I've heard that there were two points of Catholic doctrine in Aquinas' Summa Theologica that were later successfully defended to the contrary. One, I think is the Immaculate Conception of Mary (although I don't know where that is in the Summa) and I'm not sure what the other one is.

Excluding things that might not exactly measure up to modern science. What are the points of doctrine in the Summa that don't line up with Eternal Law?

  • Much of what made it the final documents of the Council of Trent comes directly from St. Thomas and his Summa. The Holy Scriptures and the Summa were placed together on the altar at that council for a reason! ☺
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 15:45
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    @Nathaniel my question is 4 years older, I think that means something - maybe not in the eternal sense, but certainly in the temporal sense.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 14:24
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    @PeterTurner It does, but as you say, the answers on the other one are better. Ideally the answers could be merged to whichever question remains open. Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 14:27
  • @Nat shoot, I don't really want either question to be closed. I just wanted to point out there was additional info here. I already knew that it wasn't 100% without criticisms and there were at least 2 things proven to be wrong although I'm still not sure what the second was.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 14:40

4 Answers 4


There are two types of errors in the Summa. The first are of the type caused by a Medieval understanding of science and biology. The second are actual theological dead ends.

The most famous of both has the first causing the second. Thomas believed that the entirety of the body was in the man's "seed". Because of this he argued that the Virgin Mary was purified from sin in the womb. The current Catholic teaching, of course, is that the purification was at conception.

After that it really does become difficult to say that there are "points of doctrine in the Summa that don't line up with Eternal Law". There are competing perspectives which have been proposed, but that does not mean that that Thomas was wrong, simply that there are other, valid views and vocabulary which have been used to express the same thought.

  • OK, maybe I misheard the guy on the radio, it was a year or so ago. Maybe he meant there are two types of errors (if you event want to call them errors), not just exactly two errors. In any event, I'll stop thinking that unless I find out more.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 15:09
  • @PeterTurner I've been looking to find more than that. If you can find something, please post it. It would be great to read about it. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:14

Criticisms of the Summa Theologica

Are there any criticisms of the Summa Theologica within the Catholic Church?

Accusations of Denying the Immaculate Conception

His views on the Immaculate Conception went through three phases; cf. also ch. 2, art. 2, § "St. Thomas and the Immaculate Conception" of Mother of the Saviour and Our Interior Life by Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

St. Thomas did write in Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 44 q. 1 a. 3 ad 3:

Purity is increased by withdrawing from its opposite: hence there can be a creature than whom no more pure is possible in creation, if it be free from all contagion of sin: and such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin who was immune from original and actual sin.

Many have claimed that he wrote against the Immaculate Conception (cf. Summa Theologica III q. 27 "Of the Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin" and the editorial note at the top) and because of this, they claim his entire theology is flawed or outdated. For a defense of St. Thomas on this point, cf. Thomist Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.'s Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought ch. 37 Mariology", art. 3 "Mary's Sanctity," §1 "St. Thomas and the Immaculate Conception." (N.B.: The Immaculate Conception was not defined dogma in St. Thomas's time.)

Anti-Thomist Modernists and "New Theologians"

There are Modernist heretics like Henri Bouillard, S.J., who have criticized St. Thomas's theology as being outdated because, as the Thomist Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., describes it in the beginning of his Essence & Topicality of Thomism:

Certain souls [like Fr. Bouillard] today think that “a theology which is not current is a false theology” and that the theology of Saint Thomas in some of its important parts—e.g., when it conceives sanctifying or habitual Grace as a “form”—is only an application of the notions of Aristotelian physics, of the distinction between matter and form. And it is added: “Renouncing Aristotelian physics, modern thought has also deserted the notions and schemes that have value only for Aristotelian physics. Because theology continues to offer meaning to the spirit and can fertilize and progress with it, it is necessary that it renounces these notions.”

The theology of Saint Thomas, however, from this point of view, would no longer be current. And elsewhere it is also said: “A theology that is not current is therefore false.”

