Pope's Letter for St. Anselm Celebration
"One of the Brightest Figures in the Tradition of the Church"
AOSTA, Italy, APRIL 28, 2009 - Here is the text of the letter Benedict XVI sent
to Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, retired archbishop of Bologna, on the occasion of the
ninth centenary of the death of St. Anselm. The message was read April 21, the
saint's feast day, at a solemn Mass in the Aosta cathedral in honor of the
philosopher and theologian.
* * *
In view of the celebrations in which you, venerable brother, will take part as
my legate in the illustrious city of Aosta in honor of the ninth centenary of
the death of St. Anselm, which took place in Canterbury on 21 April 1109, I
would like to give you a special message in which I wish recall the main
features of this great monk, theologian and pastor of souls, whose work has left
a deep mark on the history of the Church.
The anniversary is indeed an opportunity not to be missed to renew the memory of
one of the brightest figures in the tradition of the Church and in the history
of Western European thought. The exemplary monastic experience of Anselm, his
original method of rethinking the Christian mystery, his subtle philosophical
and theological doctrine, his teaching on the inviolable value of conscience and
on freedom as the responsible adherence to truth and goodness, his passionate
work as a shepherd of souls, dedicated with all his strength to the promotion of
"freedom of the Church," have never ceased to arouse in the past the deepest
interest, which the memory of his death is happily reigniting and encouraging in
many ways and in different places.
In this memorial of the "Magnificent Doctor" -- as St. Anselm is called -- the
Church of Aosta cannot but be recognized, the Church in which he was born and
which is rightly pleased to consider Anselm as her most illustrious son. Even
when he left Aosta in the time of his youth, he continued to carry in his memory
and in his heart the bundle of memories that was never far from his thoughts in
the most important moments of life. Among those memories, a particular place was
certainly reserved for the sweet image of his mother and the majestic mountains
of his valley with their high peaks, and perennial snow, in which he saw
represented, as if in a fascinating and suggestive symbol, the sublimity of God.
To Anselm - "a child raised in the mountains," as Admero his biographer calls
him, ("Vita Sancti Anselmi," i, 2) - God appears to be that of which you cannot
think of something bigger: perhaps his intuition was not unrelated to the
childhood view of those inaccessible peaks. Already as a child he thought that
in order to find God it was necessary to "climb to the summit of the mountain"
(ibid.). In fact, he will realize more and more that God remains at an
inaccessible height, located beyond the horizons which man is able to reach,
since God is beyond the thinkable. Because of this, the journey in search of
God, at least on this earth, will never end, but will always be thought and
desire, the rigorous process of the intellect and the imploring inquiry of the
The intense desire to know and the innate propensity for clarity and logical
rigor will push Anselm towards the "scholeae" [schools] of his time. He will
therefore join the monastery of Le Bec, where his inclination for dialectic
reflection will be satisfied and above all, where his cloistered vocation will
enkindle. To dwell on the years of the monastic life of Anselm is to encounter a
faithful religious, "constantly occupied in God alone and in the disciplines of
heaven" -- as his biographer writes -- in order to achieve "such a summit of
divine speculation that would enable him by a path opened by God to penetrate,
and, once penetrated, to explain the most obscure and previously unresolved
questions concerning the divinity of God and our faith and to prove with clear
reasons that what he stated belonged to sure Catholic doctrine" ("Vita Sancti
Anselmi," i, 7). With these words, his biographer describes the theological
method of St. Anselm, whose thought was ignited and illuminated in prayer. It is
he himself that confesses, in his famous work, that the understanding of faith
is an approach toward a vision, which we all yearn for and which we all hope to
enjoy at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, "Quoniam inter fidem et speciem
intellectum quem in hac vita capimus esse medium intelligo: quanto aliquis ad
illum proficit, tanto eum propinquare speciei, ad quam omnes anhelamus, existimo
(Cur Deus homo, Commendatio).
The saint desired to achieve the vision of the logical relationships inherent to
the mystery, to perceive the "clarity of truth," and thus to grasp the evidence
of the "necessary reasons," intimately bound to the mystery. A bold plan
certainly, and it is one whose success still occupies the reflections of the
students of Anselm today. In fact, his search of the "intellectus" [intellect]
positioned between "fides" [faith] and "species" [vision] comes out of the
source of the same faith and is sustained by confidence in reason, through which
faith in a certain way is illuminated. The intent of Anselm is clear: "to raise
the mind to contemplation of God" (Proslogion, Proemium). There remain, in any
event, for every theological research, his programmatic words: "I do not try,
Lord, to penetrate your depth, because I cannot, even from a distance, compare
it with my intellect, but I want to understand, at least up to a certain point,
your truth, which my heart believes and loves. I do not seek, in fact, to try to
understand it in order to believe it, but I believe in order to understand
it."[Non quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam] (Proslogion, 1).
In Anselm, prior and abbot of Le Bec, we underline some characteristics that
further define his personal profile. What strikes us, first of all, is his
charism as an expert teacher of spiritual life, one who knows and wisely
illustrates the ways of monastic perfection. At the same time, one is fascinated
by his instructive geniality, which is expressed in that discernment method --
which he names, the "via discretionis" (Ep. 61) -- which is a small image of his
whole life, an image composed of both mercy and firmness. The peculiar ability
which he demonstrates in initiating disciples to the experience of authentic
prayer is very peculiar: in particular, his "Orationes sive Meditationes,"
eagerly requested and widely used, which have contributed to making many people
of his time " anime oranti" [praying souls], as with his other works, have
proved themselves a valuable catalyst in making the Middle Ages a "thinking"
and, we might add, "conscientious" period. One would say that the most authentic
Anselm can be found at Le Bec, where he remained thirty three years, and where
he was much loved. Thanks to the maturity that he acquired in a similar
environment of reflection and prayer, he will be able, as well in the midst of
the subsequent trials as bishop, to declare: "I will not retain in my heart any
resentment for any one" (Ep. 321).
The nostalgia of the monastery will accompany him for the rest of his life. He
confessed it himself when he was constrained, to his deepest sorrow and that of
his monks, to leave the monastery to assume the Episcopal ministry to which did
not feel well disposed: "It is well known to many," he wrote to Pope Urban II,
"the violence which was done to me, and how much I was reluctant and contrary,
when I was brought as a bishop to England and how I explained the reasons of
nature, age, weakness and ignorance, which were opposed to this office and that
absolutely detest and shun scholastic duties, which I cannot dedicate myself to
at all without endangering the salvation of my soul" (Ep. 206). He confides
later with his monks in these terms: "I have lived for 33 years a monk -- three
years without responsibility, 15 as prior, and as many as abbot -- in such a way
that all the good people that knew me loved me, certainly not by my own merits
but for the grace of God, and the ones that loved me most were those that knew
me most intimately and with greatest familiarity" (Ep. 156). And he added: "You
have been many to come to Le Bec ... Many of you I surrounded with a love so
tender and sweet that each one had the impression that I did not love anyone
else in the same way" (ibid.).
Appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and beginning, in this way, his most troubled
journey, his "love of truth" (Ep. 327), his uprightness, his strict loyalty to
conscience, his "Episcopal freedom" (Ep. 206), his " Episcopal honesty" (Ep.
314), his tireless work for the liberation of the Church from the temporal
conditionings and from the servitude of calculations that are incompatible with
his spiritual nature will appear in their full light. His words to King Henry
remain exemplary in this respect, "I reply that in neither baptism nor in any
other ordination that I have received, did I promised to observe the law or the
custom of your father or of the Archbishop Lanfranco, but the law of God and of
all the orders received" (Ep. 319). For Anselm, the primate of the Church of
England, one principle applies: "I am a Christian, I am a monk, I am a Bishop: I
desire to be faithful to all, according to the debt I have with each" (Ep. 314).
In this vein he does not hesitate to say: "I prefer to be in disagreement with
men than, agreeing with them, to be in disagreement with God" (Ep. 314).
Precisely for this reason he feels ready even for the supreme sacrifice: "I am
not afraid to shed my blood, I fear no wound in my body nor the loss of any
material good" (Ep. 311).
It is understandable that, for all these reasons, Anselm still retains a great
actuality and a strong appeal, in as much as it is fruitful to revisit and
republish his writings, and together meditate continuously on his life. For this
reason I have rejoiced that Aosta, on the occasion of the ninth centenary of the
death of the saint, has distinguished itself with a set of appropriate and
intelligent initiatives -- especially with the careful edition of his works --
with the intention to make known and loved the teachings and examples of this,
its illustrious son. I entrust to you, Venerable Brother, the task of bringing
to the faithful of the ancient and beloved city of Aosta the exhortation to
remember with admiration and affection this great fellow citizen of theirs,
whose light continues to shine throughout the Church, especially where the love
for the truths of faith and the desire for their study by the light of reason
are cultivated. And, in fact, faith and reason -- "fides et ratio" -- are united
admirably in Anselm. I send, with these heartfelt sentiments through you,
venerable brother, to the Bishop, Monsignor Giuseppe Anfossi, the clergy, the
religious and the faithful of Aosta and to all those who take part in the
celebrations in honor of the "Magnificent Doctor," a special apostolic blessing,
propitiatory of an abundant outpouring of heavenly favours.
Defending the Divine Ideas
James Stone, a consecrated man in
Regnum Christi, recently defended his doctoral thesis at Fordham
University with great success.
June 4, 2008. New York, NY. James Stone is a consecrated man in Regnum
Christi who is currently teaching philosophy at the Legion’’s Training
and Formation Center in Thornwood, NY. On April 2, 2008, he defended
his doctoral thesis at Fordham University, where he had been pursuing
his graduate studies under the direction of a Jesuit priest, Father
Joseph Koterski, SJ. After the exam, one of the professors commented
that he and the other examiners were very demanding in their questions
because they saw that Stone was able to give a solid, strong answer to
each question. Therefore, both the team of examiners and the
Legionaries of Christ who were watching congratulated him on his
performance. The title of his thesis was “The foundation of universal
and necessary propositions in select writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.”
In the following interview, James Stone expands on what sparked his
first interest in philosophy, what he aimed to achieve with his thesis
topic, and what he thinks it can contribute to the current “culture
war” against relativism.
What sparked your interest in studying philosophy?
My interest in studying philosophy began during high school. I
constantly felt a deep interior longing for answers to the types of
questions that the materialistic environment, in which I was immersed
at the time, could not answer for me. I began taking classes in
philosophy at the Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome as part of my
formation as a consecrated member of the Regnum Christi Movement. After
I finished four years of study there and received my Licentiate degree
(roughly, the European equivalent to a Masters degree in the States) I
was given the assignment to teach at one of the Legion ́s formation
houses in the United States. At that time I enrolled in the PhD program
in philosophy at Fordham –– I chose Fordham because of its
proximity to where I was teaching and also because of its solid
academic and Catholic reputation.
Was there a professor or a class at Fordham that you found particularly
insightful or challenging?
One of the most helpful courses that I took at Fordham was a course
taught by Fr Christopher Cullen, S.J., on the medieval doctrine of the
The course was a great overview of medieval history and touched on a
number of important themes that are proper to that period, such as the
famous ““problem of universals”” and the introduction of Aristotle’’s
teaching into the medieval West during the thirteenth century. I was
introduced to many philosophers of that period that I had not really
studied before, such as Henry of Ghent and Victor of St Hugo, and I was
happy to discover the depths of their thought, especially that of great
Christian thinkers like St Bonaventure and St Anselm of Canterbury,
whose teaching I had only covered superficially before that time. In
sum, it was an enriching experience that has left me with a strong
affinity for medieval philosophy as perhaps the most productive and
dynamic period in the history of thought.
What is the main argument of your thesis?
In my dissertation I argue that St Thomas draws out the transcendent
dimension of Aristotle ́s truth theory, in the latter ́s work entitled
On Interpretation. I explain how St Thomas believes that the mere
relationship among words, thoughts, and things is not sufficient for
securing the truth of statements that are universally and necessarily
true –– such as the statement "man is a rational animal" –– without
further supplementation of an ontological foundation that transcends
the order of things about which such statements are made. This
ontological foundation, according to St Thomas, is to be found in
the ideas in the divine mind, which serve as the eternal patterns
according to which God creates all things.
Why did you choose that particular topic?
My interest in ancient and medieval logic and metaphysics goes back to
my first semester of philosophical studies in Rome, and I became
intrigued with the medieval doctrine of Divine Ideas while taking
classes at Fordham. The fact that God ́s perfect knowledge of all
things can be rationally and coherently explained in virtue of the
Divine Ideas theory –– especially according to the teaching of St
Thomas –– seemed to provide the perfect basis for expounding on the
transcendent beauty, wonder, and value of the things we so often
disregard as commonplace and mundane. Furthermore, it enables us to
explain how it is possible for our limited minds to grasp the absolute
truth in an ephemeral world, by showing how this truth is ultimately
rooted in God, who is Truth itself and the first cause of all truth.
What do you think is the most fruitful point of intersection between
your thesis topic and modern culture?
I believe that my thesis topic responds to what Pope Benedict has
dubbed "the Dictatorship of Relativism". Although modern relativism is
a weak and self-refuting current of thought, it still has the grip on
many people ́s minds. But our minds have the power to break these bonds
that the secular culture of so called “tolerance” and “pluralism” has
cast on them, because our natural ability to know the truth with
absolute certainty was given to us by God, and God is always stronger.
What is your current apostolate and how would you like to continue
contributing to the ongoing discussion in the academic or public forum?
For the past 3 years I ́ve been teaching philosophy at the Training and
Formatoin Center of the Legion of Christ in Thornwood, New York. I am
currently teaching epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) and am giving
a seminar course on the philosophy of St Augustine. Presently, my plans
are to continue contributing to the formation of future priests in this
way, as long as God allows me to do so. I would also like to dedicate
some time to writing books related to my thesis topic and publishing
articles in philosophical journals.
PUBLICATION DATE: 2008-06-04
Determined to Deny Your Freedom
by Peter A. Kwasniewski
"Determinism" is not an everyday word, but we feel the effects of
this philosophical view every day — usually in the unspoken assumptions
of popular scientific journalism and critiques of religion. It is
helpful to be aware of what this view involves and why it is untenable.
Determinism in its most general sense could be described as the
theory that the history of the world — all events and their order of
occurrence — is fixed and unitary. In other words, there is only one
possible history of the world down to every last detail. There are
several types of determinism: logical determinism, theological
determinism, biological determinism, scientific determinism. In this
article I will concentrate on this last and most familiar form. (For
brief comments on theological determinism, see page 24)
Scientific determinism stems from a belief that modern science,
especially physics, has successfully proved that all reality is
material and operates according to fixed laws of action and reaction.
It is the philosophical position that any event of any sort is fully
explainable (and thus, in principle, predictable) by a preexisting
chain of physical events necessitating it.
In a world where science has been elevated to the status of a
quasi-religion and its spokesmen to the rank of high priests, we are
bound to encounter people who hold this position. It is well to note
that the attitude or frame of mind underlying it strikes at the root of
religion as such, impeding conversations about anything — God and the
human soul, Christ and the Church, sin and grace, even good and evil
that is not strictly empirical or susceptible of laboratory analysis.
Science Explains It All . . .
This view found its rudimentary expressions in the writings of
Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and their
contemporaries, but attained a dogmatic consistency in the blatant
materialism of Thomas Hobbes, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Voltaire,
and Baron Paul-Henri d'Holbach. These writers exaggerated the reach of
physical science and claimed that experimental physics was the model
for a total explanation of reality. Later on, Charles Darwin's theory
fed into this powerful stream. His godless account of biological
diversity showed itself well adapted for integration into a larger
philosophy of scientific determinism. The rapid and spectacular advance
of technology, born from the marriage of modern physics and capitalism,
seemed to verify beyond all doubt the materialistic mentality behind
Given that people nowadays have been more or less habituated by
textbooks, teachers, and news media to accept scientific determinism as
fact, the apologist should start by explaining that the position is
essentially a belief or dogma. It cannot be deduced from empirical
knowledge, which must always be imperfect (no scientist would dare to
claim that he knows or could know all the "laws of nature" and all the
data required to predict future events). It cannot be considered
self-evident because it contradicts the experience of freedom, which
has more weight than any theory. The one who puts forward determinism
as a universal explanation lays it down a priori, that is, as an axiom
and without sufficient evidence. Empirical science can never go beyond
the boundaries of the measurable or observable, and, as a consequence,
is simply unqualified to make judgments about the existence or
non-existence of anything beyond its limited field.
. . . Or Maybe Not
Let us consider seven instances where scientific determinism
1. It is meaningless to speak of universal "laws of
nature" unless they have been instituted by a lawgiver. Matter, as
such, is not capable of giving laws of behavior to itself. That means
that material things are not the source of these laws; rather, they
presuppose laws when they act and react in an intelligible manner.
Moreover, how did material things
come to exist, not merely as matter, but as matter functioning within a
system that leads to the formation of stable and orderly structures? Do
atoms just mysteriously "know" where to go to in order to make up a
certain molecule in a certain kind of organism?
The materialist will have
sophisticated answers, of course, about how one system gives rise to
another and how this environment happens to be suited to that reaction
or result. But buried in the fancy language is the same problem:
"begging of the question." They have assumed that which is supposed to
2. A living animal (or one of its organs) is
obviously and radically different from a dead animal (or dead organ)
even though the material stuff out of which they are made seems to be
the same. Therefore, some principle other than and greater than the
material parts must exist to account for the life of a living thing.
This principle, according to the Western tradition, is the soul. Both
Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas teach that plants, animals, and
especially human persons are animated beings (from anima, soul). It is
the soul in each organism that contributes its distinctive nature and
controls its activities. The presence of a soul in living things
testifies against the materialism that usually accompanies scientific
3. The human intellect has a unique power: It is
capable of knowing simultaneously things that are mutually exclusive.
For example, hot and cold are properties of a body (physical object)
and cannot exist at the same time in the same respect; a body can
either be so hot or so cold, but not at once perfectly hot and
perfectly cold. The intellect, however, in knowing hot knows also cold,
and in fact knows the one in and through the other. Your mind can be
all hot and all cold, inasmuch as you are able to grasp these opposites
at the same time. More than that, intellect conceives of hotness and
coldness, which are more than mere degrees belonging to some body —
they are essences, "whatnesses." These reflections help show that the
intellect is not a body, for something is seen to be true of it that
can be true of no body whatsoever.
Now, because the intellect has a
power over opposites or contraries that no physical organ has, and
because it attains a knowledge of universal things that stand beyond
the scope of any sense power, the intellect must be immaterial. Since
matter is the very cause of a thing's being corruptible (i.e., able to
break down and fall apart), the intellect in itself is incorruptible —
it will never break down and fall apart. Hence the soul of man, insofar
as it is intellectual, is immortal. What is more, the soul is not
subject to opposition from or coercion by material causes. In other
words, no body can make you change your mind, unless your mind changes
itself. This is a powerful sign that the intellect (or better, the
intellectual soul, which includes free will), has its feet planted in
the material world by way of the sense powers, but holds its head aloft
in a spiritual world where the stakes are truth and falsehood, good and
4. The determinist claim that free will is an
illusion flies in the face of our immediate and unshakable awareness of
freedom over moral actions. It undermines praise and blame, reward and
punishment, and the practice of justice, which renders to each what he
deserves. If man is not the free cause of his actions, how can he be
praised for defending his family from crime, or punished for murdering
a fellow human being? All social life and jurisprudence is founded on
the fact of moral freedom, which we know with a certainty far greater
than any scientific hypothesis commands. Some people use the expression
"pre-scientific knowledge" to refer to the fundamental experience of
the natural world and of ourselves that not only must come before, but
must dominate the interpretation of, all subsequent knowledge. Some
scientific theories are reminiscent of a man on a ladder sawing off the
planks that support him, or a tightrope walker ready to sever the cord
that holds him up.
