Soon after his election as Pope, John Paul II expressed himself unequivocally concerning the notion of actus essendi.
On Saturday, 17 November 1979, John Paul II returned as Pope to his Alma Mater, the “Angelicum”, where he had been a student from 1946-1948. He went to the Angelicum to speak at the conclusion of an international congress, organized by the International Society of St. Thomas Aquinas, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pope Leo Xlll's Encyclical “Aeterni Patris”.
Here are the words of the Holy Father. (Full Text)
Esteemed Professors and very dear Students!
1. It is with a feeling of deep joy that I find myself once more, after no short space of time, in this hall. It is well known to me because I entered it so many times as a student in the years of my youth when I also came from far away to the Pontifical Athenaeum “Angelicum” to deepen my knowledge of the teaching of the Common Doctor, St. Thomas of Aquin.
Since then the Athenaeum has grown significanly. It has been raised to the rank of a Pontifical University by my venerated predecessor, Pope John XXIII; it has been enriched by two new Institutes: to the already existing Faculties of Theology, Canon Law and Philosophy there have been added those of Social Sciences and the Institute “Mater Ecclesiae” which has the aim of preparing future “Teachers of the Religious Sciences”.
I take note with pleasure of these signs of vitality in the old stock which shows that fresh streams of sap flow through it. Thanks to these it can satisfy, through its new scientific institutions, the cultural needs as they gradually show themselves.
The joy of today's encounter is notably increased by the presence of a select group of learned exponents of Thomistic thought who have come here from many places to celebrate the first centenary of the Encyclical Aeterni Patris, published on the fourth of August 1879 by the great Pontiff Leo XIII.
This gathering, promoted by the “International Society of St. Thomas of Aquin,” links up ideally with that held recently near Cordoba in Argentina, on the initiative of the Catholic Argentinian Association of Philosophy, in order to commemorate the same event by inviting leading representatives of present-day Christian thought to exchange views on the theme: “The Philosophy of the Christian Today.”
This present meeting, more directly concerned with the figure and the work of St. Thomas, while doing honour to this celebrated Roman centre of Thomistic studies where one can say that Aquinas lives “as in his own home,” is an act of recognition due to the immortal Pontiff who played so great a part in reviving interest in the philosophical and theological work of the Angelic Doctor.
2. I would like, therefore, to extend my respectful and cordial greeting to those who have organized this meeting: in the first place to you, Reverend Father Vincent de Couesnongle, Master of the Dominican Order and President of the “International Society of St. Thomas of Aquin”; with you I greet also the Rector of this Pontifical University, Reverend Father Joseph Salguero, the distinguished members of the Academic Staff, and all those speakers, noted for their competence in Thomistic studies, who have honoured this meeting with their presence and enlivened its sessions by sharing their store of knowledge.
I would also like to offer my affectionate greetings to you, students of this University, who give yourselves, with eager generosity, to the study of philosophy and theology as well as of the other useful auxiliary sciences, taking as your guide St. Thomas to whose thought you are introduced by the enlightened and earnest efforts of your professors.
The youthful enthusiasm with which you approach Aquinas with the questions which your sensitivity towards the problems of the modern world suggest to you, and the impression of luminous clarity which you gain from the answers which he gives to you in his own clear, calm and sober way, afford the most convincing proof of the inspired wisdom which moved Pope Leo XIII to promulgate the Encyclical whose centenary we are celebrating this year.
3. It cannot be doubted that the chief aim which the great Pontiff had in mind in taking that step of historic importance was to take up again and to develop the teaching of the First Vatican Council on the relations between faith and reason. As Bishop of Perugia he had played a most active role in that Council. In the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, in fact, the Conciliar Fathers had given special attention to this theme of burning actuality.
When treating of “faith and reason” they were united in opposing those philosophical and theological trends which had been infected by the then rampant rationalism. Taking their stand on Divine Revelation, as passed on and faithfully interpreted by preceding Ecumenical Councils, as clarified and defended by the Holy Fathers and Doctors of both East and West, they had declared that faith and reason, far from being opposed, could and should meet in a friendly way (cf. Ench. Symb. DS: 3015-3020; 3041-3043).
