The Catholic Feminine Part II – Philosophy

Aug 22nd, 2019 | By | Category: Blog Posts

In this second part of our four-part series on the Christian feminine, I will explore the proper role of philosophy in relation to theology. I will also define certain terms that I have been using, thereby increasing our philosophical precision. This will enable us to contrast the proper philosophical Christian tradition against philosophical errors both modern and ancient. Finally, I will show how these errors lead to certain moral and theological errors especially as those errors lead to a dangerously mistaken view on human nature and sexuality. 

Because of its more technical nature, this second part may be uninteresting to some readers. In that case, the reader may skip to part three. I believe it will still follow naturally from part one. However, there are some excellent audio lectures in the footnotes. I particularly recommend the lecture by Dr. Jessica Murdoch as it is a great summary of the main point in this second part.

Giovanni Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece , 1505

Philosophy – Handmaiden of Theology

We call her lady wisdom, Sophia. Wisdom is in this sense personified by the feminine and philosophy is, as the very word bears witness, the love of wisdom. We know by the instruction received from tradition that true philosophy is not opposed to theology but stands rather along his side as handmaiden to lord. Yet these archaic words impress themselves upon the modern mind with the stinging image of oppression. To be sure, the relation of these two words (lord and handmaiden) do imply a disparity of power. But oppression is precisely the misuse and corruption of power.  “Handmaiden” does not signify slave. She serves but is not a lowly servant; of her own volition she supports. 

It is proper to understand these complementary sciences of theology and philosophy as masculine and feminine respectively. Philosophy is rooted in its prerequisite virtue of humility, which is clearly a more properly feminine virtue. A full vessel cannot receive. He will never gain wisdom if a man is already full of himself. Hence the Scripture says, “Be not wise in thine own eyes.”1

Aristotle says, beginning his famous work on natural philosophy, “[We] advance from what is more obscure by nature, but clearer to us, towards what is more clear and more knowable by nature.”2 Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom by that which is more accessible to our earthly minds whereas theology is the pursuit of the highest wisdom, less accessible to our natural capacities, and whose object is more knowable in itself. What is more knowable or intelligible by its own nature is less known by us, more obscure. What we know first are things that, in themselves, have less about them to know. We know simple objects first and then we come to know more profound realities such as love, which avails itself to infinite contemplation. “God is love,” 3 and this is no flippant metaphor. Likewise, growing in wisdom, we proceed from loving things more lovable to our bodily appetites (like material objects and bodily pleasures) to things more lovable in themselves (like wisdom) and eventually to God who, as the highest good, is the most lovable. The child loves McDonald’s but the adult loves fine dining, which is more lovable in itself.  

It is also in this way that we proceed from philosophy to theology. True philosophy is directed towards theology as the properly developing child is directed towards loving fine dining over candy or fast food. If our philosophy (wisdom sought according to human reason) is not directed towards theology (wisdom sought according to divine revelation), then we will be like an adult who loves McDonald’s more than fine dining.  

Philosophy and theology stand in relation to each other as earth to heaven, feminine to masculine4, material to immaterial, and mother to father. God is revealed as Father and not mother. This is not because Scripture was written during a time of outdated patriarchy. It is the affirmation of the masculine principle over (not against) the feminine principle. “Mother” and “father” are man and woman, respectively, considered as principles of life. It is as mother that woman begets, not as woman simply. The word “mother,” in fact, comes from the Latin word “mater” which shares the same root word for “matter.”  Matter is that “stuff” out of which things were made. It is the material principle of generation and it pre-exists whatever is made out of it. The formal (immaterial) principle is more represented by the masculine because, like the father, it is that which comes into matter and causes matter to “give birth” to something new. The matter from which the new thing came, in this imagery, is the mother. The goddess is more properly a pagan deity. Matter, which always existed for the pagans, is the first principle. Christian cosmology, on the other hand, insists that God is masculine; or rather that the masculine principle is more properly predicable of God. God is the active, giving principle, not the receiving principle. For the pagans, the goddess might even create the universe out of herself. But we know that all of creation is wholly distinct from God. The mother is not wholly other than her child. The child comes from her very matter. Hence, we call her mother (mater) and this is not the proper way to think of God.5

