Future Priests of the Third Millennium

A little insight into the life of seminarians from various dioceses preparing for ministry as Roman Catholic priests, including daily activities, personal interests, special events, the spiritual life, news from the seminary, and almost whatever comes to our minds!

Friday, February 20, 2009

John Paul II and Saint Thomas Aquinas

John Paul II was a man with a keen intellect, to be sure. This is evident in many of his writings as pope which I have often heard people call "dense." Not only that, his writings are usually quite long. I think of all of this because we are reading a text by John Paul II for our Liturgical Presidency II class - on Reconciliation and Penance.

I have often marveled at the thought of John Paul II. Many marvel at his integration of phenomenology and the existentiality of the person into Christian doctrine. I marvel at this, as well, but I am impressed more by his use of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Sometimes, it's a simple quotation on traditional matters and he cites Saint Thomas as an obvious source.

Other times, however, he seems to run into a wall in his thought and turns to Saint Thomas almost as a sure support - this was the case repeatedly in his pre-papacy work Love and Responsibility.

Yet other times, John Paul II uses the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas straight up, though giving it different terminology. (It is possible and/or likely that Saint Thomas was using the thought of others before him as well, but nonetheless.) He usually finds a way of accounting for most of what Saint Thomas teaches. The greatness, however, is that John Paul II finds a way to say things that are understandable to people today, though the understanding is centuries old.

Such is the case with Saint Thomas' notion of "synderesis." Let me quote both authors and exemplify my point.

Here is Saint Thomas Aquinas writing in his Summa Theologiæ (I, Q. 79, a. 12, "I answer that..." - don't spend too much time trying to figure it out; if you don't get it, just move on):

"Synderesis" is not a power but a habit; . . . man's act of reasoning . . . proceeds from the understanding of certain things--namely, those which are naturally known without any investigation on the part of reason, as from an immovable principle--and ends also at the understanding . . . Therefore we must have, bestowed on us by nature, not only speculative principles, but also practical principles. . . . Wherefore the first practical principles, bestowed on us by nature, do not belong to a special power, but to a special natural habit, which we call "synderesis". Whence "synderesis" is said to incite to good, and to murmur at evil, inasmuch as through first principles we proceed to discover, and judge of what we have discovered.

The key in Saint Thomas' words there is that "synderesis" is a habit: something we actively do and we do this "naturally," i.e., necessarily, continuously, unfailingly - so long as we have life.

Then we have our 1984 document (Reconciliation and Penance) from John Paul II which describes the same, but in more understandable language and without the specific word "synderesis" (paragraph 18):

This sense [of sin] is rooted in man's moral conscience and is as it were its thermometer. It is linked to the sense of God, since it derives from man's conscious relationship with God as his Creator, Lord and Father. Hence, just as it is impossible to eradicate completely the sense of God or to silence the conscience completely, so the sense of sin is never completely eliminated.

The point in both of these quotes is that man naturally and continually judges right from wrong in the basic choices of life: I ought to do good; I ought not lie; I ought not murder; I ought not steal; I ought not...

It is right to be thankful that men like John Paul II can re-explicate standard truths and solid theology. It makes it all the more evident that classical theology is yet valid today. It also makes it that much more important for those of us in the seminary and theology schools to study the classics because of their theological breadth, acumen and intricacy.

As John Paul II says later on in that same paragraph:

The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today. But the sense of sin can only be restored through a clear reminder of the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching of the church has always upheld.