Richard Geraghty, PhD
The purpose of this paper is to cast some light on the challenges confronting the academic program of a seminary and college like Holy Apostles by analyzing the Foreword written by Father Joseph Owens, CSSR. for his book intended for undergraduates entitled An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. That there are challenges, particularly in the last fifty years or so, is obvious. The answer of Holy Apostles and similar institutions has been and is now to implement a pre-theologian’s program devoted to two years of philosophy in preparation for four years of theology done according to the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas. This program quite naturally brings to my mind the following questions drawn from the Foreword of An Elementary Christian Metaphysics: 1) What is an elementary metaphysics? 2) What is a Christian metaphysics? 3) What is a metaphysics done according to the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas? It is my thesis that the answers Father Owens gives to these questions give us an appreciation of the program of Holy Apostles’ College and Seminary.
Owens says: “The following text is called an elementary metaphysics. Its aim is confined to arousing and developing in rudimentary form a habit of mind which will equip the undergraduate student to approach metaphysical subjects” (p. v). It is to form a rudimentary habit of mind beneficial to any educated man or woman. Thus the primary goal is not to train professional metaphysicians or philosophers. The argument is his argument. He speaks as one who already has a philosophical or metaphysical habit of mind acquired after many years of study in the history of philosophy. Therefore he marks off the steps of the argument and then connects them, thus providing the student with an example of what metaphysical reasoning is. It has starting points which are self-evident, middle steps which are connected rigorously, and a conclusion which follows necessarily. It is a demonstration from beginning to end.
Holy Apostles embodies this tradition, thus contributing to the intellectual welfare, not only of lay Catholics and seminarians but of the nation as a whole. The nation has been swamped in the atmosphere that suggests that the study of the modern sciences is the legitimate use of formal reason. As an institution Holy Apostles resists this atmosphere. The highest use of the human intellect is to grasp the truth, to be contemplative, not to change the world or to be practical. To be contemplative is to be truly and fully human.
Owens then turns his attention to the notion of a Christian metaphysics. He is using the term “Christian” in the way Pope Leo XIII used it when he called for the reformation of Catholic philosophy. In that view the philosophies found in the theological works of figures like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas may be called Christian. Since there has been controversy about this matter, Owens proceeds to show that the term “Christian philosophy” is sanctioned by long tradition. But before detailing his argument, I will make one note on the difference between faith on the one hand and revealed theology and natural philosophy on the other. Faith comes from what God in the person of Christ has revealed to the Apostles from whom the pope and the bishops are descended.
Let me expand on this point by Owens. Consider the teaching of Aristotle and Aquinas that all material things are composed of 1) a form which makes a body the kind of thing it is, (for example a rock, a plant, an animal or a man) and 2) prime matter, the underlying bridge which explains the fact that earth can be taken up by plants which can be eaten by cows which in turn can be eaten by men who in turn die and go back into earth from which they push up daisies, thus starting the whole process of substantial changes all over again. These transformations are as much a fact now as they ever were. Aristotle and Aquinas proved that the teaching of hylomorphism is the only explanation that explains the fact that one substance can change into another.
How did Aquinas handle this difficulty? He sided with Aristotle in saying that man is a single substance of body and soul, matter and form. He also sided with Aristotle in saying that the soul of man is dependent upon the senses for its knowledge. Yet he concluded that the soul after death could still operate, was aware of itself and of other beings. What was his evidence for saying so? It could not be the evidence or ordinary human experience, which, of course, is the experience of life on this side of the grave, the same evidence that Aristotle had. Then from where did Aquinas draw his evidence? It was from his faith in the teaching of the Church that after death each and every soul was judged by Christ. By faith, then, he reached the conclusion that although the soul was not the pure spirit that an angel was, it still could be conscious of itself, its past activities, and its judge even though the soul did not animate a body as it did on earth. Aristotle could not have drawn this conclusion because he did not have the faith. Aquinas drew it because he did have faith in the teachings of Church.
