Sanctity is not often associated with the intellectual life of theologians, perhaps because the intellectual life is so public while prayer, fasting, and almsgiving aren’t to be published. Few, if any, news stories are written about a theologian as such helping a poor person in need. Yet theologians, even moral theologians, are at risk of forgetting about sanctity in the midst of busy teaching, writing, and speaking schedules. The importance of almsgiving in particular can fade from view, veiled with the memories of poverty during graduate school.
I was therefore delighted to be challenged recently by an example of scholastic theology—wrongly maligned as abstract, dead, and lacking experience—and sanctity in some early modern figures.
As part of a larger project, I have been studying a treatise on begging, charity and migration by an early member of the Thomist School of Salamanca, the famous Dominican theologian Domingo de Soto, OP (d. 1560). Two interesting facts emerged from Soto’s life as an academic theologian. First, he gained a reputation for care for the poor, especially poor students, while he taught at the University of Salamanca in the early 1540s. He organized and personally oversaw a plan to relieve their needs while they continued their studies in those famine years. Thus, when Philip II, son and regent of Charles in Spain, learned of Soto’s opposition to the 1540 Royal Poor Law as violating the natural rights of the poor, he asked Soto to explain his reasoning. Soto had credibility on the issue both as a leading scholastic theologian and as someone who actively cared for the indigent.
(Soto’s treatise is very courtly in its deference to Philip. This did not hinder Soto from speaking his mind bluntly: “These petitions, institutions, and plans in fact proceed from disgust and nausea at the poor, which beggars by their very sight and shamelessness often occasion in certain squeamish people belonging to this age.”)
The other interesting fact is who was Soto’s college philosophy professor at the University of Alcalá. We may even surmise that Soto found in this professor an exemplar for combining scholasticism with sanctity.
He was Tomás García y Martinez, a gifted young professor known for his almsgiving. Tomás’s own working-class parents were very generous toward the poor and thus learned early on that even those with just enough can do much for those worse off. After only two years, Tomás quit his professorship at the age of 28 and joined the Augustinian order at Salamanca. He gain notoriety both for his theological writings and sermons, but also for his dedication to the poor. Tomás refused fine clothes and food as he advanced with the ranks. For example, he carefully mended his own habit instead of receiving a new one. Finally ordered by his superiors to accept an archbishopric, Tomás brought his combination of learning and sanctity to bear on reforming both the clergy and the laity in matters theological and moral. He moved Mass times earlier for the sake of the working poor and personally fed hundreds daily. He worked to eliminate concubinage and re-founded a hospital for the poor, among many other good works.
Today anglophone Catholics know Soto’s college professor by the name St. Thomas of Villanova. Would that theologians live more and more in the truth that learning and sanctity not only can but must travel together! Would that even those of us with families learn better to give sacrificially for love of Christ in the poor, even if we just find them in our students!
Dohan, Edward. “St. Thomas of Villanova.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. Accessed 18 October 2018 at www.newadvent.org.
Heredia, V. Beltran de. “Soto, Dominique de.” Dictionnaire de théologie catholique. Vol 40.2. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1941.
Flynn, Maureen. Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400-1700. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.
Soto, Domingo de. Relecciones y Opúsculos. Vol. II-2. Salamanca: San Esteban, 2011.