Disability in Aquinas

Abbreviations and conventions

SCG Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, translated by Charles J. O’Neil.

ST Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

In citations of the Summa Theologiae, I have used the form “Part. Question. Article.” The following designations are used for the part, with designations used elsewhere indicated in parentheses:

1 (Prima Pars, 1a)

2a (Prima Secundae, 1a2ae, 12ae)

2b (Secunda Secundae, 2a2ae, 22ae)

3 (Tertia Pars, 3a)

Supp (Supplement, 4)

I have, in general, made use of all of the English translations in a given passage. Quotations from the Latin are from Blackfriars when quoting from parts 1, 2a, 2b, and 3; and from BAC when quoting the Supplement. It should be noted that Blackfriars uses “disability” to translate infirmitas, which is a use I have avoided, as “disability” has a different context in this paper.

This paper is part of a long-term project that seeks to understand and interpret how the value of a person is expressed and understood in religious groups. One point of focus of this project is the various religious views of the body, especially a body with disabilities. This involves attempting to understand the presumptions which lie behind these views, as well as the treatment of people with disabilities. “Disability” is taken in a wide sense of any bodily characteristic that impedes or inhibits full participation in society. Today, when “disability” is mentioned, we think of mobility obstacles, which are very real, but through much of history, being female has been a serious disability, and the status of women therefore gives us insights into the wider range of disabilities.

The focus of this paper is Thomas Aquinas. The material is drawn largely from the Summa Theologiae (including the parts completed after his death). I have also made use of portions of Book 4 of the Summa Contra Gentiles. There are two reasons for this: first, this section is intended for believers; second, it is useful for confirming and clarifying the arguments in the Supplement of the Summa Theologiae.

Aquinas stands between two worlds. Christianity produced a new respect for the body on account of the doctrine of Incarnation. Aquinas inherited this tradition, and brought a reasoned order to this doctrine. However, this effort did not endure: we can see in the Summa the strains of scientific knowledge which would, in just a few centuries, bring about the collapse of Aquinas’s metaphysical system of human fulfillment centered on God, with distinct separations of, yet complementary roles for, spirit and body.1


The Summa Theologiae opens not with a discussion of God, but of the nature of theology. This discussion gives us insight into Aquinas’s presuppositions about the world. First, humans learn truth by means of the senses. Divinity is transcendent, and beyond sensual capabilities. Therefore, when one refers to divine truth, it is entirely appropriate, and even necessary, to use metaphor and speak of divine attributes in material terms.2 This is also the case with Scripture, for it transcends human knowledge. Aquinas distinguishes a literal-historical sense, where Scripture refers to things, from a spiritual sense (although both senses are true). Aquinas also discusses how the literal sense may include figures of speech, so that we are not to understand references such as “God’s arm” as referring to a literal body part, but to a way of speaking about the power one associates with an arm.3

As Aquinas turns to a discussion of God, he asserts that God does not have a body. Among his reasons is that a body is not the highest form of being, for it can be animate or inanimate, and the state of being animate is dependent on something else. The higher form is the soul, which makes a body alive. The image of God in humans (Genesis 1.26-27) refers not to a physical form, but the use of reason and intelligence, which Aquinas notes specifically as being incorporeal.4

This is a positive start for the person concerned about disabilities and wholeness. If God did have a body, that body would have to be perfect. Even though no human would ever attain that status, such a presence could allow for significant distinctions among bodies based on closeness to divine perfection. Because God does not have a body, perfection is not a physical matter, and a physical disability is not, of itself, something that would impede or disqualify one from spiritual attainment.

Of course, nothing is this simple. There are many other aspects to Aquinas’s theology that bear on disabilities. As is the case with many theologians, Aquinas rarely mentions disability directly. But just as liberation theologians have found a framework in Aquinas for their developments,5 so we too may find a framework, especially in the way Aquinas deals with the nature of individuality and the person. The foundation of this framework is Aquinas’s insistence that theology is as much a science as the natural sciences, and is to be pursued with all the objectivity possible to a human. Within this system, the body is an “autonomous natural unit” (although moved by God), with its own end.6

Human beings are the creation of God. As such, they are composed in a manner suitable for living in the world. This suitableness is not necessarily the absolute best imaginable, but it is the best for the purpose of God. A part of this composition is that humans are composed of a body and a soul.7 Neither the soul nor the body has a distinct identity apart from the other. The soul, which departs the body at death, must return to the same body at the resurrection for the same person to attain his end.8 Although the body will be transformed, the same body will be reunited with its soul.9

