Alfred J. Freddoso
pp. 229-252 in John P. O'Callaghan and Thomas S. Hibbs, eds., Recovering Nature:
Essays in Natural Philosophy, Ethics, and Metaphysics in Honor of Ralph McInerny
(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.)
In his treatise on justice St. Thomas points out that the virtue of filial piety (pietas), by which we render honor to our parents, fails to satisfy the proper definition of justice because we cannot fully repay our debt to them. The same holds true of the virtue of respectfulness (observantia), by which we render honor to our teachers and guides, all the more if they themselves are virtuous. Ralph McInerny has been teacher and guide to me, and a virtuous one at that. Still, it would be deplorably small-minded merely to call Ralph virtuous without noting the sheer magnificence of his moral and intellectual contributions to the building up of the Kingdom of God on earth. As is only fitting in the Christian dispensation, these contributions have made him an object of scorn in the eyes of some who are less magnanimous than he. But, like Peter and the apostles before him, he has rejoiced at being "judged worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of the Name."
In the present paper I begin to come to grips with a
by Ralph's example as well as by his writings:(1)
how to understand the nature of Catholic philosophy and the mission of
the Catholic philosopher. I offer this reflection to him in partial
for the ineliminable debt I have incurred; and if some of my views make
him a bit uneasy, then I offer it too as the basis for what I hope will
be a long-lived and lively future discussion.
In what follows I will describe the two principal roles that, as I see it, are incumbent upon Catholic philosophers. In a certain respect, there is nothing new in what I have to say on this topic, since the two roles correspond exactly to the two separate tasks that St. Thomas Aquinas, the prototypical Catholic philosophical inquirer, takes up in the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. Still, in light of recent philosophical developments, especially the many trenchant critiques of modernist conceptions of rationality and philosophical inquiry, we are in a position to challenge some deeply entrenched ways of thinking about the distinction between philosophy and theology, the division of labor among Catholic philosophical inquirers, and the self-conception that Catholic philosophers should take to their interactions /230/ with non-believing philosophers. I intend to press this challenge here, if only inchoately.
Though everyone is of course welcome to listen in, my remarks are addressed principally to philosophical inquirers for whom fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church, as propounded by the Magisterium, functions as a central intellectual commitment. I do not preclude the possibility that others, Catholic or non-Catholic, might contribute--intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly--to the project of articulating Catholic wisdom and of clarifying and defending it within a wide variety of cultural and intellectual settings. But conformity to the teachings of the Church is a non-negotiable constraint on what is to count as a substantial and enduring contribution to that project, and this constraint will operate most effectively in the minds and hearts of those who in their own intellectual undertakings gratefully embrace the teachings of the Church and are motivated by the conviction that one must cleave to those teachings in order to find the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
To be sure, even this relatively straightforward sentiment would in the proper context require an extensive commentary. I will mention in passing just three relevant considerations. First, I am not suggesting that it is always easy to ascertain with precision just what the teaching of the Church is in a given case, or to determine exactly the degree of theological certitude possessed by one or another doctrine. This is a point worth emphasizing, even if dissidents have used it of late to cast doubt upon what ought not to be doubted. Second, a survey of the Catholic intellectual tradition makes it clear that many premises, arguments, and conclusions in metaphysics and moral theory are underdetermined by the teachings of the Church and that, more broadly, the articulation of Catholic wisdom admits of a plurality of potentially fruitful approaches, each of which must stand or fall on its own intellectual merits. Third, the history of the Church reveals that tensions between Catholic philosophical inquirers and members of the hierarchy have been present even in the best of times, when Catholic thinkers for their part have been concerned not only to appear orthodox but to be orthodox, and when bishops for their part have been concerned to preserve the rightful autonomy of scholarship in the various intellectual disciplines that touch upon the faith. Even under such relatively ideal conditions, there are likely to be--and legitimately so--differences of emphasis and perspective issuing in conflicting prudential judgments.
I mention such complications in order, first, to make it clear that I have no interest in suppressing them and, second, to assert that they do not in any /231/ way constitute obstacles to the main claims I wish to press here. I turn now to those claims themselves.
I will first introduce and defend the thesis that one
role of Catholic
philosophical inquirers is to articulate and transmit Catholic wisdom
its entirety. Then I will address various aspects of the second role of
Catholic philosophers, which is engagement with non-believing fellow
Finally, I will make a few remarks about the present separation between
the theology and philosophy curricula in Catholic colleges and
ROLE ONE: ARTICULATION AND TRANSMISSION
The first role of Catholic philosophers is to articulate the Catholic faith (or, better, Catholic wisdom) in a comprehensive, systematic, and intellectually rigorous manner and to transmit this articulation at appropriate levels of sophistication to other members of the Church--especially, but not only, to those who themselves aspire to be Catholic philosophical inquirers. The Summa Theologiae serves as an obvious paradigm here, both structurally and substantively. But the Summa itself does not treat in detail every important metaphysical, moral, or epistemological issue. What's more, since the teachings of the Church leave plenty of room for fruitful disagreement about particular conclusions and about particular ways of arguing to incontrovertible conclusions, and since philosophical, scientific, social, and cultural developments constantly present new opportunities for extending and deepening and recovering various aspects of the Catholic wisdom-tradition, there will always be new intellectual challenges to be met.
In order to flesh out more fully my conception of this
first role, I
will now consider two objections; the first and most important of these
objections is theoretical, while the second is practical.
Upon hearing the claim that a central role of Catholic philosophers is to articulate and transmit Catholic wisdom, someone familiar with the Catholic intellectual tradition might object as follows: "Wait just a minute! You are running roughshod over the distinction between philosophy and theology that was formulated with precision by St. Thomas and has been institutionalized in Catholic colleges and universities by the strict separation of philosophy faculties from theology faculties. According to this distinction, the domain of philosophy as an intellectual discipline is limited to principles and conclusions that are or can be made evident to natural reason, whereas theology counts among its principles the mysteries of the faith, which ex professo are not evident /232/ by the light of natural reason. More loosely, one can say that philosophy studies the natural, whereas theology studies the supernatural. Thus, the idea that Catholic philosophers should be in the business of articulating and teaching specifically Catholic wisdom violates the integrity of natural reason and conflates philosophy with theology."
