Thought of Thomas Aquinas

This article contains selected thoughts of Thomas Aquinas on various topics.

Aquinas and the death penalty

The following is a summary of Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Chapter 146 [] , which was written by Aquinas prior to writing the Summa Theologica. St. Thomas was a vocal supporter of the death penalty. This was based on the theory (found in natural moral law), that the state has not only the right, but the duty to protect its citizens from enemies, both from within, and without.

For those who have been appropriately appointed, there is no sin in administering punishment. For those who refuse to obey God's laws, it is correct for society to rebuke them with civil and criminal sanctions. No one sins working for justice, within the law. Actions that are necessary to preserve the good of society are not inherently evil. The common good of the whole society is greater and better than the good of any particular person. "The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men." This is likened to the physician who must amputate a diseased limb, or a cancer, for the good of the whole person. He based this on I Corinthians 5, 6: "You know that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump of dough?" and I Corinthians 5, 13: "Put away the evil one from among yourselves"; Romans 13,4: " [it is said of earthly power that] he bears not the sword in vain: for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil"; I Peter 2, 13-14: "Be subjected therefore to every human creature for God's sake: whether to be on the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of good." He believed these passages superseded the text of Exodus 20,13: "Thou shall not kill." This is mentioned again in Matthew 5,21. Also, it is argued that Matthew 13, 30: "Suffer both the weeds and the wheat to grow until the harvest." The harvest was interpreted as meaning the end of the world. This is explained by Matthew 13,38-40.

Aquinas acknowledged these passages could also be interpreted as meaning there should be no use of the death penalty if there was a chance of injuring the innocent. The prohibition "Thou shall not kill", was superseded by Exodus 22,18: "Wrongdoers you shall not suffer to live." The argument that evildoers should be allowed to live in the hope that they might be redeemed was rejected by Aquinas as frivolous. If they would not repent in the face of death, it was unreasonable to assume they would ever repent. "How many people are we to allow to be murdered while waiting for the repentance of the wrongdoer?", he asked, rhetorically. Using the death penalty for revenge, or retribution is a violation of natural moral law.

[It should be noted that many believe the correct interpretation of the commandment to be "Thou shalt not murder." This interpretation allows for Aquinas' belief that the death penalty is an acceptable practice as delivered by those in authority over such things, such as government, which is divinely appointed as to God's will.]

Under Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church came to advocate incarceration, in lieu of the death penalty. It is still allowed for extreme cases.


Aquinas advocated the death penalty for heretics, writing

With regard to heretics there are two points to be observed, one on their side, the other on the side of the Church. As for heretics their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death.
But on the side of the Church is mercy which seeks the conversion of the wanderer, and She condemns him not at once, but after the first and second admonition, as the Apostle directs. Afterwards, however, if he is still stubborn, the Church takes care of the salvation of others by separating him from the Church through excommunication, and delivers him to the secular court to be removed from this world by death. (ST II:II 11:3)

It should be noted that this position of Aquinas was congruous with the political and religious teaching of the day. The penalty of death for obdurate heretics had been the standard for generations prior to the time of Aquinas. It had been formalized in Canon Law during the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215. It was also the standard part of most criminal and civil laws prior to the time of Aquinas. Cathars were executed in Oxford in 1166. Another was burned at the stake in London in 1210. Of course, these, and many others pre-dated Aquinas. Since it was the Church's responsibility to attend to the eternal salvation of souls, heresy could not be tolerated. Heretics were given two chances to recant their views. This is a position which, by modern standards would be considered exceptionally harsh, and has changed and softened since the 13th century. The Church was inexorably intermixed with the secular political structure. This was before the modern concept of separation of church and state had developed. It was also a product of Scholasticism which did not seek to find an equivocal position, but rather to reach a decisive univocal conclusion on matters of religion and philosophy. As can be seen by reading the article of Michael Novak, Aquinas' view in this matter is one of the more difficult parts of dealing with Thomism, in general. Needless to say, the attitudes of Aquinas were prevalent in his time. This view must be taken in context with the more liberal attitude shown by Aquinas in eschewing the forced baptism of the children of heretics, which was recommended by among others, John Duns Scotus. This lax attitude is hardly congruent with a recommendation for execution of heretics. In fact, the heretics Aquinas was referrring to were those baptized Catholics who held positions of authority within the Churh, and nonetheless persisted in teaching heretical views. It is doubtful that Aquinas was advising executution of heretics or Jews with this particular quotation. It remains one of those passages which must be taken in context of the the total message of Thomism. The growth of various heretical positions, leading to the Reformation made execution of heretics impractical and counterproductive. Excommunication remained the penalty for such Church leaders who taught heresy. Aquinas' view is steeped in the traditions of Roman Law. A review of the legal history prior to the time of Aquinas reveals the nature of recommending execution of heretics. The issue came to a head with the Manichean (Cathari) heresy. Justinian's code confirmed that Manicheanism was a capital crime. It was concluded that other heretics were to be deemed no better. The opinion prevailed in legal circles that human law and divine command demanded the death of the obdurate heretic. It was routinely enforced by both Church and State. In severe cases of religious pestilence, there was a need for a holy war. These prevailing feelings were legislated by the Church in the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215. The impenitent heretic when convicted by the ecclesiastical court for execution. Often, there was a plea for the life of the heretic, so as to avoid the appearance of "irregularity" and blood guilt. Frederick II, (1194-1250) incorporated the execution of heretics into his civil and criminal code of the Holy Roman Empire.