5. Nothing is a cause unless it has power to cause.
No physical thing gives itself power to cause, but always receives this
power from something else. Moreover, no physical thing is the cause of
its own being, but exists only as a result of prior beings. Thus, for
each cause, one must seek the source of its causality; for each being,
one must seek the source of its existence. If there is not, prior to
all physical causes, a non-physical origin of the power of causality,
then nothing could ever begin to cause and nothing would in fact occur.
Posterior causes depend on prior causes; if there is not, prior to all
physical beings, a non-physical origin of their existence, then nothing
would exist — all of which is absurd. The existence and causality of
material things therefore depends entirely on a perfectly immaterial
uncaused cause of both being and motion — namely, God. Far from doing
away with God, scientific determinism cannot make any sense at all
without implicitly assuming him or rather, without arbitrarily
transferring divine attributes to matter and chance.
6. The exponent of scientific determinism is guilty
of a dramatic inconsistency between his thinking and his life. His
dogma tells him that he is not free, that he is not responsible for his
actions, and similarly that nobody else is free or responsible; yet in
his life he behaves as a free person towards other free persons, exacts
duties of himself and others, and shows mercy or cries out for justice
when wrong has been done. His dogma tells him that his wife and
children are basically automatons, yet, if he is a good man, he loves
them and could never actually believe that the unique relationship he
has with them — the experiences they have shared, the meeting of his
future wife, their marrying and rearing children — is no more than a
lockstep parade of meaningless atoms.
7. If someone asserts that determinism is true, has
he come to understand something true about reality as a whole? If so,
how can this truth, which is universal, tuneless, and independent of
all particular events, be merely an effect of material causes? It
already reaches into a domain no longer subject to — indeed totally
outside of the strict chain of physical cause and effect to which the
theory appeals. There is no room for truth as such in the world of the
determinist; the man who says "determinism is true" refutes himself in
the very act of speaking.
Nevertheless, the apologist should bear in mind that determinism,
as a quasi-religious dogma, is passionately and stubbornly clung to by
its adherents, who have often, so to speak, pre-determined the outcome
of the dispute before it even gets under way. An apologist is more
likely to be successful with ordinary people who have given credit to
determinism only because it is repeated ad nauseam in textbooks and the
media. Their half-hearted endorsement of it, or of some aspects of it,
is thus more easily shaken.
Reviewing the weak theories that attempt to rob us of our freedom,
we might well desire to cry out again with St. Paul: "For freedom
Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again
to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1); "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and
where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor. 3:17).
Another form of determinism is theological determinism, which
holds that God, as the supreme sovereign being, is the only agent or
cause in the universe, making secondary causes or sources of action
other than him impossible.
Theological determinism has taken many and varied shapes over the
centuries, most notoriously in the theory of double predestination
characteristic of John Calvin and other Reformers, but also in the
opinion of the singular causality of God (the divine being is the only
real cause of anything) that is defended in some Islamic schools.
The orthodox Christian position, on the other hand, stresses the
compatibility of the rational creature's God-given causality and
freedom with the universal causality and providential governance
exercised by God as the source and goal of all being. Indeed, Catholic
theology has always understood God's own creative activity to be the
wellspring of creaturely being, goodness, and freedom. We are most free
when God is most at work within us: we are most un-free when his action
has been repudiated or obstructed by our own selfish actions.
It is interesting to note that theological determinism — which
flies in the face of our undeniable experience of Freedom and evacuates
human behavior of meaning — has never survived long in the sphere of
Christianity. It tends to be replaced over time either by orthodox
belief or by a practical atheism (with its ethical counterpart of
nihilism, which in practice equals narcissism). In other words, either
one has to mature to the point of seeing that God and man are not
competing on the same playing field, or else one will end up rejecting
God as a rival who threatens human self-realization.
For the intellectually adventuresome, St. Thomas Aquinas defends
the reality of human freedom in four major texts. See especially:
* Disputed Questions on Evil, qu. 6 ("Whether
man has free choice of his acts or chooses of necessity");
* Disputed Questions on Truth, qu. 24, art. 1
("Is man endowed with free choice?");
* Summa of Theology, First Part, qu. 83, art. 1
("Whether man has free will?"); and
* Summa of Theology, First Part of the Second
Part, qu. 13, art. 6 ("Whether man chooses of necessity, or freely?").
For further reading that is relevant to this topic, though in a
more general way, I recommend Peter Kreeft's C. S. Lewis for the Third
Millennium; Six Essays on the Abolition of Man and Thomas Howard's
Chance or the Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism.
Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski teaches philosophy and theology at
Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming. He also directs the
College Choir and the Gregorian Schola. He is a regular contributor to
scholarly journals and Catholic periodicals.
© Catholic Answers, Inc.
Why Do Things Exist? On the Meaning of
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 24, 2007
"Ridentem dicere verum: quid vetat? – What prevents a man from speaking
the truth while smiling?" -- Horace, Satires, I, 24.
"Philosophy means reflecting on the entirety of what is encountered in
experience from every conceivable standpoint and with regard to its
unique meaning. The philosophizing person is thus not so much someone
who has formed a well-rounded worldview as he is someone who keeps a
question alive and thinks it through methodically." -- Josef Pieper,
"Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration" 
"Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be
connected." -- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 
The citation above from Josef Pieper concerns what it is we
philosophize about. In a passage that might otherwise seem innocent
enough, Pieper has really targeted those whose definition of reason is
limited to what can be known by mathematically based "science" or
"reason" taken in its most narrow sense of excluding almost anything
that does not come under our own power of making or calculating. In his
Regensburg Lecture, the pope called this latter restriction the
"self-limitation" of reason. He implied that this "limitation" was a
"self-imposed" one, not something that corresponded to the full nature
of things. John Paul II called it "reductionism"; that is, we accept
the method's own presuppositions; to wit, only that part of reality
will be admitted as real that is amenable to a method based on matter
and mathematics. Not all of reality is composed of matter.
Scientific reason is legitimate enough in its own area, of course, but
it is not coextensive with all of reason's scope, with all we really
know and can know. Before there is reason (the same faculty) that
calculates and orders, there is reason that intuits, that sees directly
into things. Pieper is cautious about a "well-rounded" intellectual
worldview. He is aware of how easy it is to close everything off
because our system seems to be so complete, so coherent by our
reckoning. All human knowing, with its search for knowledge of the
whole, with its love of wisdom, awaits and expects a new light from
what is. Even when we know--and know that we know--we are aware that we
do not yet see even the tiniest thing in its fullness. The fact that we
do not know everything by our methods does not mean that we know
nothing by them. What we do know does not necessarily militate against
what we seek to know, but incites us to seek more light.
Elsewhere, in discussing Plato, Pieper observes that at any moment
something unexpected--something we know nothing about--can come
crashing into our self-contained world: a person, an idea, a crime, a
book, a song, a sickness, a love, or even the Word of God itself. It
makes us vividly aware that we are not in charge of everything, a
knowledge that can, in fact, be a consolation. This newness of being
can utterly undermine our own "worlds." Yet, in being so "undermined,"
we become more aware of a reality that we did not anticipate with our
We are pleased that, after all, there is something more of reality than
we at first suspected. All loves are really of this nature, as are all
gifts, which in their essence are signs of love, of giving oneself. The
greatness of being a human, I sometimes think, is the fact that, though
we know much, we still remain aware that we do not know everything. The
mystery is that we still want to "know" and experience everything. Why
is this? How did such a being as ourselves ever come to be in the first
Philosophy means not only that all of our experience, all of what is
(not just some of it), is the object of our knowing powers, but it
includes "reflecting" on this reality. We do want to understand what it
means, where it came from. Indeed, reality does not seem sufficiently
real or complete unless someone understands it, unless in the universe
itself a being exists with a power to do so. We assume that if the
universe was created by God, He appreciates it. But that is no more
than saying that God knows Himself and His works. If God created the
universe solely because He just wanted to see it, as it were, floating
out there, there would be no real reason for Him to create it. He must
have had something else in mind.
Later in the same essay, Pieper cited a short passage from Aquinas'
commentary on Aristotle's De Coelo (#228) in which, in a familiar
theme, Aquinas explains what it means to cite from "authority." It
means, to be sure, that if someone like Plato, Aristotle, or Augustine
said something, we should pay attention because each of these men knows
what he is talking about. But more profoundly, it means that we should
be familiar with the argument that is being cited and its relation to
the point of our concern. The author is not especially important--but
his argument is. And arguments are not themselves merely spectacles or
displays of intellectual finesse. They are designed to know the truth;
they are designed to be settled. And what settled argument means, at
bottom, is to arrive at the truth of what is.
One of the principal sources of what we come to know, or at least of
our personal coming to know it, is through the guidance of others who
have thought through an issue often before we ourselves were ever born.
We must be "teachable." We really can learn from others if they know
how to teach us and have something to say. But what they are teaching
us is not their personal doctrine or possession but what is true--what
is. We do not go to college to learn the opinions of the professors. We
go to the university to learn the truth of things, in the pursuit of
which, hopefully, the opinions of professors are helpful. They are not
always, to be sure. If I assist a student in arriving at the truth of
something through his own reflection so that he sees the point for what
it is, he does not end up knowing "my" truth, but truth itself. Truth
is free. No one "owns" it. This is the glory of our kind. This is why,
ultimately, we can all live in the same world that we did not make.
Indeed, this is why we can ultimately be "given" all things.
After Aquinas tells us about the status of authority, which is useful
and helpful, or can be, in knowing the truth, he goes to the heart of
the matter. What is important finally is "how things are in reality."
 We do well to ponder such a phrase. It says, in effect, that what
exists out there in reality is already there without our having
anything to do with it.
Moreover, the world does not come across to us as something inert, even
when it is "inert." The poets are right when they tell us that we can
never exhaust the depths of even the tiniest thing. The philosopher
adds that "the what it is" of a thing and "the that it is" are not the
same. Christian theology tells us that what is, as we know it, is
created, one of those pieces of information to which Pieper referred
when he told us that philosophy is interested in the whole of our
experience. With this explanation, other things we could not grasp
become explainable when we tried to make sense of revelation.
While it is possible to imagine a world that does not exist, which is
what fiction is about, we cannot imagine a world that cannot exist,
that is, a world simply built on contradictions. This is the problem
with theoretic voluntarism in God as an explanation of the source of
reality. If God, to show his power or will, could make "the what
exists" standing before me, while it exists, at the same time not to
exist, then I can have no idea of what is really out there. My
knowledge of reality depends not on my knowing power but on an act of
faith that what God wills is still what I see before me. My senses and
my mind do not inform me of what is there since it might be otherwise.
If I "blaspheme" God by saying that He cannot make what exists not to
exist as it exists (this is what the principle of contradiction is
about, what Deus Logos est is about), I am faithful to Him at the
expense of the world itself. The unrestricted power of a god who is not
dependent on Logos, on God's truth, evaporates any possibility of
confidently knowing what is out there. It leads to a despair of things
in the name of praising God. It makes science impossible. Not only, on
such a basis, can I not "prove" that God exists from existing things
(the opposite of what Aquinas held), but I cannot even be sure I myself
This confusion is the problem of Islam and Western voluntarism about
which the pope often speaks. We want to worship God so much that we
deprive His creation of any substantial reality. With it, we deprive
our minds of any object to know. We want, in a kind of excessive piety,
to say everything that we see is what God, by His arbitrary power, is
making us to see here and now. But it all could be the opposite. With
such presuppositions, we are not deriving our knowledge from an actual
creation that we can observe with our own minds as it is there before
Our imagination, however, includes being and the principles of being
within its very operation. Our thinking is about the existence of
things, including ourselves. This is the thinking that we can and do
test against being. As Chesterton implied, if we cannot connect what we
think with reality, we stop thinking about it. In this sense that
connections can be made, even imagination, myth, and fairy tales are
connected with reality which is why, for example, we read the Lord of
We have lively minds. They are, as Aristotle said, capable of knowing
all that exists. Indeed, they seek to know all that exists and are
uneasy if they do not. More especially, we want to know why all that
exists does exist. Our initial experience is that we are--but we are
limited, finite. On the plain of existence, we arrive already having
been given what we are. We wonder, "Why?" We are not asked if we want
to exist, a contradiction in any case. We notice other things besides
ourselves. We are, if we can get out of our own self-concern,
fascinated by those other things. We find that some of these other
beings also wonder, as we do, about this wanting to know everything.
But we are confined to the space and time of our individual existence.
This very experience makes us wonder of our souls are somehow immortal.
This seems to be what concerned Socrates at the end of The Apology.
These reflections were caused by an e-mail, which I received the other
day. A young man, evidently a teacher, wrote to me something he
admitted sounded "strange" and almost "funny." He observed that "for
the majority of my students the existence of things is almost
irrelevant; for them everything is how you choose to think about it.
But then I suppose that the job of the philosopher, especially the
Christian philosopher, is to insist on the obvious because that's
what's most likely to be taken for granted." I was so taken by that
passage that I read it to a class. "The existence of things is almost
irrelevant." For me, the existence of things is the most relevant fact
about the things we daily encounter. Then I began to notice that about
half the people that I meet walking across campus have an i-Pod or some
similar contraption in their ears. When you pass them, they do not hear
you unless you are loud. You have to wave in front of their eyes.
Though music itself is a "thing" and cities are artifacts of many
generations, it almost seems that my friend is right. A wall of sound
exists between man and things.
It is the task of the Christian philosopher to insist on the obvious,
on what is most taken for granted. What is amazing about something is
not "how we feel" about it, or even what we will do with it. Before we
can have any of these reactions, we must know, acknowledge, and even
celebrate the very existence of things. Much of modern thought, I
think, has been a desperate effort to prevent us from knowing this
existence of things. Instead we know our consciousness, or a priori's,
or theories of things. It is as if we wanted a knowledge of the world,
provided it did not require us to wonder why there is something rather
Several decades ago, Jean Cardinal Daniélou wrote, in words that
still seem appropriate: "I believe that there is a certain sickness of
contemporary intelligence, a certain powerlessness to adhere, a certain
powerlessness to say 'yes,' and in an absolute primacy of the 'no.'
This situation is contrary to that which constitutes for me the basic
dignity of intelligence which is the possibility of grasping being."
 If we are primarily interested in how we "feel" about a thing, and
not in the thing itself and what sort of "feelings" that might be
appropriate to it, we cut ourselves off from being. "The basic dignity
of intelligence is the possibility of grasping being," to repeat
Karl Marx once said, in a famous passage in the Economic and
Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, that wherever he looked he wanted to
see only man. He wanted a world without a window that would cause us to
wonder about it all. He was, in fact, setting up a closed world against
God. If all we ever see is man and our own theories and artifacts, we
will never be interested in anything but ourselves and what we can make
or rule. Nietzsche, of course, gave up on any of these theories that
sought to explain reality by some coherent philosophic system once the
connection with being had been lost beginning with Descartes. He
thought we would be more honest just to seek power and make what we
wanted without any pretense that it conformed to a reality that we
could not know.
These remarks I have entitled "the existence of things." The first of
the initial citations was from the Roman poet, Horace. He remarked that
no contradiction exists between our joy or our smiling and our knowing
the truth. Chesterton made the same point. Someone once said that he
could not be serious about what he said because he was so witty in
saying it. Chesterton in effect made the same reply as Horace. He said
that the opposite of "funny" is not "serious." The proper opposite of
"funny" is "not funny." There is no reason why the truth cannot also be
funny, amusing. I cite both Horace and Chesterton on the same point
because reason, in properly knowing things, is a cause of delight, of
amusement, of joy. The intellect, as Aristotle said, has its own unique
pleasure. The existence of things flows out of the abundance of things
and points not to necessity but to gift.
A short poem of Chesterton begins, "There is only one sin: to call, a
green leaf grey, / Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth."  Why is it
a "sin" to call a green leaf "grey?" The basic answer is because it is
green and we know it. When we say of something what it is not, if it is
not, we abuse it. Our minds work by identifying what is, by showing how
things differentiate one thing from one another. Before we choose to do
anything about something we must first have a moment in which we see
its existence--what it is, that it is. Plato was right, truth is to say
of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. Philosophy,
Robert Sokolowski said, consists in first making distinctions. Knowing
is first contemplative. And we want to make distinctions because we not
only want to know that something is, but all about it: how it is,
where, when, and even why.
In a passage reminiscent of Aristotle, Yves Simon wrote, on this same
point: "There is nothing more profound in the life of the intellect
than our eagerness to know, without tepidity and without fear, under
circumstances of a certitude totally determined by the power of truth."
 This is a remarkable sentence. It is precisely this "eagerness" to
know that is the striking thing about us. But Simon adds that this
eagerness is not just a kind of gushiness about novelties. Rather it is
that this power of knowing we have is directed to the truth. We want to
know not just that a thing is true but the evidence and arguments for
it. Simon wisely added that we want to know the truth "without fear." I
had said earlier that modern thought is often guilty of the one "sin,"
of calling the green leaf grey, but also, even more, of doubting its
very existence as coming from outside itself.
Usually, if we do not want to follow the truth, and we suspect where it
might lead us if we do, we will do everything we can to explain it
away, or to interpret it in a way that avoids its sharp distinctions
and demands. The truth is when we conform our minds to what is and know
we do so. We accept without fear that things that constitute the path
we must follow in the great journey to "know ourselves." "The principle
that truth (and knowledge) is worth pursuing is not somehow innate,
inscribed on the mind at birth," John Finnis wrote. "On the contrary,
the value of truth becomes obvious only to one who has experienced the
urge to question, who has grasped the connection between question and
answer, who understands that knowledge is constituted by correct
answers to particular questions, and who is aware of the possibility of
further questions and of other questioners who like himself could enjoy
the advantage of attaining correct answers." 
Finnis, of course, is not denying that a child is born with the
potential capacity to know. What is striking about Finnis' observation
is his emphasis on what it means to know when we are old enough and
disciplined enough to know. But even more, I think, is how awareness
that we are delighted not only with questions and, more importantly,
with answers leads us to others of our kind who "enjoy" this same
knowing the truth of things. What ultimately binds us together is this
common knowledge of a truth that none of owns, but all of us pursue and
enjoy, without fear.
In conclusion, going back to the comment of Horace, the existence of
the things we immediately know really does not, at bottom, fall in the
category of necessity. Of course, there are necessities in nature. But
the fact that we have anything at all before us bears rather the
character of gift. The knowing of what is, of the existence of things,
has the same effect as gifts, a sense of delight and joy that someone
gives us something that stands for himself. Thus the question is this:
What understanding of the existence of things can support this gift
status of things? Only that understanding, I think, that finds in
existence itself as we know it no reason why it must be, no reason, in
itself, why it might not be. The existence of things bears all the
marks of choice, abundance, and truth. And if this is so, what is the
primary human reaction to the existence of things, one that must be
there before all others? It can only be, I think, that of gratitude,
something that Chesterton as a young man already understood.
