What is Catholic Philosophy?

Long ago, in the mid-twentieth century, when I was starting out as a professional philosopher in the Universities of Minnesota and Ohio State, the short and, presumably, most honest answer was “There is no such thing as Catholic Philosophy.” However, since it is clearly grammatically and semantically correct to modify “philosophy” with “Catholic.” the answer “Catholic philosophy is philosophy done by a Catholic” was offered as an interpretation of “Catholic philosophy.” Nonetheless, the implication was that there was no clearly philosophical material that could be usefully labeled “Catholic.”

Actually, the view applied to any adjective, even “Greek.” There was simply philosophy. Greek philosophy was philosophy done by Greeks. Indian philosophy was philosophy done in the India sub-continent, Chinese philosophy was that done in China and so forth. There was speculation that philosophy could be found in the cultures of indigneous peoples throughout the world both in the past and present. To be sure, we might have to search carefully to find the philosophical thought mixed in with all sorts of other types of thinking. But mixed in with all sorts of religious and practical thinking we might find thinking of which we could make claims such as: In these passages they were wondering about free will, personal identity, mind/body connection etc. Perhaps, philosophical thinking cannot be precisely defined. To some extent, “we know it when we see it” or read it. I write “to some extent” because philosophy is more than an intellectual exercise. It is one of the human ways of trying to get the truth. We need to make a judgment about an intent to “get it right” to label a text or discourse philosophical. There is a philosophia perennis – a cultural universal usefully labeled “philosophy.” It is what I call “philosophy” when I conclude that Reason Alone cannot set aside nihilism.

Philosophy itself deals with topics which cannot be fully understood, viz., standard philosophical problems such as mind/body connection and knowledge of other minds. But philosophical problems are not religious mysteries; they are not posed as part of a religious tradition. In any application of philosophy to religious doctrines, the basic philosophical problems will be there; unresolved as always.

The universal style of philosophical thinking can be applied to religious mysteries. The religious mysteries are open to all as mysteries. As mysteries they are not any better understood by believers than non-believers. I am writing only of religious which do not have esoteric doctrines. The mysteries are available for those who want to understand them as well as to all who are merely curious about how intelligent people could take them seriously. If there is a religious tradition, eg., Catholicism, which contains a mysterious concept, such as angels, then use of the philosophical way of thinking to gain partial understanding of this concept is part of the religious philosophy of that religion. A paradigm of Catholic philosophy is Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on angels.

Catholic philosophy, then, is use of philosophical methods to understand a mystery of Catholicism with the intent of at least getting partial truth about it. In Catholic philosophy scripture may be cited; but only as a motivation for dealing with the topic. It is unlikely that a non-Catholic would engage in Catholic philosophy. A non-Catholic might read through Aquinas’ arguments about the existence of angels merely to appreciate how Aquinas reasoned. You cannot read the philosophy of a Catholic philosopher without thinking philosophcally. But the philosophical thinking required to read Catholic philosophy is not by itself Catholic philosophy A Catholic philosopher is a faithful Catholic who engages in Catholic philosophy. I hope that I am a Catholic philosopher.

What about my own work?

My effort to provide Conceptual Model of Satan is an example of Catholic philosophy. My effort to articulate a notion of Moral Harm to provide a model of moral thinking in which there is a place for retributive punishment is by itself simply philosophy. I am only trying to bring out all the implications of human moral thought. However, my inclusion of this notion of moral harm in trying to build a model for Jesus suffering punishment for our faults is Catholic philosophy. See my Cur Deus Homo?