Matt C. Abbott
February 9, 2014
From Catholic to atheist to Catholic scholar
By Matt C. Abbott

The following is an email interview I conducted with Kevin Vost, Psy.D., author of The One-Minute Aquinas, among other books. Thanks to Dr. Vost for taking the time to answer my questions in such a thoughtful and thorough manner; and to Aja M. McCarthy of Sophia Institute Press for facilitating the interview. (Click here to order a copy of The One-Minute Aquinas directly from the publisher.)



MCA: What inspired you to write The One-Minute Aquinas?

Dr. Vost:
I'd like to say it was the Holy Spirit, though I'm a little wary, having seen the response that some other author's similar comment has had in the news recently. In a sense though, I believe it is true. In his encyclical Aeterni Patris, On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy, (1879), Pope Leo XIII wrote that among people who claim reason as their only guide, nothing "after the supernatural help of God," could heal them of their unbelief and restore them to their Catholic Faith more than "the solid doctrine of the Fathers and the Scholastics." He wrote as well, that "far above all other Scholastic Doctors towers Thomas Aquinas, their master and prince." Well, the pope definitely had me pegged.

I was raised Catholic, and in my late teens, through the writings of atheists and agnostics as diverse as bodybuilder Mike Mentzer, psychologist Albert Ellis, and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Ayn Rand, I was persuaded to believe that the idea of God was self-contradictory, and that the universe was getting along just fine without him. I regretted my loss of faith, but believed in truth, and honestly could no longer believe in God. I stayed in the atheistic wilderness for 25 years until a series of events in 2004 lead me to read St. Thomas Aquinas's own writings for the first time at the age of 43. I've heard that when Charles Darwin first read Aristotle, he said that though Linnaeus and Cuvier had his "gods," he found they were "mere school boys to old Aristotle." So, too, when I read St. Thomas, I found that my gods of atheism were mere schoolboys, and a schoolgirl, (Rand), to old St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas's writings on the existence of God and God's attributes dissolved all of what I thought were the irrefutable arguments of the atheists. His writings on the nature of man and human psychology floored me, as a Doctor of Psychology, by their utter profundity. Within a matter of weeks I was back to Christ and the Church. I'd remembered in doing master's and doctoral research on memory improvement methods that St. Thomas was discussed in secular books as a profound influence on the development of those techniques. It occurred to me to write the book Memorize the Faith! to show modern-day readers exactly how to use those methods to memorize key information about the faith, from the 10 Commandments to every book of the Bible, in their exact order. That was in 2006, and in the next seven years I wrote another seven books about memory, health and fitness, the virtues, and the lives of great saints, all heavily influenced by the ideas of St. Thomas.

When giving talks I'm frequently asked to recommend books introducing the writings of St. Thomas, since so many people find his own writings daunting because of their philosophical and theological terminology. Well, I recalled reading Mortimer Adler's Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy, and figured the world was ready for something like that for St. Thomas. There are scads of wonderful books on St. Thomas out there already. One of my favorite leisure pursuits is devouring them. Still, I thought I could contribute by writing a book that would highlight the most fascinating and practically useful ideas from all 38 treatises of his masterpiece, The Summa Theologica, in less than 300 pages, using the simplest language possible. Charlie McKinney at Sophia Institute Press agreed, and within one year, with the help of my editor, Duncan Maxwell Anderson, The One-Minute Aquinas was reduced from potency to act. (I mean, we finished it.)

MCA: It seems the only time a dissenting Catholic will cite St. Thomas is during a debate about abortion – specifically, when ensoulment takes place. How would you respond to this controversy?

Dr. Vost:
Yes, and it's a shame they don't cite him regarding so many other issues instead. It's like St. Thomas has paved a 3,000 mile road to understanding and they focus their attention on one of the only potholes. First off, that "pothole" is in no way a blessing on abortion. St. Thomas's writings contain no endorsements of abortion and no mention of intended abortion, in fact, the whole issue of abortion is only mentioned in two places in the Summa Theologica, and in the contexts of other issues:
  • In II-II, Q. 64, a. 8, explicating Exodus 21:22, St. Thomas concludes that a man who strikes and kills a woman with child commits homicide whether the woman or the child dies.

  • In III, Q. 68, a. 11, buttressing his argument with Romans 3:8, he concludes that, because we may not do an evil in order that a good may result, if an unborn child is in danger of death it is wrong to kill the mother so that the child could be baptized, but that if the mother dies first, it is proper to open the womb to baptize the child.
Clearly, these passages provide little material for "Pro-Choice" posters or bumper stickers, and his writings on "ensoulment" (the point in development at which God infuses the human soul) don't provide much fodder either.