"For the majority of my students, the existence of things is almost
irrelevant." "Philosophy means reflecting on the entirety of what is
encountered in experience." "How are things in reality?' "There is only
one sin, to call a green leaf grey." "What, after all, prevents a man
from speaking the truth while smiling?"
 Josef Pieper, "Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration," For the Love
of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy (San Francisco: Ignatius
Press, 2006), 289.
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image,
 1974). 35.
 Pieper, 209.
 Jean Daniélou, "La crise actuelle de l'intelligence (Paris:
Fléche, 1968), 40.
 G. K. Chesterton, "Ecclesiastes," Chesterton: Stories, Essays &
Poems (London: Dent, 1957), 285.
 Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority (Notre Dame: University
of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 91.
 John Finnis, Natural Law and Neural Right (Oxford: Clarendon,
Do science and rationality support atheism?
No, says a nuclear physicist. To understand why, you must
be prepared to face the Fundamental Question of Philosophy: Why is
there anything rather than nothing?
Horsehead nebulaThe challenge of militant Islam is focusing new
attention on religion. Many, especially in Europe, are turning from
being indifferent to religion to being militantly anti-religious.
Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are both being blamed for roles in
the bloody war on terrorism. Thus secular Europeans have voiced dismay
at American religiosity and worry that faith-based reasoning is
spreading in Europe, too. Many Britons, for example, believe the
Christian faith of Prime Minister Tony Blair helped lead him to
entangle Britain in America's war in Iraq. Thus also, the Oxford
zoologist Richard Dawkins, who calls himself "the world's most
prominent atheist", asserts the "irrationality of belief in God and the
grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to
The resurgence of a militant atheism represented by these remarks has
been the immediate impetus for writing this essay. My primary goal is
to analyse the question of the rationality of belief in God with
emphasis on the claim that such is irrational because it contradicts
For simplicity, belief in God will be identified with theism and with
the assertion God exists. This ignores the distinction between theism,
which usually considers God as an active agent in world history, and
deism, which does not.
Science cannot answer why anything (including
science itself), rather than nothing, exists. There is nothing in the
universe that can explain the existence of the universe.
Theism generally comes packaged in a religion. The latter is a complex
set of ideas that relate God to all aspects of nature including,
especially, human nature. For example, religions explain thunder,
stars, good/bad fortune, the existence of humankind, the meaning and
proper conduct of life, and so on. Each religion relates these to God
A belief in some religion can and should be distinguished from a belief
in God. Religion is a diffuse topic liable to unending disputation
whereas theism is not. Unfortunately, most discussions fail to keep
this distinction clear. Thus one often reads that religion has made a
claim in contradiction to scientific truth, theism is irrational. This
is simply a confusion of words and concepts: the rationality of theism
does not stand on the scripture of any religion.
Relating God to science
Another important way in which theism is commonly said to contradict
science is in respect to creation. Particular scenarios depend on
particular scriptures but God is always the creator of the universe. On
the other hand, one often hears that science can or will explain
creation (eg, the Big Bang) and so the role -- indeed the primary role
-- of God as creator is superfluous or just wrong.
Thinking just beyond this shallow point, one realises that science can
only explain the creation of something in terms of something else
("something" here includes non-substantials such as laws of nature).
After a bit more thought one arrives at the key creation question known
as the Fundamental Question of Philosophy: why is there anything at all
rather than nothing at all? Analysis of the FQP leads to a clear
understanding of the relation between theism and science.
As a start, let us try to answer the FQP with science. To do this
fairly we grant the stipulation that everything in the universe is
explicable, or will ultimately be physically explicable. This means, in
particular, that all fields of science are reducible to physics and
that every area of knowledge is a proper subject for scientific
inquiry. It does not mean that all explanations will be reduced to
physics. It means just that they could be, at least in principle.
This assumption underlies virtually all of modern science. Biologists
seek ultimate causes of biological phenomena in terms of chemistry;
chemists, in terms of physics. Even mental phenomena are assumed to be
ultimately explicable in terms of the physical brain. Not everyone
believes this scheme to be true, but a real scientist would never
attempt to base scientific explanations on some sort of non-physical,
spiritual essence, force, soul, or will. Even a scientific study of
artistic or religious inspiration would not use the classical
interpretation of inspirations as the in-taking of a spirit.
Science and the fundamental question
Returning to the task of answering the FQP, pick anything -- say a drop
of water -- and ask yourself: why is there this thing? Why does this
drop exist? An attempt to answer this within the framework of science
leads to a series of existing things, and a why-question for each of
The series starting with a drop of water might be sketched as follows.
A drop's existence can be understood in terms of its individual water
molecules, the particular forces between them, and the general physical
laws governing motion: quantum mechanics (QM).
Why molecules and inter-molecular forces exist can be understood in
terms of atoms, inter-atomic forces, and again, QM. Similarly, atoms
and inter-atomic forces, in terms of electrons, nuclei, the
electrodynamic forces between them and QM; and so on.
Eventually one reaches the most fundamental level of physics, its most
basic concepts and equations. All paths of why-questions, starting from
all things, all lead to the same end: the basis of physics. At this
point, the FQP requires you to ask why this basis -- the set of
concepts and equations underlying physics -- exists.
The known basis of physics changes in time, and deepens as our
understanding of nature deepens. However, at any given time, physics
cannot explain the existence of its basis. Its sole job is to explain
what is not in its basis in terms of its basis--which is why a basis is
called a basis. Thus the FQP creates a series of questions all leading
to an unanswerable end -- unanswerable, that is, within the framework
of science. Science cannot answer why anything (including science
itself), rather than nothing, exists. There is nothing in the universe
that can explain the existence of the universe.
That the answer to the FQP cannot be found within the bounds of science
and rationality means only that. It does not mean its answer does not
exist. If an answer is assumed to exist, in some sense of the word
exist, there can be no error in naming it. The traditional name is God.
Thus a very important conclusion: within the framework of science, God
is unknowable -- and therefore, unknown. Furthermore, the unknowable
God must be conceived to be an indivisible unity. For how can one know
of parts of that of which nothing can be known?
Common mistakes concerning creation
It is worth mentioning two red herrings commonly dragged into this
argument. People with a smattering of physics may bring up "quantum
mechanical vacuum fluctuations". Could the universe have been created
out of nothing via a vacuum fluctuation? Could it have been created all
by itself out of nothing (and therefore, it is implied, without need of
The scientific answer is No: a physical vacuum is a thing, something
rather than nothing. Furthermore, there still remains the question of
why quantum mechanics itself exists -- or any natural law for that
Others feel that the FQP can have meaning only if one believes that the
universe was created at some time, before which there was neither time
nor universe. They feel that, therefore, if time extends to the
infinite past, then no moment of creation ever existed and therefore it
need not be explained.
Unfortunately, this still leaves open the question of why the universe
exists at all? Furthermore, why, if it exists today, must it continue
to do so tomorrow?
Alternative views of the FQP
Should the Fundamental Question of Philosophy be taken seriously? Many
(if not most) people ignore the FQP simply because they are not
intellectually serious themselves, but some serious thinkers also
There seem to be three possible views of the FQP:
(1) It is irrational, and hence, uninteresting.
(2) It is rational, but scientifically unanswerable and hence
(3) It is rational and scientifically unanswerable, but still
In the first of these, the claim of irrationality may rest on the
phrase "nothing at all" contained within the FQP. Try to visualise
"nothing at all"! It is not empty space because space is something. It
is not altogether clear that we can conceive of "nothing at all"; but
we cannot coherently talk or ask about that of which we have no
conception. In a similar vein, some people may feel that the claim that
God created the world ex nihilo (from nothing) is irrational since we
have no conception of nihilo.
Another possible irrationality in the FQP is contained in the word
"why". Some thinkers read motivation into "why", not causality. Since
there is no reason to assume that every cause has human-style
motivation, and certainly no scientific cause includes motivation, the
FQP seems to include an irrational assumption. Many serious people
(such as the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume) view
scientifically unanswerable questions of this sort as uninteresting.
It is also possible to argue that a question which is unanswerable is
therefore uninteresting. Why, for instance, hit your head against a
stone wall? Or, similarly, one could argue because a question lacks a
rational answer, the question is irrational. If this is the case, it is
meaningless and therefore uninteresting.
As these examples illustrate, "rationality" is ambiguous and "being
interesting" is subjective. Hence, the first two views listed above
cannot be argued; and no one who maintains either of them can be argued
into seriously considering the FQP -- that question which is central to
a belief in the concept of God.
Tackling the existence of God
What if we take the third view, that the FQP is rational and
scientifically unanswerable, but interesting nonetheless? The modern
and highly influential German metaphysician Martin Heidegger maintained
that the FQP is the only genuine philosophical question. Oddly enough,
he called himself an atheist -- but also claimed that atheists do not
deny the existence of God. Rather, they deny that "God has an
existence". This obscure wording serves to emphasise the ambiguity in
the concept of existence. Heidegger's basic point was that simply
stating that God does or does not exist, without further clarifying the
sense of the word "exist", is ambiguous.
To say that something "exists" normally means that it is within the
universe (of every thing and every being). If we were to say that God
"exists" in this sense, it would imply (since God is the reason for or
explanation of why anything rather than nothing exists) that the
universe explains its own existence. Or, if one prefers to think in
terms of creation ex nihilo, that the universe created itself into
something out of nothing: no-thing created some-thing out of no-thing!
This incoherence amounts to merely a denial either of the meaning of
the FQP, or an unwillingness to face its meaning.
We now approach the end of our chain of logic. To say that God exists
is to understand existence in an enlarged sense. It means that we
accept his complete transcendence, that: the reason for the existence
of the universe lies completely beyond the universe. In fact, it lies
beyond nature -- it is, strictly speaking, "super-natural".
To summarise: we have examined the claim of militant atheism that a
belief in the existence of God is irrational, and that it contradicts
science. We have concluded that the existence of God itself, as
distinguished from particular religious teachings, certainly does not
Furthermore, is "the world's most prominent atheist" correct to assert
that the existence of God is irrational? Only if he believes that the
Fundamental Question of Philosophy is itself irrational, is our answer.
The meaning of “irrational” is flexible enough to allow a belief in the
irrationality of the FQP; but this does not permit the "irrationality
of the existence of God" to be asserted as an authoritative truth. It
is more aptly characterized as a religious faith of atheism.
The upshot of this is that it is simply foolish to assert that science
and rationality support atheism.
Finally, it is possible to reach a rational belief in the existence of
God. One must have first the mental (and perhaps, emotional)
wherewithal to ask the fundamental question. Then one must understand
and accept the fact that its answer is unknowable through science. God,
the answer, transcends the universe of knowable things.
Edward A. Remler is a professor emeritus at the College of William and
Mary, in Virginia. He has worked in nuclear and particle physics theory
for the last 50 years.
Stephen Buckle | Thursday, 16 August 2007
Playing catch-up with scientific change
One of the great cliches of modern journalism is that
technology is racing far ahead of morals. A very convenient excuse,
says a philosopher.
University of DelawareThe dramatic developments in biotechnology in
recent years have allowed levels of human intervention at the very
foundations of life that would, even a few years ago, have been
unimaginable. Not surprisingly, these developments have led to the
raising of many ethical concerns. Moreover, the ethical concerns raised
often are, indeed, concerns – that is, reservations of an indefinite
kind about some innovation, rather than definitive judgements either
for or against it.
This shows that there are often no ready-made answers to the questions
that the new biotechnology raises. This situation is often described as
ethics lagging behind, or failing to keep pace with, scientific change.
But is it right to describe this state of affairs as ethics lagging
behind science? After all, everyday life presents us with difficult
ethical problems without ready-made answers, but it would be absurd to
say that ethics therefore lags behind everyday life. Ethics is not a
handbook of answers to every conceivable problem we might confront in
The justifications offered nearly always suppose
that the end justifies the means. It should be obvious that to be
committed to such a position is to be on extremely shaky ground.
Nevertheless, the problems posed by modern biotechnology seem to raise
this sort of issue in a sharp form: they are not merely difficult, but
involve scenarios that are so novel that tried-and-tested rules and
analogies seem to offer no help. A question like "should we allow the
cloning of animal-human hybrids for research purposes?" is not merely
difficult to answer – it is a question never before faced in human
In such cases, it seems, our ethics does lag behind the new scientific
developments. But if that were concluded, what would it mean? The
conclusion often drawn is that ethics needs to do some catching up
before it can judge the achievements of science. When it is the
scientists who say this sort of thing, this appears to be what they
They could be right. But it should be recognised that this is not the
only possible moral of the story. It could equally be concluded that,
if ethics lags behind, then science needs to do some slowing down so
that ethics can catch up. It is striking, however, that this conclusion
is rarely, if ever, drawn. Why not?
What kind of progress does science represent?
The obvious answer would seem to be the widespread belief that
scientific research is beyond reproach. But if it is getting ahead of
our ethics, how could this be? Science is not some natural force that
proceeds independently of the decisions of the human beings who make
it. So, if scientific research is ahead of our ethics, then, that is
because the scientists themselves choose to press ahead into areas of
research in which there are no ethical signposts. In short, if research
is ahead of our ethics, then it must also be ahead of the ethics of the
scientists themselves. Put more bluntly: if ethics lags behind science,
then the scientists themselves do not know whether what they are doing
is morally justified or not.
This thought seems never to occur to our scientists. Why not? The
simple answer is that they believe that science embodies progress, and
as such is necessarily justified. But this is dangerously ambiguous.
That it embodies epistemic and technical progress is almost beyond
doubt; but this does not show that it is progressive in the most basic
sense, of being a good thing to do. So what makes scientific research a
The typical answer is in terms of the benefits it brings to human life.
But this answer invites two objections. In the first place, it is not
the gross benefit, but the net benefit – the ratio of benefits to
burdens that science has delivered to the world – that matters here.
And, since the burdens it has imposed are anything but trivial –
nuclear weaponry, just to mention the most frightening – it is simple
blindness to appeal to science’s benefits without also bringing into
the picture the dark side of its consequences for human life.
Of course, specific research programs do not need to be justified by
appeal to the overall net benefits of science as a whole – they need
only to appeal to the (net) benefits that they each individually bring.
But this brings us to the second objection: that the justifications for
scientific research are, almost without exception, offered in terms of
their promised benefits – and not in terms of the justifiability of the
processes by which those benefits will be delivered. In short, the
justifications offered nearly always suppose that the end justifies the
means. It should be obvious that to be committed to such a position is
to be on extremely shaky ground.
The rise of science to pre-eminence
How did the scientists come to find themselves in this position? There
are two main reasons. First, natural science made most of its greatest
strides without employing controversial methods – in fact, by methods
which seemed so unexceptionable that they became a model of good
practice for all forms of intellectual endeavour. So it came to see
itself, and to be seen by others as, a morally unimpugnable activity.
(This is why the experiments of the Nazi doctors were so shocking.)
Secondly, it achieved intellectual pre-eminence in Western culture by
defeating the alternative claims of religious authority. It thus came
to be seen as the definitive intellectual authority of our culture,
such that criticisms of its practices must be due either to religious
prejudice, or some other form of hatred of knowledge and progress.
For these reasons, the scientist came, in our culture, to represent
both moral purity and intellectual enlightenment. Amongst the
scientists themselves, this attitude lives on: it is a rare scientific
researcher who does not think of him or herself as a member of an
intellectual vanguard which pushes our culture on to ever-greater
It should not need pointing out that, in so far as this picture of the
scientists’ world is accurate, it would be difficult for them not to
fall into a complacent sense of superiority. If, to such a world, one
were to add the temptations of money and fame, and all the scope for
conflicts of interest that they bring, it is clear that, in such
circumstances, fair-minded and clear-headed moral reflection might not
be the commonest of qualities displayed therein.
Do such conditions actually exist in modern scientific research?
Unfortunately they do, and especially in just the area with which we
are concerned: the new biotechnology. In this area, money and fame are
to be made; it therefore attracts the ambitious rather than the
reflective. The benefits these scientists stand to gain are an ongoing
and distorting pressure on the justification they offer for their work.
We find ourselves, then, in a situation where the selective assessment
of science’s impact on society, combined with the moral complacency
generated by a long period of uncontroversial successes, has
anaesthetised the scientific community to the shortcomings of its
favoured utilitarian justifications for research, and blinded it to the
conflicts of interest inherent in its most highly-controversial
The claim that ethics has fallen behind scientific change is, then, an
indicator of a serious social problem – but not, primarily, of the
problem commonly supposed. If our ethics cannot keep pace with our
science, it is not, primarily, because of the challenging nature of the
questions we need to answer – even though they are challenging, and we
do need to answer them. It is, rather, because, in precisely the most
controversial fields of endeavour, the scientific researchers are, in
large part, ill-prepared and even ill-fitted for the impartial and
serious ethical reflection that their activities demand.
Stephen Buckle lectures at Australian Catholic University
Edith Stein’s intellectual pilgrimage
A distinguished philosopher unravels the thought of one of the
20th century's great women.
Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922 | By Alasdair
MacIntyre | Rowman & Littlefield | 2005 | 208 pages
In her novel To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf employs a
simple simile to describe the mind of the philosopher, Mr Ramsay. She
writes: "If thought…like the alphabet is ranged in 26 letters all in
order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over
those letters, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the
letter Q… Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q." By
this reckoning I think I have probably reached the letter B. Thus, even
though Alasdair MacIntyre, currently senior research professor of
philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, says he is addressing the
"educated common reader", I will prescind from discussing the technical
philosophic points he raises in this excellent introduction to Edith
Stein’s intellectual development before her conversion.
Unlike most academic philosophers and in marked contrast to her
contemporary, Martin Heidegger, Stein did not separate her philosophy
from her life. In 1913, having rejected her Jewish faith, she went to
Gottingen University to study under Husserl, along with a group of
other young, gifted philosophers such as Adolf Reinach, who became a
close friend. Husserl’s phenomenological standpoint saw philosophy as a
cooperative project rather than a matter for solitary effort or the
dominance of a great name. This resonated with Stein; it was a period
of potent intellectual fellowship for her, only interrupted by the War,
in which she volunteered as a nurse in a Red Cross hospital. Her
relationships with her patients, with whom she could often only
communicate in a non-verbal way, deeply influenced her doctoral thesis:
to identify the essential characteristics of empathetic awareness,
awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others. It was accepted summa
cum laude in 1916 and Stein became Husserl’s assistant.
Not the least of the strengths of this short book is MacIntyre’s
discussion of the nature of conversion. To put Stein’s conversion into
perspective (she was received into the Catholic Church in 1922) he
analyses the conversions of three of her contemporaries, all sons of
Jewish families: Reinach, who died in the War and whose widow, Anna’s,
capacity to console her friends made a lasting impression on Stein –
"the power of the Cross" – became a Christian; Franz Rosenzweig chose
to revert to Judaism; Georg Lucacks turned to Bolshevism. The author
also refutes the commonly held notion that to move from unbelief to
belief is irrational; the "leap of faith" does not mean taking leave of
reason but transcending it. The story of the impact of the
autobiography of Teresa of Avila on Stein is widely known. Macintyre
identifies and analyses the four features of this work that she would
have understood; the life of prayer, the obstacles arising from strong
human attachments, Teresa’s rejection of a false spirituality and her
awareness of the possibilities of delusion and illusion.
