Why Do They Call Him “Angelic Doctor”? 5

January 28th, Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Reblogged from The New Theological Movement

The Common Doctor, St. Thomas is often referred to as “Aquinas” after his hometown of Aquino. His most beloved title, however, is the “Angelic Doctor” – and it is this designation which inspires the greatest devotion to the saintly Dominican theologian.

Why is St. Thomas Aquinas properly called the “Angelic Doctor”, the “Angelic Thomas”, and the “Angel of the Schools”?

The titles of Church Doctors

The Doctors of the Church are often designated according to specific epithets which express their characteristic excellence.

Hence, St. Augustine is the “Doctor of Grace” as he was particularly important in developing the Church’s theology of grace. St. Francis de Sales is the “Doctor of Charity” as he was most gentle and filled with love. St. John of the Cross is the “Mystical Doctor” since his writings expound the way of mystical union with God. Et cetera.

St. Thomas Aquinas, however, is called the “Common Doctor” (not to be confused with the “Universal Doctor”, St. Albert who wrote on nearly every subject including the natural sciences). St. Thomas is called the “Common Doctor” because his learning is so great and excellent as to make him the Doctor of not merely any one specific area of theology, but rather of every area and of all theology together.

Thus, as St. Augustine holds a primacy in the theology of grace, and St. John of the Cross in spiritual theology, St. Thomas Aquinas is the sure guide and master in every area of theological inquiry. He towers above all the others as not merely the greatest theologian, but a true Angel sent from heaven to impart knowledge to the Church on earth.
Thus, St. Thomas is called, most especially, the Angelic Doctor – and this surname inspires the greatest piety among the faithful.

Angelic purity
St. Thomas is called “Angelic” on account of his great purity. After an incident in which he gained perfect purity through struggling against a certain temptress forced upon him by his family (who were trying to keep him from becoming a Dominican), St. Thomas was girded with a mystical belt of purity by two angels.

Now, since purity is most especially a quality of the angels – who neither are given nor give themselves in marriage – it is fitting that the most pure St. Thomas should be compared to these celestial spirits.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that St. Thomas’ treatment of issues related to human sexuality is marked by his great purity, such that he is able to affirm what is good without scruple.

Angelic doctrine
Moreover, St. Thomas is called the “Angelic Doctor” insofar as he is the expert on the doctrine of angels. More than any other writer (not excepting even the great St. Dionysius), St. Thomas has influenced the Church’s doctrine on the angelic spirits.

Among many notable points which St. Thomas taught regarding the angels, we specify the following:

That there are three hierarchies in which reside nine choirs of angels, that Lucifer began in the state of grace before falling, that there are more angels than specks of dust in the universe, that “angel” refers not to a nature but to the ministry of being a messenger, that each “angel” is its own species, and that angels have no bodies but are pure spirits (a point disputed even by the great St. Bonaventure).

The Angelic St. Thomas has greatly influenced the Church’s teaching and the peoples devotion regarding the angels.

Angelic wisdom
Again, we assert that St. Thomas is “angelic” insofar as his wisdom is likened to that of the angels. As pure spirits, the angels are not limited to the particulars of discursive reasoning, but see the whole of doctrine as one in a single unified vision. Thus, the angels are able to grasp the great unity of all theology – and this is the essence of wisdom.

St. Thomas, likewise, excels every other theologian in this point. He is able to see the essential unity of all theology in God. Thus, even in a large work like the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas is always able to place the particular question at hand within the larger context of theology.

While the Angelic Thomas is excellent in every detail, he never once loses the forest for the trees.

Angelic piety
Further, as the angels are far more rational than men, yet they are also far more pious. In them, learning does not work against but rather strengthens devotion. And this is true also in the case of the Angelic Thomas.

Sadly, in our own day, great learning often seems to be coupled with some level of doubt and even loss of faith – but, with St. Thomas, this is not the case. Rather, as one reads and understands the Common Doctor, he is then brought to a greater and greater devotion through this reasoning about the faith.