* Summa Theologica

* For a thoughtful commentary on the above, see Michael Novak, "Aquinas and the Heretics", First Things 58 (December 1995): 33-38.

* For a discussion of the changing social and religious attitudes toward tolerance and heretics, see:

* For a view of Roman Law;

* For the Catholic Church's modern view on Heresy:

* Pollock and Maitland "History of English Law, Vol. II", pp. 543-557; Cambridge Press, 1895, 1968

Aquinas and usury

St. Thomas asserted that usury (putting money out at interest) was a violation of natural moral law. All things are created for their natural end (Aristotle). Money is not an end but a means of buying goods and services. Putting money out for the generation of more money is an evil unto itself. The formal value of money is the face value. Yet usury allows this face value to fluctuate, and hence the value of money can be diminished, thereby robbing the person who has purchased the money for use. Money stands alone as a non-vendable substance which is degraded from its natural end by selling.

Another argument used by Aquinas was that of the Roman distinction between consumable goods and non-consumable goods. Food and clothes are consumable in that once they are used, they are gone. A piece of land is non-consumable since it can produce crops for years, yet never lose its value. Money as defined by Aquinas is a consumable. To put it out for profit betrays its purpose in natural law. This is the view that prevailed for the next three centuries following St. Thomas' death.

Yet it was the one Realistic Scholastic interpretation of natural law that was completely disconnected from the economic reality of the day. The time of Aquinas was one where land feudalism was ceding prominence to money capitalism. Over the next several centuries it became clear that capitalism would provide a greater amount of goods and services than any other system.

Even in the time of Aquinas(and before), kings and popes engaged in usury. Some of the effects of Protestantism were a clarification of the views and acceptance of the practice of usury. Profit became an acceptable goal. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) adopted Aquinas' view of usury, calling it a sin of equal gravity to that of homicide. This included putting money out for any return, no matter how minimal. It can be argued that this rigid stance may have encouraged the Protestant movement in larger money and trading centers.

Our views concerning capitalism, unfair labor practice, living wage, price gouging, monopolies, fair trade practices, and predatory pricing, inter alia, are remnants of the inculcation of Aquinas' interpretation of natural moral law. (See Colish p.333-334).

The issue was never as clear as the stance Aquinas took would indicate. From Pope Gregory IX (written about 1241, when Aquinas was 16 years old): "He who loans a sum of money to one sailing or going to market, since he has assumed upon himself a risk, is not to be considered a usurer who will receive something beyond his lot. He also who gives ten solidi (a monetary unit), so that at another time just as many measures of grain, wine and oil may be paid back to him, and although these are worth more at the present time, it is probably doubtful whether at the time of payment, they will be worth more or less, for this reason, should not be considered a usurer. By reason of this doubt he is also excused, who sells clothing, grain, wine, oil, or other wares so that as a set time he receives for them more than they are worth at that time, if however, he had not intended so to sell them at the time of the contract." (See Denzinger, p.178). In other words, if the lender of the money "assumed the risk" ("assumpsit" in Latin), along with the borrower, it was not usury.

A century earlier, in the Second Lateran Council, (Second Council of the Lateran), under the aegis of Pope Innocent II (1139) called the practice of loaning money "detestable and shameful... insatiable rapacity of money lenders, forbidden both by divine and human laws throughout the Old and New Testament, we condemn, and separate from the ecclesiastical consolation..." (Denzinger p.148-149).

