The thought of Thomas Aquinas is rightly understood to be hierarchical, but the word hierarchy is understood diversely across time and place, and important readers of Thomas have praised or blamed him for being less hierarchical than his contemporaries. Early modern critique of hierarchy with its political edge often dominates understanding of the notion, but such critique stems from medieval controversies over religious perfection and sacramental life, which in turn echo the monastic polemics of Pseudo‐Dionysius, the probable inventor of the term hierarchy. The massive influence of Dionysius made him a contested authority in Thomas's time, and in his battles with secular clergy the Dominican theologian shows himself a more careful interpreter of the pseudo‐Areopagite than his contemporaries, who purported to defend hierarchy against the mendicants. This study presents the reading method of Aquinas as a contemplative project, motivated and delineated by the mendicant controversies of the thirteenth century, and undertaken alongside the obscure Dionysius within their common pursuit of religious perfection.

In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes writes of ecclesiastical prelates:

. . . from the time that the Bishop of Rome had gotten to be acknowledged for bishop universal, by pretence of succession to St. Peter, their whole hierarchy (or kingdom of darkness) may be compared not unfitly to the kingdom of fairies (that is, to the old wives’ fables in England, concerning ghosts and spirits and the feats they play in the night). And if a man consider the original of this great ecclesiastical dominion, he will easily perceive that the Papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof. For so did the Papacy start up on a sudden out of the ruins of that heathen power.1

For Hobbes, the “hierarchy” of the Church is a political order, augmented by superstition, and governed by the papacy.

After the Reformation, the sacred rule of Rome, with its dense sacramental-theological justification and manifest wealth and power, denoted an ecclesiastical order “sitting crowned” over an embattled secular polity, its emblems fallen in some places, but still standing defiantly in others. For anyone on this side of the Reformation, the general use and understanding of hierarchy as a species of “heathen power” is difficult to avoid. A Hobbesian identification of sacred power with secular rule is itself powerful, and those who accept it can apply the concept to any polity whatsoever, whether as praise or (more often) critique. Those shaping and shaped by the Reformation, including their modern descendants, however secularized, will be sure that “hierarchy” entails a polity in which power, privilege, and authority are concentrated in a ruler or oligarchy from which powers, privilege, and authority descend in ever-diminishing ways: at the foot of this hierarchical system is the mass of peasantry or the disenfranchised members of the “peoples’ party.”

But we should not accept a Hobbesian gloss of hierarchy uncritically. While the use of the word may have changed for good, a historically informed idea of hierarchy should adjust how we apply it to civil and sacred polities, ancient and medieval theories of governance, sacraments, and religious perfection.

This essay focuses on an important thirteenth-century understanding of hierarchy, that of Thomas Aquinas. Already by the fourteenth century, the ecclesiastical crisis that would crescendo in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had begun in certain theological and social debates. The strong papal critiques that stem from the thirteenth century and achieve great theological and political force in the fourteenth, however, find their prior and more proper expression in debates about religious perfection.2

Medieval critics of the clergy may look to us like comrades arrayed against “the hierarchy.” But recent studies reveal many varieties of medieval critique directed at clerical and religious life, showing that many critics did not condemn ecclesial hierarchy as such.3 Especially by analyzing Franciscan and Dominican ideas of perfection and the mediation of grace, we can identify many species of the critique of hierarchy, touching on charity and poverty, sacramental participation, contemplation, and the forms of clerical and lay Christian life.4

Instead of accepting hierarchy as the secularized ghost of Roman political imperium, we can begin where we first find it written. The term was likely coined by Pseudo-Dionysius, who would have been baffled by the modern understanding of hierarchy.5 The Christian monk writing pseudonymously as Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), probably in a Greek-speaking Syrian milieu of the fifth or sixth century, would affirm that hierarchy is an “order” entailing a certain structure of intellectual beings.6 But, besides that, his hierarchy has little to do with what Hobbes has in mind. If hierarchy is an obscure concept to both the early modern and the contemporary mind, this is merely a synecdoche for the whole Dionysian corpus.7 It is historically instructive to understand hierarchy as Dionysius intended it to be understood—but how to understand the notoriously obscure Dionysius?

In 1993, Paul Rorem, an expert expositor of Dionysius, published a fine commentary on his texts.8 Peter Casarella, however, offered a review of Rorem's book with reference to its “Reading Method for ‘An Obscure Style,’ ” a chapter title from Rorem that refers to Thomas Aquinas's explanation of Dionysius's difficult mode of expression.9 Casarella shows how this prominent reader's “reading method” has yielded a Dionysius already laden with modern preconceptions, reflecting the epistemology of Kant and Protestant theology.10 Rorem does not write polemically, but Casarella shows how Rorem retrojects anachronistic categories (often determined by intractable Protestant-Catholic debates) into his interpretation of Dionysius.

Casarella suggests that contemporary interpretations—like the now-prominent reading of Alexander Golitzin, who emphasizes Dionysius's probably Syrian monastic context and his interaction with Greek and Syriac intellectual traditions—will yield a postmodern Dionysius relatively free from early modern and Reformation-era problematics. But the late nineteenth-century unmasking of Dionysius's pseudonymity is an irrevocable mark left on this author by modernity, and this opens an unbridgeable chasm between us and Dionysius's premodern interpreters: “We in the West do not have the option of going back to the pre-critical view held by Hugh of St. Victor, Aquinas, or Bonaventure. Modern Dionysius scholarship is a good example of how modernity has changed our view of the past in a decisive, irrevocable manner.”11

However, it is arguable that identifying an interpreter's “reading method” qualifies an author's interpretation of Dionysius in a way that makes both Dionysius and his interpreter more intelligible. The reading and the reading method, taken together, may yield a fuller picture of a reality held in common between the interpreted and the interpreter. If Rorem's reading is understood as, in some ways, polemical, we can then judge how he and Dionysius regard the same realities—the Christian mysteries—but with different vectors of emphasis. In this essay, I will approach the “precritical” interpretation of Dionysian hierarchy that we find in St. Thomas Aquinas. I will examine, specifically, how Thomas's reading method is shaped by his intention to defend his religious order against an existential threat, drawn by antimendicant authors from Dionysian authority, based on a claim about ecclesial hierarchy. Approaching the important loci of both hierarchy and the Dionysian corpus in this way, we can see two fellow “monks”—one writing pseudonymously as a subapostolic bishop, the other writing openly as an apostolic friar commissioned to intervene in a conflict—both describing and living out similar divine truths in very specialized polemical contexts.

Dionysius's most useful definition of hierarchy appears in his Celestial Hierarchy: “In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding and an activity [τάξις ἱɛρὰ καὶ ἐπιστήµη καὶ ἐνέργɛια] approximating as closely as possible to the divine.”12 This definition captured the theological minds of the thirteenth century, serving as an occasion for commenting on hierarchy in general. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has also merited extended comment from prominent theological interpreters of Dionysius, such as René Roques (a Catholic priest) and, to a lesser extent, Alexander Golitzin (an Orthodox archbishop).13

Golitzin's interpretation emphasizes the liturgical essence of Dionysian hierarchy.14 To understand this feature of Dionysius, consider an organizing principle enunciated in Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, where he repeats the idea twice:

[I]n our sacred tradition every hierarchy is divided into the most reverend sacraments [τὰς ὁσιωτάτας τɛλɛτὰς]; those, inspired by God, who understand and purvey them; and those who are sacredly initiated by these. . . . Like every hierarchy [ours] has a threefold division, namely the most holy operations of the sacraments [τὰς ἁγιωτάτας τῶν τɛλɛτῶν ἱɛρουργίας], the godlike dispensers of the sacred things, and those guided by them, according to capacity, toward the sacred.15

Hierarchy is a tripartite structure of sacramental operations, the ministers of those sacraments, and initiates into their mysteries.

