A Great Thomist is Gone

Dr. Raphael Waters, R.I.P.

By John Vennari

“If the Lord takes me soon, be assured that I will be praying for you.” Dr. Waters said this to us, a group of his students, who visited him at his home on Friday evening, August 20.

We would not see him again. He died the following Thursday, on August 26 at 4:30 am in St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, NY, at age 86. 

His death is an incalculable loss.

Apart from being an internationally recognized scholar who was a member of several prestigious scholarly associations, he was also a lively and humorous professor whose intense love of philosophy was as contagious as it was exhilarating.

He died in the saddle, continually planning new courses to teach as he was slowly consumed by cancer and other painful maladies. 

A Unique Pedigree

Dr. Waters was buried on September 1, 2010, one hundred years to the day from St. Pius X’s promulgation of the Oath Against Modernism, in which St. Pius X taught, “In the future the doctorate in theology or Canon Law must never be conferred on anyone who has not first of all made the regular course in scholastic [Thomistic] philosophy. If such a doctorate is conferred, it is to be held as null and void.” 

It was Pius X who taught in his magisterial decrees that scholasticism is a central component in the combat with Modernism. Some of those at the funeral remarked that it appeared to be one of those ironies of Providence that Dr. Waters, one of the last of the great Thomists, should be buried on this significant anniversary.

Dr. Raphael Waters was a Master of Thomistic philosophy who possessed a pedigree that few others could boast. Born in Australia, and years later starting his career as a pharmacist, he became a student of the eminent Father Austin Woodbury at the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, a unique institution in the world.  The school could not grant any degrees, yet people from all walks of life flocked to it because of the genius of its founder and instructor.

Father Woodbury, widely-known as “Doc” Woodbury, was trained by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, arguably the greatest Thomist of the 20th Century. Raphael Waters studied at the feet of Father Woodbury for decades. He took all the courses at the Aquinas Academy twice, and later became Father Woodbury’s co-teacher.

Dr. Waters traveled to Canada to further his studies, where he received three canonical and civil degrees in Philosophy from the University of Montreal. These degrees established him as qualified to teach in any Catholic seminary in the world. 

In Canada, he studied under world-renowned masters such as Fathers Louis-Marie Regis and Louis-Bertrand Geiger. He said repeatedly, however, that the best of all his masters who towered head and shoulder above the rest was the “boy from the bush,” Father Woodbury.

For seven years he served as assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa. In 1976 he accepted a position at Niagara University in Lewiston NY, where he served as Professor of philosophy until he resigned in 2004.

In 2005, he founded the Aquinas School of Philosophy. This was the last great project of his life to which he devoted all of his time and energy. 

He lectured every Friday night, first at a parish church hall in Niagara Falls, then at the Education Room in St. Mary’s hospital in Lewiston. The classes were free and open to all.

Dr. Dennis Bonnette, retired professor of philosophy from Niagara University and long-time colleague, who also teaches at the Aquinas School of Philosophy, said in tribute to Dr. Waters the day after his death, “Dr. Waters’ entire life was devoted to what he called the Apostolate of Scholarship… nobody was more dedicated to his students, spending many hours with them.”

The love Dr. Waters nursed towards his students was evident from the tributes they voiced after his death. 

One former student drove from North Carolina to attend the funeral. Others wrote touching tributes on his webpage obituary. One reads, “I was a student on Dr. Waters at Niagara University. I remember Dr. Waters fondly. He was a dedicated teacher who cared deeply for his students. Thank you, Dr. Waters, for courageously teaching the truth.” 

Father Francis DeRosa, a former student of Dr. Waters, drove from Virginia to celebrate the Funeral Mass in Niagara Falls. In his homily, Father DeRosa said that apart from his parents, Dr. Waters was the single most determining factor in his decision to become a priest: “It was through the teaching of Dr. Waters that I truly came to understand the Catholic Church as the one true Church established by Christ.”

Dr. Waters’ dedication to scholarship is demonstrated by the fact that upon retirement at age 80, when many a man is ready to “take it easy”, he went on to found his own school: The Aquinas School of Philosophy. He did this to keep alive the vital philosophical teachings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas so woefully neglected in our time. 

Indeed, he embodied 2500 years of the best of Western philosophical thought, and believed himself duty-bound to continue transmitting these great truths to others for as long as God gave him life.    

Thomism Scorned

Dr. Waters was appalled at the state of education, and especially at the state of philosophy taught in Catholic colleges and universities. Thomistic scholasticism is out of fashion among Catholic academics, and has been so for decades. 

Even prior to Vatican II, the progressivist proponents of the “New Theology” scorned scholasticism, claiming it too difficult for modern man to understand, and propounded new philosophical systems such as existentialism that would allegedly speak to modern man in his own language. 