The great gift of St. Thomas was to connect reason with piety. We take occasion here to note that the superb Thomistic theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (some of whose works are linked in the right side-column) is also notable for this trait.

An Angelic guide
Finally, though there are many more, I will add only one further sense in which St. Thomas is rightly called “angelic” – as the angel guardian serve as guides for the soul, so too St. Thomas is a true guide for the children of the Church in all areas of theology.

The Second Vatican Council teaches this in reference to seminary training for future priests:

“In order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections.” (Optatum Totius 16)

This deeper penetration of the mysteries of faith, which the Council (and also Canon 252 of the Code of Canon Law) demands of those to be ordained priests, is meant to be accomplished with St. Thomas as teacher and guide.

St. Thomas is thus rightly called the “Angel of the Schools” insofar as he serves as a sort of angelic guardian and guide for the schools and systems of theology. So long as they remain under his protection and care, not only will they penetrate to the riches of dogmatic theology and Sacred Scripture, but their minds will be freed from the many unsound and pernicious doctrines of the modern world which far too often have crept into many books of theology and have penetrated into the minds of so many priests and laity.

When we pray to our guardian angel we ask him to be out our side “to light, to guard, to rule, to guide.” This same prayer can be appropriated to the Angelic Thomas: that his teaching may enlighten our minds, may guard us from all error, may rule over us as indeed he rules as the Common Doctor in the Church, and to guide us to the deepest penetration of the mysteries of salvation.

O Angelic Thomas, Pray for us!


  1. I really liked this post, it was filled with good information and I learned a lot. But there was one part that gave me pause . . . “struggling against a certain temptress forced upon him by his family”.
    I know that women were largely regarded as the property first of their fathers, then of their husbands in times past. They had no rights, they had little power over their lives, and the virgin martyrs and their suffering attests to that. I thought that the term “temptress” was not exactly accurate: I would think that this was a very young girl, probably a teenager, whose opinion about this situation was not asked. She, too, was forced into playing a role. It seems unfair to think of her as a temptress, as a willing participant when the circumstances were probably quite different. To accept this picture without protest is to continue to see women as things, as madonna or whore, and not as full human beings.
    I don’t doubt that this all happened, I simply think a better choice of words would paint a more accurate picture and avoid a stereotype that has been damaging to half of humanity.

    • You’re right, temptress is a very derogatory term and it’s also vague — i.e., does not tell the whole story. Of course all of this happened nearly 600 years ago, so getting all the facts at this point really means going on someone else’s official account, who in this case would have been Thomas’s official scribe, biographer, and close friend, Br. Reginald. According to his story, the woman or girl in question was a prostitute. St Thomas’s family was a very rich and influential family in that area, they had the means to get what they wanted, but not necessarily always the morals to do what is right. Regarding prostitution, that’s always been a thorny societal problem, which really concerns the points you raised, because it always relates to how society treats women and regards their dignity. The greater sin, in my opinion, here rests more on the other complicit party (Thomas’s father) than on the girl he commissioned to seduce him. Otherwise, she would not have been there in the first place.

      I have to agree with you Reinkat. Thanks for your comment and for pointing this out. God bless!

      • Thanks, Biltrix. As you say, this happened 6 centuries ago, and who knows exactly what happened. To just speculate further, perhaps Br.Reginald simply saw things through his own cultural lens. In a world where men freely slept around, kept mistresses, etc, while women wore chastity belts . . . would a night with a prostitute really have been the way to stop St. Thomas from becoming a Dominican? Probably not . . . but a night with an approved-by-the-family young woman whom he would then be expected to marry and carry on the family name with, now THAT would stop him.

        But it’s all speculation, and takes nothing away from the wonderful life and example that St. Thomas is for us. He has inspired many a priest in their vocation, and been a blessing and gift to us all.

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