Why Should Catholics Care about Philosophy?

Elizabeth Kotelly

Why Should Catholics Care about Philosophy?

Among the mature, however, we speak a message of wisdom—but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of the mysterious and hidden wisdom of God, which He destined for our glory before time began. 1 Cor 2:6-7

Philosophy is the study of wisdom, but perhaps better understood as the love of wisdom. The Greeks and Hebrews affectionately refer to it in the feminine: Sophia or Lady Wisdom. At the heart of the philosophic quest is a pursuit of knowledge and the causes and significance of everything. Sub-studies and divisions of philosophy spring from this foundation.  

The Church has a rich relationship with philosophy, especially seen in how theologians and mystics have assimilated both its natural and supernatural forms into Catholic Tradition and teaching. A cursory survey of the history of philosophy reveals a progression from the natural to the supernatural, ultimately arriving at the study of God, who is the cause and reason behind all things. To be sure, philosophy and theology remain distinct disciplines of study; however, the best theology has characteristically philosophic notes of precision, clarity, and succinctness, as these help present the fullness of Truth without error.  Said more artistically, philosophy offers theology a sort of semantics and alphabet that theologians utilize to arrive at knowledge of God. From this the Medievals coined the phrase, “philosophy is the handmaid of theology.” The theologian likely best known for incorporating philosophy into his work is Thomas Aquinas, who references Aristotle among other philosophers thousands of times in his Summa Theologiae

Over the centuries a fierce dichotomy has emerged between faith and reason. While the Church speaks of the union of these two modes of understanding, many aspiring and even esteemed theologians have fallen into error regarding some misunderstanding between the two. It would seem that faith, which entails a belief in things unseen, and reason, which makes empiric demands, cannot exist mutually. Were we to plot these perspectives on a grid, we would see a horizontal visual of two competing worldviews of epistemology. But the Church understands faith and reason as structured vertically, wherein faith takes flight from the shoulders of natural philosophy. Therein we arrive at a supernatural wisdom, as seen in scripture and as quoted above. When we delve into the mysteries of knowledge and seek understanding, we must remember that a system or belief will not satisfy, because Knowledge itself has a name, and that is God. This distinguishes Christianity from all philosophical systems, as we seek not just to know, but to experience relationship and salvation, to know a Person, and know Him intimately. And finally, but also primarily, to be known by Him.

There is a point in the life of the Christian where we pass beyond the ordinary and natural modes and methods of understanding; we come to understand by faith. This does not in any way denigrate or make obsolete the sciences or philosophy; it rather denotes the advancement of the soul, viz. the words of St. Paul, when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways (1 Cor 13:11). The wisdom of this world, and even the wisdom of philosophy, eventually terminates and one must take the deep dive into the inexplicable mysteries of God. The Church, thus, holds in esteem the good and helpful deposit of philosophy, but refutes instances where certain applications of philosophy would substitute for faith, naturalize the supernatural, or tarnish the integrity of God and His creation, essentially leading believers into error. 

Let’s examine one such instance, then see how the Church uses philosophy and theology conjointly to remedy it:

The philosopher Plato promoted a theory of forms and separated existing things into material and immaterial categories. Material things represented particular instances of the immaterial form of that thing.  For example, through experiences of different kinds of dogs, one arrives at the concept of dog. The form of a dog, or “dogness” would, in Platonic thought, be a subsistent four-legged, two-eyed, furry being that barks, et al. (and this is only the beginning of quite the list of qualities that distinguish a dog from any other being). Much of Plato’s reasoning influenced later philosophy and reflects objective reality, which has both material and immaterial aspects; however, he also alleged that only forms have purity, and that material reality is itself corrupt, deficient, and even evil. If we ponder why Plato might have arrived at such a conclusion, consider how the world is subject to the consequences of sin: nature is not under our control, arms break, people die, and so on. Perhaps Plato was attempting to locate and venerate something perfectly pure and without defect. As Catholics, we know that God is perfect and not subject to change or loss; likewise we have the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But the ancients did not understand original sin and its effects nor espouse belief in the Triune God.  

What are the consequences of Platonism? If it is true that material being is bad, then we must, by extension, maintain that the physical body is bad. This introduces a kind of dualism wherein we uphold the goodness of the soul while professing the depravity of the body. In effect, this would mean that we are divided beings at war with our very nature. The aftermath of this bears significant soteriological consequences: for one, it would invalidate any probability of the Incarnation, as a perfect God would not assume the body of a man, let alone and material body. Without the incarnation we have no salvation.  This theory grants no space for the minute distinctions between fallen nature and the total depravity of nature, the latter of which underpins the theology of John Calvin. Furthermore, every aspect of the body incurs a negative classification: this includes the sensitive faculties of the human person (the senses, the emotions, memory, imagination, et al.), as well as the vegetative faculties, namely sexuality. For 2000 years the Church has fought prominently against instances of Platonism, especially in the early heresies of Gnosticism and Arianism. Later effects of Platonic thought impact post-Enlightenment scientific materialism as well as the Puritanical suspicion of the human body and sexuality.  

One thing we ought to seriously ponder as Catholics when we study philosophy is how its truest form generates a deepening of our understanding of God, and likewise how its misapplication ends in heresy.  Just like Platonism, all errors eventually culminate in a denial of Christ. In recent decades the Church has begun to codify a new expression of its theological anthropology in the deposit of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Historically, much emphasis was given to the place and prominence of the Blessed Mother in her indispensable role in furnishing Christ with His true human nature, thus insisting on the vitality of the body. The Scholastics heavily applied Aristotelian thought to their methodology, which helped them draw indispensable distinctions in their study of the human person. God has a way of purifying, redeeming, and properly situating all things with grace, and in this case, we see it with the refined application of philosophy in theology, which has positively influenced many of the wonderful theological expression the Church upholds. 

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!