Interview with

Prof. Dr. Romanus Cessario OP

22.07. 2004



1.      Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.  Since 1995, I have taught theology at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts.  This archdiocesan seminary belongs to a larger consortium of Catholic and other theological schools located in the Boston area.  Because of the Boston Theological Institute (BTI), students from these schools are able to enroll in my courses.  Prior to coming to Boston, I taught at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

2.     What research are you doing at this moment and what courses are you teaching?

My major areas of teaching include courses in sacramental and moral theology.  In addition, I teach special courses (seminars) in the moral and theological virtues, on the metaphysics of the Incarnation and on the mysteries of Christ’s life, and on creation, providence, and sin as well as the treatise on divine grace and freedom.  I recently began research for a book on the seven sacraments, with special emphasis on the Thomist teaching about “physical” causality.  I also continue to work on the companion volume to my 1996, CHRISTIAN FAITH AND THE THEOLOGICAL LIFE (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press) that will treat extensively the theological virtues of hope and charity.

3.     What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?

This is a difficult question to answer.  In brief, I would probably respond that his conception of theology as a science is “the most important thing” that I have learned from Aquinas.  It is very useful, especially for contemporary theologians, to realize that theology is capable of surrendering conclusions to questions that arise in the human mind when man is confronted with the wonderful truths of divine revelation.  Aquinas stays a steady course between rationalism and aesthetical or descriptive theology.  In other words, he avoids the temptation both to constrain theology within self-explanatory human categories and to produce edifying discourse that, although it enlarges on divine revelation, does not help the reader to penetrate what God has communicated through his Son Jesus Christ to our world.  I could also reply that the most important things that Aquinas teaches our generation are those elements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that reference his authority or the authority of those who have studied the writings of the Common Doctor, such as the Fathers of the Council of Trent.  These multiple numbers in the Catechism confirm the contemporaneity of Aquinas’s title as the Church’s “Common Doctor.”  Adverting to certain recent encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, namely, Veritatis splendor and Ecclesia de Eucharistia could develop another reply, narrower than the previous ones.  I think that Aquinas’s instruction in moral theology and on the sacraments, especially the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, ranks among his most outstanding contributions to the new evangelization.  My INTRODUCTION TO MORAL THEOLOGY (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2001) aims to exhibit this feature of Veritatis splendor.  There are many other things that Saint Thomas has taught me, but it would require writing a special book to enumerate them all.  Before leaving this question, I should mention, however, the example of the saint’s life.  Aquinas dedicated himself to all things Dominican.  Once I had the opportunity to visit Capua. On the facade of the Dominican Church in that city there was a plaque which commemorated the fact that Aquinas himself had come to this ancient cathedral town (which is near Naples) to examine the site for a church that he then suggested should be dedicated to the founder of the Dominicans, Saint Dominic de Guzman.

4.   In which way were you introduced to the thought of Thomas and whom do you consider to be your teacher in Aquinas.

I first learned about Saint Thomas Aquinas from my early teachers in Catholic schools, who presented us with his life along with those of other saints.  In high school, I did read some authors of the neo-scholastic period.  However, my real introduction to the thought of Aquinas came after I became associated with the Dominicans.  We first used popular introductions into Thomist theology and philosophy, and then we were exposed to the figures of the Thomist tradition by our seminary professors, both at the now defunct Saint Stephen’s College in Dover, Massachusetts (near Boston) and at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.  The students of my period were fortunate inasmuch as our professors had not abandoned the Thomist tradition in the wake of the Second Vatican Council’s call for renewal of theology.  Instead they made an effort to show that Aquinas remained a prime interpreter of what the Council had taught.  I especially remember our professor of New Testament, Father Alan Smith, O.P.  He was well known in biblical circles of his day, and is said to have reviewed privately some of the best known biblical scholars of the immediate post-conciliar period.  He began his lectures on Saint Paul, especially on Galatians and Romans, by acknowledging that the best way to learn what these New Testament writings teach is to study what Aquinas has to say about justification and transformation in grace.  His instruction made an impression on me.  Earlier, I was privileged to study under Father Thomas Dominic Rover, O.P., who in his day was one of the best interpreters of Aquinas’s aesthetics and poetics, in addition to his successes in writing plays for Broadway and poetry for publication.  Finally, I should mention Father William Augustine Wallace, O.P., whose work on Galileo has won him international notice, and who deserves much credit for the way that the Dominicans resisted trends that had become quite fashionable within American theological circles during the early 70s, and which now, I should note, have been more or less completely discarded.  Father Wallace’s efforts ensured that classical Thomism remained a feature of Dominican intellectual life in the Province of Saint Joseph long after other schools in the United States, even Dominican ones, had abandoned classical Thomism.  He is still teaching at the University of Maryland.  These men communicated a sense of the perennial value that Aquinas possesses.  In this task, they prefigured what Pope John Paul II has acknowledged, especially in his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio.  Before leaving the seminary, I knew and studied under other teachers devoted to Saint Thomas, including Father William J. Hill, O.P., who later taught at The Catholic University of America.  After my priestly ordination, I met the Dominicans who were teaching during the mid-1970s at the ALBERTINUM in Fribourg, Switzerland.  These good priests included Thomists of international acclaim, who taught in the several branches both of philosophy, such as the Flemish Dominican, Father Norbert Luyten, and of theology, such as the French Dominican, Father Jean-Hervé Nicolas. My own Doctor-Father was the Irish Dominican, Eugene Colman O’Neill, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude.  As a sign of my recognition, I re-edited two of his works on the sacraments, which still are available and merit reading, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (Long Island, NY:  Alba House, 1991) and Sacramental Realism (Chicago, IL: Midwest Theological Forum).  I wrote my dissertation on Christian satisfaction in Aquinas, and a revised version of the text is now available from Fordham University Press (Bronx, NY) under the title THE GODLY IMAGE:  CHRIST AND SALVATION IN CATHOLIC THOUGHT FROM ANSELM TO AQUINAS, originally published in a collection at St Bede's Press.  Finally, I should mention the witness and friendship of Father Benedict Ashley, O.P., a chief representative of the River Forest School (Chicago) of Thomism, who continues to help me see things through Thomist eyes, especially since I began my own teaching in the 1980s.

