“Ask a Priest: What If I Don’t Buy the Church’s Commitment to Aristotle’s Metaphysics?”

Q: I wanted to ask if endorsing divine simplicity is necessary for the Catholic. I am currently a Protestant of the Baptist flavor and I am intrigued by the Catholic faith. Something that has been keeping me from venturing further into Catholicism is its apparent commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics, which I find very problematic for the Bible-believing Christian. Any help would be much appreciated! – S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear about your interest in the Catholic faith. It would be a shame if you didn’t pursue that interest because of your difficulties with Aristotelian metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with being as being.

Perhaps a few observations would help you.

First, while it’s true that many Catholic theologians see value in Aristotelian metaphysics, this branch of philosophy isn’t on the same level as the tenets of faith.

And while the Church gives a certain pride of place to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who managed to see a lot of useful material in Aristotle’s thinking, that isn’t to say that the Church has put Aristotle on the same level as, say, St. Paul. (By the way, St. Thomas Aquinas in his lifetime had his share of passionate opponents.)

Second, it’s good to remember that the Catholic Church was around for 12 centuries before the works of Aristotle were practically available in the West. For a number of centuries the bulk of theological thought relied on St. Augustine, who was more of a Platonist, philosophically speaking.

Third, theologians such as Aquinas found some things in Aristotle he didn’t agree with (the Greek thinker didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul, for instance), and other things that needed, let’s say, a fresh interpretation in order to make them compatible with Christian doctrine. One of Aquinas’ biggest contributions was to argue that faith and reason are not opposed; hence, much of Aristotelian philosophy (but not all of it) was compatible with Christianity.

It is good to remember, too, that Aquinas was a great biblical commentator. He had the utmost respect for Scripture.

I’m not sure what your specific difficulties are. Let’s just say the Church leaves open the door for philosophical research.

For more reading/listening you might find the Teaching Company audio course “Faith and Reason: Philosophy in the Middle Ages” to be helpful, especially its lectures on Aristotle and Aquinas. Your local library system might carry it.

Permit me one more observation: I’ve known lots of saintly Catholics and other Christians who have probably never studied Aristotelian metaphysics. Some probably never even heard of it.

This isn’t meant as an anti-intellectual comment. Rather, it is just a reminder that ultimately the most important focus of Catholicism is Christ, not philosophy.

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One Comment
  1. That was an excellent reply to a very reasonable question. I agree that most Catholics are not familiar with Aristotle and t would be good if we all could examine Aquinas, but that does take a lot of effort.

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