As a very distinguished philosopher and fellow convert to
MacIntyre is uniquely placed to examine the thinking of this
extraordinary woman who moved from unbelief to a Carmelite convent and
eventually perished in Auschwitz because she was Jewish. Pope John Paul
II canonised her as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. His lucid,
careful study places Edith Stein within the context of the German
philosophic world she inhabited, as well as showing how Husserl’s
thought was itself a radical departure from the sterile, arid school of
19th century neo-Kantianism. The author concludes: "Stein needed to go
beyond phenomenology. It was a providential accident that she
encountered the thought of Aquinas when she did and so became able to
open up just those questions that needed to be asked about the
relationship of Thomistic philosophy to phenomenology. And here it is
Stein’s questions that I am praising rather than her answers." I warmly
recommend it to those educated common readers who have reached the
Francis Phillips | Wednesday, 13 June 2007
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.
Searching for life’s meaning John
Haldane | Friday, 8 June 2007
Despite what sceptics say, philosophy can help us answer the big
questions that always tease mankind.
Philosophy is an
academic discipline with questions to answer and
methods for dealing with them. It also has a two and a half
thousand-year-old history with the years marked by the works of great
figures. Anyone who wishes to practice seriously as a philosopher has
to be familiar with the established questions, methods and texts. At
the same time, however, philosophy is too important for its fruits only
to be distributed among its own professionals. Almost every intelligent
person will ask themselves about the origins of the universe, the
meaning of life, the existence of God, the possibility of an
after-life, the nature of good and bad, and so on. These are
unmistakably philosophical questions and philosophers should try to
relate their own concentrated efforts at answering them to the loosely
structured reflections of people in general.
Knowing how to live well
The historical meaning of the term philosophy is love of wisdom
(philo-sophia). Beginning in the third century BC the Stoics
distinguished between 'philosophy' and 'discourse about philosophy'.
The first concerns living wisely, recognising things for what they are,
appreciating the opportunities and limitations that life offers and
dealing justly with others -- knowing well and acting well. 'Discourse
about philosophy', by contrast, aims to understand the fundamental
concepts and principles of natural science, logic and ethics.
Stoics and members of the other ancient schools engaged in such
abstract discourse; but their main concern was to devise ways of living
that embody wisdom and the love of it -- philosophies. So it was with
Augustine in the 5th century and with Descartes in the 17th. Yet
present-day professional philosophers are for the most part only
interested in technical discourse: philosophical theories rather than
philosophical life. This restriction is a great mistake, I believe, and
is due to the strong influence of scientific thought whose main concern
is the physical composition of the world.
If these radical and subversive critics are right
then searching for meaning in life is like hunting for unicorns - both
are pointless activities based on empty myths. Yet reflective people
continue to ask questions about whether their lives, or life in
general, has meaning. Like the ancients, the medievals and the moderns,
I take these questions very seriously, much more seriously than I take
the declarations of nihilism. But in order to refute the claims of the
subversive critics one must first understand them.
Marx wrote that "the various philosophers have only interpreted the
world differently what matters is to change it". In this he was seeing
a truth but through a distorting lens. It is important to understand
the nature of reality but it is also necessary -- and humanly speaking
more important -- to know how to live well. It is not part of the
philosopher's vocation to change the world but it may well be part of
his duty to change himself. And when those who are not philosophers
periodically adopt a philosophical stance they too must ask how they
Philosophy must make contact with the ancient aims of becoming wise and
virtuous. Christian authors such as Augustine developed the idea of
original sin to explain the darkening of the intellect and the
disturbance of the passions. They suggested that such flaws make it
difficult for us to achieve enlightenment, but they had no doubt as to
the objective value of wisdom or virtue or of their necessity for
living a meaningful life. Indeed there has been agreement upon this
necessity throughout the first two thousand years of philosophy.
Currently, though, there are some who reject this entire tradition as
resting on false (or even incoherent) assumptions. If these radical and
subversive critics are right then searching for meaning in life is like
hunting for unicorns - both are pointless activities based on empty
myths. Yet reflective people continue to ask questions about whether
their lives, or life in general, has meaning. Like the ancients, the
medievals and the moderns, I take these questions very seriously, much
more seriously than I take the declarations of nihilism. But in order
to refute the claims of the subversive critics one must first
According to these radicals we have rightly lost confidence in the
values that we once shared; in the institutions of society and in
intellectual, moral, aesthetic and spiritual authority - in short the
familiar package of elements that constitute a fairly stable social and
cultural order. The critics' challenging and unsettling thought is that
we have left all that behind us, and we are now in circumstances of
profound uncertainty. Sometimes this is expressed in terms of the
imagery of fracture and disintegration: fragmentation of reason,
fragmentation of public culture and a resulting confusion of
perspectives. We find ourselves in what we have become used to hearing
described as to describe as a 'post-modern condition', one in which the
possibility of discussion of human purposes is undermined by apparently
ineliminable features of contemporary thought: the absence of values,
or extensive and irresolvable disagreement about them.
Put another way, we have lost and cannot any longer construct a human
philosophy, an account of our nature that has extensive implications
for the conduct of individual and social life; a way of thinking about
what we are which is directly relevant to how we ought to live. There
are narrowly drawn, rich and powerful philosophies, and there are
looser, broader more encompassing philosophies. One kind is the
religious world view offered by Christianity; Marxism is another
obvious instance. Liberalism also counts in this reckoning as a type of
philosophy.Certainly, its post-modern critics regard traditional
liberalism as part of the philosophical and ideological history of the
West, and view it as rooted in untenable rationalistic ideas.
There are several grounds on which systems of value and meaning have
come to be rejected. One claim is that ways of thinking that have
dominated western culture for the last two and a half millennia
conceive of the course of human history as having some kind of
significance or value (and often as ascending or declining). Obvious
instances of this are ideas of sacred history; for example, the
'developmental' view found in Hebrew scripture and taken up and
extended by Christianity. Thus, Augustine thinks in terms of the
sequence of creation, fall, incarnation, atonement, redemption and so
on. Likewise we can see a de-Christianised version of the flow of
events in nineteenth century thinkers who interpret the human condition
in terms of an intellectual, cultural, or political narrative.
Postmodern critics contend that we simply cannot deceive ourselves into
thinking that human history has any kind of significance, providing
clues as to what we are and how we ought to live.
A related criticism insists that there is nothing to look to save the
facts laid bare by science; and mindful of subjectivity, there may not
even be this. At best there is a continuing process of chemico-physical
interaction between bits of matter. Any effort to find a perspective
that goes beyond this is impossible, be it the transcendental
viewpoints of religion or of pure reason. Even the latter is undermined
by the idea that science and social criticism have taught us that there
is only a valueless material universe to which human imagination has
added the myths of rationality.
A third criticism rejects attempts to discover defining features of
human nature. Such efforts have taken various forms including the
theories of eighteenth century Scottish thinkers. While these authors
rejected pure rationalism in favour of observation and conjecture, they
nonetheless supposed that human nature may be universal, and that on
this basis a theory of value might be advanced. Unsurprisingly,
postmodern critics argue that this retains the form of untenable
essentialism, assuming an objective 'human nature' by which one might
understand individuals and society.
A final criticism is targeted at the very idea that reasoning about
conduct and values could prescribe policies. At best reason is the
organisation of desires; all it can do is co-ordinate preferences and
work out means to their satisfaction. David Hume drew this conclusion
when he wrote that reason is and can only be the slave of the passions,
and his 'instrumental' view has been adopted by most contemporary ideas
of individual and social choice which eschew any ambition to try to
decide what we should desire or what we should want.
New narratives, and
Notwithstanding these claims [of post-modernism], however, it is
significant that we still seek unifying and ennobling visions. We live
in an age that is supposed to be post-ideological, yet all around one
can see attempts to re-construct old narratives or to fashion new ones.
No quarter passes without somebody producing a book on the modern mind,
or the condition of society, and although these are often pessimistic
they are also struggling to try and answer the questions of who we are,
of what we have become, and of where we ought to be heading. The issue,
therefore, is whether such efforts are in vain.
Augustine of Hippo, by Sandro BotticelliConsider the situation in the
area of creative culture. Postmodernist thinking has taken grip among
art theorists raising the interesting question of where art,
architecture, literature and music go "after" philosophy. If one thinks
of the history of European painting, for instance, it has long been an
intellectually rich field, being informed at various stages by changing
notions of the human person, the natural world and so on. It is not
possible to study the work of artists like Giotto, Poussin or Claude
Lorrain without seeing in their paintings certain interpretations of
landscape as a bearer of significance, be it a different set of
meanings in each case.
This is obviously true of religious art, but secular painting has also
been resonant with moral and philosophical conceptions of human beings
and their place in society and nature. People regularly ask such
questions as whether we can still make inspiring art. The fear behind
this is that somehow we have nothing 'meaningful' to say. Without an
animating conception of humanity, portraiture is just a decorative form
of documentation. If there is no idea imbuing the human image with
meaning then all we have is a likeness, a mere resemblance. These
worries are legitimate and they have call forth at least three
responses to the purported loss of ideology.
The first involves going as in the past, but in a romantic spirit,
doubting that one can really ground practice in a defensible
philosophy. For example, one may continue with the tradition of
producing official portraits. Without philosophical conviction,
however, this is apt to fail as serious art. Contemporary portraits of
western political, religious, cultural or professional leaders are
generally lacking in symbolic significance and have little, if any,
cultural resonance. There is neither awe or mystery; nor much sense of
the artists' recognising the distinction between an office and the
occupant of it.
In the past, official portraits were most often celebrating (or
challenging) a role. The individuals were thought to be elevated by the
office, and official portraiture aimed to depict its authority.
Nowadays we find it near-to-impossible to think in such terms. It is no
surprise, therefore, that portraits of heads of state are reduced to
the status of pictures of affluent men and woman of a certain age. The
response of the romantic is to play with ideas of status and office,
bringing in various icons of these, but this is nostalgia-driven
entertainment. The counterpart in building-design is perhaps more
familiar: picking up features of Classical, Gothic and other historical
styles, but without really believing in any philosophy of architecture.
The second response is one of self-conscious (and often
self-congratulatory) irony. Whereas romantic affirmation involves
entering into the spirit of an older order, even though one cannot
believe its ideological presuppositions the way of irony imposes no
demands upon the intellect or the imagination. It is simply a form of
play. Without believing in its philosophical foundations, or even
aspiring to believe in them, one keeps quoting the forms of past
culture. This attitude is prominent in contemporary art and literature
where authors deploy -- with self-announcing irony -- the devices of
However, the practice of cultural quotation is subject to diminishing
returns. If one simply draws from the stock of cultural forms without
adding to it, and is in turn drawn upon, a process of continuing
impoverishment is established. Consider again the case of architecture
and how in cities like Los Angeles the practice of making ironic
reference to the styles of the eighteenth century has led very quickly
to architects quoting recent postmodern buildings. Thereby the
resources are diminished and the meaning of the original inspiration is
Reform and renewal: role of
the arts and professions
The final response, and that which I favour, is one of reform and
renewal. Standing firm in the face of postmodern criticism one
questions whether the things that have been held to be problematic
really are so, asking what precisely the problem is about
transcendentalism, why universal humanism is untenable, and so on. And
having been bold enough to challenge the various postmodern orthodoxies
one may then consider the possibility of re-establishing confidence in
some of the central philosophical and moral ideas of Western culture.
More precisely I believe we need a re-articulation of older conceptions
of human nature, human values and public culture. In the first instance
this may be a task for philosophers, but the various intellectual
disciplines and the elements of deep culture such as the arts and the
professions have an essential role to play if a sense of value and
meaning is to become prevalent once more. Certainly one cannot operate
as if "modernity" had not been, and nor should one simply ignore the
points made by postmodern critics. Reform and renewal are recurrent
necessities in any living tradition: naive premodernism is not an
option; and the idea of a Golden Age untroubled by scepticism is a
fantasy of the ignorant. But before we try to finesse older ways of
thinking we need first to show that they are not bankrupt.
There are I think two ways in which one might do this. One proceeds by
example. If compelling instances can be produced of things having value
then nihilism is refuted. Any complete refutation of this sort would
have to proceed area by area and value by value. Here there is a very
important role for practitioners within the various traditional
professions to make explicit the rationale for each and its
contribution to human well-being. That is not something I can do here
but let me say something, all too brief, about the second way of
proceeding. This is to show that our best understanding of human
affairs is one in which questions of value and meaning arise both for
individuals and for communities.
Some questions about values are psychological and sociological.
Biographers and historians are interested in the ideals that motivated
people; and periodically there are surveys of social attitudes designed
to keep track of changes in morality. These are empirical questions to
be investigated and answered by sophisticated social science methods.
But however successful these means may be, all they can tell us about
are people's attitudes and behaviour. They cannot settle the many
particular questions that people ask about what is good and bad, right
and wrong; and nor can they settle the more abstract question of what
it is for something to be good or bad, meaningful or meaningless. It is
part of the human form of life to deliberate and act in accord with
reasons -- to find meaning. Still, one may ask where is meaning to be
found and what is to be made of the fact that to the extent that
answers may be forthcoming they are likely to be many and different?
Here I return to Aquinas and to the four-fold causal analysis. No
explanation is adequate that fails to identify material, formal,
efficient and final causes, and moreover none is wholly sufficient
until it shows how each is related to the other in a complete
explanation. It is sometimes said that fundamental science has
displaced causal analysis with statements of lawlike regularities, but
apart from anything else these operate as explanations within a
presumed framework of more familiar causes and effects, central to
which are such ideas as agency, direction of process, material, medium,
and so on.
Causality is what holds the world together, and just as it binds and
shapes the action of particles and fields, of elements and compounds,
of microbes and animals, so it unites and directs the actions of human
beings operating as individuals and as members of groups. This might
sound like a reductionist thesis akin to the materialism I complained
of earlier, and it would be if all causality were material; but just as
the forms of causality are several so are the levels at which it
operates. What it means to talk of the material or formal cause in the
case of water is one thing, of wine another, of an artwork a third, of
a an action or policy a fourth and a fifth. Just as cause is an
analogical notion, so too are matter, form, agent, and end.
There is an old Latin saying agere sequitor esse: acting follows upon
being, or as a thing is so it acts. That is true of human beings no
less than of chemical substances but with the difference that within
the broad framework of our common given nature it is for us to
determine what we are, or what we shall become. This is our glory as
self-determining creatures, but it also our burden. We cannot simply
say let nature take its course, for it belongs to human nature to
choose what course to take. Happily, however, we are not without
guidance, for previous generations have made the same journey and trod
the same pathways, encountering the same dangers and distractions, and
finding the same values and meanings. Social institutions represent the
accumulated experience of our predecessors who seeing recurrent human
needs and interests divided the task of securing individual and common
That is the origin of the professions, and it also provides the main
forms of vocation. A human being in search of meaning is less likely to
find it by renouncing the patterns of the past than by adopting and
adapting them. These traditions are organised forms of labour and it is
within them that human beings as creative agents have the best chance
of discovering both meaning and fulfilment.
Certainly we do not live to work, but equally life without work would
be as empty as form without matter. And having recognised the necessity
of work we may then ask about its purposes, and pursuing reasoning
about ends we will quickly be led from instrumental to intrinsic goods;
at which point Mozart's observation appears not as a strange remark
from the past but as a statement of an important dimension of human
existence: "We live in this world to compel ourselves industriously to
enlighten one another by means of reasoning, and to apply ourselves
always to carrying forward the sciences and the arts".
I suspect that this conclusion is one with Dr Escola would also have
agreed. At any rate I hope so.
John Haldane is professor of
philosophy at the University of St Andrews, Edinburgh. The above
article is an extract from The Fourth Rafael Escola Memorial Lecture
given at the University of Navarre in April this year and entitled,
"Vocation and Profession: Finding Meaning in Work."
Address of Papal Theologian on Natural
"Problems and Prospects"
ROME, FEB. 24, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is the speech delivered in
English by the theologian for the Pontifical Household, Dominican
Father Wojciech Giertych, at the conclusion of the international
congress on natural law organized by the Pontifical Lateran University.
The congress was entitled "The Moral Natural Law: Problems and
Prospects," and took place Feb. 12-14.
* * *
New Prospects for the Application of the Natural Moral Law
1) Difficulty with question
I have been asked to speak today about new prospects for the
application of the natural moral law. I have some difficulty with this
question as it was proposed to me.
What is it that the organizers of today's conference are hoping
for? Does the question maybe suggest a hidden deception caused by the
widespread rejection of the concept of the natural moral law in the
ethical culture of the Western world? Is the invitation to speak on
this topic a desperate call to hope that the theory of the natural
moral law will once more be universally recognized as valid and useful?
Are we really seeing signs of a new renaissance in which the theory of
the natural law is being excavated not as a mere archaeological
artifact of a past metaphysical period of history, but as a useful tool
enabling us to explain and justify the needed foundations of morality,
and is it really my task to announce this rediscovery with joy?
The term "new prospects" may suggest that there are new fields of
human activity that have not hitherto been viewed sufficiently, or at
all, in the light of the natural moral law, and that now there is an
occasion to do so. This of course is always true. As social life
develops and becomes more complex, new moral questions appear, and they
need to be analyzed in the light of moral principles.
The impressive development of the medical technologies raises
ethical questions that have never been raised before, and this forces
bioethicists to study these issues and elucidate them. Also, changes in
social structures and economic processes raises ethical questions,
although these are not necessarily studied with such precision and
fervor as bioethical questions.
With the universal failure of Marxist ideologies that had tried to
instill a temporal hope in the realm of politics and economics through
extensive government action, now belief in the presence of the "hidden
hand" of the laws of economics leading, supposedly naturally and
automatically, to welfare and peace seems to prevail. Are there not
serious moral questions to be raised however, concerning the globalized
economy and its politics, with factories no longer being like pyramids
offering stability, employment and hope for economic betterment, but
being like tents in the desert, which one day are here and another day
are moved to another continent, causing unemployment, migration and
separation of families?
Decisions made in banks and governments of one country sometimes
cause intense hardship and social and political crises in another
country or continent. New issues of international politics, such as
ecological problems, and old issues, such as peace in conflict areas,
require the working out of procedures and agreements on international
The increasing mobility of populations, having diverse social and
moral traditions, raises questions of their social interaction. The
working out of public policies particularly in such fields as social
welfare, education and health care requires a common understanding of
the nature of the person, of the family, of parental rights and
responsibilities, as also an understanding of differing cultural
This common intellectual basis, certainly in the Western world, is
more and more difficult to attain as vociferous nihilist and skeptic
pressure groups refuse to accept any binding statements about moral
truth, supposedly in the name of tolerance. The contemporary
increasingly extensive social interaction is raising many new moral
problems, and these certainly can be seen as a new prospect for the
application of the natural moral law, or rather, as a new task for
moralists, who can apply the eternal principles of the natural law to
the new issues.
Are these new moral dilemmas in all possible fields of human
activity, private, social and public, to be studied in the light of
natural law with the same precision as casuist cases raised in the
field of bioethics are studied? Or should more room be left for
political prudence and the personal judgment of those directly
responsible in these questions?
