Catholic Liberal Education
Note: Dr. O’Reilly is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College as well the vice president for development. The following text is the transcript of a lecture he presented on August 26, 2011, as part of the the St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series, endowed by Barbara and Paul Henkels.
It might seem strange that I should stand in front of you this evening to speak about Catholic liberal education. It could be especially odd because I intend to consider whether there can be such a thing as Catholic liberal education. Why should that be an issue for us? Is it not obvious that there is such a thing as Catholic liberal education? Surely Thomas Aquinas College gives testimony to its existence. Our founding document, the Blue Book, is entitled A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education. Just why would I waste your time asking about the possibility of something that so obviously exists?
Now I take it as obvious that there can be Catholic carpenters and plumbers, there can be Catholic tennis players and golfers, and there can be Catholic poets and teachers. However, let us consider what it means to say that this man is a Catholic plumber, or that this woman is a Catholic tennis player. Surely we must mean that the plumber happens to be Catholic, or maybe better, the Catholic happens to be a plumber, and it is coincidental that the Catholic woman is a tennis player. There is not a particularly Catholic way of installing a sink. The plumber could install it well or badly, but how would he install it in a Catholic way? The Catholic is called to be honest and forthright, but that does not mean it is inappropriate for the Catholic tennis player to use the backhand during a game. Isn’t it clear that the relationship between plumbing and Catholicism, or tennis and the Catholic faith, is coincidental? You might prefer to play tennis with a Catholic, but that is, perhaps, because of the conscientious behavior displayed on the court.
If we consider the parts of liberal education, especially the liberal arts themselves (the quadrivium: geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy; and the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric) does it really seem to be the case that if we add Catholic to any one of the parts the nature of the discipline changes? That is, is there a Catholic geometry? Is there a peculiar geometrical truth that could be called Catholic? Or is there a particularly Catholic way of proving some geometrical proposition? As with the example of the plumber, isn’t it the case that Catholicism does not make geometry into a different kind of activity? The term “Catholic geometrician” names someone who just happens to be both a Catholic and a geometer. It is not like the case of “rational” when added to animal. “Rational animal” names a specific kind of animal, one that is not a brute. So “rational” does not just describe an animal that happens to be rational, “rational animal” actually defines a different kind of animal. But “Catholic geometer” does not seem to do the same, for there is no kind of geometry that is particularly Catholic.
What we have just said about Geometry also applies to Arithmetic, and Astronomy, to grammar and logic, and the remaining liberal arts. The basic point so far is that if the parts of liberal education are not called Catholic properly, then how could the whole, composed of these parts, be called Catholic in any other way than an education that happens to be acquired by Catholics?
However it should be pointed out that a liberal education is not just the education in the liberal arts. Liberal education is the education that is sought for its own sake, and so it is suitable for the free man. As a consequence, this education is primarily speculative, that is, it is sought because it is good to know, and not because of some practical purpose. Liberal education, then, would include philosophy and theology, in addition to the liberal arts. Surely philosophy and theology can be specifically Catholic. And if they are Catholic then a Catholic liberal education could simply be an education informed by philosophy and theology, both of which have a Catholic character.
This point has merit. There is a considerable difference between geometry, for example, and philosophy. Geometry is about points, lines, figures, and magnitudes generally. These kinds of objects are not specifically Catholic, so is it a surprise that that there is not a properly Catholic geometry? Philosophy, on the other hand, considers the nature of man, the universe, and all sorts of things that have direct bearing on the Catholic faith. The philosopher might well consider whether there is evidence that God exists; he might wonder what constitutes freedom of the will. He should consider if it is the case that matter is the most fundamental cause of things, or think about whether the soul survives death. These issues directly pertain to the faith also. So if philosophy considers these matters correctly, wouldn’t it be appropriate to call such philosophy Catholic?