Of philosophy and theology, one is superior (theology) but the other is his crown (philosophy). And we should not think it strange that philosophy is the crown of theology as the king is more noble than the crown on his head. The feminine is the crown and the glory of the masculine, Thus St. Paul again says, “woman is the glory of man.”6 This is not chauvinism, and more will be said about the inherent equality of man and woman in the next part. This divine revelation we have received from sacred Scripture is explaining what nature has already told those who listened. First that the masculine and feminine are complementary and in no way opposed to each other, and secondly that the masculine principle is more noble. However man is not himself more noble than woman (in Christ there is “neither male nor female”).7 He merely represents the more noble principle of masculinity. In like manner, heaven represents what is more noble and earth what is less noble, even though earth is the crown glory of the cosmos. Yet fundamentally, they are both made of the same stuff. They are both material; they are both equal.

The Christian Tradition of Philosophy 

While the Church does not dogmatically endorse any specific philosophy, there is in fact a definitive Christian tradition of philosophy which stands in contrast to the worldly alternatives. In this video, Dr. Bryan Cross explains that in the modern age there are three basic traditions of philosophy: the Enlightenment tradition, the Nietzsche tradition, and the Christian tradition which is commonly called the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of philosophy.8 Much more is needed to support this claim but I will leave the skeptic to investigate the resources already cited and I will turn now to the explanation of the terms relevant to our present interest from within the Christian tradition of philosophy.

Definition of Terms

The reader may wonder why I am defining terms here instead of defining them at the outset, before using them and potentially causing confusion. The reason for this is that I did not intend this work to be argumentative in character nor do I think it is necessary to understand these terms with deep philosophical precision in order to understand the general meaning of the central points. The common sense understanding of the terms in question will, for the most part, suffice to convey my meaning. Nevertheless it will be profitable to add some clarification and disambiguation which will allow us in turn to contrast the Christian philosophical tradition with certain errors and explain why it is the case that philosophy, done properly, will support right theology just as the feminine supports the masculine.

It seems to me that the four terms I use throughout this series that are most likely to cause confusion are “nature” ”vocation” “essential” and “accidental.” Let’s begin with the first two.

The word nature can be used in multiple senses but the way I am using it most often is the Aristotelian sense of “the principle of being moved and being at rest.” At first glance this seems to obfuscate rather than clarify the meaning. But it is really quite simple: nature is the principle of motion in a subject. If our subject is a moral agent (such as a woman) then it is the principle of self motion. Said more simply, it is the principle of action. Now to put this in less technical language still, a thing’s nature is what causes the thing to act in the way it does. This concept is every bit as simple as it sounds. Monkeys climb trees in the jungle because of their “monkey” nature, because of something in them. It is the “lion” nature that causes the lioness to live in a pride and to hunt her prey. Likewise it is man’s nature that causes him to reason, to build things, to laugh, etc.

“Vocation,” as I am using it in this series, is something that follows directly from one’s nature. The word vocation can be said in several ways.  The traditional Christian usage is often in reference to religious life such as a priest or a nun’s vocation.  Thus, it is understood as a divine calling towards a certain spiritual “occupation” – a task which will require one’s participation in the form of service, commitment, and even sacrifice. This can be called the “spiritual” vocation. Next there is the non-religious, ordinary sense: one’s professional vocation. But the way I am using it in this series is in the sense of a “natural” vocation, of which there could be several in any given subject. The lioness, for example, has the natural vocations of both “hunter” and “mother.”  

Sometimes these three types overlap.  For example, a priest who earns a salary for his priestly duties has a vocation that is both spiritual and professional.  Similarly, even though “mother” is primarily a natural vocation for a particular woman, it could also be a spiritual vocation because grace perfects rather than replaces nature.  Think of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine, who prayed her son into the Catholic Church. “Mother” was both her natural and spiritual vocation. This is true to some degree for all mothers (and fathers) but she, especially, helps clarify for us why and how it is possible that a vocation can be both natural and spiritual. How much more is this the case of the blessed mother Mary! 

