Q&A with John Meinert

We are pleased to have John Meinert on our blog to discuss his book Peace in The Thought of Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics. John Meinert is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College.

Q: One of the blurbers for your book mentions that it is astonishing that we have never had a full volume on Aquinas and peace. Why do you think that was and can you talk a bit about how your volume fills that gap?

A: That’s a great question! At this point, I don’t have a good answer. In fact, I’m researching the very question now and working on a paper that I see as a historical supplement to my book. Hazarding a guess, I’d say there are three main reasons. First, I think the primary reason is probably Aquinas himself. In his writings, he rarely dwells on the topic of peace. For example, his article in the Summa Theologiae is only one question and four articles. As we all know, that’s about the shortest a question can be in the Summa Theologiae! I think this indicates something about Aquinas’s context (and probably something about Aquinas’s interests in themselves). In short, if Aquinas discusses peace he never dwells at length on the topic and usually only brings it up because an objector mentions peace, because it is in the original text on which he is commenting (the Bible, Aristotle, Dionysius), or because it is in a schema he employs (the fruits of the Holy Spirit, for example). That’s certainly part of the reason we have not had a volume; Aquinas’s thought is scattered throughout his corpus and is often subordinated to other more pressing topics (probably those more disputed/contested in his own day). On the other hand, we all know that Thomists can produce an entire book from a mere sentence of Aquinas, so Aquinas’s writings themselves are not a sufficient explanation. Second, I think that there are historical reasons for a lack of general theological treatment of peace in Thomism.

I think Pinckaers and Bouyer help to explain why. As both note, Catholic theology suffered disciplinary siloing in the 16th century (though it had happened to Aquinas’s works prior to this, i.e. portions of the Summa Theologiae circulating apart from the whole). Spiritual theology, moral theology, and political theology became separate disciplines. As a result, topics that are too closely annexed to one of these disciplines were not a topic for other theological disciplines. In other words, if peace is treated by Thomists historically, it is this bifurcated context. After Trent, peace is a topic for spiritual theology or political theology but not Trinitarian Theology, metaphysics, sacramental theology, cosmology, or any of the other branches of theology. One can see this in Maritain’s late work, for example, where he intentionally limits the topic of peace to the political and worldly sphere. Put simply, a topic that Aquinas spends relatively little time expositing in his major works, but which appears throughout his corpus and much more in less popular works is particularly susceptible. In other words, we do get Thomists writing about peace, but only in spiritual theology or in political theology, but the focus of their works is not a theology or philosophy of peace. These authors usually spend a few perfunctory pages discussing peace and then pass onto the real topic of analysis (usually war). A good example of this is Huber’s Friedenethik. Finally, I think that a lot of authors who would otherwise have interest in Aquinas’s thought on peace see it as a mere systematic exposition of Augustine’s thought in book XIX of the City of God. They spend much more time writing about Augustine than Aquinas (though that too is obviously worthwhile!). I’m thinking here in particular of Comblin’s comment that “the Thomistic doctrine of peace is nothing more than a systematic exposition of the doctrine elaborated by St. Augustine in The City of God.”

On the other hand, in the last 50 years, I think there is a growing theological interest in peace within Thomism and to which I am heavily indebted. I don’t want to bore readers with too many citations and names, but there seems to be a growing interest in reading Aquinas as a man of peace and for which I can only be thankful. I hope that my own work will catalyze and contribute to this growing interest in Thomism.  

Q: You note that many Thomists don’t sufficiently pay much attention to Aquinas’s writings on peace, and that most peace scholars don’t have much regard for Aquinas. How are both missing out on important scholarly writings that could be helpful to their respective fields?

A: I think scholars of peace tend to disregard Thomists because Thomists tend to write much more about war than peace. Obviously, that’s not a totally sufficient explanation (researchers of peace tend to be eclectic, so why not Aquinas?), but I do think it is a partial explanation. I think this lack of engagement harms the discipline of peace studies and peace building, which is depriving itself of a more metaphysical and theological approach to peace and an essential dialogue partner in building a workable concept of peace (a perennial problem in the discipline). Aquinas can help with this project (among many others). On the other side, Thomists tend not to think a lot about peace or peacebuilding. Above I gave a historical guess as to why this is, but history is not the only consideration that is keeping Thomists from dialogue with peace studies/peacebuilding (e.g. there are clear doctrinal or methodological disputes between the two disciplines). On the other hand, peace studies are an entire discipline dedicated to studying and producing what Aquinas says is the very purpose of the gospel (peace)! You’d think there would be more interest on the Thomistic side to learn what conclusions the discipline has produced and how those could further a Thomistic understanding of peace. Personally, I know I certainly have learned a lot about peace from reading both non-Catholic (e.g. anthropologist Douglas Fry) and non-Thomist Catholic authors involved in peace studies and peacebuilding (e.g. Eli McCarthy). 

Q: I would imagine you’ve come away from this research with a new appreciation and understanding of what Aquinas has written on this topic? Can you share a bit about that as well as what you hope a reader comes away with from your book?

A: I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I started this project. It began with a couple of discrete papers I had written (one for a class in my Ph.D. program). As I researched and read more of Aquinas (and other Thomists) on the topic, my appreciation grew in multiple ways. First, I grew in my appreciation for the scope and depth of Aquinas’s thought on peace. For Aquinas, as for many others, peace is a liminal topic, hovering at the edges of other topics. It ranges from trinitarian theology all the way to natural philosophy and touches everything in between. If you can abstract from these contexts and focus on peace in itself, the depth of Aquinas’s thought is also quite impressive. I think Aquinas offers us the best developed and most defensible theology and philosophy of peace. Finally, I also grew in my appreciation and love for peace. I began to see that even though Aquinas does not spend a lot of time disputing and writing about peace, it is central to his work. It is ultimately the mission of God and so it becomes our mission as well. Aquinas is very explicit on this point and that has personally impacted me deeply. These are, likewise, the two things I hope the reader finds as well, a new appreciation for Aquinas’s works as well as a deeper love and greater commitment to the God of peace. 

Q: What was the most interesting, fascinating or unexpected discovery you made either during your research and/or during the writing of this book?

A: I think any Thomists’ most unexpected discovery is that there is not already a book written about a topic in Aquinas! I remember starting to do research on this topic in 2018 and thinking, how is it possible that there is not already an academic book on this topic in English? I gave some of my guesses above, but I still do not think I have a good answer to this question. It is hard to make privations intelligible. I was also surprised by how central peace is to Aquinas’s thought (though some readers will surely think I’ve overplayed this point). You’d not expect it to be so central based on the number of words Aquinas expends on the topic. But space can be deceptive. Simply because Aquinas only writes in a subordinated, occasional, and brief way about peace, does not mean it cannot be central to his thought. It’s not the extension but the content that indicates peace’s centrality. Aquinas is willing to speak about peace in relation to the very depths of God as well as the transcendental order. Through these, it obtains universal extension and can serve as an explanatory thread running throughout Aquinas’s thought. 

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