Aquinas 101: Bringing 13th Century Philosophy and Theology into the 21st Century

The article below is an excerpt taken from Mind and Heart, a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Father Gregory Pine, a Dominican Friar, explains the new Aquinas 101 project he is working on with the Thomistic Institute to bring St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings to the people. These short videos with accompanying podcasts and reading materials break down the basics of the Summa Theologicae so that anyone can understand them. To learn more, visit www.aquinas101.com.

Sister John Dominic: 

I’m very happy to have with me a Dominican friars, Father Gregory Pine. Could you introduce yourself?

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

I was born outside of Philadelphia, raised in a Catholic family. My older sisters went to Franciscan University of Steubenville, so I quite naturally followed their indication. During my freshman year, I heard a lecture given by Professor Eleanor Stump, visiting from St. Louis University. She spoke about Aquinas on the nature of love. I found it especially beautiful and compelling. It was as if she were putting into words or giving expression to things that I myself had sensed or hoped to be able to enunciate but never said clearly and I found it here present. I was led naturally to ask who is this St. Thomas Aquinas fellow, started reading about him, and then I read a book called The Quiet Lightby Louis De Wohl, one of these historical fiction super charming books. I was especially taken with the way that St. Thomas loved the Lord, and I wanted to love the Lord in the same fashion. I came to discover he was a Dominican Friar, so I entered the Order of Preachers in 2010 in the province of St. Joseph, the Eastern Province, and I was ordained a priest in 2016. Since that time I’ve been assigned to studies, to work at a parish in Louisville, Kentucky, and to teach at Bellarmine University, and then for the past year or so, I’ve been assigned to Washington D.C. to our House of Studies where I work for the Thomistic Institute.

Sister John Dominic: 

You found your vocation at a Franciscan university. Had you had any exposure to Dominicans before that? 

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Fr. Gregory Pine: 

If I had, I don’t remember. At the age of 19 having read that book, I began very confidently to tell people that I was called to be a Dominican priest, but I had not yet met a Dominican previously.

Sister John Dominic: 

Your gateway into the order was through St. Thomas, and I think that is amazing because what you’re doing now is making his teachings similar to what we’re doing on the virtue side with the Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue. We’re taking St. Thomas’s teachings on the virtues and trying to make that accessible to Catholic School teachers and to students. The work that you all are doing, at the Thomistic Institute is helping us get the great body of teaching more accessible. How did the Thomistic Institute start and where is it today? 

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

It started about 11 years ago. Father Thomas Joseph White had the idea that it could begin as a research institute effectively of our faculty at the House of Studies, the thought being that the Thomistic tradition is perennial. It’s wise. It continues to recur throughout the life of the Church because it’s excellent for teaching. It’s excellent for training priests. Excellent for thinking about the mysteries of the faith. He had the sense that we have a good thing here, but because of the monastic character of our life, we don’t necessarily get the word out as well as one might, so if we were to found this Research Institute, it’d be a good way to organize conferences and get the conversation started. 11 years ago, we started hosting conferences at the House of Studies and then started having conferences at different locations: one at Princeton Theological Seminary about the thought of Carl Bart and St. Thomas Aquinas; a summer philosophy conference or seminar in the Hudson River Valley; and then a conference for priests. It gradually picked up a little bit of steam, and then we started doing events in New York City. About four years ago, Father Dominic Leg came on as the assistant director. They had the idea to start a campus chapters program. Again, the idea was that we have all these riches of the Thomistic tradition. Who are we to hoard them? They also had an urgency about getting the word out to the university culture because St. Thomas is the patron saint of Catholic schools and patron saint of education, but he’s also proposed as a good model for the integration of the Sciences. I think a lot of times folks go to a university, and they study their thing whether it be anthropology or biology or whatever, and they operate within that vein. Even if there is a core curriculum, it’s not usually especially wide or well construed, so you learn a lot about one thing but the big questions of life such as “Who is God?” and “what am I?” are left somewhat unaddressed. St. Thomas is often proposed as a great way to gain access to an articulated tradition to a theological culture that gives order to the other disciplines and helps you to study well, to learn well, and to love well, so that first year they began at four universities where we already had a presence in campus ministry. Since then it’s grown about 10 to 12 campuses each year, so we’re at roughly 50 campuses now in the United States and Canada and England and Ireland. This past fall, Father Thomas Joseph was assigned by the master of the order to start a Thomistic Institute in Rome, which has the same charge for Continental Europe. He’s begun chapters. They’re having success in Portugal and in Spain. 

Sister John Dominic: 

Do you find Dominicans in those different areas to become part of the chapter or how are you invited to a University? 