Now the knowledge proper to the philosopher begins with the evidence that he derives from experience and common considerations, not from the teachings of the Church. If the philosopher does not begin his thinking according to the lights of human reason, can he really be said to proceed philosophically? Are not the claims of faith, however meritorious they are, out of place in a rational and open pursuit of knowledge? Maybe Catholicism could be a kind of extrinsic guide, but does it make sense to speak about Catholic philosophy as if it was a particular kind of thinking?
I would like to add to this point by considering a text from John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. In particular, I want to concentrate on the common English translation of this encyclical. Here is the passage:
The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others. The underlying reason for this reluctance is that, even when it engages theology, philosophy must remain faithful to its own principles and methods. (FR #49)
Later John Paul II goes on to say: “philosophy must obey its own rules and be based upon its own principles” (FR #79). One last text from the same encyclical: the designation “Christian Philosophy …in no way intends to suggest that there is an official philosophy of the Church, since the faith as such is not a philosophy” (FR 376). So it seems pretty clear that to the extent that natural reason is to respect its own principles and methods, philosophy cannot be specifically Catholic. In short, faith begins in belief, whereas philosophy proceeds from natural evidence. No doubt Catholicism would enlighten the kind of life the philosopher should live; it might also encourage him to pursue certain questions, and sustain him in times of difficulty, but it does not appear to be appropriate to call philosophy Catholic. If this is the case, then the fact that a liberal education includes philosophy is not sufficient to call that education properly Catholic.
Maybe it is obvious that theology, one part of a truly liberal education, would be defined by Catholicism. Perhaps one could argue that theology is the most important part of a liberal education. It studies the most important object — God Himself — and perhaps the other parts of a liberal education are insignificant before the knowledge of the divine majesty. Here we might find a reason for calling all of a liberal education Catholic if theology is included as one of its parts. After all if the most important part of something has a certain character, then the whole can be described by that characteristic. Much like you might call a man odd if he displays odd behavior. His hands and feet may not be odd, but you call the whole man odd because a significant part of him is odd. Is this why we could call a liberal education Catholic, because its most significant part, theology, is Catholic?
Not so fast. Consider how we study and discuss theology at Thomas Aquinas College. Does it make a difference if a student is Catholic or Protestant, Jewish, or a non-believer? In Freshman theology students are encouraged to consider the evidence in the text of Scripture itself, not to bring in the Catechism. And in sophomore theology doesn’t the class depend on the argument that St. Augustine makes, and the evidence he provides, not what this or that student believes? Finally, in junior and senior theology, what is most remarkable is how argumentative, that is, how rational St. Thomas’ procedure is. As long as one concedes the principles that, no doubt, St. Thomas believes, any student can follow the argument. So even if in itself theology is properly Catholic, one can grasp the argument of the theologian without sharing his belief.
So, the conclusion of all we have said so far is that Catholic liberal education does not appear to be one kind of thing. It seems to be more like our previous example of a Catholic plumber — a man who just happens to be Catholic is also a plumber. So is this how we are to understand Catholic liberal education: the education that people who happen to be Catholic take part in?
What if this is the case, what if all that can be said is that Catholic liberal education is an education that Catholics take part in, or one in which there are additional Catholic elements, the sacraments and Catholic practices, and that’s all there is to it? Well if Catholicism is only incidentally related to the educational program, then it is not essential to the program. On that account it may be nice to have, but it makes no more of a difference to the educational program itself than does the food service. It is crucial, then, for us to determine just what makes a liberal education properly Catholic.
To begin, let me note, and briefly defend, two presuppositions, or principles of education. The first presupposition is about the whole of education, the second is about the parts of an education. 1) Education has as its end a knowledge of the truth. Now that does not mean a full and precise knowledge of the truth, but if there is no reference to truth at all in the education one receives it is not an education properly speaking. 2) The second presupposition, very closely related to the first, is that without an integrated program of studies, that is, if the parts of the program of studies do not form a coherent whole, an education will fall short of its principal aim of attaining the truth.
