October 28: House of cards

The emphasis Pope Francis places on mercy as the first of all virtues finds eloquent support in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Thomas thus explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues: ‘In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree.’”

The Pope has referenced the great theologian more than once before. In last year’s wide-ranging interview with his fellow Jesuit, Father Antonio Spadaro, he used Aquinas as the base of comparison.

“The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.”

The way the Pope makes a distinction, an hierarchical one, between St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thomists, between genius and decadence, reminds us of his own repeated attempt to draw attention to the essential aspects of the faith (and not be distracted by the other important but non-essential aspects). In the same section where he quotes Aquinas describing mercy as the greatest of all virtues, for instance, we also read this:

All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love. If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.”

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