The persistent and violent attacks of those who were hostile to the Catholic faith and to right reason induced Leo XIII to re-affirm and to develop the teaching of Vatican I in his Encyclical. Here, having recalled the gradual and ever growing contribution made by the leading lights of the Church, both in the East and in the West, to the defence and progress of philosophical and theological thought, the Pope turns to what St. Thomas did by way of deep penetration and of synthesis.
In words which should be quoted in their flowing classical Latin he has no hesitation in pointing to the Angelic Doctor as the one who carried rational research into what faith makes known towards results which have proved to be of lasting value: “Thomas gathered their doctrines together — they had long lain dispersed like the scattered limbs of a body — and knitted them into one whole. He disposed them in marvellous order and increased them to such an extent that he is rightly and deservedly considered the pre-eminent guardian and glory of the Catholic Church.
"Again, beginning by establishing as is only right, the distinction between reason and faith, while still linking each to the other in a bond of friendly harmony, he maintained the legitimate rights of both, and preserved their respective dignities in such a way that human reason soared to the loftiest heights on the wings of Thomas and can scarcely rise any higher, while faith can expect no further or more reliable assistance than such as it has already received from Thomas” (Leonis XIII, Acta, vol. I, pp. 274-275; English translation, J.F. Scanlan, in: St. Thomas Aquinas, Angel of the Schools, by J. Maritain, London, 1933, Appendix I, pp. 204-206).
4. Statements as weighty as these call to commitment. To us, heeding them a century later, they above all offer practical or pedagogical guidance; for, in so speaking, Leo XIII wanted to set before teachers and students of philosophy and theology the highest ideal of a Christian dedicated to research.
Well then, what are the qualities which won for Aquinas such titles as: “Doctor of the Church,” and “Angelic Doctor,” awarded him by St. Pius V; “Heavenly Patron of the Highest Studies,” conferred by Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Cum hoc sit of 4 August 1880, that is, on the first anniversary of the Encyclical we are celebrating (cf. Leonis XIII, Acta, vol. II, pp. 108-113)?
The first quality is without doubt his complete submission of mind and heart to divine Revelation, one which he renewed on his death-bed, in the Abbey of Fossanova, on the seventh of March 1274. How beneficial it would be for the Church of God if also today all Catholic philosophers and theologians followed the wonderful example of the “Doctor communis Ecclesiae”!
Aquinas treated the Holy Fathers and Doctors with the same reverence, in so far as they bear common witness to the revealed Word, so much so that Cardinal Cajetan did not hesitate to write — and his words are quoted in the Encyclical: “St. Thomas, because he had the utmost reverence for the Doctors of antiquity, seems to have inherited in a way the intellect of all” (In Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 148, a. 4 c; Leonis XIII, Acta, vol. I, p. 273; ScanIan, loc. cit, p. 204).
The second quality, one which has to do with his excellence as a teacher, is that he had a great respect for the visible world because it is the work, and hence also the imprint and image, of God the Creator. Those therefore who sought to accuse St. Thomas of naturalism and empiricism were mistaken.
“The Angelic Doctor”, we read in the Encyclical, “considered philosophical conclusions in the reasons and principles of things, which, as they are infinite in extent, so also contain the seeds of almost infinite truths for succeeding masters to cultivate in the appropriate season and bring forth an abundant harvest of truth” (Leonis XIII, Acta, vol. I, p. 273; Scanlan, p. 205).
Lastly, the third quality which moved Leo XIII to offer Aquinas to professors and students as a model of “the highest studies” is his sincere, total and life-long acceptance of the Teaching Office of the Church, to whose judgment he submitted all his works both during his life and at the point of death. Who does not recall the moving profession of faith which he wished to make in that cell at Fossanova as he knelt before the Blessed Eucharist before receiving it as his Viaticum of eternal life!
“The works of the Angelic Doctor”, writes Leo XIII once more, “contain the doctrine which is most in conformity with what the Church teaches” (ibid., p. 280). His writings make it clear that this reverential assent was not confined only to the solemn and infallible teaching of the Councils and of the Supreme Pontiffs. An attitude, as truly edifying as this, deserves to be imitated by all who wish to be guided by the dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium (n. 25).