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

We don’t necessarily have a Dominican or a consistent American presence on these campuses. The students themselves are the protagonists of the work. One of the things that’s great about the Thomistic Institute is that it’s pretty lean, which is to say there’s not a lot of overhead because the students get motivated about whatever it is within the Catholic philosophical or theological tradition that they want to know. They reach out to the Thomistic Institute. They say, “Can we start a chapter?” We say, “Find some friends who are like-minded and want to do the work as well and then get recognition by your campus.” Then you have access to the academic buildings or rooms where you need to host events, and then you can start hosting events. You want to check in with the chaplain to make sure that everything is all square, but the Thomistic Institute isn’t doing ministerial work in the strict sense. They don’t have care of souls. It’s an intellectual apostolate. It’s a way to affect the intellectual evangelization of your campus. The students themselves are super motivated about it. They’re asking the questions. They’re inviting the speakers to provide the answers or to help them ask better questions. They’re the ones inviting their friends and getting them involved in the work and helping to get the word out. All of these lectures are recorded, and we put them on a podcast. People listen and say, “I want this on my campus,” and then the invitations continue to come, so it’s awesome. 

Sister John Dominic: 

That’s a real organic growth. Was this idea one of those things that happened in Recreation?

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

Father Dominic and Father Thomas Joseph were meeting with a friend in town, and they’re thinking, “What are we going to talk about? What notions or ideas will be posed to him?” Father Dominic had experience in college at role as a law student. He had an experience with the Federalist Society, which does a similar thing at law schools. It organizes lectures. The students themselves organize a chapter. They’re the ones who proffer the invitations and host the conferences. He said, “What if we were to do something on the model of what the Federalist Society does but do it with the Catholic intellectual tradition rather than Law Public Policy Etc.?” Fr. Thomas Joseph thought that’s a good idea. Let’s see how it goes.

Sister John Dominic: 

The rest is history. How many people have subscribed to the online Thomistic Institute? 

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

The short answer is I have no idea. I can tell you events that we have over the course of the year. We host between 12 and 15 conferences and then another few retreats, and on campus events last year numbered about 250, and this year it’ll number about 300. On average, that’s about five events per campus. The average attendance at each event is somewhere around 60 to 65, so 300 times 60 you have about 18,000 people in the seats, and then when it comes to the podcast last year, we had 750,000 listens, and that number grows exponentially. That was a million listens when you added in the 250,000 from three years previous, so it grows and grows as the content comes out. You put up a lecture and within the first couple of months, maybe 5,000 people will listen to it, which is super encouraging because it gives that content a much longer half-life rather than being extinguished with the final syllable. 

Sister John Dominic: 

It’s exciting to think that you all are making this accessible. We see this as the new Public Square for Dominicans so that we can find a way to reach people because sometimes people can get intimidated by St. Thomas and think there’s no way I’m going to be able to understand this, but what you are doing now is Aquinas 101. What was the thought behind that or how did that come about? 

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

I think the general conviction was that we as human beings have minds with which to know and hearts with which to love, and that’s what sets us apart from the beasts. That’s what constitutes us as made to the image and likeness of God. Our perfection is bound up with knowing well and loving well, and if that’s the case, even if it’s not an intellectual life in the hoity-toity sense, study is an integral part of human flourishing. I think that’s near and dear to the Dominican charism because a lot of people say that the things that I’ve tried to study in the Faith are confusing, difficult, and don’t really do much for me, so I’ll just give myself a free pass and content myself with something else. I won’t try to work at the Christian intellectual tradition because it’s all too much. We have the experience on campuses where these students were very much inclined to what was being proposed, but they also had a desire to go about it systematically. They had a desire to start at A and end with Z so that way they could read these thinkers on their own terms rather than being tossed about by time and fate and subject to whatever content they could find available but in an unsystematic way. A lot of times you can get yourself an eclectic formation in whatever you want, but when you’re having conversations, you realize that there are gaps in your knowledge, and you wish you had the tools to address those gaps, but you don’t know how to go about it. The idea for Aquinas 101 was formulated by the students, and it also corresponded to a brainstorming session that we had at Recreation where we said we should gloss the whole Summa in videos and call it Simply Summa. We kicked that name to the curb because it was like Insider talk, but so the students said, “We want to give this to our friends. We ourselves want to learn it, but we want it in an idiom that makes sense.” When you start reading St. Thomas, you go vocabulary yikes, grammar wowzers, literary genre whoo. It can be a bit daunting, but if you put in an initial effort, you come to discover that it’s doable and then reading everyone else becomes hard. Just as in order to read any great thinker, you often need a literal translator, like reading Dostoyevsky’s novels, with Saint Thomas, it’s not just Latin to English. It’s also from the 13th century to the 21st century. Aquinas 101 is this course of 85 to 90 videos accompanied with a podcast for extended meditation and then some reading so that you can get into St. Thomas on your own terms. We thought that this would be a great way to do it because you have a lot of people listening to podcasts, and the kind of attention that you devote to a podcast isn’t always the best attention, but when you’re sitting in front of the computer and watching a video, it appeals to you at every sensory level, and that’s a great way to begin. We started talking about a year ago and getting the gears moving, and then we started releasing the videos the end of August. From that point on. we’ve been releasing two per week, and people seem to like it. 