But why, then, would the Church recommend the doctrine of Saint Thomas to the point of insisting that professors of philosophy and theology teach this discipline “ad Angelici Doctoris rationem, doctrinam et principia, eaque sancte teneant”? [“according to the arguments, doctrine, and principles of the Angelic Doctor, to which they must religiously adhere”] ([1917] Codice Canonico, c. 1366). [cf. 1983 Code of Canon Law, can. 252 §3: “…students are to learn to penetrate more intimately the mysteries of salvation, especially with St. Thomas as a teacher.…”]

“The Christian truth, it is observed, is stuck in contingent notions and schemes which determine its rational structure. It is not possible to isolate it from them. It is not rendered independent from a system of notions but changing into another. History—nevertheless—does not lead to relativism. It permits the grasping, in the bosom of theological evolution, of an absolute. Not an absolute of description, but an absolute of affirmation. If the notions, methods, systems change; the affirmations that they contain remain, even if they are expressed in other categories.” [Bouillard’s condemned 1941 thesis Conversion et grâce chez S. Thomas d’Aquin]

Fr. Louis Bouyer, a Neo-Modernist, is another anti-Thomist.

The Nouvelle Théologie (New Theology) is an anti-Thomist movement which Pope Pius XII condemned in his encyclical Humani Generis (cf. "The structure of the encyclical Humani Generis" by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., the encyclical's ghostwriter). Nouvelle Théologie—New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II (2010) by Jürgen Mettepenningen is a good overview of battle waged between the Thomists and the New Theologians in ca. 1940s.

Accusations of Misogyny

Individual woman as "defective and misbegotten [deficiens et occasionatum]"

Some criticize St. Thomas for being misogynistic, e.g., when he says, in Summa Theologica I q. 92 a. 1 ("Whether the woman should have been made in the first production of things?") ad 1:

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten [deficiens et occasionatum], for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence;

"Occasionatum" means "caused accidentally," i.e., caused besides the intention of nature.

however, he continues:

On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten [occasionatum], but is included in nature's intention as directed to the work of generation [i.e., procreation].

In response to the objection (arg. 1) that God "should not have made woman" because she "would be an occasion of sin to man," St. Thomas replies (ad 3) that

If God had deprived the world of all those things which proved an occasion of sin, the universe would have been imperfect.

Thus, women perfect God's creation. From this alone it's clear that St. Thomas is a philogynist.

"in man [homine] the discretion of reason predominates"

In that same article (Summa Theologica I q. 92 a. 1), St. Thomas writes (arg. 2 & ad 2), in the context of Gn. 3:16: "Thou shalt be under the man's power":

…woman is naturally of less strength and dignity than man; "for the agent is always more honorable than the patient," as Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xii, 16). … [W]oman [femina] is naturally subject to man [viro], because in man [homine] the discretion of reason predominates. Nor is inequality among men [i.e., among humans] excluded by the state of innocence, as we shall prove (Question [96], Article [3]).

This passage is often misinterpreted as meaning that men are more rational than women; however, it's not so clear from the Latin, where St. Thomas uses two different words (vir = man/husband; homo = human, male or female) that in English are both translated as "man." A better translation would be:

[W]oman is naturally subject to man/husband [viro], because in mankind/humans [homine] the discretion of reason predominates.

In other words: It it is reasonable, to both males and females, that there be an inequality and thus order in the relation between males and females.

This is in accord with what St. Thomas says in the body ("I answer that…") of that article, where he discusses how in the plants and animals the distinction and inequality between the sexes is not as pronounced as it is in humans, and this is due to humans being rational creatures.

Accusations that St. Thomas's Argument for a Male-only Priesthood is Misogynistic

St. Thomas, in Summa Theologica suppl. q. 39 a. 1 ("Whether the female sex is an impediment to receiving Orders?") c., writes:

Certain things are required in the recipient of a sacrament as being requisite for the validity of the sacrament, and if such things be lacking, one can receive neither the sacrament nor the reality of the sacrament. Other things, however, are required, not for the validity of the sacrament, but for its lawfulness, as being congruous to the sacrament; and without these one receives the sacrament, but not the reality of the sacrament. Accordingly we must say that the male sex is required for receiving Orders not only in the second, but also in the first way. Wherefore even though a woman were made the object of all that is done in conferring Orders, she would not receive Orders, for since a sacrament is a sign, not only the thing, but the signification of the thing, is required in all sacramental actions; thus it was stated above (Question [32], Article [2]) that in Extreme Unction it is necessary to have a sick man, in order to signify the need of healing. Accordingly, since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection [cf. Gen. 3:16], it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.

