Question: A recent article in The Bulletin criticized the encyclical Veritatis splendor for its "existentialist philosophy." What do we mean by a philosophy? How does philosophy differ from theology? How does philosophy matter in practical terms?
Answer: The term "philosophy" comes from the Greek words which mean "the love of wisdom." Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, in An Introduction to Philosophy, defines it as "the science of all things naturally knowable to man's unaided powers, in so far as these things are studied in their deepest causes and reasons" (p. 3). Philosophy examines such things as the way in which we reason correctly (logic), the nature of truth and certitude (epistemology), being and existence (metaphysics), physical existence (cosmology), living beings (psychology), God (theodicy), norms of behavior (ethics), and the nature of beauty (asthetics).
As Msgr. Glenn says, philosophy deals with "things naturally knowable to man's unaided powers." That means that philosophy functions without the aid of God's revelations: it depends on man's analysis of the universe around him; with only the power of his mind and senses; without the Bible, the Church, or any other sort of supernatural aid. In theory, that means that all intelligent men should share the same philosophical outlook. Unfortunately, though, human intellect has been clouded by original sin, and is often mislead by false religious and intellectual notions.
Theology is quite similar to philosophy and examines many of the same questions. It differs from philosophy in that it accepts those things that have been revealed by God as primary truths in its analysis. It makes use of information that man could not have obtained through his own resources, integrating God given information into its understanding of reality.
Philosophy looks at things in the most general of ways. Other sciences are much more specific. Chemistry, for instance, analyses material things from the perspective of the way electrons bond various kinds of atoms together. Nuclear physics, as another example, examines the central cores of the same atoms. On a larger scale, astronomy examines specific physical properties of stars and planets. Philosophy, on the other hand, stands back and views all of creation. It considers what it means for things to have existence; the spiritual and physical modes of that existence; the source of all existence; the reason(s) why things exist; the consequences of the fact that things exist; and so on.
In that philosophy examines the basic nature of things, it influences the way in which we look at, and understand, virtually everything. If our philosophy tells us that human nature is a creation of God, we will understand and conduct our entire lives in a very different manner than if our philosophy tells us that man's existence is just an accident of nature.
Traditionally, Catholic philosophers (often called "Thomists," after St. Thomas Aquinas) have held that everything was created by God out of nothing. Specific things are what they are because of their "essence" or "nature," a sort of "definition in the mind of God." Morality is behavior in conformity with God's plan for mankind. Knowing the truth is conforming one's understanding to what is in the mind of God concerning a particular matter. Man's logical processes allow him to understand the implications and consequences of the truths he knows and can glean through experience.
Liberal modern philosophy, on the other hand, starts not with God, but with man. Things have no essence other than the classifications assigned to them by modern man. Modern man himself makes his own essence through his free actions; his "authentic existence" (hence the name "Existentialism" to describe this philosophy). He defines his own morality in terms of what is convenient, useful, or pleasurable. Truth is the consensus of enlightened modern men. Logic is the struggle between conflicting ideas, ever creating a new and evolving truth.
It takes very little imagination to see that these two philosophies will evoke radically different ideas about God, about man, and about the relationship of the two. They are as different as black and white; as irreconcilable as love and hate; as incompatible as oil and water.
Yet the Modernists are claiming to have combined these two incongruous philosophies in something called "Polish Existential-Thomism"; a sort of "intellectual dog-cat" that generally covers up its foolishness with jargon and with language that has no fixed meaning. In reality, it is more properly called "Existentialist Deism," a theory slightly to the right of atheism but far to the left of Catholicism. It is "Deism" in that it treats God as the creator who made the universe and walked away to allow "the acting person" to create his own essence through his "authentic existence."
This Existentialist-Deism is clearly seen in Veritatis splendor. The existentialism is seen, for example, in the nonsense (which its author blames on St. Thomas) that, in order to "perfect himself," man must "be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life ... and contemplate beauty." (Veritatis splendor #51) Pope John Paul II is, of course, confusing "perfecting himself" with "preserving himself." The deism is seen in the bit about Christ telling the young man to observe the last seven of the Ten Commandments (Veritatis splendor #6), an idea that excludes God and His rights from human morality.
Such Modernism may seem to be directed only against God, but in reality it also injures mankind. Man cannot function with reality that has no essence, with truth that is only consensus, with morality that is only convenience, with logic that constantly changes. Man certainly cannot survive with a God who is reduced to a clock maker who wound up the clock and walked away.
Ideas have consequences!