How does ecclesial hierarchy, originally an Eastern and distinctively liturgical or sacramental principle of spiritual perfection, end up pilloried by Hobbes as an essentially political papal superstition? Thomas Aquinas, in the third quarter of the thirteenth century, offered a reading of Dionysian hierarchy that was, soon after, to be obscured by other polemical uses of Dionysius—most prominently in Pope Boniface VIII's bull Unam Sanctam (1302), published twenty-eight years after Thomas's death in 1274.16 Aquinas, unlike Boniface, was not interested in correcting the likes of King Philip the Fair. Besides being an avid student of the Greek fathers, Thomas was motivated by accusations that his religious order, the clerical mendicant Order of Preachers founded in 1216 by Dominic de Guzman, had violated hierarchical order.17 The preaching “monks” had been accused of trespassing in the priestly and even episcopal sanctuaries of preaching and hearing confessions. This made them worthy of comparison, even, with the wicked (fictional) monk Demophilus, whom Dionysius, as bishop, reprimands sharply in his Epistle 8. This monk has presumed to interrupt the reconciliation of a known sinner, and he enters the sanctuary on the pretense of preserving the sacraments from profanation. Aquinas's response, based on the Celestial Hierarchy and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius as well as Epistle 8, shows his appreciation for the pseudo-Areopagite's threefold liturgical concept of hierarchy and an equally deep interest in the theology of religious perfection.

But the antimendicants also offered a critique of papal monarchy. Since it was papal approval that emboldened the friars in their mendicant mission, some theologians appealed to local clerical rights against papal incursions. Aquinas, I will show, defends papal primacy, but without associating it with Dionysian hierarchy. Rather, he argues for the pope's right to institute a new ordo praedicatorum on biblical and canonical grounds; he does not, like other thirteenth-century theologians, elaborate a Roman hierarchy upon Dionysian foundations. Such a Latin elaboration has been the object of significant study already, and is rather clearly a Franciscan development, enshrined by Pope Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam.18

Dionysian hierarchy in Western history

Before turning to Thomas's polemical interpretation of Dionysius, it is worth recounting how his approach issues from a long Latin development. If Dionysius's legacy is a mountain range spanning East and West, then the twin peaks of its Western branch are the Dominican and Franciscan Dionysian traditions. Several medieval treatments of this author precede the mendicants’ work in the Latin world.19 Dionysius was translated and glossed several times in the ninth century, by Hilduin, Eriugena, and Anastasius, in that order. The twelfth century saw further glosses and a commissioned translation by John Sarrazin. In the first half of the thirteenth century, Thomas Gallus, or Thomas of Saint-Victor, produced various popular works that paraphrased and commented on Dionysius's work. Also, Robert Grosseteste made a translation of the Corpus Dionysiacum, minus the Epistles. The influence of Dionysius on medieval theology comes, not by way of Peter Lombard, but from the men of Saint-Victor, such as Thomas Gallus.20 Once diffused by the Victorines, Dionysius's influence was universal.

Saints Bonaventure and Albert the Great diverge regarding the nature of union with God in Dionysius, giving birth to the so-called “affective” and “intellectual” schools of interpretation. Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), the Dominican teacher of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), in his commentary on Dionysius's Celestial Hierarchy, claims that the relatively brief Dionysian corpus was written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.21 Albert commented on all of Pseudo-Dionysius's extant works, whereas his student Thomas Aquinas commented only on Dionysius's On the Divine Names. It should be noted, however, that one significant manuscript of Albert's commentary is a nearly illegible copy that Thomas wrote in his own hand—a copy that Thomas might have taken with him to Paris.22 While Albert devoted attention to Dionysius in a more obvious way, the pseudo-Areopagite is a pervasive voice in Aquinas's works as well.

The commentary on Dionysius was not a commonplace genre, but received the special attention of the friars. While Bonaventure does not comment directly on Dionysius's texts, the Franciscan Peter John Olivi (d. 1298) does, and Francis of Meyronnes (d. 1328), a Franciscan student of Duns Scotus, seems to have produced a florilegium of Dionysius.23 However, moving into the fourteenth century, such commentary seems to have fallen off entirely. Dionysius was not uniformly regarded as important, and certainly not outside of theological circles. Look in the Defensor pacis of Marsilius of Padua (d. 1342), a watershed critique of ecclesiastical power penned by a collaborator of Ockham, and there is no mention of the word hierarchy. Nor does Marsilius bother to mention the name of Dionysius. These omissions are remarkable, considering the savor that hierarchy held for many thirteenth-century writers and the rancor it would inspire in the early modern period.

Between the twin peaks of thirteenth-century Dionysian thought, it is the Dominican interpretation that captures this Dionysian order with accurate care.24 This makes Aquinas the last in a significant line of medieval commentary on Dionysian hierarchy, which branches off in a different direction through the Franciscan masters. So a study of Aquinas will yield a “reading method” which is of great interest. Aquinas represents not a medieval misreading or lapse in understanding, but a precise reading of Dionysius, motivated by both contemplative desire and a highly practical, defensive end: saving the Order of Preachers from those who would destroy it. He puts his reading to work in his own important teaching on the structure of the Church. This is a theological matter. In other words, Thomas takes hierarchy in its proper and Dionysian sense, and not as an expandable container for papal court offices, and certainly not according to our common understanding of hierarchy as vertical power relations denuded of sacred purpose. The concept of hierarchy describes, most importantly for Dionysius and Aquinas, the perfection worked by the apostolic ministry of bishops, and it is organized for the sake of the whole Church, as exemplified in the perfection of the monk.

Many note the “hierarchical” quality of Aquinas's theology in general, and some draw out the implications of his comments on hierarchy for his political thought.25 Thomas, following his teacher Albert, calls hierarchy a sacer principatus, “sacred rule” or “sacred government,” in his commentary on Lombard's Sentences.26 Yet Thomas shows an awareness of the proper application of Dionysius's notions about “our hierarchy,” the Church. He offers a more complete reading of Dionysian hierarchy than his opponents do. His reading does not limit the ecclesiastical hierarchy to human beings but acknowledges “sacred actions,” or sacraments, as holding the highest rank, above the twofold human ranks of perfectors and the perfected. He also uses the Dionysian notion of perfection as a special bridge between these two heads of the human hierarchies.27 By elaborating perfection through the lens of the virtue of charity, he also goes his own way, especially in conceiving of the highest form of life as the one “nearest to episcopal perfection,” as he puts it in his most mature work, the Summa theologiae.28

Thomas's defense of sacramental order in the first mendicant controversy

The first aspect of Thomas's use of Dionysian hierarchy that I wish to highlight pertains to the first rank of the threefold division that Dionysius gives for all hierarchy in Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 5.1: the sacraments themselves. The first mendicant controversy (1252–59) highlights this sacramental first rank. At the University of Paris, the secular theologian William of Saint-Amour worked to discredit the new mendicant masters from 1252 until his expulsion from the kingdom of France in 1256.29 Well versed in canon law, William waged a two-pronged legal and theological battle against the friars in the statutes of the university.30

William had one easy target, the Liber introductorius evangelii aeternii of Gerard of Borgo San Donnino (d. 1276), a radical Franciscan interpretation of Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202). That text came under the suspicion of Pope Innocent IV and the 1255 condemnation of Pope Alexander IV. Andrew Traver comments, “The mendicants’ opponents capitalized on the scandal caused by the Introductorius, treating it as a blueprint which detailed the friars’ intended goals for the Church.”31 Taking advantage of the moment of ill favor toward the mendicants, William published his most significant attack in 1256, the De periculis novissimorum temporum, an apocalyptic warning insisting that preaching and teaching religious orders be suppressed.32

Thomas's argument on perfection in religious life

Thomas Aquinas enters the struggle by framing William and his company as attackers of the religious life and the very worship of God. His Contra impugnantes dei cultum et religionem is a response to William's treatise De periculis, answering it at the level of scriptural, patristic, and canonical argument.33 Though it omits the apocalyptic tone, Thomas's counterattack is equal in furor to William's: “the emissaries of Satan show clearly that they are the enemies both of God, whose glory they endeavour to frustrate, and of man, against whose salvation they wage war.”34 Besides refuting his opponents’ arguments, Thomas sets himself the task of showing what “religion,” or religious consecration, is, and what makes up religious perfection, because the enmity of his enemies “seems entirely directed against religious.”35

Perfection is Aquinas's enduring theme in his defenses of the mendicant life. Among others, the authority of Dionysius determines the meaning of perfection, perfecting, and being perfected. Before considering Aquinas's argument, we should first look at that of his principal objector.

