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The Power of Christian Philosophy to Transform Man and Society


Father de Torre explains how it is the Judeo-Christian tradition with its distinctive philosophy which has given the edge to the Western world in science and technology, economics, political institutions, and the creative arts.

Let me first define my terms as precisely as possible, as I learned from my alma mater, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, popularly known as the Angelicum, where I took my doctorate in Philosophy in 1953.

The concept of Christian Philosophy has undergone heated polemics in our century... By Christian philosophy I understood (a) the body of philosophical and scientific insights, both theoretical and practical, accumulated by Christian thinkerstheologians, philosophers, poets, historians, artists, statesmen, dramatists and scientistsin twenty centuries of Judeo-Christian tradition of divine revelation, under the guidance of the teaching authority or Magisterium of the Church centered in the Papacy; and (b) the methodology of scientific and philosophical enquiry, based on the most rigorous and objective laws of the natural logic of the human mind, as part of Judeo-Christianity's full adherence to an unquestioned epistemological realism.

No less than Pope Leo XIII, an outstanding philosopher in his own right, employed the expression Christian philosophy in the subtitle of his Encyclical Aeterni Patris of 1879, which he considered the most basic and programmatic document of his crucial pontificate. The subtitle was On the restoration of Christian Philosophy in Catholic Schools. He therein maintained that all the events that take place in society, for good or ill, are hatched in the classrooms of philosophy. In other words, ideas rule the world.

I have already on many occasions discussed the effective power of Christian philosophy to transform man and society. I wish now to point to several areas of world culture and civilization where this influence has had distinctive effects historically detectable and verifiable.

Admittedly, this influence of Christian philosophy in society, in individuals and in the world of culture has occurred under the guidance of Christian theology. But this fact does not disqualify it as a genuine and real philosophy, that is, as a free rational enquiry into reality, since the Christian theologian must make a full use of his rational philosophy and logic in order to articulate his theology. Nay, theology is nothing but the rational effort to understand the faith in divine revelation, as the well-known Augustinian formula put it: faith seeking understanding. So, faith holds the primacy, but reason both precedes it and follows it.

Philosophical enquiry begins always with questions. St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian and philosopher, always begins the articles of his Summa theologiae with the inquiring term Utrum (whether). He wrote the latter for Christians, using philosophy as a tool for theology to be a blend or synthesis of faith and reason. But in his earlier workSumma contra Gentiles, seu de Veritate Catholicae fidei contra errores infideliumhe was addressing not Christians but gentiles, and so his starting point and method for every question had to be perforce philosophical so that philosophy in this case was used rather as a pathway than a tool. Of course his philosophy was Christian in so far as he himself was a Christian theologian, but it was thereby no less a real philosophy, appealing to experience and using rational discourse, that is, based on objective evidence and logical demonstration, both inductive and deductive, or, as he would put it, a posteriori and a priori.

It is precisely this philosophy utilized by Christian theologians that has had an obvious and far-reaching impact on man and society, on Western civilization and culture, and thereby on world culture and civilization. It is actually the Judeo-Christian tradition with its distinctive philosophy that has given the edge to the Western world in leading the world civilization, not any alleged genetic or racial superiority, whose complete falsehood has been thoroughly demonstrated by sound philosophy and modern science, and resolutely rejected by sound theology. Racism is utterly absurd, so that the evident superiority of Western culture can only be the effect of its distinctive religion, namely the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That this tradition has actually shaped European civilization and thereby world civilization led Cardinal Newman in his Idea of a University (1850) to propose that Christian theology should be the core subject of the liberal arts curriculum, so as to contextualize the philosophy that has shaped world civilization. The present Pope, acknowledged world-wide as the most outstanding philosopher of our age, has made the centrality of Christian Philosophy one of the capital themes of his pontificate, especially in the social teaching of the Church on the dignity of the human person, the primacy of the family, and the function of the state with regard to the common good, as a basis for ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

Let us now examine the actual historical application of Christian philosophy to the most central areas of culture and civilization, namely science and technology; economics; political institutions; and the creative arts.


The scientific and technological breakthrough took place in 16th century Christian Europe, coinciding with the European evangelization and colonization of the American continent. But this breakthrough, which has accelerated at a bewildering pace ever since, did not occur out of the blue. It was the consequence of the philosophy of science elaborated by the early 13th century universities founded by the Church, in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Naples, Padua, Cambridge, Cologne, Salamanca, etc., etc., as has been brilliantly demonstrated by Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki, among others.

