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Mere Catholicism

God, Philosophy, Universities
A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition
By Alasdair MacIntyre. Rowman & Littlefield. Pp. 200. $29.95.

Review by Philip Reed

What does it mean to be a Catholic university? This well-worn question emerges even more than usual these days in the face of budget cuts and increasing competition in higher education, as these universities have to identify what unique feature they offer prospective students that justifies their higher tuition costs. Alasdair MacIntyre, perhaps the most influential living philosopher, believes the answer to this question involves a significant place for the Catholic philosophical tradition.

MacIntyre begins his excellent book by raising a paradox for the Catholic Christian: her faith requires her to give unqualified trust to God but she simultaneously poses systematic questions about the God she claims to trust. These questions take the form of traditional philosophical problems for theists, such as the problem of evil, the relationship of body and soul, and how to speak meaningfully of a transcendent being. Thus MacIntyre identifies an apparent tension between faith and reason, a tension that the Catholic philosophical tradition wishes to dissolve.

The reader is then guided through a brief history of the great minds of this tradition, from Augustine to John Paul II. MacIntyre shows how each philosopher addresses intellectual problems characteristic of believers, but does so by responding to the concerns unique to the time and place from which each one comes.

The hero of the book, unsurprisingly, is Thomas Aquinas. MacIntyre sees Aquinas as able to integrate successfully a set of Augustinian theological commitments with the Aristotelian philosophy that confronted Latin philosophers in the 12th and 13th centuries. In this way, it is Aquinas who can successfully dissolve the apparent tension between faith and reason. MacIntyre fully realizes that the privilege he extends to Aquinas is anachronistic, for “traditions are defined retrospectively” (p. 165). In Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, the Roman Catholic Church pronounced that Thomist philosophy is central to Catholic philosophy because Aquinas deploys the necessary resources to resolve the intellectual problems raised by modern science and philosophy.

Nevertheless, the prominence MacIntyre gives to Aquinas should not be overemphasized, for part of the tradition as MacIntyre conceives it includes a working out of rival perspectives and continuing disagreements. For MacIntyre, Aquinas has articulated the deepest answer so far to fundamental human questions, but it is the task of Catholic philosophy now to engage contemporary problems and further the tradition as it is able, using the available tools of both analytic and continental philosophy.

In this work as with his previous ones, MacIntyre is a master of narrating a rich cultural history. He deftly connects certain philosophical problems to, for example, the nuances of education in Ireland in the 18th century. However, it is sometimes hard to see in this book how MacIntyre’s philosophical narrative hangs together. Some figures appear to be included in the history only because they are well-known Catholic philosophers, and when MacIntyre explains the doctrines they are famous for (Anselm’s ontological argument, Ockham’s nominalism, Malebranche’s occasionalism) it is not clear how they relate to the kinds of common intellectual questions that are supposed to be driving the narrative.

What MacIntyre identifies as the essence of the Catholic philosophical tradition has nothing distinctively Roman Catholic about it as far as I can see. MacIntyre observes many “obvious difficulties” of the Oxford Movement and praises the conversion of John Henry Newman, who emerges as one of the heroes of the tradition. But the features that MacIntyre admires about Newman — his intellectual powers, his acquaintance with 18th-century secular philosophy, his comprehensive vision for a university education — certainly would be just as open to Newman the Anglican as they were to Newman the Roman Catholic. Fideism notwithstanding, it is to my mind a welcome consequence of MacIntyre’s history that it is a history of the Christian philosophical tradition (albeit a history that omits Jonathan Edwards and Alvin Plantinga).

Part of MacIntyre’s conviction is that philosophical questions are not only for professional philosophers but for all persons, who are the intended audience of his book. This brings us to the importance of the university and the instruction of philosophy therein. The earliest universities of the 13th century were dedicated to the unity of knowledge and an integrated relationship between disciplines, with philosophy and theology having special places because of their systematic nature. MacIntyre observes that universities then marginalized or abandoned philosophy and theology, treating them as just one discipline among many, leading to the fragmentation of knowledge.

MacIntyre suggests ultimately that Catholic universities should reject the paradigm of the modern research university and focus on a truly liberal education with a unique place for philosophy and theology, for only these disciplines can adequately address the enduring questions of human life. No doubt this will not necessarily be the answer that budget conscious administrators of Catholic universities want, but this would only be a symptom of the problem that MacIntyre intends to rectify.

Philip Reed is assistant professor of philosophy at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.

Photo: Alasdair MacIntyre, on the occasion of his joining the faculty of London Metropolitan University.

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