An Introduction to Roman Catholic Philosophy for Deacons

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)


The Handmaid of Theology:

In Red Planet, a movie released in the year 2000 about the first trip of human beings to the planet Mars, there is a scene where the mission scientist and physician, Bud Chantillas, is asked by a crew member why he had largely given up doing science in order to devote his time to philosophy.  His response is “I realized science couldn’t answer the really interesting questions.  So I turned to philosophy.  I’ve been searching for God ever since.”

The Roman Catholic intellectual tradition has called philosophy “the handmaid of theology”.

Philosophy is essential for doing theology.  In fact, when one does theology what one is doing is applying philosophical thinking to ideas obtained from divine revelation.  Philosophy is used to analyze the statements obtained from divine revelation so as to discover insights which are being overlooked and so as to more clearly express the knowledge contained in those nuggets of divine revelation.  For example, a nugget of divine revelation is that there is only one God.  From this premise, philosophy then deduces that God’s nature must be timeless.  And then, in considering the nature of God’s timelessness, philosophy reaches the conclusions that God could not have existed before the act of creation and that every moment of the history of the created universe is also the moment of creation.


A Way of Life:

Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, a full professor of philosophy of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., once shared with me his opinion that philosophy is to theology as knowing mathematics is to physics.  His point:  just as it is the case that in order to do physics, one needs to be mathematically competent; in order to do theology, one needs to have a thorough knowledge of philosophy.

A second thing Sokolowski said which I wish to share with you, came from a lecture he gave in Louvain, Belgium.  He stated, “Philosophy considers the whole of being.  Philosophy is dedicated to the search for truth.  Philosophy is both a way of knowing and a way of life dedicated to knowing.”

Sokolowski’s statement description of philosophy as “a way of life dedicated to knowing” recalls to mind the words of the Greek philosopher Socrates, recorded by Plato in Plato’s text called “The Apology”; “the unexamined life is not worth living”.


Vatican Statement on the Need for Philosophy:

Seven years ago, at the direction of Popes Benedict the XVI and John Paul II, The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education made public its “Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies in Philosophy”.

This decree stated that schools of theology responsible for seminarian formation were required to ensure that every candidate for ordination was to receive a through formation in philosophy.  It stated that each seminarian should earn the equivalent of what it called a certificate in philosophy.

At The Catholic University of America, in addition to four courses in pre-theology and up to six courses in liberal arts and languages and public speaking, this Certificate requires the completion of ten courses in philosophy.

These ten courses include four courses in an historical survey of ancient and medieval and modern and contemporary philosophy, two courses in metaphysics, one course in philosophical ethics, one course in philosophical anthropology, one course in political philosophy, and one course in logic.


Philosophical Issues, Texts, and Dialogue:

We will now review the names or short descriptions of the philosophical issues which we hope to cover during our fours sessions together.

Please feel free, at anytime and as often as you feel it necessary, to ask me to repeat anything I have said, and to clarify anything I say.

Some of these philosophical issues deal with how the Roman Catholic Church understands and applies the teachings of the Bible.  Some of these issues deal with current social and political issues in which the world and its people are currently involved.  And some of these issues provide information to facilitate the giving of beneficial homilies, instruction, and pastoral ministry.


The process by which we will examine these philosophical issues will be:

  1. Participants will obtain, read, think about, and annotate the assigned texts* prior to the assigned sessions.  Participants will bring copies of these texts and notes, along with a notebook and writing tool(s) to each session.
  2. Taking each issue, one at a time,
    1. a presentation will be given, during which time participants should take notes
    2. following the presentation, participants should ask for anything they wish repeated or for anything to be clarified
    3. from time to time, the presenter will ask a specific participant to engage with him in dialogue about (a) the content of the texts read and referenced on the given issues, and (b) on the content of the presentation
    4. presenter will invite all other participants to enter into the dialogue


To address these issues, I first want to provide context in the form of a timeline.

400 B.C. to A.D. 400: Ancient or Classical Philosophy (428 to 347 B.C.Plato and Socrates, 384 to 322 B.C.Aristotle)

A.D. 400 to 1250 Medieval and Scholastic Philosophy (A.D. 354 to 430 Augustine, A.D. 1225 to 1274 Thomas Aquinas)

A.D. 1250 to 1850 Modern Philosophy (A.D. 1596 to 1650 Rene Descartes, A.D. 1724 to 1804 Immanuel Kant)

A.D. 1850 to present Contemporary Philosophy (A.D. 1850 (c.) Development of Phenomenology)


Sessions Outline:

February 10, Session One’s Philosophical Issues:

Issue 1:  Plato and Aristotle:The beginning of social and political philosophy.

Issue 2:  Plato and Aristotle:  Moderate Realism, Plato’s Idealism, Aristotle’s Realism

Issue 3:  Plato:  Knowledge acquisition as a community activity, Descartes:  Knowledge acquisition as a solitary activity


March 3, Session Two’s Philosophical Issues:

Issue 4:  Greek culture, in general, as the tool of Christian expression.  The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, in particular, as a tool of Christian expression.  The Christian icons of the Wise Plato and Aristotle.

Issue 5:  Morality/Ethics, Happiness and Contingency

Bible:  joy/happiness as a primary focus.

Aristotle:  Aristotle’s Ethics:  A snug glove for the hand of Christian morality – happiness, – based on human reality/contingency, – virtue as excellence of character, – virtues and vices:  doing-the-middle, – continence, its role and its limits, – consistent with a grace-based soteriology.

Kant:  Kantian Ethics:  – the reduction of morality to continence, – rejection of happiness as a moral value, – rejection of natural law, – rejection of human reality/contingency as a moral consideration, – leisure replaced with ceaseless frenetic activity (workaholism), – character replaced with accomplishment, – human doing preferred to human being, Delphi (μηδὲν ἄγαν—“do the middle”) to Auschwitz (arbeit macht frei—“work will set you free”), – consistent with a merit based soteriology


April 7, Session Three’s Philosophical Issues:

Issue 6:  Augustine (and Aquinas):  The Intellectual bookends of the medieval period.

Issue 7:  Augustine:  The beginning of philosophical anthropology.

Issue 8:   AugustineAppropriation of Plato’s philosophical idealism.  Christianity’s adoption of a Platonic idealism.  The adoption preserves Aristotelian realism.

Issue 9:  Augustine (Anselm):  Faith and trust as the best path to knowledge acquisition.Descartes (Bacon):  Doubt and skepticism as the only path to knowledge acquisition.


May 5, Session Four’s Philosophical Issues:

Issue 10:  Aquinas:  Rediscovery of Aristotelian Ethics and realism, – the role of these rediscoveries in the development of a Natural Law theory of morality, – (The role of these rediscoveries in the development of modern science).  Kant:  Kantian Ethics, – a return to idealism, – denial of a natural law.

Issue 11:  Contemporary Philosophy:  Material Reductionism

Issue 12:  Contemporary Philosophy:  The Ego-Centric Predicament

Issue 13:  Contemporary Philosophy:  Essence and the Rejection of Essence


* Assigned Texts (for reading prior to sessions)

Participants were provided a fifty page document which included portions of the following texts which were assigned for reading and study before the four sessions.

Republic, Plato

Discourse on Method, Rene Descartes

Meditations, Rene Descartes

Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle

Fundamental Principles of a Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant

Praying the Scriptures, Demetrius Dumm

Confessions, Augustine

de augmentis scientiarum, Francis Bacon

Homily on John (Tractate 29:6), Augustine

Proslogion, Anselm

(fragment), Pachium Radbertus

Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas

Intro to Phenomenology, Robert Sokolowski