The same criticisms of misogyny levied against St. Thomas here are also levied against St. Paul in, e.g., 1 Tim. 2:12, "I suffer not a woman to teach (in the Church), nor to use authority over the man," and Eph. 5, where St. Paul says that wives be subject to their husbands.

Other Instances Where St. Thomas Demonstrates He is not Misogynistic

Man and woman both created in God's image

Summa Theologica I q. 93 a. 4 ("Whether the image of God is found in every [hu]man?"):

Objection 1: It would seem that the image of God is not found in every man. For the Apostle says that "man is the image of God, but woman is the image [Vulg. glory] of man" (1 Cor. 11:7). Therefore, as woman is an individual of the human species, it is clear that every individual is not an image of God.

St. Thomas's reply:

Reply to Objection 1: The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman. Hence after the words, "To the image of God He created him," it is added, "Male and female He created them" (Gn. 1:27). Moreover it is said "them" in the plural, as Augustine (Gen. ad lit. iii, 22) remarks, lest it should be thought that both sexes were united in one individual. But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature. So when the Apostle had said that "man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man," he adds his reason for saying this: "For man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man."

For more information on this, see Dr. Pia de Solenni's award-winning book A hermeneutic of Aquinas's Mens (through a sexually differentiated epistemology: Towards an understanding of woman as imago Dei (2003); he is a critic of the "New Feminism."

Adam's sin alone, not Eve's, is the reason Original Sin passes onto his children.

Answering the question "Whether if Eve, and not Adam, had sinned, their children would have contracted original sin?" (Summa Theologica I-II q. 81 a. 5), St. Thomas writes (c.):

The solution of this question is made clear by what has been said. For it has been stated (a. 1) that original sin is transmitted by the first parent in so far as he is the mover in the begetting of his children: wherefore it has been said (a. 4) that if anyone were begotten materially only, of human flesh, they would not contract original sin. Now it is evident that in the opinion of philosophers, the active principle of generation is from the father, while the mother provides the matter. Therefore original sin, is contracted, not from the mother, but from the father: so that, accordingly, if Eve, and not Adam, had sinned, their children would not contract original sin: whereas, if Adam, and not Eve, had sinned, they would contract it.

Thus St. Thomas in no way blames women, like Adam did, for sin.

Why the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a man and not a woman
& St. Thomas's love for the Blessed Virgin

St. Thomas also addresses the question of why the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a man and not a woman, in Summa Theologica III q. 31 a. 4 ("Whether the matter of Christ's body should have been taken from a woman?"):

Objection 1: It would seem that the matter of Christ's body should not have been taken from a woman. For the male sex is more noble [nobilior] than the female. But it was most suitable that Christ should assume that which is perfect in human nature. Therefore it seems that He should not have taken flesh from a woman but rather from man: just as Eve was formed from the rib of a man.

to which he replied:

Reply to Objection 1: The male sex is more noble [nobilior] than the female, and for this reason He took human nature in the male sex. But lest the female sex should be despised, it was fitting that He should take flesh of a woman. Hence Augustine says (De Agone Christ. xi): "Men, despise not yourselves: the Son of God became a man: despise not yourselves, women; the Son of God was born of a woman."

This is a very balanced teaching that is in accord with Holy Scripture; however, some anti-Thomists still think it is misogynistic.

Also, St. Thomas had a very good relationship with his five biological sisters, whom he taught from a young age and converted; he convinced one of them to become a religious.

St. Thomas's Views on Sex

Some have the misconception that St. Thomas is against sexual intercourse or even marriage; however, his teaching on sex is fully inline with Catholic teaching: sex that is for the procreation and education of children is good and even virtuous, sex passes on original sin, and it is sinful if sought for its pleasure alone (thus, he's against contraception):

  • I q. 98 a. 2 ("Whether in the state of innocence there would have been generation by coition?")