The first supposition I will briefly defend by considering the alternative. That is, what if education is not about the truth? Quite frankly, this is the view at most colleges and universities. In those institutions a student will come to class to hear what his professor thinks about some matter, or he will read and write about his opinions about a particular issue, but to what end? In general, the position that seems to predominate is that education is either to learn what people think about this or that subject, or that education is designed to prepare the student to find a job. The mind is not raised to something higher, some unchanging truth which perfects reason just by being known.
If one gives up the search for truth, one abandons the effort to understand the way things are. Without some serious resolution one will become a humanist, not an educated man. That is, if you are content simply to appreciate different positions, you might be fun to talk to at a cocktail party, but you will not know anything. You would be familiar with who thinks what, but you would be unable to make judgments about the way things are.
The second supposition that I will consider is, as I said, concerning the parts of an education and it is closely related to the previous supposition. If a student studies many disciplines without integration, that is, if he thinks about science apart from theology, or mathematics independently of philosophy, he will not have a unified view about what is. He could easily tend to a kind of skepticism, because whatever he knows in natural science is not brought to bear upon his understanding of ethics, for example. Or what is understood as a theological doctrine, would not be thought of as a guide to thinking rightly in some other discipline. Without an effort to resolve these differences, the mind is left on its own to wander according to its own inclinations and guesses. This is a problem for us at the College as well as for other academic institutions.
In our own curriculum we study the great books throughout the program. In these books there is more disagreement than agreement. And the disagreements are often about first principles, and notions so basic, that it is impossible that the authors be reconciled except in the vaguest of ways. In fact, often an attempt to reconcile these contrary positions would do violence to the views of the authors themselves. So how should we deal with the basic disagreements that we find in our own program?
In the face of contrary positions, and basic disagreements, the mind will be at sea. There are at least three ways to react to fundamental disagreements among the wise. 1) A good approach to the conflicting positions found in the great books is to realize that if the wise have disagreements, the matter must be difficult to know. That realization should prompt you to try harder to see where the truth is. 2) These contrary positions could cause you to despair of any genuine intellectual advance, so you become either a skeptic, or uninterested in the examined life. 3) Perhaps the worst reaction to the differing positions that have been considered over the centuries is to make the positions themselves the object of study. In that case, the search is no longer for the truth; instead the object of study becomes the opinions of men.
It should be granted, then, that an education properly so called must have as its end to come to know what is true. And since there are many disciplines and many great minds studied in any educational program, there must be some order and resolution in the curriculum if the truth is to be received. Now the principal way that the truth is to be made known is by an unfailing guide. That is one way in which Catholic liberal education is education in the strictest sense.
Cardinal Newman makes this point succinctly in the beginning of the book: The Idea of a University. He points out that a university is a place to seek universal knowledge, and that “it cannot fulfill its object duly … without the Church’s assistance … the Church is necessary for its integrity” (p.xxxvii, 1966 edition). Pope John Paul II quotes this same remark of Cardinal Newman in his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The Holy Father then adds: “It is the office (officium) of the Catholic University to devote itself, without condition, to the cause of truth.” He goes on to say that: “the Catholic University bears itself (inclines) towards every truth according as they are joined to the Supreme Truth, that is to God” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #4).
So these preliminary remarks suggest a strategy for the rest of this lecture. If we are to understand how a liberal education can be Catholic, we should first consider the end of education, that is truth, and then treat how the parts of truth are integrated.
The words “true” or “truth” can be used in a number of different ways. Perhaps the most common use of the term is when we say something such as: “I think what you say is true.” Or, “what you say is the truth.” In this sense of the word, a claim has been made, in the form of a sentence, and one judges that what that sentence expresses conforms to the way things are. The thought expressed in the sentence, then, is true. Also, a building can be described as being “true” to the architect’s original vision. This sense of “true” does not appear to refer to a statement. Another sense of the word “true” is found when we speak of someone as a “true” friend, or a “true” patriot. This use of the word “true” also does not seem to refer to the truth of a statement.