Unless otherwise stated, in this series I am always using “vocation” in the natural sense.  One’s vocation, in this sense, follows from one’s nature not from one’s temporal circumstance or situation. Thus, when I say things like “It is the vocation of every woman to be a mother,” this is not because every woman is or must be a literal mother but because of something within every woman’s nature. Similarly, we say that every Christian has a priestly vocation although not every Christian is a literal priest. 

So it turns out, like I said, these terms are very understandable according to common sense. Then, why bother to explain any of this?

It is because there are many who reject the very idea of anything having a nature in the way I have described above, which is just the way we commonly understand and experience the world to actually be. This is not only common, it is the default position of the contemporary academic enterprise. The philosophical error of rejecting real natures in natural things is called nominalism. It will come as no surprise that this error belongs not to the Christian tradition of philosophy but to its worldly counterparts, especially the Enlightenment tradition. (( Nominalism did not begin at the Enlightenment. This error goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers. I place it within the Enlightenment tradition especially because is a very prominent component of that tradition. ))

We Christians believe and know by faith that God did indeed give His creation diverse natures: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds”9 “Their kinds” here can be understood as “their natures.” A monkey is a different kind of thing than a kangaroo is. This is synonymous with saying that a monkey has a different nature than a kangaroo has.  Specifically, a monkey has a “monkey” kind of nature but the kind of nature a kangaroo has is “kangaroo.” But beyond this revelation, philosophy itself can and does rigorously prove this fact. Even the pagan philosophers of ancient Greece proved that the world is full of “substances” (things) with specific “natures” more than 2000 years ago. The footnotes of this essay will contain some resources for those who are interested in learning these philosophical proofs.10

The word nominalism comes from the Latin nome which means “name.” According to nominalists, for example, “lion” is just the name we give to this complex organism that lives in a pride and hunts. Like everything else, it is ultimately just a collection of materials obeying the laws of physics and chemistry. It has no true nature in it. 

One might wonder: what is the harm in the philosophy of nominalism? Perhaps it’s just the case that some people see the world differently. What is the harm in classifying nature in this way? This error is very dangerous in fact because if there are no natures then there are no (natural) vocations since vocation, as we said, follows upon nature.11

If a thing has a nature then it is possible for that thing to act or be acted upon in a way contrary to its nature. For example, if it is true that a lion has a nature that causes the lion to have the vocation of “hunter,” then it will necessarily be the case that any lion who is a bad hunter is a bad lion. Likewise, if it is the case that it is in the nature of a man (as father) to provide for his family, then a father who does not provide for his family is a bad father, “worse than an infidel.”12  Of course there is much more to say about this topic but this should suffice for our present purposes.13

The last two terms that I want to clarify are “essential” and “accidental” and these are most easily understood in relation to each other. What is essential to a thing and what is accidental? Again, the reader’s common sense guess will be sufficiently accurate. A quality or property of a subject is essential if the subject would not be what it actually is without that property.  Conversely, a property is accidental to a subject when that subject would not change or become something else were the property to change or go away. So for example, the power of rationality is essential for human beings because it is impossible to be a human being without having the power of reason. Conversely, having blue eyes is not essential to being a human; many humans do not have blue eyes. Therefore we say of Socrates that it is essential to his nature that he has the power of reason but it just so happens that he has blue eyes or in other words, his blue eyes are accidental to his nature as a human being. Again, in the footnotes of this essay I will provide additional resources for anyone who wants to learn more about this.14

Sin Nature

There is one theological clarification in order on the topic of nature.  Because of the fall of man, isn’t it true that man’s nature has become corrupt? If it is in our nature to sin, then how can we be blamed for sinning, if according to the reasoning above, we are simply acting in accordance with our nature?  St. Paul writes:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.15

Man’s nature is corrupted but not destroyed by original sin. If the steering wheel of a car is damaged such that it no longer steers the car properly, the car has not become something other than a car; it has become a defective car. It remains the case that the car is ordered to drive properly by its “nature.”16  It would be foolish to determine that the defective car is now operating properly saying, “It has become a defective car and that’s what defective cars do.”