Certainly these are fields for ethical reflection, although the
optimism of the authors of the old casuist manuals of moral theology,
who imagined that all possible future moral situations could be
analyzed, and final judgment could be passed on all of them, is now
seen to be have been tainted with a certain intellectual pride. The
complexity of new moral issues, and the velocity in which they appear,
may mean that many of them will cease to become dilemmas, and they will
never be subjected to serious moral analysis.
The "new prospects" of the title of my conference may suggest that
there is now a renewed interest in the natural moral law, and that in
the face of moral dilemmas there is a fresh search for natural law
In his day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer regretted that natural law
reflection disappeared from Protestant ethics which limited itself to a
static apology of divine grace, juxtaposed against a totally fallen
nature. Since no meaningful distinctions could be made between the
natural and unnatural, because both were equally condemned, the natural
life, with its concrete decisions and relationships, ceased to be an
area of responsibility before God.
This meant that Protestantism was unable to give a clear answer to
burning moral questions of the natural life, and Bonhoeffer lamented
this. Are there contemporary signs of a renewed interest for the
natural law, offering "new prospects" for our societies?
If there are, they are not yet visible. In fact, in the Western
world, at least in the public sphere, there is bleeding atrophy of
understanding what is natural and what is not, leading to changes in
ethical mores that are amounting to a profound revolution of the
foundations of civilization. These changes are not taking place in the
name of some forceful ideology, capable of mustering the support of
crowds -- as was the case with nationalism and communism, both of which
had an altruist element within them -- but in the name of pure hedonism
and anti-rationalist skepticism, hidden under the mask of tolerance.
There is a rapid decline of appreciation of basic moral truths and
of the capacity of seeing what is obvious, in the name of that which is
fleeting, ephemeral, and therefore not intrinsically binding. Will the
social and political approval of gay marriages, of the adoption of
children by gays and lesbians, of divorce, of contraception, abortion,
euthanasia, the manipulation of embryos and laissez-faire theories of
education finally arrive at the point of total absurdity, causing as a
backlash a desperate return to rationality in ethics? We may certainly
hope so in our wishful thinking, but for a few generations, the return
to moral sanity may turn out to be too late.
The present close interaction of differing civilizations, [which]
hopefully [...] will not end in violent clashes, may generate a new
interest in the ethical foundations of civilizations. Today, contrary
to what the Krakow-based Polish historian and theorist of
civilizations, Feliks Koneczny, wrote in the early part of the 20th
century, there is a belief and hope that full integration of people
belonging to differing civilizations is possible and even welcome.
Koneczny claimed that it is not possible to be civilized in two
differing ways at the same time, because it is common ethical
convictions that generate social cohesiveness and condition
civilizations. Ethical standards are more decisive for a civilization
than dogmatic subtleties.
In the past, when people belonging to different civilizations
lived geographically close to each other, they had to live in separate
social groups according to the mores of the entity to which they
belonged, without mixing, because mixtures of differing civilizations
cannot function in the long run. The transfer from one civilization to
another would entail the embracing of a completely new set of ethical
values that would require social uprooting.
"Will a monogamist sell his daughter to a polygamist?" Koneczny
asked. If he would, for whatever reason, he would have crossed the
threshold of a new civilization, leaving the one to which he had
belonged. When civilizations mix, Koneczny claimed, it is normally the
less morally demanding civilization that wins, because the maintaining
of a demanding ethos requires effort and perseverance.
Among the civilizations that he had studied, Koneczny specified
the Latin civilization as the most demanding, because it requires that
all dimensions of life, including the social and political, be bound by
ethical norms. Today, however, Western Europe is rapidly losing, or
totally transforming, its age-old Christian ethical convictions, and in
this it is drifting away from the moral foundations in which for
centuries it was anchored.
At the same time, it is facing more and more directly a foreign
Islamic civilization. Will this encounter finally force Western Europe
to seriously wonder about what is the real source of its specificity,
and to an urgent defense of its own traditional moral fiber? Will it
lead to a re-appreciation of the inherited anthropological and ethical
foundations that made democracy work, or will the washing away of these
foundations cause the crash of Western civilization, just as the crash
of communism was caused by its anthropological catastrophe?
Pope John Paul II, as he elevated St. Edith Stein to the rank of
co-patroness of Europe, warned: "A Europe, that would change the value
of tolerance and universal respect into ethical indifferentism and
skepticism about values that cannot be forsaken, would open itself to
most risky ventures and sooner or later it would see appearing in new
forms the most dreadful phantoms of its own history." Will the
urgency of these questions lead to a new rediscovery of the importance
of the natural law? We may hope so.
Finally, the invitation to search for "new prospects" for the
application of the natural moral law maybe suggests a renewed interest
for the natural law within moral theology, in particular after the
papal encyclicals "Veritatis Splendor" and "Fides et Ratio."
Certainly, a purely kerygmatic and biblical approach to moral
formation is not sufficient if it is not coupled with a sound
anthropology and metaphysically grounded thinking. The invitation to do
what Jesus would have done had he been in our position cannot function
as a basic intuitive moral rule if rational thinking will be discarded.
A Christian moral formation needs to refer to the permanent
structure of human nature and to its finality that can be perceived
also rationally, although with difficulty, because reason has been
wounded, but not destroyed, by original sin. Is the role of the natural
law within the synthesis of moral theology the "new prospect" that I
have been asked to reflect upon? Or are there maybe some other "new
prospects" that I have failed to notice?
2) Birth of a new ethics
Certainly a new prospect that we are facing, which is demanding a
response, is the contemporary birth of a new ethics. In the last 20
years, in many countries of the Western world, a whole new series of
ethical concepts has appeared, expressing a certain moral awareness and
a perception of moral dilemmas, but at the same manifesting a
fundamental epistemological flaw.
Crossing boundaries of nations and states, the media are using the
same new concepts which express attitudes and preconceptions that are
assessed either positively or negatively. We read about a global
ethics, about cultural liberty, dialogue between civilizations, the
quality of life, informed choice, gender equality, single-parenting,
sexual orientation, bodily integrity, same-sex marriage, right of
choice, reproductive rights, women's rights, children's rights, the
right to die, transparency, holism, inclusiveness, nondiscrimination,
ecological awareness, solidarity, openness and tolerance, and we read
also about new vices such as exclusiveness, apartheid, homophobia,
sexual molestation, populism, ultra-Catholicism.
At the same time traditional moral concepts such as truth,
conscience, moral law, reason, moral virtue, perseverance, fidelity,
parents, spouses, virginity, chastity, authority, commandments, sin,
and nature are disappearing.
This is coupled with profound social and moral changes. The number
of those who in their lives will never have the chance to use such
words like father, brother, sister, aunt or uncle is increasing, while
new terms like partner, or former wife are becoming more common.
The appearance of these new moral concepts is coupled with an
immediate normative qualification, the foundations of which are not
philosophical, but political and ideological.
No serious ethical reflection has attempted to define precisely
the new terms, which remain, as if purposely vague, while their
application or the rejection of previous terms is decided by
politicians and by media empires. It is they who decide about the
meaning or the change of meaning of such words as marriage, or family,
which tragic events may be described as genocide and which may not,
what is an expression of a justified liberty of interpretation and what
is unacceptable dogmatism, or that homosexual activity may not be
defined as a psychic disorder or as a sin.
The new ethical terms are interconnected and mutually supportive,
while at the same time they are blurred. Some of them can be
interpreted in a traditional way, but they are mostly used in a
deconstructive manner, weakening the attachment to moral values and
replacing it with an approval of blatantly immoral behavior, caused by
the underlying cognitive skepticism of the new ethic.
This new ethic is at the same time individualistic and global, but
never personalistic or universal. It witnesses the screening out of the
family and of the nation-state, and the growth of supranational, global
institutions, pressure groups and ideologies. The new ethic has a
direct impact on education, on social welfare and health care, on
taxation systems, on codes of behavior in institutions and enterprises,
and on public, national and global policies. This new global ethic has
appeared in a silent way, with no revolution and no social upheavals.
It is engineered in a soft way, and it has succeeded in influencing not
only policies, but above all the mentalities of people.
In itself, the appearance of new virtues is not anything new. The
names of virtues express a moral awareness, which is always culturally
conditioned. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his magisterial study of the
virtues, came across some moral sensibilities for which he did not have
an appropriate Latin term, and so he held on to their Greek terms,
writing about the virtues of "epikeia," "synesis" and "gnome."
The modern appearance of positive terms such as solidarity or
tolerance, or of negative terms such as egoism, which do not appear in
the classical catalogue of virtues and vices, manifests the development
of moral awareness and the formulation of terms to describe it. The
understanding of how to live out a virtuous life is always socially
conditioned, and cultural expectations and their verbal formulations
have an impact on moral sensibility.
The present greater social interaction of a globalized world
accounts for the migration of moral perceptions. What in one period of
history or culture was seen as shocking, in another culture is
marginalized, while attentiveness to other injustices is sharpened. The
present problem lies however, not in the fact that new moral concepts
have been formulated that express new virtues, but in the fact that
these concepts are not clear and precise, even as they function, and so
this presents a challenge for ethicists to study them in the light of
the objective, nature-based moral order, and to ensure that their
meaning will become clear and purified of moral relativism.
3) A comparison with classical virtue theory
St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa of theology studied over 50 moral
virtues, clearly defining their nature, their location in the human
psyche, their mutual interconnection, their dependence upon the
supernatural order of grace, granted through the theological virtues
and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and their correlation with the
commandments. He did not however, attempt to deduce all the virtues
directly and logically from the commandments or from the basic
principles of the natural law, because he primarily saw the virtues as
manifestations of the moral responsibility and creativity of the
individual acting agent, as he faces the truth, and not as a catalogue
of externally imposed moral obligations.
The commandments play an important pedagogical role in excluding
evil action, but good acts flow more directly from the generosity of
the mature individual, who perceives directly the true goodness or the
evil of an action, irrespectively of whether it has been commanded of
forbidden. The prime function in moral education consists therefore
in enabling the individual to grasp the "verum bonum," the true good in
the heart of the moral dilemma, toward which his nature has a natural
inclination, and to respond to it freely, generously and creatively.
And when Aquinas discussed the opposite vices, he saw them
primarily as a subtraction, as the lack of that good which could have
come about through the virtue. The entire ethos, precisely analyzed by
Aquinas is a theological attempt to present for pedagogical reasons,
the fecundity of grace manifesting itself in the mature, virtuous
person, who becomes an icon of God.
To appropriately interpret Aquinas's virtue theory, it has to be
viewed in unison with other studies of Aquinas. Within the structure of
the Summa, Aquinas included an important treatise on the moral law that
instructs the acting agent about the good.
The moral law was viewed by Aquinas primarily from the angle of
the history of salvation, focusing on different relationships of God
with humanity. The natural law, the law of the old dispensation, and
the new law of grace, speak of different states of humanity, but they
combine in offering the multifarious ways of divine guidance for moral
action. The economy of the old law or of the new law of grace does not
therefore dispense from the profiting from the light, which is
available in the natural moral law.
Within the life of grace, in which openness to the grace of the
Holy Spirit is primary, there is also room for rational reflection.
Faith does not blind reason. It makes it more lucid, and so the
inherent finality of beings, that reason alone can perceive, although
with difficulty, supplies a helpful guiding light in the perception of
the "verum bonum" in virtuous action. Since both creation and
redemption are acts of the same, coherent God, there is no basic
contradiction between the revealed law, the law of grace, and the
The grasping of the fundamental precepts of the natural moral law,
whether undertaken theologically within the realm of faith, or outside
it, comes about through the intuition of the "instinctus rationis" that
perceives the ordering of nature toward that which is most appropriate
to it. It is through the fundamental orientations of the reason and the
will, ordering that good is to be pursued and evil avoided, followed by
the perception of the metaphysical natural inclinations of being, that
tends to preserve existence, of animality that tends to transmit life
and educate offspring, and of rationality that strives for supreme
truth -- which includes the truth about God -- and for community life
based upon that truth, that conclusions about the true good in moral
action can be arrived at.
The fundamental precepts of the natural law are perceived through
the metaphysical intuition of the finality of being, and not through a
sociological observation of moral sensibilities that may be deformed by
customs or depraved habits, although the fundamental moral precepts are
corroborated by theological arguments. Obviously, the theological
conviction, confirmed by the dogmatic truth of creation, that human
nature is stable with an inbuilt orientation coming from the Creator,
contributes to the perception of an objective moral order.
A theory of being that would exclude the possibility of a
dependence on the Creator would jeopardize the stability of nature and
its capacity to offer a binding light, illuminating human behavior.
Aquinas' theory of the natural law was not purely philosophical, but it
referred also to theological arguments. His reference to nature, reason
and Scripture in the working out of the theory of natural law may
appear to be circular, but this was not a vicious circle; it was a
presentation of the overall harmony of all the sources of moral
A full appreciation of Aquinas' virtue theory and of his
interpretation of the natural law has also to take into account the
fruits of his serious academic study, reported in the "Quaestiones
disputatae," and entitled "De veritate," although this work should
really be split into two parts, with the second named "De bonitate."
In this extensive and intensive intellectual endeavor, Aquinas
studied the nature and the functioning of the intellect in its
adherence to truth as its appropriate object and the nature and the
functioning of the will as it is captivated by goodness. The first part
of the study analyzes truth itself, God's knowledge of it, the ideas of
God, the word of God, divine providence and the knowledge of God in
predestination. This is followed by a reflection on the cognition of
angels, followed by a study of the human mind, which is an image of the
Trinity. This includes an analysis of the transmission of knowledge by
a teacher, of the working of the mind in prophecy and spiritual
rapture, of the intellect conditioned by the virtue of faith, of
practical knowledge in the synderesis and in conscience, and finally a
particular reflection on the cognition of the first parents before
original sin and of the cognition of the soul after death.
This extensive theological epistemology ends in a reflection on
the knowledge of the unique soul of Christ. In the second part of the
study, a similar procedure is followed with a study of goodness and its
appetition by the will. As with the cognitive faculties, Aquinas looks
into the will of God, into the free choice in which the will and reason
combine in freely choosing goodness, and then into factors which in
humans condition the willing from without, such as the sensuality, the
emotions and finally grace which leads to the justification of the
impious. The study terminates with a reflection on the working of grace
in the unique human soul of Christ.
This extensive analysis of the nature and the functioning of the
spiritual faculties as they move toward the "verum bonum," focused on
their inherent finality, and viewed also from the specific angles that
are their presence in God, in the angels, in humans before and after
the fall as also after receiving the redemptive power of grace, and in
the unique person of Jesus Christ, God and man, offers a profound and
optimistic context for the elucidation and formation of virtuous
Only if there is a deep conviction that the truth about goodness
can be known, and that in the spiritual appetitive power there is
inherent attraction to it, can the personal choice of virtuous action
be grounded. Furthermore, when the spiritual faculties are enriched by
the grace of faith and charity, their fundamental orientations to truth
and goodness are strengthened.
The metaphysical structure of the transcendentals and of the
spiritual faculties as they correspond to them, supplies therefore the
background for the virtuous response to moral dilemmas as they appear.
If this metaphysical grounding of being were to be questioned or even
denied, both anthropology and ethics would be hanging in the air.
Returning therefore to contemporary questions, it has to be said
that the fact that with the globalization of human interaction and with
the wider spectrum of moral challenges, new concepts of new virtues are
being formulated to which correspond real responses, is not in itself
perplexing. This is a normal development of moral awareness as it is
facing new challenges, to which it tries to respond.
What is perplexing, however, is that these new concepts of new
virtues are nebulous or ambivalent, and deprived of any rooting in
coherent and certain knowledge about the human person, about human
nature and its finality. If in the name of tolerance, no certain
knowledge may be had about anything, if no one is entitled to declare
that he holds any truths as true and therefore universally binding,
there is no place for any virtue at all, and all supposedly
value-charged statements are in fact empty.
The contemporary exertion of political pressure to change the
meaning of words -- as is happening in the case of the word marriage --
or the demanding of special privileges in the name of a moral condition
that has been expanded so widely and confusingly that it encompasses
blatantly contradictory values -- as is happening in the case of the
term reproductive rights, which is to include at the same time concern
for maternity and paternity, and the right to free access to
contraception, abortion and the artificial production of parentless
babies -- voids the new moral language of any instinctive obviousness,
which means that the new ethic if it is to be maintained, will have to
be enforced by brute political pressure with no rational justification.
No longer finding support in human nature and in the "instinctus
rationis," the new ethic is condemned to the status of a devastating
ideology that in time will be rejected once its catastrophic effects
will become unashamedly visible. The question is, will it be replaced
by another, equally nefarious and nihilist ideology, lay or even
religious (Puritan or fundamentalist), or will it be replaced by a
return to the respect of the cognitive capacities of the human mind, of
the intelligibility of human nature, its finality and its basic
goodness, and to a confidence in the basic goodness of the reason and
will as they are attracted by supreme goodness?
Resistance to natural law ethics
Why is it that the natural law ethics meets today with such a wide
Is this caused by the weakness of the mind, which has been
conditioned excessively by ideologies and philosophical assumptions
that have impaired its capacity to see the truth, or are there other
In the Enlightenment, reason was elevated above faith that was
treated as superstition and myth in the conviction that reason alone,
freed from prejudices and any external sentimental interferences may
arrive at true cognition with accuracy and precision. This intellectual
pride of reason, which set itself its own method and sphere of activity
ended finally in the self-limitation of positivism, in which reason
arbitrarily limits not only its own possibility of knowing, but even
the existence of that reality which it cannot ascertain and measure
according to its own arbitrarily chosen methods.
The refusal to view the metaphysical ground of reality is a form
of enslavement of the reason that locks itself in its own self-defined
prison. As such this refusal becomes an ideology that blocks the mind
and disenables it from seeing what to another more open mind is
obvious. Skepticism about the cognitive possibilities of the mind ends
in shortsightedness that is ultimately nihilist.
In a paradoxical historical development, today it is the Church
that is defending the dignity of reason, and inviting the minds of
thinkers not to stop short and to reach out to the fullness of reality
that can be known. The reductive self-limitations of the mind
however contribute to the nihilist and relativist moral climate, which
denies the existence of the natural moral order and leaves the new
moral virtues reacting to new moral challenges suspended in a nebulous
groundless atmosphere, prone to whatever ideological winds, fashions
and political manipulations, may appear.
Is the contemporary resistance to the natural law caused primarily
by epistemological weaknesses, or are there maybe other reasons, which
cause the rejection of an objective, rationally cognizable moral order?
While it is true that anti-intellectual fundamentalisms, whether of a
religious or secular nature, may generate a psychological paralysis of
the mind, are there not also other factors causing the shirking away
from truth, even if the mind is naturally inclined toward it? Should we
not look into factors that have constrained the will, both from within
and from without, and disenabled it from persevering in the truth once
it has been known?
It is not only philosophical assumptions and the weak mind that
generate a resistance to the light of the natural law, but also the
deformations or rather the lack of formation and of support of the
will, which generate this resistance. The reason may see, even clearly,
the truth of a moral challenge, and yet the person may refrain from
adhering to it, precisely because what is missing is the moral stamina
that would permit the creative and mature free choice of the "verum
bonum," as it has been truly seen. And when moral truth has been
rejected, primarily due to moral weakness, the intellect then easily
succumbs to the temptation of retreating from truth and to the
espousing of confused relativist and skeptic theories that would
justify the previously made decision to escape from the known truth.