Aristotle, speaking about the first and most obvious sense of true, says that “falsity and truth are not in things …but in though” (Metaphysics, VI, ch. 4, 1027b26). He goes on to make a qualification. Not everything that is in the mind would be called truth: “with regard to simple concepts and ‘whats’ falsity and truth do not exist even in thought.” If I think about what a dog is, for example, to the extent that I am just doing that, I have yet to attain to the notion of truth. If I say, or think, “dog,” I have yet to make a claim about it. “Dog: true or false?” That is an absurd question. So we begin by noting two things: 1) the true, in the first sense of the word, is not in things but it is in the mind; 2) and the true is in the mind when some judgment is made, and normally that judgment is expressed in a sentence. This, according to our own experience of knowing, is the most obvious sense of truth.
A third thing follows from what I have just said. Although the true is in the mind, it is not the mind that principally causes the truth. If I make the statement that a centaur is a long-lived animal, that statement is false, for there is no such thing as a centaur. So although, in the most common use of the word “truth,” the truth is found in the mind and not in things, it is the reality of a thing that causes truth. Another way of putting this is that a thing’s being is a cause of any true statement made about it. A statement is not true just because I make it; man is not the measure of things. No, a statement is only true if what is said corresponds to some reality, some existing thing. As St. Thomas puts it: “…the being of a thing is the cause of the true estimation (or judgment) which the mind has about something. For the true and the false are not in things, but in the mind…” (In Metaphysicorum, II, l.2, #298). From what we have just said, we can understand the traditional account of the true as a conformity, or adequation, of the mind to things. As St. Thomas puts it: “A thing is not called true except according as it is adequated (or conformed) to an intellect, whence secondarily (per posterius) the true is found in things, primarily (per prius) however it is found in the intellect” (De Veritate, 1, a.2).
Note, however, what St. Thomas says here: although the true, in the primary sense, is found in the mind, a thing can be said to be true in a secondary sense if that thing conforms to an intellect. I think what this means is that if one considers the intellect one can see that it can know things simply for their own sake; that is, one can have a kind of speculative knowledge, but also the intellect thinks about things that can be made. The architect obviously thinks about the design of a house. When that house is built, presuming it is built according to his plan, then the house can be said to conform to what he had in mind. The house then can be called true, because it conforms to what the architect had in his mind.
A brief qualification about what I have just claimed: I do not intend to say that the practical intellect is the only measure of the things that it produces. So when it is claimed that the true is in the mind first, it does not mean that the human mind is the sole or primary measure of the truth. A thing can be called true to the intention of the maker and still be called false in another sense. Counterfeit money is still not true currency even though it conforms to the mind of the counterfeiter. Much like the way “faux” pearls are called false because they have a tendency to make you think they are something they are not, that is, they are false pearls because one could easily think they are real ones. This suggests to me that there are more senses of the word “true” than the two that I have outlined, but I am going to limit my consideration to these two senses. So in addition to the primary sense of truth, there is this secondary sense that, as long as what is in the mind is some art or perfection, then there will be found in the mind of the maker a cause of the truth of the thing produced. Having made this qualification , I want to concentrate on the way man’s mind is related to things in the two basic ways I have pointed out, and this gives rise to two fundamental meanings of “truth.”
Now there is a significant difference in the way that a thing is related to the speculative intellect and how something relates to the practical intellect. The practical intellect, or more particularly, the art in the mind of the architect, for example, is a measure of what it produces. That is, the musical piece, to take another example, is said to be true according as it conforms to the musical principles the composer has in mind. The speculative intellect is said to have the truth according as it conforms itself to things. That is, the true judgment is one which has its basis in the way things are. So, we can see that practical thinking measures, or determines, the thing that is produced; whereas things are what measure or determine the true judgment of speculative thinking. For the practical intellect, the art in the mind of the composer, for example, causes the thing that it produces, and so the product is called true since the effect corresponds to the cause. But the speculative intellect only attains truth if its knowledge is caused by things, that is, the mind receives things as they are, not as it wants them to be, or imagines them, or has been accustomed to think of them.