As early as 1950, keen Thomists such as Father David Greenstock warned against this new development: “We are asked to accept, in exchange for this solid foundation [of Thomism], the fluid concepts of a new philosophy, destined to change with time – we are told – like everything else in this fluid world. This, to our way of thinking, is not merely unreasonable, but also very dangerous.”

This new approach lacked the clarity and precision of Thomistic philosophy and introduced much mischief. It also cut the Catholic from his past, making the centuries-old Catholic language of scholasticism a foreign language to him.

This new approach was also the basis for progressive bishops and theologians at Vatican II to insist that Council documents be drafted in so-called pastoral (ambiguous) language. For example, the Decree on Ecumenism never defines ecumenism. The Council lays stress on “human dignity”, but never defines human dignity, etc.

Even Father Joseph Ratzinger, a young progressive theologian at Vatican II who was an adherent of the New Theology, rejoiced that the Council documents would not be drafted in scholastic terminology, as has been documented in past issues of Catholic Family News.

This lack of precision of Vatican II documents was alluded to by Bishop Thomas Morrow, a prelate who attended the Council. Catholic World News reported Bishop Morrow’s statement, “I was relieved when we were told that this Council was not aiming at defining or giving final statements on doctrine, because a statement of doctrine has to be very carefully formulated, and I would have regarded the Council documents as tentative and liable to be reformed.”

The chaos resulting from these documents is well attested by the present ruinous state of the Church throughout the world. The very fact it is commonly held that Vatican II documents can have both a liberal interpretation and a conservative interpretation (the hermeneutic of discontinuity/hermeneutic of continuity dichotomy) testifies to the want of scholastic precision in the documents themselves. No one even pretends the Decrees of Trent or Vatican I can be interpreted in any other manner than the precise language in which they are written. 

The wholesale abandonment of scholasticism quickly spread throughout Catholic universities, where the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas was ignored, and a confused modern approach put in its place. 

The Science of philosophy is replaced with the “History of Philosophy”, which introduces the student to hundreds of conflicting thinkers, but never teaches the student how to think. This results in the belief that philosophy is nothing more than a contradictory jumble of personal ideas and ideals.

“The ‘History of Philosophy’ is the worst way to teach or study philosophy”, insisted Dr. Waters. A History of Philosophy course has its place for students who already have years of solid philosophical instruction, and whose minds are trained in the true science that gives them the ability to recognize errors of deceptive systems. 

It is akin to attending a school of architecture where the student is taught a history of the various styles of structures from ancient Greece to modern New York, but never learns how to build a building. 

The disorder in philosophy is worse, as it necessarily flows into confusion in Ethics, and to a grand perversion of the way Ethics is taught. The modern instructor does not teach the student the sound objective principles of Aristotle and Aquinas by which to judge moral actions. A contemporary Ethics course often consists of a text book that is merely a collection of essays from various authors presenting conflicting views. On Abortion, two essays in favor, two essays against; Euthanasia: two essays in favor, two essays against; Capital Punishment: two essay in favor, two essays against.

The student, who is not taught any firm principles by which to judge, is then told to make up his own uninformed mind. In the end, the student will be swayed in moral matters either by gut feeling, or by personal interests, or by popular liberal sentiment. The deformed student will also come to accept the prevailing error taught in modern universities: that there is no objective moral law.

This is not education, but deformation. One can only pity students and their parents who spend vast sums of money, and go into debt for years, to receive this perverse de-education.

Philosophy is a Science

By contrast, Dr. Waters, along with Father Woodbury and St. Thomas Aquinas, rightly teach that philosophy is a science that gives certitude to the mind. Dr. Waters defined philosophy as “certain knowledge of all things through their ultimate causes in the light of the principles of reason.”  

By “certain knowledge”, he means “sure knowledge”.

Dr. Waters’ mentor, Father Woodbury, spends a remarkable nine pages in his unpublished Introduction to Philosophy, demonstrating with pitiless logic: “Philosophy is knowledge of all things through highest causes, proceeding under the natural light of human reason.” Here, both Dr. Waters and Father Woodbury simply reiterate the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Wisdom [i.e. philosophy] is the science which studies first and universal causes; wisdom considers the first cause of all causes.”

Philosophy differs from the experimental sciences as it studies the ultimate cause of all things. 

For example, as the philosopher Brother Benignus noted, the science of physics formulates the laws of motion, but it does not answer the question “Why is there motion in the universe”? Biology sets out to explain the functions, likeness and unlikeness of living things, but it cannot answer the origin, principle and purpose of life. Experimental psychology seeks to describe the behavior of man, but it cannot answer the questions: “What is man?” or “what is the reason of man’s existence?”

“The philosopher is above all the guardian of the principles of reason”, Dr. Waters taught. Principles of reason are so fundamental that they cannot be proved, only defended. Some of these principles of reason include:

• Nothing can both be and not be at the same time and under the same circumstances (this is the principle of non-contradiction which is the most fundamental principle of reason).

