How to Keep Your Catholic Faith While Studying Philosophy

When I first fell in love with philosophy, it was Étienne Gilson who helped me the most.

Carlo Crivelli, “St. Thomas Aquinas,” 1476
Carlo Crivelli, “St. Thomas Aquinas,” 1476 (photo: Public Domain)

So there I was beginning my studies in philosophy at a secular school. I had fallen in love with philosophy while auditing a couple of classes on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Plato and Aristotle taught in New York City by Peter Kreeft. I had read everything by Lewis, Chesterton, Plato and Aristotle that I could get my hands on, and now I was taking up my studies at a nearby university. In the process, I had also converted to Catholicism and lost my job teaching at a Protestant high school. What complicated my projected studies at the university was that none of my professors, as far as I could tell, were sympathetic to my Catholic Christianity. None of them offered classes on the philosophy of the Middle Ages, let alone that of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thankfully, the basic principles I had picked up from my reading of the authors already mentioned, as well as what I could read of St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas were enough to keep me on the right track, at least for a while. While speaking with the professor of ancient Greek philosophy, I mentioned my Catholicism and my admiration for Aquinas. I don’t know how he was familiar with him, but my professor mentioned that I might like the writing of Étienne Gilson.

I went to the library as quickly as I could, and found a book by Gilson. I don’t remember if it was The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy or The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, but I devoured it. It was my first introduction to a rigorous and thorough synthesis of Christian philosophy, and in particular the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

I felt as if I had entered a grand and beautiful mansion, ornately but beautifully decorated, where every room is exactly the shape and size it should be. All of the furnishings were in their perfect place, and everything fit neat and organized. And order! Order everywhere! In every well-swept and carefully maintained corner, closet and cupboard, order reigned supreme.

I had found a philosophy that breathed the fresh air of wonder, not the noxious fumes of cynicism; it gave hope to the love of truth instead of a despair that we can know anything at all. What I was encountering was not a philosophy that explained away the world but a philosophy that explained it and gave it meaning, and provided a firm foundation to all of the tenets of common sense and the truths of the Catholic faith.

On the heights of those peaks, I felt a certain kind of intoxication when I thought about and meditated on what seemed like the fundamental idea of Thomistic thought, the nature of Being, and how that single idea gave life to everything else.

I continued to study the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas on my own from writers like Gilson, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange and Josef Pieper (currently, I would also recommend Ed Feser). When I encountered the critiques of modern philosophers against scholasticism, it appeared to me that they had built a cardboard version of the real thing and then easily knocked it down. It was the old straw-man fallacy. It seemed as if those modern philosophers had not taken the time to understand the true richness and beauty and rigor of the philosophy they were rejecting. They hadn’t disproved it; they had only prematurely or immaturely abandoned it. So, modern philosophy looked to me like the first attempts of a teenager to have some “deep thoughts,” and the contemporary and popular critiques of God looked like Nerf darts fired against Mount Everest.

Not only was I being inoculated against the influence of modern philosophy but I was also growing in wisdom. Ultimately, the goal of philosophy is not just to defend the truth but to become wise. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, which is why I loved reading about Catholic philosophy. This is why philosophy is a prerequisite to theology and is so important for education.

So, for students who are studying philosophy at a secular institution (or anywhere for that matter!), I recommend staying close to writers like Lewis and Chesterton, but when it comes to some of the more scholarly articulations of the philosophical critiques, it was Gilson who helped me the most. I recommend his writings to all, and I am grateful to him for what he gave me.

If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Plato, Aquinas, or Aristotle?

What Was Then and What Is Now

COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’