It follows that between the time of the death of human being and the Last Day a human being is not fully a human being because it does not have a body. While this does not detract either from the joy of the saved or the agony of the damned, it does show the importance of the body on the Last Day. Only then will human beings become fully so. For it is of their very nature that they are not angels, pure spirits, but composites of body and soul. For the saved, the bodies will be glorified bodies.
This kind of analysis would be impossible without a knowledge of the philosophical demonstrations involved in the teaching of hylomorphism. Nor would it be possible without having faith in the teaching of the particular judgment after death and the general judgment at the end of the world. Again we see the power of faith, which is available to the unlearned. But it is also available to the learned who then can then do the kind of theology that looks for help from philosophy and the kind of Christian philosophy that can be of assistance to theology.
An accurate knowledge of metaphysics can be of great help in understanding as much as humanly possible such mysteries as the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. The method to be used is to take the truth of the mysteries for granted and then consider the role that metaphysics has played in its elucidation of such concepts as nature, person, soul, or body by considering the data supplied by human experience of the world as it is.
We are speaking of course of a Christian metaphysics. There are also atheistic, agnostic, pagan, German or French metaphysics. They all can lay a claim to be philosophical because they all start with some kind of human experience of this world and then derive their consequences in the public and precise way of formal inference. But there is no rule that excludes Christians from looking at the world, deriving their first principle from it, and drawing conclusions that follow from first principles.
Owens says: “Though it [his book] derives its inspiration and its guidance overwhelmingly from the reading of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is nevertheless quite hesitant in making the claim to the title of a Thomistic metaphysics” (p. vii). He continues: “The interpretation of St. Thomas’ metaphysical principles are in fact so widely divergent today that any dogmatic claim to present faithfully the original Thomistic doctrine must be regarded as presumptuous, or at least premature” (p. vii). These statements were quite a surprise to me when I first read them over fifty years ago. I was educated under the impression you could take the Summa Theologica and extract the philosophical principles involved. But Owens, following his teacher Gilson, insists that the only purely metaphysical exposition that Aquinas ever wrote was the De Ente et Essentia. Consequently Owens refers to this work in his footnotes while he develops his argument in the body of his main text. The interpretation of the De Ente et Essentia is of course that of Joseph Owens, an interpretation about which other Thomists differ.
Since I side with Owens on this matter, I have been led to the conviction that the metaphysical tradition is not the same as the tradition of faith. In the faith there is absolutely one authoritative teaching, one pope, one priesthood, one set of sacraments. Should there be any disputes about any of these matters, they are to be settled by the Magisterium of the Church. Now the Church has not decided on the difference between Owens and his opponents. It is not her province. All that she has done is to make St. Thomas Aquinas the Common Doctor when introducing students to their theological and philosophical studies. After that professors and students are free to study others in the Catholic tradition. There is plenty of room for all when it comes to various theologies and philosophies.
As an institution still existing in this modern world, a remarkable achievement, Holy Apostles College and Seminary embodies the tradition of faith and reason being the two wings by which mankind rises to the fullness of truth. But the line of flight is not the straight shot of a rocket thundering off into the sky. Rather it is the rather wobbly flight of wings moving up and down until the battered birds get to where they’re going.
The question naturally arises as to whether a knowledge of theology and philosophy is necessary to attain this sight. Of course not! Supernatural faith is given both to the educated and the non-educated. But let us recall that supernatural faith came to pagans who already had a natural knowledge of God. They had reason and therefore the ability to see the existence of the world as an effect of God’s power. Having reason, they had a conscience that distinguished between right and wrong actions. Thus even before the coming of revelation through the message of Abraham, the Prophets and Jesus Christ, men were able to be saved. But to enter the Gates of Paradise Christ would have to open those gates, which he did by his resurrection and descent into hell.
For Personal Reflection and Group Sharing:
• What was your understanding of the word “metaphysics” before reading Dr. Geraghty’s article?
• If you have studied metaphysics, what do you remember as most helpful?
• Do you think that Catholic university education is better with metaphysics being an elective rather than a required course?
