Looking back over the road I have traveled, I recognize that there are two principal sources that dominate and inspire my theological reflection : my discovery of the Word of God in the Scriptures and my attraction to the Eucharist.
1. Attraction to the Eucharist was first. I have felt the attraction of the eucharistic presence since my infancy, especially during eucharistic adoration. This was a primary and psychologically central spiritual experience, which maintained within me a “certain ideal” of the Christian religion. Eucharistic prayer is the place of personal contact with the Lord ; it is a source of contact situated beyond ideas, words, sentiments and representations, which secretly inspires them and makes them fruitful. The Eucharist belongs to the realm of faith and it imparts deep understanding : “fides quaerens intellectum.” This eucharistic devotion is in harmony with the devotion exhibited by St. Thomas in the liturgical texts that he composed for the feast of Corpus Christi, whose Latin hymns and melodies are particularly stunning. Moreover, the feast of Corpus Christi has its origins in Liege, the city of my birth, and was supported by the fervor of the young Dominicans present in Liege, precisely at the time St. Thomas was studying in nearby Cologne with Albert the Great. Eucharistic prayer, it seems to me, was one of the spiritual and Dominican sources of St. Thomas’s works.
2. The discovery of the Bible as the Word of God, which occurred as a result of my novitiate retreat in 1945, which was preached by Dom Olivier Rousseau of the monastery of Chevetogne, was of capital importance for me : the awareness that the Word of God is superior to any human word was for a time, at the outset of my studies, so strong in me that I didn’t want to read anything other than the Bible, until I felt that, the primacy of the Scriptures having been established in me, I could return to the study of secular learning. I acquired from this an appreciation for the legitimacy and preeminence of the “spiritual” meaning of the Scriptures that is tied to the experience that faith and practice provide, both through and beyond the historical and textual exegesis that was being taught to us. Interpreted in this way, following the practice of the Fathers of the Church but without neglecting the contributions made by modern scholarship, the Scriptures can become once again the principal and preeminent source of theology.
In this way, I was able to enter into the texts of St. Thomas from within, through the first source of its inspiration, beyond the textual and historical studies that approach his teaching from the outside. I was thus able to perceive the Christian and theological dimension of his teaching, particularly his moral teaching, while being confronted with the rational and philosophical reading of his work, which was predominant at the time : rediscovering, for example, the treatise on the New Law and the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit ; perceiving as well the spiritual and even mystical dimension of his teaching, which one can connect to eucharistic devotion.
3. Studying theology at the feet of St. Thomas and teaching theology using the texts of the Summa Theologiae. St. Thomas was my principal initiator in theology during my formation as a Dominican and especially later as I prepared courses based upon the texts of the Summa, something which is the best way to teach and deepen an author. The rational power of his thought and of his scholastic method taught me to listen to diverse opinions, to confront loyally with objections, to be rigorous in reflection and concise in expression, to discern what is essential among the details, to follow the logic of things behind the words, and to love reality and truth. This is the rational side of the formation one receives at the feet of St. Thomas, and it balances its theological and spiritual dimension.
With regard to moral theology, the study of St. Thomas’s teaching was decisively important for me. Because of my study of Aquinas, I was able, from the outset of my studies, to escape the categories of the manuals that had become traditional, and to recognize the narrowness of the systematization of theology introduced by the casuists of the 17th century, who were working according to the ideas of their time. It is easy to compare these two perspectives in fundamental moral theology : the manuals exclude the treatises on happiness, the virtues, the gifts, the New Law, and grace ; reducing the moral part of theology to four treatises : the treatise on human acts (considered as cases of conscience), the treatise on law (based on the natural law), a treatise on conscience (replacing the virtue of prudence) and the treatise on sin (constructed in view of the sacrament of penance and taking the place of the virtues) ; the perspective of the manuals reduces moral theology entirely to the domain of legal obligations, an impoverishment arising from the separation of moral theology from asceticism and mysticism, both of which were now viewed as annexed disciplines. The theology of St. Thomas and that of the manuals constitute two different moral systems, both of which have their own inner logic. Consequently, the way to renew moral theology is by returning to St. Thomas, as one who represents the best of the tradition nourished by the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church.
The historical-systematic method, employed in our Studium at La Sarte and inherited from Louvain, opened up for us horizons that balanced a purely systematic reading of Aquinas : the study of a treatise began first with a study of the relevant passages from the Scriptures and from the Fathers of the Church, then there was the analysis of the text of St. Thomas, placed in its historical context. This was the method of instruction employed by Dominican fathers Louis Charlier and Jerome Hamer, in dogmatic theology, and Fr. Bernard Olivier in moral theology. In this method, St. Thomas did not float in isolation, but was presented as rooted in a rich and specific soil, and his biblical, patristic, medieval as well as his philosophical roots were clearly delineated. In this way, students were able to grasp the depth and range of Thomas’ teaching, and were aided in their efforts to engage this teaching in response to current questions. Studying the historical evolution of his thought helped reveal the inner dynamism of his method of research. Also, my predilection for St. Augustine, which has been with me since the novitiate, contributed to the recognition of the patristic component of Aquinas’s thought. This love for St. Augustine has provided me with additional theological and spiritual resources that have proved indispensable to me. I was also nourished by monastic spirituality through Cassian and St. Bernard ; by the sermons of Leo the Great ; by Rhineland and Carmelite mysticism ; and by the classics of the Dominican tradition.
4. Firm in my faith, I was able to undertake the study of ancient and modern philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche and Sartre, Scheler, Bergson and Maritain, among others, a study that is necessary if one desires to be enriched by experience and to acquire a mind that is open to all that is human. I found myself particularly close to Kierkegaard in his defense of faith and his critique of the Hegelian system. None of these thinkers, no matter how powerful or famous they were, were able to shake me, because the knowledge of faith both showed me their limitations (for example, the rationalism of the modern philosophers) and revealed the human contribution of their works. This is particularly the case with regard to their moral teaching, especially Kant’s moral teaching, and in the failure of so many of these thinkers to ground the moral life on a firm foundation. In this way I was able to benefit greatly from my study of philosophy, as well as from my study of literature, which in its own way also expresses human experience. Currently, I feel very much in sympathy with John Henry Newman, especially in his “Parochial and Plain Sermons.” This engagement with modern and contemporary authors is necessary in order to render the teaching of St. Thomas current for our own time. Nevertheless, the principal element of this process of renewal belongs to the knowledge of faith open to the light and the action of the Holy Spirit, who alone is able to make present to us the gospel Word and the word of its interpreters in the Church and in the world.