In preparation for major seminary all seminarians must study philosophy. Here at Bishop Brute all of us are required to major in philosophy (the degree is technically Catholic Studies, but we take more philosophy classes than the philosophy majors). This naturally leads to two questions: What is philosophy, and how does studying it make one a better priest?
Philosophy literally translates to ‘love of wisdom.’ It is our human reason’s attempt to understand creation. While now distinct fields, the disciplines of modern science started as subfields of philosophy. Philosophy, is, in fact, the original science, and its field of study is the pursuit of meaning. Examples of philosophical questions include: what does it mean to know something? What is being? What is a human being? What makes an action right or wrong? Is there a God? (These fields are, respectively, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophical Anthropology, Ethics, and Natural Theology (yes, it’s a philosophical discipline). Here at Bishop Simon Brute and Marian University we take classes in each of these core disciplines of philosophy, as well as courses that cover the history of philosophy, such as Plato and Aristotle, Medieval Philosophy, and Modern Philosophy. Philosophy is different from theology in that theology uses our human reason in light of Divine Revelation to form its conclusions, while philosophy makes use of only our human reason. Before one can talk about the supernatural, one must have some idea of what the natural is. Thus, philosophy must come before theology.
This is still no justification for studying it over any other subject. After all, there are so many bad philosophers, and it would seem that there are better things for a man studying to be a priest to learn. A priest must manage a parish, provide counseling, teach, write homilies, etc. Wouldn’t a degree in business, psychology, education, or English be better? To be frank, I wonder this on occasion as well. After all, philosophy is not very practical, and a degree in it will not be of much help in securing me a job should I discern the priesthood is not where God is calling me.
Yet the concerns above miss the essence of what it means to be a priest. Over and above all of the practical requirements of the priesthood, as necessary as there are, however, the priest must be someone who knows God intimately. In the words of my rector, Fr. Joe, “who wants a priest who doesn’t know God?” Who would want to be such a priest? Knowing God necessarily includes knowing about God, though it is obviously not limited solely to academic knowledge, and in major seminary this will be the main focus of a seminarian’s intellectual efforts. Just as learning Calculus requires knowledge of Algebra, learning theology requires knowledge of philosophy. Many theological concepts are deeply indebted to philosophical concepts. Two examples of this are the Christian understanding of the soul, and the doctrine of Transubstantiation, both of which use philosophical language to then make a theological point. Thus, to know theology one must first know philosophy.
Philosophy is not practical, at least in the sense that something like a business degree is. This does not mean that it is not useful. To quote G.K. Chesterton,
There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man … When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all.
(What’s Wrong With the World, Chapter 2)
A priest is called to be an impractical
man in a practical age. To a world that wants five step programs and ‘Lean Six Sigma’ but has forgotten the exact purpose of any of the myriads of activities it engages itself in the priest must preach Jesus Christ. To do so coherently a priest must know theology, and he can’t know theology without knowing philosophy. After all, if a priest cannot explain the natural, who would trust him to explain the supernatural? This is not to say that there are no practical benefits from knowing philosophy. I have become a more critical thinker, better at reasoning in discussions, and a better observer of the implicit philosophies surrounding me.
Studying philosophy enables me to be a far better priest than any of the more ‘practical’ disciplines because the call to priesthood is far more than simply the call to be the manager of a worship space and a director of liturgical functions (the practical aspects of the priesthood) – it is the call to radically conform oneself to Christ so as to be in a unique way Christ’s presence with His people through the Sacraments of the Church, preaching, and ministry. This is why we learn philosophy, even if its not always our favorite subject, because without it we would be worse theologians, and because of that worse priests.
David Langford is a seminarian studying for the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend and a member of the class of 2019.