My reply is that this objection not only (i) distorts St. Thomas's intention but (ii) proceeds from an inadequate or, at any rate, non-mandatory conception of the nature of philosophical inquiry.
Let me begin with the second prong of this reply. The term 'philosophy' will, because of both its etymology and its original historical denotation, always admit of a sense according to which the genuine philosopher is willing to entertain all claims to ultimate wisdom, regardless of their source. What, after all, is the purpose of the philosophical life and of philosophical inquiry? Suppose we accept the classical answer that the aim of an intellectually, morally, and spiritually integrated philosophical life is the attainment of wisdom--that is, the attainment of a comprehensive and systematic elaboration of the first principles of being that provides definitive answers to fundamental questions about the origins, nature, and destiny of the universe and about the good for human beings and the ways to attain it. This conception of the goal of philosophical inquiry puts no a priori restrictions on possible sources of cognition, but ostensibly invites us as philosophers to draw upon all the cognitive resources available to us in constructing a complete and coherent set of answers to the deepest human questions. But Catholic philosophers of the sort I am addressing believe that the most indispensable of all our cognitive resources is divine revelation as communicated to us through Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church.
What's more, according to the classical conception of philosophical inquiry, the pursuit of wisdom will prosper only insofar as rigorous intellectual training and practice are embedded within a well-ordered program of moral or spiritual development consonant with the attainment of complete wisdom. That is, successful philosophical inquiry presupposes a way of life that fosters rectitude of affection, where such rectitude is deemed essential for one's having a clear cognitive grasp of first principles, especially (but not only) moral first principles. But, again, Catholic philosophers of the sort I am addressing take the appropriate way of life to include reception of the sacraments, personal prayer, intense intellectual work done for the glory of God, and, more generally, the practice of sacrificial self-giving rooted in the supernatural virtue of charity.
It was precisely this conception of philosophical inquiry and of the /233/ philosophical life that St. Thomas had in mind when he identified absolute wisdom, the self-avowed goal of the classical philosophical inquirers, with sacra doctrina or Catholic systematic theology.(2) I conclude that, far from being separate from philosophical inquiry, systematic theology--in both its metaphysical and moral dimensions--is the central component of philosophical inquiry for Catholics.
This will undoubtedly sound shocking to some, but I have no desire to shock for its own sake. So let me restate the claim as carefully as I can: If we take the classical view that the ultimate aim of philosophical inquiry is wisdom, where wisdom includes, in the first place, a comprehensive and intellectually rigorous understanding of the First Cause of all being and, derivatively, a similarly comprehensive and intellectually rigorous understanding of all dependent beings insofar as they originate from the First Cause as their source and are ordered to the First Cause as their end, then systematic theology lies at the pinnacle of philosophical inquiry for Catholics. Another way to put this is as follows: If we construe wisdom to include both metaphysics and moral theory, then for a Catholic philosopher of the sort I am addressing, to do metaphysics and moral theory is to do systematic theology.
In saying this, I do not mean to deny the existence of ancillary philosophical disciplines that are in some sense epistemically prior to, and hence distinct from, metaphysics and moral theory. I have in mind disciplines such as logic and certain parts of epistemology, as well as philosophy of nature and some aspects of philosophical anthropology (including philosophy of mind), which are closely tied to the natural and human sciences. To the extent that such disciplines study created entities in their own right or "from below," they are distinct from metaphysics. Yet it is important to remember that classical philosophical inquiry has as an abiding regulative ideal the integration of the ancillary philosophical disciplines and of the natural and human sciences into a comprehensive account of reality.(3) That is, a full understanding of the objects of the natural and human sciences can be had only when the sciences themselves are integrated "from above" by metaphysics and moral theory. One corollary of this classical vision for Catholic philosophical inquiry is that the objects of the natural and human sciences can be fully understood only from a supernatural perspective that takes into account, but is not exhausted by, what the sciences tell us about them. I will return to this general theme below.
Again, in claiming that, for Catholic philosophers, to do metaphysics and moral theory is just to do systematic theology, I do not mean to subvert the distinction between faith and natural reason or to cast aspersions on attempts to show that various elements of Catholic wisdom can in principle /234/ be arrived at without direct appeal to Christian revelation. I simply mean to point out that if we conceive of wisdom and the philosophical pursuit of wisdom in the classical sense, then--like many Fathers of the Church and almost all the important Catholic medieval thinkers--we will find it easy to identify Christian wisdom, personified in the incarnate Son of God and articulated systematically by Catholic theology, as the real (albeit hidden) object of the quest for wisdom that the classical philosophical inquirers had initiated but had been incapable of bringing to fulfillment in the absence of Christian revelation. In fact, as I understand it, the main medieval dispute over faith and reason had to do not with the question of whether Catholics should avail themselves of revelation in conducting philosophical inquiry, but rather with the question of how exactly to spell out the successor-relation that Catholic philosophers, gifted with divine revelation, bear to the classical philosophers, who lacked that revelation.(4)
Had we not been bombarded in the last twenty years with so many convincing critiques of modernist epistemology--in both its rationalist and empiricist manifestations and in both its more optimistic early versions and its more chastened later versions--we might by force of habit still be worried about the propriety of allowing cognitive claims involving affective commitments to function as starting points and first principles in philosophical inquiry.(5) But such critiques, coming from sources as varied as Nietzscheans on the one hand and Christians such as Alvin Plantinga and Alasdair MacIntyre on the other, have exposed as irremediably defective the modernist tenets that individual philosophical inquirers, precisely as philosophical inquirers, (i) must ideally begin in absolute neutrality by setting aside affective commitments to any intellectual or moral traditions that have emerged from the shared beliefs and practices of particular historical communities, and (ii) must ideally proceed only from starting points that are acknowledged as evident by all philosophical inquirers regardless of their moral and spiritual condition and regardless of the moral and spiritual condition of the cultural communities within which they practice philosophical inquiry. These same critics have likewise called into question the tendency, typical of later and more skeptical brands of modernism, to value brilliance, cleverness, and novelty over genuine intellectual virtue--an inevitable development once intellectual prowess has been severed, in the manner of Gorgias and his friends, from moral integrity and a single-minded devotion to truth.(6)
Let me return now to the first prong of my reply, viz., that the objection under consideration distorts the intention of St. Thomas. I recognize, of course, that St. Thomas normally uses terms such as 'philosopher' and /235/ 'philosophical discipline' in a more specialized and less proper sense than the one I have just sketched. What he has in mind is fairly obvious. Among those intellectual predecessors whom he especially admires are many who had searched for wisdom without the aid of Christian revelation, either because they had never come into contact with the Christian claim to wisdom or because, having learned of it, they had rejected it. Yet St. Thomas held that, despite this grave impediment, these philosophical inquirers had as a group established--or had at least come close to establishing--many metaphysical and moral truths that are in fact contained in Christian revelation. Such truths he labeled preambles of the faith in order to distinguish them from those revealed truths which, though necessary for genuine human happiness, cannot even in principle be discovered without the aid of divine revelation. And he used the term 'philosophers' to designate precisely these non-Christian seekers after wisdom. (We might imagine St. Thomas ostensively defining the term 'philosophi' by pointing to the group of intellectually and morally well-disposed classical philosophical inquirers whom Dante would later place in the first circle of his Inferno.)
