On 7 March 1274, Friar Tommaso d’Aquino of the Order of Preachers died at the age of forty-nine at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon. Less than fifty years later, he was canonised (1323). By the Council of Trent his doctrinal authority was so great that his masterwork, the Summa theologiae, was placed on the altar of the cathedral, along with the Bible and the Decretals. Not long after the conclusion of Trent, St. Pius V proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church (1567). Ever since, the popes have continued to recommend the doctor communis as the most comprehensive guide to the Catholic doctrine.

To mark the 750th anniversary of St. Thomas’s death, this edition of Five Books for Catholics selects five books for those studying his works for the first time.

  1. Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work
    by Jean-Pierre Torrell OP
  2. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master
    by Jean-Pierre Torrell OP
  3. Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings
    edited and translated by Ralph McInerny
  4. Commentary on the Gospel of John (vol. 1) (vol. 2) (vol. 3)
    by St. Thomas Aquinas
  5. Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae: A Guide and Commentary
    by Brian Davies OP
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Most Catholics of the Roman Rite have recited or listened to works of St. Thomas without even knowing it: during the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Thomas wrote the liturgical texts for the feast, including the hymn Pange, lingua (Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory). This hymn, or its last two verses (Tantum ergo sacramentum), is often sung during Eucharistic adoration and benediction.

These are probably the works of which St. Thomas is proudest. Throughout the world, the faithful sing his words to praise and adore Christ, present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Readers of the Catechism of the Catholic Church have also been exposed to his teaching without knowing it. Often, the Catechism summarises St. Thomas, especially in Part Two, on the sacraments, and Part Three, on the moral life. The same is true of many other papal and conciliar documents.

Still others will want to read his works and learn from the saint himself, just as successive popes have recommended.

“The Magisterium has repeatedly acclaimed the merits of Saint Thomas' thought and made him the guide and model for theological studies. This has not been in order to take a position on properly philosophical questions nor to demand adherence to particular theses. The Magisterium's intention has always been to show how Saint Thomas is an authentic model for all who seek the truth. In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason.”
John Paul II, Fides et Ratio n. 78

New readers may not know where to start. Not only has Thomas left a vast body of writings. The literature on his thought is enormous and ever expanding. The five books selected here can help new readers find their way into his works.

Nevertheless, someone reading St. Thomas for the first time may find his writings more challenging and less exciting than expected. There are several reasons for this.

First, you do not go to Thomas for light reading but to study the truths of the faith and reflect more deeply upon them. If you are looking for entertainment, you go the theatre, not a university course. Of course, there are many novels and works of theatre that are deep and instructive. Thomas, however, is neither a novelist nor a dramaturge. He speaks from the pulpit and the university chair.

Second, St. Thomas wrote for readers whose schooling was very different from ours. He assumes that his reader is steeped in the liturgy and Scripture but also has a working knowledge of the Church Fathers and Aristotle. Generally, we have not been initiated into all these as thoroughly during our schooling. Unsurprisingly, someone reading the Summa theologiae for the first time may find it daunting at the beginning. Nevertheless, persistence will be rewarded.  Reading St. Thomas is a sure way to both study philosophy and enter the patristic reading of Sacred Scripture.

Reading St. Thomas can also be daunting because it appears so detached from his life and the concerns of his day. There is none of the self-disclosure that one finds in St. Augustine’s Confessions, probably the most widely read piece of patristic literature, or St. Teresa of Ávila. Thomas never reads like an autobiographical novel. His voice is that of a preacher expounding the letter of Scripture or a professor explaining great works of philosophy that can help us understand God’s creation and articulate biblical teachings. Only in a couple of works, such as An Apology for the Religious Orders (Contra impugnantes), do we see him engage directly, not obliquely, in a social debate of the day. This does not mean that his other works are not concerned with issues of the day. All of them are, but Thomas often does not make this explicit. To see how each one addresses a pastoral or social problem of the day, however, we need to understand its historical context. That is where the first two recommended books come in.