William of Saint-Amour's traditional ecclesiastical order

Guy Geltner calls William's treatise “a rallying-cry for the restoration of ecclesiastical order.”36 It specifies the abolition of the mendicants as its goal. However, Geltner may be correct in saying that “William's true audacity lies less in a ham-fisted antifraternalism than in the targeting of several powerful accomplices to the mendicants’ success: prelates, laymen, popes, and kings.”37

While some scholarship focuses on William's polemic against papal infallibility, which is indeed an arresting part of his argument, I will focus on William's use of Dionysius within his argument about order.38 William's idea of order (ordo) relies on one traditional interpretation of the two ordines of the Church described by Dionysius.39 He accepts an “order of perfectors” [ordo perficientium] made up of bishops, priests, and deacons; and an “order of those to be perfected” [ordo perficiendorum] made up of monks, laymen, and catechumens. He also notes that, within the ordo of perfectors, there are “grades” [gradus] of “the bishops, who succeed the apostles,” and “the parish priests, who succeed the seventy-two disciples and take their place.”40 There is no need for new apostles, and certainly not from among the monks: the former are in a state of perfection, not the latter. “The office of preaching cannot be entrusted to monks, so long as they remain in their inferior state of those requiring perfection,” according to William.41 While he respects the monastic state, he does not hesitate to exclude monks from the category of the perfect. For a monk to attain to preaching or teaching, he must move into the state of perfection—which means, out of the state of being perfected. William affords the priest a high dignity, comparable to that of a bishop.

While William accepts the hierarchy of bishop and priest, he insists on the rights and powers of the parish priest. Bishops are uniquely charged with governance of a plurality of churches (ecclesiarum regimine), and thus they hold the high office of preaching (officium predicationis): thus, William pointedly identifies them as the sole ordo praedicatorum, which is also the formal title of the Dominicans.42 While William “refuse[s] to dispute the power of the lord pope or of the bishops,” he objects that “there can be only one master in a church, otherwise the church would not be a spouse, but a whore.”43

William takes ordo as something “decreed by the apostles and prophets” [ab apostolis et prophetis decretum est].44 In his desire to maintain order, he is often described as a traditionalist.45 Thomas will not reject any of these presuppositions, and thus does not wish to be, and should not be, seen as upsetting an established order. Dufeil says anachronistically that Thomas achieves the Aufhebung of accepting the conditions of his time but subordinating them within a higher synthesis.46 I agree, at least, that Thomas reinterprets the crucial authority of Dionysius's Celestial Hierarchy and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and that he adds further commentary on the question of the “monk” with reference to Dionysius's Epistle 8 to Demophilus.

Thomas on Dionysius's threefold division of hierarchy

Aquinas sets out to show that his opponents are not only incorrect in their arguments, but have in fact fallen into ancient heresies about religious life. The object of Thomas's Contra impugnantes, as both Dufeil and Sommers argue, is the defense of not only the mendicants, not even explicitly the mendicants, but of any form of religious life dedicated to the illumination of clerics and the faithful.47 This being the work's object, its end is cultus dei, the right worship of God. The charge of heresy applies to all who

assert that religious are not merely precluded by their state of life from exercising the sacerdotal functions, but that bishops cannot, without the consent of the parish priests, grant them faculties for their performance. And what is even more pernicious, they say that the Pope himself cannot qualify religious to act as priests.48

This charge of heresy is the outermost frame of Thomas's argument and his grounds for treating his opponents as ministers of Satan and enemies of religion itself.

Thomas's prologue offers a brief phrase that expresses his purpose in this work with respect to hierarchy: “ut ordo servaretur in rebus.” His opponents are aggrieved in the name of ordo.49 Indeed, God has “determined to choose ministers, so that order may be preserved among things, whose ministry might perfect” both ends: the worship of God and the salvation of man.50 Since different metaphysical conceptions of ordo exist, however, Thomas will eventually specify what he means: the Dionysian triad of sacraments, perfectors, and perfected.

Aquinas offers a discrete defense of the right of religious to teach. He points out that many doctors of the Church were religious, which is a strong testimony from authority. One objection, however, is drawn from Dionysius, in Ecclesiastical History chapter 5. In the body of his response, Thomas takes up the dyad of baptismal and vowed religio. He invokes Dionysius (EH 2) where he shows that baptism makes one capable of “divine operations” [operationes divinas].51 Likewise, religious receive life by their death to the world, and this frees them for “divine actions” [actiones divinae], which follow especially upon knowledge (doctrinam). These different terms do not signal a strict distinction between baptismal operation and religious actions; rather, they show Thomas's sensitivity to Dionysius's definition of hierarchy as not only τάξις (taxis), but also ἐπιστήµη (epistēmē) and ἐνέργɛια (energeia). Here he is alert to the primacy of the sacraments in the threefold ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The fifth objection is of primary importance for this point. In his translation, Procter renders the threefold Dionysian division of hierarchy as “those who perform the sacred functions; those who share in these functions; and those who merely receive the benefit of them.”52 But “those who perform” is an interpolation, probably because Procter is conceiving hierarchy as made up solely of rational agents. But Dionysius does not say this in his Ecclesiastical History 5.1, as discussed above. Rather, he attributes to all hierarchy “a threefold division, namely the most holy operations of the sacraments, the godlike dispensers of the sacred things, and those guided by them.”53 Where Dionysius has “τὰς ἁγιωτάτας τῶν τɛλɛτῶν ἱɛρουργίας or τὰς ὁσιωτάτας τɛλɛτὰς,” Thomas offers the paraphrase “sacras actiones.”54 Procter's mistranslation is emblematic of the broader, modern misconception of the idea of hierarchy as an exclusively human order. True hierarchy is not ruled by a highest clerical order, but by the sacraments themselves, as perfectly stable vessels of the divine ἐνέργɛια. Thomas recognizes the Dionysian order explicitly in his response: “he [Dionysius] calls the sacraments of the Church sacred actions” [vocat enim actiones sacras ecclesiastica sacramenta].55

By analogy to the functions of perfecting, illuminating, purifying, the objector argues that monks cannot teach, because “whoever teaches communicates sacred things to others.”56 Thomas enunciates Dionysius's contrasting triads of deacons, priests, bishops; catechumens, laity, monks; and he specifies them by their actions. “Hence,” the objection runs, “the function of monks is to receive holiness, not to impart it to others. And as they who teach must instruct their pupils in sacred science, teaching is not the lawful work of monks.”57

In his response, Thomas first notes that ancient monks were not clerics, and it is of these that Dionysius speaks. Thus the difficulty comes from “a bad understanding of Dionysius.”58 Since, as already noted, Thomas understands the highest rank of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to belong to sacrae actiones, he identifies which sacraments belong to which human hierarchs and why.59 “Teaching in the schools, however, is not one of the holy rites, or sacred actions,” Thomas notes, “whereof [Dionysius] speaks.”60 The advancement of monks to the office of prelate, or bishop, is founded in canon law and well known, and both Thomas and William acknowledge it. Here, however, Thomas is distinguishing what is open to a monk as a monk from what he can do as a cleric.

Thus, the sacrae actiones receive their deserved attention as holding the first rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Thomas accepts Dionysius's teaching on the first ordo of nostra ierarchia. Now we may consider how he treats the two lower ordines, made of human perfectors and perfected.

Thomas on the the sacramental commissioning of monks

As Thomas defends the right of religious to preach and hear confessions, “it is the ecclesiological arguments,” that is, regarding Dionysian ordines, “which dominate in this defense, and primarily those having to do with the authority of the bishops and popes to commission preachers.”61 Now that Thomas has established a more correct reading of Dionysian hierarchy and its sacramental, perfective structure, he can discuss theoretical tensions within it. In chapter 4 of Contra impugnantes, Thomas considers many of the antimendicants’ canonical objections, but four of the twenty-nine objections invoke the higher-order theological authority of Dionysius, one being the appeal to Dionysius's correction of Demophilus the monk.