The body is very significant in another way. It is through the body that we recognize the person. Aquinas says that individuals are persons with distinct, self-controlled bodies. Those bodies share a general nature, but are also singular in a way that escapes ready definition.10 Aquinas struggles to explain this in Summa Contra Gentiles, where he says that there is a form taken by an individual body, one which is predictable according to its species.11 The body is also an expression of the soul; the diversity of souls requires a corresponding diversity of bodies. Bodily differences are therefore not differences in species or essence, but differences that distinguish persons.12

A study of Aquinas’s works, using CD-ROM search technology, indicates that Aquinas made significant use of words with the stem individu-, which express the concept of individuality, in sections such as the above, where he developed and expressed his own ideas. The broad shape of this concept is that there is a whole which cannot be further divided without the loss of identity, although that whole consists of further parts. This whole is the individual, composed of body and soul. Both body and soul are required for the long-term endurance of the person, in earth or heaven. The hand, as a part of the body, may be distinguished from other parts, but does not have its own identity, and individuals, although having diverse appearances, share a general similarity of form.13

Aquinas also tells us that no body is perfect. All suffer from weakness (infirmitas) which hinders the perfection of happiness (beatitudinis perfectio). The body is also limited. In its natural state, it is incapable of reaching the higher supernatural level, for natural things are only capable of understanding or sensing other natural things. To comprehend divine matters requires grace as an illumination from God.14 However, the idea of some that bodies are evil by nature is wrong, Aquinas says. This rules out several ideas about the soul, such as that it must be separated from the body to find fulfillment, or that the soul is the true and entire nature of a person. The continuation of one’s identity after the resurrection requires that the soul be re-united to the body, which, although transformed in accidents, will be the same body.15

Aquinas here gives a basically positive and realistic assessment for the person interested in dealing with disabilities. He seeks to distinguish not being perfect as incompleteness, rather than being made wrong. By this, he does not dwell on what is not right, but what is good in the world. This is a distinction that provides a foundation for the many people who today have turned to the term “differently abled” to express their abilities, rather than focus on what cannot be done.

That every body is limited is a particular positive statement; for it means that there is no difference of nature from one body to another. Furthermore, the idea that the body is inextricably linked to the person expresses the reality of living with a disabled body. It is not possible to separate the person from the body, but we also see that the body is not the whole definition of the person. While the body is limiting, it would seem that limitation of the body is not something that would limit the person as a whole.

Aquinas also deals with differences as being distinctions of the person. Differences among bodies are part of God’s variety that distinguishes persons. As part of God’s variety, there would be nothing about different bodies that would justify any different treatment or discrimination of persons based on their bodies. This idea opens up two areas for inquiry: the nature of good and evil, and how they relate to bodily differences (II); and the treatment of persons based on physical differences (III). The body, however, has two levels: natural and supernatural. Both ends hold important points for what Aquinas thinks of disabilities. And just as divine grace completes human nature to bring about the fulfillment of human life, the discussion of the resurrection body is where all of this is fulfilled and comes together (IV).


The relationship and nature of good and evil in Aquinas’s thought have a strong bearing in forming an understanding of the nature of disabilities. In Aquinas’s universe, everything is guided by divine providence, if for no other reason than that God is the first mover of everything. Further, everything has an end appointed by God, to which God directs providence. That end is the universal good (although this universal good may or may not be the same as individual good).16 This end is expressed in the word “perfection,” perfectum, which, to Aquinas, means that which is “thoroughly made, formed, done, performed, carried out, accomplished.”17

As people are diverse without losing their similarity of species, good is diverse without losing the quality of goodness. God, the supreme good, is his own kind, and this kind cannot be completely replicated. So created things must be of lesser good.18 Created things also cannot be as simple as the perfect divine nature. They therefore take on many forms in reflecting the divine goodness. It follows that there must be many grades of good, as well as of things.19

Everything created by God is good, and it is God’s movement for everything to develop toward perfection. Therefore Aquinas defines evil as the lack of some property suited to it by nature.20 Evil is not some being, form, or nature; but the absence, or privation, of good.21 Because variations are a part of the universal good, defects can exist which are contrary to a particular nature, but they are still congruent with the universal good. Evil is allowed because it increases the overall level of good.22 The role of variations becomes clearer in the reditus: diversity is a gift of God, from which beauty and perfection follow. Various degrees of things are what makes for perfection.23

