Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP
May 19, 2012
We gather today on the occasion of the 80th Commencement of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology to celebrate our students who have completed their course of study with us and to honor them by the conferral of degrees. To appreciate the significance of their accomplishment we can do no better than to have recourse to our teacher and mentor, St. Thomas Aquinas.
In his Summa Theologiae (II-II, 188, 5) St. Thomas asks whether a religious order should be founded for the sake of study. I suspect that it will not prove to be a source of astonishment to us that he answers yes, but only after having entertained three objections: First, that religious life should be a school of perfection, but a gloss on Psalm 71 suggests that it is more perfect to praise God in ignorance than it is to be learned; second, that study leads to dissent, as has been manifested in the many disagreements among schools of philosophy, and dissent has no place in religious life; and third, that no believer should profess the same things as do unbelievers, but studies tend to lead to just that.
In the face of these objections, St. Thomas holds that study is entirely fitting to a religious order, precisely because religious life is a school of perfection: First, study enlightens the intellect and removes obstacles to the contemplation of God which is, after all, the highest reason for religious life; second, study is essential to preaching, which is to convert, not only hearts but minds, by means of the truth; third, the discipline of study requires a virtuous life, by which we tame the passions. To the objections, Thomas replies that the gloss referenced in the first objection refers only to the letter of the law which, St. Paul says, kills; in other words, there is no warrant to hold that scripture prefers ignorance to learning; to the second he replies that study itself does not lead to dissent, but only study without charity, whereby one is made proud; to the third he suggests that any focus of study, even of non-believers, is appropriate so long as in our study we seek better to understand the Truth revealed to us in Christ.
The Church, of course, has recognized an order for the sake of preaching and study: it is the Dominican Order (our formal name is the Order of Preachers) and our students have pursued their studies in light of the charism of the Order –which is to preach: to convert by means of the Truth. Our students do not all become Dominicans, but through study each has imbibed something of the spirit of the Order:
A freedom to pursue a disinterested inquiry after the truth of things precisely because we are at the service of the One who is the Truth and nothing that is true can be far from him and, therefore, an openness to the truth wherever it is to be found, regardless of the source; a conviction that study is not futile, that we can achieve to real insight by means of our intelligence, most especially when it is illumined by faith; a confidence whereby we can entertain the questions even of those who appear to be hostile to the faith, because their questions are helpful to us to grow in understanding of what we have received; a generosity of spirit and the courage to pursue the truth even and especially when it is arduous; the hope –that is, the confident expectation– that, in our drive to understand and to speak we are responding to the call of God himself.
These dispositions are evidence of the charism of the Order and we expect that they will continue to be manifest in the life of our graduates: through a commitment to learning that is lifelong; through an ability to probe deeply into whatever matter is at hand; through exercising leadership, particularly in the formulation of the questions with which our society must contend; through a confidence in what they now see and in what Providence has ordained that they will come to see; through a willingness to speak what they they have learned for the sake of others.
As we confer upon our graduates the degrees for which they have studied we will, certainly, be acknowledging their accomplishment. The program here is rigorous. But, much more, we will be conferring upon them a commission to continue the work that they have begun with us. When members of our Order make their religious profession it is our custom to pray that the Lord will bring to completion the good work that he has begun in them. Let this, also, be the prayer that we offer for the sake of our graduates –and of every member of the DSPT community.