       • Whatever undergoes movement is moved by another;

       • Every agent acts for the sake of an end;

       • The whole is greater than its part;

       • It is never lawful to do an evil act for the sake of a good end.

These and other principles of reason are the tools of the philosopher by which he forms solid judgments about the world around him. 

The principles of reason are employed in every branch of true philosophy: Logic; Cosmology; Philosophical Psychology; Metaphysics; Poietics; Ethics, and the rest. All of these sciences, properly taught according to the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition, form a magnificent whole that support and complete one another. 

For example, one cannot have sound notion of what is proper human behavior (Ethics) unless one has a correct understanding of what is human nature (Philosophical Psychology), or of the existence of God as our last end (Metaphysics). 

Another advantage of sound philosophy is that it prevents one from bowing down before the altar of experimental science. Professor Stephen Hawking and his bogus claim that the universe can be explained without God do not intimidate a man familiar with the metaphysical teachings of Aristotle and Aquinas.

In his new book The Grand Design – which as of mid-September has sold over 36,000 copies – Hawking claims, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists,” and it is not necessary to invoke God as the source of all creation.

In other words, Hawking says that the entire universe came from nothing, that we have a magnificent effect without a cause, that nothing produced everything. This absurdity, which we see nowhere else in all of creation, is what Hawking invokes to explain all of creation.

As philosopher Dr. Bonnette remarked when he heard Hawking’s assertion, “This is what happens when a physicist tries to do metaphysics. He’s speaking outside his field.” The modern world in its godless ignorance prostrates itself before the scientist Hawking. The true philosopher regards Hawking as an object to be pitied.

The Aquinas School of Philosophy

Dr. Raphael Waters taught the true science of scholastic philosophy at his Aquinas School of Philosophy. Between 2005 and 2007, he delivered courses in Philosophical Psychology and Ethics. I was privileged to start attending his classes in spring 2007, and recorded a series of stand-alone lectures on various topics, a full course on Metaphysics, and a full course on Philosophical Psychology. 

In fact, at the time he was teaching Philosophical Psychology, he had an accident at home that laid him up for 10 months. On a Sunday night in winter at about 9:30, he fell in his bathroom, crushed his ribs when he hit the bathtub, and lay there all night unable to move. 

Providentially, a driver from the cancer institute, who had come the next morning to take him to hospital, called the police when Dr. Waters did not answer the door. The entire time he was hospitalized from this accident, wracked in pain, his only thought was returning to his students.

On September 11, 2009, Dr. Waters began his course on Ethics, which would alas remain unfinished. While giving this course, he was in an out of the hospital, and was also undergoing cancer treatment at Roswell Park Institute in Buffalo.

On Friday January 22, 2010 when we were about halfway through the Ethics course, he opened the class with a special thank you to all of us who came to the school, supported it, and spread word about it (it is actually we who owed thanks to him). He told some of us privately that he was scheduled for a special meeting at Roswell Cancer Institute the following Monday, and they had bad news for him.

The next night, January 23, he experienced such strong pains in his legs (due to another malady unrelated to his cancer) he was rushed to the hospital. He would never return to class. 

Above all, he was concerned for the future of his school. As I have recorded his lectures and have them on audio CD, the class continued to meet each Friday night in Lewiston to listen to his recorded talks and continue the study of philosophy.

In April, his long-time friend and colleague Dr. Dennis Bonnette was able to return and resume teaching. The school thus continues. Dr. Bonnette has delivered a brief course on points of Metaphysics, and is now conducting his own course on the Philosophy of Human Nature.  He is a superb teacher.

All of these classes are being recorded and will be released through Oltyn Library Services at www.aquinasphilosophy.com . Dr. Waters’ unfinished Ethics course will also be released before the end of the year.

In the Saddle

I will close with a consideration that indicates the remarkable character of Dr. Waters; his determination to carry on. Throughout his final months, even though he would never return to class, he did not give up his plans to continue. 

One day last February, when I visited him at the hospital, he laid out four other courses he was planning to teach: Logic, Epistemology, a course on Dr. Woodbury’s Introduction to Philosophy, and a fourth that I don’t remember. This was apart from his determination to complete his unfinished Ethics course. 

It was edifying and humbling to see this 86-year-old man, literally dying from cancer, steadfast in his resolve to teach in the future. 

His article against the fallacy of homosexual “marriage”, on page 5 of this issue, is something he wrote and sent to me only three weeks before his death. Even in the last days of his life on earth, he was still working out a new Prospectus for the school. 

He always kept going. He never gave up. He never said, “I’ve done enough”. He never said, “I’m too old or too sick to continue”. In this and in his lifelong dedication to truth, he is model for us all. 

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Dr. Raphael Waters. May he rest in peace.

– published in the October 2010 Catholic Family News