Philosophy and the Catholic faith
Edward Furton writes that the Church has a deep and profound appreciation of philosophy . . .
The Catholic Church has always had high regard for the disciplines of philosophy and theology. Every Catholic college in the country has professors of these two subjects, sometimes in very significant numbers. This is a mark of respect for the intellectual tradition of the West.
Although it’s perhaps obvious why there should be an emphasis on theology, the importance of philosophy is sometimes neglected. The great philosophers of the past — especially those of the ancient world — have profoundly influenced Church teaching. St. Aurelius Augustine, for example, was strongly influenced by Plato’s philosophy. Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas was deeply indebted to Aristotle’s thought.
Why this openness to philosophy? Primarily because we hold that faith is added to reason. Faith is neither a substitute for reason nor a contradiction to reason. God created the world, so it’s not surprising that evidence of what He expects of us should be present there. The Catholic Church thus defends the moral outlook known as “natural law philosophy.”
In this understanding of ethics, nature exists as a teleological system that moves under the governance of the Divine Providence. The word “teleological” derives from “telos” and “logos,” two Greek words which combine to mean “the study of purposes.” Catholic philosophy, in its most representative form, sees nature as a realm of purposeful motion in which all things are drawn to the good by the mind of God.
The purposes of nature show themselves in the activities of everything that exists. The spider spins a web for the sake of catching the fly. In doing so, it fulfills its own purposeful activities, which in fact involve highly complex behavior.
Even nonliving things have purposes. Were it not for gravity, the planets would not have been drawn together to form habitable worlds. Without planets, life would not have appeared. If life had not appeared, there would have been no animals — including rational animals like you and me — and therefore no arts, sciences, culture or religion.
Nature is purposeful. This is immediately obvious to any reflective mind. Certain truths of our faith can only be known through revelation, but the common moral code that God has made known to us in nature is given equally to everyone. The Ten Commandments is the essential summary of the natural law as it applies to human society, but Moses should not have had to bring those famous tablets down from the mountain. We all know these already.
Natural law morality is metaphorically described as “written on the heart,” but in fact it is known by the mind. If nature moves under the governance of the Supreme Being, then the goods toward which we are drawn are the natural aims of human action. The love of the opposite sex, for example, is a good towards which men and women are naturally attracted. From this desire there derives the objective truth that men and women are suited for marriage.
The goods of nature are purposes that move us to action. We are free to choose from among a wide range of goods, but we are not free to determine whether or not these things are goods. I may choose not eat broccoli or cauliflower, but I cannot choose to give up eating altogether. Food is a natural good of human beings. To starve myself would be to violate a fundamental law of nature.
Under the teleological conception, morality is objective. What is right and wrong can be deduced from reflection on the purposes that God has made evident to reason in nature. The laws of nature are evident to reason and therefore universally binding on all human beings — Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Perhaps there is no better example of the respect that the Church has shown philosophy than the First Vatican Council’s affirmation that every Catholic must hold de fidei (the highest standard of fidelity to the faith) that God’s existence is evident to reason. The Council affirmed that the human mind can know, independently of scripture, that there is a Divine Being. Think about that for a moment. We must hold that God’s existence is evident through reflection on nature. This doesn’t mean that every individual Catholic must find this type of philosophical argument persuasive, but only that all Catholics must affirm that this type of knowledge is possible. Behind the metaphysical idea of nature as a teleological system there lies the philosophical conviction that God governs the world as the Divine Providence.
So when someone says that Christianity is about making a leap of faith, remember the role of philosophy within Catholicism. Catholics don’t leap while floating in space without any means of support, but do so only after planting our feet on the firm ground of reason.
EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.