St. Thomas gives a nice summary of the relation of the human intellect to things:
The knowledge of the human intellect is in some way caused by things: hence what follows is that knowable things are the measure of human knowledge, since the intellect judges [what is] true by bearing on things, and not the converse [that is, not by the intellect determining things] (S.C.G. I, 62, #512)
So the human mind, to the extent that it attains or receives the truth, is determined or measured by things. When the human mind is a principle of something made, then that thing can be called true according as it conforms to the maker’s intention. Here is how St. Thomas puts it:
[A]mong created things truth is found in things and in the mind (intellectu) … in the mind according as the understanding that it has conforms (adaequatur) to things; in things [truth is found] according as they imitate the divine intellect, which is their measure, as art is the measure of all artifacts.
The comparison between the artist and the Creator is worth noting. The artifact that the artist produces is determined by the art that he has in his mind, his mind is not conformed to it, since it is what is in his mind that has given rise to his product. The mind of God is not measured, not determined, not caused by things. Rather, the divine intellect determines things in a way like the art in the mind of the architect or composer determines the building or musical piece. Earlier we noted that the building designed by the architect can be called true since it conforms to the plan that he had in mind. Similarly, every natural thing conforms to the ideas in the mind of God. St. Thomas puts it this way:
The divine intellect by its own knowledge is the cause of things. Hence it is necessary that His science is the measure of things: as art is the measure of artifacts. (SCG, I, 61, #512)
A consequence of this is that truth would not be caused in the mind of God by the things He has produced, but the converse, that those things would be said not only to be, but to be true, according as they conform to the divine intellect.
St. Thomas summarizes quite nicely the main distinctions I have been trying to make.
The very notion of truth implies a conformity of a thing to an intellect. However the intellect is compared to things in a twofold way: as the measure of existing things, [that is] the intellect which causes things; another intellect is measured by things, [that is] the intellect whose knowledge is caused by things. Therefore there is not truth in the divine intellect because it is conformed (adequated) to things, but because things are conformed to the divine intellect. (Commentary on St. John, L.18, l. 11)
The Gospel of St. John allows us to speak more fully on this matter. For in that Gospel the creation of heaven and earth is described in such a way as to make clear that all things owe their existence to God, that is, they exist and are the kind of things they are, because God said “let them be.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was nothing made that was made.
All things were made through the Word. The Word is the expression of the Father. He is what proceeds from the Father, as a concept from the Father. God’s act of creation is described as due to the Father bringing forth His Word, and that Word is that through which all things are made. As a consequence the being of all things is due to the divine intellect. Clearly the truth in the divine intellect is not due to things, but all things are and are true because of the mind of God.
Furthermore, since the divine intellect produces its concept or Word, by which all things are made, that Word can be called the truth. For, as we have previously argued, the first meaning of truth is what is brought forth by the mind in conformity to what it thinks about. Since the Word is brought forth by the Father, and is in perfect conformity to the Father, the Word is appropriately called the Truth.
St. Thomas puts it this way:
And so it is that the uncreated truth of the divine intellect is appropriated to the Son, who is the conception itself of the divine intellect and the Word of God. For truth follows a conception of the intellect. (Commentary on St. John, L.18, l. 11)
Earlier in the Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, St Thomas says:
Truth belongs properly (per se) to Him (Christ) because He is the Word. For truth is nothing other than the conformity of a thing to the intellect, and this comes about when the intellect conceives a thing as it is. Therefore, the truth of our intellect belongs to our word, which is its conception. But although our word is true, it is not truth itself, since it is not through itself, but it is conformed to the thing conceived. Now the truth of the divine intellect belongs to the Word of God. But because the Word of God is true of itself, since it is not measured by things, but things are true insofar as they come near to a likeness of Him, and so it is that the Word of God is truth itself. And because no one can know the truth unless he adheres to the truth, it is necessary that everyone who desires to know the truth adhere to this Word. ( In John, L. 14, lec.2)
Here we have a fundamental distinction. “The Word of God is true of itself, since it is not measured by things.” So unlike the human mind which comes to the truth by conforming itself to things, God contains all truth because things conform to Him. So how are we to reach the fullness of truth? By knowing God.