Yet it goes without saying that St. Thomas does not deny that intellectually sophisticated Christians may themselves seek the very same wisdom that the classical philosophers had sought; indeed, in his own work he attempts to show that Christian theology, as the highest science, is exactly the wisdom that the philosophi had at least implicitly desired.(7) So, for example, when St. Thomas invokes the distinction between the philosophi and the fideles (the faith-filled) in Summa Contra Gentiles 2, chap. 4, he is not pointing to a contrast between two irreducibly distinct types of highest wisdom, one of which is properly pursued only by the light of natural reason and the other of which is properly pursued with the aid of divine revelation. Rather, the contrast is between two classes of intellectually sophisticated human beings, the first consisting of those philosophical inquirers (the philosophi) who are destined for one reason or another to pursue wisdom without the aid of Christian revelation, and the second consisting of those philosophical inquirers (the fideles) who, because they possess Christian revelation, are alone in a position--perhaps with ample help from the philosophi--to articulate that highest science (sacra doctrina) which all seekers after wisdom desire.(8)
But if this is so, then it seems clear that St. Thomas himself did not intend that his distinction between philosophy and theology should be used to divide future generations of Christian or Catholic philosophical inquirers into some individuals who would avail themselves of the sunlight of faith in their search for philosophical wisdom and other individuals who would pursue /236/ philosophical wisdom merely by the candlelight of natural reason. To think otherwise seems plainly misguided. Joseph Ratzinger has put the point this way:
Ratzinger goes on to lament the sharp opposition that has developed in modern times between philosophy and theology. As he sees it, the result of this opposition is that philosophy, having despaired of ever finding genuine wisdom, has devolved into a technical academic discipline cut off from the persistent metaphysical and moral questions that inspired philosophical inquiry in the first place; whereas theology, having repudiated systematic metaphysics and with it the claim to absolute truth, has lost its missionary character and thus become isolated from the other intellectual disciplines. Ratzinger's remedy is to reconceive philosophy and theology, along with the relation between them, in a way reflective of the early Christian identification of Christian doctrine with the true philosophy that fulfills the hopes of the ancient wisdom-traditions. He even goes so far as to speculate that only Christian theology, rightly construed as a hope-filled inquiry into the deepest metaphysical and moral questions, will keep philosophy itself alive as the search for wisdom.
Be that as it may, it is at least clear that St. Thomas did not mean to urge Catholics, even the really smart ones, to pursue wisdom as if the Son of God had not come to expel sin and ignorance from their hearts and minds, or to conduct their philosophical /237/ inquiries with the light of faith formed by charity hidden under a bushel basket, so to speak. What would be the point of doing this, given that our goal as philosophers is to attain and to live in accord with ultimate metaphysical and moral truth, and given that we believe Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Is revealed Wisdom somehow beyond the pale for those who profess to be philoi sophias, lovers of wisdom? Aristotle and Plato had no choice but to practice philosophical inquiry without the aid of special divine revelation. But what excuse could we as Catholics possibly have? As Alvin Plantinga has remarked in a similar context: "I could probably get home this evening by hopping on one leg; and conceivably I could climb Devil's Tower with my feet tied together. But why should I want to?"(12)
I do not deny that it might sometimes be rhetorically or dialectically inappropriate to invoke propositions or models not accepted by one's philosophical interlocutors, but this is a general point that applies to every philosophical inquirer, believer or non-believer, and to every philosophical conversation, whether or not it involves revealed truths; and even here, as I will indicate below, there is flexibility about what can count as an effective and intellectually virtuous dialectical strategy.
Nor do I mean to deny that it is both intrinsically and apologetically valuable to show that some element or other of Catholic doctrine can in principle be made evident by the light of natural reason; indeed, a central goal of the philosophical inquirer is to make every conclusion as evident as possible or, in Aristotle's words, to "seek exactness in each area to the extent that the nature of the subject allows."(13) But this consideration is wholly consonant with the claim that one role of Catholic philosophers is to contribute to the systematic articulation and transmission of Catholic wisdom as a whole and in all its ramifications.
Finally, if we think of all philosophical inquiry as aimed ultimately at metaphysics and moral theory, then we can add that work by Catholic intellectuals even in the ancillary philosophical disciplines and in the sciences can count as an integral part of, or at least as a necessary propaedeutic to, the systematic articulation of Catholic wisdom, and thus in that sense can count as a contribution to systematic theology.
Now that I have addressed the main theoretical objection to what I have called the first role of Catholic philosophers, let me turn briefly to a practical objection, namely, that under the present dispensation we Catholics who are /238/ professional philosophers are not adequately equipped to articulate and transmit Catholic wisdom as a whole because we lack the right sort of training in Sacred Scripture, Patristics and Church history, liturgical theology, the history of Catholic theology, and contemporary systematic theology (both theoretical and practical).