Aquinas illustrates the consequences of this idea of diversity and degrees as he considers the bodily aspects of sexual differentiation. This differentiation is part of the completeness of humans, and thus constitutes the good of the whole. According to the scientific knowledge of the day, being female resulted from a defect of generation, such as the direction of the wind at the time of conception. Thus in the conception of a female there is an individual error, but this does not distract from the perfection on the whole—such variations are necessary. This variation was also the condition before the Fall.24

If there were such differences before the Fall, then what was its effect on humans? Humans, as created, had a perfect nature, in which the body was in perfect harmony with the soul. The human body, before the Fall, would not have suffered injury, because perfectly-functioning reason would have avoided all harm. Also, with all in harmony, providence would have been able to prevent anything harmful from occurring.25

As a punishment for sin, the perfect nature was lost. When that happened, defects were able to enter. Death and certain other bodily ailments are punishment for sin. This change of affairs also introduced a natural variance in that some bodies are subject to more defects than others, but we are not to understand that original sin is different in any of them.26 Original sin, which is the breakup of the harmony of natures in the person, brings disorder to the person. This disorder affects the body, and makes it subject to illness, which is defined as the loss of equilibrium.27

As Aquinas discusses the nature of Christ, he notes that defects (infirmitatibus et defectibus) of the body are penalties for sin (poena peccati), and so Christ would not be subject to them. Christ voluntarily took on these defects as an example of patience (exemplum patientiae) for us because he bore them courageously (fortiter tolerando).28 He goes on to explain these defects as the result of sin in another light: the material principles of the body are in opposition (ex contrariis compositum), but the original perfect nature kept them together. When “original justice” was withdrawn, nothing was present to keep the body in line.29 This idea is expounded in greater detail in SCG. The body is composed of a number of elements. It has become corruptible, and the intellect and sense are in conflict. This is especially so when the body must convey sense information to the intellect. Before the fall, reason was subject to God, and the body served it without obstacles. In turning from God, reason brought about a rebellion in the body as well. Reason is not immune to penalty: arriving at the truth has become difficult, and there is a strong tendency to fall into error.30

Aquinas also notes and specifies the nature of some of the body’s defects. Death, ignorance, and inclination to evil are general, and are the result of sin. Leprosy, epilepsy and the like are not the result of sin, but are defects from particular causes (particularibus causis). Some of these causes may be under human control, influenced for example by one’s diet. Other causes are not within human control, or are defects in nature (defectu virtutis formativae). All defects, whether the result of sin or not, come about because the body is vulnerable to corruption because of the Fall.31 Aquinas also notes, although briefly and without detail, the possibility of genetic defect or variation.32

As may be clear by now, the body is not the source of human happiness.33 Happiness is a divine quality, so the body does not contribute to it. However, an indisposed body can detract from happiness and hinder the operation of the intellect. Perfect happiness requires a perfectly disposed body (perfecta dispositio corporis). But such a condition will not happen in this life to anyone. Governing the body is a difficult task, and this governance will be a burden during our earthly life, until the day when we assume the resurrected body.34

Aquinas also gives indications of how one should react to the body’s sufferings. He likens the fallen nature to a person who is infirm. The infirm person is able to do a limited number of things, but needs help to accomplish other tasks. This bears a resemblance to the workings of added grace: it takes over where nature fails, and accomplishes tasks that are otherwise impossible.35 Aquinas says that how one views temporal problems is dependent on whether one is godly or not. The ungodly will suffer them as punishment; the godly will accept them as medicine.36

We are also led to ask what God’s role is (if any) in deciding that some one person should have a disability. Aquinas notes that, while there is common agreement that God is omnipotent, it is difficult to say what this means. He defines omnipotence so as to keep God apart from the occurrence of evil. However, God can do a good which appears to be evil.37 God is the governor of the universe, and the purpose of God is goodness in the end. God’s rule prevents chaos, but changes and defects are to be expected in the created world.38 Evil is a defect in action, and God has no defects, so God cannot be the cause of evil. But the good of the universe requires that some things fail to reach their proper nature.39 Although God does not will evil, it is good that evil exists, for otherwise we would not know what good is. Therefore God permits evil to occur, but without either willing or not willing it.40 This can be because evil is privation, the non-existence of good. Good is what occurs by nature or being, and so only good can cause things to occur. Evil, as a defect, is the failure of something to act properly. Here Aquinas specifically notes lameness as the inability of the leg (as an instrument) to function properly.41