While acknowledging their subordination to the local bishop, William also insisted on the parish priest as a divinely instituted office similar to that of the bishop. In response, Thomas reaffirms the ecclesiastical order outlined in chapter 4, and denies that parish priests have authority over their flock surpassing that of the bishop who is their superior. In doing so, he also elaborates an important hierarchical principle: the bishop's power to commission others. This allows him to affirm, using the Dionysian principles accepted by his opponents, the ability of a monk or religious to perform functions of a higher rank.

“The spouse of the Church, properly speaking, is Christ,” writes Thomas.62 Here he shows his impatience with the metaphor of parochial polygamy, explaining that Christ sets his ministers to beget his spiritual children in different ranks, and “thus Christ, the Pope, the bishops, and the priests are but one spouse of the Church.” An ecclesiastical polygamy is prevented by canons forbidding two pastors of one parish, or two bishops in one diocese.63 As for the relation of power between bishop and priest, in terms of universal and particular powers, Thomas maintains that the universal power, though more remote, is in fact more primary: “It is the office of a bishop to give authority to priests. . . . but as an agent does not, by acting, lose the power of acting, a bishop retains all that power which he gives to parish priests.”64

This correct understanding of Neoplatonist primary and secondary causality, articulated by Proclus (d. 485) and mediated through Dionysius, dispels an illusion that William was attempting to exploit. It may seem that the bishop has given over his power to his priests, but in fact they enjoy an ability, as his ministers, to exercise his proper, universal power. Thomas especially dwells on the particulars of the bishop's allocating his power to hear confessions and to preach, which he gives at will to those in holy orders.

Thomas also uses Dionysius to distinguish the essential structure of divinely instituted ordo from that of ecclesiastical institution. An archbishop, although he is superior to a bishop by “ecclesiastical ordinance” [ex ordinatione ecclesiae], does not exercise immediate jurisdiction over a bishop's flock, as a bishop does over his priests’ people: for “priests are by divine right subject to bishops, as Dionysius proves.” The papacy, on the other hand, is of divine institution, and thus:

The jurisdiction of a bishop over his priests resembles in kind that of the Sovereign Pontiff over all Christendom. For the Roman Church has not been given supremacy over other churches by the decrees of any synod, but by the words of our Lord and Savior himself.65

The matter of the pope, absent in the schema given by Dionysius, is indispensable within the polemical context. As for bishop, priest, and deacon, Thomas carefully notes that Christ instituted only bishops and priests to preach; but just as the early Church established deacons along with priests as the “soli duo ordines sacri,” as Lombard says, the Church later established certain ordines minores. Thomas turns this point (theologically delicate in itself) toward showing that “the Church, or the Pope to whom is confided all ecclesiastical power, could found a third order of preachers,” repaying in kind William's comment about the ordo praedicatorum.66

For Aquinas, monks, friars, and canons differ specifically, for instance regarding stability of place and begging. But he also employs the term “monk” generically. In his “generic” defense of religio, Thomas defends ordained monks consecrating the Eucharist, teaching, feasting occasionally, receiving honors, and leaving the cloister, even daily, to teach and minister.67 This is not a controversial position: it was current practice and had ancient, explicit support, for example that of Pope Boniface IV.68 Focusing on the notion that a monk has “overstepped his measure” [se superextendit supra mensuram], calling Demophilus to mind, Thomas argues that “if a religious were to do something not prohibited by his Rule, even though the thing be not mentioned in the Rule, he does not overstep his measure.”69

Not only can an ordained monk, then, perform priestly actions; if he is legitimately pursuing various good ends, he can compromise many of the forms of observance without “overstepping his measure.” Thomas defines the essentials of religio as the evangelical counsels, and he acknowledges the validity of many other traits of monastic life, showing his familiarity with (often monastic) patristic authorities.70

The sacrae actiones or operationes which govern all Dionysian hierarchy continue to organize religio for Thomas. However, Thomas needed to account for the complexity of contemporary religiones and ordines. Dionysius's concern was the integrity of the sacramental order and the presumption of holy men to upset it. The Contra impugnantes, of which I have only discussed a small part, used Dionysius, but was not animated by the same polemical concern. Thomas needed to provide an account for men who found themselves within two orders, perfecting and perfected, and intended to serve with due docility the hierarchs within whose churches they ministered.

Thomas's defense of spiritual perfection in the second mendicant controversy

Developments in the controversy between secular university masters and mendicants led Aquinas to reflect further on ecclesiastical hierarchy, within his own developing theological approach. From exile in his native Saint-Amour, William submitted further writings to Pope Alexander IV, elected in 1256, but was not vindicated within his lifetime. But the antimendicant cause perdured, and a colleague of William, the secular master Gerard of Abbeville, continued the fight. Jean-Pierre Torrell comments, “Highly active within the university, he was one of the rare masters (along with Saint Thomas) regularly to hold two quodlibets annually.”71 Thomas's first regency as a Parisian master lasted until 1259, after which he returned to his native Italy for almost a decade. In the meantime, Gerard held forth in sermons and quodlibetal questions, publishing and disseminating his works with great success. In 1268, Pope Clement IV died; his successor, Gregory X, was not to be elected until 1271. Gerard, who had been on crusade, returned and was ordained a priest on March 19, 1272, and became bishop of Rome on March 27.72 This absence of a pope was the longest in the history of the Church. Gerard took advantage of the interregnum to publish explicitly against the mendicant form of life during the second mendicant controversy (1268–72).73

Gerard was especially bold in criticizing the mendicants’ forms of evangelical poverty. The conflict takes its most explicit shape from the Franciscan form of life; both St. Bonaventure and the English Franciscan John Peckham would reply to Gerard with treatises defending poverty specifically. It was unusual for a Dominican master, once his regency had been completed, to return to one of the two chairs that the order held at Paris. But the friars sent two seasoned masters back to Paris during this acrimonious moment in the university: Peter of Tarentaise (later Pope Innocent V), in 1267; and Thomas Aquinas, in 1268.

Thomas organized his response to Gerard's many-fronted attack in two published works (besides his own quodlibetal questions).74 The first of these, De perfectione spiritualis vitae, took a decidedly non-Franciscan direction. Rather than defend mendicant poverty, Thomas defends perfection, aided by the evangelical counsels; and spiritual perfection “consists, principally, in charity.”75 Not until chapter 8 does he consider the renunciation of material goods.76 Instead, he first develops perfection in terms of the love of God and of neighbor (chap. 3). Thomas continues to use the authority of Dionysius, receiving him as a theologian of hierarchical perfection alongside other patristic sources.77

Thomas on the perfection of the episcopal and monastic states

Love, which perfects, can be classified in descending degrees. God alone loves perfectly (chap. 4); the blessed love with the fullness of their nature (chap. 5). There is a love to which all Christians are commanded under precept (chap. 6); but the counsel of perfection exhorts to a certain perfection of love now:

although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, nevertheless, to endeavor, as far as we can, to emulate it. Now, it is in this effort that consists the perfection in this life, to which we are invited by the counsels.78

The counsels of poverty (chap. 8), celibate chastity (chaps. 9–10), and religious obedience (chap. 11) are, in ascending order, aids subordinate to the perfection of charity.79 The surpassing importance of the will in human life means that the vow of obedience, not poverty, is most important (praecipuum) in religious life.