To begin with, this objection is at best only partly true, since many of us have formally studied, or at least read widely in, one or more of the areas just listed. But the obvious "low-road" response is that by this very same criterion not many Catholic professional theologians--and this holds especially for those who have received their advanced degrees in the last twenty years or so--are adequately equipped to articulate and defend Catholic wisdom. For one thing, most of them are woefully undertrained in the history of philosophy and in philosophical sub-disciplines such as logic, ontology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, ethics, and epistemology. Even more to the point, their advanced theological training itself has almost certainly been focused on just one or perhaps two of the areas noted above to the virtual exclusion of the others.(14)
What's more, many younger Catholic systematic theologians have received their doctoral degrees from programs which put no emphasis at all on the specifically Catholic theological tradition.
So what conclusion should we draw? The first role I have set for Catholic philosophers is a collaborative one that requires rectitude of will, a spirit of cooperation, and various types of intellectual expertise on the part of many thinkers who see themselves as engaged in a common project. In short, we must communicate with one another and learn from one another despite the institutional and curricular barriers that have been interposed between theology and philosophy. In particular, we must become more creative in devising interdisciplinary courses and research programs. (I will return briefly to curricular matters at the end of this paper.)
What's more, the need for rectitude of will and a spirit
is symptomatic of the fact--noted above and emphasized by the classical
philosophers themselves within their own context--that our common
enterprise has moral and spiritual dimensions that cannot be divorced
its intellectual dimension. In short, the success of Catholic
inquiry depends as much on the exercise of the theological and moral
as on the exercise of the intellectual virtues. Only a moral and
effort of this sort will enable us to hone our philosophical insights
to keep constantly in mind that our intellectual endeavors, including
disagreements, will be fruitful only if we desire above all, in Etienne
Gilson's words, to put our intelligence at the service of Christ the
ROLE TWO: INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT WITH NON-BELIEVING PHILOSOPHERS
The second role of Catholic philosophers is to engage non-believing philosophers in intellectual exchanges, and to do so with charity, courage, and integrity, both in order to learn and in order to teach.(15) This claim, taken generally and in the abstract, is very nearly uncontroversial, since sympathetic and intellectually rigorous interaction with philosophically sophisticated non-believers has been a staple of the Catholic tradition from the very beginning, despite periodic protests from those who see the Gospel as a wholesale replacement for, rather than the perfection and completion of, the philosophical inquiry of non-believers.
In the remainder of this section I will examine the
for this second role, make two brief comments about the division of
with regard to it, and then discuss in general terms the prospects for
fruitful engagement between Catholic philosophers and our non-believing
fellow philosophers. This will lead us back to a few closing comments
the relation between philosophy and theology as they are situated in
curriculum of the Catholic university.
St. Thomas was confident that those non-believing philosophical inquirers who are intellectually and morally virtuous can be led, by standards of successful philosophical inquiry they themselves accept, toward recognizing Catholic theology as a viable candidate for the absolute wisdom they are seeking.(16) As he saw it, the classical philosophers had already taken significant steps in this direction and could have gone even further had they done better by their own standards. (This I take to be the main thrust of the first three books of the Summa Contra Gentiles.) Then, too, he showed by example that Catholic philosophical inquirers can in favorable circumstances adopt substantive theoretical claims proposed by non-believing philosophers or at least make extensive use of conceptual resources developed by them. Moreover, he held that even though the dim light of natural reason pales by comparison with the radiant light of faith, and even though the certitude attainable by reason is markedly inferior, absolutely speaking, to the certitude of faith, nonetheless, the demanding intellectual activity by which a wide range of philosophical principles and conclusions are rendered progressively more evident to natural reason is perfective of the philosophical inquirer as such and hence valuable to the Catholic philosopher in itself and not just for whatever /240/ apologetic usefulness it might have. These were among the factors that led him, as noted above, to distinguish philosophy (narrowly conceived) from theology (likewise narrowly conceived) and to attribute a limited autonomy to those "philosophical disciplines" that had been developed by the classical philosophers without the aid of special Christian revelation.
At this point I want to reiterate that what I said above
about the first
role of Catholic philosophers does nothing to undermine either the
between faith and reason or the distinction between the natural and the
supernatural; nor does it in any way derogate the many impressive
by Catholic philosophical inquirers to show that a wide range of
truths (the preambles of the faith) can be made as evident as any other
significant conclusions established by non-believing philosophers.
mainstream Catholic philosophy, while openly acknowledging the
and deficiencies of natural reason, has always insisted that some
metaphysical and moral truths are such that every human being of normal
intelligence has a natural inclination to assent to them, especially
the guidance of wise teachers--and this, despite the fact that personal
sin and cultural corruption can render us blind to what should have
obvious to us even in the absence of Christian revelation. In this way,
the standard of natural reason serves as a regulative ideal which can
Catholic philosophers both in their efforts to develop their own
virtues by rendering Catholic teaching as evident as possible and in
efforts to lead non-believing philosophers toward that teaching. I will
return to this theme in a moment.
The division of labor
Before that, though, I want to make two points about the division of labor appropriate to this second task of the Catholic philosopher. I take these points to be nearly self-evident and would not even bother to mention them explicitly if contrary views were not currently in the air.(17)
First, it is important for the Catholic philosophical community as a whole to be engaged both in exegetical research projects aimed at deepening our understanding of historically important philosophical traditions--especially, but not only, the medieval and early modern Catholic sub-traditions--and in systematic research projects aimed at pushing forward discussions currently at the forefront of philosophical interest among both believers and non-believers. But it is not necessary that each Catholic philosopher should excel at both types of research. This general point seems uncontroversial, even given the obvious fact that the division between exegetical projects and systematic projects is not as neat as the above characterization might suggest. /241/ Still, unfortunate tensions exist here: exegetes often chide systematicians for being short-sighted and ahistorical, while systematicians often chide exegetes for not having their interests sufficiently shaped by contemporary philosophical discussions. Needless to say, Catholic philosophy will flourish only if both types of research project are carried out at a very high level of intellectual excellence and only if both types are valued highly by all Catholic philosophers. Moreover, it would be disastrous for exegetical projects either to be wholly shaped by contemporary philosophical problematics or to be carried out in virtually total ignorance of those problematics; and it would be unfortunate if systematic projects were historically uninformed, as they often are, especially in analytic philosophy.
