Don't economise on references to Thomism
Interview with Serge-Thomas Bonino o.pWhat are you doing at this moment?
Since 1990 I teach at the faculty of philosophy of the Catholic University of Toulouse where I was recently elected as dean (June 1999). My regular teaching is on the history of medieval doctrines - from Saint Augustine to Nicholas of Cusa ! - and also on themes that revolve around the philosophical theology of Saint Thomas.
I am also director of studies at the theological studium of the Dominicans in Toulouse and this involves the teaching of some treatises of dogmatic theology. Furthermore, in 1995 we established, with a number of Dominican fellow brothers, the 'Institut Saint-Thomas d'Aquin' (of Toulouse) which wants to be a centre of advanced studies in saint Thomas and the Thomistic tradition in the French-speaking regions. I teach there the history of Thomism and also some treatises from the Prima Pars.
Finally, since 1991, I am director of the venerable journal Revue Thomiste, which celebrated its centennial in 1993. This responsibility has the advantage of putting me into contact with a number of scholars who promote Thomistic studies.
What research on Aquinas are you doing now?
The major part of my work consists in preparing (and improving) courses! I also spend much time on the book reviews for the Revue Thomiste. In particular, I try to make up, on a regular basis, a Thomistica chronicle which presents recent work and publications on Saint Thomas and the Thomistic tradition.
I have been working for several years now on a fundamental study on the history of Thomistic tradition in the Middle Ages, which I hope will end up sooner or later as a book on the subject. It is within this perspective that in 1996 I organised a conference on 'Saint Thomas in the 14th century' in Toulouse. I am, in fact, convinced that the massive rejection of the 'commentators' by mid-20th century Thomism - even if it has good and multiple reasons for doing so - ignores, however, the fundamentally 'traditional' character of all exercise of thought, and especially, of Thomistic thought. Certainly, when it is about interpreting saint Thomas, nothing surpasses the direct reading of texts, but when it is about elaborating for today a way of thinking that is inspired by Thomas, it is difficult to economise on critical references to the living tradition, both doctrinal and institutional, which makes up the 'Thomistic School'.
This rejection of the 'commentators' leaves unexplored the historico-doctrinal study of Thomistic traditions: it is so to say a virgin and totally fascinating path that opens up to the doctrinal historian.
At present, I am preparing a new version of the translation of the treatises on creation and on evil in the Summa Theologiae and also a paper on the question of the limbos in saint Thomas for the conference that the 'Institut Saint-Thomas de Toulouse' organises on May 26-27, 2000, around the theme of the supernatural. It seems to me that the theory of the limbos, generally held during the 13th century, offers an interesting clarification for determining the precise nature of the natural longing to see God: indeed, on the one hand, the unbaptized children that have died lack the vision of the divine essence, but on the other hand, it has to be maintained that they do not suffer (and that they are happy?).
What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?
Saint Thomas is an old friend of mine. I started to frequent him since the age of 17. Trained in a secular school milieu, I soon discovered the need to appeal to a structured and structuring Christian way of thinking. And I have not been disappointed.
Probably, Saint Thomas has not given me the answers to all questions, but he has taught me - at least, I hope so - to pose the philosophical and theological problems correctly and to place them in an overall perspective. I think that if he had not been a theologian, Saint Thomas would probably have been an architect: he has the genius of order, of architectonics.
Furthermore, I remain profoundly attracted to the forma mentis that is typical of scholasticism: to seek conceptual clarity and precision, to exercise thought with constant reference to a cumulative tradition of interpretation.
I also appreciate more and more the 'catholic' spirit of saint Thomas, that is to say, his concern not to lose something of the truth wherever it may be, to integrate that part of the truth that is present with the opponens.
Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher in your thomistic education?
During my first years of Dominican religious life, I was fortunate to meet two masters in Thomism: Father M.-M. Labourdette, who is the author of a monumental commentary on the whole of the Secunda Pars and Father M.-V. Leroy, who taught dogmatic theology, but who, unfortunately, wrote very little. Both of them were profoundly marked by the friendship and the intellectual influence of 'Jacques', that is, of Jacques Maritain.
They have passed on to me and to my Dominican fellow brothers from Toulouse, the doctrinal and institutional heritage of the venerable Thomistic school of Saint-Maximin. It is, in my view, a great privilege to be able to join in this way a living doctrinal tradition.
It is true that the masters of Saint-Maximin - without being hostile to it - were hardly sensitive to the historical approach to the works of Saint Thomas. While working in Fribourg (Switzerland) with Father Jean-Pierre Torrell and Professor Rudi Imbach, whose assistant I had the chance to be for one year, I become more and more convinced of the importance of the application of the historical method to saint Thomas.
What works of Aquinas are you most familiar with?
As it is for most Thomists, the Summa Theologiae is my basic book, but the historical approach to the work of Saint Thomas clearly demands that it be used in relation to the whole of the 'Thomasian' corpus.
When I worked on my thesis, under Father Torrell, on the second question of De Veritate (De scientia Dei), to which I wanted to propose a reading guide, I was led to scrutinise the whole of the disputed questions.
Should I state that the preacher, which I am by profession, is also very well nourished by the scriptural commentaries of Saint Thomas?
What is the importance of Aquinas-research for our times (especially in your discipline)?
It seems to me that Saint Thomas offers today an adequate model concerning the way of doing theology. Five points seem to me of special importance:
(1) the privileged instrument of the intellectus fidei is a philosophy of being
(2) Theology is the work of intelligence. It does not fear to have recourse to the concept
(3) The theologian elaborates his own doctrine in an ongoing confrontation with the preceding theological tradition. Contrary to the artificial opposition between the quid homines senserunt and the veritas rerum which a certain kind of Thomism wanted to establish, the theological practice of saint Thomas attests that the quid homines senserunt is the privileged way to the veritas rerum.
(4) Theology has a sapiential vocation. The intellectus fidei aims at a contemplative synthesis that is not content with the fragmentation of theological disciplines.
(5) Doing theology presupposes a permanent contact with the living sources of faith (Scripture, Tradition, the life of the Church) and shows itself to be a source of spiritual life.
What are your expectations of the Thomas Instituut?
I am very happy with the establishment of the Thomas Institute of Utrecht. I learned about it when I received the first (and excellent) publications at the editorial office of the Revue Thomiste. I am pleased with the project of the Thomas Institute to rediscover a Thomas who is properly a theologian, and I think that this orientation of the Institute is very promising. Furthermore, the theme of the next conference of the Thomas Institute meets my interest in reflecting upon Thomism as a doctrinal tradition.
What do you think of the Internet in general and in what manner could the Thomas Instituut make better use of this medium?
Until now, the Internet has been more an instrument for information for me than a tool to work with. In this respect, the site of the Thomas Institute in Utrecht is the one we like to consult most at the editorial office of the Revue Thomiste. The information it offers makes it possible to widen the Thomistic horizon.
Which of your books/articles do you consider the most important?
The list of my opera omnia is not very impressing! In my doctoral thesis (1992), I try to put to practice a certain way of reading texts of Saint Thomas. Now I think my articles on the historiography of Thomism and on the medieval Thomistic tradition (especially Jean Cabrol, aka Capreolus) are the ones that are most original in the perspective of rehabilitating the notion of 'doctrinal tradition' or 'school'.
English translation by Harm Goris