Why Do Seminarians Study Philosophy?

by on May 28, 2015

Some seminarians do not understand why they need to learn philosophy. The bishops have asked for it, but why? Since they’re preparing to be priests shouldn’t they be focusing all their attention on Scripture, theology, pastoral ministry and the sacraments? What point does philosophy have to do with their future ministry – to confuse people with philosophical jargon that only, in the end, turns people away or inflates the ego? But the faith is intelligible to the point of ineffability, and philosophy is the discovery and the exploration of intelligibility as such. Thus, philosophy has its place in the preparation of the study of theology, helping us see through the glass more clearly.

Many people quickly get frustrated with philosophy because it is not useful, which is precisely its strength. One of the seminarians, laughing at the uselessness of learning Aristotle’s notion of causality, said, “A chair is a chair. Why do I need philosophy to tell me that? And how is the ability to name the formal cause going to help me preach the Gospel?” Fr. Robert Sokolowski, who is probably the clearest Catholic philosopher today, has an answer.

In a great article (“Philosophy in the Seminary Curriculum”) Sokolowski explains why philosophy must be in a seminary’s curriculum and in what sense the seminarians are asked to be philosophers:

“Clearly, the aim of a seminary philosophy program is not to make seminarians into philosophers, academic experts, in the full sense, but it is to try to make them philosophical, to have a sense of how questions can be pursued, to have a number of strategic distinctions and definitions clearly in mind, to be able to respond with philosophical understanding to questions people raise. Many of the issues that people bring to priests are simply human problems and not exclusively theological or religious one, and in most cases even if they also have a human or philosophical component. The aim of a seminary philosophy program is to equip the seminarian and then the priest with a certain vocabulary and certain intellectual habits. He should become better able to use such words as responsibility, meaning, the human person, human nature, moral obligation, virtue and vice, and to use them thoughtfully. He should be able to bring out with some clarity important natural things, things that are accessible to reason.”

Following this paragraph Sokolowski explains why philosophy helps in homiletics and a basic understanding of the faith since “faith presents a message and a truth that is to be understood, not just a law that is to be obeyed.” Is not forgetfulness of this a big problem? Part of the mission of the New Evangelization is preparing priests who can explain the faith as inherently reasonable even though it may not, at first blush, appear that way. Teaching seminarians philosophy will prevent the perception that the faith falls under sentimentality or brute command from above. It is not. It is indeed a gift from God, and it cannot be construed as a human construct. Nevertheless, only a thoughtful faith that points to the mystery of God is capable of converting people into saints. Maybe our current notion of reason needs to change so that it is inherently opened to what is beyond itself – the transcendent.

A strong philosophical education is essential to the seminary. The Church Fathers used philosophy, when appropriate, to help others encounter the Gospel. Our priests must do likewise, especially now when the faith is misunderstood. But it is important to stress that God ultimately speaks to the heart and not merely the intellect because the heart is the core of the person. But enabling an intimate encounter with God includes a robust cultivation of the intellect. Philosophy will help us there.