Second, while it is important for the Catholic
a whole to be intimately familiar with, and in many cases
the important research programs currently being carried out by
philosophers, this is not incumbent upon each
Catholic philosophical inquiry is, once again, a communal project that
admits of and in fact demands a prudent division of labor. But this
of labor itself is likely to produce tensions among us, and we will be
successful only to the extent that what we share in common predominates
over our philosophical differences in those many matters that the faith
allows us to disagree about. The differences I have in mind here
some that stem from divergent philosophical styles imported from the
philosophical world (especially "analytic" vs. "continental"), as well
as the more parochial ones that have developed internally within our
tradition (e.g., among competing forms of Thomism or among
Thomists, Scotists, Suarezians, etc.).
The prospects for fruitful engagement
Even though fruitful engagement with non-believing philosophers, especially with regard to matters that bear on the faith, should be an abiding goal for the Catholic philosophical community, we must not be naive in our assessment of the prospects for success in this venture.
St. Thomas felt a special kinship with the classical philosophers and their later commentators (including several Jews and Muslims) not only because they were intellectually and morally well-disposed seekers after wisdom, but also because by his lights they had hit upon many important truths or insights which could be incorporated into a comprehensive Christian articulation of absolute wisdom. We cannot take it for granted that every philosophical system or research program will be as congenial to Catholic doctrine as, say, Platonism and Aristotelianism turned out to be in many important /242/ respects. In his Gifford Lectures Alasdair MacIntyre faults "much nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Thomism" for not appreciating just how disparate its own first principles and conception of philosophical inquiry were from those of Cartesianism, Humeanism, and Kantianism, and thus for not understanding just how different its relation to these philosophical systems was from St. Thomas's relation to Aristotelianism.(18) To the extent that Catholic philosophers differ from non-believing philosophers in both substantive and methodological assumptions, fruitful interchange will be difficult--especially in circles dominated by scientific naturalism or postmodern anti-realism. In short, even if our intellectual work is excellent by generally accepted standards, oftentimes the best we will be able to hope for is the grudging respect of our non-believing colleagues. This is not a counsel of despair so much as an indication of how arduous and delicate the second role of Catholic philosophers is likely to be over the next few decades--and probably beyond that as well.
Indeed, the present, somewhat inhospitable, climate of secular philosophy underscores the importance of our maintaining centers of learning and research in which Catholic philosophical inquiry has the freedom to develop and flourish without constantly having to justify its very existence. Recently I had the opportunity to hear a group of senior professors from Belgium and the Netherlands lament their marginalization as self-professed Catholic scholars in both the state-run and Catholic universities of their native countries. Yet despite fretting about their own isolation and about the secularization of their universities, some of them seemed even more haunted by the specter of the "intellectual ghetto" they describe Catholic thought as having occupied before Vatican II--so much so that they cannot even now bring themselves to embrace the idea, set forth boldly in Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, that Catholic universities must be places of "rigorous fidelity" and "courageous creativity" where distinctively Catholic learning can flourish even within otherwise hostile secular intellectual climates.(19) Perhaps Catholic philosophers before the council were to some extent responsible for their own isolation from the secular intellectual mainstream--though it is worth remembering that at that time professional philosophy in England and the United States was dominated by logical positivism, pragmatism, and ordinary language philosophy, three of the most harshly anti-metaphysical movements in the history of philosophy. In any case, what Catholic philosophers require now are environments in which we can carry out our work with freedom and confidence, independently of how we are received in the wider philosophical world.
On the other hand, even if many of our fellow philosophers will simply /243/ ignore us or deem us peculiar and even dangerous, we must not be deterred from reaching out to them in charity. As noted above, the light of natural reason has traditionally functioned as a normative ideal for Catholic philosophical inquiry, in the sense that an intrinsic goal of such inquiry is to render Catholic wisdom as evident as possible by the light of natural reason and, in particular, to establish the preambles of the faith with a high degree of evidential certitude.(20) To reiterate, this project is important both because it leads to intellectual perfection for Catholic philosophers themselves and also because it promises to establish common ground with non-believing philosophers. Notice, however, that even within the Catholic philosophical tradition there has been significant disagreement about the material content of this normative ideal; that is to say, Catholic philosophical inquirers have differed over just how extensive in principle the range of the preambles of the faith is and over just how evident in principle those preambles can be rendered. St. Thomas, deeply impressed by the accomplishments of his non-believing philosophical predecessors, was a cautious optimist on this score, as have been most important Catholic thinkers since his time; by contrast, other Catholic philosophical inquirers have tended to be more pessimistic.
The issues upon which this disagreement focuses, though not settled by what I have said about the two roles of Catholic philosophers, are obviously pertinent to the decisions that Catholic philosophers must make about how they are to deal with their non-believing counterparts in discussions bearing on matters of the faith. Still, we should not exaggerate the importance of these issues, since, for reasons of the sort adumbrated above, premises that given philosophical interlocutors should assent to by the standard of natural reason are very often such that they do not in fact assent to them. Sometimes the relevant disputes are amenable to further analysis or to deeper probing for shared assumptions, sometimes not. In the latter type of case, direct appeals to the authority of natural reason are likely to be no more successful than direct appeals to divine revelation. After all, even if one might in appropriate circumstances be warranted in chiding one's interlocutors for not seeing what they should see, doing so is not generally an effective dialectical strategy. As in any other instance of philosophical dialectic, we must be sensitive to the beliefs of our intended audience.
However, standoffs regarding basic principles are fairly widespread in the world of philosophy, and it is instructive to look at one popular strategy philosophers deploy in their attempts to make progress in the face of such fundamental disagreements. What I have in mind is the common practice of indirectly countering an objection to one's theory by exhibiting the internal /244/ conceptual resources by which the theory as a systematic whole can either render the objection irrelevant or accommodate its thrust without falling prey to it. Such replies are indirect because they do not appeal immediately to premises or assumptions accepted by the objector; rather, they invite the objector to look more closely at the systemic virtues of the disputed theory and to compare it in that light to alternatives.