So when St. Paul talks about our sin nature, he does not mean that our very essence has become something other than what God created us to be. He means that our nature has been corrupted such that it can no longer pursue our natural end properly just as the car with a defective steering wheel can no longer drive properly and will in fact, tend to error just as fallen man also tends towards sin. 17

Further proof of this is, as St. Augustine explains, that evil is a privation of good and not its own separate thing.18 Therefore, this evil which is the corruption of our nature necessarily inheres in something good and that good can only be the good of human nature itself, given to us by God.19  

Other Philosophical Errors 

By abandoning the Christian tradition of philosophy, many have fallen into various philosophical errors that are relevant to the important points of this series. However, it would not be practical to treat all of them, or even the major ones, at any adequate length. But briefly I will mention some of them, hoping that the reader can recognize the relevance of each. I will again recommend some additional resources for those who want to pursue these issues further. 

Relativism is the error that claims that all truths are relative. This includes moral relativism, which is in obvious opposition to the Christian philosophical tradition, but it also includes relativism in regard to any truth of the natural world. Nietzsche writes,  “There are no facts, only interpretations.” “Motherhood” then is not an objective vocation of woman that follows upon her nature; it is merely an “interpretation.”20

Mechanicism is closely related to materialism and reductionism, described below. It is the error of believing that there is no actual difference between natural substances (like plants and animals) and artificial substances (like computers and tractors). It is fundamentally a rejection of teleology (purpose) in nature. Now it is true that the “actions” of a machine have no intrinsic purposes. They result deterministically from causes within the parts of the machine. For example, when the bicycle rolls down the street, it is not because the bicycle has an intrinsic purpose to do that. It is because the pedal is being pushed by the rider’s foot and the pedal is turning the drive chain which in turn causes the wheels to turn and thus, forces the bicycle to roll down the street. This is true for a bicycle. But mechanicism claims that all things, even men, are fundamentally no different than bicycles. In that case, nothing is truly directed by nature towards any end. A woman might become a mother, on this account, but only because some biological “machinery” released hormones into her brain that caused her to find a suitable mate, etc. She has no real vocation to be a mother. There is no purpose in motherhood or anything else for that matter.21 

Scientism is a relatively modern error that claims that empirical science can tell us everything there is to know about reality.  Since “natures” or “essences” cannot be empirically verified then, it would follow that they do not exist. This error often gives rise to the following errors of reductionism and materialism.22

Reductionism is the error that claims that the whole is always reducible to its parts. After all, hasn’t modern science shown us that everything in the world is really just a collection of atoms moving around? If we are only collections of atoms, we are not truly responsible for our actions. There are no real natures; every motion is determined by physical laws such as gravity and electromagnetic forces. 23

Materialism is the familiar error of believing that only material things are real. Even the human mind, on this account, is purely composed of matter. This means that there are no immaterial realities (like “love”) or immaterial beings (like angels) and there couldn’t be a god. In theory, materialists could believe in some kind of “nature” proper to things, but that is not usually the case as the misguided mind usually holds to more than one of these errors. That is, virtually all materialists (and reductionists) are also nominalists. With only the material world existing, there is nothing “beyond” matter towards which material things can be working. Their “natures,” if they have any, would be bound up to strictly material ends. For example, a materialist might be happy to say that it is the “nature” of a photon to move at the speed of light in a vaccuum, but “natures” never truly get beyond this kind of a material, limiting directedness.24

Now these two errors are not new at all. They originated in Pre-Socratic pagan philosophers like Democritus.  While scientism is perhaps the arch-error of the Enlightenment tradition, materialism is the apparent foundation of the philosophical tradition of Nietzsche, following especially upon Heraclitus who claimed that fire was the origin of all things, and that the world was a constant flowing change. If everything is always changing, then there are no persisting natures in things. This tradition gave rise to the error of voluntarism, which in turn became the philosophical foundation of many great evils including communism and intersectional feminism. It is also related more subtly to certain theological errors such as divine command theory. 25

Voluntarism is the error that claims that it is one’s will rather than one’s nature that dictates his or her vocation and even one’s very essence. One can “decide” to take on any nature that they choose. This is the underlying philosophy behind the modern transgender movement. 26

There are many errors besides these that we could discuss but this will suffice for our brief sketch.  But is all this philosophical reasoning really necessary? Are we not able to learn all of the important spiritual truths from scripture alone? After all, the Scripture says, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” 27 But as we have already seen, without a proper philosophical foundation, one will inevitably fall into error, even serious theological and moral error. 

