Barbara E. Beaumont OP
The first requisite of any Dominican theology is that it be the fruit of contemplation and secondly that it be communicated to others: the famous contemplata aliis tradere of Thomas Aquinas. Although study was prescribed for the Friars Preachers from the very beginnings of the Order, this study of theology was always conceived as a means to an end, “for the sake of the preaching”, and never an end in itself. Essentially this theology must be soteriological in purpose, and Christocentric in practice, since the salvation of souls was Dominic’s prime concern. Christ the mediator, through whom men are saved, was constantly present in Dominic’s prayer entirely oriented towards salvation. As Jordan of Saxony explains, Dominic believed that he would only become fully a member of the body of Christ from the moment at which he would be able to give himself up completely to gaining souls, in imitation of Jesus, universal Saviour (Libellus n° 13).
The Dominican order is quintessentially a broad church, encompassing erudite ecclesiastics, enclosed nuns, missionaries, and lay people of all categories. For a theology to be truly Dominican, it should be relevant to all of these categories of people and not limited to an academic elite. The truth of this is borne out by the fact that two members of the Order of Preachers have been elevated to the rank of Doctor of the Church. Yet on a superficial level, these two could not be more different: Thomas Aquinas, author of closely argued theological treatises and Catherine of Siena, a young lay woman living at home barely lettered, and yet capable of deep theological reflection.
Is not an illiterate theologian a contradiction in terms? A quotation from St Bruno provides a key: a professor at the cathedral school at Reims, Bruno wrote to the lay brothers at the Grande Chartreuse: “Though you are unlettered men, yet the mighty God writes on your hearts with his finger not only his love but a knowledge of his holy law. You show by your actions what you love and what you know.” Love and knowledge mysteriously combined by the finger of God, such was the genesis of the theology of Catherine. Dominican spirituality and Dominican study of theology are indeed intimately intertwined, for Dominicans use intelligence as a tool in their search for God; it is the study of the sacra pagina that nourishes the prayer of the brethren, sisters and laity. Catherine, even if she could not read heard the scriptures proclaimed and commented on in the Dominican church at Siena. Dominicans have Veritas as their motto, but their search for truth is not simply speculative. Catherine writes eloquently on this point; God speaking to her in the Dialogue declares: “The soul on fire with love of my truth desiring to make it loved by all, collectively and individually, contributes unceasingly to the good of the whole world.”
No theological writings by St Dominic have survived and it could be a handicap for an Order not to have texts from the hand of its founder, but as St Paul says in the Epistle to the Corinthians: “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (II Cor. 3:6). Dominicans are not crushed by the letter, but remain free to do theology according to the spirit of their holy patriarch. Instead of handing out theological texts to his brethren, Dominic gave the example. The first testimonies are clear on this point: aut loqui de aut loqui cum Deo. This was not direct teaching from master to disciple; rather Dominic saved souls by speaking with God in prayer and then by preaching to men about God. The brethren saw him doing it and followed his example. As Eric de Clermont Tonnerre OP said: “Dominic’s discretion is in itself a form of teaching for he added nothing to the doctrine of the Church”, he was quite simply a man of the Church from his earliest youth, an innovator yes, a rebel no. The theology of the Order of Preachers has always been intimately linked to struggles in defence of Christianity whether in the 13th or the 21st century (Dominic was to find Christian doctrine threatened by Cathar heresy in the South of France, as it was in Spain in his day by continuing Moorish occupation).
Dominican theology sometimes seems erudite and dogmatic, but these are not its essential characteristics. It seeks rather to be rooted in the sovereign place occupied by truth in the life of the Christian and in the life of the Church. Consequently, for Dominicans preaching and doing theology are not separate activities, but two aspects of the same activity, two sides of one coin.