A consequence of what we have said is that since God possesses the whole of truth, and every other truth depends on Him and points to Him. He alone is the teacher without qualification. As St. Thomas explains, God is first and properly a teacher because He has doctrine from Himself. (Just as God is first and properly a father because He is the begetter of another in virtue of Himself, whereas all other fathers are so called because of the existence and power that they have received from God.) Any lesser truth directs the mind to the fullness of truths and, therefore, the knowledge of all truths is not fully had until they are seen in their relation to the source of truth.
When Jesus speaks about the truth He identifies it with Himself, and he indicates that it is what makes us free. Knowing the truth, which is found in God essentially, and the Word personally, is what makes us free. And since the end of a liberal education is to know the truth, which enables one to live the life of a free man, it follows that the fullness of liberal education is found in a program of studies under the inspiration of the church Christ established while He was on earth to guard His truth. That is, a Catholic liberal education is the fullness, or perfection, of a liberal education. It is not merely an education for Catholics, nor an education with Catholic customs and practices added on. No, a Catholic liberal education is the perfection of an education ordered towards the truth. It is Catholic through and through, in its principles, methods, and ends; and Catholicism affects all the parts of such an education however humble they are.
John Paul II indicates as much in Ex Corde Ecclesiae:
[A] Catholic university is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God. It does this without fear but rather with enthusiasm, dedicating itself to every path of knowledge, aware of being preceded by Him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Let us return then to some of the difficulties raised at the beginning of this lecture.
The phrase “Catholic liberal education” is not like “Catholic plumber” for in the case of the plumber it makes no essential difference to his activity that he is Catholic. This is not the case with a Catholic liberal education. Catholicism makes all the difference in such an education, for it orders that education from beginning to end. It defines the kind of education it is, and it perfects all the natural parts of the program of studies by ordering them to the supreme Truth. Mr. Mark Berquist, one of the founders of Thomas Aquinas College, says much more precisely what I am trying to get at.
When one finds a Catholic school with a Great Books curriculum, one is inclined to suppose that Catholic belief is incidental to its educational program, and that (at most) it modifies but does not determine that program... Catholicism, it seems, makes a difference, but not an educational difference….[Not so.] The intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church orders the study of all such truth about reality — a truth of which it speaks with confidence, from the word of God it receives in faith. (“Catholic Education and the Great Books”)
The parts of a Catholic liberal education are not equally, nor all obviously, Catholic in the way that theology is Catholic. Theology is Catholic because it proceeds from principles that are divinely revealed and that are handed down to us by the Church. The other parts of a Catholic liberal education are more or less informed by these principles, or are more or less helpful in making known the meaning of Catholic doctrine, and they are more or less intimately ordered to theology. Catholic theology is most fully and perfectly a Catholic discipline, philosophy is less so, and still less the other disciplines, until one arrives at disciplines only slightly under the light of Catholic learning, such as geometry.
This point should not be surprising. If one considers living things, for example, it is the higher animals that are more fully and more obviously alive. It is more difficult to see the life in the lowest forms of animals and plants. Or, to take another example, it is quite evident that human beings act for a purpose, but it is harder to see that purposeful activity in some other animals, and still more difficult to see this purpose in the activity of some plants and in the inanimate world. So too the higher disciplines are more obviously Catholic because they have some bearing, directly or indirectly, on Catholic doctrine, or they help to elucidate Catholic teaching and ends. This is much less evident in, say, the mathematical disciplines. This point Mr. Berquist made in the passage I just quoted. He said: “the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church … orders the study of all truth about reality — a truth of which it speaks with confidence, from the word of God it receives in faith.”
