“If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably heard of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s theological masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae. This work has fed the minds of over 700 years of Catholic thinkers, and at least two popes have written laws to enshrine it within the syllabi of seminary professors (see the Code of Canon Law, can. 252 §3). With an import that is vast and perennial, the Summa has become one of the most important texts of Christian literature.
You probably have heard of the Summa, but do you know why Aquinas wrote it?
When St. Thomas began his work on the Summa Theologiae, he did not set out to write a timeless classic. Rather, he intended to meet a specific need of his own era (see Jean-Pierre Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, 142–145).
During the 1260s, the Roman Province of the Dominican Order had a problem. Its intellectual life was in a sad state because the Roman friars had lost their ardor for study. Regrettably, many of them had forsaken the reading of sacred books. As a result, the preaching of the friars was beginning to run theologically dry, lacking the robust doctrinal character appropriate to the Dominican charism. Despite years of exhortations and commands from the Dominican powers-that-be, the friars had been unable to do anything to remedy the situation.
In 1265, the Dominican Order tasked St. Thomas with founding a center of studies at its Roman headquarters—Santa Sabina (Ed. one of my novitiate classmates, who could not sing, became Prior of Santa Sabina in Rome and Prior Provinical of the Eastern Province US). Select friars from throughout the Province would be sent to study there, with the hope that they would spread the intellectual zeal from this one house to the province’s other Dominican priories when these friars were sent out for further missions. As the assigned leader of this project, Aquinas was in charge of creating the program of theological formation that would be implemented at this new theological center.
To do this, he set to work charting a course of studies for the students of this new studium. In the process of writing and rewriting his courses, Aquinas produced a synthetic and doctrinally robust textbook for the theological formation of preachers and confessors: the Summa Theologiae.
As we now know, the Summa’s impact far surpassed Aquinas’s original, modest intentions. He had set out to provide for a particular need of his own time, namely, the revival of his province’s intellectual life. But his work far transcended the needs of the Roman Dominicans in the 1260s. For St. Thomas’s writings took on a transgenerational influence, fueling the intellectual zeal of the Church on a universal scale. The local need for a doctrinally rich textbook for beginners that Aquinas’s Summa met was also a need experienced by the whole Church.
St. Thomas did not begin this work with a view to producing a perennial masterpiece. His focus, rather, was on providing for the needs of his age. But God used Aquinas’s solicitude for a particular, local need to meet a need experienced by the whole Church throughout time.”