5. These three qualities mark the entire speculative effort of St. Thomas and make sure that its results are orthodox. It is for this reason that Pope Leo XIII, wishing to treat “of the method of teaching philosophical studies in such a way as shall most duly correspond with the blessing of faith and be consonant with the respect due to the human sciences themselves” (Leonis XIII, Acta, vol. I, p. 256; Scanlan, p. 190), looked principally to St. Thomas as “leader and master of all the Doctors of the Schools” (ibid., p. 272).
The immortal Pontiff recalled that the method, the principles and the teaching of Aquinas had, down the centuries, been especially favoured not only by learned men but by the supreme teaching authority of the Church (cf. Encycl. Aeterni Patris, loc. cit., pp. 274-277). If today also, he insisted, philosophical and theological reflection is not to rest on an “unstable foundation” which would make it “wavering and superficial” (ibid., p. 278), it will have to draw inspiration from the “golden wisdom” of St. Thomas in order to draw from it the light and vigour it needs to enter deeply into the meaning of what is revealed and to further the due progress of scientific endeavour (cf. ibid., p. 282).
Now that a hundred years of the history of thought have passed we are able to appreciate how balanced and wise these appraisals were. With good reason, therefore, the Supreme Pontiffs who succeeded Leo XIII, and the Code of Canon Law itself (cf. can. 1366, par. 2) have repeated them and made them their own.
The Second Vatican Council also, as we know, recommends the study and the teaching of the perennial philosophical heritage, of which the thought of the Angelic Doctor forms a notable part. (In this connection I would like to recall that Paul VI wanted an invitation to attend the Council to be sent to Jacques Maritain, one of the best known interpreters of Thomistic thought, intending also in this way to signify his high regard for the Master of the Thirteenth Century and for a way of “doing philosophy” that is in keeping with the “signs of the times”).
The Decree on priestly formation (Optatam Totius), before it speaks of the need for teaching to take account of modern trends in philosophy, especially of “those which are most influential in the homeland of the candidates,” requires that "philosophical subjects should be taught in such a way as to lead the students gradually to a solid and consistent knowledge of man, the world and God। The students should rely on that philosophical patrimony which is forever valid” (n. 15; Vatican Council II, ed. A. Flannery, O.P., Dublin, 1975, p. 718).
In the Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis) we read: “By a careful attention to the current problems of these changing times and to the research being undertaken, the convergence of faith and reason in the one truth may be seen more clearly.
This method follows the tradition of the doctors of the Church and especially St। Thomas Aquinas” (n. 10; Flannery, p. 735). The words of the Council are clear: the Fathers saw that it is fundamental for the adequate formation of the clergy and of Christian youth that it preserve a close link with the cultural heritage of the past, and in particular with the thought of St. Thomas; and that this, in the long run, is a necessary condition for the longed-for renewal of the Church.
There is no need for me to reaffirm here my intention to carry out fully what the Council has laid down, since I made this quite clear already in the homily which I delivered on 17 October 1978, shortly after my election to the Chair of Peter (cf. AAS, 70,1978, pp. 921-923) and several times afterwards.
6. I am very pleased, then, to find myself this evening among you, who fill the halls of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, drawn by his philosophical and theological teaching, just as great numbers of students from various nations surrounded the chair of the Dominican friar in the thirteenth century when he taught in the universities of Paris or of Naples or in the “Studium Curiae”, or in the House of Studies of the Priory of Santa Sabina in Rome.
The philosophy of St. Thomas deserves to be attentively studied and accepted with convictions by the youth of our day by reason of its spirit of openness and of universalism, characteristics which are hard to find in many trends of contemporary thought.
What is meant is an openness to the whole of reality in all its parts and dimensions, without either reducing reality or confining thought to particular forms or aspects (and without turning singular aspects into absolutes), as intelligence demands in the name of objective and integral truth about what is real. Such openness is also a significant and distinctive mark of the Christian faith, whose specific countermark is its catholicity.
