Metaphysics as an Act of Mercy

Our frequent talking point, in both politics and religion, is that of mercy and compassion. All too often, what Catholics say about mercy and compassion is not at all different from the views of everyone else.

Pope Francis blesses a sick woman during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 17. (CNS photo/Max Rossi

Pope Francis blesses a sick woman during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 17. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

“We need to form future priests not to general and abstract ideas, which are clear and distinct, but to this keen discernment of spirits so that they can help people in their concrete life. We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black. No! The shades of grey prevail in life. We must them teach to discern in this grey area.” — Pope Francis, Address to Polish Jesuit Seminarians, July 30, 2016 (ZENIT)

“While metaphysics may seem abstract, an indulgent luxury in the face of “real” problems needing our immediate attention, it turns out that nothing is more needed, or kinder to those stricken with the spiritual poverty of our time, than insistently asking ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I?’ ‘What am I for?’ An education in metaphysics is an act of mercy.” — R. J. Snell, “Rebuilding the City Upon the Hill”, The Imaginative Conservative (Dec 21, 2015) 

My first graduate course at Franciscan University of Steubenville was called “Theological Foundations,” taught by a wonderful T.O.R. priest, Fr. Daniel Pattee. One of the most memorable stories that Fr. Dan told the class was about the life of Pope John Paul II. Fr. Dan talked about how frequently, as a newly ordained priest, Fr. Karol Wojtyla would take hiking and camping excursions with the Polish youth. There seemed to be something especially beautiful and lovely about being outdoors, climbing and hiking together, enjoying genuine friendship, and talking about the highest things. After doing this for some time, the young Wojtyla discerned that he wanted to better understand the youth, and that he needed to grapple with the contemporary mindset to see what was driving and motivating them at a deeper level. Fr. Dan’s description of what the future Pope did at this point has been ever engraved on my heart and mind: “Wojtyla wanted to better understand other people and how they understood themselves. So, what did he do? He did not go back for a sociology degree, nor a degree in pastoral theology or youth ministry. Rather, he went back for a degree in philosophy.” 

It is not surprising, then, that many years later Pope John Paul II would write in his 1998 encyclical letter Fides et Ratio that the greatest crisis of culture and anthropology in modernity is of a metaphysical nature. This same very insight would be echoed by Pope Benedict XVI eight years later in his Regensburg Address. For Benedict, the beginning of modernity could be traced back to the Protestant Reformation and the resulting separation of Greek philosophical inquiry from Biblical revelation. In the thought of Martin Luther, according to Benedict, metaphysics or philosophy were considered to be an alien system that had no relationship to biblical faith. What was needed then was a “reform,” a recovery of a supposedly “pure Gospel” not laced with Greek philosophic thought and presuppositions. The irony, however, should not be missed here: this dehellenization takes its roots from Christian inspiration and ends up in atheism and multiculturalism. Surely, this was farthest from Luther’s intentions, but the key here is to look at the trajectory of principles and see where the conclusions lead. Both John Paul II and Benedict understood well that “ideas have consequences”. 

This came to mind again while the reports of what Pope Francis recently told a group of Polish Jesuit seminarians regarding the necessity of developing authentic spiritual discernment in formation. The Holy Father said, among other things:

Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, and that set aside concrete situations: “you must do this, you must not do this.” 

What does the Pope mean by this statement? It seems that he believes the rigidity of formation focused on “clear and distinct ideas” has prevented priests from being able to develop what St. Ignatius called the “wisdom of discernment”. As a result, for Pope Francis, priests have been unable to give adequate spiritual direction to those that come to them for guidance. Such priests lack the ability to discern those “grey areas” that are a fundamental part of life precisely because, according to the Holy Father, they only see things in black and white: “you must do this, you must not do this.” 

When Francis speaks of “clear and distinct ideas,” one might think of Rene Descartes, who held that the only truths or ideas that can be affirmed as such are those that are “clear and distinct”. However, from the context of the Pope’s address (as well as the direction of his pontificate thus far), there seems to be no indication whatsoever that Descartes is his target. Rather, it sounds as if the Holy Father is questioning philosophy and metaphysics itself, preferring to emphasize “realities over ideas,” as he has made known on a few occasions. 