The Council of Vienne (1311-1312) under Pope Clement V declared: "If anyone shall fall into that error, so that he obstinately presumes to declare that it is not a sin to exercise usury, we decree that he must be punished as a heretic." (Denzinger p.189). The distinction between usury and putting money out while "assuming the risk" was not mentioned. However, it could be argued that any time one assumed the risk, it was not considered usury.

There was always some confusion, and variance, in this teaching during the Middle Ages. The Fifth Lateran Council, (1515) decreed that a "reasonable degree of return" was allowable. (Denzinger p.238). The social evil that was associated with usury was the fact that poor tenant farmers and city dwellers were often thrown into prison, or even killed if they could not repay the money they borrowed, and the interest charged. In these cases, the lenders of the money had assumed no risk. The Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1213 AD) preached against this evil.

These events were occurring at a time when the Ecclesiastical Courts had great judicial power. There were several philosophical cross currents at play. On the one hand, the Canon Lawyers looked favorably on the products of labor, wages and profit, while holding suspect speculation, banking and finance. The Church discountenanced the fluctuations of wages and prices caused by the law of supply and demand. There was an attempt to maintain fixed standards of value. At the same time, there was a liberal and equitable view toward the old Roman idea of "contract". The Church Courts invented and refined the idea of "consideration" ; the quid pro quo in modern contract. This was something that was lacking in Roman contract. Insurance, assignability and negotiability were developments in the Church Courts. These areas were largely ignored by the Common Law, or secular law of the day, especially in England (Plucknett p. 302,304).

The Catholic Church's teaching on social doctrine has grown significantly more complicated since that time. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into modern teaching. For those who are interested, a summary can be found in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2419-2463.


* Colish, Marcia, "Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradtion 400-1400"; Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997. (Specifically p.333-334 are relevant to this article)
* Denzinger, Henry, "The Sources of Catholic Dogma", B. Herder Book Co. St. Louis, 1955
* "Catechism of the Catholic Church", Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1994
* Plucknett, K "A Concise History of the Common Law", Little, Brown, 1956
* Modern Catholic view of contract:

Aquinas and forced baptism of children of Jews and heretics

The question frequently arose whether the children of Jews and other heretics and non-believers should be baptized against the will of their parents. Two schools of thought were generally followed: The First School: That since all persons who were not baptized would be damned to hell, all children should be baptized. This was the position of John Duns Scotus. It could be argued that this approach reduced the sacrament of baptism to nothing but a "magical" rite. The Second School: That it violated natural law to disrupt the order of the family by interfering.

Therefore, even if children were being reared in error, the Church had no authority to intervene. This was the position taken by Aquinas. From Summa Theologica II-II Q. 10 Art. 12:

Injustice should be done to no man. Now it would be an injustice to Jews if their children were to be baptized against their will, since they would lose the rights of parental authority over their children as soon as these were Christians. Therefore these should not be baptized against their parent's will. The custom of the Church has been given very great authority and ought to be jealously observed in all things, since the very doctrine of Catholic Doctors derives its authority from the Church. Hence we ought to abide by the authority of the Church rather than that of an Augustine or a Jerome or any doctor whatever. Now it was never the custom of the Church to baptize the children of Jews against the will of their parents. There are two reasons for this custom. One is on account of the danger to faith. For children baptized before coming into the use of reason, might easily be persuaded by their parents to renounce what they had unknowingly embraced; and this would be detrimental to the faith. The other reason is that it is against natural justice. For a child is by nature part of its father: at first, it is not distinct from its parents as to its body, so long as it is enfolded within the mother's womb and later on after birth, and before it has the use of free will, it is enfolded in the care of its parents, like a spiritual womb. So long as a man does not have the use of reason, he is no different from an irrational animal. Hence, it would be contrary to natural justice, if a child, before coming to the use of reason, were to be taken away from its parent's custody, or anything done against its parent's wish.