The basis and source of this openness lie in the fact that the philosophy of St. Thomas is a philosophy of being, that is, of the actus essendi (1) whose transcendental value paves the most direct way to rise to the knowledge of subsisting Being and pure Act, namely to God. On account of this we can even call this philosophy: the philosophy of the proclamation of being, a chant in praise of what exists.
[(1) For the translation of the expression actus essendi, see the translator's note below.]
It is from this proclamation of being that the philosophy of St. Thomas derives its ability to grasp and to “affirm” all that shows itself to the human intellect (what is given by experience, in the widest sense) as a determinate existing being in all the inexhaustible richness of its content; that it derives its ability, in particular, to grasp and to “affirm” that “being” which is able to know itself, to be filled with wonder in itself, and above all to decide for itself and to fashion its own unrepeatable history.
St. Thomas is thinking of this “being” and of its dignity when he speaks of man as that which is “the most perfect thing in the whole of nature” (perfectissimum in tota natura: S. Th. I, q. 29, a. 3) a “person”, requiring that it must be given exceptional and specific attention.
This says all that is essential with regard to the dignity of the human being, even though much more still remains to be investigated in this field, one where the contribution of modern trends of philosophy can be helpful.
It is also from this affirmation of being that the philosophy of St. Thomas draws its power to justify itself from the methodological point of view, as a branch of knowledge that cannot be reduced to any other science whatever, and as one that transcends them all by establishing itself as independent of them and at the same time as bringing them to completion in regard to their true nature.
Moreover, it is by reason of this affirmation of being that the philosophy of St. Thomas is able to, and indeed must, go beyond all that presents itself directly in knowledge as an existing thing (given through experience) in order to reach “that which subsists as sheer Existing” (ipsum Esse subsistens) and also creative Love; for it is this which provides the ultimate (and therefore necessary) explanation of the fact that “it is preferable to be than not to be” (potius est esse quam non esse) and, in particular, of the fact that we exist.
“This existing itself”, Aquinas tells us, “is the most common effect of all, prior and more intimate than any other effect; that is why such an effect is due to a power that, of itself, belongs to God alone” (Ipsum enim esse est communissimus effectus, primus et intimior omnibus aliis effectibus; et ideo soli Deo competit secundum virtutem propriam talis effectus: QQ. DD. De Potentia, q. 3, a. 7, c).
St. Thomas puts philosophy moving along lines set by this intuition, showing at the same time that only in this way does the intellect feel at ease (as it were “at home”) and therefore it can never abandon this way without abandoning itself.
By maintaining that the proper object of metaphysics is reality “in so far as it is being” (sub ratione entis) St. Thomas pointed to that analogy which accompanies being as such, finding there the justification of the method for forming propositions dealing with the whole of reality and with the Absolute itself.
In so far as methodology is concerned it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this discovery for philosophical research, as indeed also for human knowledge in general.
There is no need to stress the debt owed to this philosophy by theology itself, since it is nothing other then “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum) or the “understanding of faith” (intellectus fidei). Not even theology, then, can abandon the philosophy of St. Thomas.
7. Is it to be feared that by favouring the philosophy of St. Thomas one will undermine the right to exist that is enjoyed by different cultures or hinder the progress of human thought?
Such a fear would clearly be groundless because the methodological principle invoked above implies that whatever is real has its source in the actus essendi; (1) and because the perennial philosophy, by reason of that principle, can claim in advance, so to speak, all that is true in regard to reality.
[(1) For the translation of the expression actus essendi, see the translator's note below.]
By the same token, every understanding of reality — which does in fact correspond to reality — has every right to be accepted by the “philosophy of being,” no matter who is to be credited with such progress in understanding or to what philosophical school that person belongs.
Hence, the other trends in philosophy, if regarded from this point of view, can and indeed should be treated as natural allies of the philosophy of St. Thomas, and as partners worthy of attention and respect in the dialogue that is carried on in the presence of reality.
This is needed if truth is to be more than partial or one-sided. That is why the advice given by St. Thomas to his followers in his “Letter on how to study” where he said: “look rather to what was said than to who it was that said it” (Ne respicias a quo sed quod dicitur), is so much in keeping with the spirit of his philosophy.