Sister John Dominic: 

They are very engaging. They’re not more than five minutes long, so it’s just enough to hold your attention. You broke down how to read the Summa, and that’s very helpful and translating you take the Latin term, and then you say this is what it means. Who is writing these scripts?

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

Father Dominic is the director of the Thomistic Institute, and there are five presenters: Father Dominic; Father James Brent who teaches Philosophy at the House of Studies; Father Thomas Petrie who’s the dean and vice president and who teaches moral theology; myself; and Father Thomas Joseph White who runs the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome. Each friar formulates his own scripts, and then we vet them in post-production to get them down to size where they’re nice and crisp. They give you what you need to know and take you by the hand and walk you into the essentials, but don’t overwhelm you with too many details. It’s a joint venture.

Sister John Dominic: 

Where are you going? You’ve got this now. How many years do you have?

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

The full course will run till the end of June, and then we’re beginning conversations as to what Aquinas 201 looks like. I suspect that the things that will continue to come out will be application. A lot of people in the 21st century have particular questions when it comes to how Thomistic philosophy or Thomistic theology accords with what we have learned from scientific disciplines, for instance. You might anticipate something along those lines, like Thomistic natural philosophy and the physical sciences. How do those things come together and have his philosophy help us think about science in a way that’s not materialistic or reductionistic or otherwise captive to a philosophy that might be false because a lot of times you walk into a science class and you’re thinking, “This is my teacher. He or she has the answers, and I will submit my mind.” When it comes to science oftentimes, that’s a fair arrangement, but when that teacher smuggles in philosophy and doesn’t acknowledge it to you, you can be like, “Yes, you’re right. The only thing in the world is matter. There are no such things as formal and final causes. I don’t need God in this universe.” Then you find yourself laboring under the weight of false notions whereas if you can address those philosophical questions at the outset, you do well. 

Sister John Dominic: 

What I love is how you bring together faith and reason. You’ve got the one with the tree. You go through each one, but then show the end of the supernatural and understanding, where the roots are going and showing the connection. It is so important in our day that there is no contradiction between faith and reason.

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

I love St. John Paul the II’s talk at the beginning of Fides et Ratio that they’re two wings whereby we mount to the knowledge of the truth of the knowledge of God. It’s exciting, and when people hear that, they find it liberating because a lot of times folks think that you have to shut off part of your humanity in order to be faithful to the scientific community or to your worshipping community, but truth be told, Truth is one, and if these are legitimate ways to access the truth, then we’re going to find them to be symphonic. They won’t be in genuine conflict. Either we’ve misunderstood the science, or we’ve misunderstood the theology, but they’re not in real conflict because what we’re describing is reality, and it’s about conforming our minds to reality. Father Dominic has a great video about that where it shows somebody looking through different windows, and you shutter one and then shutter the other, and then what you have access to is the thing. It’s not about closing off part of your mind. It’s about gazing upon what is with authenticity.

Sister John Dominic: 

That unity is so important because we don’t want this dualism to separate the body and soul. We bring that together. One of our sisters who is teaching Junior High showed them the videos and then has them do a workshop, and they’re getting it. I encourage anyone [to listen to it.]

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

It’s Aquinas 101.com. If you visit the website, you’ll see a feature to enroll and that simply means that you’ll get emails every Tuesday and Thursday with the videos as they come out, and it’ll pace the course for you. That way it’s not overwhelming. You can find all the content on Aquinas101.com, and you can search the videos. They’re all on YouTube, but we have it set that when you get a video, you also get course listening and reading, and then there’s the “Ask a Friar” feature. If you have question that comes up, and you want to ask, click the button to send an email. I’m the Friar, so you get an email back from me. You have a face to it right here. It is for taking me about a week in a lot of cases. 

Sister John Dominic: 

How many would you get?

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

I get a quantity of emails. 

Sister John Dominic: 

That’s Aquinas 101. What happens if there’s someone listening from a university that’s looking to bring the Thomistic Institute there? How does that happen? 

Fr. Gregory Pine: 

Go to thomisticinstitute.org. It’s intuitive. You just click and send us an email and express your interest, and then we’ll work with you to see if it’s feasible for this year. If not, maybe for next and we’ll go from there. 

Sister John Dominic: 

Thank you, Father. We certainly would love to have you back the next time you come through Michigan to see us. 

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