Students of philosophy at Catholic universities after Aeterni Patris, the letter of Pope Leo XIII (Aug 4, 1879) that restored "Christian Philosophy in the Spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas," and before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), usually thought they knew the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas after course work in his writings. Vatican initiatives in the last quarter of the 19th century to restore the teaching of Aquinas to the center of Catholic thought, were part of wider efforts to rebut modern thinking and claims by means of a return to the medieval, if gothic, synthesis of faith and reason.
Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P. (1895-1990) grew up in the milieu stimulated by the return to original sources, the resourcement, of patristic, and medieval scholars, which included a renewed interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas in dialogue with modern authors, issues, and movements in science, philosophy, politics and economics. The "Introduction" by Paul Philibert, O.P. sketches Chenu's professional career, his 1920 doctoral dissertation in Rome, "A Psychological and Theological Analysis of Contemplation," and remarks on Chenu's colleagues in study, "Yves Congar, Pierre-Andre Liege, Edward Schillebeeckx, and later Gustavo Gutierrez." Chenu was regent of studies at Le Saulchoir, the Dominican house of studies in Paris from 1928 to 1942. Amid the efforts of theological renewal, Chenu's essay entitled, "Une Ecole de Theologie," was placed on the Index of forbidden books by the Holy Office, Feb. 6, 1942. No reasons were made public for the suppression of this work, but it probably was thought to be too close to ideas labeled "modernist." Congar said the work "examined the role of spiritual experience in the orientation of theology and also the value which the life of the church has as a locus theologicus."
What is remarkable about the Philibert translation of Chenu's 1959 work on Aquinas, is how it not only captures the sense of the original creative synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but also it places Aquinas in several historical contexts, the intellectual life of the University of Paris, which encouraged public debate of different theological views, the Gospel spirituality of the new preaching order of friars, the tensions between church and society in the middle ages, and the light of faith that inspired and guided the intellectual and theological achievements of Aquinas.
Chenu's book is divided into eight chapters. "1: The Friar Preacher" is about Aquinas' early life and similarities and differences among followers of St. Francis of Assisi, the Friars Minor, and followers of St. Dominic Guzman, the Friars Preachers. "2: Master in Sacred Theology" emphasizes that faith is the source of theology which employs many methods of understanding and explains the diverse roles teaching Friars demonstrated at the University of Paris. "3: The Contemplative" is one of the longest chapters and focuses on the characteristic gospel spirituality of the Dominicans, distinct from mysticism and exemplified in the life and teachings of Aquinas. "4:The Herald of a New Christianity" deals with the new forms of evangelism that challenged the limits of Aristotle, the errors of Averroes and other Islamic scholars, and works of Jewish, pagan, and heretical teachers whose works were examined and critiqued in this unique Christian intellectual climate. "5: Imago Mundi" explains alternative interpretations of Aristotle's "eternity of the world," the importance of understanding the material world of science and nature, and a realistic incarnational immersion in history opposed to a Platonic flight and escape from the world. This chapter insists on the unity of soul and body against all dualisms, from Plato, to Mani, Augustine to the Cathars, as the key for the integration of the interior life, a touchstone of the contemplative and intellectual spirituality of the Dominicans. It builds upon the prologue of the I-II of the summa theologiae which sets the moral and active life within the Neoplatonic context of emanation and return of the human person from God, back to God. "6: The Virtuous Life" concerns the moral life with focus on the intellectual and moral virtue of Prudence, what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical judgment. Addressing the "construction of social reality", Chenu places prudence at the heart of political leadership as well as the virtue of the citizen who uses "reasonable judgment in light of the common good." He distinguishes Dominican from Franciscan spirituality on a related point. "True love, even apostolic love, respects the order of things, the value of civic commitment, and the rhythms of history. Here Dominican theology distances itself from the spirituality based on "brotherhood" of the Friars Minor that eventually had repercussions on their institutions and apostolates because of its weak investment in moral institutions."
Chapters 7 & 8 are shorter than the rest. "7: The Fate of St. Thomas" addresses the condemnation of 219 theses by Bishop Tempier of Paris in 1277, three years after the untimely death of Thomas. The statements, broadly aimed at views of Aristotle and Averroes, touched a few positions of Aquinas. Aquinas was canonized a saint in 1323 and made a Doctor of the Church in 1567. "8: The Works of St. Thomas" is a brief catalogue of the variety of writings that make up Aquinas' canon. What James A. Weisheipl, O.P. composed as a 487 pg. encyclopedia in his study of Friar Thomas (1983), Chenu has capsulised in a six page summary and conclusion. Each chapter concludes with a variety of selected texts, usually gems from Aquinas, an excerpt from the Franciscan rule, a papal letter on the Dominicans, comments by Gilson, and Maritain. These sample texts form a mini source book for a student of Aquinas the churchman.
This new translation is beautifully edited with twenty-three illustrations, ten from the original Paris edition, the other thirteen added, I assume, by The Liturgical Press. Portraits of St. Thomas, his handwriting, churches, abbeys, and sculptured artifacts of medieval architecture speak to the creative, artistic vocation and writing style that humanized the solid research of M-D Chenu. The book has a timeline from 1200-1323 that highlights some of the cultural achievements of the thirteenth century. It has a "Bibliography of "Works of and about St. Thomas" which includes the major work of Chenu on Aquinas in English, and nine biographies of Aquinas in English. There are two indexes, one of "names", one for "subjects."
M-D Chenu has left us a wonderful introduction to St. Thomas with this little book, gracefully translated by Paul Philibert, O.P. It is not just for Dominican students, although it is steeped in the contemplative tradition of Gospel faith, an incarnational spirituality, and the ever present dialectic between nature and grace. It gently immerses the reader in the challenge to liberate the Gospel from the feudal economic system which was a real if unintended consequence of mendicant poverty and itinerant preaching and a context for Aquinas' monumental life work.
And there is Paris, where Albert, Thomas, and Marie-Dominique taught. In an age when Catholics question their universities, observe Chenu on the University of Paris. When Thomas was there, "Paris was the intellectual center of Christianity because of its accumulated resources, its teaching personnel, its international recruitment, its professional and pedagogical organization, its scholarly traditions, its technical superiority, its spirit of curiosity, and its creative inspiration. It was the domain par excellence of high culture. `The city of philosophers' Albert the Great called it-the new Athens"(18). In this context is it any wonder Chenu could say of theologians at the University of Paris or who assisted bishops, "[t]hey were professionals whose juridical title rightly comes from the university and not from the hierarchy. Magistri, the Masters in Theology, under these conditions, possess an official title to speak about faith and doctrine. They not only explain and interpret-activities that already pose some possibility of disagreement. While maintaining an orthodox fidelity to the gospel, they also construct the content of the faith in strikingly different expressions in order to articulate the implications of the relation of human beings and their world to the divine, to underline some particular aspect of divine mystery, and to balance in different ways all these factors." Did Chenu romanticize the University of Paris and the vocation of the theologian in the 13th century, or has some darkness enveloped the "Middle Earth" of theology since then?