Why Do Priests Study Philosophy?
The study of philosophy is not focused on teaching the Bible, ministering to a congregation, or administering sacraments. However, it is a required component of seminary education, typically spanning two to four years, depending on the diocese and seminary. This aspect of their training may seem impractical at first glance, but it plays a fundamental role in shaping seminarians’ future education and their interactions as pastors, as emphasized by the Congregation for Catholic Education.
In its 2011 decree on the reform of ecclesiastical studies of philosophy, the congregation emphasized the indispensability of philosophy for theological formation. This integration of philosophy and theology is not a recent development; many prominent saints, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, have pursued philosophical studies alongside theology. These theologian-philosophers effectively utilized the logical reasoning and specialized language of philosophy to enhance their understanding of theological concepts, according to Fr. James Wehner, the rector of Notre Dame Seminary.
Philosophy has facilitated theologians in grappling with complex issues like the existence of evil, free will, and the nature of the soul. Their philosophical inquiries have paved the way for theological insights, as evident in their writings. The transition from philosophy to theology has been seamless, as Fr. Harrison Ayre, a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, suggests, owing to the rigorous thinking and logical processes employed in philosophy.
The fusion of philosophical reasoning and faith has resulted in significant contributions to the development of dogma, as exemplified by the philosopher-priests and the ecumenical councils. By using philosophical terminology, these early theologians were able to convey the depth of their theological ideas. Thus, studying philosophy helps contemporary theologians grasp the nuanced meanings behind the philosophical language employed by ancient theologians during the formulation of Church doctrines, asserts Fr. Ayre.
This understanding is crucial because many important conclusions in Church history were reached through ecclesial councils, where philosophy played a pivotal role. Comprehending the historical usage of terms and concepts is essential for fully grasping the writings and teachings of that era. Philosophy has aided theologians in their pursuit of a deeper understanding of faith through logical inquiry, both in the past and in the present, Fr. Ayre affirms.
The Congregation for Catholic Education affirms that “philosophical wisdom forms the summit that reason can reach.” As Fr. Wehner explains, philosophy trains the mind to engage in the work of theology. It is important to embrace the reasonableness of faith and not dismiss rational thought as insignificant. Rationality and philosophy underpin the life of the Church, as Fr. Ayre reminds us. While not everyone will become philosophers or delve into profound existential questions, it is crucial to foster an attitude that appreciates rational thought within the context of the Church’s life.