Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies in Philosophy (Part 1, Paragraph 3)

In A.D. 2011 the Congregation for Catholic Education, at the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, issued its Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy.  The terms of this Decree apply to schools and departments of theology and philosophy residing in Roman Catholic Universities which are selected by dioceses for the theological formation of presbyteral candidates, diaconal candidates, and lay ministers.

The Decree consists of two parts.  The first part is made up of the sixteen paragraphs constituting its new material.  The second part consists of those parts of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana (A.D. 1979, Pope John Paul II) addressing these same issues and which are, either, retained in whole or are modified in the current Decree.

The purpose of the articles which appear here is to present the parts of this document in sequential order and to offer additional commentary.  The articles here will begin with the presentation of the first paragraph of the first part of the Decree.  Subsequent articles will present/address the next part of the Decree.  Scrolling down through the articles will bring the reader, in reverse order, to all parts of the document already considered.

 

Decree, Part 1, Paragraph 3:

II. The “Original Vocation” of Philosophy

3. Philosophical trends have multiplied in the course of history, showing the richness of the various rigorous, sapiential searches for truth. While ancient wisdom contemplated being from the perspective of the cosmos, patristic and medieval thought offered a deeper, purified vision, identifying the cosmos as the free creation of a God who is wise and good (cf. Wis 13,1-9; Acts 17, 24-28). Modern philosophies have particularly emphasized human freedom, the spontaneity of reason, and its capacity to measure and dominate the universe. Recently, a certain number of contemporary schools of thought, being more sensitive to the vulnerability of our knowledge and our humanity, have focused their reflection on the mediating roles of language [Footnote 3] and culture. Finally, moving beyond Western thought, how could one forget the numerous and sometimes remarkable efforts to understand man, the world and the Absolute made by different cultures, for example Asian and African cultures? This generous exploration of thought and language, however, must never forget that it is rooted in being. “The metaphysical element is the path to be taken in order to move beyond the crisis pervading large sectors of philosophy at the moment, and thus to correct certain mistaken modes of behaviour now widespread in our society.” [Footnote 4] From this perspective, philosophers are invited energetically to reclaim philosophy’s “original vocation”: [Footnote 5] the search for truth, and its sapiential and metaphysical characteristic.

[Footnote 3] Cf. Fides et ratio, n. 84.

[Footnote 4] Fides et ratio, n. 83.

[Footnote 5] Cf. Fides et ratio, n. 6.

 

Commentary:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy.  Metaphysics is the study of Being.  Other ways of saying the same thing is that metaphysics is the study of existence, of being as being, of existence abstracted (and considered apart from) those things which exist and in which being is found.

It might seem or sound strange to speak of considering “existence separate from the things within which existence is found”, because it might appear that we always consider only what actually exists.  However, it is often the case that we consider things separate from the actual things in which they are found.  For example, in nature there are no triangles; there are only shapes which resemble triangles.  These triangular shapes in nature or in the things which humans make, can asymptotically approach but never reach being triangles.  Triangles, mathematically defined as a shape with three straight sides and whose three interior angles added together equal 180 degrees, does not physically exist.  The triangle, the shape with three straight sides the interior angles of which equal 180 degrees, exists only as a mental idea, as a mental abstraction from the things within which the triangular shape is found.  None of these triangle shapes in nature or in human construction, ever attain the perfection of three straight lines or an exact interior angularity of 180 degrees.  We simply cannot draw lines perfectly nor measure out angles perfectly.  And even if we could, fluctuations and indeterminacy at the atomic quantum level of reality, makes it impossible for the shapes we construct to remain in such actual physical perfection.

Similarly, metaphysics is the consideration of being separated from (or abstracted from) the things within which being is found.  Metaphysics is the study of being as being in itself.

Now, among creatures and all things created by God, existence does not actually exist separate from these things.  In the cases of created things, when we think about their being or existence, we are truly abstracting their being from their actual physical reality.  Such a consideration is an abstraction; a step away from reality.

