Two followers of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy walk into a bar to discuss the sad state of the world, trying to outdo one another in describing the greatest evils. They finally arrive at what seems like the worst person doing the most horrible deed, a Kermit Gosnell character performing partial-birth abortions and storing the bloody body parts around his filthy office. One Thomist looks at the other to deliver the ultimate philosophical punchline, “Yes, but he is still good insofar as he is.”
Get it? Well, maybe you had to be there. But the idea is that these devotees of the Angelic Doctor are pushing to the limit the notion that anything that exists is good, even if the only thing that is good about that thing is that it exists.
The idea stems from the teaching that all beings (both animate and inanimate) participate in the act of “to be” (esse). And the ultimate act of “to be” is God, who is being itself. Thus, all things that exist do so contingently, to the extent that they participate in God’s “to be”.
This may all sound like high philosophy but it actually has some practical applications to the principles of our pro-life movement: Every life is sacred, has dignity and is good in itself, no matter how sick, disabled, painful, depressed one’s life may be. Life is good because it shares in the good of God. Life is worth living.
The philosophy of “esse” was brought home to me at an early age when my first-grade teacher, Sister Elaine, told the class that God has us all in mind at this very moment, and this next moment, and this next. It was quite a thought, to think that God was thinking about me and everyone else in the room, and everyone else in the world. Then Sister Elaine added, “If God stopped thinking about you for one instant, you would cease to exist. You wouldn’t just die, you would cease to exist.” Now that was something to expand and maybe explode the mind of a 6-year-old. The statement seemed overly dramatic and a bit scary. After all, what if God forgot about me for even a millisecond? Poof! But Sister went on to explain that, of course, God loves us so much that he would never forget any one of us. Each one of us is always in his mind, written on the “palm of his hand,” just as surely as our guardian angels are watching over us each moment of each day.
I will say one thing about a Catholic education in the early in 1960s; it certainly got kids to think about very important things at a very early age.
Years later, when I took a course in metaphysics, I realized that Sister Elaine was expressing a very basic premise of Catholic philosophy. When Thomas says that all things that exist participate in God’s act of “to be”, he doesn’t mean that God brought things into existence by his power and they now live off that initial creative act. Thomas did not believe in the clockmaker God who set things in motion and took a nap. No, he means that at each and every moment, a thing that exists does so by here and now participating in God’s act of “to be.” As my metaphysics teacher explained, Thomas sees existence as a chain of being; if any one link in the chain breaks the whole structure fails. Each and every link relies on the existence of each and every other link to exist here and now. This insight is the ground for Thomas’s proof for the existence of God. There is only one necessary being that exists of itself, and that being we call God. All other things exist at this moment through God’s own act of being.
St. Thomas has another distinction in my experience. He is the only Catholic saint whose philosophy was quoted to me by a pro-abortion escort while I was sidewalk counseling outside a clinic. “Why don’t you follow the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas?” the escort asked me. “He said that life begins at the quickening when the soul enters the body days after conception.” Wow! I had dealt with a lot of unexpected situations and challenges as a sidewalk counselor, but this was unique.
Thinking a moment, I came up with an answer. “The Catholic Church follows modern science, not the biology of the Middle Ages. We know now that at conception all chromosomes are present and the living being has everything he or she needs to grow into a fully formed baby born into the world. We’ve moved on from outdated science and so should you.”
But enough of metaphysics.
The Thomistic view of being is also is set against the notion that one life is inherently better than another, more valuable or worthwhile. To say that even Gosnell – or Judas or Hitler, to push the limits further – are good insofar as they exist, is to say that we all have the capacity for good and evil. In other words, there but for the grace of God go I.
Gosnell, Judas, Hitler. These hideous actors bore within themselves the primordial good of existence. They did bad things while on earth, and are likely to suffer the consequences of their sins in eternity, but the great affirmation of the Thomistic view is that they didn’t have to act that way. They could have done good in their lives, they could have repented and turned from evil and sin. There was always something good within them that could have led them out of the shadows—if they made the right choice.
Thus Thomism is a great defense of the doctrine of free will. It is also a remedy to pride, for those who think themselves inherently better than or superior to others. As pro-lifers, we know we have certain truths, but we should hold them humbly as gifts that God has bestowed on us that must be shared in love. With St. Thomas, we must see the good in others, even those who oppose us. God has them in mind as well.