Here are two examples relevant to the present topic. Bare classical theism, the usual target of atheistic arguments from evil, has far less impressive resources at its disposal for dealing with such arguments than does full-fledged Catholic theology--or so, at least, I would contend.(21)On the surface, this sounds paradoxical, since Catholic theology includes classical theism as a proper part and, one might infer, is therefore more difficult to defend. But the fact is that the complete Christian story, centered around the death and resurrection of Christ, transforms our ordinary understandings of suffering, death, and moral evil in such a profound and striking way that it might very well be more attractive--or at least more intriguing--to the atheistic or agnostic philosopher than is bare classical theism. At the very least, the Catholic philosopher engaged in discussions of the problem of evil should be conversant with the best expositions of the Christian understandings of suffering and evil and should be prepared to deploy such understandings if this seems the best way to move the debate forward.(22)
Similarly, I cannot as a Catholic philosopher intelligently discuss moral theory with non-believing philosophers unless I understand deeply the ways in which Catholic belief and practice shed a distinctive light on the moral life in general and the moral virtues in particular. Think, for instance, of the fascinating confluence of magnanimity and humility which the eyes of faith see in the life of every great saint, but which is very nearly incomprehensible, at least at first sight, to many non-believers. More generally, as St. Thomas teaches by example, Catholic philosophers of the sort I am addressing cannot responsibly do moral theory without explicitly investigating the theological virtues, the infused moral virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, original sin, the New Law, the nature of grace, etc. For Catholic philosophers to give the impression that moral philosophy is a "merely natural" discipline that can prescind from these realities without gravely distorting our understanding of the moral life is intellectually irresponsible as well as a culpable disservice to our non-believing colleagues, not to mention our students. Once again, I do not claim that these supernatural realities must be invoked in every conversation about moral theory that a Catholic philosopher might have with an non-believing counterpart, or in every lecture or article intended for a general audience. /245/ But I do mean to insist that no Catholic philosopher should pretend, for fear of crossing some inviolable boundary between philosophy and theology, that moral theory can be adequately or successfully pursued without reference to such realities.
Similar examples are easy to produce along a whole front of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral topics which impinge directly on the deliverances of the faith. In short, when we engage in discussions with non-believing fellow philosophers, we should keep close at hand the full array of the principles and conclusions that we hold as believers. Otherwise we will be, and will likely be perceived as being, insincere and intellectually dishonest. Or so at least it seems to me.
Such examples help drive home two further points. First, they make it crystal clear that we must resist the temptation to turn the distinction between theology and philosophy into a distinction between individuals who articulate and transmit Catholic wisdom (role one) and individuals who engage in active interchanges with non-believing philosophers (role two). The two roles simply cannot be divorced in this way. On the one hand, engagement with non-believing philosophers presupposes a thorough understanding of the claim to wisdom which we bring to that engagement. On the other hand, an articulation of Catholic wisdom that is oblivious to the best of non-Christian philosophical inquiry is likely to be superficial and merely transitory.
Second, the above examples should make us wary of the claim that philosophy has the natural as its object, whereas theology has the supernatural as its object. I do not deny--in fact, I would insist--that the Catholic perspective must preserve a sharp metaphysical distinction between the natural and the supernatural; but it does not follow from the recognition of this distinction or of its importance that we can understand the natural fully in all its aspects (especially with regard to the human person) without seeing it in the supernatural light of faith. Servais Pinckaers has put the point aptly as follows:
PHILOSOPHY, THEOLOGY AND THE CURRICULUM
I have argued that to draw St. Thomas's distinction between philosophy narrowly conceived and theology narrowly conceived is not at all to encourage faithful Catholics to practice philosophical inquiry as if their faith were an obstacle to their being genuine philosophers, or as if it would be inappropriate for them to invoke the mysteries of the faith in their articulation of wisdom. I now want to add that, as far as I can tell, St. Thomas's distinction does not by itself provide any theoretical justification at all for the sharp separation of the philosophy and theology curricula that one finds today in most Catholic colleges and universities.(24) To the contrary, his narrow use of the term 'philosophy' seems to function merely as an ostensive designator for what Plato, Aristotle, and other classical "gentile" philosophers actually accomplished without the aid of divine revelation by way of attaining wisdom--or, perhaps better, what they could have accomplished without divine revelation had they done better by their own standards of successful philosophical inquiry. There is no suggestion at all that Catholic philosophers themselves should put their faith aside when they pursue wisdom as classically defined. It follows straightforwardly that they should not put their faith aside in the classroom, either.
I acknowledge--and indeed have already asserted--that at least some Catholic philosophical inquirers should explicitly take on the task of studying in depth what the best philosophers, believers or non-believers, have said in the past and are saying in the present, so as to learn from them, criticize them, cooperate with them in mutually advantageous research projects, and help educate fellow Catholic intellectuals about them. Indeed, embracing this task enthusiastically is for us a core demand of supernatural charity, which militates against our assuming a smug intellectual complacency and thereby being content to abandon the souls of secular philosophers and their students to falsehood, unhappiness, and despair. But, once again, acknowledging this point does nothing at all to justify a sharp separation between philosophy and systematic /247/ theology within educational institutions that are meant to embody St. Thomas's conviction that sacra doctrina brings classical philosophical inquiry to perfection by standards of intellectual perfection that non-believing philosophers themselves can recognize, or be led to recognize, as legitimate.
As I see it, the only remotely plausible justifications for such a separation are purely practical ones--for example, that the cultures of theology and philosophy are at present too diverse to tolerate any attempt at a merger; or that given the disdain for religion and theology characteristic of top-rated graduate programs in philosophy, Catholic colleges will be unable to place their philosophy majors in such graduate programs unless they clearly distinguish them from theology majors.
But it is not at all clear how serious these problems really are. The cultures of both professional philosophy and professional theology seem especially fluid at the present time in North America. In addition, within academia there is a general recognition of--and dissatisfaction with--the artificiality of disciplinary boundaries in the humanities.
As for the second worry, the prejudice against those who have graduated from Catholic colleges with joint philosophy/theology degrees may not be any worse than the current prejudice against those who have graduated from Catholic colleges with "straight" philosophy degrees. (At Notre Dame we are now running a successful joint undergraduate program in philosophy and theology, and some of its graduates have gone on to advanced studies in philosophy, including a Rhodes scholar who is presently at Oxford University.)
