Questions Answered

  • Does the Church endorse a school of philosophy?
  • Is there only one standard for all justice?

14th-century image on parchment of a university lecture by Laurentius de Voltolina of Bologna.

Question: I have heard that the Church does not canonize any particular philosophical school. Is there any guidance given from recent Church teaching concerning this matter, especially when it comes to the training of priests?

Answer: Before Vatican II, it was customary for Catholic educators to speak of a philosophia perennis, a common philosophy which was necessary to explain theology. This was generally assumed to be some version of the philosophy taught by the Scholastics and their successors. With the intellectual upheaval of the ’60s, the very concept of this underlying perennial philosophy was brought into disrepute. Some have even questioned the very necessity of the study of philosophy as a foundation for the study of theology. This has led to a drastic limitation of the study of philosophy in the curriculum of some seminaries.

Church authority has constantly affirmed the value of the study of philosophy and the perennial philosophy for theology studies. A recent document from the Congregation for Catholic Education reaffirms this value: “The Church has always cared deeply about philosophy. In fact, reason—with which creation has endowed every human being—is one of the two wings on which man rises towards the contemplation of truth, and philosophical wisdom forms the summit that reason can reach. In a world rich in scientific and technical knowledge, but threatened by relativism, only the ‘sapiential horizon’ carries an integrating vision, as well as a trust in the capacity that reason has to serve the truth. That is why the Church strongly encourages a philosophical formation of reason that is open to faith, while neither confusing nor disconnecting the two” (Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies, January 28, 2011, 8).

It is important to clarify the nature of philosophy, and its relation to science and theology. This will also make clear the importance of the various philosophical disciplines to theological method, which is, of course, always based on faith and revelation.

Philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom” in Greek. The term has been used to refer to all the reasoned examinations of every aspect of the world, from nature to human life. In the ancient world, this included all knowledge gained through the senses, whether it was about those things which depended on matter for existence and knowledge (as in physical motion); those which depended on matter for existence, but not knowledge (as in mathematics); or those things which did not depend on matter for either their existence or knowledge (as in metaphysics). Philosophy, therefore, included what, today, we would call science. This was different from the arts, especially the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In the Middle Ages, these arts were studied before philosophy. When St. Thomas Aquinas says, at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae, that this work is for “beginners,” he meant those students who had already studied the liberal arts and the whole curriculum of philosophy.

Science, in the beginning, was identified with various branches of philosophy. Since the 17th century, and the general rejection of metaphysics in Western thought, science has come to be identified with those areas of human thought which are limited to the investigation of sense knowledge alone. This so-called scientific method is further refined to mean only those facts which can be verified by limited, controlled, laboratory experiment. Ideas which go beyond sense description, or come from common sense, would have no necessary truth to them. Wikipedia defines scientific method:

Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary says that scientific method is: ‘a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.’

Theology refers to what Anselm called, “fides quarens intellectum.” Theology is a science because it is a reasoned discourse, which is expressed by the “logy” part of the term; it is about God, which is the “theos” part of the term. It is like science, in that it involves concepts, definitions, and reasoning. It is unlike science, in that the origin of its principles does not come from reason, but from faith. Some of its principles are open to proof by reason. For example, God’s existence, which is taught by theology, can also be demonstrated by philosophy. Other principles cannot be proven by reason, for example, the Holy Trinity. Still, since they are received by a human mind, one can investigate their meaning and logically conclude things about them by affirmation or denial. This discourse never brings reasoning about God to a conclusion, so that we grasp him. Rather, the more we know about God, the more we know there is to know.

Ideally all three of these disciplines should function as a unity. John Paul II was very clear about this in Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). Here, he states three important criteria for philosophy, and here he would also include science, to close the gap again between faith and reason. These requirements are things which science and philosophy need to recover, in order for there to be a realistic dialogue between faith and reason.

Philosophy needs first to recover its sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life. … This is why it (the word of God) invites philosophy to engage in the search for the natural foundation of this meaning, which corresponds to the religious impulse innate in every person. (FR, 81)

This requirement is contrary to the tendency in modern thought to deny the possibility of objective metaphysical knowledge, or to treat it as merely an emotional prejudice.

