Papal Metaphysics

Article excerpt

Papal Metaphysics

I wonder if a pious unbeliever, who has been browsing reverently among the medievals, may take issue with the Pope's appeal in New Orleans for greater emphasis on metaphysics. I was charmed by it and felt myself back in the twelfth century's University of Paris.

But the Pope's message also reminded me of an encounter here several years ago with Ivan Illich, that dazzling medieval-style dialectician, in one of his visits here from Mexico. He suggested--and I can hardly believe it, even as I repeat it--that one way to deal with the problem of hunger in the Third World was to change the definition of hunger. I brashly asked Father Illich whether he had ever tested out this theory on a hungry Mexican peasant. He brushed the question aside as irrelevant and ignorant. From his loftier metaphysical perspective, the validity of a dialectical proposition does not depend on empirical tests but on whether it contains internal contradictions. If not, then that hungry peon was suffering not so much from malnutrition as from a grave deficiency in logic.

Of course it would be unfair to attribute any such syllogism to this Pope, who has often demonstrated his sympathy with the oppressed everywhere. But it does show where an undue emphasis on metaphysics can lead even as compassionate a Catholic theologian as Illich.

The Pope, who taught philosophy in Poland before he became a dishop, not only stressed greater emphasis on metaphysics in Catholic schools but its stricter supervision by ecclesiastical authorities. Those, even bishops, are not necessarily infallible, as some of the most brilliant medieval philosophers learned to their sorrow. Like them, our own resident heretic Father Charles Curran was barred from teaching theology at Catholic University and exiled to secular Cornell University because his views, like Roscelin's and Abelard's, annoyed the hierarchy.

The Pope in his homily laid equal stress on the teaching of the Gospels. It seems time to recall again that this is not always compatible or even on speaking terms with metaphysics. Indeed it is hard to find metaphysics in the Gospels.

St. Jerome, who gave the church its Latin Bible and expressed the humble and antimetaphysical side of the faith, once asked in a commentary on Galatians, "Who reads Plato and Aristotle anymore?' He replied, "Only a few old men in corners,' and then added in a proud reference to the first Disciples, "but our rustics and our fisherman--the whole world resounds with their wisdom!'

Indeed, the simple truths preached in the Gospels by and for humble men, like those preached by the Hebrew prophets before them, are more urgently relevant to humanity's survival than ever. …