In this context, it is good to remember the words of St. Paul who
wrote about the depravity of men who keep truth imprisoned in their
wickedness. For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them
since God himself has made it plain. Ever since God created the world,
his everlasting power and deity -- however invisible -- have been there
for the mind to see in the things he has made. That is why such people
are without excuse: They knew God, and yet refused to honor him as God
or to thank him; instead, they made nonsense out of logic and their
empty minds were darkened. The more they called themselves
philosophers, the more stupid they grew (Romans 1:18-22).
Paul's acerbic language did not aim uniquely at ridiculing the
intellectual pride of the philosophers, nor did it intend to throw
moralizing accusations at those culpable for the moral depravation of
the society of his times. It was a preliminary step toward his
preaching of Christ and the annunciation of justification through
It is through faith in Christ that the grace of the Holy Spirit is
received, which infused in the reason and the will enables growth in
charity and moral responsibility. In wondering about the reservations
about the natural moral law in contemporary Western culture, should we
not also note the insufficient initiation into the life of grace in the
past and maybe even present Christian moral teaching, depriving those
who have engraved in their consciences and hearts the moral intuitions
coming from their instinct of nature (Romans 2:15) of the only
available power making the adherence to the verum bonum truly possible?
Both the quoted text of St. Paul and the teaching of Aquinas on
the natural law are presented within a vision of faith. It is of course
true that a rational discourse on the moral order should be able to
stand on its own without the support of faith, but this does not mean
that the practical living out of the ethos presented by the natural law
is possible without the life of grace. Even Adam, according to
Aquinas, in the state of original justice needed the support of
grace, although he did not need to apply that grace to so many wounded
spheres of human existence as we do.
Moral teaching needs to be coupled with an initiation into the
spiritual life grounded in Christ, as without it, reduced to a Pelagian
rigorism, it generates an instinctive defensive reaction. It should
come as no surprise that non-Christians, when told about the
possibility of living out the ethos of the Sermon of the Mount on the
basis of a personal relationship with Christ are intrigued and
fascinated, while argumentation based on metaphysical principles and
the natural law does not seem to convince them.
The purpose of the natural law reflection is to show that the high
ethos, made possible through faith in Christ, is not a deformation of
nature, but an eliciting of the profoundest inclinations already
existing within nature. That is why the graced person is pleasing in
his or her naturalness.
This does not however mean that the preaching of Christ within the
moral order is optional, and that moral propriety may be socially
guaranteed uniquely on the basis of a natural law morality. The
suggestion that one may successfully engage in moral discourses
exclusively on the level of ratio -- "etsi Deus non daretur" [as if God
didn't exist] -- in view of convincing intellectually nonbelievers may
be a noble cause, but it is condemned to failure.
Too much is expected then from the rational discourse, which
cannot in itself supply such a force of conviction that would move the
heart, influence the will and enable perseverance in moral truth.
Whereas, an introduction into the spiritual life illuminates the mind,
opening it to the mysterious perspective of encountering God and it
strengthens the will enabling it to persevere in its attachment to the
true good, without in any way, denying the value of the clarity of
natural law reflection.
In response therefore to the question that was addressed to me, I
conclude that as new moral challenges are facing the world and as new
moral sensibilities are being noted and expressed, they require the
intellectual support of ethicists, who will work out the clear
metaphysical foundations of the new moral perceptions.
This endeavor in itself, however, while desirable, is
insufficient. What is primarily needed is the proclamation of the new
law of grace, exactly within the moral challenges and dilemmas.
Reflection on moral responsibilities needs to be undertaken, "etsi Deus
daretur," believing in the fullness of God's gift that includes not
only the creation of the cosmos with its inherent recognizable order,
but also the redemption given through Jesus Christ and the accompanying
grace of the Holy Spirit.
It is in the light of this renewing gift of grace that not only
the functioning of the intellect, but also the functioning of the will
and the dynamism of the affectivity, as also the practical responses to
concrete moral challenges need to be viewed. Not only "fides et ratio,"
a study of reason in the light of faith, but also "fides et liberum
arbitrium" [free will], and "fides et passio" [passion] are needed.
* * *
 Ethics (New York, 1955), p. 143-144.
 Feliks Koneczny, "Prawa Dziejowe" [Laws of History], (London,
1982), p. 174-236.
 Motu Proprio Spes Aedificandi, 10: Insegnamenti di Giovanni
Paolo II, XXII, 2 (1999), p. 513.
 Marguerite A. Peeters, "La nouvelle ééthique
mondiale: dééfis pour l'ÉÉglise," (Institut
pour une Dynamique de Dialogue Interculturel, 2006).
 Epikeia is the virtue of applying to law according to the true
mind of the legislator in situations not specified by the letter of the
law. Synesis is the virtue of good judgment about acts according to the
common law. Gnome is the virtue of good judgment according to higher
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Super II ad Cor., l. 3, c. 3: "Ille ergo,
qui vitat mala, non quia mala, sed propter mandatum Domini, non est
liber; sed qui vitat mala, quia mala, est liber."
 Jean Porter, "Natural and Divine Law. Reclaiming the Tradition
for Christian Ethics," (Ottawa: Novalis; Grand Rapids, Cambridge:
Eerdmans, 1995), p. 140-141.  John Paul II, "Fides et Ratio," 56.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, qu. 95, art. 4, ad
1: "Homo post peccatum ad plura indiget gratia quam ante peccatum, sed
 Servais Pinckaers, O.P., "Les sources de la morale
chréétienne. Sa mééthode, son contenu, son
histoire," (Fribourg : ÉÉditions Universitaires, Paris:
Cerf, 1985), p. 171.
By Stephen Buckle
Friday, 05 January 2007
Probably the most
persuasive ethical theory in contemporary ethical debates is
Utilitarianism is one of the most prominent of modern moral
philosophies, and the most controversial. Its denial that moral rights
are the basic currency of moral thinking – and the manifold
consequences of this denial in a wide range of significant practical
issues – is well known. What is not so well understood, however, is
where utilitarianism came from, and why, under the more general rubric
of "ethical consequentialism", it now enjoys such respect in academic
meta-ethical debates. This paper aims to throw some light on these
issues, and, by doing so, to identify utilitarianism’s fundamental
commitments – and to indicate why the academic preoccupation with
"ethical consequentialism" is a distraction from the main issue.
What is Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism, as a distinct moral doctrine, is commonly traced
to the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). His book, An
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, published in
1789, the year of the French Revolution, can be considered to have
launched utilitarianism upon the (Anglophone) world. This conjunction
of events brought Bentham considerable fame, since utilitarianism was
thought to capture the progressive spirit of the Revolution. His
reformist writings made him the godfather of a group called the
Philosophic Radicals, who advocated a series of reforms based on
utilitarian principles. Prominent amongst the Radicals was James Mill,
the father of John Stuart Mill.
Bentham’s utilitarianism proclaimed that the worth of any action
lay entirely in its usefulness (or utility) for human beings. Hence the
doctrine’s name. But the distinctive character of the doctrine depended
on his further specification of what counted as useful: he claimed that
human happiness was the measure, and further stipulated that happiness
was not some abstruse philosophical ideal, but merely pleasure. His
further stipulation that each person’s pleasure counted for the same
gave the doctrine the practical edge which has always been, for its
advocates, one of its primary attractions: it meant that alternative
courses of action could be assessed for their moral worth simply by
adding up their consequences in terms of the pleasure (+1) or pain (–1)
imposed on those affected. The best course of action was simply the
course of action that generated the highest score. Moral mathematics
Utilitarianism thus construed can be divided into two component
parts: its form and its content. The formal component is its model of
reasoning, that is, its consequentialism: the conviction that
alternative courses of action are to be measured purely by their
consequences. This element has become the main focus of attention in
recent years, and explains why "consequentialism" has become the
preferred mode of self-description amongst philosophical sympathizers.
But things were not always so. In the beginning, it was
utilitarianism’s content that was the more striking and (to its
followers) more attractive component of the theory. The absence of any
appeal to higher authorities or to metaphysical ideals made it appear
the ideal theory for a new secular age.
The principal source of complaint from its sympathetic critics lay
in the thought that the secularism achieved was too crude,
psychologically speaking. The reduction of happiness – and, by
extension, all human ideals – to the mere quantity of (physical)
pleasure led John Stuart Mill to describe Bentham’s position as moral
philosophy reduced to the "principles which regulate trade". So Mill
proposed a compromise view – indebted to the hierarchical moral
psychology of Plato – in which pleasures could be divided into higher
(intellectual) pleasures and lower (physical) pleasures, such that the
higher always trump the lower. (He famously observed: "It is better to
be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be
Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied".) But this proposal found
little favour amongst his fellow-utilitarians, because it destroyed
what most found so attractive about the new theory: its promise of
mathematically-certain moral conclusions.
The pursuit of this promise – principally in the hands of
twentieth-century economists – led to a significant change in the
theory itself. The basic currency of utilitarianism, pleasure, allowed
only very limited, and indeed misleadingly limited, quantification.
Bentham had "solved" the problem by stipulating that everyone was to
count for one. As a principle of basic human equality, this may be all
very well. But as a principle of moral mathematics, it allowed only the
crude measures: pleasure = +1, pain = –1. But pleasures and pains come
in degrees, so, even if everyone is equal in general value, the
intensities of their pleasures and pains, and therefore their specific
values, need not be. So any serious attempt to measure the highest
utility must fail. A different measure was therefore needed.
The new measure proposed dispensed with the theory’s prior focus
on subjective satisfactions (i.e. on happiness or pleasure). It
replaced this hidden standard with a thoroughly public one:
preference-satisfaction, or, in cruder terms, getting what you want.
The advantage of this change is entirely to do with quantifiability:
while it is impossible to measure the degree of happiness or pleasure
achieved by a certain action or policy, it is perfectly possible to
measure the extent to which preferences have been satisfied. If Person
A wants a new Mercedes every year, whereas Person B wants good
hospitals, it will be obvious to all whether, or to what extent, a
given action or social policy delivers them the objects of their
desire. It will even be possible to measure various alternative social
policies by the number of preferences each can be predicted to satisfy.
The dream of moral mathematics can thus be saved; so the economists,
and, following them, the utilitarian philosophers, came to advocate the
greatest level of preference-satisfaction as the practically-rational –
and thus the moral – standard by which possible actions or social
policies are to be judged. This theory is known as "preference
utilitarianism", to distinguish it from the original, hedonic, theory.
(Perhaps the best-known version of preference utilitarianism is Peter
Singer’s ethical theory.)
Consequentialism and the form
of practical reasoning
"Consequentialism" is the name for the formal part of the
utilitarian doctrine: the view that all practical reasoning is in terms
of consequences, such that the best course of action is necessarily
that course of action that produces the best consequences. It is
distinct from utilitarianism in that it resists stipulating what those
consequences are. As such, it can be thought of as an all-embracing
doctrine about what decisions or actions must be like to be practically
rational – and so is commonly adjudged by philosophers to provide a
sophisticated background test for all practical decision-making.
Since consequentialism does not tell anyone what to do – it
cannot, because it resists telling us which consequences count – it is
not itself an ethical theory. But it is plainly not neutral with
respect to ethical theory, since it rules out – as irrational – any
variety of ethical thinking that fails to fit the consequentialist
pattern. Consequentialism thus seems to provide powerful background
support for utilitarianism, by removing all non-consequentialist
theories from serious consideration. Given that most traditional
ethical doctrines are not obviously fitted to the consequentialist
mould, the upshot is that traditional ethical values – the source of
criticisms of utilitarian doctrines – can be set aside as mere
prejudice obstructing the implementation of progressive moral opinion.
Consequentialist practical rationality thus sweeps the field clean for
Consequentialism and rational
In this light, it is plainly important to examine the credentials
of the consequentialist theory of practical rationality. In brief, it
can be described as the view that rational choice consists in choosing
some good outcome; that it is more rational to choose the best amongst
alternative possible goods; and so rational choice and action is to be
defined in terms of maximizing good outcomes. Ethics then plugs into
this basic framework by specifying in what terms the good outcomes are
to be understood, i.e. in terms of happiness or desire-satisfaction or
character-development or even some variety of ideal-attainment.
Ethically good action will therefore be the attempt to maximize the
specified good outcome.
Rationality is thus defined purely in terms of the maximizing
tendency, and not at all in terms of the actual values pursued: the
rational choice conception is neutral with respect to actual values.
This is commonly taken to be the strength of this conception of
rationality: its neutrality is attributed to its degree of abstraction
and so also of explanatory power. This is, however, only half true. For
varieties of choice and action that uncontroversially fit into this
pattern, the abstraction and so explanatory power of this conception of
rationality is undeniable. But it is certainly not the case that ethics
uncontroversially fits the pattern: as mentioned above, traditional
ethics is not purely consequentialist, and so needs to be redefined in
order to fit. Traditional norms or duties have to be reconceived as
desires (and perhaps also, as an intermediate step, as values). Such
reconception is plainly not a neutral process, so why should it be
In order to explain this, a thoroughly non-neutral commitment of
modern rational choice theory needs to be brought to the fore: its
conception of reason as a calculative capacity in the service of given
values. The calculative aspect lies in the fact that rationality on
this model essentially amounts to adding up the quantity of goodness of
each alternative, in order to choose the highest scoring alternative.
The givenness of the values is plain from the fact that the model
accords them no theoretical attention whatsoever. Reason is thus
conceived as a service industry, a method applicable to one’s values in
order to assist in their attainment: the values themselves are not open
to rational assessment. Why not? The standard rationale for this view
is that values are not subject to rational assessment because values
are subjective. They come into the world through human desires, and do
so because they are in fact nothing more than human desires. (And, it
is usually added, since humans are all different and desire different
things, values are wholly personal – what each person desires.)
The model of reason built into rational choice theory is thus a
version of the "Humean" (or instrumental) theory of reason: reason
serves desire, and does so by calculating how desires are most
efficiently satisfied. Reason cannot therefore judge between
alternative desires; and, given that values and desires are equated,
reason cannot judge between alternative values. This theory of reason
amounts to a reinterpretation of human nature: specifically, of the
idea that the human being is the rational being. Traditionally, this
meant that the human being is a being who acts in the light of
rationally-acquired knowledge of the world, including knowledge of
objective goods. In the Humean reinterpretation, it means only that the
human being is a being which calculates how to satisfy its desires: it
is an animal distinguishable from other animals only by its greater
capacity to figure out how to get what it wants. To see what is lost in
this reconception, it is only necessary to observe that it implies no
difference in dignity between animal and human life. So the idea that
there is a distinctive dignity to human beings turns out to be
unjustified on this conception.
Form and content issues: a
One central task of an examination of consequentialist modes of
ethical thinking must therefore be to examine the form of rationality
built into such thinking: the Humean model of practical rationality.
This will require a direct assessment of the basics of modern rational
choice theory: its conception of rationality (and implicit conception
of human nature); and its equation of norms (or duties) and values and
Utilitaranism adds to this form a distinctive content. So
examination of the specifically utilitarian brands of consequentialism
requires assessing the distinctive content of utilitarian values: of
the ethical value of a hedonic conception of happiness ("classical"
utiliatarianism), and, especially, of the ethical value of the mere
fact of getting what one wants (preference utilitarianism). The impact
of these values on practical ethical questions then needs to be
identified and assessed. This will include, among other things, their
impact on such commonly-employed notions as the meaning and dignity and
quality of a human life.
At bottom, utilitarian moral theory is a consequence of the
empiricist revolution in modern philosophy. Empiricism denied innate
knowledge and restricted what could be known to human experience. But
it did more than that. It implicitly denied that human beings were the
truth-seeking rational beings that the ancient and medieval worlds had
taken them to be. Hume’s dethroning of reason has to be seen in this
At the same time, however, modern empiricism accepted Aristotle’s
view that experience can deliver only useful knowledge. So a reason
that only serves passion is a calculative capacity concerning only
which of the available alternative actions is the most useful. Any idea
of moral truth, or even of value other than usefulness, has simply been
set aside. In consequence, all that is needed to generate specific
utilitarian theories is to settle on a criterion of usefulness.
Bentham’s hedonic standard and the economists’ preference-satisfaction
standard are the two most widely-accepted criteria, and so the most
influential theories. It is plain that both implicitly rule out the
distinctive concerns of a rational being, as traditionally understood,
and so both fit the Humean recasting of the human being.
The "ethical consequentialism" that so preoccupies the academic
moral philosophers, with its attempt to legislate for acceptable moral
positions by reference merely to (its account of) the form of practical
reasoning, is thus a distorting lens through which to comprehend human
morality. This apparently formal category in fact predisposes filling
out ethical theory according to the narrowed content imposed by
empiricism’s restriction to the useful, and so is not the neutral
category it purports to be. In the end, then, the fundamental division
between utilitarianism and its traditional rivals will not be settled
by the formalist preoccupations of so much contemporary meta-ethics.
What is fundamentally at issue is the nature of the human being.
Philosopher Stephen Buckle teaches at the Australian Catholic
(1) The view was certainly in the wind elsewhere (a point often
neglected in Anglophone philosophical writings), and Bentham’s claim to
originality is not beyond dispute. Karl Marx, for example, claimed that
Bentham "simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvétius and
other Frenchmen had said with wit and ingenuity in the eighteenth
century". (Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth,
Penguin: 1976), I, 758n.)) Marx here thinks of Bentham as a
nineteenth-century figure, since it was in the early nineteenth century
that his influence was at its height.
(2) See, for example, James E. Crimmins, Secular Utilitarianism:
Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy
Bentham (Oxford University Press, 1990).
(3) John Stuart Mill, "Bentham", in John Stuart Mill and Jeremy
Bentham, Utilitarianism and Other Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
(4) John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Oxford University Press,
(5) The fact that getting what you want might not make you happy
is a residual embarrassment to the theory, about which philosophers
occasionally fret. The economists, for their part, have ignored
happiness as a goal, despite its popularity as a measure of a
successful life. Why? Several possibilities suggest themselves: because
it is not measurable and so not to be accepted as a scientific concept;
or because they have assumed that getting what you want equals
happiness; or even because they have defined happiness in terms of
preference-satisfaction. In short, they have swept the problem under
(6) See Aristotle, Metaphysics, I. 1 (many editions); and cf. John
Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), e.g. I. i. 5: "We shall not have much
reason to complain of the narrowness of our minds, if we will but
employ them about what may be of use for us".
(7) The point, and its limiting effects on human life, are central
concerns in a famous 19th-century examination of the utilitarian
spirit, Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1861). See, in
particular, Bazarov’s remark that "we base our conduct on what we
recognize as useful"; Fathers and Sons (Harmondsworth: Penguin (1975),
Are Believers Delusional?
Richard Dawkins vs. David Quinn
DUBLIN, Ireland, OCT. 23, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Differences over the
existence of God, free will and the effect of religion on the world
triggered a spirited debate recently on Irish public radio.
The debate between Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and
David Quinn, columnist at the Irish Independent, took place Oct. 9 on
"The Tubridy Show." The show was hosted by Ryan Tubridy and broadcast
on radio station RTE Radio 1.