RESPONSES TO THIS CHAPTER:
Response of Kathleen Brouillette:
A recent article on yahoo.com listed philosophy as one of the top five useless college majors, citing a high unemployment rate. Yet that same article reminded me that the consequences of the lack of such education may be not merely unemployment or a decline in the ability to think and reason, but also the eternal loss of souls.
In Fr. Legault’s Logic course (Fr. Legault is a senior professor of Thomistic philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary) we learned Canadian children are required to take Logic from their earliest years. The vast difference in the way my fellow students interpreted words through life experience rather than their true meaning in Logic showed me how much easier it would be for people to think and to communicate if we all meant the same thing when we speak. Language is so critical! If everyone were required to take courses in Metaphysics early in elementary education, we would be using a similar thought process. While we might not be thinking exactly the same, or be even on the same page, we might be closer to being in the same book or, at least, in the same library, so to speak.
When Catholic schools became the only ones to require Metaphysics, there was a breach in the educational process between Catholic and public schools in the U.S. Now, with even Catholic schools no longer requiring Metaphysics and Logic, and so much reliance on technology, education is distancing itself from thinking.
My granddaughter attends a Franciscan college where she is not even required to take a Catholic religion class, let alone Christian Metaphysics or (other courses in) Christian Philosophy. Only one religion class is required and she can take Buddhism if she chooses!! It is a frightening thing to look at the lack of hope in current generations. It isn’t a far stretch to see that the lack of exposure to and understanding of Metaphysics is depriving our youth of belief in the existence God. I have Confirmation students who have dropped out of the Religious Education Program because they do not believe in God. Public schools and their methods are directly involved in such doubts, which lead to hopelessness. They may even contribute to the loss of heaven for some souls.
We cannot decry the lack of attendance at our Masses and in our Religious Education Programs if we fail to guide our people. Telling them there is a God and limiting their education to memorization of the Ten Commandments and the Seven Sacraments is not enough. Unless we help them use their powers of reason to obtain a conviction regarding the existence of God, the corresponding legitimacy of His power and authority, and the promise of eternal life for those who love Him, there will be no faith, no hope, no love, no peace, and a sparsely populated heaven.
Response of David Tate:
Before starting my education in philosophy, I did not know the word metaphysics. If I thought about it, I probably would have gotten it confused as being some kind of weird synonym for paranormal. Reese (Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion) defines the word as, “the study of ultimates”. Another source defines it as knowing, “what the real nature of things is.” (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards) Joseph Owens, in his own book, defines it as, “the study of what comes after the physical.”
Many years ago, I was standing with someone, and we were looking through my telescope. After looking at a selection of objects, this person turned to me and asked, “What does it all mean?” This response for me typifies what most people seem to think about when they get the opportunity to see a baby born, or a blazing summer sunset, or fly above the earth in a jet at 35,000 feet. If I had been asked what metaphysics means twenty years ago, I would have liked to have been one of those that answered metaphysically, “It’s about what it all means.”
For all seminarians, I would have to agree with Pope John Paul II, when he stated that,” a solid philosophical formation… is a necessary propaedeutic for theological studies.” (SAPIENTIA CHRISTIANA, 1979, #72) I feel that metaphysics should continue to be a required course for all students; including the lay students.
Response of Tommie Kim:
The fact that the principle of human intellect and faith are inseparable enabled the Gospel propagation into the Western world. John Paul II also mentions the important relationship between reason and faith in the encyclical Fides et Ratio. Only when we know and love God, can a human comprehend the truth of the self. Faith is needed in order to realize that God exists in all events of our lives. Therefore, sound understanding of metaphysics will help build sound theology. The autonomy of philosophy is necessary for human reason to reach truth. Therefore, the Church needs to pay attention (to what is happening in the philosophical world) since a false philosophical approach leads into a denial of faith and often into atheism. For any school founded on Catholic faith, I believe that metaphysics needs to be a required course. Atheistic tendencies are leading many people to pursue only worldly happiness. This tendency develops further into scientism, with its agenda that with scientific development man can dominate the world.