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By Jonathan Fessenden, Holy Apostles College and Seminary
In Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Aeterni Patris, he stresses the great importance of the restoration of philosophy in the Catholic Church. Leo emphasized that there should be great care in regards to academia, particularly in the area of philosophy, on which the right interpretation of the other sciences in great part depends.1 Leo also goes on to say that philosophy, if rightly made use of by the wise, in a certain way tends to smooth and fortify the road to the true faith, and to prepare the souls of its disciples for the fit reception of revelation.2 In this encyclical, he recommends a return to the study of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, on the subject of epistemology. Only by studying epistemology, can the true understanding of the relation between faith and reason be preserved.3
When the early Greek philosophers went into nature or the material world, they were not looking for God, yet they found him in nature. Why is this important, and what importance does this have within Catholic theology? Since Catholicism is a religion rich in history and tradition, when these early Greek philosophers were trying to discover change outside of mere appearances and stumbled upon God, this aided the Church in its pursuit and understanding of physics and metaphysics. Nothing was of greater use to the philosopher than to diligently search into the mysteries of nature and to be earnest and constant in the study of material things.4 These materialists helped us to understand the value of sense knowledge and the first causes of things, which are of great importance within Catholic theology. Catholic theology then expounds upon this, by adding Revelation, which teaches further truths about the same objective and real realities and also affirms the truths which reason can discover through a proper theory of abstraction.5 “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
As part of its sapiential function, metaphysics is concerned with the problems posed by knowledge,6 and no problem is more acute in philosophy today or has more influence on theology than the problem of knowledge.7 Epistemology, an adjunct of metaphysics, is the science and study of how we know.8 This study of how we come to understand knowledge is based in objective truths through faith and reason, and Wallace writes that since truth, in its more general sense, is a conformity of knowledge with its object, it is possible to apply the term truth to any knowledge, including simple apprehension and sensory knowledge, insofar as these are in genuine conformity with their respective objects.9
Unfortunately, the study of epistemology has become twisted by modern man, and secular society pushes considerably against this philosophy. However, the Catholic Church holds firm on traditional epistemology and harkens back to Aristotle, in part because he helped us see the importance of knowledge gained through the senses, and also because of his ideas on the soul. Although he did not agree with Plato’s world of forms, he did believe in the forms of the soul entering into the physical realm with a blank slate, and this is a foundation applied within Catholicism since the time of Thomas Aquinas. The Catholic Church has taken the “middle-road” of epistemology, where Aristotle and Aquinas for the most part teach.
When modern skepticism entered the world in the seventeenth century, Descartes was one of the thinkers that was struck by the lack of certainty even in sense experience.10 Descartes caused the divorce of the senses from any universal objective spiritual knowledge, leading to the beginning of modern subjectivism.11 This denial of spiritual knowledge and sense knowledge completely goes against the Catholic Church’s teaching because Catholicism affirms the real metaphysical understandings and objective truths found within theology. After Descartes, Hume, Rosseau, and Kant are some of the fashionable philosophers that negatively influenced society and helped push it away from the understanding of God. Father Mullady writes that Hume had boundless faith in the ability of human reason to resolve every difficulty, and he reduced true reason to mere sense description; there was no metaphysics possible.12 Jean Jacques Rousseau pushed the notion that if truth could not be explained by sense knowledge, it must have its origin in sentiment.13 Kant accepts and finds agreement with Hume’s idea that “man cannot arrive at metaphysical truths like God through knowledge gained from sense experience.”14 Human sentiment causes the idea of God to exist. Since different people have different needs, God has no objective nature that can be known15. It is this poor philosophy which leads to inadequate metaphysics and is the primary source of the secularist view in modern culture.
How can one maintain there are absolute truths in religion if the whole idea of absolute truth is denied or considered absurd? 16 The study of epistemology and how we understand knowledge remains significant to Catholicism, and our present study requires adherence to this philosophy of truth. While we watch the secular world fighting to abandon faith and reason and ultimately, the diminishing of God, Father Mullady explains that human reason cannot find all truths or resolve all evils. However, revelation and grace are necessary to resolve the problem of man.17 So, there remains good news and hope for Christianity, thanks to early philosophers, and it is through this understanding that man finds the truth of God, as this door is open to all men.18
1 Pope Leo XIII, AETERNI PATRIS ON THE RESTORATION OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII promulgated on August 4, 1879.
2 Pope Leo XIII, AETERNI PATRIS ON THE RESTORATION OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY, Pope Leo XIII promulgated on August 4, 1879.
3 Father Brian Mullady, Philosophy for Theologians, The Rosary Center, 2017, Lessons 5-8
4 Mullady, Lesson 8
5 Mullady, Lesson 8
6 William Wallace, O.P., Elements of Philosophy, Wipf & Stock Pub (May 16, 2012) p. 109
7 Mullady, Lesson 8
8 Mullady, Lesson 8
9 Mullady, Lesson 8
10 Pope Leo XIII, AETERNI PATRIS ON THE RESTORATION OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII promulgated on August 4, 1879
11 Mullady, Lesson 8
12 Mullady, Lesson 8
13 Mullady, Lesson 8
14 Mullady, Lesson 8
15 Mullady, Lesson 8
16 Mullady, Lesson 8
17 Mullady, Lesson 8
18 Mullady, Lesson 8