The proposition is, “We don’t need philosophy because we have revealed theology” but this cannot possibly be right because it is a philosophical proposition itself.28 Like those modern men who adopted the error of scientism, the theological simpleton can never dispense of philosophy; he can only either philosophize well or he can philosophize badly.

Conclusion 

I have outlined some of the major philosophical errors that result from the abandonment of the Christian tradition of philosophy.  Even though I did not attempt a refutation of any of these, I hope that the reader can see how they are related to the larger topic at hand, and will see the critical importance of following the true philosophical tradition. Bad philosophy leads to theological errors. Let us therefore follow the Christian tradition of philosophy as children follow the good mother. True philosophy stands under theology; and by her we also understand.

Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars.

She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.

She has sent out her maids to call from the highest places in the town,29


  1. Proverbs 3:27, Isaiah 5:21 []
  2. Aristotle, Physics 1.1 []
  3. 1 John 4:8 []
  4. This imagery is universal; e.g. Dr. Peter Kreeft recounts that in an ancient Hindu wedding ritual, the bride says to the groom, “You are heaven, I am earth.” []
  5. Listen to Why Do Christians Call God “Father”? | Prof. Paige Hochschild by The Thomistic Institute on SoundCloud []
  6. 1 Corinthians 11:7 []
  7. Galatians 3:28 []
  8. For more important points, unable to fit in the short live-presentation, see the PDF of his talk entitled “Evangelism as Cultural Conversion” and renowned philosopher and convert Alasdair Macintyre, “After Virtue” and his subsequent books, cited by Bryan Cross in the video. []
  9. Genesis 1:24 RSV []
  10. Cf. David Oderberg’s book, “Real Essentialism” or listen to this audio lecture: Listen to Is There a Human Nature? | Prof. Michael Gorman by The Thomistic Institute on #SoundCloud []
  11. This audio lecture is a great contrast of the secular feminist denial of real human nature with the true Christian philosophy of natures as divine gifts: Listen to Dr. Jessica Murdoch: “Catholic Feminism: Finding One’s Identity in Christ” by The Thomistic Institute on #SoundCloud []
  12. 1 Timothy 5:8 []
  13. See the Catholic Encyclopedia for more information on nominalism. []
  14. Cf. Edward Feser’s books “Aquinas: An Introduction” and for a more in depth study: “Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction” []
  15. Romans 7:18 []
  16. I use quotation marks here because a car does not have a true nature because it is an artifact. Only God Himself is capable of giving something a real nature. []
  17. See especially Dr. Lawrence Feingold on Original Justice and Original Sin []
  18. St. Augustine – Enchiridion 14 []
  19. St. Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae 2.85.2 []
  20. For an example against moral relativism from within the Christian tradition see these audio lectures: Listen to Fr. Legge OP “Judging the Truth: Moral Intolerance or the Dictatorship of Relativism?” (UC Berkeley) by The Thomistic Institute on #SoundCloud and this one — Listen to Dr. Michael Gorman – “True for Me, but Not for You? Moral Relativism and Public Life” by The Thomistic Institute on #SoundCloud []
  21. For an example of how even pre-Christian philosophy can recognize teleology in nature, contra mechanicism, see Aristotle – Physics Book 2 []
  22. See Edward Feser’s books, “The Last Superstition” and “Aristotle’s Revenge” for excellent philosophical refutations of scientism. []
  23. ibid. []
  24. ibid. on materialism, specifically atomism, see this excellent lecture: Listen to Aristotle against Epicurus: Atoms, Particles & Elements in Thomism | Prof. Matthew Gaetano by The Thomistic Institute on #SoundCloud []
  25. Certain “loose” versions of divine command theory could possibly be licit but any version that claims God can decree moral laws irrespective of the natures He gave to creatures gravely misrepresents proper philosophy and theology. []
  26. See again the audio lecture from Dr. Jessica Murdoch above.  This article by David Sorrell might also be helpful. []
  27. Proverbs 14:12 KJV []
  28. I.e. a philosophical proposition of epistemology (the theory of knowledge). []
  29. Proverbs 9: 1 – 3 RSV []
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