The relevance of Philosophy in our Catholic schools

Luca La Monica, teacher of Religious Education, Trinity High, Renfrew

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, The School of Athens, Vatican Museums

The teaching of Philosophy as a discipline has a millenary tradition which goes back to Ancient Greece (with regards to the Western world), where it assumed a key role as the highest form of human reasoning. Philosophy has historically maintained an important role up until the start of the XX century, when it has been gradually overshadowed by the rising of scientific subjects. In this way, Philosophy has been marginalized as a purely theoretical and abstract kind of knowledge. This type of definition differs hugely from the one that any Ancient, Medieval or Modern intellectual would have accepted.

As a matter of fact, in our Catholic schools Philosophy is present in our Religious Education curriculum, however it does cover a very marginal role. I am firmly convinced that the relevance of Philosophy in relation to the study of Religions, as well as its application to other subjects, could be strikingly beneficial to our curriculum and to the overall educational process in our Catholic schools.

There are several reasons why I support this claim and they are mostly steeped in our Catholic heritage and tradition, however, too often they are overlooked, or even completely disregarded.

Thanks to the etymology of the word Philosophy we are able to determine a first and effective definition as the study of wisdom or knowledge (Philos – φίλος, meaning ‘to love’ or ‘to befriend’ and Sophia – σοφία, meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’). A similar description is contained in Plato’s Symposium; however, it is Aristotle that offers one of the most fascinating definitions of this special type of discipline. The Stagirite refers to Philosophy as the inner desire to know, to understand why any given thing is what it is, a desire that every human being shares. For this reason, in its original Greek understanding the study of Philosophy encompassed all subjects as it was the case in both Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum.

This Greek concept of Philosophy has been subsequently adopted by the increasingly popular Christian form of religion. In many ways, as it has been highlighted several times by many Catholic scholars, and most recently by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address: the classical form of reasoning represented by Greek Philosophy perfectly married the theological system of religious beliefs that is distinctively Christian. This happy marriage has however deeper reasons than mere opportunism.
Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, two of the most influential philosophers and theologians of all time, were in perfect agreement with regards to the strong affinity in between Greek Philosophy and Christian faith. They both supported an argument for which Philosophy offers a solid rational foundation to the human understanding of our world as we see it. However, the Christian faith provides that indispensable revelation which gives meaning to all the mysteries that defy our human thinking, and it beautifully links our natural qualities to that supernatural feature which is present in all of us as creatures.

Thomas Aquinas depicts two very effective metaphors to better comprehend what is the role of philosophy for any devout Christian. He describes Philosophy as the ‘ancilla fidei’, the handmaid of Faith, that is because Philosophy leads every human being in the everyday reality of our human existence and harmoniously connects us to our set of beliefs. In doing this Philosophy acts as a supporting type of knowledge to our Christian truths, it does give reason of what faith expresses on a metaphysical and spiritual level. Aquinas also describes Philosophy as enlightened by the ‘lumen rationis’ the light of reason and Theology as enlightened by the ‘lumen fidei’, the light of faith. These different types of light are clearly both creations of God and for that reason, if used correctly, they are destined to agree with each other.

For all the aforementioned reasons, Philosophy has a legitimate place in our Catholic faith, and this should be represented in our Catholic schools too. Here are some practical applications of this special type of knowledge:

  • Even though Philosophy is not able to rationally explain everything that our faith reveals, it can cover an instrumental role in demonstrating to our pupils how there is a strong rational foundation to our Catholic theology and how this foundation allows us to describe many phenomena of our world in the light of our faith (a typical example could be the creation of the world and how this theological truth can positively interact with scientific theories, like the Big Bang Theory).
  • Philosophy does also offer a unique opportunity to employ its distinctive method, critical thinking, on a daily basis in our classes. To regularly use critical thinking in our classes would further reinforce how strongly founded our Christian beliefs are. It would also provide our pupils with a compass to navigate the many challenges with regards to their everyday life (an instance is offered by the role of social media and the undiscriminated assumption of authenticity of any content posted online, which should be instead regularly scrutinized by means of reason).
  • Philosophy can reconcile our pupils with that crucial sense of wonder, the ‘thaumazein’ (θαυμάζειν) that Aristotle described as that initial sense of amazement that is generated in any human being that effectively reflects on its own existence and the most profound sense of it. This is yet another element of commonality in between Philosophy and Faith. Philosophy can favour this rediscovery thanks to a rational discourse and Christianity (and religions in a more general sense) can allow pupils to fully immerse themselves in these ultimate truths.
  • Philosophy can and should be referred to more regularly in our Catholic schools both in relation to its specific knowledge (thanks to the understanding of different philosophers and their perspectives on the world, pupils can develop an open-minded approach to reality) and to its method (critical thinking can indeed be applied to all subjects with beneficial effects to pupils’ learning experience). Religious Education can offer a privileged space for this type of philosophical reflection; however, I do believe that the introduction of Philosophy as a separate subject in our Catholic schools could be a striking resource for all pupils (particularly when consider Senior Phase pupils).

Luca blogs regularly on Adamah Media: see Luca La Monica, Author at Adamah Media for more blogs.

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