* * *
Tubridy: Your most recent book is called "The God Delusion." Let's talk
about the word delusion, just to put it into context. Why did you pick
Dawkins: The word delusion means a falsehood which is widely believed,
to me, and I think that is true of religion, it is remarkably widely
It is as though almost all of the population, or a substantial
proportion of the population, believe that they'd been abducted by
aliens in flying saucers -- you'd call that a delusion. I think God is
a similar delusion.
Tubridy: And would it be fair to say you equate God with, say, the
imaginary friend, the bogeyman, or the fairies at the end of the garden?
Dawkins: Well, I think he is just as probable to exist, yes. And I do
discuss all those things, especially the imaginary friend, which I
think is an interesting psychological phenomenon in childhood. And that
may possibly have something to do with the appeal of religion.
Tubridy: So take us through that a little bit, about the imaginary
Dawkins: Many young children have an imaginary friend. Christopher
Robin had Binker; a little girl who wrote to me had a little purple
man. The girl with the little purple man actually saw him, she seemed
to hallucinate him, and he appeared with a little tinkling bell, and he
was very, very real to her, although in a sense she knew he wasn't real.
I suspect that something like that is going on with people who claim to
have heard God, or seen God, or hear the voice of God.
Tubridy: And we're back to delusion again. Do you think that anyone who
believes in God, anyone of any religion, is deluded? Is that the bottom
line with your argument, Richard?
Dawkins: Well, there is a sophisticated form of religion. One form of
it is Einstein's, which really wasn't religion at all.
Einstein used the word "God" a great deal, but he didn't mean a
personal God, he didn't mean a being who could listen to your prayers
or forgive your sins.
He just meant it as a kind of poetic way of describing the deep
unknowns, the deep uncertainties of the root of the universe.
Then there are deists who believe in a kind of God, a kind of personal
God who set the universe going, a sort of physicist God, but then did
no more, and certainly doesn't listen to your thoughts, and has no
personal interest in humans at all.
I don't think I would use a word like delusion for, certainly not for
Einstein, and I don't think I would for a deist either. I think I'd
reserve the word delusion for real theists, who actually think they
talk to God and think God talks to them.
Tubridy: You have a very interesting description in "The God Delusion"
of the Old Testament God. ... You described God as a "misogynistic,
homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential,
megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."
Dawkins: Well, that seems fair enough to me, yes.
Tubridy: There are those who would say that's a little over the top.
Dawkins: Read your Old Testament if you think that. Just read it. Read
Leviticus, read Deuteronomy, read Judges, read Numbers, read Exodus.
Tubridy: And is it your contention that these elements of the God as
described by yourself are what has not helped matters in terms of, say,
global religion and the wars that go with it?
Dawkins: Well, not really because no serious theologian takes the Old
Testament literally, anymore, so it isn't quite like that.
An awful lot of people think they take the Bible literally, but that
can only be because they've never read it, because if they ever read
it, they couldn't possibly take it literally.
But I do think people are a bit confused about where they get their
morality from. A lot of people think they get their morality from the
Bible because they can find a few good verses -- parts of the Ten
Commandments are OK, parts of the Sermon on the Mount are OK -- so they
think they get their morality from the Bible. But actually of course
nobody gets their morality from the Bible; we get it from somewhere
And to the extent that we can find good bits from the Bible, we
cherry-pick them, we pick and choose them, we choose the good verses
from the Bible and we reject the bad.
Whatever criterion we use to choose the good verses and throw out the
bad, that criterion is available to us anyway, whether we're religious
or not. Why bother to pick verses, why not just go straight for the
Tubridy: Do you think the people who believe in God and in religion
generally, who you think have -- you use the analogy of the imaginary
friend -- do you think that the people who believe in God and religion
are a little bit dim?
Dawkins: No, because many of them clearly are highly educated and score
highly on IQ tests and things.
Tubridy: Why do they believe in something you think doesn't exist?
Dawkins: Well I think people sometimes are remarkably adept at
compartmentalizing their mind, separating their mind into two separate
There are some people who even manage to combine being apparently
perfectly good working scientists, with believing that the Book of
Genesis is literally true, and that the world is only 6,000 years old.
If you can perform that level of double-think, then you could do
Tubridy: But they might say that they pity you because you don't
believe what they think is fundamentally true.
Dawkins: Well, they might, but we'll have to argue it out by looking at
the evidence. The great thing is to argue it by looking at evidence,
not just to say, oh well this is my faith, there is no argument to be
had, you can't argue with faith.
Tubridy: David Quinn, columnist at the Irish Independent, show us some
Quinn: Well, I mean the first thing I'd say is that Richard Dawkins is
doing what he commonly does, which is he's setting up straw men, so he
puts God in the same -- he puts believing in God in the same --
category as believing in fairies.
Well, children stop believing in fairies when they stop being children,
but they usually don't stop believing in God because belief in God, to
my mind, is a much more rational proposition than believing in fairies
or Santa Claus.
Tubridy: Do we have more proof that God exists than we do for fairies?
Quinn: I'll come to that in a second.
The second thing is that by compartmentalizing yourself, and he uses
the examples of, well, you got intelligent people who somehow or other
also believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and we have a young
Earth, and they don't believe in evolution.
But again, that's a too stark an either-or. There are many people who
believe in God, but also in evolution and believe the universe is 20
billion years old, and believe fully in Darwinian evolution, or
whatever the case may be.
Now, in all arguments about the existence and nonexistence of God,
often these things don't even get off the launch pad because the two
people debating can't even agree on where the burden of proof rests.
Does it rest with those who are trying to prove the existence of God?
Or does it rest with those who are trying to disprove the existence of
But I suppose, if I bring this onto Richard Dawkins' turf, and we talk
about the theory of evolution: The theory of evolution explains how
matter, which we are all made from, organized itself into, for example,
highly complex beings like Richard Dawkins and Ryan Tubridy, and other
human beings. But what it doesn't explain, just to give one example, is
how matter came into being in the first place.
That, in scientific terms, is a question that cannot be answered, and
can only be answered, if it can be answered fully at all, by
philosophers and theologians. It certainly can't be answered by science.
And the question of whether God exists or not, cannot be answered fully
by science either. And commonly, and a common mistake that people can
believe, is that the scientist who speaks about evolution with all the
authority of science can also speak about the existence of God with all
the authority of science -- and of course he can't.
The scientist speaking about the existence of God is actually engaging
in philosophy or theology, but he certainly isn't bringing to it the
authority of science per se.
Tubridy: Back to the first question, have you any evidence for me?
Quinn: Well I would say the existence of matter itself, I would say the
existence of morality, myself and Richard Dawkins clearly have
different understandings of the origins of morality, I would say free
If you're an atheist, logically speaking, you cannot believe in
objective morality, you cannot believe in free will.
These are two things that the vast majority of humankind implicitly
believe in. We believe for example that if a person carries out a bad
action, we can call that person bad because we believe that they are
freely choosing those actions. An atheist believes we are controlled
completely by our genes and make no free actions at all.
Tubridy: What evidence do you have, Richard Dawkins, that you're right?
Dawkins: I certainly don't believe a word of that. I do not believe we
are controlled wholly by our genes. Let me go back to the really
important thing that Mr. Quinn says.
Quinn: How are we independent of our genes by your reckoning? What
allows us to be independent of our genes? Where is this coming from?
Dawkins: Environment, for a start.
Quinn: But hang on, but that is also a product of, if you like, matter,
Dawkins: Yes, but it's not genes.
Quinn: OK, what part of us allows us to have free will?
Dawkins: Free will is a very difficult philosophical question, and it
is not one that has anything to do with religion, contrary to what Mr.
Quinn: It has an awful lot to do with religion, because if there is no
God, there is no free will, because we are completely phenomena.
Dawkins: Who says there is no free will if there is no God? That is a
ridiculous thing to say.
Quinn: William Provine for one, whom you quote in your book. I have a
quote here from him. Other scientists as well believe the same thing,
that everything that goes on in our heads is a product of genes,
entity, environment and chemical reactions, that there is no room for
And Richard, if you haven't got to grips with that, you seriously need
to, because many of your colleagues have, and they deny outright the
existence of free will, and they are hardened materialists like
Tubridy: OK, Richard Dawkins, your rebuke to that note if you wish.
Dawkins: I am not interested in free will. What I am interested in is
the ridiculous suggestion that if science can't say where the origin of
matter comes from, theology can.
The origin of matter is a very -- the origin of the whole universe --
is a very, very difficult question. It's one that scientists are
working on, it's one that they hope, eventually, to solve.
Just as before Darwin, biology was a mystery, Darwin solved that; now
cosmology is a mystery. The origin of the universe is a mystery, it's a
mystery to everyone. Physicists are working on it, they have theories,
but if science can't answer that question, then it's sure as hell
theology can't either.
Quinn: Forgive me if I can come in here. It is a perfectly reasonable
proposition to ask yourself, Where does matter come from? And it is
perfectly reasonable as well to posit the answer: God created matter.
Dawkins: It is not reasonable.
Quinn: Many reasonable people believe this. It is quite a different
category to say, "Look, we will study matter and we will ask how matter
organizes itself in its particular forms," and come up with the answer:
It is quite another question to ask, Where does matter come from to
begin with? And if you like, you must go outside of matter to answer
that question, and then you're into philosophical and theological
Dawkins: How can you possibly say God did it if you can't say where God
Quinn: Because you must have an uncaused cause for anything at all to
Now I see in your book, you come up with an argument against this that
I frankly find to be bogus. You come up with the idea of a mathematical
But this does not apply to arguments about uncaused causes and unmoved
movers, because we're not talking about math, we are talking about
existence and existentiality. Nothing exists unless you have an
uncaused cause, and that uncaused cause, and that unmoved mover, is by
Dawkins: You just defined God as that. You just defined the problem out
of existence. That's no solution to the problem. You just evaded it.
Quinn: You can't answer the question where matter comes from, you as an
Dawkins: I can't, but science is working on it. You can't answer it
Quinn: It won't come up with an answer. And you invoked a "mystery
argument" that you accuse religious believers of doing all of the time.
You invoke it for the very first and most fundamental question about
reality. You do not know where matter came from.
Dawkins: I don't know, science is working on it. Science is a
progressive thing that is working on it. You don't know, but you claim
that you do.
Quinn: I claim to know the probable answer.
Tubridy: Can I suggest that the next question, it is quite appropriate,
is on the role of religion in wars. When you think of the difficulty
that it brings up on the local level, Mr. Dawkins, do you believe the
world would be a safer place without religion?
Dawkins: Yes I do. I don't think religion is the only cause of war,
very far from it. Neither the Second World War, nor the First World War
were caused by religion, but I do think that religion is a major
exacerbator, and especially in the world today, as a matter of fact.
Tubridy: OK, explain yourself.
Dawkins: Well, I think it's pretty obvious if you look at the Middle
East, if you look at India and Pakistan, if you look at Northern
Ireland, there are many, many places where the only basis for hostility
that exists between rival factions who kill each other is religion.
Tubridy: Why do you take it upon yourself to preach, if you like,
atheism -- and there's an interesting choice of words in some ways.
You've been accused of being something like a fundamental atheist, if
you like, the high priest of atheism. Why go about your business in
such a way that you try to disprove these things? Why don't you just
believe in it privately, for example?
Dawkins: Well, fundamentalist is not the right word. A fundamentalist
is one who believes in a holy book, and thinks that everything in that
holy book is true.
I am passionate about what I believe because I think there is evidence
for it. And I think it's very different being passionate about evidence
from being passionate about a holy book.
So, I do it because I care passionately about the truth. I really,
really believe it's a big question, and it's an important question,
whether there is a God at the root of the universe. I think it's a
question that matters, and I think that we need to discuss it, and
that's what I do.
Quinn: Ryan, if I can say, Richard has just come up with a definition
of fundamentalism that suits him. He thinks that a fundamentalist is
someone who has to believe in a holy book.
A fundamentalist is someone who firmly believes that they have got the
truth, and hold that to an extreme extent, and become intolerant of
those who hold to a different truth. Richard Dawkins has just outlined
what he thinks the truth to be. It makes him intolerant of those who
have religious beliefs.
Now in terms of the effect of religion upon the world, I mean at least
Richard has rightly acknowledged that there are many causes of war and
strife and ill will in the world, and he mentions World War I and World
In his book he tries to get neatly off the hook of having atheism
blamed, for example, for the atrocities carried out by Joseph Stalin,
saying that these have nothing particularly to do with atheism.
Stalin, and many communists who were explicitly atheistic, took to view
that religion was precisely the sort of malign and evil force that
Richard Dawkins thinks it is, and they set out from that premise to, if
you like, inflict upon religion, as sort of their own version of a
final solution, they set to eradicate it from the earth through
violence, and also through education that was explicitly anti-religious.
And under the Soviet Union, and in China, and under Pol Pot in
Cambodia, explicit and violent efforts were made to suppress religion
underground, religion was a wicked force and we have the truth, and our
truth would not admit religion into the picture at all, because we
believe religion to be an untruth. So atheism also can lead to
fundamentalist violence, and did so in the last century.
Tubridy: Can we let Richard in here?
Dawkins: Stalin was a very, very bad man, and his persecution of
religion was a very, very bad thing. End of story. It has nothing to do
with the fact that he was an atheist.
We can't just compile lists of bad people who were atheists and lists
of bad people who were religious. I am afraid that there were plenty on
Quinn: Yes, but Richard you are always compiling lists of bad religious
people. You do it continually in all your books, and then you devote a
paragraph to basically try to dissolve atheism of all blame for any
atrocity throughout history. You cannot have it both ways.
Dawkins: I deny that.
Quinn: Of course you do it. Every time you are on a program, talking
about religion, you bring up the atrocities committed in the name of
religion, and then you try to minimize the atrocities committed by
atheists because they were so anti-religious, and because they regarded
it as a malign force, in much the same way as you do. You are trying to
have it both ways.
Dawkins: Well, I simply deny that. I do think that there is some evil
in faith, because faith is belief in something without evidence.
Quinn: But you see, that is not what faith is. You see, that is a
caricature and a straw man, and it's so typical. That is not what faith
is. You have faith that God does not exist.
Dawkins: What is faith?
Quinn: Wait a second. You have faith that God doesn't exist. You are a
man of faith as well.
Dawkins: I do not. I've looked at the evidence.
Quinn: I've looked at the evidence too.
Dawkins: If somebody comes up with evidence that goes the other way,
I'll be the first to change my mind.
Quinn: Well, I think the very existence of matter is evidence that God
And by the way, remember, you're the man who has problems believing in
free will, which you tried to very conveniently [push] to one side
Dawkins: I'm just not interested in free will, it's just not a big
question for me.
Quinn: It's a vast question because we cannot be considered morally
responsible beings unless we have free will. Otherwise we do everything
because we are controlled by our genes or our environment. It's a vital
Personal Value and the Gold
Chains of Society
Interview With Theologian Jutta Burggraf
PAMPLONA, Spain, JULY 3, 2006 (Zenit.org).- In a new book, German
theologian Jutta Burggraf reminds readers that the value of a person
does not depend on his acceptance or rejection by others.
Burggraf is professor of dogmatic theology at the Faculty of Theology
of the University of Navarre. She has written on topics such as
feminism, ecumenism and St. Teresa of Avila.
Her new book, "Libertad vivida con la fuerza de la fe" (Freedom Lived
with the Strength of Faith), was published in Madrid by Rialp.
Q: Your book is entitled "Freedom Lived." Are there freedoms which are
Burggraf: All people are born as originals, but at times we limit
ourselves to be no more than equal copies. Then, we do not correspond
to the personal and unique call we have received on entering this
world: "Be yourself! Be as God has always thought of you."
Every man can offer the world many surprises; contribute new thoughts,
original solutions, unique action. He is capable of living his own life
and of being a source of inspiration and support for others.
If a person does not use his legs to walk, we regard him as "odd" or
probably sick; but if he does not use his understanding to think, or
his will to decide, we are almost unaware of his dangerous state,
because we are used to not living at the level of our best
possibilities. Often, we do not use the richest and most profound
capacity we have: our freedom.
In fact, no one must become an "automaton," without a face or
originality. At times, it is good to recover the look of the child, to
open ourselves to our own novelty, and that of every person, and thus
discover the challenge within each situation. The world will be what we
make of it. At least our life is what we make of it.
Q: What specifically are you referring to when you allude to the
"subtly tyrannizing" world that it is our lot to live in?
Burggraf: There are "gold chains" in our societies. The tyranny of
masses and customs reigns.
It is not difficult to discover a powerful collectivist current that
tends to despoil us of that which is in the depth of our being, in
order to equalize and quantify people, if not all, at least those who
belong to a specific party, a concrete association, a community, a Web
page or a golf club.
It is fashionable to sing in unison, to dress with the same clothes, to
take recourse to the same pre-fabricated arguments, with the same
words, the same look, and even the same smile.
There are people who are not even aware of their chains. They adapt
themselves to the general spirit that seems obvious to them. But what
they feel, think or say, is not their own; they are the sentiments,
thoughts and ready-made phrases that have been published in thousands
of newspapers and magazines, on the radio and on the Internet.
As soon as someone begins to think and act on his own and hold an
opinion that is different from that generally accepted by the "system"
-- which has become closed and does not allow anything that seems to be
annoying -- it is simply rejected.
However, we are free, despite the adverse circumstances that can
surround and influence us. And not only do we have the right, but also
the duty to exercise our freedom.
Precisely today it is more necessary than ever that we be aware of the
great richness of our life and seek ways to be "more" people, and not
reluctant, frightened and stricken persons.
Q: How does one learn to be free? What is the first step?
Burggraf: Growing up, man discovers gradually that he has an interior
space, which is, in some way, at his disposition.
He realizes that, essentially, he does not depend either on his
parents, or schoolteachers, or the media, or public opinion. He
experiences a space where he is alone with himself, where he is free.
He discovers his interior world, his own innermost being.
Only one knows one's innermost: It is the "sanctuary" of the human. I
can enter into myself, and no one can seize me there.
When "I am with myself," I readily realize how unnecessary and
ridiculous it is to seek others' confirmation and applause. A person's
value does not depend on others; it does not depend on the praise of
gestures of confirmation that he might or might not receive.
We are more than what we live on the exterior. There is a space in us
to which others have no access. It is our "inner homeland," a place of
silence and quietness. As long as we don't discover it, we will live in
a superficial and confused way, seeking consolation where there is none
-- in the external world.
Man is free, when he dwells in his own house. Unfortunately, there are
many people who are not "with themselves," but always with others. They
do not know how to rest in themselves.
Q: You say that to obey God is source of freedom. What do you mean by
Burggraf: God himself, the source of all life, wishes to dwell ever
more profoundly in us. From our innermost core, he wishes to give us
life in abundance.
In some way or another, every man is called to relive the drama
experienced by St. Augustine: "You were within me and I was outside.
And outside I was seeking you."
God asks us a minimum of openness, availability and acceptance of his
grace: "If you hear his voice today, do not harden your heart." To find
God within ourselves, we need -- mysteriously -- "to open the doors" of
our house to him.
In other words, in this intimate space of silence and quietness that is
in me, where no one can enter except myself, I do not want to be alone.
I invite God to come in and to be with me -- and to conduct my life.
Then, my self-determination consists in doing what he tells me.