However, the situation of considering being when we think about God is different.  God is that entity whose essence is being.  Another way to say this is that God is that Being which is completely and only being; complete, perfect, finished, actual.  So, when we consider God’s essence, we are considering existence as an actual “thing” in and of itself.  The important fact here, as it relates to the discipline of metaphysics, is that in considering divine Being, we are considering an actual “thing”.  When we consider God’s existence, we are not considering an idea-abstraction from some other thing within which that existence is found.  God, and our consideration of God, allows us to realize that being can be considered as an actuality; not just as an abstraction from reality.

Aristotle (384 to 322 B.C.), though he was an agnostic or possibly an atheist, nonetheless believed that one could study being-in-itself as an actuality.  He believed being as being, existence, existence in itself can be meaningfully considered apart from the things within which being is found.  Though he knew that in the physical world existence is only found in actual existing things, he was of the mind that the existence of the thing which exists, and the essence of the thing which exists are equally important aspects of that thing.  Therefore, for Aristotle, it made as much sense to consider the existence which “this orange here”  has in common with the existence of “my friend George” and with the existence of  “that rock there”, even if that orange no longer actually exists because it has been eaten or George no longer exists as George but only as a corpse in a grave.

It is from Aristotle that we receive, as stated in his Metaphysics, the definition of metaphysics as the study of being as being and the attributes of being.  From this definition and Aristotle’s thoughts about metaphysics spring the Roman Catholic and scholastic disciplines of metaphysics, blossoming during the late Medieval and early Modern periods (roughly A.D. 800 to 1400) but also continuing to today.

A special note must be made of the second half of Aristotle’s definition regarding “the attributes of being”.  Aristotle believed that wherever there is existence, there are certain qualities or properties or attributes which also are always present.  One he mentioned was unity or oneness.  This idea of the attributes of being will eventually evolve into the scholastic metaphysical idea of the transcendental properties of being; or more simply, the transcendentals.  The transcendental properties of being are unity (oneness), goodness, and truth.  Quite likely, beauty is another transcendental property of being.  Possibly, thing(ness) and other(ness) are transcendental properties as well.  The idea here is that to consider being or existence necessarily requires one to think of, to know, to become aware of the presence of unity, truth, goodness, beauty, and possibly other and thing(ness).

Aristotle did not name his writings about the consideration of being as being, Metaphysics.  This title was given to this book by librarians, possibly at the great library at Alexandria in Egypt, many hundreds of years after Aristotle.  It received this title, metaphysics, because of the placement of this “book” among the works of Aristotle collected by the librarians.  The word metaphysics literally means in the Greek language “after (the) physics”.  This work by Aristotle on being as being was placed after his writings on physics.  The English word physics is derived from the Greek word pronounced foo-ceese which literally means the-way-(physical)-things-are.  Aristotle considered actual physical things to be what is most knowable, in opposition to his teacher Plato, who considered immaterial things such as gods or ideas or numbers or the forms of actual things to be what we could most clearly understand.  Aristotle’s belief that actual physical things (which physics studies) are most knowable, may be the reason the librarians placed first the text dealing with the realities of physical things (the physics) and then followed it with the text dealing with the existence of those things considered separate from the physical things within which that existence was found; i.e. the metaphysics.

Because existence is part of what allows one to know the reality, the truth, of what a given thing really is, metaphysics is an essential piece of the activity of understanding and knowing.  Metaphysics is at the root of that tool of reasoning called categorization.  Categorization is the logical exercise which is the basis of all sciences and of all disciplines which engage in the “sapiential search for truth”.

Though knowing both the material essence and the existence of actual physical material created things are equally important, there is a very real difference between the essence of things and the existence of things.  The essences are what make things different.  Essences are the description of the differences of those things; that is, essence is what gives individuality.  Essence is what makes an orange different from a person and what makes this orange different from that orange.  In considering existence, regardless of things whose being is considered; that existence (or those existences) is (are) always the same existence.  Existence is existence.  The essence of George and the essence of that orange in the fruit bowl; not so much.