The following example might be helpful. The use of the word “Catholic” in the phrase “Catholic liberal education” is like the use of “Catholic” when we speak of “Catholic marriage.” It is obvious that “Catholic tennis player” simply names a Catholic who happens to play tennis. Catholic marriage, on the other hand, does not just mean the marriage between Catholics. For Catholicism makes a real difference to the marriage itself. God is the author of marriage, and He has ordered marriage towards Catholic ends. As Pope Leo XIII puts it: “By the command of Christ, [marriage] looks not only to the propagation of the human race, but to the bringing forth of children for the Church” (Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae, #10). So the natural end of marriage is perfected by this spiritual end, and because the natural end is ordered to and perfected by the spiritual end, the relation between marriage and Catholicism is not by chance. As Leo XIII explains, “…there abides in [marriage] something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature” (#19). Catholic marriage, then, is not simply the marriage between Catholics, but an institution ordered to the ends of the Faith. Hence, it is the perfection of marriage. So, too, Catholic Liberal Education is not just an education with Catholic trappings, no, the very education is essentially Catholic.
It does not seem to me to be good enough to say that the parts of a Catholic education are called Catholic because of something extrinsic or because of something accidental to them. I think it is better to say, even in the hardest cases such as geometry and the other mathematical disciplines, that they acquire a Catholic character insofar as they are parts of a Catholic education. Of course, it would be strange to say that geometry is Catholic in the way theology is. No geometrical argument begins with principles held by faith. But insofar as any part of a Catholic liberal education is ordered to knowing the fullness of truth, then, that part, even if it is geometry, has a Catholic character as a lesser truth ordered to the fullness of truth. That is, geometrical truth is ordered to the truth about God as the natural end of marriage is ordered to, and perfected in, the spiritual end of Catholic marriage. I know that is still vague, but I will leave it at that until someone pushes me to say more during the discussion period.
How is there a Catholic philosophy?
In one sense of the word there is only one philosophy. As Aristotle puts it, “it is right also that philosophy should be called knowledge of the truth, for the end of theoretical knowledge is truth” (Metaphysics, II, ch. 1, 993b19). With this meaning of the word “philosophy,” there would not be many philosophies, because there is either truth or falsehood. So it would not be necessary to ask is this philosophy Catholic? For by definition the truth attained by the human mind, the philosophical truths, would not contradict the truth revealed by God through the Church. As Pope Leo XIII puts it in Aeterni Patris:
Those, therefore, who to the study of philosophy unite obedience to the Christian faith are philosophers indeed; for the splendor of the divine truths, received into the mind, helps the understanding, and not only detracts in nowise from its dignity, but adds greatly to its nobility, keenness, and stability. (p.9)
In another sense of the word “philosophy,” any natural effort to know the world around us can be called philosophy and be defined by its principles and methods. In this sense of “philosophy,” there are as many philosophies as there are distinct approaches to understanding the world, that is, distinct principles and methods of inquiry. The philosophy of Descartes would differ then from that of Aristotle. And to the extent that Descartes appears to hold that the soul and body are distinct substances, and he seems to hold a curious view about what substance and accidents are, to that extent Cartesian philosophy would not be a Catholic Philosophy, even though Descartes was a Catholic.
In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II seems to use this sense of the word “philosophy.” He distinguishes philosophies by their principles and methods. However, that still makes the passage I quoted earlier curious: “The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others.” How are we to understand this passage in light of centuries of papal teaching extolling the philosophy of St. Thomas? For example, Pope Pius XI:
We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the common or universal doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own, as innumerable documents of every kind attest. (Studiorum Ducem #11)
The first thing to note about the quotation from Fides et Ratio is that John Paul II refers to a text from Pius XII’s Humani Generis. In that passage Pius XII considers the Church’s relationship to philosophy: “[T]he Church cannot be bound to any philosophical system which exists for a brief period of time…” He then goes on to say that only those things composed from common consent of Catholic Doctors are not based on a weak foundation because they are “supported by principles and notions deduced from a true knowledge of created things.” Clearly Pius XII is warning the faithful about basing their judgments on philosophical fads, among which he includes “idealism” and “existentialism,” for these “systems” incline one to “dogmatic relativism.” It is important to note that John Paul II’s remarks, generally translated as: “the Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others” is to be understood in terms of the text from Pius XII that he refers us to. A sign of this is that later in the same encyclical he speaks about the “incomparable value of the philosophy of St. Thomas …[and that] the thought of the Angelic Doctor seems …the best way to recover the practice of a philosophy consonant with the demands of faith” (F +R #57).