As Aquinas develops his ideas of human nature, the body, good and evil, we can see that he is striving to understand the world in the light of science. Disabilities (and other events) are presented as not being the work of demon, deity, or intermediary. Such an attitude is positive for the person with a disability. It not only removes disabilities from the realm of celestial decrees, it makes them knowable rather than mysterious, something worth learning about and dealing with. Disabilities are not signs of spiritual uncleanliness; they are occurrences within nature. They are variations in the pattern of nature that reflect an incomplete or failed development. Because they are natural conditions, and matters of development of the body, it would follow that a disabled person may seek medical attention for their condition and remain faithful to God.42

Aquinas also demonstrates an awareness of genetic variation and of specific causes for certain conditions, even though his understandings would be considered primitive by today’s standards. There are infirmities with which all persons struggle and are the result of sin. Aquinas specifies these as death, ignorance, and the tendency to wrongdoing. Then he notes specific conditions which are not caused by sin, particularly leprosy and epilepsy. This is significant for two reasons. First, these two conditions are frequent in the ritual legislation and miracle stories of the Bible, and their presence has been linked to personal sin in some interpretations.43 Second, the use of leprosy as a metaphor for sin in the medieval period is based on its effect of fragmenting the body. This use became especially common within 25 years of Aquinas’s death.44 Perhaps there is a struggle over the nature of disabilities in ST that the intervening years have clouded. Whatever the origin of the discussion, removal of disabilities from the sphere of cosmic judgment opens the door for persons with disabilities to be seen as being more like other people rather than different. They are people first, and people with a certain condition secondarily.

Further, while a particular variation may be undesirable in itself, variations in themselves are natural and good for the whole. His interest in the good of the whole points to a strong valuation of community against individualism. Although Aquinas does not direct much attention toward developing the idea of community well-being, he would seem to be favorable to it. Community values are generally positive for persons with disabilities, for they encourage assistance and support, and stress the responsibility of the community to provide for the good and welfare of all.45

Aquinas’s statement that the body is difficult to control will strike a chord with many who live with physical disabilities. It is a remarkable statement of the nature of many disabilities: there is nothing wrong with the person’s intellectual process, but rather with getting the body to do what one wishes it to do. The body seems at times to be at odds with the mind. By this, Aquinas allows for and supports the request of persons with physical disabilities not to be considered mentally incapable because they do not have control of a member of the body. The idea of members, or parts, of the body is also supporting. It is not the whole of the body (or person) which does not function as it ought. The other parts, and the body as a whole, may be able to work quite well. Aquinas has an unique perspective, one that understands the paradox of disability: the person is his body, for it is an essential part of who he is, but the person is not (beyond the obvious) limited by the things that the body cannot do.

More problematic is the idea that evil is allowed so that we may know good. This idea has been voluminously discussed by theologians and philosophers, for it can lead to the conclusion that evil is good because it makes us more aware of good. The implications for a person seeking to understand disabilities are twofold. There is some practical reality to this. If every part of every body functioned well, we would probably not be aware of how well they did function, for there would be no comparison. This idea would seem, though, to have little to offer the person who actually suffers—just a typically bland statement that one with the right attitude will view his condition, long-term, as medicine. Aquinas, fortunately, does not leave it there. He reminds us of the example of Christ, who bore our same bodily weaknesses with patience. When there is a threat of using disabling conditions to create distinctions, or of mis-reading that some suffer for the good of others, or an escapism that one should simply have the right, cheerful attitude, the example of Christ brings a powerful antidote. It is a doubly powerful antidote, as well as an uplift, for Christ also bore these weaknesses with courage. This is a reminder that one lives by grace, as one modern writer says:

I do not believe that my disability or anyone else’s is the will of God. I do, however, strongly believe that God’s presence infuses our lives with strength and grace and love to manage whatever struggles come our way.46

This statement carries many echoes of Aquinas: no disability (or any other ailment) is the will of God. Our strength to live with the day to day struggles in a world where governing the body is difficult is the working of God’s grace in us.

Living in the face of disability (general or specific) is a gift of grace from God. We have noted that Aquinas seeks to remove the onset of evil from God’s action. Because God is not the cause of evil, it would follow that God would not inflict evil on anyone. What is from God, then? As Aquinas discussed the idea of variations of good, he speaks of diversity is a gift of God. Since no one can be perfect, every one reflects some part of God’s goodness. Therefore, it is possible to find some good in everyone. The focus here is again on what is good and what can be done, and the value of the community. Further, what is problematic is shared: all persons lost bodily perfection when sin occurred. No one can claim to be free of disability.


If no one can claim to be free of disability, it would seem to follow that there should be no difference in practical treatment from one person to another, regardless of disability or other condition. How do Aquinas’s practical statements follow through with this implication?

