There’s no lack of gems to mine in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and his teaching on the intercession of the saints is among the brightest of these. He provides us with two unique arguments that the saints in heaven intercede for us and answers unique objections that, surprisingly, many Protestants don’t use but very well could.
Let’s consider these two arguments and two specific objections that are particularly interesting.
An argument from the saints’ vision of God
One argument is found in the body of Aquinas’s first article of question 72 in the Supplement to his Summa Theologiae. The targeted question is whether the saints in heaven have knowledge of prayers. Obviously, this question is related. But Aquinas’s reasoning shows not only that the saints in heaven are intellectually aware of our requests but that they in fact intercede for us.
Aquinas begins with the idea that seeing the divine essence gives knowledge of what pertains to self:
Each of the blessed must needs see in the Divine essence as many other things as the perfection of his happiness requires. For the perfection of a man’s happiness requires him to have whatever he will, and to will nothing amiss: and each one wills with a right will, to know what concerns himself. Hence, since no rectitude is lacking to the saints, they wish to know what concerns themselves, and consequently it follows that they know it in the Word (ST Suppl. 72:1).
For Aquinas, the blessed contemplate God in his eternal perfection, seeing in him whatever the perfection of their happiness requires. Aquinas then reasons that such happiness requires that there be nothing lacking in what the blessed will; otherwise, there would be some desire not satisfied, which would make for an incomplete state of happiness.
Next, Aquinas reasons that what the blessed in heaven will involves knowledge of that which concerns themselves. This is reasonable, given that happiness would be incomplete if there were some further knowledge to be had about the self. The intellect’s desire would not be entirely satiated. And Aquinas notes that this is not some egotistical desire to have knowledge of self, since “no rectitude is lacking to the saints,” each willing “with a right will.”
Therefore, Aquinas concludes, the blessed will to know what concerns themselves, and they see it in God.
The next step of his argument is to show that they cooperate with God in assisting the needy in their salvation:
Now it pertains to their glory that they assist the needy for their salvation: for thus they become God’s co-operators, “than which nothing is more Godlike,” as Dionysius declares (Coel. Hier. iii).
Aquinas doesn’t provide a defense of this claim, but the idea that Christians have the role of cooperating with God in assisting others to attain their salvation is clearly biblical. Consider, for example, some of Paul’s statements:
- 1 Corinthians 9:22: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
- 1 Timothy 4:16: “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:10: “Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?”
Cooperating with God in assisting others to attain their salvation is clearly part of what it means to be a Christian. And one way this assistance is carried out that is pertinent to the topic at hand is through intercessory prayer. Paul writes, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1). For Paul, this is one way that Christians “contribute to the needs of the saints [fellow Christians]” (Rom. 12:12-13).
Aquinas is now intellectually positioned to drive home the conclusion that the saints intercede for us. If “contributing to the needs of the saints” by way of assisting them to attain salvation through intercessory prayer is essential to what it means to be a Christian on Earth, then surely it would be part of one’s Christian identity in heaven. Why would such assistance through intercessory prayer cease to be part of the Christian life in a state of existence where the Christian life is perfected?
Remember, the blessed in heaven are those whom God “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29), and they are perfectly so. To be perfectly conformed to Christ is to be perfected in what it means to be a Christian. Since being a Christian involves cooperating with God to assist others in attaining their salvation, it follows that it belongs to those in heaven who are perfectly conformed to Christ to be cooperators with God to give such assistance.
Moreover, cooperating with God to assist others to attain salvation through intercessory prayer is a way by which Christians conform themselves to the image of the Son, since the Son “for all time [saves] those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Conformity to Christ involves doing what Christ does.
The blessed in heaven are perfectly conformed to Christ. Therefore, it still belongs to the blessed in heaven to assist others to attain salvation through intercessory prayer. If they didn’t have such a role, then their conformity to the image of Christ would be less perfect in heaven than what it was on Earth. But that’s absurd!
What if saints didn’t intercede?
This leads to yet another way we can think about it. Consider, for example, a scenario where the saints in heaven didn’t intercede for us. On such a scenario, they would be unfulfilled Christians, since interceding for others to attain salvation is essential to what it means to be a Christian. But an unfulfilled Christian is incompatible with the perfect happiness of heaven. Therefore, the saints in heaven must in fact intercede for us.
Now, concerning whether the saints in heaven have knowledge of our prayers, Aquinas reasons they do because the blessed must be aware of that which is necessary to fulfill their role of cooperating with God to assist the needy to attain salvation through intercessory prayer. This necessarily involves knowledge of the invocations made of them to assist in salvation:
Wherefore it is evident that the saints are cognizant of such things as are required for this purpose; and so it is manifest that they know in the Word the vows, devotions, and prayers of those who have recourse to their assistance (ST Suppl. 72:1).
It would be futile for the saints in heaven to have the role of an intercessor without being able to know the requests made of them.
An argument from order
In article two of the same question, Aquinas gives another argument that the saints intercede for us. This one appeals to the “order established by God among things that the last should be led to God by those that are midway between.”
