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Aquinas - a mirror and a reliable guide

Carlo Leget has been a member of the Thomas Instituut since 1990, and former webmaster of this site. On November 1, he left the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht (KTU) where the Thomas Instituut is located, in order to teach medical ethics at the department of Ethics, Philosophy and History of Medicine of the University Medical Center St. Radboud in Nijmegen.
What did you do during the last years at the KTU? Which courses did you teach?

During the last years I had three jobs simultaneously. As an assistant professor of moral theology I taught a general introduction to moral theology and a course on moral matters in the personal sphere. As a postdoc research fellow I have been busy writing a book on the art of dying (to be published in March 2003) and a book on Thomas Aquinas and Paul Ricoeur’s theory of emotions (unfinished).

What research - on Aquinas - did you do?

My research on Aquinas has gradually shifted from his view on life and death – which I studied in my dissertation – towards his theological ethics in general and the role of emotions in particular. End of life issues seem to be a continuous point of my attention, both in the form of eschatology and moral questions.

Are you going to continue your current research?

I hope so, because I have not finished my book on Aquinas and Ricoeur and I find it hard to leave unfinished a project I once started and in which I still believe. At the same time it is not very likely that I will be able to dedicate much time to Aquinas the coming year: I will have to spend a lot of time preparing and giving new courses, and getting used to the habits and expectations of my new work place.

How were you introduced to the thought of Aquinas?

I was introduced to Aquinas in the mid-eighties as an undergraduate when I joined a group of students who read Aquinas under the supervision of Prof. Ferdinand de Grijs, the founding father of the Thomas Instituut. We read the Scriptum (in Latin of course) by making a translation, starting from the very beginning with Thomas’s first academic sermon. It was a tough job and not very inspiring. But I was fascinated by Aquinas, partly because I had been told that (neo-)thomism had caused a lot of damage. So I wanted to find out who was at the roots of all this, and see if Aquinas really was such a bad guy.

Who have been your mentors and masters in your study of Aquinas?

In the first place Ferdinand de Grijs who taught me to read Aquinas theologically and who made me sensitive of the way theology and spirituality are two sides of the same coin in Aquinas’s work. De Grijs taught his students that theology should not end up in hermeneutics and stressed the importance of theologians speaking themselves about God instead of endlessly discussing the work of other theologians. He also stressed the importance of the Church in doing theology – which was a rather controversial issue in the Netherlands of the eighties.
A second master of Aquinas is Prof. Theo Beemer who helped me understand Aquinas’s moral theology. Beemer’s approach to Aquinas is characterized by his attention to human beings as corporeal emotional creatures and a feeling for the social and political dimensions of his thought. Although I studied Aquinas under Beemer’s supervision already as a Ph.D. student, his influence is hardly noticeable in my dissertation. Beemer’s influence continued to take shape in my approach via the collaboration with my colleague Prof. Frans Vosman who is even more a student of Beemer’s.
Apart from these two Dutch masters there are many Aquinas scholars that have shaped my reading by their articles and books, like David Burrell, Servais Pinckaers, Otto Hermann Pesch and others.

What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?

That is hard to tell. Aquinas has been very important to my development as a roman catholic theologian. In the first place because Aquinas helped me see the nexus mysteriorum, the connections between the different mysteries of faith. In the second place, because he helped me to develop a framework of thought that helps me reflect on things without losing sight of the larger whole. Apart from these two things, reading Aquinas’s work has helped me to develop a number of intellectual virtues that have been stressed by others in this series of interviews, like e.g. looking for the strength of the arguments of one’s opponents.

What is the importance of Aquinas and of research on Aquinas in our times?

Aquinas’s importance is huge in a number of ways: as a thinker to learn from, as a key to the teaching of the Church, as a reliable guide in theologicis, as a mirror to discover our own weak and blind spots, etc. For moral theology I consider knowledge of Aquinas as indispensable in order to understand the teaching of the church and place it in a broader historical, theolological and philosophical perspective.

How do you see the work of the Thomas Instituut now and its development for the next few years? To what matters should the Thomas Instituut lend priority?

The next year will be a harvest year for the Thomas Instituut, since we are expecting three new dissertations in a few months’ time: Stephan Gradl on happiness, Mark Robin Hoogland on the passion of Christ, and Eric Luyten on the sacrament of penance. At the same time, the institute should continue investing in new research projects. As the university system develops nowadays I think that Ph.D. projects are among the rare occasions where students can learn to read and understand Aquinas in Latin. So for Ph.D. students I would focus on just doing (historical) Aquinas research. For those who hold a Ph.D., however, I think the theological needs in our country are so great that they should focus on contemporary theology, using Aquinas as a mirror and a help. As for the larger perspective, the institute should continue to develop as a forum on which different ‘brands’ of Thomism can meet and discuss issues of importance. And of course, the Institute should cherish its international contacts!

You have been webmaster of the Thomas Instituut. Have you got any ideas for us concerning our website and the manner in which we could use this medium in the future?

The great thing about the internet is it’s web like structure. So I think it is important for this site to continue linking to other sites. This could be ameliorated by e.g. linking to personal pages of scholars of interest.
The interviews should continue: they are a good way of giving Aquinas research a human face and getting in touch with interesting people.
Another idea that never really came off the ground was the idea of a virtual place in which people could present their new book. After Ron McCamy a few years ago no one followed. But I still think the idea is good.

Where are you going to work? Can you tell us something about your activities there?

I am going to work at the department of Ethics, Philosophy and History of Medicine of the University Medical Center (UMC) St. Radboud in Nijmegen. The UMC is an institution joining the former medical department of the Catholic University (KUN) and the academic hospital. My activities will be teaching ethics to medical students, doing research into the ethics of palliative care and genetics, and service to health care workers by giving lectures and trainings.


Do you wish to do any research on Aquinas in the future?

Of course I do. Once Aquinas’s thought has ‘infected’ your brains and heart it is hard to get rid of him. At this moment I do not see precisely how Aquinas will continue to play a role in my work. I will have to teach medical ethics to medical students who are for a major part interested in becoming a good medical doctor rather than becoming a good philosopher of theologian (which is fine of course, as you will notice when you are ill). But it means that their attention is practical rather than theoretical and they do not mind very much about history. What I do know is that I will have to start from contemporary problems and questions in a secularized context and see how to relate this to Aquinas instead of the other way round.

Can you give us the titles of some of your publications so that readers may get to know more about your work?

As a member of the Thomas Instituut I have the privilege of a personal page on the Instituut’s website where all my publications are listed: Carlo Leget.

How can readers contact you in the future?

By e-mail at my new workplace (c.leget@efg.umcn.nl) or at home (carlo.leget@wanadoo.nl).

Carlo, thank you very much and we wish you lots of luck at your new workplace in Nijmegen!


Utrecht, 30 October 2002
Cristina Pumplun