One last point, if one looks to the Latin text of Fides et Ratio, it becomes clear that the passage I have been quoting is very loosely translated, and, as a result, might give a false impression. As literally as I can put it, the passage should be rendered as follows:
The Church does not hold forth her very own philosophy, nor does she have preference for one to the detriment of others.
What the Holy Father is saying, then, is that the Church urges the faithful to seek for truth wherever it can be found. She is not bound to this or that philosophy, especially not to philosophies that are popular and so could be a fad. The Church does not reject truth found in any particular philosophical school, but she also has a longstanding endorsement of the perennial philosophy found in St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching. So there is a Catholic philosophy, a philosophy that is a handmaid to the truth revealed by God, and taught by His church. That philosophy is one in the sense that the truth is one, and to the extent that one thinks of philosophies distinguished by their principles and methods it is found principally in the teaching of St. Thomas.
Can one study theology apart from Catholicism?
Recall one of the presuppositions of this lecture: education is ordered to knowing the truth. As a result, if we consider someone who engages the arguments in theology, but who has not accepted the principles of the theological arguments, those principles that must be held by faith, then he has not fully attained the science of theology. No doubt one can become aware of an argument without accepting the principles upon which that argument is based. However without a grasp of the principles one has not been led to a new truth. Instead one has engaged in a logical exercise, something like a hypothetical consideration, without coming to grasp a new truth. Therefore, without accepting the principles of a theological argument, which admittedly are held by faith, one cannot have the science of theology, and so there is no theological education strictly speaking.
Without holding the principles of theology one would be like someone who follows an argument in astronomy but who is ignorant of the geometrical principles upon which the astronomical argument depends. So theology is unique because the truth of its principles is not seen by the human mind, but grasped in the light of faith. Without faith there is no science of theology.
Let me turn briefly to a kind of practical corollary to the thesis of this lecture. As the Psalmist says, “Teach me thy way, O Lord, that I may walk in thy truth” (86:11). If a man wants to grow in the truth not only will he pursue a program of studies that is ordered to the truth, but he will also live a life that is suitable to that pursuit. Jesus has told us that He is the way, the truth, and the life. The order here is noteworthy. Jesus tells us that He is the way before He tells us that He is the truth. That is, He is the path towards the truth, and the truth is what will give us life, not only an examined life, but life everlasting.
In order to receive the truth that we are pursuing, we must follow the path that Jesus points out to us. If He is the way, then we have to imitate Him if we hope to arrive at the truth. Obviously we imitate Him by becoming good. So a life of virtue is the path to the truth. The virtues I am talking about are both virtues proper to the intellectual life, such as docility, studiousness, and perseverance, but also moral virtues such as temperance and patience. All these virtues are on the path towards the truth. So if Jesus is the truth to which all other truths are ordered, then the truth will be found not only in study, but also in a life of virtue, and even more so in a sacramental life that unites us more closely to the one who is Truth, especially in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Jesus fully present to us, and, as we have argued, He is truth itself. So how will we succeed in this program? It all begins with us on our knees, continues in the classroom and in a life of study, and culminates in the sacraments. That is a truly Catholic, truly liberal education, because it is an ordered whole: a Catholic liberal education.
I would like to conclude by quoting Archbishop José H. Gomez. He addressed the seniors at our last graduation mass in Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel with the following words:
Jesus is the Logos, the divine Reason through whom the universe is created. He is the Truth and Wisdom of God. In Him we find not only the unity of knowledge, but we also find the fundamental harmony of faith and reason.
“When you’re undergoing an education like this, it teaches you how to think, and forms your intellect, so that you will be able to make well-formed choices once you get out into the world.”
– Sean Wood (’13)
“Thomas Aquinas College is doing on the undergraduate level exactly what should be done. The College's alumni and alumnae prove that with this kind of education you can go on and do anything.”
– Dr. Ralph McInerny (†)
Scholar and Writer