Greek: Why Indeed?

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.

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  • Christi Derr

    Excellent meditation! The fact that the whole New Testament was first written in Greek also seems to support the argument you advance here.

  • noelfitz

    this is a great article, many thanks. As you know when I disagree with articles I sometimes submit posts to say so. I am less likely to say how impressed and built up in the faith I am by many articles. This article is solid Catholic scholarship, expressed with clarity and precision. It is wonderful.

    Recently I had a difference about the loyalty of the faithful to bishops and the USCCB in discussing a CE artricle. But now it has been pointed out that we owe the bishops loyalty in matters of faith and morals but not in other things. Thus when they support pro-abortion groups (not a matter of faith and morals)we should reject their views. It seems US bishops are not very bright and do not realize that helping the pro-abortion CCHD is wrong. Fortunately people here know more about Catholicism than the US hierarchy.

  • Mary Kochan

    Thanks Noel.

    We are all sure that the bishops know funding abortion groups is wrong. That’s why the bishops (and their functionaries) who have done it (that isn’t all of them — or even most of them) have tried so hard to hide it. They were bright enough to get away with it for many years — it is we, the laity, who have been scalped to the tune of millions, who have not been very bright.

  • goral

    Speaking of bishops who are mistaken on many issues; two days ago one bishop in our state went on Catholic radio to push Obamacare. He cited examples of how happy the Brits and Canadians are with their healthcare. He also mentioned the banking and investment crisis as examples of private industries acting irresponsibly and disregarding social good. He gave honorable mention to the late great catholic senator who allegedly was so concerned with the plight of the poor and raised him as an example of proper Catholic social teaching.

    I could just envision the late Great Pope wagging his finger at this paragon of liberation theology. His “facts” were so skewed that it’s laughable.
    The banking industry did not act irresponsibly; it acted under a gov’t mandate and gov’t guarantee. Finally it was the gov’t who bailed them out with taxpayer’s money so that the trail of bad business and bad gov’t would be covered up.

    None of this mattered to his Excellency as he articulated his views in support of this power grab termed healthcare. I bowed to him respectfully as he made a visit once to our social club, every Catholic owes a bishop respect of office.
    I would have to close my eyes and disengage my brain to follow his social teaching and many others like him.
    Jesus had choice words for this element as well.

  • Mary Kochan

    Well, this is thread jacking of the first order. LOL.

    That’s what I get for responding to Noel.

    Does anyone want to comment on the substance of THE ARTICLE?

  • Arkanabar Ilarsadin

    The use of Greek language and logic in the Church is an example of inculturation — quite likely the FIRST inculturation into what was originally a Jewish sect. And ever since, the Church has busily added whatever culture and customs she has found that were not contrary to Christ.

  • goral

    Sure, I suppose some of our bishops lack the knowledge of Greek philosophy which is why they lack good theology, which is why they resort to questionable social teachings.
    How’s that for intertwining the threads?
    There is truth in my jest. Our Catholic scholars always make the claim that were it not for Aristotle and Socrates and others, we would not have Augustine and Aquinas and others.

    Saint Paul embraced the Greeks and directed their logical minds toward Christ, the Alpha and the Omega.

  • noelfitz

    Mary, I want to comment on your article. It was brilliant, excellent, sound, balanced and scholarly. It was faithful to the Church and showed loyalty and commitment.

    It is CE at its best. Articles like yours are why we are here, where we are educated, built up and encouraged in the faith.