The Missing Key Piece from Youth Catechesis? It’s Philosophy

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” —Pope St. John Paul II

Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482), “St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës”
Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482), “St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës” (photo: Public Domain)

“Where the right education of youth is concerned, no amount of trouble or labor can be undertaken, how great soever, but that even greater still may not be called for” (Pope Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, 42).

And according to the recent synod of bishops, there is indeed a great deal of trouble and labor to be called for when it comes to the catechesis of the Church’s youth. Bishop Robert Barron is reported to have commented on the increasing need for catechesis and apologetics since so many young people who leave the faith cite intellectual reasons for their departure.

For me, it was intellectual reasons that initially pulled me back to the Church. Despite my Bible study training in a Protestant setting, my education in physics, and the classes I was taking in philosophy at a secular university, I couldn’t deny the truth of Catholicism. Whenever I was tempted to doubt, my reason got in the way. So it breaks my heart to hear that so many people walk away from the faith for intellectual reasons.

What was the foundation of the reason that got in the way of my doubt? A basis in Ancient and Medieval philosophy in conjunction with my study of Catholic doctrine. As I continued this course of study, I found that all of my “intellectual objections” were no more than misunderstandings or logical fallacies. As I continue to learn and dialogue with others, I have found all other intellectual objections to be the same.

The famous first line of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio begins, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Both wings are necessary. Later in the same encyclical, John Paul II writes, “Reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way” (16).

In order for catechesis to have a firm foundation in reason, philosophy is a necessary component. For example, one of the most important starting points of any process of rational thought on a subject is clear understanding of the terms. How can a youth understand the beauty of virtue if all that comes to mind when he hears “virtue” is “not-having-sex”? How can anyone make sense of the immortality of the soul when he imagines the soul to be merely a ghostly, airy copy of the body? How can a questioning teenager realize that the nature of human sexuality is based on the nature of the human being when he has been implicitly spoon-fed for his whole life the idea that nothing has a nature but is only whatever he wants it to be, including his very self?

Much of the terminology that theology uses comes from philosophy, and a poor foundation in philosophy can lead to a lot of misunderstandings in theology, both dogmatic and moral. I have heard many objections to the existence of God, but all of them are based on straw men versions of God.

Pope Leo XIII wrote, “Philosophy seeks not the overthrow of divine revelation, but delights rather to prepare its way, and defend it against assailants” (Inscrutabili Dei Consilio, 13). Philosophy prepares the mind to be able to handle ideas like the eternity of God, the nature of the human person as a body-soul unity, and the basis of ethics. In learning how to reason correctly about these abstract truths, we also learn to recognize faulty reasoning. It is philosophy that trains the mind to think logically about difficult and seemingly abstract subjects like the nature of existence, the meaning of life, justice, the good, the true, the beautiful, the nature of God, virtue and vice, rights and values, and the relationship between body and soul.

I find that many of my students are shocked to find out that there are rational ways of thinking about these topics, let alone that there may be truth with respect to them. If nothing else, working with philosophy can open the mind of a young person to the point where they realize that these concepts might not be as clear-cut and simple as the culture often presents them.

In fact, the type of clear thinking that good philosophy promotes is a necessary guard at the door of the mind. There is little better training in recognizing logical fallacies and analyzing arguments than philosophy. The claims that there is no truth and that you can have your truth and I can have my truth sound sane and open-minded until one realizes that those claims are irrational. If there is no truth, then the statement “there is no truth” is not true. But it takes practice in philosophy to be able to articulate the claim clearly and then recognize the fallacy involved.

As another example, one of the most common objections to faith is science, so-called. Apart from the fact that the “conflict” between faith and science can be traced by historians to two books by Draper and White, which are two of the worst history texts ever written, from the end of the 19th century, it is philosophy that draws the boundary lines around each of the domains.

When someone is arguing that the scientific method is the proper method for science, he is not doing science per se; he is doing philosophy. A youth without any philosophical training can easily be fooled into thinking that there is a significant overlap and disagreement between the teaching of the Church and science; but a youth with some understanding of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion will easily see through any claims of conflict between the two arenas. The expert in science is not necessarily wise.

But philosophy doesn’t just defend theology and pave the way for understanding it. Pope John Paul II wrote, “With its enduring appeal to the search for truth, philosophy has the great responsibility of forming thought and culture; and now it must strive resolutely to recover its original vocation” (Fides et Ratio, 7).

Philosophy sets the tone for society. It is through our philosophy that we see the rest of the world. It is a culture’s philosophy that is handed on to its children without conscious instruction. Philosophy defines a culture’s values and moral assumptions. This, of course, is true for both true and false philosophies, and it takes philosophical training to be able to identify and evaluate these intellectual starting points of culture. Teenagers and young adults who are not consciously aware of their worldview are most likely viewing the world through the prevailing lenses of contemporary society.

I find, also, that philosophical inquiry awakens wonder in a way that theology often does not. Young people are sometimes turned off when a discussion begins with the Bible, which they have not read, or questions about God, the Sacraments, or the Church, which they consider to be subject to interpretation and personal preference. But discussions that begin with a moral dilemma, the nature of true happiness, or the meaning of life tend to pull young people in a little faster. Those questions, in the end, lead to theological reflection, but philosophy can help build the bridge that leads to questions that can be authoritatively answered by the Church.

Pope Leo XIII wrote, “Philosophy, if rightly made use of by the wise, in a certain way tends to smooth and fortify the road to true faith, and to prepare the souls of its disciples for the fit reception of revelation; for which reason it is well called by ancient writers sometimes a steppingstone to the Christian faith, sometimes the prelude and help of Christianity, sometimes the Gospel teacher” (Aeterni Patris, 4). Besides forming proper critical thinking skills, good philosophy creates awe and wonder.

Again, in Fides et Ratio, St. John Paul II wrote, “On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason's drive to attain goals which render people's lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it” (5).

The only reason to believe something is that we believe that it is true. “Truth alone should imbue the minds of men” (Pope Leo XIII, Libertas, 24). If our young people want intellectual clarity and rigor, there is no greater philosophical tradition than that of Catholicism; most people, let alone youths, don’t even know that the Church highly values clear, rational thought. We should be the ones who provoke our young people to think deeper in the first place, giving them the tools to think well about the foundational questions of human existence, and then giving them the roadmap, set down by the great Catholic thinkers, that leads to the very Source of Truth and Goodness and Beauty.

Matt D'Antuono is a physics teacher in New Jersey. He holds bachelor's degrees in physics and philosophy, a master's degree in special education, and is working on a master's degree in philosophy at Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut.  He is the author of A Fool's Errand: A Brief, Informal Introduction to Philosophy for Young Catholics and The Wiseguy and the Fool (forthcoming). You can find him on YouTube at DonecRequiescat.