Today, the word metaphysics is used to speak of various types of attempts at knowledge acquisition which do not involve categorization.  Such types of “knowing” involve mystical or outside-reality or behind-reality type elements.  Examples of such “metaphysical” activities include the use of crystals in meditation, the use of psychedelic substances, pyramidal forms, voodoo, zen, other types of meditation or contemplation, new age philosophies, leaving the body by means of an immaterial silver cord and considering things from that perspective, extra-sensory perceptive abilities.  Because these forms of knowledge-acquisition do not use logical categorization, it is not possible using rational means, to confirm or deny the validity of their discoveries.

These non-categorical sapiential searches for truth are not what is meant by the Aristotelian or scholastic or Roman Catholic tool of knowledge acquisition called metaphysics.  Sometimes, the word ontology is used to refer to this same Aristotelian or scholastic metaphysical tool of knowledge acquisition.  The “onto” is derived from the Greek participle pronounced ontos which is a part of the Greek verb meaning “to be”.  The “logy” is derived from the Greek word pronounced logos, which means word or reason or study.  Thus, ontology is “the study of being”.

Though not the only one, but among the most important, Saint Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225 to 1274) utilized the metaphysical ideas of Aristotle in his theological considerations of various dogmas and doctrines of Roman Catholic Christianity.  Using Aristotelian ideas provided Thomas an intellectual flexibility to discover other truths present in Roman Catholic beliefs but which were not yet fully realized.  For example, by defining the conscience as the intellectual (i.e. categorizing) mental activity based on experience judging what the goods are which should be done and what the evils are which should be avoided, and then distinguishing conscience from will, and then combining this idea of conscience with the idea of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is what allowed Thomas to formulate what we today refer to as freedom of conscience: the primacy and duty of a person to follow (act in accordance with the insights provided by) one’s own well informed conscience.

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Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies in Philosophy (Part 1, Paragraph 2)

In A.D. 2011 the Congregation for Catholic Education, at the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, issued its Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy.  The terms of this Decree apply to schools and departments of theology and philosophy residing in Roman Catholic Universities which are selected by dioceses for the theological formation of presbyteral candidates, diaconal candidates, and lay ministers.

The Decree consists of two parts.  The first part is made up of the sixteen paragraphs constituting its new material.  The second part consists of those parts of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana (A.D. 1979, Pope John Paul II) addressing these same issues and which are, either, retained in whole or are modified in the current Decree.

The purpose of the articles which appear here is to present the parts of this document in sequential order and to offer additional commentary.  The articles here will begin with the presentation of the first paragraph of the first part of the Decree.  Subsequent articles will present/address the next part of the Decree.  Scrolling down through the articles will bring the reader, in reverse order, to all parts of the document already considered.

 

Decree, Part 1, Paragraph 2:

“With his Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II wished to emphasize the need for philosophy, so as to advance in the knowledge of the truth and to render earthly existence ever more human. In fact, philosophy “is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it.” [Footnote 1]  This question arises both from the wonder that man experiences in his encounter with others and with the cosmos, and from the painful and tragic experiences that assail his life. Philosophical knowledge, therefore, is seen as being “one of the noblest of human tasks.” [Footnote 2]

“[Footnote 1] Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio (14 September 1998), AAS 91 (1999), pp. 5-88, n. 3. In the Letter, John Paul II concentrates attention on the theme of truth and its foundation in relation to faith, continuing the reflection already made in the Encyclical Letter Veritatis splendor (6 August 1993) regarding truth on the moral level (cf. Fides et ratio, n. 6), which also embraces some fundamental rational truths.

“[Footnote 2] Fides et ratio, n. 3.”