St. Thomas did not hold the Church's later fully developed teaching that the fully human soul is made present by God from the instant of conception, due largely to the very limited knowledge of human embryology and complete lack of knowledge of genetics in the 13th century in which he lived. In regards to biology, St. Thomas relied heavily on the writings of Aristotle. As rational and brilliant as both men were, not all of their arguments were based on sound facts, and indeed, in some of his writings, when using illustrations from astronomy, for example, St. Thomas wrote that scientific theories accepted in his day could well be found wrong and changed in the future. I am absolutely aligned with modern Catholic thinkers who would not question for one second that had St. Thomas our current knowledge of human biology, for example, of the fact that the newly formed embryo has DNA contributed by both parents, but distinct from that of either of them, he would have been the staunchest of defenders of life from the instant of conception.

Do those who use St. Thomas' writings about the time of ensoulment to argue for abortion argue along with him, for example, that male souls are infused at 40 days, female souls at 90 days, or that the semen of the male is the sole active cause of the developing fetus?

St. Thomas was not infallible, though he did know who was: "The Universal Church cannot err, since she is governed by the Holy Ghost, Who is the Spirit of Truth" (ST, II-II, Q. 1, a. 90).

Further, it is extremely unlikely that St. Thomas would find himself in any dissident camp laying siege to the teachings of the pope. In the words of St. Thomas regarding the pope, to him belongs "authority which is empowered to decide matters of faith finally, so that they may be held by all with unshakeable faith. Now this belongs to the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, to whom the more difficult questions that arise in the Church are referred" (ST,II-II, Q. 1, a. 10). St. Thomas, the Dissident?

MCA: What about St. Thomas's understanding of the Immaculate Conception versus magisterial teaching? Was it simply a matter of doctrinal development?

Dr. Vost:
I address this issue briefly in The One-Minute Aquinas. The Church did not formally define this dogma until 1854. So, in the 13th century, it was quite a legitimate and important issue for theologians to grapple with, even though it made them susceptible to a fall. They all held the greatest devotion to Mary, yet they would brook no possible challenge to Christ's role as Redeemer.

Among great saints who did not espouse the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, (though they did not deny that God, at some point, saved Mary from sin), were Thomas's predecessors and contemporaries: Saints Bernard, Bonaventure, and Albert the Great. The doctrine developed over time, with special contributions of Duns Scotus, to recognize that Blessed Mary's redemption by Christ was a matter of preservation and prevention from sin. In other words, Christ redeemed Mary not by picking her up after her fall into sin, but by his same salvific merits preventing her fall in the first place.

One of the greatest 20th century Thomists, Father Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, in his book Mother of the Savior, argues there were three periods in Thomas's positions on this issue. Early on, in his commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences, Thomas wrote that Mary was immune from original and actual sin. Later, in writing the Summa Theologica, he argued that her sanctification did not occur before her animation or ensoulment, though he did not address the issue of whether it could have occurred at the instant of her animation. Finally, in the last years of his life, in his Sermons on the Angelic Salutation, he wrote that Mary incurred neither original, nor mortal, nor venial sin. While some argue about the authenticity of the text of these sermons, I think the main point in this issue is again to remember that even the greatest of human minds is not perfect and does not have all the answers. Blessed John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, said that St. Thomas Aquinas was "a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology." He did not say he got every single issue right!

Hear St. Thomas himself on the development of articles of faith, comparing it to the progress in knowledge: "The master, who has perfect knowledge of the art, does not deliver it all at once to his disciple from the very outset, for he would not be able to take it all in, but he condescends to the disciple's capacity and instructs him little by little. It is in this way that men made progress in the knowledge of faith as time went on" (ST, II-II, Q. 1, a. 8). When it comes to Christ and his Church, even St. Thomas, the greatest of teaching masters, was still but a student travelling on the long path toward unfolding truth – as are we.

MCA: What do you think readers will find most interesting about your book?

Dr. Vost:
Well, I don't mind if readers judge The One-Minute Aquinas by its cover, because I think it is a lot of fun. Other things I hope they will find interesting are lots of summary charts that cull out important ideas from the body of the text and make their relationships more understandable and memorable. I do that for topics like the way Thomas portrayed the powers of the human soul, the functions of the senses and the intellect, the relationship between the virtues, the five ways to prove God's existence, the relationship between the sacraments and the virtues, the hierarchies and functions of the angels, etc. I'm curious as well to see what readers will think of the unique star diagram we crafted as an aid to understanding and remembering St. Thomas's five ways to God.

Another feature I hope people will enjoy are the "Dumb Ox Boxes" that break things up and address some interesting and unusual topics, like, whether is it a sin to be boring, to love wine, to be curious, to put yourself down, and that question on everyone's mind, whether it was fitting that Eve was made from Adam's rib.

Oh, and maybe one more thing. I hope readers will have an experience something like we get from those small car commercials where people keep pouring out and you wonder how they all ever fit in there in the first place. We've packed a whole lot of good stuff, pearls of Thomistic wisdom, in the brief, "one-minute" pages of this book. Hopefully, it will inspire readers to spend a lifetime dipping into more writings by and about the Angelic Doctor, the Common Doctor of the Catholic Church, the Patron Saint of Scholars and of Catholic Schools, the brilliant, yet humble, master of thought and devotion, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Of course, I really look forward to the book reviews and other feedback to see what the readers themselves actually do find of interest.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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