Quodlibets: Christian Philosophy Revisited

Revisiting Christian philosophy can mean at least two things: taking a look at Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris, the encyclical issued August 4, 1879 which ushered in the renewal of Thomism, or recalling the magnificent responses to Emile Brehier’s 1931 article, “Is There a Christian Philosophy?” It can also mean a third thing, not unrelated to those, namely a reminder of the continuing importance of doing philosophy within the ambience of the faith. In the few minutes allotted to me, I will do the third of these after some schematic remarks about the first two.

Despite the fact that the seventh centenary of the death of St. Thomas in 1974 had occasioned celebrations and convocations throughout the world with attendant publications of vast scope and learning, the centenary of Aeterni Patris in 1979 called forth another enormous number of meetings, studies, and so forth. The first two volumes of the proceedings of the Seventh International Thomistic Congress, held in Rome in September, 1980, are specifically devoted to Aeterni Patris. Pope John Paul II, in the general audience he granted the participants, drew attention to Thomas’s doctrine on the relation between faith and reason as among the chief explanations why the Magisterium has chosen Thomas “as a secure guide in philosophical and theological disciplines.” And he quoted these words from Leo XIII: “Therefore those who add to the study of philosophy the aid of Christian faith philosophize best.” These two occasions, the seven hundredth anniversary of the death of Thomas, and the centenary of Aeterni Patris, produced a wealth of historical and doctrinal studies which deserve to have a lasting influence on Thomists.

As for the Brehier article, it seems safe to say that it exercised a decisive influence on Etienne Gilson. He was among the first to respond to the charge of Brehier and from that time onward he spoke increasingly of Christian Philosophy, so much so that works on such figures as Bonaventure came to be titled The Christian Philosophy of …. As late as 1960, he wrote his Introduction a la philosophic chretienne the opening chapter of which is called philosopher dans la foi. And, in the preface, he writes with characteristic Gilsonian forcefulness, “By ‘Christian philosophy’ I mean the manner of philosophizing Pope Leo XIII described under that title in the encyclical Aeterni Patris and for which he gave St. Thomas Aquinas as the model.”

Jacques Maritain was soon to enter the lists, taking account of what Gilson had written in response to Brehier as well as the claims expressed in Maurice Blondel’s Le probleme de la Philosophic catholique. Maritain rejects what he calls the rationalist tradition. “Rationalists, and even some Neo-Thomists, think that, since philosophy is distinct from faith, it has nothing to do with it, save in an extrinsic fashion, with the result that the notion of Christian philosophy is not just a complex, but a bastard one, which cannot stand up under scrutiny.” Blondel provided an apt foil for Maritain, however, since he so fused faith and reason as to make impossible a distinction between the two.

Just as the writings occasioned by the two centenaries make for much profitable reading, so too the works of Gilson and Maritain on Christian philosophy dating from the early 1930’s are precious sources for reflecting on an issue that should occupy us all.

Does the fact that we can state the formal difference between a philosophical argument and a theological argument mean that philosophy and theology are simply distinct and that is the end of it? Any argument which intrinsically depends for its soundness on a truth that can be known only through revelation is a theological one. Philosophical arguments appeal to nothing that is not, in principle at least, knowable to anyone. Theological arguments may include philosophical premises, but philosophical arguments cannot employ truths of the faith. Why is that not the end of the discussion?

Those who have discussed these matters before us have introduced the crucial distinction between philosophy and philosophizing, that is, between philosophical discourse considered just as such, and the practical activity of engaging in such discourse. It is helpful in this regard to notice an analogy between the moral and the religious. The activity of a mathematician can be appraised either in terms of the principles of his discipline or with reference to moral criteria. One can get the wrong answer and still be praised; one can get the right answer and be blamed. When Aristotle spoke of the way in which politics directs even the theoretical sciences, he had in mind such decisions as when and how much and by whom they should be taught and learned, not that the arguments should be tailored to political ends.

In a not dissimilar way, the philosophical activity of the believer can be appraised either intrinsically — in terms of truth or falsity — or with reference to the faith, as for example, his motive for engaging in it. One can imagine a metaphysical breakthrough made by a proud and vain inquirer. It is in this way, that one’s philosophical activity gets included in his Morning Offering.

One of the most moving sections of Maritain’s Carnet de Notes describes the cercle d’etudes thomistes, which was an effort to keep the life of the mind in close relationship to the spiritual life. Those of us who were raised on Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life and Dom Chautard’s Soul of the Apostolate will have absorbed the same conception of the relation between the life of the mind and Christian spirituality.

This is much, but it is surely not all that can be said on behalf of Christian Philosophy. To this intimate connection in the person of faith and philosophizing should be added a more intrinsic link. The Holy Father, in his allocution to the VIII International Thomistic Congress, put it this way: “Philosophical truth and theological truth converge in a single truth. The truth of reason rises from creatures to God; the truth of faith descends directly from God to man. But this diversity of method and of origin does not take away their fundamental unity, because there is but one Author whether of the truth which is manifest in creation or of the truth which is personally communicated to man through the Word.” That to which we give our assent in faith is truth; faith is a virtue of the intellect, thanks to which we are put in possession of truths we could not otherwise achieve in this life and which we cannot wholly comprehend. Such truths play a regulative role; nothing that we can know on the basis of our experience of the world can possibly conflict with the truths God has revealed. When such a conflict occurs, we must reexamine our philosophy.

But there is a far more precious effect of the faith of the philosopher which stems from the fact that, included among the truths revealed to man, are some which can be understood and comprehended. The praembula fidei provide the basis for a powerful argument on behalf of the reasonableness of believing truths we cannot comprehend, but they also give the believing philosopher an unwavering conviction about the correct outcome of a number of key philosophical inquiries, for example, attempts to prove the existence of God. It is not simply that the believer will never waver in his certainty that God exists; there is also the fact that he believes God’s existence can be known independently of the faith. This keeps the task on his philosophical agenda, no matter the difficulties he encounters in trying to formulate a sound proof. Much the same can be said of the immortality of the soul, of man’s destiny beyond this life.

Nor should one overlook the fact that something analogous to the praeambula fidei occurs in the practical order. Not only do the great overarching principles of moral action pertain to natural law, because of the corrupting effect of bad morals, personal and societal, God in His mercy gave the sanction of revelation to these all but self-evident truths in the Decalogue. In a time of moral chaos, both on the level of practice and on the level of theory, the benefit of this shoring up of the starting points of moral action should be cause of great gratitude.

One of the notes struck in Aeterni Patris, and indeed in most of the comments on it made during the centenary celebrations, was the advantage for philosophy of being conducted within the ambience of the faith. There is something ironic in that thought, perhaps, when we see the spectacle of our Catholic institutions, through their presidents, suggesting that there is some tragic choice to be made between being truly Catholic and true universities. Religious faith is now apologized for, as if by common consent it constitutes a threat to the intellectual life and must be constantly kept in check. Nothing is so eloquent of the secularization of the Catholic mind as such reactions.

There are, then, compelling contemporary reasons, along with the perennial personal ones, of recalling the nature of Christian Philosophy. The upshot of such reflection should be the recovering of the sense of the immense advantage and help the faith provides for our intellectual life. With that recovery, this Association will once more be animated by the outlook of its founders.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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