The first area is to recall that medical treatment is an allowable option for Aquinas. There is nothing about a disability in and of itself that forces one to live with a painful condition (although the state of medical knowledge is another matter). Sin is not disease to Aquinas. Sin is like disease, however: it opposes virtue as disease opposes health. This provides a lesson on healing of both corrupt human nature and the sick body. One may recover from an illness by natural means if he is strong enough. Otherwise, medicine is needed (although for sin, medicine in the form of grace is always required to heal the nature, and that because nature is not strong enough of itself).47 The opposition of sin and virtue compared to disease and health is striking. It must be kept in place, of course: Aquinas is illustrating with a parallel, not equating the pairs.

Aquinas has far less to say about miracles than many other writers. He offers a definition: miracles consist of the agent’s power, something that occurs beyond natural capacity, and a change in the usual pattern of cause and effect. Aquinas specifically notes that some miracles are of healing, where a person who is ill acquires perfect health outside the normal pattern. The agent must be God, whose power is mysterious and hidden, but the other factors are quite sensible.48 By this definition, Aquinas is careful to keep miracles from becoming anything that one might prepare for, engineer, or in any other way say that they might be expected. This would include any idea that a person with sufficient faith should expect miraculous healing. Such things do occur, he asserts, but humans are in no position to say anything more than that God brought them about outside the natural pattern. This is certainly positive for any person with a disability who has watched the parades of faith healers and wondered why it seems to be ineffective for himself, or whose faith has been questioned by others on the same basis.

Aquinas also addresses whether there should be distinctions of how people are treated in society on the basis of various characteristics. “Distributive” justice, that which is based on one’s dignity as a person, does not allow for any differing treatment that is not based on qualification (an example of proper qualification would be knowledge for holding a professorship). The use of any other standard is unjust.49 Since a specific disability is not related to any specific sin or any other factor, there is no reason for it to become a factor in justice.

We may also note that Aquinas distinguishes several sins of what we would today refer to as name-calling. One of these, reviling, is any affront to the dignity of a person. Another is taunting. Even a true statement, such as referring to blindness with intent to despise, can constitute such a sin.50 This is significant for a person dealing with disabilities. One’s condition is generally a matter of fact. But under Aquinas’s scrutiny, that something is a fact does not mean it must be shared. People are to be treated respectfully, whatever their condition. The child’s “not nice, but true” is no defense.

This demand for equal treatment is wide-ranging. One area of interest to persons with disabilities is prices for goods and services. Adaptive products are often custom fabricated or other sorts of low-demand items that generally carry high prices. In addition to higher prices for specialized goods and services, there is also more need for them by the user. Aquinas offers at least one corrective: to sell an item for more than its just price is a sin of deceit. He notes in particular that because the buyer would receive a certain advantage does not of itself justify a higher price.51 The basis of a price should be the cost of the item or product sold. The amount added to that cost should not be more than what is necessary for the merchant to support himself and his family.52 It is particularly important that Aquinas says that because the need is great does not mean that the price should be great. If an item legitimately costs more to produce, it should sell for more. But just because someone may need a drug or device to function well does not alone justify a high price for it.

The problem with all this is that Aquinas does not follow through in the one example to which he comes closest to practical application: ordination of those with certain disabilities, including women, which are questions he addresses directly. Women are not allowed ordination, not because their sex would render the sacrament invalid, but because it would be unlawful for them to receive the tonsure based on 1 Corinthians 11.5.53 In a subsequent article, Aquinas rules out ordination for those with many other disabilities. The arguments cited in favor of ordination of anyone lacking a limb are that affliction need not be multiplied, that one’s personal integrity is more important than bodily integrity, and that if boys can be ordained, other conditions of the body should not impede. The argument contra comes from Leviticus 21.18, which is the basis for the reply. A person should not be ordained if any missing member would obstruct the exercise of office or if a notable blemish appears. This is also noted as a matter of lawfulness, not integrity of the sacrament.54 But notice that Aquinas has extended the range of the question. As posted, the question deals with missing limbs. By the time he has worked out the reply, Aquinas has forbidden ordination on account of defects that detract from appearance. His basis is not only potential inability to physically carry out the office, but that appearance defects would distract others. Inability to carry out the functions of a job is a good reason not to place someone in a position (that such might not be the case here is another matter, beyond our present scope).

