A reader of Mark Shea’s blog recently asked him a great question: Why [does] the Catholic Church… build certain beliefs from Greek philosophy thus teaching, as for example, the soul’s immortality?
Mark pointed out to his reader that Scripture is clear on life after death and that Greek philosophy is not our source for it. And Mark is certainly correct about that.
But I think the reader was perhaps asking a different question from what the source of our doctrine is, or I might be reading a different question into it due to the wording – “build certain beliefs from.” That seems to be not merely asking for the source, but for why Greek philosophical terms and concepts seem to be built into Catholic theology. They are. And the why of that might be approached by means of an analogy.
Besides the construction of her theology and institutional organization, for what other constructions is the Catholic Church famous? I have chosen the words of the question with precision, so that for most of you, images of the great Cathedrals and St. Peter’s Square will spring instantly to mind. For when we speak of Catholic constructions, these marvelous edifices are the epitome. Now, of what are they built? For the most part, they are built of stone – fitting for both its versatility of application and permanence. And how are they built? By the methods of builders who build with stone, of course. And here is the pertinent question: Did the Catholic Church invent the art of building with stone? No. of course not. She built (and builds) her churches from materials that humans have been building with for millennia and she employs the very best of the methods for using those materials. The Church was born, so to speak, where the techniques of building with stone were already at their highest level of achievement, in the Roman-dominated Hellenic world, where great public buildings –- and the kinds of organization necessary to plan, finance, and accomplish their exquisitely-crafted construction — were a fixture of every city. In the course of her own life over the past 2000 years, the Church has added to the development of stone craft and architecture, creating soaring structures that elevate the human gaze and prompt reflection about our relationship to God.
I submit to you that the same thing is true of thinking systematically about doctrine. Greek philosophy is not any more necessary for an encounter with Christ, for he preaching of the Gospel, or for the operation of the Catholic priesthood than are the great cathedrals. But since faith seeks understanding, Catholics from the beginning have chosen to think systematically about their faith. And where the Church grew up there was readily at hand, as ubiquitous as granite, the most versatile and permanent construction blocks for thinking that had ever been created by human beings – the Greek language and Greek philosophy.
More though is at work here than mere happenstance. Never once from Abraham to Jesus’ birth did the physical location and cultural surroundings of the chosen people not interest the God who was preparing them to bear his Salvation to the world. The diaspora (dispersal) into Greek culture of the Jews was hardly some accident out of the providence of the God who “divided the nations” and “appointed the bounds of people according to the number of the children of Israel” (Deut 32:8, Douay-Rheims). Even the great Hellenizer of the ancient world, Alexander the Great, was prophetically ordained (Daniel 2:39; 7:6; 8:5-7; 11:3-4). And what of that Greek mastery of thought? Do we say with Matthew Arnold that there was in the nature of man, “something that inclined him to Greek”? Perhaps.
Or better, we acknowledge with St. John that the very Logos is “the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world” (John 1:9, Douay-Rheims). Now, Romano Guardini would have it that the Greeks were particularly graced with this light and specially prepared in thought for the conception of The Word — that there was a dual preparation of this world for the coming of the Logos, in both the Old Testament people and the Greek language and philosophy:
In order that this conception of the Logos, idea and source of all ideas, stand ready to serve sacred Christology, Greek thought labored for six centuries (The Lord, p 538).
In the course of her own life over the past 2000 years, the Church has added to the development of philosophy, making it the handmaiden of theology — that most elevated of human enterprises — seeking to know God in Christ, building the structure of her knowledge from the solid, polished, and exquisitely-crafted thinking of the Greeks.