  • II-II q. 152 a. 4 ("Whether virginity is more excellent than marriage?")

  • III (suppl.) q. 41 a. 3-4 ("Whether the marriage act is always sinful?" & "Whether the marriage act is meritorious?")

  • III (suppl.) q. 49 a. 4-6 ("Whether the marriage act is excused by the aforesaid goods [fidelity, offspring, sacrament]?" & "Whether the marriage act can be excused without the marriage goods?" & "Whether it is a mortal sin for a man to have knowledge of his wife, with the intention not of a marriage good but merely of pleasure?")


Well, to say that Thomas Aquinas was wrong presupposes that the person making this judgement knows the truth.

Well, maybe you mean, What did Aquinas say that the Catholic Church later rejected?

I'm a Baptist, which means I've come to different conclusions than Aquinas did on a number of points. (I've only read scattered fragments of the Summa, so I can't claim to know even a fraction of what Aquinas says.) But I think anyone who reads the Summa with an open mind must agree that Aquinas was a brilliant man with many valuable insights.

On a forum like this, the idea is to ask, What does this or that group believe and why? and limit debates about who is right. In that context, perhaps the better question would be, How does Aquinas differ from X? Or pick a specific conclusion from Aquinas and ask what the arguments for and against it are.

  • Fair enough, I'm asking from a specifically Catholic standpoint, I'd hope eventually a Thomist or, more likely, a Franciscan will swing by here and answer.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 3:05
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    This question was tagged catholicism and is asked in reference to terms such as Eternal Law and other RC specific terminology. I think it goes without saying that the only proper way to answer this question is to compare Aquinas to modern Roman Catholic doctrine and dogma, with the latter being the standard. With that established, your answer says almost nothing in relation to the actual question.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 5:20
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    Well, if I misunderstood the question, fine, I don't want to argue about it. Is "Eternal Law" a term used by Catholics to refer to a specific collection of doctrinal assertions? I was reading the question as referring to "eternal law" as it is defined in the Summa Theologica: "Accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements." (Part 2.1, Q 93) i.e. as a general concept. Also note my second paragraph above.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 17:40

Constancy of Change in Sexual Ethics, By Fr. James T. Bretzke, www.americamagazine.org/issue/5151/article/road-ahead
"Today neither magisterial teaching nor most moral theologians fully embrace the Angelic Doctor’s paradigm of “unnatural vice” (masturbation), a species of lust, contrary to both reason and the natural order and, after bestiality and sodomy, the “gravest sexual sin,” ranking ahead of, in descending order of gravity, incest, rape, adultery, seduction and fornication (ST II-II. Q. 154, art. 11-12). Masturbation’s violation of the sexual faculty’s sole primary procreative end made it seriously sinful."

If Aquinas named this sin as worse than incest and rape, his logical faculties were not as great as they are praised to have been. If he could screw this up, what else did he screw up?

To be fair, here is an alternative which attempts to explain II-II Q#154: http://www.pathsoflove.com/blog/2009/06/aquinas-on-sexual-sins-dangers-of-speaking-formally/

But I am still in possession of my negative opinion: The vocation of a theologian depends upon two things: (a) knowing the truth, and (b) being able to communicate it. On numerous occasions neo-thomists have to clean up what was said in the original. "He didn't mean that." "You are mistaken." "If you only knew the context," etc. In cases like this (II-II Q#154) it is clear that St. Thomas Aquinas himself screwed up. If he meant something different he should have said something different. Let's assume that you, the author of this blog's response, are correct and the actual text, interpreted correctly, is without blame. What then is the purpose in studying Aquinas' works if it takes SOOOOO much effort to interpret what he has said on such a simple matter as saying that the sin of masturbation is the least of the list, not the greatest of the list? I can only imagine the pitfalls one stumbles through in Aquinas' statements about more complex matters, ones where the common man, with common sense doesn't already know the answer.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. Meanwhile, I hope you'll browse some of the other questions and answers on this site. Commented Dec 24, 2017 at 22:50

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