Moreover, even if these problems are in fact serious, they are by no means insurmountable. I for one have no doubt that if we are sufficiently creative and self-confident, we can find ways to resolve or at least circumvent them without abandoning a distinctively Catholic vision of the nature of philosophical inquiry. In this connection it is worth noting Alasdair MacIntyre's observation that the biggest obstacle facing St. Thomas and later Thomists in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was precisely "the power of the institutionalized curriculum," and that the truly amazing thing is "the way in which Aquinas was repeatedly revived and invoked after that initial rehabilitation which led to his canonization."(25) Perhaps another radical revolt against the "institutionalized curriculum" is in order.(26) Why, after all, should we rest easy with a situation in which undergraduate philosophy majors in many Catholic colleges and universities receive a philosophical formation that is virtually indistinguishable from what they would have received in secular schools? Indeed, even though the sharp separation between philosophy and /248/ theology pre-dates the ravages of secularization in Catholic colleges and universities, the prevailing idea that philosophy is independent of the faith has in its own way facilitated that secularization.
I am under no illusion that Catholic colleges and
those presently headed toward becoming second- and third-rate
of their more prestigious secular counterparts, will any time soon
undertake to restructure their philosophy and theology curricula in
consonant with our distinctive intellectual tradition.(27)
But the present time is rife with possibilities, and like-minded
on both sides of the divide should be looking for opportunities to
the "institutionalized curriculum."
It hardly needs saying that I have merely skimmed the surface in these brief reflections, and I do not claim to have addressed every issue that needs to be addressed or to have answered every objection that needs to be answered. Still, I believe that it is a propitious time for us as Catholic philosophers to stop worrying about crossing some imaginary boundary between philosophy and theology, and to be forthright and creative in presenting the Catholic claim to wisdom in as attractive a light as we can to our students as well as to intellectually sophisticated non-believers. In this we will only be following in the footsteps of our most illustrious predecessor.(28)
3. The aspiration to exhibit the "unity of truth" across the liberal arts and sciences is a defining characteristic of the Catholic university according to Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990). In contrast, today's typical big university is a knowledge factory shattered into many fragmentary units, each motivated almost exclusively by narrow self-interest. And because they have lost, or despaired of, or grown skeptical of the ideal of the unity of truth, university administrators find themselves unable to articulate a coherent vision of the whole that is capable of uniting their disparate constituencies under the flag of a common project.
5. John Crosby has posed this challenge: "Isn't it obviously the case that, say, /249/ the metaphysics of first principles offered by Aristotle in Metaphysics 4 is more properly philosophical than a treatise on Eucharistic theology?" I concede that most professional philosophers would answer affirmatively; but the reasons for this are contingent. First, in our culture most philosophers are not Catholics and hence are not tempted, say, to offer courses on Eucharistic theology. (In contrast, at my own university I teach philosophy courses on St. Thomas's moral theory--something that cannot be done responsibly without including the order of grace and salvation.) Second, many of today's philosophers operate with a conception of philosophy that a priori excludes revealed truths from the domain of philosophical inquiry. But this, too, is a contingent matter. Remember that in the heyday of logical positivism, metaphysics and 'normative' moral theory were excluded by the prevailing conception of philosophy.
6. This 'Gorgian' valuation is suggested by the ubiquitous claim that the main justification for requiring philosophy courses in the undergraduate curriculum is that they help students think clearly and convincingly about significant metaphysical and moral issues. One sometimes gets the impression that the question of just which conclusions students reach with their newly enhanced powers of reasoning and persuasion falls outside of the proper purview of teachers of philosophy. On such a view, we may prefer that our students hold one set of beliefs rather than another, but we will have succeeded qua teachers of philosophy as long as they can argue well for whatever beliefs they might adopt.
7. See especially Summa Contra Gentiles 1, chaps. 1-3 & 9, where wisdom in the sense expounded above is explicitly set forth as the goal of philosophical inquiry. We must, of course, keep in mind St. Thomas's distinction between being wise by way of inclination and being wise by way of cognition (see Summa Theologiae 1, ques. 1, art. 6, and 2-2, ques. 45, art. 2.) All devout Christians possess the gift of wisdom, which enables them to order and judge things correctly by way of inclination and to act promptly on those judgments; this is the wisdom that accompanies the supernatural love of God and is especially well-developed in those who lead saintly lives. On the other hand, those versed in sacred doctrine acquire through study the ability to make wise judgments about divine things by way of cognition. As with other good habits, it is better, all other things being equal, to have wisdom in both ways than to have it in just one; but given that one has it in only one way, it is better to be wise by way of inclination than merely by way of cognition.
8. This interpretation of chapter 4 might not at first be obvious, because St. Thomas initially characterizes the philosophers as those who study created things in terms of "their own proper causes," thus suggesting that "human philosophy" is exhausted by what I have called the ancillary philosophical disciplines. But he then adds: "Sometimes divine wisdom results from the principles of human philosophy. For even among the philosophers First Philosophy uses the teachings of all the sciences to prove what it intends." The idea is that even though metaphysics integrates all human philosophy "from above," the only access that the philosophi had to metaphysical wisdom was "from below." The fideles, in contrast, have an added route to that wisdom through divine revelation.
10. As Chesterton aptly remarks, "Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." See Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1908, 1995), p. 38.
11. Given my own fondness for Francisco Suarez and the seeming penchant of /250/ some contemporary Catholic authors to blame every historical distortion of St. Thomas's thought on the Jesuits in general and on Suarez or his progeny in particular, I hasten to point out that the mere fact that Suarez authored the Disputationes Metaphysicae as a "narrowly" philosophical work is not a sufficient reason for imputing to him the idea that philosophy and philosophical inquiry are strictly independent of theology. First of all, the Disputationes Metaphysicae were explicitly intended to provide students of theology with what the study of Aristotle's Metaphysics was supposed to be providing them with, but was not in fact doing so in Suarez's estimation. Second, Suarez goes out of his way in the Preface to make clear to the reader that the Disputationes Metaphysicae are ordered toward the articulation of Christian doctrine: "In this work I am doing philosophy in such a way as to keep always in mind that our philosophy should be Christian and a servant to divine Theology. I have kept this goal in view, not only in discussing the questions but also in choosing my views or opinions, inclining toward those which seem to comport better with piety and revealed doctrine."