But why, when Aquinas has said so much about the body as weak, has its outward appearance become so important? There are two possible answers. One comes in the Supplement when the nature of the world’s cleansing is discussed. Even though what is corporeal cannot be stained by sin, sin can impart an unfittedness for spiritual purposes. Although appearance is outward, it is still pleasant.55 Perhaps in the most holy work, that of administering the sacraments, it is important that the body not appear stained. One might also consider that bodily well-being is understood to come from the soul’s happiness, flowing into the body.56 While either one of these possibilities may be acceptable in themselves, they create problems by their implications. In the former, there is, it seems, yet a lingering unwillingness to make bodily characteristics truly non-determinative. In both, there is a suggestion that disabilities result from a spiritual or mental defect—even though this would be opposed to much of what Aquinas had explicitly said. Further, Aquinas admits that these considerations have nothing to do with the validity of sacraments that might be performed by such a person. It could be taken that such a statement is a call for the lawfulness which constitutes the impediment to be changed, for there is no theological rationale behind it, but there is no immediate reason to hold such an idea. All in all, Aquinas’s refusal to grant ordination in these cases seems to strike a crushing blow to what the rest of this study has found.


Both SCG and ST conclude with the resurrection, judgment, and eternal life of the blessed. This is also where the goals of both come together. Eschatology itself is not our interest here, but the fulfillment of human purpose in the resurrection of the body is an important area for our inquiry. Thus, the focus is not only on the transformed body to come, but on its illumination of the nature of the present body.

Aquinas is explicit that the resurrection is of the physical body, and specifically rejects “spiritual resurrection.” Although the soul is immortal, and therefore persists after the death of the body, it is naturally united to the body, and must at some point be reunited with the body.57 With this affirmation, he follows the decrees of the Fourth Lateran and Second Lyon councils which asserted that one would rise with the bodies they presently have. Although there were differences of particular doctrines, scholastic theologians of this period were agreed that the present body would be reassembled and become immutable. It is not surprising that the opposition to this idea was based on the impossibility of recovering a body which had decomposed, and asked a variety of questions about how such a resurrection would occur in order to show that impossibility.58 Responses to this opposition thereby provide us with a detailed picture of the resurrection and how the risen body operates.

The first question taken up by ST about the resurrection is whether all of the various parts of the body will rise again. Some of these parts will have no use in the future life, the argument goes, and since God does nothing useless, they will not rise. The contrary argument is that God’s works are perfect, so everything will be restored to perfection. The answer turns from concerns about the body itself to the soul as its cause. The soul will be perfectly expressed in the resurrection body, and this becomes the guiding principle of the resurrection.59 The next point is that all parts of the body are needed, for they are like instruments used to accomplish a work, and so they must be present to provide for perfection of the risen body.60 Since all of the parts of the body are under the direction of the soul, they will rise again. This is restoration of totality of the kind (specie), not of matter (materiae), however. A surplus of one part, such as hair, may provide the matter for something that is lacking.61

In SCG, Aquinas gives specifics about the nature of the resurrected body. Sexual characteristics will remain, for they are not a deficiency, but a part of nature. Although there will be no sex or eating in heaven, the digestive system likewise will be part of the resurrected body, for that will maintain its integrity.62 Aquinas says that it is not necessary that every bit of matter (such as hair) that was part of the body be restored, but only enough to be developed to its end. And, of course, anything lacking will be restored. This body will be incorruptible, and completely under the control of the soul,63 thereby restoring the pre-Fall harmony of the person. The weakness which is presently experienced as the result of the body being unable to satisfy the soul will be taken away. With the soul in complete control, the body will be perfect, without corruption or deformity.64

As part of this exposition, one must also consider what, if any, changes will occur in certain physical characteristics. The first of these is age. The two sides of the debate are whether age or youth is perfect; the reply turns away from this polarization to the fulfillment of nature. There are defects in both youth and age: the young have not yet attained their development, and the aged have passed it. The state of perfection, which is what one will rise to, is the age at which growth ends and decay begins. The argument on the issue of stature shows a similar distinction. Height is a matter of natural variation, so except for defects, such as dwarfism, one’s height will remain unchanged at the resurrection. Gender distinctions are also a part of natural variation, so they will also remain.65

What does this mean to the person living with a disabled body? As Bynum notes, through history, whatever form the doctrine of resurrection takes, it has been a discussion of the nature and limits of divine power.66 To evaluate Aquinas from the standpoint of disabilities, I wish to ponder the question “if the body must rise to perfection, what does this say about its present nature and its relation to God’s power?”

The first step in the answer lies in an understanding of species, for the emphasis in this round of questions about the resurrected body is that one will rise with what is proper for both the species and an individual. Variations in a natural pattern are simply variations, and have no effect on one’s kind.67 It is legitimate for bodies to differ. But to what extent does a disabling condition affect who one is?