 

Commentary:

Religion is a realm of human endeavor and a discipline of thought with which Faith is most often associated.  Science, similarly, is a realm of human endeavor and a discipline of thought with which Reason is most often associated.  The qualifications, “most often” needs to be added because reason is a necessary attribute of faith and religion, and faith is a necessary attribute of science.

In order for science to be and do science, faith in a number of unprovable assumptions is necessary.  Among these assumptions are objectivism.  Objectivism is the assumption that the things which science investigates are outside of the person observing them and that these things which science investigates, present the same appearance to every person studying them.  Another assumption which science uses but cannot itself investigate is the method which is used by science to do science.  Neither of these, objectivism or scientific method, can be a subject about which science-as-science can speak, because neither (i.e. objectivism or the scientific method) deal with matter (or the forms within which matter appears, such as energy) nor motion (or the changes which matter in its various forms undergo).  Physical materiality and change make up the subject matter within the competency and authority of science as science.

Religion necessarily uses reason to communicate its dogmas and doctrines to the faithful.  The same is true of faith.  Faith is a human phenomenon.  The behaviors associated with faith are based on beliefs which, necessarily, are presented to the human person in the form of thoughts.  When a person attempts to understand these beliefs and when a person tries to act upon these beliefs, one must necessarily use reason to attempt these understandings and actions.

Again, Religion and Science are the realms of human behavior and disciplines of thought with which Faith and Reason are most often associated.

Today, Faith (Religion) and Reason (Science) are often perceived as being in conflict.  Here is an example of one such statement of the conflict, in a tongue-in-cheek humorous manner which nonetheless wishes to communicate its attitude with satiric bite.  On Facebook was shown a computer generated image of the deceased astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, of Cosmos fame.  Doctor Sagan is dressed as Santa Claus, below which were the words “Reasons Greetings”.  Reasons Greetings was a pun on the words “Seasons Greetings”.  An implication of this modification is that truth lies not with the sentiments of faith, such as “Seasons Greetings” or “The heavens declare the glory of God” or ‘the fish symbol of the ichthus with an enclosed cross symbol’ but with “Reasons Greetings”, “The heavens declare the glory of hydrogen” or ‘a fish symbol with the enclosed word Darwin’.

It has been the long standing attitude of the Roman Catholic Church that faith and reason are naturally complementary.  Though reason and faith can be in conflict, their natural tendencies are to be in harmony with one another.  The clearest statement of this attitude can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the De Trinitate (On the Trinity) of/by Boethius).  The Decree makes reference to Pope John Paul’s encyclical Fides et Ratio which contains statements that can be traced back to St. Thomas’s Commentary.  Similarly, Thomas’ influence can be seen in another statement of Pope John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution in October of 1996.

St. Thomas’ (A.D. 1225 to 1274) statement regarding the relationship of faith and reason is found in Question 2, Article 3 of his Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius.  The translation from Latin into English of that text was provided me by Monsignor John Wippel of The School of Philosophy of The Catholic University of America.

“It must be said that the gifts of grace are added to nature in such fashion that they do not destroy it but rather perfect it.  Wherefore, the light of faith, which is given to us as a grace, does not destroy the light of natural reason, which is given to us by God.  And although the natural light of the human mind is insufficient to manifest those things which are manifested through faith, nonetheless it is impossible for those things which are given to us by God through faith to be contrary to those which are instilled in us by nature.  For one or the other would have to be false; and since both come to us from God, God himself would be the author of falsity, which is impossible….But just as sacred teaching is based on the light of faith, so is philosophy based on the natural light of reason; therefore it is impossible for those things which belong to philosophy to be contrary to those which are of faith, although they fall short of them….”

Saint Thomas makes two important points.  The first involves the limits of reason.  The second involves the necessary harmony of faith and reason.