The question was again addressed by Aquinas in Summa Theologica III Q. 68 Art. 10:

It is written in the Decretals (Dist. xiv), quoting the Council of Toledo: In regard to the Jews the holy synod commands that henceforth none of them be forced to believe; for such are not to be saved against their will, but willingly, that their righteousness may be without flaw. Children of non-believers either have the use of reason or they have not. If they have, then they already begin to control their own actions, in things that are of Divine or natural law. And therefore, of their own accord, and against the will of their parents, they can receive Baptism, just as they can contract in marriage. Consequently such can be lawfully advised and persuaded to be baptized. If, however, they have not yet the use of free-will, according to the natural law they are under the care of their parents as long as they cannot look after themselves. For which reason we say that even the children of the ancients were saved through the faith of their parents.

The issue was discussed in a papal bull by Pope Benedict XIV (1747) where both schools were addressed. The pope noted that the position of Aquinas had been more widely held among theologians and canon lawyers, than that of John Duns Scotus (See Denzinger).


* Denzinger, Henry, "The Sources of Catholic Dogma", B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis, 1955 (p. 364 is relevant to this article)

Aquinas and existentialism

A primary goal of all philosophy is the proof of existence: the existence of God, the universe, and the self (see Colish, Macdonald-Cornford, Russell, Nahm, Pieper, Gilson). Once the existence of God is accepted as proved, the exploration of the nature of God is metaphysical and theological. Once the existence of the universe is proved, study of its nature involves the sciences: astronomy, mathematics, physics. The nature of the self involves the study of the person and the relation to others: philosophy, and the sciences of sociology, psychology, biology and the like. Christianity is based on the belief that the nature of God cannot be ascertained by the human mind (Gilson pp 96-129; 207-235). Revelation of God, by God is necessary ( Russell, p.312). This revelation is the Old and New Testament.

The Greek philosophers came to the philosophical conclusion that there had to be a God. Their conclusions were based on various physical observations: there could be no infinity of actions, therefore, there must be an unmoving mover, which moves without moving. This is the prime mover. There has to be a beginning and an end, otherwise, everything would have happened long ago and not now. This is also seen in Jewish philosophy (which may be based on Greek philosophy). There must be an ultimate smallness, of which there can be nothing smaller: the atomus (Leucipus, Democritus). This was in response to the Paradoxes of Zeno: there could be no motion, since every moving body would have to pass through half the distance, then one-quarter the distance, etc. A body could not pass through an infinite number of points. This led to the conclusion that all nature was united: the doctrine of the "One". Therefore, the human mind could reasonably conclude that there was a single God, and that this God existed (For an overview see Gilson p.29-83; Russell pp. 453-463). This God had to be intelligent.

A basic question of Greek Philosophy: Can an organized hierarchy (as is seen in nature) exist in the absence of an intelligence? In the atheistic view, the answer is "yes". If one answers "no", then there is a necessity of an intelligent God. The Greeks called this ultimate intelligence the "gnos" or "nous" (Nahm pp.1-28). However, the intimate nature of this intelligence cannot be delineated by human contemplation. Many philosophers concluded that the Universe itself, was the God (Gilson). It was basically indifferent the needs of the human. This is very different from the Judeo-Christian concept of an intimate and loving God, aware of all.

When Moses wished to know the name of God in order to reveal it to the Jewish people, he asked God directly. Exodus 3, 13-14: "'Lo! I go to the children of Israel, and I shall say to them: the God of your fathers sent me to you. If they ask me His name what shall I say to them?' God replied: 'I Am Who Am.' Then He added, 'Thus will you reply to the children of Israel: He Who Is sends me to you.'" Therefore, the proper name of God is "I Am" or "Who Is". This was a remarkable exposition on several levels. First, the idea that the great, unapproachable God of the Hebrews would provide His name was exceptional. Recall that in these ancient cultures, to know the name of a person was to possess them, or a part of them, in some way. Also, the name is unusual. What did this mean? (Gilson) The only means available to the early Christians for evaluating philosophy was provided by the Greeks. Largely, this was within the Stoic school, which had been re-invigorated by the Persians whom Alexander the Great had brought back to Greece. These in turn, influenced the Roman Stoic Schools which affected both pagan and Christian thought (Colish pp.9, 12,21, 179-180, 300-301; Russell pp.252-270). Christianity has been described as a religion without a need for a philosophic basis. The Stoics gave it one (Gilson, p. 84).