Second, “that philosophy verify the human capacity to know the truth, to come to a knowledge which can reach objective truth by means of that adaequatio rei et intellectus (correspondence of that thing and the mind) to which the Scholastic Doctors referred.” This is contrary to what will become evident as the great problem of modernity, which is to look on truth as the correspondence of the thing to the mind, as Kant taught, where truth becomes completely subjective (FR, 82).

Finally, “the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate, and foundational in its search for truth. … (A) philosophy which shuns metaphysics would be radically unsuited to the task of mediation in the understanding of revelation” (FR, 83). This is because much of religious truth pertains to things which are spiritual, be it divine spirit, angelic spirit, or human spirit. If spiritual realities are treated as though they are absurd or completely outside the realm of science, how is it possible to have a science of spiritual beings revealing spiritual truths to other spiritual beings? Moreover, much of modern secularism is due to the rejection of a realistic, objective metaphysics on the part of modern science and philosophy. The Church has never canonized one school of philosophy, but whatever philosophy one follows cannot contradict the perennial philosophy of the Catholic Church, and must be based on an objective metaphysics one can arrive at through sense knowledge.

Question: Is there only one standard for all justice?

Answer: Justice is the constant and perpetual will to give another his due. This has led many to say that it is unjust if everyone does not receive everything based on strict equality. Teachers who have taught for 20 years with a Ph.D. should receive the same compensation as those who have taught for one year without an advanced degree. The one-size-fits-all approach seems to be endemic today. This would be true if there were only one kind of justice—that which exists between equals. In fact, the Church maintains that there are actually three kinds of justice.

The first is basic and strict justice: justice among equals. This is called commutative justice. It is judged on the equality of arithmetic proportion. It is quid pro quo. It may be most commonly experienced in financial transactions among private persons. The primary act of commutative justice is restitution. Modern ideas of justice emphasize one subject receiving rights from another. Duties tend to be underemphasized. The ancient and Christian idea of justice emphasizes that the act of justice is for the other. The emphasis is always on giving rights, not receiving them. By the very fact of living in society, one incurs certain obligations to restore possessions to their rightful owner. So, a good application of this type of justice would be that another person’s property must be returned to him, and any damage compensated. The corollary is that one should not damage the property of another, or dispute his rights over what belongs to him. Even if there is no sanction in the law, one still has a duty to give another his rights.

There is also a justice which is not among equals, but which involves those given care of the common good, distributing advantages and burdens in proportion to the condition of the person involved. This is called distributive justice, and is not judged by the same standard as commutative justice. There is an equity in this, but it is one of geometric proportion. The more one gives or needs, the greater his right to participate in the goods of the community. Distributive justice is, thus, involved in protecting the rights of the community members. This is often harder to determine than strict arithmetic proportion. Unjust respect of persons would occur, should someone use a standard which was not objective to determine this, for example: if one were to get a teaching position, for which he was not qualified, because he was a relative of the boss. This would be unjust. A candidate is seen as more qualified because of education, effectiveness, and experience. This is just.

The third kind of justice is the one which individuals owe to the community. This is called legal or universal justice. No community can exist, and thus provide a just climate for the development of the human person, if the members do not contribute according to their need and place in the community. Duty to community is, thus, imperative. When members in a community only satisfy their private interests, this harms the common good. The common good, and the individual contribution to it, must be decided objectively. Laws are made and enforced to ensure this. Again, the standard here is not one-size-fits-all, but must be based on the proportion of talent and ability to contribute to the common good.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Yes, Logic, Metaphysics,Natural Philosophy as I studied for three years aids the seminarians , and others when Moral and Systematic Theology is studied as I found out . St Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle ‘s metaphysics to aid the beginners to understand and follow all Theology and Scripture and realize all resolutions. Thanks be to God it earned me a Licentiate , Transcendentals one true, good beautiful, should be understood to study being and what man’s purpose in the good life is..