That is also why I am so pleased that the programme of studies in the Faculty of Philosophy in this University offers, besides the theoretical courses dealing with the thought of Aristotle and of St. Thomas, other courses such as: Science and Philosophy, Philosophical Anthropology, Physics and Philosophy, History of Modern Philosophy, the Phenomenological Movement, as required by the recent Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana for Universities and Ecclesiastical Faculties (AAS 71, 1979, pp. 495-496).
8. There is still one more reason why the philosophy of St. Thomas has enduring value: its prevailing characteristic is that it is always in search of the truth. In his commentary on Aristotle, his favourite philosopher, he writes: “Philosophy is not studied in order to find out what people may have thought but in order to discover what is true” (De Coelo et Mundo, I, lect. 22; ed. R. Spiazzi, n. 228; “Sudium philosophiae non est ad hoc quod sciatur quid homines senserint, sed qualiter se habeat veritas”).
The reason why the philosophy of St. Thomas is pre-eminent is to be found in its realism and its objectivity: it is a philosophy “of what is, not of what ppears,” (de l'etre et non du paraitre). What makes the philosophy of the Angelic Doctor so wonderfully apt to be the “handmaid of faith” (ancilla fidei) is that it has gained possession of truths of the natural order, which have their origin in God the Creator, just as truths of the divine order have their source in God as revealing.
This does not lessen the value of philosophy or unduly restrict its field of research; on the contrary, it allows it to develop in ways that human reason alone could not have discovered. Hence the Supreme Pontiff Pius XI of holy memory, issuing the Encyclical Studiorum Ducem on the occasion of the Sixth Centenary of the Canonization of St. Thomas, did not hesitate to declare: “In honouring St. Thomas something greater is involved than the reputation of St. Thomas, and that is the authority of the teaching Church” (In Thoma honorando maius quiddam quam Thomae ipsius existimatio vertitur, id est Ecclesiae docentis auctoritas; AAS 15; 1923, p. 324; English trans. Scanlan. loc. cit., p. 238).
9. St. Thomas, because his “reason was enlightened by faith” (Vatican Council I. Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, ch. 4: DS. 3016), was in fact able to throw light also on problems concerning the Incarnate Word, “Saviour of all men” (Prologue to Part III of the Summa Theologiae).
These are the problems to which I referred in my first Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, in which I spoke about Christ as “Redeemer of man and of the world, centre of the universe and of history. . . the chief way for the Church” for our return “to the Father's house” (nn. 1, 8, 13).
This is a theme of the highest importance for the life of the Church and for Christian science. Is not Christology perhaps the basis and the first condition for working out a more complete anthropology such as is required by the needs of our day? We must not forget that, in fact, it is Christ alone who “reveals man fully to himself” (cf. Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).
St. Thomas has, moreover, shed the light of reason, purified and elevated by faith, on problems concerning man: on his nature as created to the image and likeness of God, on his personality as worthy of respect from the first moment of his conception, on his supernatural destiny as found in the beatific vision of God, One and Three.
On this point we are indebted to St. Thomas for a precise and ever valid definition of that which constitutes man's essential greatness: “he has charge of himself” (ipse est sibi providens; cf. Contra Gentiles, III, 81).
Man is master of himself, he can make provision for himself and form projects towards fulfilling his destiny. This fact, however, taken by itself, does not settle the question of man's greatness, nor does it guarantee that he will be able, by himself, to reach the full perfection of personality.
The only decisive factor here is that man should let himself be guided, in his actions, by the truth; and truth is not made by man; he can only discover it in the nature that is given to him along with existence. It is God who, as creator, calls reality into being and, as revealer, shows it forth ever more fully in Jesus Christ and in his Church.
The Second Vatican Council, when it speaks of this self-providence of man “in so far as it involves knowing what is true” (sub ratione veri) as a “kingly ministry” (munus regale), goes to the heart of this intuition.
This is the teaching which I set out to call to mind and bring up to date in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, by drawing attention to man as “the primary and fundamental way for the Church” (n. 14).