Such a perspective seems all too reminiscent of something that Tocqueville once said, a vision that surely characterizes many contemporary Americans and Catholics as well: “I have always considered metaphysics and all the purely theoretical sciences, which are useless for the realities of life, as voluntary torments that man deliberately inflicts upon himself.” The irony of such a position—and it is a position that often seems to be advocated by Pope Francis (intentionally or not)—is that such a rejection of metaphysics and the contemplative order is one of the most dangerous and destructive ideas of the modern age. If our ideas and theories are presupposed to no metaphysical or speculative order that is not of man’s own doing, then we ultimately set ourselves up as the arbiters of truth. The perennial questions of “who am I” and “why do I exist” are properly philosophical questions whose very answers will manifest themselves in our actions and they way we live our lives. Yet, notice the order here. Before we can know what we ought to do (practical realm) we need to know what kind of being we are (philosophy and theoretical realm). 

This very wisdom, that philosophy and the contemplative order are superior to the practical, was something that both John Paul and Benedict sought to recover during the pontificates. Why? Among other reasons, they saw that the influences of modernity had ended up subverting this classical understanding. Since “action” was primary, there was no objective order helping to guide man to know what kinds of acts he ought to do in order to lead to flourish and thrive in truth. An objective, metaphysical order was replaced by a standard of morality and action that resided in the human will. Ultimately, in such a subjective understanding, human beings “create” what it means to be good, fulfilled, or happy. Since metaphysics and philosophy were rejected, so too were the principles and norms of nature and human nature. Yes, there are grey areas in life—that is rather commonsensical—but they can only be rightly recognized and addressed when objective truth is first grasped and prioritized. 

This same perspective has surely made its way into much of our contemporary thinking about the very nature of Catholicism itself. In his Regensburg Address, Benedict stated that the loss of metaphysics with Luther ended up making the faith something that was merely practical. Faith, from this angle, was now simply about action and transforming the world. This led to an erosion of doctrine and how central reason and philosophy are to the very core of the Catholic faith. The Church is no longer primarily about the mission of saving souls, but must be mostly concerned with poverty reduction and other “social justice” issues. Along with this came the destruction of one of the fundamental truths of revelation, namely, that it seeks to answer and address the very perennial questions of human existence. Remember too that the impetus here was that of recovering the authentic faith, and this meant the removal of philosophy and speculative thought.  The result is one that can be described as nothing but an utter loss of the self and our openness to an order beyond the natural. As Fr. James Schall wrote many years ago in Christianity and Politics:

The spiritual meaning of our era is the empirical, public testing of the proposed alternatives which somehow seem inevitably to end up deforming man. The contemplative vocation must retain its presence in Christianity … precisely in order to keep men open to a divine beyond their expectations.

Our frequent talking point, in both politics and religion, is that of mercy and compassion. All too often, what Catholics say about mercy and compassion is not at all different from the views of everyone else. And so the uniqueness of the Catholic understanding on mercy, forgiveness, and charity become lost or deformed. What needs to be recovered is what John Paul and Benedict saw as the fundamental loss of the post-conciliar church, namely, a philosophy of being rooted in logos. In this way, we can help people to navigate the difficulties of political, moral, and spiritual life—all of those grey areas—by first showing to them what and who they are. As Benedict XVI once told the Canadian bishops (shortly before his address at Regensberg), this is a profound and necessary act of intellectual charity:

A particularly insidious obstacle to education today, which your own reports attest, is the marked presence in society of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. Within such a relativistic horizon an eclipse of the sublime goals of life occurs with a lowering of the standards of excellence, a timidity before the category of the good, and a relentless but senseless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. Such detrimental trends point to the particular urgency of the apostolate of ‘intellectual charity’ which upholds the essential unity of knowledge, guides the young towards the sublime satisfaction of exercising their freedom in relation to truth, and articulates the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life.

Maybe it could even be said, along with philosopher R. J. Snell, that the greatest need of our time, the greatest act of mercy, will be nothing other than “an education in metaphysics.”

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About Brian Jones 33 Articles
Brian Jones is ia Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.