This “order established by God” is not foreign to the Christian life. For example, God inspired St. Paul to instruct us on how to behave as Christians. He didn’t will that we journey back to him by the light of our own counsel. Rather, he willed that we journey back to him by the wise counsel of someone who is midway between us and God concerning how we should live as Christians.
The same order is found in God’s intention for us to know his truth. Christ commissioned his apostles, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Christ willed that we be brought to such knowledge by those who are midway between us and him who is knowledge itself.
For Aquinas, the saints are “nearest to God” in heaven while “we remain in the body [as] pilgrims from the Lord.” As such, they are midway “between us and him.”
Now, according to the “order” mentioned above, those who are last should be led to God by those who are midway between. Therefore, it stands to reason that God use the saints to lead us back to him.
Aquinas therefore concludes, “Hence it is that we make them [the saints] our intercessors with God and our mediators, as it were, when we ask them to pray for us.”
Some unique objections
With Aquinas’s two arguments now made, let’s turn to two specific objections he raises that I find particularly interesting. Both of them come from article one of question 72 in the Supplement, which, remember, deals with the question of whether the saints in heaven have knowledge of our prayers.
The second objection in the article says the saints don’t know our prayers because such knowledge would undermine their happiness. Here’s one way to put the argument:
Premise 1: If the saints knew our prayers, then they would know our sufferings.
Premise 1: If the saints knew our sufferings, then the saints would
Premise 1: But the saints in heaven can’t be sad.
Conclusion 1: Therefore, the saints can’t know our sufferings.
Conclusion 1: Therefore, the saints can’t know our prayers.
The second premise is key, to which Aquinas replies that we can’t say the saints in heaven are grieved by knowledge of our troubles in life because they are “so filled with heavenly joy that sorrow finds no place in them.”
Although I think Aquinas is right here, it seems there needs to be a bit more explanation as to how knowledge of our sufferings wouldn’t undermine the happiness of the blessed. In part three of the Summa Theologiae, he obliges: “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good” (ST III:1:3, ad 3).
Whether the saints know that good or not doesn’t matter. Simply knowledge that God will direct a permitted evil to a greater good gives the saints reason not to be sad. This is especially true given the saints’ vision of the divine essence, which provides them with an improved perspective on how God perfectly orders things to his glory.
Second, the saints in heaven view the troubles in our lives with an eternal perspective, a perspective that Paul articulates in his letters. For example, in Romans 8:18 Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, he writes, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
If Paul’s knowledge of such glory without the beatific vision could diminish sadness caused by his sufferings, then how much more would the saints’ knowledge of this glory with the beatific vision diminish sadness? Much more!
So, just because the saints in heaven would have knowledge of the troubles in our lives if they knew our prayers, it doesn’t follow they would be sad. They know there are greater goods that God is bringing about through our troubles.
The third objection Aquinas deals with in the article is similar to a modern objection to God’s existence: the problem of evil. It claims the saints can’t possibly know our prayers because if they did, they would respond to our requests for intercession, and we wouldn’t have suffering in our lives.
Behind this objection is the idea that a charitable person always assists his friend and/or neighbor when the latter is suffering. Since the saints in heaven have perfect love, and we’re their friends, it follows that if they knew our requests about what’s going on in our lives, they would help us in our sufferings.
But—the argument goes—they must not be helping us in our sufferings, because we suffer every day. Therefore, they must not know the requests that we make.
This objection is based on a false dichotomy. It supposes either the saints are praying for us, in which case we wouldn’t suffer, or they don’t know our prayers. But there’s a third option.
Perhaps the saints know our prayers and it’s just not God’s will that we be delivered from a particular trial, at least not yet. Like us, they don’t know all of God’s plan, and so even their petitions are subject to what the Lord wills (James 4:15). Alternately, if they do know that God wills to allow a source of suffering, they certainly would not pray for it to be removed. Aquinas explains:
The souls of the saints have their will fully conformed to the divine will even as regards the things willed; and consequently, although they retain the love of charity toward their neighbor, they do not succor him otherwise than they see to be in conformity with the disposition of divine justice (ST Suppl. 72:1, ad 3).
So, if we ask the saints to pray that we be delivered from a particular difficulty in our lives and it doesn’t come to pass, it’s because it wasn’t God’s will. It’s not because the saints aren’t aware of our prayers.
Furthermore, if God doesn’t will to deliver us from a source of suffering, the saints can still help us by praying we have the strength to persevere in faith and not lose hope in the midst of our suffering. Such prayers also would be fruits of perfect love.
Even if we don’t hear these arguments raised today, they’re interesting to consider. And if by chance a Protestant does happen to use one or both of them, a Catholic will be able to show why they don’t succeed.
The Angelic Doctor is often most known for his philosophical insights concerning God’s existence and nature, the Trinity, and all things pertaining to Christ. But his insights concerning the lower mysteries in the hierarchy of truths are just as profound, and the intercession of the saints is no exception. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!