St. Thomas Aquinas: a humble scholar who used reason to illuminate truth

If there were signs that Thomas Aquinas would become one of the church’s most brilliant thinkers, they unfolded gradually.

Thomas was born in 1225 into a family of means who lived near Aquino in the kingdom of Sicily. At the age of 5 he was sent by his parents to the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino where he was expected to follow his uncle into a monastic career, an honorable option for a fourth-born son whose older brothers all pursued military careers.

[ms-protect-content id=”1339,323,1059,1325,324,257,322,6459″]

At the age of 13, his parents sent him to the University of Naples where he began his formal education and, to his parents’ disappointment, was attracted to the Order of Preachers. He joined the Dominican order at the age of 19 and was ordained around the age of 27.

A quiet, humble and apparently heavy-set person, he did not immediately strike his professors or classmates as particularly smart; his nickname early on in Naples was “the Dumb Sicilian Ox.”

However, underneath his quiet demeanor was a superb mind which was particularly intrigued by the emerging effort in western theology which reclaimed the role of human reason in understanding truths exposed in revelation.

Proponents of this “scholastic” approach – later called “Thomism,” in honor of its most outstanding practitioner — realized that faith and reason were not contradictory sources of truth; they naturally complemented each other, the one capable of supplying what was lacking in the other.

In his published works, particularly his “Summa Against the Gentiles” and the “Summa Theologica,” Aquinas advanced by means of examining possibilities: posing a question, imagining the possible objections, and concluding with a reasonable solution which addressed the objections. This process of “faith seeking understanding” relied more on reasonable evidence than power or authority – in other words, it sought to convince reasonable people.

Aquinas is a reminder and a model of how to proceed in a culture where too many have abandoned hope in reasonable conversation, where so much public discussion is intentionally disconnected from truth, and where reason is too often held hostage to faith.

In a secular, pluralistic society, beset by so many different perspectives on what is reasonable, one does not have to accept the conclusions of Scholastic theology to appreciate the value of its process – advancing humbly and honestly toward reasonable possibilities measured in the end by what promotes human flourishing.

I think this is what James Martin means when he says the most impressive thing about Aquinas is not his intellect but the person he was: “an immensely learned man given to deep humility … the famously busy scholar who was not too busy to write a poem or a hymn … the active person whose life was rooted in prayer.”

What do you think?

Pray and Reflect

Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group discussion or private journaling:

  • On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate the degree to which you feel empowered to seek reasonable answers to controversial questions. How would you have rated yourself five years ago?
  • Can you think of a conversation in which you thought participants were truly seeking reasonable common ground? What made that conversation different from others? Are you learning to evaluate political claims based on how they contribute to the common good and human flourishing? How can we better prepare our children, grandchildren and students to participate in reasonable conversations that can distinguish facts from opinions?
  • I think “faith seeking understanding” means …

Learn More

Read Pope Francis’ message for World Communications Day:

Learn more about the “Doctors of the Church”:

 Join the Conversation

Add your comments to this week’s discussion at

Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. It is designed to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their role as disciples of Jesus Christ.


‘Discern the truth by its fruits’

To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. …

An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful.

We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.

Pope Francis, message for World Communications Day 2018.



The Witness has ceased publishing. The final issue was dated October 4, 2020.
Some Witness content from 2016-2020 is on this website.
Free access to all issues of The Witness from 1921-2020 is available through our digital archive at: