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 8:
“The Church has always cared deeply about philosophy. In fact, reason – with which creation has endowed every human being – is one of the two wings on which man rises towards the contemplation of truth, and philosophical wisdom forms the summit that reason can reach. [Footnote 16] In a world rich in scientific and technical knowledge, but threatened by relativism, only the “sapiential horizon” [Footnote 17] carries an integrating vision, as well as a trust in the capacity that reason has to serve the truth. That is why the Church strongly encourages a philosophical formation of reason that is open to faith, while neither confusing nor disconnecting the two. [Footnote 18]
“[Footnote 16] Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et ratio, Opening words).
“[Footnote 17] Fides et ratio, n. 106.
“[Footnote 18] Cf. Fides et ratio, n. 77; cf. Deus caritas est, nn. 10, 29.
Commentary: (Part 2)
The relationship between philosophy and the Roman Catholic Church is significant and beneficial. Roman Catholic Christianity’s embrace of the Greek language and of its philosophies (primarily those of Aristotle and Plato) will contribute to the fast growth of the early Church and to the development of modern science.
The early followers of Christ were mostly Jews, spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, and used a Jewish theology. Slowly these followers of Christ moved out into the gentile world. This non-Jewish world was administrated by the Roman military in accordance with Roman law. An important piece of this administration was its support of commerce for the purpose of enriching the Roman empire. To this end, roads which could carry that commerce were built and protected by the Roman military.
Though Latin was the official language of the empire and though much of the official administration of the empire was conducted in Latin, Greek was the language used in most of the social interaction of that time. Further most of the academic and intellectual interchange of this time was in Greek. Specifically, this language was used to articulate Greek philosophical ideas of which a significant part was the moderate realism espoused by Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.
It is no exaggeration to say that Christianity’s growth is due to a Greek philosophical language which was used by Christian evangelists to articulate Christian beliefs and to the existence of Roman roads on which those evangelists could travel.
During its first century, Christian beliefs, theological reflection by Christians about their beliefs, and Christian morality were influenced by and largely appropriated from Judaism. Christianity at this time was a Jewish sect with some singular beliefs about the messiah.
Had Christianity remained exclusively Jewish in character, Christianity might not have grown. Political events such as the destruction of Jerusalem and its Jewish temple in A.D. 70 would force Jewish Christians to emigrate to other parts of the Roman world which, predominantly, spoke Greek. As this Judeo-Christian belief system, theology, and morality moved into the Greek speaking world, it was discovered that many of these Judeo-Christian ideas were compatible with the ideas of Greek philosophy. Christianity’s path to being the dominant religion of the world is due to its appropriation and use of the ideas of Greek philosophy as a tool for expressing its Jewish beliefs to a Greek speaking world.
Judeo-Christianity’s focus on God, angels, heaven, after-life, prayer were compatible with the idealistic strain of Greek moderate realism articulated by Plato and his teacher Socrates. Plato and Socrates espoused a belief that what was most real were the immaterial forms of various things rather than the material things themselves. For example, oak-tree-ness was more real than any actual given oak tree one could see or touch, and the number three was more real than three specific persons standing over-there. These immaterial forms were understood to be the immaterial categories of thought into which the various actual things of the world could be sorted in thought. It was this sorting which created the concepts by which one could then understood individual actual entities. For example, one’s ability to understand the nature or essence of a particular horse was due to knowledge of the category horse of which the particular horse in one’s barn was a particular expression. Without one’s knowledge of the category “horse”, one would not be able to think about the nature of horse and its difference from humans or cows.
These immaterial categories were what could be understood and which could form the basis of knowledge. In this sense of being the basis of knowledge, these immaterial forms were most real. The elevation of immaterial things (forms/categories) to what was most real matches up nicely with a Judeo-Christian spirituality which emphasizes the importance of immaterial things such as souls, God, prayer, and eternal life. So impactful was this similarity that Christianity immediately appropriated this Greek philosophical language to talk about and think about its own theological ideas and beliefs. Quickly, these beliefs and theologies, now influenced by Greek philosophy, began to deviate from narrow Hebrew ideas. These Greek philosophical ideas began to dominate the manner in which Christianity thought about spiritual matters. For example, Judeo-Christianity spoke of experiences; experiences of God, experiences of Jesus on earth, experiences of an advocate promised by Jesus after Jesus’ ascension. It would be Greek language which would begin to conceptualize and categorize these experiences as a trinity of persons. Similarly, whereas Judeo-Christianity spoke of Jesus manifesting human qualities and divine qualities, it would be Greek philosophical discourse which would conceptualize and categorize these experiences as a manifestation of a duality of natures; as an hypostatic union.
Greek platonic idealism became the language in which Christians spoke about and understood the immaterial things and events which were very important to them; things such as the soul, eternal life, God, love, prayer.
There was another aspect of Greek philosophy which Judeo-Christianity began to appropriate and use. It was discovered that the ethical ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were very similar to the moral principles of Judaism and Christianity. And, as had happened with the mixing of Judeo-Christian beliefs and platonic idealism, the ethics of Aristotle’s moderate realism began to influence and sway the understanding and application of Judeo-Christian morals.
In early Christianity, there were differing theologies; specifically, differing soteriologies (theologies of salvation). For example, in Christian texts heavily influenced by Judaism (such as the gospel of Matthew) there is an emphasis on the importance of good works as a component of attaining salvation. However, the writings of St. Paul de-emphasize the importance of doing good deeds as a means of attaining salvation. Paul’s writings emphasize the importance of accepting the salvation attained for us by Christ as the way to salvation and de-emphasize the importance of works as a tool for attaining salvation. Paul was not saying works of faith were unimportant. In fact, for Paul, works of faith are just that, works of faith; works which flow out of one’s faith, out of the joy of knowing one is already saved. Paul’s desire was to help followers of Christ avoid falling into a mindset of justification by works which would effectively become an idolatry; seeking salvation in something other than God, in something other than Christ Jesus, that is, in one’s own works. Paul was seeking to replace faith-in-works with works-of-faith; the effect of faith in Jesus and the works which flow easily from one who already believes.
Aristotle some four hundred years before St. Paul, wrote that what is most important, ethically speaking, is having an excellent character. The path to this excellence of character was by doing good deeds habitually. However, Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, one must never confuse the doing of good deeds habitually with excellent character. Doing good deeds habitually had an instrumental value in terms of helping a person become virtuous in character. But virtue, for Aristotle, was not the same as doing-good-deeds; was not the same as continence, a word which Aristotle used to describe performing the good deeds one desires to do. In fact, for Aristotle, the continent person (the one who did good most or all of the time) might not be a virtuous person, not because s/he had not done enough good, but because s/he was confused about the meaning of virtue. This person was stuck in the attitude that virtue was defined as continence; that excellent character was the equivalent of doing-good-deeds. Rather, for Aristotle a virtuous person was a person who possessed a generous, modest, courageous character from whom individual acts of modesty and generosity and courage (and others) easily flowed. The Pauline idea that good deeds flow easily from and out of the person who knows s/he is saved is much like this Aristotelian idea.
Judeo-Christian morality was progressively influenced by and began to be swayed by the Greek ethical ideas of Aristotle’s moderate realism. As Christians began to face and eventually be more involved in the increasingly complex political and social issues of the world into which they were emerging, they began to adopt Greek ethical speech as the way to harmonize their Christian morality with Greek ethical ideas and to use this amalgam as a tool for fitting into the world over which they were gaining control and influence. A manifestation of this adoption will be the replacement of an early (and predominant) Christian pacifism with a just war theory. Much later, another manifestation of the influence of Greek philosophical ethical categories of thought would be the articulation of a ethical principle of double/multiple effect allowing for the therapeutic treatment of a pregnant woman allowing the possible unintended result of aborting a fetus. Before the articulation of this philosophically nuanced priniciple, advice to a mother in such a situation was limited to do-what-is-most-loving.
Greek philosophical language impacted Christianity and led to its growth because Christianity began to speak in a way which was coherent to persons not familiar within the language and values of a Jewish/semitic world. First, Greek philosophy provided an ideal immaterialism which could make Judeo-Christian emphases on things such as soul, God, divine, heaven, prayer, palatable to a non-Jewish world. Second, the moderate realism of Aristotle provided an ethics which translated Judeo-Christian moral principles into a language which non-Jews could understand and which they could effectively apply to commercial, political, social, and religious affairs.
In addition to being a major factor in the growth of early Christianity and in its subsequent political and social predominance, another monumental impact of the marriage of Judeo-Christianity and the moderate realism of Greek philosophy is the development of modern science.
Aristotle and Plato and Socrates are called moderate realists because they believed that things are real, that they can be understood, and that they can be talked about meaningfully and usefully. Plato and Socrates are also called idealists because they emphasize the importance of immaterial forms and categories, which are the basis of all knowledge through which we come to an understanding of actual events and things. Aristotle; however, emphasized the importance of actual things and events because these were what one actually knew. For Aristotle, an actual thing such as that-apple, an actual person such as my-friend-George, and an actual event such as reading-this-text are what are real. It is these things which one knows by means of recognizing the forms which make up the actual things (as opposed to platonic forms which exist in-here (in the mind of the knower) separate from the actual things out-there.
Aristotle’s emphasis on the means by which one comes to recognize and understand and know real things provides the basis upon which a robust science can be built. It is from these Aristotelian ideas that the explosion of knowledge called modern science will arise.
However, the history of Aristotle’s influence on the development of modern science, indicates that Aristotelian moderate realism only had this impact because of the assistance of Christianity’s appropriation of platonic idealism.
Platonic idealism’s emphasis on immaterial realities led to the formation of institutions and practices separated from the actual messiness of the real world. This separation from the messy world was attempted by disciplines such as fasting, prayer, meditation, sexual celibacy, and obedience, and by institutions dedicated to those same disciplines; religious communities, monasteries, and a clerical hierarchy. These institutions provided the means to shift away from the real messiness of ordinary life and focus upon immaterial spiritual aspects of the Christian faith such as soul, God, angels, salvation, and eternal life.
From the patristic period to the end of the medieval period, roughly A.D. 300 to 1300, this platonic idealism formed the character of Roman Catholic Christianity. Not only in the monasteries, but even the everyday lives of Christians began to exhibit this platonic idealistic immaterial view of Christianity; Sundays and many feast days are dedicated to worship and rest, enduring authority is re-interpreted as a beneficial spiritual obedience, fasting becomes the name of hunger. The moderate realism of Aristotle had much less influence at this time, and would have been forgotten, had it not been for these same platonic Roman Catholic Christian institutions and practices. Monasteries, those institutions in which platonic immaterialism took on a material form, would become the place where some financial resources could be used to collect, preserve, and copy the written texts most common people wouldn’t have cared about because of their inability to read. Among those texts which were preserved and multiplied were the writings of Aristotle. A thousand years later, at the end of the medieval period, the writings of Aristotle would be rediscovered in the libraries of the monasteries, would be picked up and read, and would begin to influence the development of modern science and its impact on intellectual, business, political, and religious affairs.
In short, platonic idealism embraced by Roman Catholicism saved that Aristotelian moderate realism which would, in turn, influence the development of modern science. Now, the story is not quite this simply. At the same time as the monasteries were keeping and copying the Aristotelian texts, those same texts were being discussed by Islamic philosophers through-out the middle east. When Europe awoke from the medieval period, trade with the Islamic world was re-established and from this direction as well as from the Christian monasteries, the writings of Aristotle began to flow back into Europe where they were picked up, read, talked about, and applied to practical affairs.
Greek philosophy provided Christianity two priceless tools. The first was that the language of moderate realism translated Judeo-Christian morality into an ethical language which the predominantly non-Jewish Greek speaking world could understand and use. The second was the platonic idealism which provided a way to understand, think about, and apply the spiritual ideas of Judeo-Christianity. These two were easily understood in the non-Jewish Greek speaking world. Persons of the non-Jewish Greek speaking world found these ideas very attractive. This attraction results in an explosive growth of Christianity. This growth allows hierarchical leaders to devote resources to the development of those institutions which will preserve the ideas of moderate realism. These ideas of moderate realism, planted in the monasteries where they will grow silently, until the social and political climate of Europe allows these ideas to break earth and turn into the plants which will form the basis of the modern political, economic, social, religious, and scientific-technological world.