and, at the same time, contribute to building up the Church. They collaborate with the Good Shepherd: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).

Saint Thomas is called the Angelic Doctor. The best authors favor ascribing this title to Aquinas’s exquisite and lengthy treatise on angelic creation.3 The Dominican Pope, Saint Pius V, gave the title its canonical status when, in 1567, he proclaimed Aquinas a Doctor of the Church — the first one so designated after the patristic period. The title, Angelic Doctor, also recalls the admirable chastity of life that Saint Thomas practiced with what one may call burning zeal.

It is marvelous to behold the variety of approaches to virtue that the saints express. The great Carmelite Doctor and ascetic, John of the Cross, (while confined by his own confreres to a small cell) was forced to encounter a woman of easy virtue. The Doctor of Carmel proceeded to address the woman in warm and friendly terms with an eye toward converting her. Though she failed in her seductive mission, this woman left, so the story goes, happy.

Saint Thomas, on the other hand, when his blood brothers tried to dissuade him from becoming a Dominican by sending a harlot into the place of his castle confinement, famously picked up a burning brand from the fireplace and chased the poor lady out of his quarters. She left, one assumes, in a hurry... The painting on your chapel wall captures this moment. Then, angels came and girded Aquinas with a cord that remains to this day a symbol of his chastity and of his intercession for those who are less resolute in facing temptations than he. The Angelic Doctor comforts those who face the temptations that arise against their preserving chastity of life, whether they are married, single, a consecrated person, or a priest. Whichever of the three recognized vocations you choose, marriage, consecrated life, priesthood, you will find in Aquinas not only a model but an intercessor for your maintaining the chastity proper to your vocation. Celibate chastity eases the mind of the Catholic scholar so that he or she may easily remain faithful to the study of sacred truth. The chaste student appreciates best the common truths by which the Church lives. Unchastity, on the other hand, leads to the fragmentation of the human powers. It also promotes moral relativism.

We can thank Pope Saint John Paul II for giving Saint Thomas his third heavenly doctorate, one that suits modern sensibilities while at the same time it takes up the lessons publicized by the earlier titles of Common and Angelic Doctor: “‘Doctor Humanitatis’ is the name we give St Thomas Aquinas,” wrote the Pope, “because he was always ready to receive the values of all cultures.”4 Pope Saint John Paul II chose to introduce Aquinas as a Doctor who will instruct us about how to discover “the truth about the good of man.”5 Today, the Catholic laity needs the help of the Doctor Humanitatis in order to learn everything about the good of the human person. Otherwise, they will find that their efforts at evangelization will meet up with challenges that theology by itself cannot overcome. This doctoral title reminds the engaged Catholic of the importance that a sound anthropology holds within the new evangelization.

Truth. Virtue. Respect for Persons. These are the personal traits that distinguish the faculty and students of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula. Your heavenly patron, Saint Thomas Aquinas, assists your growing in each of these Christian qualities of life: Truth, the Common Doctor; Virtue, the Angelic Doctor; Respect, Doctor Humanitatis


1 See Pierre Mandonnet, “Les titres doctoraux de saint Thomas d’Aquin,” Revue Thomiste 17 (1909): 597-608. The inspiration for this homily comes from a talk that Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., delivered in Houston at the University of Saint Thomas in October 2013.

2 “Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI to the Rev. Vincent De Cousnongle, Master General of the Dominican Order, Marking the 7th Centenary of the Death of St Thomas Aquinas 20 November 1974,” no. 2: “ simul causes cupimus illustrare auctoritatis scientificae, quam Magisterium et Ecclesiae instituta ei tribuerunt, maxime autem bene multi Decessores Nostri, qui eidem nomen « Doctoris Communis » adicere non dubitaverunt, quod iam anno MCCCXVII est ei impertítum.”

3 Mandonnet, “Les titres doctoraux,” pp. 607-08.

4 28 January 1999, Apostolic Letter, Inter Munera Academiarum, of Pope John Paul II, no. 4.

5 See Veritatis splendor, no. 64.