This is the third in a four-part series on St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching.
It is well known that Thomas Aquinas had an unusual relationship with his family; how many teenage boys, after all, are put into compromising situations with young women precisely at the instigation of their family members? After the antics involved with their attempts to get the young friar to renounce his hard-mouthed mendicancy (with the unintended but happy consequence of the establishment of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity), Thomas’s family eventually relented and allowed him to rejoin his confreres. The Master of the Order, perhaps fearing a Pharaoh-saical relapse after their moment of generosity, quickly whisked him off to Rome and then to Paris.
We might expect that after such treatment as this, Thomas may have looked at his family with a weary eye—or at least dreaded the concept of a “home visit.” As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. In a charming article titled “Thomas Aquinas and his family,” Fr. Fergus Kerr, O.P., shows that Thomas remained close to his family throughout his life, staying with them when he travelled throughout Europe, serving as an executor of their estates, and praying for them when he had a sinking suspicion that they might still be in purgatory.
Thomas came from a wealthy family which he left behind to join a merry band of traveling minstrel preachers who happened to have a preoccupation with Aristotle. In embracing the poverty of religious life, however, Thomas did not reject or renounce his family members who chose to retain their riches. One way of considering this phenomenon is to realize that in addition to material poverty, there is also a form of spiritual poverty that can in some cases seem even more daunting than the difficulties of material poverty. Thomas’s family was in some ways a broken one—like all human families, it was bowed down by the selfishness and sinfulness of its members. And yet, Thomas never thought to reject or disavow his family, even if some of his family members might have thought about disavowing him. Thomas learned to be content with little or with much—with the littleness of the priory and the muchness of the hearth, when it happened to be fitting for him to return to his family.
Yves Congar points out in True and False Reform in the Church that we can never criticize or judge our families as if we were not ourselves members of them. Even if we feel we have transcended or overcome some deficiency of our upbringing or culture, we are always members of it. This means both that we will always be influenced by the circumstances of our origins, but also that we cannot be indifferent and detached observers of dysfunction, but must be agents of love and instruments of peace in our families.
If we extend this by realizing that we are members not only of our domestic families, but also of our parishes, towns, nations, and indeed of the human race, then we begin to see that for all of the necessary critiques we might make about the actions, ideas, and circumstances of others, we are not indifferent observers, but are brothers and sisters and fellow heirs in our creation.
With this realization, we begin to see that we must exercise solidarity and acts of love and material support not only for our domestic brothers and sisters, but for all of our neighbors. As Thomas rightly acknowledges, we properly have different degrees of affection for those we are related to or have special ties and affinities with, and yet through the outpouring of Divine Charity into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we learn to go beyond these family ties and act as instruments of the Spirit in manifesting the love of God for each of his creatures.
As a brother of the Order of Preachers, Thomas embraced material poverty in order to identify himself more closely with Christ, who became a poor man in order to preach the good news to the poor. As a brother of the family of Aquino, Thomas embraced and overcame the spiritual poverty of his mother and father and his brothers and sisters, in order to share with them the riches of his insights and practical sense. Each of us, whatever our calling in the Church or in the world, is of necessity a son or daughter, and in many cases a brother or sister; this gives us a special field in which we may learn to embrace and work to overcome the material and spiritual poverty that we encounter in our families and in our own lives. Through this school of the family, may we learn to be brothers and sisters to our fellow creatures of the One Lord.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Thomas Clothed in the Habit (Church of Sto Tomas, Ávila) (used with permission)