This approach to perfection will make it possible to characterize the status perfectionis in a way that specially applies to religious and bishops—and excludes priests and other clerics. Bishops, like religious, are in a terminal condition. Priests, although they have a permanent character of order, “bind [themselves] . . . to perform some specific work for some allotted time, [renouncing] freedom not absolutely but partially, i.e., with regard to the particular matter about which he has laid himself under an obligation.”80 But the definition of perfection, referring not primarily to the vows but rather to the will, also opens perfection to all Christians in a remarkable way: although not bound within a state by a vow, “it is perfectly possible for persons to be perfect without being in the state of perfection.”81

The discussion of the status perfectionis that follows (chaps. 19–21) is heavily marked by Dionysius's Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, comparing and contrasting bishop and religious. Thomas in chapter 19 compares the ordination of a bishop with the profession of a religious. He seems to be drawing attention to the solemnity of religious profession by a “sanctifying invocation” [sanctificativa invocatione] like that of ordination, against those who question religious profession as such.82 Against those who make the opposite error, that religious are more perfect than bishops, he affirms the superiority of the episcopal state of perfection:

Dionysius says (EH 5) that the duty of bishops is to produce perfection; and in chapter 6 he says that the life of monks is a state of perfection. Now it is evident that greater perfection is needed in order to make others perfect than is required in a state which in itself is perfect . . . just as every cause is more powerful than its effect. Hence the episcopal state is one of greater perfection than is that of any religious order.83

Thomas offers his own arguments in favor of Dionysius's arrangement. He speaks of aspects of the episcopal state as perfectly embodying virtues which are analogous to the life of the vows, or evangelical counsels. He even mentions, echoing the antimendicants, that “Dionysius says (EH 6) that the monastic state ‘is not intended to lead others forward, but is ordained for its own sake, and remains on its own peculiar and sacred basis’; whereas bishops are under the obligation of guiding others to God.”84

Bishops are perfect primarily because, like the apostles whom they succeed, their whole lives are given to God and the faithful, in a life which is both contemplative and active. It is a demanding office. Thomas affirmed the universal power to be perfected in love; the obverse of the coin is that one may “be in a state of perfection without being perfect.”85 He is not naïve about the moral lives of either religious or bishops. It is easy to see how a religious can make a vow and fail to fulfill it. The more difficult question is how bishops, who stand in relation to the religious state of perfection as cause to effect, can fail to be actually perfect.

In affirming the perfection and dignity of the episcopacy, Thomas is exploiting the structure of the antimendicant argument. Both William and Gerard relied, for their arguments against the overextension of papal jurisdiction, on an idea of the Church's “pluralistic constitution” upon the authority of all the apostles.86 But Thomas has already positioned himself well in the matter of pope, bishop, and religious. The Franciscan Thomas of York had, in 1256, articulated a “derivational” view of episcopal authority, in which all power descends from the pope as supreme hierarch to the bishops.87

The antimendicant masters admitted the pope's universal governance, but appealed to Gratian's Decretum, distinctio 99, which prohibited the use of the term “universal bishop” for the pope.88 This objection, enshrined by Gratian, derived ultimately from Gregory the Great, who rejected “universal bishop” as a term used by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.89 Thomas respects the condemnation of the term in Gregory's theology and in received law. There is no question of the pope as universal bishop in Dionysius; here, we see it rejected by Gregory with reference to Eastern ecclesiology.

Unlike his treatment in the Contra impugnantes, Thomas gives the office of the pope little function in the argument of his De perfectione.90 Rather, using the strong authority of Dionysius's ecclesiastical hierarchy, he offers a theology of bishop and religious which will issue in his final theology of perfection in Summa theologiae II-II, composed around the same time as De perfectione.

Thomas's ecclesiology of pope and bishop

Thomas proposes the form of life found in the Dominican Order as the pinnacle of his speculative moral theology, underpinned by his view of the hierarchically perfective structure of salvation as apostolic or episcopal. He does not thereby place the religious state above the episcopacy, as readers of Dionysius's Epistle 8 might fear. Thomas maintains the distinction of the supremacy of bishops from religious life, treading the mean between heresies that he marked out in Contra impugnantes.

The papacy, perhaps surprisingly, receives only incidental consideration in Thomas's treatment of the graces pertaining “to certain men.”91 In the Contra impugnantes, Thomas was forced to respond to the canonical qualification that the pope is “not the universal bishop,” to which he responds that this is

not because he does not possess complete and direct power over every diocese in the Church, but because he does not rule whichever particular diocese [non praeficitur cuilibet particulari Ecclesiae] as its peculiar and special pastor. Were he to do so, the powers of the other bishops would lapse.92

Here Thomas defends a “complete and direct power” [auctoritatem immediatam et plenam] of the papacy, and considers it to be of divine institution.93 He is not one of those of whom Rorem says, “the Areopagite's original local hierarchy of clergy and laity was stretched into a universal pyramid of ultimate authority.”94 Instead, the “distinction of ordo is limited to the relation of the bishop to the mystical Body of Christ that is the Church”; by this limitation, in Gilles Emery's judgment, “St. Thomas perceived here an important aspect of patristic and Eastern ecclesiology.”95

• • •

One could go on to consider the Secunda secundae of the Summa theologiae, a synthesis of Thomas's theology of religious perfection framed within his speculative masterwork, yet a polemical text in its own right. However, in the Contra impugnantes and the De perfectione “Thomas commits and manifests himself personally in a more open way than in other works,” as Torrell says, revealing his interpretive preoccupations.96 Moreover, Thomas Aquinas's writings during the first and second mendicant controversies reveal a “reading method” for Dionysius with powerful ecumenical implications. Not only does Thomas avoid the confusion of Roman primacy and Dionysian hierarchy—a confusion to which some of his mendicant contemporaries fell prey—but he also exemplifies a communion in consecrated life and contemplation with the mysterious author of the Dionysian corpus. His “generic” defense of religio signals a diachronic theology of the religious life, like that found in Dionysius. This spectacle of one monastic theologian reading another, each in open conflict over Christian mysteries, can instruct our own approach to hierarchy and other realities.

Thomas's reading method teaches us how to read Dionysius. He read Dionysius, not only as an authority, but also as a peer, and we might consider ourselves their peers as well. I have sought to show how, for both Thomas and Dionysius, the contemplative life and perfection did not abstract the scholar from the bed of law, polity, and violent struggle in which he was planted. While Aquinas's context is clearer to us, and a readier object of study, the Pseudo-Dionysius, too, reveals something of his world and his interests in his speculative polemics.

The Communion of Saints has always considered itself to be also a republic of letters, and the Gospel of God tends to leave a serious scholarly apparatus as part of its earthly residue.97 Without an openness to this diachronic common project of reading, writing, and contemplation, we will be blind to correspondences that hint at real structural likenesses among eras, and perhaps repeat our own era's mistakes. Besides clarifying the idea of hierarchy, such common study might advance us beyond problematic historical binaries about Eastern and Western thought by following the currents of fifth-century Syria, thirteenth-century Paris, and other eras into the stream of theology, architecture, poetry, and polemic that issues into early modernity.



Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 4.47.21, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1994), 482–83.


Such debates belong to very disparate theological discussions. Viktória Hedvig Deák, in Consilia Sapientis Amici: Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Foundation of the Evangelical Counsels in Theological Anthropology (Roma: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2014), 9, claims that Aquinas is “the first theologian to offer a systematic theology of religious life and the evangelical counsels.”


Interest in the Franciscan ideal of poverty dominates such scholarship; see, e.g., Michael D. Bailey, “Religious Poverty, Mendicancy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages,” Church History 72, no. 3 (2003): 457–83. A connection is sometimes made to John Wyclif and the Lollards, e.g., Ian Christopher Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” Franciscan Studies 73 (2015): 295–316. Such medieval disputes flow into contemporaneous literature, as David Aers, in Sanctifying Signs: Making Christian Tradition in Late Medieval England (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 29–51, 99–156, demonstrates in connection with Langland's Piers Plowman, insisting on the importance of understanding the Thomistic theology of the sacraments in conversation with Thomas Bradwardine and William of Ockham. With reference again to Langland, see also Aers, Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 67–71, especially for the perspective of “Christology, ecclesiology, and the sacraments . . . joined in an indissoluble unity” in many post-Aquinas but pre-Reformation thinkers.