5.     What is the importance of Aquinas for our times?

There are three things that Aquinas can teach theologians at the beginning of the third millennium, and throughout the course of what Pope John Paul II has called the new evangelization.  First, that theology remains at the service of the Church and therefore is subject to the pleasure of the Roman Pontiff.  In other words, the last thing that Aquinas would have considered himself is a freewheeling university professor.  Granted that he did his theology in university settings (among others), Aquinas remains an ecclesial theologian.  He wants his philosophical and theological work to serve the good of Christ’s Gospel and the good of Christ’s members, both clergy and lay.  This happens only within the Church of Christ.  Second, that the Christian thinker must interest himself in both nature and grace, faith and reason, Church and State.  The Reform of the 16th century and other developments in the modern period have made it difficult to sustain the kind of harmonious, though subordinated, view that Aquinas presented of heaven and earth.  Contemporary Thomists should make an effort to retrieve this important feature of Aquinas’s thought.  I would like to mention the witness of Professor Steven A. Long, whose work on the obediential potency and related issues, illustrates the differentiation of finalities that Aquinas recognizes in the human person.  Third and finally, that the Christian thinker himself must live a holy life.  To live a holy life does not mean to live a sinless life.  Saint Thomas, we are told, went to confession very frequently, as was the custom of his day, especially before celebrating the Holy Mass.  To live a holy life in the Thomist sense is to observe the rhythms of sin and forgiveness, of sacramental mediation and the personal renewal that it ensures, and to keep one’s eye on the mystery of God’s love which always exceeds our expectations and our imaginations.  Aquinas lived his own life according to the adage that God loves us not because we are good but because He alone is good.  The creature can only participate in this goodness, which for angelic and human persons includes the possibility of elevation to divine friendship through grace.

6.     How would you describe the current status of Thomism in the USA ?

In many respects, Thomism in the United States is not what it was fifty years ago.  But it would be unprofitable to attempt to review the reasons for this apparent reversal.  In any event, the main reason for the decline of Thomist studies in the United States would be the same as for its decline in Europe.  There are in the United States several bright spots, however.  First,  I would mention Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and its school of advanced theology under the leadership of Father Matthew Lamb.  Within this new initiative, we discover working one of the most promising of young Thomists, Professor Matthew Levering.  His articles and books (some in collaboration with Professor Michael Dauphinais) are well known and available on the Internet.  Special mention is owed to Professor Levering’s initiative with the English edition of Nova et Vetera, which is rapidly becoming one of the premier Thomist journals in the English-speaking world.  Second, I would mention the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.  Father John Corbett has assumed the teaching of moral theology, and thus brings to the United States a direct and personal link with the work of Dominican Father Servais Pinckaers, under whom Father Corbett wrote his thesis. Other younger professors are also learning the métier.  Many are being trained at Fribourg, such as Professor Peter Augustine Judd, O.P.  The editorial offices of THE THOMIST, the best-known American journal for Thomists, are located at the Dominican House of Studies.  Thirdly, I would mention the work of Thomists who are still active, such as Fathers Wallace and Ashley.  The Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Washington, DC., recently inaugurated the Ashley Institute that is dedicated to expounding the rich and detailed studies that Father Benedict Ashley has accomplished over a period of almost sixty years of advanced scholarship.  Lastly, mention should be made of Thomas Aquinas College in California and Christendom College in Virginia. Their faculties supply instruction in the works of Aquinas and his commentators.

7.     Which publications of yourself do you consider to be the most important for Aquinas' researchers to read?

In addition to the titles already mentioned, I would recommend among my book publications the following: the recently published A SHORT HISTORY OF THOMISM available from Catholic University of America Press and the earlier THE MORAL VIRTUES AND THEOLOGICAL ETHICS at University of Notre Dame Press.  For connoisseurs of as well as beginners in the study of the tradition that extends from Aquinas, I would recommend the edition that Professor Kevin White and I produced in 2001 of John Capreolus’s treatise on the virtues, entitled THE VIRTUES, which is available from the Catholic University of America Press.  There is also my own presentation of the virtues of the Christian life, which exists in Italian, Spanish, and English in the AMATECA series.