The congenial and thorough epistemological realism of Christian philosophy led St. Thomas Aquinas, right in the middle of the 13th century, to describe the three levels of the mind's penetration into abstraction of pure quantity from them; and (3) the intellectual grasp of universal being in everything (the famous esse or actus essendi of St. Thomas Aquinas). Here was the seed of the scientific breakthrough. By joining (2) and (1), namely mathematical physics, the scientific method crystallized, namely the golden rules of (a) empirical observation, (b) experiment, and (c) quantification.

Some theologians then began to apply this method, such as Roger Bacon, Albert the Great, Robert Grosseteste, Alfred of Saxony, John Buridan and Nicholas Oresme, with remarkable discoveries in all the fields of physics, later on acknowledged by no less than Newton who said that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The Thomistic method was the real cause of the scientific breakthrough, not the method advocated by Francis Bacon or that of Rene Descartes (both in the 17th century),since the latter reduced it to mathematical deduction (mistrusting observation and experiment), and the former reduced it to pure observation and experiment, excluding mathematics. The real creators of the scientific breakthrough, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler and, of course, Newton, followed the three golden rules formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, ignoring the philosophical controversies between rationalists and empiricists, as well as gradually purging science of all magic, superstition and mythology. The technological revolutions logically and historically following the scientific breakthrough of the 16th century revolution are still dazzling our imaginations and making us dream of a cosmic colonization of outer space by humanity.


Economic mercantilism, based on the preservation of a limited zero-sum of material wealth and a royal absolutism owning and controlling the economy, an economy based on slavery or forced labor, population control and wars of territorial expansion, had plunged humanity since time immemorial into a chronic state of poverty, disease, tyranny and oppression. The great Aristotle, in spite of his remarkable insights in the field of metaphysics and ethics, actually contributed to the rationalization of a static economy based on slavery and population control through the practice of abortion. Throughout the early Christian centuries the Church, thoroughly engaged in the work of evangelization, and constantly harassed by Barbarian invasions and Islamic aggression, could do nothing but endeavor to humanize the evils of slavery, tyranny and war thus preparing the ground for the emergence of modern democracy. But the new economic order brought about by the American conquest in the wake of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on the creativity of the human person, prompted Christian theologians in the 16th century, specifically at the Spanish schools of Salamanca, Seville, Valencia, Barcelona, Alcala, Pamplona, etc. to look into both the political and economic issues arising from the American conquest.

Some of these theologians, like Mercado, Molina, Medina, Azpilcueta and others, went into a thorough examination of the traditional Aristotelian economic concepts, such as the nature of money, price, exchange, value, usury, etc., as well as the assumption that the only source of wealth is land and labor. Money, as a medium of exchange, and materialized in precious metals, was considered as a dead wealth. Those theologians discovered the living nature of money, capable of growing by means of investment in productive enterprise in a free market, and the charge of an interest on loans (as distinct from abusive usury), with the development of credit facilities and freedom of enterprise and trade. These ideas paved the way for the economic, commercial, agricultural and industrial revolution of the 18th century, pioneered by Britain, scientifically articulated by Adam Smith, and brought to its full flowering in the United States of America. In his famous Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith proved that the decline of the Spanish empire was due to its adherence to mercantilism, in spite of the pioneering work of Spain's theologians, while the rise of the British empire was due to the expansion of free trade and free enterprise.

Karl Marx and many other socialists, always dreaming of the collectivist utopia organized from the top, painted a somber picture of the capitalism resulting from the economic revolution (from a static to a dynamic economy), and aimed at suppressing individual freedom and the right to private ownership. But the dramatic rise of Western peoples from the abyss of poverty and tyranny to the modern wealthy and democratic state bears historical evidence of the power of capitalism to lift people up from poverty, if they are free and enterprising. That evils have multiplied together with the achievements is not due to the economic revolution or the capitalist system as such, but to the quality of moral and cultural standards accepted by society.


As mentioned above, the 16th century Spanish theologians, notably Antonio Montesinos, Bartolomé de Las Casas and, above all, Francisco de Vitoria, took an early interest in the plight of the native peoples conquered by Spain and Portugal in America. The conquest of Mexico was completed in 1521 and that of Peru in 1531. It was precisely in December of that year that the Virgin Mary appeared with native Indian features to a poor local peasant close to Mexico City, telling him that she was also his Mother. This signified the fundamental equality of all races before God, deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition.