First, there are subjects which are understood through faith alone.  Science cannot understand things which are immaterial, such as God or angels or heaven.  Further, there are some matters which science could understand but which God has chosen to keep from the view of science, such as those aspects of the end of the world associated with the second coming of Christ.  Somewhat analogously, there are things upon which science has expertise which would not be beneficial to analyze with faith; such as an analysis of the formation of chemical compounds.  Though faith might have important things to say about how this knowledge should be used or about the temperament of the researcher attempting to understand such things, in terms of doing the science itself, faith is no more useful than would be attempting to use the integral functions of the Calculus to determine the area of a regular circle.  One could use the Calculus to do this, but it can be done so much more simply by just using the mathematics of geometry.

Thomas’ second point is that on those matters upon which both faith and reason can train their attention, if both are correctly understood and practiced rightly, they must reach the same conclusion.  They must reach the same conclusion because both mental disciplines are authored or created or graced-into-existence by God and God cannot act in a self-contradictory manner.  (God cannot self-contradict God because to do so would either indicate unfinished-ness or imperfection in God, or would indicate the existence of two divinities; neither of which are possible if God is One and God is finished, complete, perfect, final, actual.)  Though Thomas does not say it in the statement quoted above, if it should turn out that faith and reason reach different conclusions on the same given topic, then it is necessarily the case that one (i.e faith or reason) or both (faith and reason) have understood something incorrectly because of an error in the application of their methods of reasoning.  On the faith side, such an error might be attributing to a non-infalliable doctrinal statement, an authority which it does not have; for example, requiring belief in evolution because of John Paul II’s statement on evolution in his Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution.  On the reason side, such an error might be attributing scientific authority to a matter about which it cannot investigate.  Such an error might be a scientist stating as a matter of science that the human fetus is not a person.  Personhood necessarily deals with the soul.  The soul and the status of personhood are not material entities.  Since the subject matters of science are physical matter and motion, science as science can have no informed opinion on the nature or essence of the immaterial soul or of the nature and essence of personhood which necessarily deals with the involvement of soul.

Science as science does not deal with issues of essence and nature; much less with issues of meaning and intention.  And yet, issues of the essence of the person, the meaning of existence and the intention of the creator of persons and their existence in a created universe are the purview, are in the wheel-house, of philosophy.  Philosophy, Pope John Paul II states above, must investigate these mattes of meaning and intention and essence and nature.  Philosophy can investigate such immaterial matters.  Philosophy attempts to reach insightful and helpful conclusions by means of reasoning.

Philosophical reasoning is based on premises from which conclusions are drawn.  Some such premises are by their nature unprovable in a scientific sense, such as the timelessness of God’s nature.  Philosophy can then appropriate such unproven facts and use them as premises.  The unproven nature of the premises is understood and bracketed; i.e. held without objection for the time being.  Then one applies the normal means of reasoning, deductive and inductive and phenomenological, to see to what conclusions these premises might lead.  Sometimes the conclusions generated are so obviously wrong that it invalidates the premise which had been assumed; for example, accepting as a premise a belief in a manichaean yin/yang polarity of good and evil necessarily results in the conclusion that there must be two gods.  On the other hand, sometimes the acceptance and use of an unproven assumption based on faith can lead to powerfully insightful and useful conclusion.  For example, if one assumes that God’s nature/essence is timeless, then every moment of human existence is the moment of God’s creation of all that is.  Divine nurturance and providence is revealed to be a manifestation of creation.

Philosophy is the tool one must use to understand meaning of persons and events, the intention of their creator, and the essence and nature of those events and persons.  Skill in philosophical analysis enables one to know his/her own thoughts fully and communicate them clearly to other persons.

Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy (Part 1, Paragraph 1)

In A.D. 2011 the Congregation for Catholic Education, at the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, issued its Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy.  The terms of this Decree apply to schools and departments of theology and philosophy residing in Roman Catholic Universities which are selected by dioceses for the theological formation of presbyteral candidates, diaconal candidates, and lay ministers.

The Decree consists of two parts.  The first part is made up of the sixteen paragraphs constituting its new material.  The second part consists of those parts of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana (A.D. 1979, Pope John Paul II) addressing these same issues and which are, either, retained in whole or are modified in the current Decree.

