Why do priests study philosophy?

The School of Athens by Raphael 1511 Raphael's The School of Athens (1511)

Philosophy does not teach its students the Bible. It does not teach one how to minister to a congregation. It does not teach one how to distribute the sacraments.

Despite this, seminarians are required to study between two and four years of philosophy, depending on their diocese and seminary, before they transfer to a major seminary to study exclusively theology, taking up time during which they could study pastoral ministry or theology.

This study, which might seem impractical, is fundamental to seminarians' understanding their future education and the people with whom they will interact as pastors, according to the Congregation for Catholic Education.

The congregation, in its 2011 decree on the reform of ecclesiastical studies of philosophy, wrote that "philosophy is indispensable for theological formation."

Modern-day priests are not the first Catholics to have studied philosophy along with theology. A plethora of the saints have done the same, and many of them are renowned philosophers themselves.

St. Thomas Aquinas is an example of these influential theologian-philosophers. They have taken advantage of the advanced logic and specialized vocabulary of philosophy, and used it to clarify and deepen their understanding of theology, Notre Dame Seminary rector Fr. James Wehner believes.

"St. Thomas Aquinas was the best; he bridged both disciplines", Fr. Wehner said. "He was a philosopher and a theologian, and I think today you can't study either without studying him – the perfect example of how both were bridged together. "

Philosophy has helped theologians better to understand problems such as the existence of evil, free will, and the existence of the soul, and then to apply their findings to theology, as can be seen through their writings.

Philosophy already dealt with issues such as those, requiring deep thought and logic in order to make conclusions, as seen within their papers, and so the transition from philosophy to theology was smooth, Fr. Harrison Ayre, a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, believes.

These philosopher-priests then brought their logic into the faith, many of their ideas helping to develop dogma, Fr. Ayre said, referring to the ecumenical councils.

The study of philosophy helps theologians better understand the specifics of what ancient theologians mean by their use of philosophical terms, as they often described theological thoughts with philosophical terms capable of capturing the depth necessary in order to discuss theology, Fr. Aye believes.

This is important as many conclusions of the Church were made through ecclesial councils during the early part of the Church during which most scholars relied heavily on philosophy, and the writings stemming from these are not fully understandable without an understanding of the use of terms and ideas during the time of their writing.

Philosophy helped many early theologians better understand their faith through logic and come to natural conclusions rather than resting entirely on faith, and it continues to do so, Fr. Ayre believes.

The Congregation for Catholic Education wrote that "philosophical wisdom forms the summit that reason can reach."

"Philosophy trains the mind to do the work of theology," Fr. Wehner explained.

Fr. Ayre recalled: "One of my professors in seminary said that Jesus redeems the whole man, including the man, so use it. We sometimes tend to eschew the reasonableness of faith thinking it's not important, 'I just believe and that's enough.'"

"Now not everyone's gonna be philosophers, and not everyone's gonna seek those deep questions of life, but we also ought not to have an attitude that looks negatively at rational thought and life of the Church because it's these rational things that ultimately are the underpinning of the life of the Church," he continued.

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Catholicism is not fideistic, so in order to be able to understand its teachings reason is necessary, and this is why the Church has so long encouraged the study of philosophy, Fr. Ayre told CNA.

There are some truths the Church believes, inspired by divine revelation, that could not be arrived at through reason alone, but this is why it is important to have a combination of faith and reason, Fr. Wehner believes.

"I think one could make a statement that everything the Catholic Church teaches is 'reasonable.' People might not believe the teachings, but one can't say that they violate reason," Fr. Wehner continued.

Although not all truths can be reasoned to, they all are reasonable, so reason can help us understand revealed truths, he believes.

"Faith and reason are the two ways which God has allowed has allowed human beings to know the truth," Fr. Wehner said.

For a priest who will be in charge of teaching congregations about the faith, a deeper understanding past baseless faith-statements is necessary so that he can better explain it and help people understand why, not just what we believe, Fr. Ayre believes.

"That's going to take shape in homilies, that's going to take shape in the classroom, that's going to take shape with a couple who's preparing to get married," Fr. Wehner said. "So we're not all going to be theologians and philosophers, but we have to be trained to understand the mysteries of the faith, the way God chose to reveal them to us."

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Philosophy also helps priests understand their parishioners when they come for help with problems. Having studied philosophy, a priest can better understand the "underpinning of problems", as Fr. Ayre says.

As counsel is a major part of the priest's role, it is essential that he is able to enter into these counseling opportunities with understanding and a broader view, Fr. Ayre has found through his priesthood.

"Philosophy actually gives you these critical tools to get to the root of the problem," Fr. Ayre said. "It gives you those critical and rational tools to be able to do that with people, so it's very helpful in that regard."

"It helps you to be able to address the deep concerns in peoples' lives in a rational way because the faith is not something irrational. It is something rational. And so you want to be able to give a rational basis for that, so philosophy is definitely something incredibly helpful," he continued.

Fr. Ayre also credits philosophy with helping him understand the beliefs of those who are not Catholic.

"It allows you to be able to understand things from the natural realm much more clearly, to understand opposing positions, and it's the underpinning of doing theology," he said. "You can't really do theology without philosophy."

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