An Introduction to Thomas Aquinas and Why He Pops Up in US Politics

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January 6, 2010 by Daniel Stack

I’ve done a lot of talking in this blog about health care, religion, and abortion. And one person I’ve been running into a lot in all these areas is Thomas Aquinas. Being a product of Catholic high school and still a Catholic, albeit a pretty liberal one, I learned the basics about him but not too much more. Of late I’ve begun educating myself further on him and it seemed a good time to write a little about him as his philosophy is one of the main building blocks of Catholic theology. I’d venture to say that the other major one would be the writings of Saint Paul.

Thomas of Aquin was an Italian priest of the Catholic church in the 13th century. He came from a fairly wealth family but he desired a life as a Dominican, embracing a life of poverty. His family kidnapped him and tempted him with prostitutes and offers of high clerical positions to no avail.

Thomas is best known for his Summa Theologiae (“Summary of Theology” – note that it should be Theologiae, not the more common Theologica– high school Latin may be over 20 years in the past, but I remember that much…) I’d be lying if I said I was intimately familiar with all five volumes of this 3000-page work (which was intended as a work for beginners). The Summa is intended to provide a brief proof for the existence of God, defining the characteristics of God and man, the reason there is something as opposed to nothing, definitions of good and evil, explaining why there is evil, the definition of the soul, different kinds of law, etc. Some serious topics there.

Despite its age, this work holds up remarkably well. Thomas’ proof of the existence of God is not something based on superstition or fear but an analysis of the universe, an analysis which is fully compatible (and in many ways almost seems to anticipate such things as Newton’s Laws of Motion, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, etc. There are some places where modern science has dented some of his arguments (for example, he makes a posit along the lines that given infinite time an infinite number of monkeys will produce the complete works of Shakespeare), but none of these dents really comes close to knocking down the pillars of his arguments.

One thing appealing about Thomist philosophy is it does not swing towards extremes but rather attempts to use common sense. For example, do actions justify the means? Thomas’ answer would be sometimes. For an action to be good it must have have a good object, circumstances, and end. For example if the object is killing, the circumstances and end are unlikely to permit the overall action to be good. But this is not absolute. For example, if the circumstance is someone is about to detonate a bomb that will kill thousands and as a result of stopping them thousands live, then the action is good. So Thomas avoids unbending absolutes, but it should be noted that for many objects the circumstances and end are difficult to meet.

For example, consider the Catholic idea of a Just War which uses Thomist philosophy. Thomas was not the first to detail such a concept, but his description of the criteria for a Just War led directly to the Catholic Church’s criteria. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that a Just War must meet four criteria:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

We can see the Thomist criteria for good in the above criteria. The object in this example is war. The first two bullets describe the circumstances. And the next two describe the effects. It’s not just sufficient to want to stop an evil nation. You have to have exhausted every practical non-violent way to stop the other nation. And not only must you have a very good chance of succeeding but you must succeed in a way that does not commit greater evils.

Thomas was also an advocate of following conscience – indeed it was an insistence. Following your conscience cannot be evil. But it is also contingent upon the practitioner to have an informed conscience. Willful ignorance to keep your conscience clean is sinful – the sinful act was that of the willful ignorance.

How has Thomas appeared in modern debate? Most commonly on the issue of abortion. Thomas, as did many others of his day, did not consider abortion the absolute evil that the Catholic church of today does. Why was that? Thomas asserted that while the fetus (a term he did not use) had a soul, it took time for the soul to become a human one. So while abortion might be wrong early in a pregnancy, it would not be tantamount to murder. The reason he believed the soul did not become human until later was that the soul needed the body to have the form of a human before it could be human. The modern church asserts that this occurs earlier than Thomas believed, that the fetus has the form of a human at conception (note that form in this instance does not refer to mere shape). It must be noted that in Thomas’ time it was believed that the male sperm would slowly transform menstrual blood into what would become a human. Dissenting Catholics argue that the transition to human form (and therefore human ensoulment) still takes time. Many Democratic Catholic politicians have hinted towards this viewpoint. With the never-ending debate about abortion (and whether it should be paid for with federal tax money) and the fact that Vice-President Biden and House Speaker Pelosi are both pro-choice Catholics, this viewpoint has been trickling back into the public debate.

The Catholic Church is absolutely opposed to this viewpoint. Specifically per the Catechism:

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.


2322 From its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a “criminal” practice (GS 27 § 3), gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life.

(For the record, while a Catholic I do have some issues with the Catechism but I’m trying to stick more to Thomist thought here and how it influences Catholic teachings and has appeared in US politics.)

While the most recent appearance of Thomist philosophy was on Biden’s and Pelosi’s views on abortion, the Just War doctrine I discussed earlier was applicable for the Iraq War, especially in the run-up to it. I find it regrettable that the Catholic Church did not speak out as strongly against Iraq War supporters as it does against pro-choice politicians. For example, I can think of no bishop announcing he would withhold Eucharist to a supporter of the Iraq War but such decrees are commonplace against pro-choice politicians. That said, both Pope John Paul II and American bishops spoke out against the war, both before and after the outbreak of war. Looking at the Just War Criteria one can see why:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain. It is certain that Iraq as a nation had in the past met this criteria with its war of aggression against Kuwait and use of chemical weapons against its own people. However whether the danger to the community of nations was grave was predicated on the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is clear that the United States was, at best, guilty of willful ignorance (and at worse guilty of deception).
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. There is closer to a case with this item. Iraq had proven adapt at avoiding weapons inspections. However, it is also clear there was a rush to war on a certain timetable after a new series of inspections was underway. Were all other means shown to be practical or ineffective? I believe we were almost at that point but we did not wait until that point was reached. This is debatable so there is room for wiggling.
  • there must be serious prospects of success. As far as direct success goes, this was a given. I’d argue we were not fully prepared to govern a conquered Iraq though I will cover that further below.
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. It is obvious that the United States was not prepared to administer Iraq in the aftermath. The months and years after the fall of the Hussein government were a mass of chaos. It is estimated that anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the Iraq war (depending on what survey you use). The evil to be eliminated was a non-existent weapons of mass destruction program.
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