It is at this point that we return to the framework stated at the beginning of this paper: the way in which Aquinas deals with the nature of individuality and the person. The challenge is that the body is, by all appearances, an individual unit with its own functions and end, yet there is something more than the body that makes up the person. The body is “more than a series of chemical elements,” for it has freedom and learns to deal with its limitations.68 Much as we cannot see God, but know that God exists because we discern God’s effects in the world,69 we cannot see the soul, but can discern something that has an effect on the body. Therefore it seems to follow that humans are body and soul, and neither is distinct apart from the other. Continuation of the person requires that body and soul be reunited. The body is not the person, but the person is impossible without the body.

So a body is required as much as a soul, but the body is troublesome. Eileen Sweeney rightly notes that Aquinas is ambivalent about the body. Loss of body is loss of self, which accounts for the interest in its continuation in a restored, incorruptible form. But the body is also dangerous, for it is a threat. It can be manipulated, dominated, diseased or injured. Subject to such forces, it is questionable if the body is really one’s own. The body, therefore, must therefore be overcome, even as it remains an important locus of self.70 So, in Thomas (and his redactor), the body remains with the self, but the body is ultimately conquered by becoming perfect and immutable—by no longer being difficult to control. In this state, the body is no longer a threat. As we have seen, the body cannot be separated from the self, but neither is it the whole definition of the self. It is not realistic to say either that the body is me or that the body is not me, but there is no hope for the future if this body remains the way it is. The self is free to be the self only when the body is not threatening it.

That the body is a significant, but ambivalent, component of personal identity can be seen in the discussion of the nature of the resurrection body in the damned. Whatever of the body that is a deformity, as a punishment from sin, will remain in that body. However, what occurs from illness, accident or mutilation will be corrected, because these reflect on the wholeness of the body.71 Here, Bynum observes that Aquinas is concerned about wholeness. He is not concerned about the same matter returning, or even every bit of matter, but it must be that all of the parts are restored.72 To this we need to add that the restoration will be of all parts as they would have developed had their course not been changed. This is where the way Aquinas defines evil and the nature of disabilities becomes particularly significant. It is good for the body to develop into its perfection. But even the best body is still lacking, for it can only attain what nature grants it. One is still a person, even in the imperfect and limited body. To reach its ultimate perfection, the body must be resurrected and come to its supernatural end.

In Aquinas’s world, nature revolves around grace. Nature is dependent on grace for its first moving, and nature is dependent on grace for its completion. This is why wholeness is so dependent on nature. What we live with in our world is incomplete. This is why disabilities (as with evil), are not from God. They are signs that the world is incomplete. Wholeness comes only from God, and will only be reality when God intervenes to get us beyond nature. The search for wholeness in the resurrection is a search for the wholeness of the person.

Wholeness is the result of the soul flowing into the body perfectly. In the resurrected body, there will no longer be a struggle between the parts of the person. There will then be no defects, no failures of development. Aquinas tells us, like Augustine, that the scars of the wounds of Christ and of the martyrs will remain in the resurrected body. These scars will not be defects, but glorious signs of their work.73 A person with a disability might be disturbed to learn that, to Aquinas, the struggles with which he lived are not of this level. Yet that is meant to offer hope, for it promises a time when the body will not be threat to identity, when it will not interfere with the flow of one’s soul. Then the person will be whole, in a way that cannot happen to anyone without God’s grace. Until then, God’s gift is diversity, and we have God’s grace for the struggle to live with it.


Aertsen, Jan A. and Andreas Speer, Individuum und Individualität im Mittelalter. Volume 24 of Miscellanea Mediaevalia. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1996.

Aquinas, Thomas, translated by A. M. Fairweather. Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Library of Christian Classics, Volume 11. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954.

---, translated by Charles J. O’Neil. Summa Contra Gentiles. 4 volumes. Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

---. Summa Theologiae Cura Fratrum eiusdem Ordinis. 5 volumes. Matriti: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1965.

---. Summa Theologiae: Latin text and English translation, Introductions, Notes, Appendices and Glossaries. 60 volumes. Blackfriars, in conjunction with London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, and New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1964.

---, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 6 volumes. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Benzinger Brothers, 1936; also as CD-ROM reprint in The Master Christian Library, Albany OR: Ages Software, 1997.

Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.

Bottomley, Frank. Attitudes to the Body in Western Christendom. London: Lepus, 1979.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1992.

---. The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity 200-1336. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Chenu, M.-D., O.P. Toward Understanding St. Thomas. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1964.

Eiesland, Nancy. The Disabled God. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.