Unn Falkeid, The Avignon Papacy Contested: An Intellectual History from Dante to Catherine of Siena (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017), offers a synthetic presentation of ecclesial figures from diverse forms of life who critiqued clerical and papal practice in the fourteenth century (Dante, Marsilius, Ockham, Petrarch, Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena). Her chapters on Marsilius and Ockham display how the Spiritual Franciscan ideal of poverty armed itself, through these academics in league with the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig, for ecclesial and political confrontations. In terms of literary culture and pre-Reformation polemic, see Aers, Sanctifying Signs, 140, where he shows how “profound theological, ecclesiological, and political questions are evaded in [the Piers Plowman literary persona] Liberum Arbitrium's Wycliffite assertion that charity and coercive lay disendowment of the Church are one. . . . [Yet his] views assume a traditional sense of the priesthood and its power in Christian communities. . . . This approach to the priesthood is congruent with the poem's pervasive concern with the sacrament of penance, a concern which has nothing in common with Wycliffite desacerdotalization and desacramentalization of penance.” For a brief survey of Aquinas's ecclesiology, especially as it stems from his pro-mendicant works, see the introduction to Jean-Pierre Torrell's edition of these works, “La perfection, c'est la charité”: Vie chrétienne et vie religieuse dans l’Église du Christ (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2010), 33–44. See also, especially for its bibliography, the politically focused chapter of Bert Roest, “Representative Bodies in Medieval Religious Orders: A Discarded Legacy?,” in New Perspectives on Power and Political Representation from Ancient History to the Present Day: Repertoires of Representation, ed. Harm Kaal and Daniëlle Slootjes (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 37–55; and compare Brian Hamilton, “The Politics of Poverty: A Contribution to a Franciscan Political Theology,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 35, no. 1 (2015): 29–44.


Ronald Hathaway, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius: A Study in the Form and Meaning of the Pseudo-Dionysian Writings (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970), xxi.


Alexander Golitzin, Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita, ed. Bogdan G. Bucur (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2013), xxxiii–58.


For an inventive construal of the meaning of Dionysius's pseudonymous writing, which argues that Dionysius builds on Paul's theology of, among other things, hierarchy (avant la lettre), see Charles M. Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: “No Longer I” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).


Paul Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).


Rorem, 5; Thomas Aquinas, In librum Beati Dionysii De divinis nominibus expositio, ed. C. Pera (Turin, It.: Marietti, 1950), 1–2.


Peter J. Casarella, “On the ‘Reading Method’ in Rorem's Pseudo-Dionysius,” The Thomist, 59, no. 4 (1995): 633–44, esp. 640–42.


Casarella, 644.


Pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy, in The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist, 1987), col. 164D; for the Greek critical text, see G. Heil and A. M. Ritter, Corpus Dionysiacum: Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, Vol. 2; De coelesti hierarchia, De ecclesiastica hierarchia, De mystica theologia, Epistulae (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1991), chap. 3, sec. 1. Dionysius first gives a general definition of “hierarchy,” which will apply to both the community of the angels and to “our hierarchy,” the Church. Many doubt the authenticity of the Dionysian text's titles and subtitles, so “ecclesiastical hierarchy” is not an ideal term, but it is taken up. See, e.g., Rorem's note at Pseudo-Dionysius, Complete Works, 195 n. 2. We have seen how Hobbes derisively disregards the distinction between the angelic and the ecclesiastical hierarchies.


See René Roques, L'univers dionysien: Structure hiérarchique du monde selon pseudo-Denys (Paris: Aubier, 1954), 30.


Golitzin's interpretation of Dionysius is sometimes called the “liturgical reading,” e.g., Dimitrios A. Vasilakis, “On the Meaning of Hierarchy in Dionysius the Areopagite,” in Platonism and Christian Thought in Late Antiquity, ed. Panagiotis G. Pavlos, Lars Fredrik Janby, Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson, and Torstein Theodor Tollefsen (New York: Routledge, 2019), 181–200, at 187.


Pseudo-Dionysius, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, chap. 5, sec. 1 (hereafter EH), in Heil and Ritter, eds., Corpus Dionysiacum: Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, Vol. 2; De coelesti hierarchia, De ecclesiastica hierarchia, De mystica theologia, Epistulae; trans. Luibheid and Rorem, in Pseudo-Dionysius, Complete Works, cols. 501A, 501D. Further citations are to chapter and section numbers of the edition followed by page and column referencing in the translation.


In his authoritative statement that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff,” Boniface cited only one nonbiblical authority: “according to St. Dionysius it is the law of Divinity that the lowest are to be led through the intermediate to the highest” [secundum beatum Dionysium, lex divinitatis est, infima per media in suprema reduci]; see Church and State through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries, trans. and ed. Sidney Z. Ehler and John B. Morrall (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1954), 92.


See Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers, ed. Michael Dauphinais, Andrew Hofer, and Roger Nutt (Ave Maria, Fla.: Sapientia Press, 2019).


Yves Congar, “Aspects ecclésiologiques de la querelle entre mendiants et séculiers dans la seconde moitié du XIIIe siècle et le début du XIVe,” Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge 28 (1961): 35–151; Walter Ullmann, “Boniface VIII and His Contemporary Scholarship,” Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 27, no. 1 (1976): 58–87.


Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary, 238.


See David Luscombe, “Conceptions of Hierarchy before the Thirteenth Century,” in Soziale Ordnungen im Selbstverständnis des Mittelalters, vol. 1, ed. Albert Zimmermann (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1979), 1–19. For the insignificance of Lombard's use of Dionysius, pace Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary, 77, see Andrew Hofer, “Dionysian Elements in Thomas Aquinas's Christology: A Case of the Authority and Ambiguity of Pseudo-Dionysius,” The Thomist 72, no. 3 (2008): 409–42, at 414.


Alberti Magni Opera omnia, vol. 36, pt. 1, Super Dionysium De Caelesti Hierarchia, ed. Paul Simon and Wilhelmus Kübel (Münster: Aschendorff, 1993), 3; my translation: “The efficient cause of this book is not principally to be referred to a man, but to the Holy Spirit, although His instrumental cause is the blessed Dionysius” [Efficiens ergo causa huius libri principaliter non est ad hominem referenda, sed ad spiritum sanctum, instrumentalis tamen causa eius est beatus Dionysius]. This, however, describes “all theology books” [omnibus libris theologicis] for Albert. For Dionysius himself there is no clear distinction between “theology” and the inspired writings of scripture. For example, he calls sacred authors “the mysterious theologians” (Celestial Hierarchy 2.5, col. 144C) and writes that “theology clearly teaches” the actions of the angels in the Old and New Testaments (4.3, col. 181A).


See the prolegomena of Maria Burger, in Albertus Magnus, Super Dionysium De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, ed. Maria Burger, Paul Simon, and Wilhelmus Kübel (Münster: Aschendorff, 1999), i–xi; Jean-Pierre Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, The Person and His Work, trans. Robert Royal, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 20–21. I also cite below the second volume of Torrell's important study, subtitled Spiritual Master, trans. Royal (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003).


Jeanne Barbet, “Le prologue du commentaire dionysien de François de Meyronnes, O.F.M.,” Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge 21 (1954): 183–91. I owe this reference to Timothy B. Noone of the Catholic University of America.


Boyd Taylor Coolman, “The Medieval Affective Dionysian Tradition,” Modern Theology 24, no. 4 (2008): 615–32. However, because the Franciscan approach appears to be “more hierarchical” by virtue of speaking more profusely about hierarchy, it is often taken to be “more Dionysian.” See Congar, “Aspects ecclésiologiques de la querelle entre mendiants et séculiers,” passim.


See, e.g., Fran O'Rourke's concluding chapter, “Hierarchy and the Order of Beings,” in his Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 260–74. While Aquinas's theology on the order of the universe is deeply formed by Dionysius, it is worth noting that O'Rourke's discussion of “man's place within the universal hierarchy” does not advert to a single use of the word hierarchia by Aquinas; instead he refers to diversitas in entibus, rerum connexio, and similar phrases, rightly identified as Neoplatonist, but perhaps wrongly called “hierarchy.” For the political sense of hierarchy, see David Luscombe, “Thomas Aquinas and Conceptions of Hierarchy in the Thirteenth Century,” in Thomas von Aquin: Werk und Wirkung im Licht neuerer Forschungen, ed. Albert Zimmerman (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1988), 261–77; Serge-Thomas Bonino, “Charisms, Forms, and States of Life,” trans. Mary Thomas Noble, in The Ethics of Aquinas, ed. Stephen J. Pope (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 340–52, at 341; and Samuel H. Beer, “The Rule of the Wise and the Holy: Hierarchy in the Thomistic System,” Political Theory 14, no. 3 (1986): 391–422.