10. I must add one last word at the end of these reflections which, of necessity, have to be brief. It concerns the thought with which Leo XIII ends his Aeterni Patris, “Let us follow the example of the Angelic Doctor,”,(Leonis XIII, Acta, loc. cit., p. 283) is what he advises.
That is what I also repeat this evening.
This advice is indeed fully justified by the witness which he gave by his manner of living and which gave force to what he said as a teacher. He had indeed the technical mastery befitting a teacher, but, prior to this, his manner of teaching was that of a saint who lives the Gospel fully, of one for whom love is everything: love of God, the primal source of all truth; love of one's neighbour, God's masterpiece; love of all created things, for these also are precious caskets full of the treasures which God has poured into them.
If we look for the driving force behind his commitment to a life of study, the secret urge which led him to consecrate himself through a total dedication, we find it in his own words: “All things issue from charity as from a principle, and all things are ordered towards charity as to an end” (A caritate omnia procedunt sicut a principio et in caritatem omnia ordinantur sicut in finem: In John, XV, 2).
And in fact the huge intellectual effort of this master of thought was stimulated, sustained and given direction by a heart full of the love of God and of his neighbour. “The knowledge of what is true is given by the fervour of love” (Per ardorem caritatis datur cognitio veritatis; ibid., V, 6).
These words could be taken as his motto. They allow us to perceive, behind the thinker able to rise to the loftiest heights of speculation, the mystic accustomed to go straight to the very fountain of all truth to find the answer to the deepest questionings of the human spirit. Did not he himself tell us that he never wrote anything nor gave class unless he had first had recourse to prayer?
One who approaches St. Thomas cannot set aside this witness which comes from his life; he must rather follow courageously the path traced out by him and bind himself to follow his example if he would wish to taste the most secret and savoury fruits of his teaching. This is the burden of the prayer which the Liturgy places on our lips on his feastday: “O God, since it was by your gift that St. Thomas became so great a saint and theologian, give us the grace to understand his teaching and follow his way of life.”
This is also what we ask from the Lord this evening, as we entrust our prayer to the intercession of “Master Thomas” himself, a master who was deeply human because he was deeply Christian, and precisely because he was so deeply Christian was so deeply human.
The text of this Address appeared in the following publications:
1. In Acta Apostolicae Sedis, no. 15, vol. LXXI, 30 November 1979, pp. 1472-1483, in the original Italian.
2. In Angelicum, vol. 57, fasc. 2, 1980, pp. 121-132, in the original Italian.
3. In Angelicum, vol. 57, fasc. 2, 1980, pp. 133-146, English translation.
4. The translation given above appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, 17 December 1979, pp. 6-8.
Reference: Pope John Paul II, “Address at the Angelicum,” 17 November 1979.
The following translator’s note accompanies the L’Osservatore Romano English Weekly Edition translation.
(1) (Translator's note). No literal English rendering could convey the meaning which this technical Latin expression [actus essendi] - or its equivalent esse ut actus - had for St। Thomas, and presumably retains for Pope John Paul.
It does not refer to the mere fact of existing, of “being there,” especially if this is taken in a spatial or temporal sense.
The meaning of the Latin esse is not properly expressed by the infinitive “to be”, for this may refer only to the function of the copula in a proposition.
Nor is the abstract term “existence” adequate, for we are dealing with the most concrete of all realities.
“Actual existing”, or “actual, be-ing”, come closer to the meaning intended; but to avoid the connotation either of “existence” or of “being” which can be taken in a substantive sense, it might be advisable to coin the active and concrete word “is-ing”.
What St. Thomas has in mind is the most actual of all actualities, the most perfect of all perfections, the inmost principle and source of all the actuality, perfection, reality, and indeed also of the knowability, of anything that is.
It is esse in this metaphysical sense which makes anything be, and be real; it is the immediate source of the reality and perfection of all things.
This may help the reader to appreciate the Pope's insistence on this insight, so central in the thought of St. Thomas, and the implications which he draws from it in nn. 6 and 7 of his discourse.
(L’Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, 17 December 1979, pp. 6-8.)