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.

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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 heart.

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 Divine Ideas.
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.


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 both.

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 founders.

   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 be demonstrated.

   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 determinism.

   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 evil.

   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).

Theological Determinism

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.

Further Reading

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.

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Why Do Things Exist? On the Meaning of Being
| 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" [1]

"Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected." -- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [2]


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 theories.

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 place?

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." [3] 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 exist.

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 us.

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 the Rings.

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 than nothing.

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." [4] 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 Daniélou's principle.

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." [5] 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." [6] 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." [7]

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?"


[1] Josef Pieper, "Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration," For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 289.
[2] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image, [1908] 1974). 35.
[3] Pieper, 209.
[4] Jean Daniélou, "La crise actuelle de l'intelligence (Paris: Fléche, 1968), 40.
[5] G. K. Chesterton, "Ecclesiastes," Chesterton: Stories, Essays & Poems (London: Dent, 1957), 285.
[6] Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 91.
[7] John Finnis, Natural Law and Neural Right (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 65.


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 9/11".

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 science.

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 or gods.

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 them.

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 God)?

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 matter?

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 ignore it.

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 uninteresting.

(3) It is rational and scientifically unanswerable, but still interesting.

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 contradict science.
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 life.

    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 experience.

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 mean.

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 good thing?

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 achievements.

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.

Resisting temptation

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 contemporary practices.

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
ISBN: 074254995X

In her novel To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf employs a beguilingly 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 Catholicism, 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 letter E.

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 should live.

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.

Subversive critics

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 understand them.

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 diminishing returns

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 certain genre.

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 lost.

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 goods.

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 Moral Law
"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 governance.

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 habits.

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 thinking.

In his day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] 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.[4] 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."[5]

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.[6] 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 natural law.

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 orientation.[7]

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 action.

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 resistance?

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 causes?

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.[8] 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 faith.

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,[9] 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.[10]

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.

* * *

[1] Ethics (New York, 1955), p. 143-144.
[2] Feliks Koneczny, "Prawa Dziejowe" [Laws of History], (London, 1982), p. 174-236.

[3] Motu Proprio Spes Aedificandi, 10: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, XXII, 2 (1999), p. 513.
[4] Marguerite A. Peeters, "La nouvelle ééthique mondiale: dééfis pour l'ÉÉglise," (Institut pour une Dynamique de Dialogue Interculturel, 2006).

[5] 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 principles.
[6] 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."

[7] Jean Porter, "Natural and Divine Law. Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics," (Ottawa: Novalis; Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 140-141. [8] John Paul II, "Fides et Ratio," 56.

[9] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, qu. 95, art. 4, ad 1: "Homo post peccatum ad plura indiget gratia quam ante peccatum, sed non magis."
[10] Servais Pinckaers, O.P., "Les sources de la morale chréétienne. Sa mééthode, son contenu, son histoire," (Fribourg : ÉÉditions Universitaires, Paris: Cerf, 1985), p. 171.


Utilitarianism       By Stephen Buckle  
Friday, 05 January 2007

Probably the most persuasive ethical theory in contemporary ethical debates  is utilitarianism.

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 was born.

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 utilitarianism’s triumph.

Consequentialism and rational choice theory

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 accepted?

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 summary

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 desires.

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.

Concluding remarks

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 light.

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 University.


(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, 1987), 156.

(4) John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Oxford University Press, 1998), 57.

(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 the carpet.

(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), 123.


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 that word?

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 believed.

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 friend factor.

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 else.

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 morality?

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 parts.

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 anything.

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 evidence please.

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 God?

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 will.

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, OK?

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 says.

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 free will.

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 yourself.

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: evolution.

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 categories.

Dawkins: How can you possibly say God did it if you can't say where God came from?

Quinn: Because you must have an uncaused cause for anything at all to exist.

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 infinite regress.

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 definition, God.

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 atheist.

Dawkins: I can't, but science is working on it. You can't answer it either.

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 War II.

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 both sides.

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 exists.

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 earlier.

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 question.


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 not lived?

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 this?

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 Thomistic Studies
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 Milwaukee.

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 century?

Wolfe: Truth! -- a great deal of truth, and the commitment to pursue it further.

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 thought?

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 malaise.

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 Creator.

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 marriage?

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 acts.

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 Political Philosophy

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 religious claims.

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 theology.

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 realities.

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 things.

Revelation cannot deal with politics until it first knows what politics considers itself to be. Political philosophy must know what it itself is.

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, answered.

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 must return.

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 social thought?

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 define reality.

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 political philosopher?

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 insufficiency.

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 faith.

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 worship?

Father Schall: The phrase "the liturgical consummation of philosophy" comes from the English philosopher Catherine Pickstock in her book, "After Writing."

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 rejoicing.

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 God.

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 understanding it.

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 others.

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.