Meanwhile, in Salamanca, Francisco de Vitoria, having been briefed by Bartolome de Las Casas regarding the unjust treatment of the natives by Spanish colonizers, launched on a series of electrifying lectures, drawing huge crowds, in which, basing himself on the teachings of Aquinas, he laid the foundations of modern democracy and international law (this is why the United Nations Organization, with its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, considered Vitoria as its precursor). Going right against the prevalent public and official opinion in Spain at that time, with Emperor Charles V at the height of his power, Vitoria demonstrated the truth, later enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence (1776), that all men are created equal, with God-given unalienable rights, among which are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, thus proclaiming the sovereignty of the people, without whose consent under the law no one has the right to rule. The drafter of the American Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, took it directly from English philosopher John Locke, who in his turn took it from Scholastic philosophers at Oxford, followers of Vitoria, Soto, Molina, Suarez, Bellarmine and others, as well as the Anglican Richard Hooker, also a follower of Vitoria. This tradition of Vitoria on human rights and international law was also transmitted on the European continent by Bodin, Grotius, Pufendorf, Leibniz and Kant, reaching up to our time and enlivening the world-wide movement of democracy and liberty.

But still in Vitoria's lifetime Pope Paul III, prompted by Vitoria's teachings which he endorsed fully, issued two decrees of excommunication in 1537 against those who would deprive the natives in America of their life, liberty or property.

When Vitoria died in 1546 (the same year as Luther) the Council of Trent had just begun, and under the influence of Vitoria and his followers, such as Cano, Soto, Layuez and others, the Council Fathers reaffirmed the Catholic doctrine of the fundamental equality of all men based on the opening of salvation to all, against both Protestant elitism (only the predestined are saved) and the claim of racial superiority of the Iberian conquerors of America.

Vitoria's doctrine of ordered liberty under the lawa constitution based on the natural law, not on the arbitrary will of a ruler, of an oligarchy or of a majority, while adopted by the American Constitution, was not adopted by the French Revolution, which opted rather for an individualism inspired by the Enlightenment, which put political power in the people's will rather than in the natural law known through reason. The French Revolution left God out of the picture, with the well known disastrous consequences, while the American Declaration of Independence spoke of man's God-given rights.


Finally, Christian philosophy's unrivaled pursuit of beauty as the most comprehensive transcendental property of a reality created by a God who is Being Itself (idsum esse subsistens) spawned through the centuries an astonishing proliferation of aesthetic expressions, with a stunning blend of humanity and divinity, as can be seen, for instance, in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, and innumerable works of literature, poetry, song, music, painting, sculpture and architecture, and even in choreography and, most recently, in cinematography.

For literature alone, the monumental multi-volume work of Charles Moeler, Literature du XXe siècle et Christianisme, has provided an impressive review of 20th century literature inspired by Christianity. And as for music and song, the sublime melodies of Gregorian Chant and the unsurpassed compositions of Mozart and Beethoven, among many others, witness to the force of Christian philosophy to enliven and transform culture and civilization.


In conclusion, we can say that the Christian philosophy flowing from the Judeo-Christian tradition and guided by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church furnished the cultural matrix and inspiring force for a universal philosophy and civilization of order, peace and progress, issuing from the West as the geographical location where that tradition took root first. That all the evils that afflict the world today also come from the West can be explained by the Scholastic maxim that the corruption of the best is the worst (coruptio optimi pessim).

But one thing is clear: that Christian philosophy, inspired by Christian theology, is an indispensable instrument for the Church to evangelize the world. This philosophy, deeply imbued with epistemological realism, presents (a) the human person in all his dignity rooted in his capacity to transcend himself infinitely through knowledge and love; (b) the monogamous family as the natural breeding and nurturing ground of that transcendence; and (c) the state as the servant of the common good through its protection of rights: individual rights, family rights, group rights and national rights.

At any rate, Christian philosophy on the person, the family and the state (the social teaching of the Catholic Church) proved decisive in the making of modern democratic and freedom-loving institutions. And it has provided a public philosophy (as the present Pope has repeatedly stated) for a universal inter-religious and democratic dialogue of peace and brotherhood.



de Torre, Rev. Joseph M. Contemporary Interpretations of Christian Philosophy, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter (Summer 1996): 11-15.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The Author

Fr. Joseph M. de Torre is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Asia and the Pacific, Manila, Philippines. A social and political philosopher he is the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles and essays. Fr. De Torre is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1996 Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
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