St. Augustine was convinced that the God of Exodus was Plato's being. He speculated that Plato must have known of Exodus. "But what makes me almost subscribe to the idea that Plato was not completely ignorant of the Old Testament is that when the Angel conveys the words of God to the holy man Moses, who asks the name of the one who is sending him to proceed to the deliverance of the Hebrew people, the reply is: 'I Am Who Am', and you are to say to the children of Israel: 'it is He Who is Who has sent me to you.' It was as if, in comparison with him who truly is because he is immovable, he who has been made movable did not exist. Now Plato was intensely convinced of this and he took great care to say so." (Augustine De Civ. Dei 8:11, PL 41,236). The Being in Exodus was the same immovable entity of Plato, according to Augustine. he called the immovable being of Plato, "The first and highest being is that which is entirely immovable, and which can say by full right: 'I Am Who Am'; and you will tell them, 'He Who Is has sent me to you.'" (St. Augustine, De doctrina christiana, I, 32,5; PL 34, 32).

St. Augustine had a very deep sense of the difficulty of the problem presented by this tract. He asked the question "I Am" what? From John 8, 24: "If you do not believe that I Am, you will die in your sins." But Augustine asked, "si non credideritis quia ego sum?" (I Am What?) There was nothing added. Augustine found this embarrassing. "We were waiting for Him to say what He was, and He says nothing." Augustine: "If you do not believe that I Am the Christ; if you do not believe that I Am the Son of God; if you do not believe that I Am the Word of the Father; if you do not believe that I Am the author of the world; if you do not believe that I Am the former and the reformer of man, his creator and recreator, He Who made him and remade him; if you do not believe that I Am that, you will die in your sins. This I Am, He says He Is, is embarrassing. Even if Moses could understand this, how could the people to whom he was being sent understand it? In point of fact, he did add: 'I Am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Exodus 3, 13-15)(Augustine on the Gospel of St. John) (Gilson, p.85)

This is the source of the doctrine of divine essentialitas, or essential theology of Augustine which would influence Richard of St. Victor, Alexander of Hales and St. Bonaventure. By this method, the essence of God is defined by what God is, and also by describing what God is not (negative theology). St. Thomas took the text of Exodus beyond the explanation of essential theology. He bridged the gap of understanding between the being of essence and the being of existence. In Summa Theologica, the way is prepared with the proofs for the existence of God. All that remained was to recognize the God of Exodus as having the nature of "Him Who is the supreme act of being". God is simple, there is no composition in God. In this regard, Aquinas relied on Beothius who in turn followed the path of Platonism, something Aquinas usually avoided. The conclusion was that the meaning of "I Am Who Am" is not an enigma to be answered, but the statement of the essence of God. This is the discovery of Aquinas: the essence of God is not described by negative analogy, but the "essence of God is to exist". This is the basis of "existential theology" and leads to what Gilson calls the first and only existential philosophy. In Latin, this is called "Haec Sublimis Veritas" , "the sublime truth". The revealed essence of God is to exist, or in the words of Aquinas, I am the pure Act of Being. This has been described as the key to understanding Thomism. Thomism has been described (in terms of a philosophic movement), as either the emptiest, or the fullest of philosophies. (For a full discussion, see Gilson, pp. 84-95)


* Colish, Marcia, "Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400", Yale University Press, 1997
* Copleston, Frederick, S.J. "A History of Philosophy, Volume II Augustine to Scotus", Paulist Press, New Jersey, 1950 (pp.302-434)
* Gilson, Etienne, "The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas", University of Notre Dame Press, 1994
* MacDonald-Cornford, Francis editor, "The Republic of Plato", Oxford university Press, New York and London, 1966
* Nahm, Milton, "Selections from Early Greek Philosophy", Appleton-Century Crofts, New York, 1964 (pp.1-36)
* Nichols, Adrian, O.P. "Discovering Aquinas, An Introduction to His Life, Work and Influence", Wm. B. Eardmans Publ. 2002
* Pieper, Joseph, "The Silence of St. Thomas", Pantheon, 1957 (pp. 80-91)
* Russell, Bertrand "A History of Western Philosophy", Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972
* Shahan, Robert W. and Kovach, Francis J., "Bonaventure and Aquinas, Enduring Philosophers", University of Oklahoma Press, 1976 (pp. 118-132)

Related Links

* Thomas Aquinas
* Aquinas and the Sacraments
* Capital Punishment
* Capital Punishment in the United States
* Death Penalty
* Dominican Order
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* Scholasticism
* St. Augustine of Hippo
* Paradoxes of Zeno
* Existentialism
* Banking
* Usury
* Thomism

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