Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Recalling God's Plan for Human Flourishing

by Jennie D. Latta


As the result of reading my Saint Meinrad newsletter, I was invited to participate in the Second Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Philosophy of Edith Stein in London, Ontario, in June.

Fr. Thomas Gricoski, OSB, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey and doctoral candidate at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, made a presentation on "essential being," and I made a presentation on eternal life. I won't give you a summary of the philosophical nuances, but this was an amazing experience.

Most of you probably know that Dr. Edith Stein was born to a devout Jewish family, stopped praying as a teenager, became one of the first women to earn a doctorate from a German university, became a Catholic, a Carmelite nun, and then died a martyr at Auschwitz.

She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988, and is now known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her feast day is August 9.

What you may not know is that, after she became Catholic, Dr. Stein devoted her professional endeavors toward encouraging a dialogue between Thomism and a modern philosophical movement known as phenomenology. Why should you care? Because her project is still one of great importance to our world today.

In addition to my day job, I am a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Memphis. My dissertation is in preparation and will discuss Edith Stein's major philosophical treatise, Finite and Eternal Being.

That book was the last of three manuscripts that Dr. Stein prepared for publication dealing with points of contact and contrast between Thomism and phenomenology.

Most persons in the philosophy department at the University of Memphis and, indeed, I would say, most persons in the philosophy department of any public university in the United States understand philosophy to be divided between analytical (i.e., Anglo-American) and continental (i.e., German and French) philosophy.

Obviously, this division leaves out an awful lot of people. Most importantly for my purposes, it leaves out Catholic philosophy all together.

Just as Dr. Stein thought, I believe that the project of introducing (or reintroducing) the philosophia perennis to public discourse is an essential and important project for Catholic philosophers and Catholics who are philosophers.

Catholic philosophy has a grounding in reality - what is real - that, in my opinion, is desperately needed. Catholic philosophy teaches that there is a connection between how things (especially human beings) are and how they ought to be.

We are not simply starting from a blank slate in deciding how to order the relations among persons and nations. Some arrangements are conducive to human flourishing based upon the kind of being that human beings are; others are not.

I am writing one day after the United States Supreme Court issued its opinions in the Windsor and Hollingsworth cases (the same-sex marriage cases). These cases raise profound questions for the Catholic Church in the United States, because they represent a third major area in which Catholic moral teaching is now at variance with the laws and regulations of the United States.  

The first of these is the Court's decisions on the "right" to abortion; the second is the HHS Mandate requiring all employers to make provision for contraceptive services in health insurance plans; and the third is the Court's decision finding that a federal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one women violates due process and equal protection principles of the federal Constitution.

I am a U.S. bankruptcy judge, so have some interest in these cases because of changes they mean for my work. I also have friends who have passionate feelings about same-sex marriage - both for it and against it - and so have an interest in what the decision will mean for them. But neither of these is my overriding interest at this time and as a philosopher. My interest is in how the Catholic Church in the United States will respond.

For example, the Church could simply distinguish between sacramental marriage and other forms of marriage. It could, in effect, say that this is how we do it no matter how it is done by others.

This position I sometimes call "Marine Corps Catholicism" - a Church that is only for the few and the proud. Special rules apply to its members. If you want to be a member, you have to follow the rules. Whether you want to be in or not is up to you. A lot is demanded, and one might feel a certain pride in following the rules, but it is not for everyone.

Unfortunately, Marine Corps Catholicism has a tendency to look a little like Pelagianism. And it doesn't square with the understanding of the Church announced at Vatican Council II - erected for all ages "to be the pillar and mainstay of the truth" Lumen Gentium, § 8; cf. 1 Tim. 3:15.

The Church understands herself to be the Body of Christ - the vehicle of saving grace for the whole world. She does not simply announce rules for the few and the proud, but communicates the divine revelation she received through the incarnation of Jesus Christ - the good news for all people.

The Church believes that because of this revelation and her founding by the Lord Himself, she is in a unique position to know what is best in the sense of what is necessary for the flourishing of human persons.

The Church teaches that human persons cannot flourish in a society that permits children to be killed in their mothers' wombs and that separates the purpose of procreation from the conjugal act.

In the same way, she teaches that marriage is a "covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring. [It] has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized" Code of Canon Law, can. 1055, § 1.

The link between these three teachings is clear: the transmission of life and the flourishing of humanity require lifelong commitments between men and women who are open to the gift of life.

In these coming days, we American Catholics will be called upon to respond to the latest decisions of our Supreme Court. May we remember the project of St. Teresa Benedicta and bring to the discussion an understanding of the teachings of the Church that is rooted in reality and God's plan for human flourishing. 

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.