The purpose of the articles which appear here is to present the parts of this document in sequential order and to offer additional commentary.  The articles here will begin with the presentation of the first paragraph of the first part of the Decree.  Subsequent articles will present/address the next part of the Decree.  Scrolling down through the articles will bring one, in reverse order, to all parts of the document already considered.

 

Decree, Part 1, Paragraph 1:

“1. In her work of evangelizing the world, the Church follows attentively and discerningly the rapid cultural changes at work, which influence both her and society as a whole. Among the changes of the predominant culture, some particularly profound ones regard the concept of truth. In fact, there is often mistrust in the capacity of human intelligence to arrive at objective and universal truth – a truth by which people can give direction to their lives. Furthermore, the force of the human sciences, as well as the consequences of scientific and technological developments, stimulate new challenges for the Church.”

 

Commentary:

Roman Catholic metaphysics is a discipline of philosophy which investigates Being (existence in itself, abstracted from a consideration of the things within which Being is found (which exist)) and the attributes or qualities which necessarily attend (i.e. are part of) to all actual examples of existence.

One of those attributes or qualities of existence is truth.  Truth exists in whatever exists, in whatever is real, in whatever has Being.  Truth should be thought of as more of a quality which is present in everything which exists, than as a description of a statement about reality.  In this understanding of truth, truth exists even if it is not known by human persons to exist.

In the modern world, truth is understood differently.  The word truth is used to describe statements about things and events.  A statement is considered true if it accurately describes the function or behavior of some thing or event.  In this modern understanding of truth, truth does not refer to the essence or nature of a thing.  In fact, modern science no longer seeks to understand the essence or nature of things.  Modern science limits itself to a description of the behaviors of things and the external causes of those behaviors.  In this modern understanding of truth, truth only exists if it is known by human persons.  If human persons did not exist, there would be no truth; there would only be behaviors and functions which are not known to be true.  Similarly, if human persons exist, but do not understand the functions or behaviors of things, truth does not exist.  Again, this truth does not exist because the word truth, in the modern understanding of the word truth; truth is only a description of behaviors and functions of things as related to their external causes.

Roman Catholic philosophy and metaphysics states that everything which exists is true or has truth in it as a transcendental property (quality/attribute) of its existence.  God’s nature/essence is Being (existence itself); a fact pointed out in the biblical book of Exodus when God declared Its name to Moses as “I AM”.  God, therefore is true, because truth is a quality of existence, which is God’s total and complete nature.  Truth is a quality or attribute or property of all things created by God, because of their nature which includes existence (Being).  Thus, to fully understand God or a person created by God or a non-human creature or an inanimate thing created by God, one must work at understanding the nature or essence of that thing.  One must develop a relationship with that thing in order to correctly understand it.  One must get up-close and personal with that thing, or in the words of Exodus again, one must relate with it “face to face as one speaks with a friend”.

Modern science limits itself to holding at a distance, the things it wishes to understand.  This holding-at-a-distance is part of what is known as objectivity in science.  Objectivity is a necessary part of science.  In order to correctly determine the behavior, functions, and external causes of those behaviors and functions, the scientist must stand at a distance from the things it observes and studies.

Necessarily, because science stands-at-a-distance from the things it studies, it understands more fully inanimate things and the processes of those things.  The tendency of modern science (that is, the tendency which results from this holding-at-a-distance) is material reductionism.  The attitude of material reductionism is to reduce its consideration of all things (inanimate, living non-human, persons) to only a consideration of the material (e.g. chemistry, physics, etc.) of those things.  Obviously, trying to understand a person in terms of only chemistry, physics, and information theory is very limiting; presents a very limited and biased understanding of persons and their communities.

Necessarily, because Roman Catholic philosophy’s understanding of truth as a quality of existing things with which the philosopher (or theologian, or pastoral minister) must form a relationship; necessarily philosophy understands more fully those living things which are persons.