In His Holiness’ most recent Wednesday Audience of 17 March 2010, Pope Benedict XVI continued his reflections on St. Bonaventure. In this, his third reflection on the Seraphic Doctor, Pope Benedict presented St. Bonaventure in conjunction with his contemporary, the Universal Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. Affirming that each of these medieval Masters contributed much to the development of the Church’s theological tradition, the Holy Father also points out a significant difference between the two theologians.
“A first difference concerns the concept of theology.” Pope Benedict stated, “Both doctors asked themselves if theology is a practical or a theoretical, speculative science.
The Holy Father spoke first of the Angelic Doctor, “St. Thomas' conclusion is: theology entails both aspects: it is theoretical, it seeks to know God ever more, and it is practical: it seeks to orient our life to the good. But there is a primacy of knowledge: we must above all know God, then follows action according to God (ST I, q.1, a.4). This primacy of knowledge in comparison with practice is significant for St. Thomas' essential orientation.”
St. Bonaventure, on the other hand, concluded that theology is neither properly practical nor theoretic, but is a sapiential science. The Holy Father explains this stating, “Wisdom seeks contemplation (as the highest form of knowledge) and has as its intention ‘ut boni fiamus’ -- that we become good, above all this: to become good (cf. Breviloquium, Prologus, 5).”
It should be noted, in addition, that the Common Doctor teaches: “This doctrine [i.e. theology] is wisdom (sapientia) above all human wisdom; not merely in any one order, but absolutely.” (ST I, q.1, a.6)
The Pope concluded, “Consequently, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure define in a different way man's ultimate destiny, his full happiness: for St. Thomas the supreme end, to which our desire is directed, is to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems find their solution: let us be happy, nothing else is necessary.
“For St. Bonaventure, man's ultimate destiny is instead to love God, the encounter and the union of his love and our own. This is for him the most adequate definition of our happiness.”
However, lest we should set these two Doctors at insurmountable odds, Pope Benedict cautions, “It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. […] To see God is to love and to love is to see. It is a question therefore of different accents in an essentially shared vision.”
Knowing and Loving God in St. Thomas
The Holy Father is careful to avoid over-emphasizing the difference between St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure, explicitly stating that the two activities of knowing and loving God are deeply united and essentially linked for both theologians
Because there is always the risk of St. Thomas appearing as a cold, cerebral and overly academic, the following will be of some help.
To understand St. Thomas’ doctrine of man’s beatitude and the supremacy of knowing over loving, we must look to question 3 of the prima secundae of the Summa Theologiae. In the fourth article of this question, St. Thomas asks, “Whether, if happiness is in the intellective part of the soul, it is an operation of the intellect or of the will?” The question amounts to this: Does happiness consist primarily in knowing or in loving God?
To this St. Thomas answers that happiness, as to its essence, is in the intellect and consists solely in knowing God. However, as to its proper accident, which is the delight which results from happiness, it is in the will. As the act of the intellect is knowing, while the act of the will is loving, it is clear that happiness consists essentially in knowing God (cf. ST I-II, q.3, a.4).
Yet, we might be surprised to read these words from the same St. Thomas: “The intellect can be compared to the will in three ways: (1) Absolutely and in general. In this way the intellect is more excellent than the will. (2) With regard to material and sensible things. In this way again the intellect is simply nobler than the will. (3) With reference to divine things, which are superior to the soul. In this way to will is more excellent than to understand, as to will God or to love him is more excellent than to know him. This is because the divine goodness itself is more perfectly in God himself as he is desired by the will than the participated goodness is in us as known by the intellect” (De Veritate, q.22, a.11).
Moreover, we may look to St. Thomas’ treatment of the gift of wisdom, recalling that he has already stated that the science of Sacred Doctrine (Theology) is wisdom in the highest degree. In ST II-II, q.45, a.4, the Angelic Doctor asks, “Whether wisdom can be without grace, and with mortal sin?” He responds that wisdom and mortal sin are incompatible, since the gifts presuppose charity.
We must recognize that, for St. Thomas, wisdom is the most exalted of the gifts of the Holy Spirit which are themselves the crown of the supernatural life. Thus, when he states that wisdom presupposes charity, that is, love of God, the Common Doctor emphasizes the close union between knowing and loving.
By the gift of wisdom, a man is able to judge well in regard to Divine things and also to order all else in light of the Divine rule. The wisdom of which St. Thomas speaks is not a mere cerebral knowledge but implies a certain con-naturality or union with the Divine things, which is the effect of charity (cf. II-II, q.23, a.5).
Thus, we can see that St. Thomas affords a certain precedence to the intellect without neglecting the importance of man’s will. While man’s happiness is essentially constituted by the vision of God, this vision is attained by reason of a union with him which is the proper effect of love.