Aquinas, II Sent., dist. 9, qu. 1, art. 1, cor.; taken from Corpus Thomisticum,, Enrique Alarcón's online compendium based on the Index Thomisticus of Roberto Busa, S.J., which uses the text of Aquinas's commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences from the Parma edition of Aquinas's works, Sancti Thomae Aquinatis Doctoris Angelici ordinis praedicatorum Opera omnia: ad fidem optimarum editionum accurate recognita, 25 vols. (Parma, It.: Petrus Fiaccadorus, 1852–73; repr. New York: Musurgia, 1948–50).


Christian Raab provides the term “bridge,” which is felicitous, and credits Aquinas with recognizing this relationship; see his Understanding the Religious Priesthood: History, Theology, and Controversy (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 57.


Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, qu. 188, art. 6, corp.; trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols. (New York: Benziger, 1948; repr. Allen, Tex.: Christian Classics, 1981), 4:1993.


The most complete study of this engagement is Michel-Marie Dufeil, Guillaume de Saint-Amour et la polémique universitaire parisienne, 1250–1259 (Paris: Éditions A. et J. Picard, 1972).


See Andrew Traver, The Opuscula of William of Saint-Amour: The Minor Works of 1255–1256 (Münster: Aschendorff, 2003), 1.


Traver, 5.


William of Saint-Amour, De periculis novissimorum temporum, ed. and trans. G. Geltner (Leuven: Peeters, 2008). See Geltner's thorough bibliography of secondary literature on William's arguments, 29–34.


Sommers helpfully translates the title as “Against those who attack religion (dei cultum) and religious orders (et religionem)”; see Mary C. Sommers, “Defense and Discovery: Brother Thomas’ Contra impugnantes,” in Laudemus viros gloriosos: Essays in Honor of Armand Maurer, CSB, ed. R. E. Houser (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 184–208, at 185. Andrew Hofer, “Aquinas's Use of Patristic Sources in His Theology of Religious Life,” in Reading the Church Fathers with Thomas Aquinas: Historical and Systematical Perspectives, ed. Piotr Roszak and Jörgen Vijgen (Turnhout, Belg.: Brepols, 2021), 295–338, focuses in part on the conflict of interpretation over patristic sources between William and Thomas.


There is some difficulty coordinating various versions of Aquinas's mendicant polemic texts, but they are available in the Leonine edition, Sancti Thomae de Aquino Opera Omnia, vol. 41, Contra Impugnantes dei Cultum et Religionem, De Perfectione Spiritualis Vitae, Contra Doctrinam Retrahentium a Religione, ed. Fratrum Praedicatorum, 3 parts (Rome: Santa Sabina, 1969–1970); the quotation from Contra impugnantes dei cultum et religionem is at A51, 24–28. Further citations of vol. 41 of the Leonine edition are given as LE and refer to parts (A, B, or C) plus pages, followed by line numbers. The online Corpus Thomisticum text, at, claiming to be the Leonine edition, does not agree with the Leonine (see Hofer, “Aquinas's Use of Patristic Sources,” which shows the discrepancies of the two), nor do the English translations of John Procter. His translations of the Contra impugnantes and the Contra retrahentes are in An Apology for the Religious Orders (1902, repr. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1950); and the De perfectione is in The Religious State, the Episcopate, and the Priestly Office (1902, repr. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1950). In quotations from these works, I reproduce the Procter translation unless otherwise noted but give the citations to the Leonine text.


Contra impugnantes, prologus (LE A53, 148–50): “Primo enim ostendemus, quid sit religio, et in quo perfectio religionis consistat; quia eorum tota intentio contra religiosos esse videtur.”


De periculis, Geltner's introduction, 14.


De periculis, Geltner's introduction, 2.


Geltner notes historians’ common judgment on De periculis's second chapter, where William attributes error to the pope: “despite its grounding in ecclesiastical law, and given that papal infallibility was not yet formalized as a doctrine, William's inference was bold and seminal. . . . The open challenge to papal infallibility in chapter two contributed to obscuring the treatise's anti-royal tone” (16–17). Regarding Dionysius, although William's citations of him are not profuse, both Geltner (16) and Traver (Opuscula, 43) highlight his importance as an authority for William's argument.


De periculis, chap. 2, 56–57. For an overview of various related interpretations, see Congar, “Aspects ecclésiologiques de la querelle entre mendiants et séculiers,” 59–63.


De periculis, chap. 2, 50–53. This derives both from a biblical gloss and Gratian, Decretum, pt. 1, dist. 21 (Geltner incorrectly gives dist. 15), chap. 2, sec. 2; see Concordia Discordantium Canonum, in Corpus Iuris Canonici, ed. Emil Friedberg (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1922), col. 70. The relevant text given without attribution in the Glossa ordinaria seems to be from Bede; see Congar, “Aspects ecclésiologiques de la querelle entre mendiants et séculiers,” 60–61.


De periculis, chap. 2, 58–59.


In 1217, Pope Honorius, with the bull Gratiarum omnium, constituted the Dominicans as an ordo praedicatorum answerable only to the pope. The phrase has an ancient application to bishops: Gregory the Great writes of the praedicatorum ordo, e.g., in Sancti Gregorii Magni Homiliae in Hiezechihelem prophetam, ed. Marcus Adriaen, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 142 (Turnhout, Belg.: Brepols, 1971), I.9.29 (138).


De periculis, chap. 2, 52–53.


De periculis, chap. 2, 58–59.


Or, as Dufeil puts it, “un passéiste.” See Michel-Marie Dufeil, “Ierarchia: Un concept dans la polémique universitaire parisienne du xiiième siècle,” in Soziale Ordnungen im Selbstverständnis des Mittelalters, ed. Zimmermann, 56–83, at 56; and see his concluding comments on Aquinas, 81.


Dufeil, “Ierarchia,” 56, 70–71, 81. Sommers agrees with Dufeil that Thomas is attempting a generic defense of religious life, but also remarks on “Aquinas's ‘conservative’ approach to his apologetic project, which cloaks the innovative character of mendicant religiosity within a traditional concept of religious life” (“Defense and Discovery,” 185).


See Dufeil, Guillaume de Saint-Amour, 254: “But Thomas does not for an instant defend the mendicants alone; he also covers their allies: the Cistercian studium, for example, and the school of Cluny.”


Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A73, 377–85).


I refer to Thomas's “opponents,” and not simply to William, especially because in De periculis there is no citation of Dionysius's Epistles, but Thomas articulates an objection about Demophilus in chap. 4 of Contra impugnantes. This could be one fabricated by Thomas himself, but more likely comes from a real objector.


Contra impugnantes, prologus (LE A51, 21–24): “disposuit tamen ut ordo servaretur in rebus ministros eligere quorum ministerio perficeretur utrumque.” Note that Thomas will distinguish religious orders by their work, not by the rule that they follow. The Order of Preachers was constrained in its founding by the declaration Ne nimia religionum diversitas of the Fourth Lateran Council, which forbade the creation of new regulae, or rules, governing religious communities. Thus, the Dominicans adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, which Dominic had followed as a Canon Regular. See Sommers, “Defense and Discovery,” 196–97.


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A57, 177–80): “ostendit, quod ante baptismum, per quem homo divinam vitam accipit, non potest exercere operationes divinas.”


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A55, 41–44): “Dionysius IV cap. Ecclesiasticae ierarchiae distinguit nostram ierarchiam in tria, scilicet in sacras actiones et in communicantes eas et in eos qui eas tantum recipiunt.”


EH chap. 5, sec. 1 (col. 501D).


Aquinas mistakenly cites chap. 4 of EH, suggesting that he is working from memory of Dionysius's text. The phrase sacrae actiones does not seem to appear in other Latin translations of this phrase in EH; see Dionysiaca: Recueil donnant l'ensemble des traductions latines des ouvrages attribué au Denys de l'Aréopage, vol. 2 (Bruges, Belg.: Desclée de Brouwer, 1937), 1323. The J.-P. Migne edition of Dionysius's EH provides the Latin translation “sanctissimas mysteriorum caeremonias” for the same phrase, but the translator, Balthasar Corderio, has no notes about the manuscripts or translations here; see S. Dionysii Aereopagitae Opera Omnia, Patrologia cursus completus, Series Graeca, vol. 3 (Paris, 1857), cols. 502–3.