12. "Advice to Christian Philosophers," Faith and Philosophy 1 (1984): 253-271. Over the past twenty years, Plantinga's has been the most eloquent and compelling voice within analytic circles urging Christian philosophers to stand firm as articulators of the faith in their philosophical endeavors and not to accommodate themselves to the many current philosophical trends and research programs that are deeply anti-Christian in their root assumptions. To be sure, "Advice to Christian Philosophers" could perhaps have been more accurately entitled "Advice to Theistic Philosophers." However, in "Christian Philosophy at the End of the 20th Century," in Sander Griffioen and Bert Balk, eds., Christian Philosophy at the Close of the Twentieth Century (Kampen: Kok, 1995) pp. 29-53 (available on the worldwide web at www.faithquest.com/philosophers/plantinga/20th.html), and in his latest book, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), Plantinga goes beyond mere theism to defend the epistemic credentials of faith in revealed Christian doctrines.
13. Nicomachean Ethics 1.3 1094b24. This passage is cited by St. Thomas in Summa Contra Gentiles 1, chap. 3, just before he introduces the distinction between the preambles of the faith and the mysteries of the faith.
14. For instance, Notre Dame's doctoral program in theology is divided into five semi-autonomous areas: (1) Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity, (2) the History of Christianity, (3) Liturgical Studies, (4) Moral Theology/Christian Ethics, and (5) Philosophical and Systematic Theology. A student may get a doctorate in theology by taking advanced graduate courses in just three--and in some cases two--of these five areas.
The best theologians are themselves well aware of the deleterious consequences of the fragmentation of their discipline. See, e.g., Servais Pinckaers, OP, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), esp. chapters 1 and 2, where Pinckaers decries the relatively recent separation of moral theology from the "spiritual" theology of the Church Fathers--a separation that occurred in the Renaissance when morality ceased to be thought of as a road to happiness (or salvation) and came to be thought of instead as mainly a matter of not violating negative moral precepts. From the other side, some powerful Catholic philosophical voices have been raised in protest against the bifurcation of philosophy (especially metaphysics and moral theory) from theology. See, e.g., Frederick Wilhelmsen, The Metaphysics of Love (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962), esp. pp. 13-19; Josef Pieper, Problems of Modern Faith (Chicago: Franciscan Herald /251/ Press, 1985), esp. pp. 265-276; and Adriaan Theodoor Perperzak, "Philosophia," Faith and Philosophy 14 (1997): pp. 321-333.
15. In this paper I am addressing just the issue of how Catholic philosophers should think of their relation to non-Christian philosophers, since contemporary philosophers are predominantly non-Christians. Still, a complete treatment of the relevant issues would also address the question of how Catholic philosophers should think of their relation to philosophers who are non-Catholic Christians. I will postpone that discussion until a later time.
17. What I have to say here is prompted in part by John Haldane's "What Future has Catholic Philosophy?" American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (Annual Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association) 77 (1997): 79-90. In the first few pages of his essay Haldane consigns all of "continental philosophy" to the scrap heap and singles out Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and Foucault as "examples of intellectual corruption" (p. 81)--a judgment that he assumes his audience of Catholic philosophers will unreservedly concur with. He then urges all Catholic philosophers to embrace the "analytical tradition" of twentieth-century philosophy as the fitting contemporary manifestation of "the spirit of scholastic Aristotelianism." While I have little problem with the idea that some Catholic philosophers should be active in the mainstream of analytic philosophy, I believe that (i) Haldane misunderstands the saga of philosophy departments in Catholic universities over the past thirty years, that (ii) his estimation of the virtues of the "analytical tradition" is myopic, and that (iii) implementing his suggestion would worsen an already lamentable situation. Some of what I say below will at least hint at my reasons for making this judgment, but I will defer to a later time a full response to Haldane's paper.
19. See Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #8. Ironically, at a time when certain American philosophers are making bold to echo aloud Daniel Dennett's sentiment that "safety demands that religions be put in cages," some Catholics who should know better are still persisting in the adolescent anti-Papalism of the 1960's and 1970's. The world seems to have passed them by and, as I can attest from personal experience, many of today's Catholic college students are not failing to notice this.
20. I call the relevant type of certitude "evidential" in order to distinguish this certitude, which constitutes a natural intellectual perfection for us, from the "certitude of adherence" proper to our grasp of the objects of Christian faith. See Summa Theologiae 2-2, ques. 4, art. 8, and De Veritate, ques. 14, art. 2, ad 7.
22. For instance, I would not hesitate for a moment to insist that contemporary Catholic philosophers writing or lecturing on the problem of evil should study carefully Pope John Paul II's magnificent Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris as part of their intellectual preparation.
24. Interestingly, the separation of philosophy departments from theology departments /252/ that one finds in some denominationally Protestant colleges appears to have a rather different genesis. When I asked my colleague Alvin Plantinga about this, he surmised that the philosophy departments in such colleges had their origins in the conviction, deeply felt in at least some Reformed circles, that students of theology should be acquainted with the history of philosophy. Later, because of pressures to prepare promising students for graduate work in philosophy, the philosophy curriculum evolved from its primarily historical orientation to something more in tune, both substantively and methodologically, with what was going on in the most prestigious graduate programs in philosophy. Still, Plantinga remarked, evangelical Christians who choose careers in academic philosophy have always been encouraged and even expected to use their philosophical training as a tool for articulating and defending the Christian faith.
26. In the spring of 1998 a group of over twenty Notre Dame students, predominantly philosophy and theology majors, wanted to study the encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae along with the parts of St. Thomas's moral theory pertinent to them. Since no such course was contained in the philosophy or theology curriculum, they simply prevailed upon the man to whom this paper is dedicated to meet with them once a week for credit in a readings course. Upon hearing about this, a colleague remarked to me that it reminded him of the 1960's. Such is the stuff of radical curricular reform.
27. Just for the record, I admit that in some ways the separation of philosophy departments from theology departments has been a blessing over the last twenty-five years, given the culture of dissent that has permeated many theology departments at major Catholic institutions of higher learning. Some of us who profess fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church have found the philosophy departments in such institutions to be places of refuge where we can carry on our research and teaching with freedom. However, my argument is predicated on the assumption that this deplorable situation is a temporary aberration.
versions of this paper were delivered
at the 1997 Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance conference at Villanova
University and at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I am
for the many helpful comments I received on both occasions, as well as
for the comments of my colleague Thomas Flint.