Sometimes new readers also have difficulty in disentangling what St. Thomas really says from what they think he is saying. This challenge is not peculiar to his works. It arises with all great books written long ago, and in a milieu very different to our own. There is not just the labour of understanding subtle arguments about intrinsically difficult questions. Often, we misunderstand the argument, like a Latin student who misanalyses the grammar of a sentence and mistranslates it. Such misunderstandings arise whenever we assume that the great book is addressing the exact same questions, with the exact same suppositions, as modern authors.

Nor is it just the general reader who is prone to read St. Thomas with the assumptions of the modern mind. So are academics. During the twentieth century, there were various scholarly debates about his thought. In several of these debates, those on one side criticised the other for misrepresenting Thomas. The other side, they charged, was reading him through the lens of modern categories that were foreign to him. Étienne Gilson faulted nineteenth- and early twentieth-century neo-scholastics for supposing that Thomas philosophised along the same lines as Descartes, with his methodological doubt, or Kant, with his critical philosophy. Cornelio Fabro criticised the classic commentators for failing to recognise the originality of St. Thomas’s theology of creation or metaphysics. In their interpretation of Thomas, Fabro argued, the most fundamental intrinsic principle of a substance is its essence, which is then brought into existence. They were in the thrall of Aristotle, Scotus, or Suárez. They failed to appreciate that for Thomas, the most fundamental intrinsic principle is the act of being (esse) by which the creature participates in God (ipsum esse subsistens). Henri de Lubac faulted many theologians for reading Thomas’s teaching on our ultimate end through the lens of Dionysius the Carthusian and Cajetan (though some find faults in de Lubac’s reading too). More recently, Gilles Emery and others have criticised Karl Rahner for misrepresenting St. Thomas’s Trinitarian theology by reading it through the prism of dubious modern assumptions.

But wait a minute! If highly trained top-ranking scholars can get the wrong end of the stick, what chances do we newcomers have of understanding a work of St. Thomas. These misadventures in modern scholarship should not discourage us. They are a healthy reminder that it takes time, patience, and various careful readings to understand the great books properly.


As St. Thomas can be challenging for new readers, it might be worth starting with an introduction to his works rather than one of his writings itself. There are plenty of these. Some of the best known include Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox, Jacques Maritain’s The Angelic Doctor, Étienne Gilson’s The Chiristian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas , and Marie-Dominque Chenu’s Toward Understanding St. Thomas. These are all instructive. However, there are several drawbacks to them. Except for Chenu’s, they focus more on his philosophy than his theology. Furthermore, these were all written during the first half of the twentieth century. They do not reflect the most recent scholarship.  The current leading biography of St. Thomas, on the other hand, does incorporate the latest scholarly findings and is centred on the spiritual and theological dimension of his works.

At present, the leading biography is Fr Jean-Pierre Torrell OP’s Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, which was originally published in French in 1993 (orig. Initiation à saint Thomas d’Aquin : sa personne e son oeuvre).

Fr Torrell served on the Leonine Commission, the body of Dominican scholars and their associates that prepares the ongoing critical edition of St. Thomas’s works. Consequently, he is well versed in the latest historical research on St. Thomas life and works.

This book and its companion volume grew out of Torrell’s entry on St. Thomas for the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Ascétique et Mystique. In writing the article, he drew on the advances made in scholarship by members of the Leonine Comission and other academics. As a result, he realised that the best biography then available, James Weishepl’s Friar Thomas d’Aquino, was outdated. He expanded the first part of the article into Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work and the second part into Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Saint Thomas d'Aquin, maître spirituel), the next entry on this list.

Throughout the work, Torrell stresses the theological, spiritual, and pastoral dimension of St. Thomas’s writings. He also stresses the importance of the biblical commentaries (see Chapters Two and Five of the latest edition from 2022). Thomas’s main task as a lecturer was to comment on Sacred Scripture.

The volume ends with a title “Brief Catalogue of the Works of Saint Thomas Aquinas.” Ironically, the latest edition is over fifty pages long. However, like the rest of the volume, it is an indispensable instrument for anyone intent upon studying Thomas seriously. It classifies his works according to genres, lists them, describes each one briefly and summarises the scholarship on its date. It also indicates the best available editions and English translations.


The second volume of Torrell’s introduction is Saint Thomas
Aquinas: Spiritual Master
. As the author notes, some might find it unusual that he focuses not on the saint as a spiritual master rather than a systematic theologian.

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