Gallagher, David., ed. Thomas Aquinas and His Legacy. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1994.

Harak, G. Simon, ed. Aquinas and Empowerment: Classical Ethics for Ordinary Lives. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1996.

Kennedy, Leonard, ed. Thomistic Papers III. Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1987.

Long, R. James, ed. Philosophy and the God of Abraham. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1991.

Vos, Arvin and Cooper, John W. “Biblical and philosophical anthropology: a short dialogue” Calvin Theological Journal 26 (1991): 143-155.

1Frank Bottomley, Attitudes to the Body in Western Christendom (London: Lepus, 1979), Preface, 120-121.

2ST, 1.1.9; 1.12.12.

3ST, 1.1.10; cf SCG, 4.29.6.

4ST, 1.3.1; also see 1.93.4, 6.

5Judith W. Kay, “Getting Egypt out of the People: Aquinas’s Contributions to Liberation” in G. Simon Harak, ed, Aquinas and Empowerment (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 1.

6Benedict Ashley, “Aquinas and the Theology of the Body” in Leonard Kennedy, ed., Thomistic Papers III (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1987), 63-67 (quote on 65).

7ST, 1.91.3; cf SCG, 4.35.14; 4.37.3.

8ST, Supp.79.2.

9ST, Supp.75.1.

10ST, 1.29.1.

11SCG, 4.29.7; 4.35.13.

12SCG, 4.34.4, 5.

13Enzo Portalupi, “Das Lexikon der Individualität bei Thomas von Aquin,” in Jan A. Aertsen and Andreas Speer, Individuum und Individualität im Mittelalter (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), 57-59, 62, 64-66.

14ST, 1.12.5.

15ST, Supp.75.1.

16ST, 1.22.2.

17Oliva Blanchette, “The Logic of Perfection in Aquinas” in David Gallagher, ed., Thomas Aquinas and His Legacy (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 107.

18ST, 1.6.2.

19ST, 1.23.5.

20ST, 1.5.3.

21privatio boni; ST, 1.14.10; 1.48.1.

22ST, 1.22.2.

23ST, 2a.112.4.

24ST, 1.99.2.

25ST, 1.97.1, 2.

26ST, 2a.85.5.

27ST, 2a.82.1.

28ST, 3.14.1.

29ST, 3.14.3.

30SCG, 4.52.1-3.

31ST, 3.14.4.

32ST, 1.19.8.

33ST, 2a.2.5.

34ST, 2a.4.6.

35ST, 2a.109.1, 2.

36ST, 2a.114.10.

37ST, 1.25.3.

38ST, 1.103.5-7.

39ST, 1.22.2; 1.49.2.

40ST, 1.19.9.

41ST, 1.49.1.

42Here I have in mind as a contrast the 19th century American evangelist Dwight L. Moody, whose sermons frequently claim that a faithful person need only turn to Jesus for healing of any bodily ailment; someone who does not receive a cure is simply not acting in faith.

43Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 57-75, 110-116, 132-140; Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 70-72.

44Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 276.

45This idea has been the subject of other research; it is beyond the scope of this paper, but will be included if all of this material is brought together. It should be noted that there are dangers arising from an over-emphasis on community well-being, for it can justify mistreatment of a few who are less privileged in some way as long as it benefits the whole. Aquinas did not, as I read him, leave enough material to judge how far he might have gone in this regard.

46Black, op. cit., 186.

47ST, 2a.109.7; cf 2a.71.1.

48ST, 2a.113.10.

49ST, 2b.63.1.

50ST, 2b.72.1.

51ST, 2b.77.1.

52ST, 2b.77.4

53ST, Supp.39.1.

54ST, Supp.39.6.

55ST, Supp.74.1.

56ST, 2a.4.6.

57SCG, 4.79.5, 10.

58Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) (cited as Resurrection), 121, 128, 155.

59ST, Supp.80.1

60ST, Supp.80.2.

61ST, Supp.80.5.

62SCG, 4.88.1, 2.

63SCG, 4.81.6, 12, 13.

64SCG, 4.86.3, 4.

65ST, Supp.81.1-3.

66Resurrection, 2, 23.

67SCG, 4.41.3, 12.

68Arvin Vos and John W. Cooper, “Biblical and philosophical anthropology: a short dialogue” Calvin Theological Journal 26: 149-150.

69ST, 1.1.1.

70Eileen Sweeney, “Individuation and the Body in Aquinas” in Aertsen and Speer, op. cit., 180-181.

71ST, Supp.86.1.

72Resurrection, 265.

73ST, Supp.82.1.


28 March 2011