When God dwells in me, I am happy to "be with myself" and "to go into
my own house." I will never be alone, but accompanied and protected by
him who loves me most. It is not necessary for me to resolve the small
and big problems of each day. …
Obedience means, in its origin, that Christ governs us. He it is who
takes the helm of our bark. He does not add himself to our actions; he
is at the very core of freedom. It is what the evangelist tells us:
"Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you."
A New Center for
Interview With Christopher Wolfe
MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin, MAY 10, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The Ralph McInerny
Center for Thomistic Studies is opening with the heady goal of tackling
modern-day problems with, in part, time-tested reasoning.
Christopher Wolfe, a director of the Washington, D.C.-based center,
presents the ideas of Thomas Aquinas in this interview as the
foundation for understanding reality through the study of Thomistic
thought as an attempt to combat modern day skepticism.
Wolfe is a professor of political science at Marquette University, in
Q: What is the mission and purpose of the McInerny Center?
Wolfe: The Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies is one of the
projects sponsored by Thomas International project, which has also
established a similar center in Italy.
Its purpose is to foster a renewal of Thomistic studies in the
contemporary world. We want to promote a strong and accurate rereading
of Aquinas' philosophy and theology.
At the same time, we want to make Aquinas' thought fruitfully converse
with contemporary culture, especially in the areas of bioethics, legal
theory, economics, political theory, literature, science and sociology.
Q: What exactly does a 13th-century thinker have to offer the 21st
Wolfe: Truth! -- a great deal of truth, and the commitment to pursue it
Thomas' philosophy and theology provide a broad framework for
intellectual life, an understanding of "science" -- in the broader
sense in which he used that term -- in its many forms, and in their
relation to one another.
The thought of Aquinas is not an ideology that has pat answers to all
questions. But it provides essential foundations for achieving a better
understanding of reality, and especially of the place of man in the
universe, in creation.
Q: If Aquinas were alive today, what would most strike him about modern
Wolfe: Two things, I think. First, he would be greatly impressed by the
extraordinary growth in knowledge gained through the modern natural
sciences. While recognizing that practitioners of the natural sciences
have sometimes overstepped their bounds, I'm sure he'd be delighted to
know so much more about the universe.
Second, I think he would be surprised by modern man's lack of faith in
reason, and especially the widespread skepticism that we can really
know anything about human ends.
The contrast between the growth of knowledge in the natural sciences
and the shriveling up of philosophy would astound him. He would
certainly applaud John Paul II's "Fides et Ratio," with its vigorous
call to modern man to have a strong, but humble, faith in his reason.
Q: Observers lament that the West is steeped in "weak thought." Where
is this most prevalent, and how could Thomism help?
Wolfe: "Weak thought" -- an example of postmodernist despair of reason
-- is found most often -- should I say "ironically" or
"unsurprisingly"? -- in the academy and among intellectuals.
Ordinary people don't usually have the luxury of time and resources for
constructing sophisticated intellectual arguments to show that no
intellectual argument, however sophisticated, gets us very far in
understanding reality. So weak thought is a symptom of the current
Thomism offers a way of reaffirming the capacity of the human intellect
to understand reality, in its many dimensions. For all our limitations
and imperfections, human beings can attain a deeper and deeper
knowledge of themselves, of the universe they inhabit, and of the
Q: What are some of the "bridges" that can be built between Thomism and
modern philosophy? What would be a point of departure?
Wolfe: That might vary, depending on the area of philosophy. I think
there are aspects of contemporary analytical philosophy that can be
appreciated by Thomists -- and indeed there is even a school of
"analytical Thomism," for example, John Haldane.
In ethics, there is a renewed interest in natural law, in its more
traditional form -- for instance, Ralph McInerny and Russell Hittinger
-- and more modern forms -- for example, John Finnis and Robert George.
In many cases, it is a question of going back to starting points, to
discuss and make more intelligible the self-evident principles that
ground speculative and practical philosophy.
Q: How does Thomism apply to specific problems such as same-sex
Wolfe: Thomism, especially its natural law teaching, offers us an
understanding of human ends, and, in particular, knowledge of the
nature and purpose of human sexuality.
Only a conception of sexuality that integrates body and soul and that
understands the intrinsic finality of sexual activity -- the union of
spouses in the conjugal act that embodies their mutual self-giving and
their openness to the self-giving of procreation -- can provide the
guidance necessary for dealing with issues such as same-sex marriage,
as well as divorce, cohabitation, and many other issues.
Again, Thomas provides the intellectual foundations, but his successors
today have to build on them. There is still much that we don't know,
for example, about the origins of same-sex attraction. A deeper
understanding of those causes can help us to make a more persuasive
case against widespread errors regarding homosexuality and homosexual
Q: How does Thomism apply to embryonic stem-cell research? Some
interpret Aquinas as allowing such research in the "first days" because
of the murky question of ensoulment, etc.
Wolfe: Thomas' understanding of essential change and of different forms
of potentiality provides the proper framework for understanding that
human life begins from conception.
It is ironic that people who wouldn't read a paragraph of Aquinas for
any other reason, go running to invoke parts of his writing that depend
on the very limited, and often flatly incorrect, empirical biological
data to which he had access.
Aquinas would clearly have condemned the destruction of embryos, even
before a supposed, delayed "ensoulment." If Thomas had had access to
contemporary biological knowledge, that would simply have enabled him
to make an even more powerful case against such acts.
Q: Is the promotion of Thomistic studies the only goal of the center?
Wolfe: While that is certainly the starting point, the Thomas
International project hopes that someday the center will be -- with
other institutes -- the core of a new international university.
We think that there will always be a need for a university that is
committed to the pursuit of truth and unity of knowledge, through
excellent scholarship as well as excellent teaching.
This university would be inspired by the Catholic tradition of thought,
for a complete openness to the truth means openness to knowledge
through faith as well as through reason.
It would not, however, be a confessional university, with a religious
purpose or goal. Its purpose would be to achieve the intrinsic finality
of a university as such: the attainment of truth -- and not just in
philosophy and theology, but in all the sciences.
We want to collaborate with many men and women, Catholic and
non-Catholic, to face the challenges confronting all of us.
Father James Schall on Catholic
Part 1: Father James
Schall on Faith, Reason and Politics
WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 10, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Some thinkers have
attributed the rise of Western civilization to the unshackling of
philosophy and the natural sciences from theology and the burden of
Even Thomas Aquinas noted that the natural sciences and philosophy have
distinct methods and require a certain degree of autonomy.
But in his new book, "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy" (Lexington
Books), Father James Schall claims that philosophy, and political
philosophy in particular, can only arrive at the truth it seeks if it
allows itself to be open to the truths of Revelation as offered by
Father Schall, professor in the department of government at Georgetown
University, shared with ZENIT why Catholicism offers a distinct and
necessary approach to the endeavors of the political philosopher.
Part 2 of this interview appears elsewhere in today's dispatch.
Q: Please explain the title "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy,"
since Catholicism is not a political movement.
Father Schall: The title is deliberately paradoxical, even provocative.
It is, if you will, a countercultural thesis. Two different, known
things are juxtaposed. They, I argue, have a relation that, if not
spelled out, ends up confusing both political and revelational
Since Catholicism is not a political movement, it frees political
things to be political things. It does not encourage them, as so often
happens in modernity, to be confused with religion or metaphysics, or
become, in effect, substitutes for them.
The book is at pains to define modernity, a movement that sees no cause
to explain things, including human things, other than arbitrary human
will as their basis. Likewise, attention is given to science and
metaphysics to distinguish them from political things.
If politics is not limited to what it is, it tends to claim to be
itself the highest thing. It finds itself claiming to define and to
establish the whole of the human good on its own terms.
Catholicism is not a political movement, but it is concerned with the
highest things. Still it also recognizes that some regimes are better
than others and understands principles by which such distinction
between good and bad regimes can be established. It likewise recognizes
and defends the legitimacy of the philosophical consideration of human
Revelation cannot deal with politics until it first knows what politics
considers itself to be. Political philosophy must know what it itself
By "Revelation" I mean that body of articulated principles and
conclusions that Catholic thought has explained in precise terms
exactly what it holds about God, man and the cosmos. The origins of
this knowledge are the events both in the Old and New Testaments, as
they are recorded and handed down in Tradition and Scripture.
But Roman Catholicism understands itself in contrast with alternative
views of the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption and the Church. The
Church is a means whereby that which is announced to mankind is to be
achieved in practice.
The most succinct statement of what Catholicism holds about itself is
found in the Nicene Creed; the most recent and elaborate statement is
found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church does not and cannot hold that everyone believes or
understands what is presented here without grace. But it does insist
that anyone can at least get the point of what it presents.
The Incarnation, for example, may be a mystery [……], but anyone who
takes the effort can at least understand what it claims it to be. It is
part of the very essence of Catholicism constantly to specify and
clarify what it means or understands about itself in the light of
objections or misunderstandings from whatever source.
Indeed, a good part of what we know more clearly about Revelation was
historically hammered out in controversies, many still quite alive,
with those who rejected or misunderstood what Catholicism held about
itself and about Revelation's content.
Q: What is political philosophy? Why is it incomplete in itself?
Father Schall: In one sense, political philosophy exists because both
Plato and Cicero wrote books called "The Republic" and "The Laws,"
while Aristotle wrote "Ethics," "Politics" and "Metaphysics."
Though both the Old and New Testaments touch upon political things,
neither -- but more especially the New Testament -- is directly a
treatise on politics, on how to organize the city.
Indirectly, certain things in the New Testament, the "render to Caesar"
and the "it is better to obey God than men," together with giving a cup
of water and the trial of Christ, have had an enormous impact on our
understanding of politics. Still, it was not the direct purpose of
Revelation to tell us how to organize our polities.
We could figure this political information out mostly by our own
powers, by experience and reason. This knowledge is why we still read
the classic authors who were not influenced by Revelation.
The more subtle question that Revelation might be said to deal with is
why, if we know both how we should live and how the city should be best
organized from reason, can we not live that way? Why is the history of
our political lives in almost all eras and places so often an account
of disorder and failing human institutions?
The answer to this question, summed up in the doctrine of the Fall, or
original sin, has always been one of the roots of political realism
wherein we are most careful not to expect too much of politics as such.
Philosophy is a quest for knowledge of the whole of reality insofar as
this knowledge can be ascertained by human reason open to reality.
Aristotle pointed out that ethical and political questions exist in the
universe as a product of human free choosing in achieving the virtues
and the institutions in which virtue could be practiced. Man was by
nature a political animal because he only became fully human when he
set up and lived a full political life as a mortal in this world.
Politics, however, did not deny that there were things "beyond
politics." Indeed, politics existed in part so that we could order our
lives to pass over into that leisurely or contemplative life in which
the theoretical questions were proposed, pondered, and, to some extent,
In one sense, as Leo Strauss pointed out, political philosophy is the
effort of the philosopher to convince the politician to let philosophic
questions be asked. That is, the politician could always kill the
philosopher, which is why the trials of Socrates and Christ remain of
fundamental importance for political philosophy and to which it always
Political philosophy was designed to convince the politician to let
higher questions be asked. On the other hand, politics was called the
highest of the "practical sciences," but not the highest science as
such. It dealt with human action in this world, but not with the
transcendent questions of being and destiny, without the asking and
answering of which human life would be truncated and not worth living.
Q: Why not call what you are describing "Christian" political
philosophy, rather than "Catholic" political philosophy? What makes
Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct?
Father Schall: The most obvious answer to this question is that the
understanding of politics within the various Protestant and Orthodox
traditions, and often the very understanding of man and reason, have
their own nuances, presuppositions and conclusions at variance with the
central line of Catholic thought.
It is not my purpose here to criticize or to speak for them from within
their own traditions or within my own. It is their responsibility, as
it is with other philosophies and religions, such as liberalism or
Islam or Hinduism, to account for themselves before the burden of
reason, a bar with which Catholicism is perfectly comfortable.
What makes Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct, I think, is
precisely Catholicism's relation to and acceptance of philosophy itself.
Q: How is Roman Catholic political philosophy different from Catholic
Father Schall: Roman Catholic social thought is a body of particular
analyses and responses that the popes and the various hierarchies from
the middle of the 19th century have given to central economic and
political issues in which Catholics have found themselves involved.
Catholic social doctrine seeks to combine what it knows from natural
law, reason, experience and Revelation so that it might address itself
coherently to ongoing issues in any sort of polity in which Catholics
find themselves. It seeks, too, to elaborate the general principles of
these issues but it desires to leave the particular applications to the
laity and citizenry.
When it comes to practical matters of politics and economics, most
things such as laws and policies could be otherwise, even though we
must select some reasonable way to act. This very complexity cautions
us not to give more certitude to something than its subject-matter
allows, as Aristotle remarked in the first book of the "Ethics."
Roman Catholic political philosophy operates at a more fundamental
level. It wants to know what is the reason that Revelation can presume
to speak to reason, such that philosophy, on its own grounds, needs to
pay attention to what is proposed.
Today, political philosophy is one of the few areas in which all things
come together and must be sorted out. To understand political things we
need to understand history, religion, ethics, science, manners, and all
pertinent aspects of culture. Yet, politics looks at what is to be done
but done for a good.
Revelation has long recognized that its most dangerous opponent is the
city closed in on itself, using the coercive powers of the state to
This danger is why Revelation has recognized that it first must deal
with politics on its own grounds, grounds which recognize that human
disorder can be identified and accounted for.
Contrary to the tradition of Machiavelli, itself already criticized in
Plato, politics does not just look to what man does do, but to what he
ought to do. And what he ought to do can, in some basic sense, be
understood by the philosophers.
This possibility is why Roman Catholicism has regularly insisted that
there is such a thing as philosophy and that philosophy can both ask
the right questions and propose at least some basic and correct
answers. Moreover, it can at least recognize the meaning of answers
coming from Revelation.
(Part 2) Father James Schall
on Worship as the Consummation of Philosophy
Father James Schall believes that the consummation of philosophy is
rejoicing and delighting in the light of truth -- and that truth is
manifested in a special way at Mass.
The professor in the department of government at Georgetown University
shared with ZENIT some ideas from his new book, "Roman Catholic
Political Philosophy" (Lexington Books) and explained why theology and
philosophy are distinct but complementary.
Part 1 of this interview appears elsewhere in today's dispatch.
Q: How do the truths of Revelation, particularly revealed things
through the Catholic Church, complement or aid the quest of the
Father Schall: The central thesis of this book is as follows:
Philosophy and political philosophy seek to know reality, what is. This
seeking is what the human mind is for, to know the truth of things.
That is, the mind seeks to be conformed to what reality presents to it.
In the pursuit of this knowledge, certain limits are continually
reached that philosophy only has some more or less informed opinion
about their truth. But philosophy rightly seeks to formulate questions
and possible answers to these questions. It has an awareness of the
insufficiency of some of its own answers. It is curious about this
Revelation, on the other hand, when spelled out, does evidently contain
its own understanding of at least some of the truths of reality
according to its own methods.
When the legitimate questions of philosophy or those encountered in
political experience are offered a proper answer to these questions as
asked, Revelation cannot be simply excluded from intellectual
consideration or discourse on the grounds that its content arises from
The question becomes: Why is it that faith can respond to questions as
asked by philosophy? There is a suggestion here of a higher unity or
order to which philosophy cannot, on its own grounds, close itself.
Two things need to be remembered:
First, one cannot argue directly from philosophy to the truths of
Revelation that cannot be known from that source. Otherwise, philosophy
itself would be Revelation or itself a divine claim.
Second, Revelation does not purport to answer every question about
every topic, but only those having to do with the inner life of God and
the Incarnation of the Son as a means to enable each man to reach the
final end designed for him.
This end, though often rightly called "the City of God," is not a
political end. But it does not deny that politics are legitimate. They
may indeed assist or harm man in achieving his highest end.
The true insight is provided in Aristotle's remark that "if man were
the highest being, politics would be the highest science. But man is
not the highest being. Therefore, politics is limited to this life of
mortals as they are mortals."
Q: If theology provides the answers to the questions political
philosophy raises, then is the old saying true that philosophy is the
handmaiden of theology?
Father Schall: The word "handmaiden" is a quaint one today. The word
"maiden" has also fallen into disrepute.
The phrase was designed to reject the notion that absolutely no
relationship can be found between reason and Revelation. It was also
designed to protect the legitimacy of both. In the full order of
things, Revelation is addressed to intelligence, while intelligence
finds itself wondering about why what it knows cannot find complete
answers in itself.
In this sense, philosophy is a "handmaiden" to theology as much as
theology is a "handmaiden" to philosophy. The point is that both are to
be considered in the delicate relationship that each has to the other
and both to the truth.
The fact is that Revelation has the indirect effect of making
philosophy, when it seeks to ponder what Revelation proposes, to be
itself more philosophical.
Q: How is political philosophy ultimately consummated in liturgy and
Father Schall: The phrase "the liturgical consummation of philosophy"
comes from the English philosopher Catherine Pickstock in her book,
It has many overtones in the work of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,
particularly in "The Spirit of the Liturgy." Its remote origins are in
Plato. And actually J.R.R. Tolkien came pretty close to the same notion.
Essentially, it means that philosophy in its search for the truth will
rejoice when it finds it. Mankind has continually sought to find the
proper way to worship God, or to put it differently, to rejoice in the
cause and the delight of reality and its origins. Though it has tried
many religious and philosophical ways, mankind has been unable to find
a proper form of relation to the Godhead.
The essence of Revelation is that it is the guidance of the proper way
to worship God. This is the meaning of the Mass. It is not something
man-made at all in its core, but is, when spelled out -- see for
instance Robert Sokolowski's "Eucharistic Presence" -- that to which
all philosophy tends. The Mass is not only a quest but a finding and a
Once we understand this centrality, the constant effort of philosophy
and politics to find an alternative relation to the highest things --
especially in politics itself -- comes to be seen as alternatives to
The effort to spell out the significance of this relationship is
considered in the chapter entitled, "Worship and Political Philosophy,"
a topic too rarely treated and understood by the political philosophers
or often by the theologians when seeking to explain what is lacking in
philosophy or politics.
Q: Which philosophers embody the principles of Roman Catholic political
philosophy that you outline in your book?
Father Schall: One finds guidance from many sources, of course, not
only Roman Catholic ones. I have learned much from Eric Voegelin and
Leo Strauss. They served in many ways to open political philosophy to a
more serious consideration of reality and what is at issue in
Among Catholic writers, I am particularly in debt to my teachers,
Professor Heinrich Rommen, Father Charles N.R. McCoy, Father Clifford
Kossel, S.J., and Father Ernest Fortin, A.A. I have written a book on
Jacques Maritain and consider Yves Simon of fundamental importance, as
is Etienne Gilson. Christopher Dawson remains a favorite. I have
learned much from David Walsh, John and Russell Hittinger, Monsignor
Robert Sokolowski, and my colleagues George Carey and Joshua Mitchell.
What can one say of G.K. Chesterton, who is one of the great minds and
most incisive as well as most delightful. I have loved Hilaire Belloc,
Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, E.F. Schumacher and a host of
Several of my books, "Another Sort of Learning" especially, have been
guides to reading in these areas. I have long been an admirer of John
Paul II and Benedict XVI as first-rate thinkers. And finally there is
the abiding debt to Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Thomas
Aquinas, to whom I return again and again. There is nothing quite like
reading these latter four with students.