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A61, 569–70).


My translation of “Sed quicunque docet, sacra aliis communicat.” Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A56, 57–58).


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A56, 55–58). Procter uses “impart holiness” to translate “sacra . . . communicare,” to communicate or share sacred things; it lacks something of the sacramental note upon which the objection rests. For the objection from William of Saint-Amour, the LE refers not to the De periculis, but to William's Collectiones catholicae et canonicae Scripturae, dist. 1, found in Magistri Guilielmi de Sancto Amore Opera omnia quae reperiri potuerunt (Constantiae [Baden, Swiz.], 1632). See LE A43–44, preface. However, this is close to William's argument in De periculis, chap. 2, 56–57.


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A61, 568–69): “Procedit etiam eorum ratio ex malo intellectu Dionysii.”


Thomas goes on here to identify the actions of purifying, illuminating, and perfecting, described in objection 5, with the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A61, 574–76): “Sed docere in scholis non est de istis sacris actionibus de quibus Dionysius loquitur.”


Sommers, “Defense and Discovery,” 190. In 1254, Pope Innocent had acceded to the antimendicants and, with the issue of the bull Etsi animarum, rescinded the ability of Dominicans and Franciscans to preach and hear confessions without explicit approval from the local bishop. His successor Alexander IV soon after abrogated Etsi animarum with the bulls Nec insolitum and Quasi lignum vitae, reiterating the friars’ privileges.


Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A83, 1327–28).


Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A83, 1325–52).


Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A75, 604–10).


Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A83, 1319–23).


Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A80, 1024–33).


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2, passim (LE A55–A63); Sommers, “Defense and Discovery,” 192–93.


Thomas cites the support of Boniface from Gratian's Decretum pt. 2, can. 25, in Corpus Iuris Canonici, col. 767; Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A76, 684–93).


Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A62, 604–20), Procter's translation altered.


See, e.g., Contra impugnantes, chap. 2 (LE A57, 144–63), where Thomas calls Jerome, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Damascene “monks” [monachi], and adds that “other doctors, such as Gregory, Basil, Chrysostom, and many others” were “religious” [religiosi], apparently using the terms interchangeably.


Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1:84.


Philip P. Baldwin, Pope Gregory X and the Crusades (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press), 36–39.


Stephen M. Metzger, Gerard of Abbeville, Secular Master, on Knowledge, Wisdom, and Contemplation, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 1:16. This study, containing critical editions of some of Gerard's works, argues that “Gerard's philosophy and theology are the mainstream of Parisian Scholastic thought in the second half of the thirteenth century” (1:13).


I will not consider here Gerard's work, nor the quodlibets of Gerard or Thomas, which constituted an important engagement. See Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1:85: “after the spring of 1269, [Aquinas] entered the lists with his Easter quodlibet. . . . Begun rather early in 1269, [De perfectione] appears to have been finished at the beginning of 1270, since its last chapters echo the Quodlibet XIV Gerard of Abbeville held at Christmas 1269.” Thomas's other written work, Contra doctrinam retrahentium a religione or Contra retrahentes, concerns the entry of young men into religious life, which practice Gerard attacked; some of its subject matter found an important place in the ST II-II questions on the religious state. See Torrell, 1:86–90.


De perfectione, chap. 2 (LE B69, 27–28). See Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, 2:357: “What is described here is the Christian ideal pure and simple. It does not reside in vows—not even in the vow of poverty, Thomas will say about the intentions of the Franciscans—but in the hearty and fervent observation, without compromise, of the twofold commandment of love.”


De perfectione, chap. 8 (LE B72).


Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1:86, says that the De perfectione “marks a decisive stage in Thomistic theology about the bishop's office. Under the influence of Dionysius, Thomas from then on sees the episcopal function as a true power of a kind that constitutes the bishop in the state of perfector.” This is a strange comment, given that the Contra impugnantes often mentions the bishop's perfecting role, and shows much Dionysian influence.


De perfectione, chap. 7 (LE B71–72, 8–13).


See De perfectione, chap. 11 (LE B78, 3–10): “It is not only necessary for the perfection of charity that a man should sacrifice his exterior possessions; he must also, in a certain sense, relinquish himself. Dionysius says . . . that divine love causes a man to be out of himself, meaning thereby that this love suffers him no longer to belong to himself but to him whom he loves.”


De perfectione, chap. 18 (LE B90, 30–33).


De perfectione, chap. 18 (LE B90, 48–51); chap. 23 (LE B97–99) argues explicitly that priests and archdeacons are not in a state of perfection.


De perfectione, chap. 19 (LE B91, 116).


De perfectione, chap. 20 (LE B92, 24–35).


De perfectione, chap. 20 (LE B92, 81–85).


De perfectione, chap. 18 (LE B90, 45–49).


Brian Tierney, Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150–1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 63.


This is a more common focus of scholarly attention regarding the mendicant controversies. See Tierney, 61: “This ‘derivational’ theory was not new in itself, but it had never been asserted so trenchantly and in such a sensitive context. In the explosive atmosphere of 1256 it transformed what had been a vague grumbling about the activities of the friars, based largely on the jealousy of the secular masters, into a great debate about the proper constitution of the church.”


See Gratian, Decretum, pt. 1, dist. 99, can. 5, in Corpus Iuris Canonicis, col. 351.


The Decretum dist. 99 citation is from Gregory's letter to Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria, and Anastasius of Antioch of June 1, 595, referring to John IV of Constantinople's use of the title; see The Letters of Gregory the Great, trans. John R. C. Martyn, vol. 2 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004), 359–63. For context, see George E. Demacopoulos, “Gregory the Great and the Sixth-Century Dispute over the Ecumenical Title,” Theological Studies 70 (2009): 600–621.


For a few instances that do occur in De perfectione, see chap. 20 (LE B92, 77–80), chap. 25 (LE B102, 50–59), chap. 26 (LE B103, 66–75), and chap. 29 (LE B110, 132–44). Except for the first, these belong to the chapters appended by Thomas in response to new objections that had reached him (chaps. 24–30) after he had composed chaps. 1–23. See chap. 24 (LE B99, 4–10).


Summa theologiae II-II, qq. 171–89.


Contra impugnantes, chap. 4 (LE A82, 1242–49). I have corrected Procter's “he does not rule any particular diocese”—he does rule the diocese of Rome. The reference, again, is to Gratian, Decretum, pt. 1, dist. 99.


See Congar, “Aspects ecclésiologiques de la querelle entre mendiants et séculiers,” 73–76. In addition to Brian Tierney's Religion, Law, and Growth, see also The Foundations of the Conciliar Theory: The Contribution of the Medieval Canonists from Gratian to the Great Schism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955); and “Pope and Council: Some New Decretist Texts,” Mediaeval Studies 19 (1957): 197–218.


Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary, 238; and see Luscombe, “Thomas Aquinas,” 262: “Denis’ blueprint for ecclesiastical organisation was unable as it stood to provide complete guidance to the modern organisation of Christian society, but there were thinkers in the thirteenth century who thought it necessary to try to adapt Denis’ notions of hierarchy to a situation in which the existence of a papacy, of kings and of orders of friars had to be accounted for as they had not had to be accounted for in Denis’ own day.”


Gilles Emery, “A Note on St. Thomas and the Eastern Fathers,” trans. Jennifer Harms and John Baptist Ku, in Trinity, Church, and the Human Person: Thomistic Essays (Naples, Fla.: Sapientia, 2007), 193–207, at 197 n. 16.


Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1:90–91.


Consider, for example, Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006). On the significance of the Christians’ mode of scholarly citation, especially in contrast to their medieval Islamic counterparts, I have in mind Rémi Brague, “Inclusion and Digestion: Two Models of Cultural Appropriation, in Response to a Question of Hans-Georg Gadamer (Tübingen, September 3, 1996),” in Brague's The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 145–58.

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