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The Renaissance of Faith and Reason


In the year that has passed since Pope John Paul II released his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), theologians, philosophers, scientists, and other scholars have pondered its meaning and significance.

Robert P. George

One thing has become clear: A full appreciation of the teaching proposed in this extraordinarily rich document requires multiple readings and much reflection and discussion. As befits the profound and ancient topic it addresses the relationship between religious faith and intellectual inquiry Fides et Ratio is an encyclical for the ages.

Each time I work through the encyclical, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus states, I do so with quite different sensations ranging from intellectual excitement to puzzlement to wonder that such a thing should be attempted and, finally, to a humbling awareness that there is more going on in this text than I understand. I sympathize with Fr. Neuhaus, for I have experienced very similar sensations.

Fides et Ratio is addressed to the Bishops of the Catholic Church. In this respect, the encyclical differs strikingly from the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, on the value and moral inviolability of human life, which was addressed not only to the Bishops but also to Priests and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, Lay Faithful and all people of Good Will. That encyclical was concerned with very practical moral and political questions facing contemporary societies, such as abortion and infanticide, suicide, euthanasia, war, capital punishment, poverty, and oppression. These are pressing and universal issues. Still, the issues taken up by the pope in Fides et Ratio are certainly no less universal and in important ways no less pressing. Why the more limited scope of address?

Perhaps the answer is that the popes principal concern here is with the moral and spiritual health of the Church herself. It seems he particularly wishes to instruct his brother bishops regarding the importance of the intellectual and spiritual formation of priests. I believe it is the popes view that the Churchs essential tasks of catechesis and evangelization are severely hampered by widespread intellectual weaknesses in seminaries and other Catholic institutions of learning. These weaknesses are simultaneously causes and effects of various intellectual vices, methodologies, and ideologies that are hostile to, and incompatible with, a proper understanding of the truths of the Gospel.

Thinking Big

The pope is a former philosophy professor, and the encyclical is, at one level, a sort of celebration of the dignity and importance of philosophy. It is an exhortation to philosophers to think big. Quoting St. Augustine, he declares, If faith does not think, it is nothing. Faith points to the indispensable role of reason and of philosophy. In the light of faith, the pope writes, I cannot but encourage philosophers be they Christian or not to trust in the power of human reason and not to set goals that are too modest in their philosophizing. While stressing the role and profound importance of philosophy in the theological enterprise, the pope also insists on the autonomy of philosophy as a scholarly and intellectual discipline.

It would be a mistake, however, to read Fides et Ratio as fundamentally a professional philosophers celebration or defense of the importance and autonomy of his beloved discipline. John Paul II is writing not as Karol Wojtyla the philosopher, but as Peter, the rock on which Christ builds his Church. As supreme pontiff and pastor of the Catholic Church, he is addressing problems in the Church that impede the successful accomplishment of her divine mission. He seeks to promote a proper understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy, between faith and reason not primarily for the sake of solving an intriguing intellectual problem but because the salvation of souls is at stake. He teaches with the objective of renewing the intellectual life of the Church for the sake of her saving mission.

The pope believes that the widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between faith and reason, particularly among those primarily responsible for catechesis and evangelization, weakens the Churchs ability to transmit faith. The faith that Christians attempt to transmit, when they badly misunderstand the relationship, is Christian faith only in a weak and defective sense. For example, it may be an overly rationalistic faith or an overly emotional one. The Jesus in whom people are invited to have faith may be not the Christ of the Gospels the Word made flesh who suffered and died for our sins and whose resurrection makes possible our own salvation but rather a comforting teddy bear or a mere example of ethically upright living.

Theology Needs Philosophy

The pope stresses the role of philosophy in the theological enterprise and the need for priests and other evangelists to be trained heavily and rigorously in philosophy. He is plainly alarmed that indispensable philosophical work is widely neglected both in theological research and in priestly formation in favor of psychological and sociological approaches to theological subjects, approaches that are often reductionistic and incompatible with the very faith in whose service they are putatively placed. But the pope also recognizes the legitimacy, autonomy, and importance of nonphilosophical methods of inquiry and intellectual disciplines, including psychology and sociology, and the natural sciences. The pope does warn, however, against possible corruptions of these fields that render them incompatible with Christian faith.

The first of these warnings is that the legitimate autonomy of the sciences can be misinterpreted as liberating them from the overarching requirements of the moral law. So what the pope calls the scientistic [as opposed to scientific] mentality can lead people to think that if something is technically possible it is morally permissible. The second warning is against scientism the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of positive sciences. This notion a philosophical and not scientific one dismisses values as mere products of the emotions and consigns the question of the meaning of life to the realm of the irrational or imaginary.

The reality of scientism (whether or not it is as widespread as the pope believes) reveals both the possibility of philosophical error and that philosophy can become anti-philosophical. The positivism at the heart of scientism was devised by philosophers as part of their philosophical enterprise reason itself in the critique of what were perceived to be the pretensions of reason. By instrumentalizing reason viewing it as, in Humes famous phrase, the mere slave of the passions it reconceived philosophy not as the search for wisdom, what the pope calls the pursuit of sapiential knowledge, but as a purely analytic enterprise. But when reason is instrumentalized, it soon turns on itself in utter distrust. Then, as even the analytic value of reason is denied, positivism collapses into the darker phenomenon of nihilism, the critique of which is impossible from the purely analytic perspective. To overcome nihilism, philosophy must return to its original Socratic status as both an analytic and sapiential pursuit. If the pope believes that the restoration of philosophy in Catholic intellectual life is essential to the catechetical and evangelical mission of the Church, it must be philosophy restored to its Socratic status and thus revivified. Obviously, antiphilosophical philosophy wont do. So the Church herself, as the pope sees it, has a stake in the renewal of philosophy in both its analytical and sapiential aspirations.

John Paul II, whose own philosophical commitments and methods are drawn from the phenomenological tradition associated with such thinkers as Husserl and Scheler, is at pains to observe that the Church does not choose among philosophical systems and methods compatible with Christian faith. More than one system can be valuable in the pursuit of truth and the understanding of faith. The pope acknowledges in a subsection of the encyclical, entitled The enduring originality of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, that Thomism has a special standing a sort of pride of place in the intellectual life of the Church, at least since the publication of the encyclical letter Aeterni Patris by Pope Leo XIII. But in commending this philosophical approach, and Aquinas himself as a model of intellectual rigor and philosophical and theological attainment, the Church does not confer upon Thomism standing as the one true philosophy. John Paul II says explicitly and emphatically that no historical form of philosophy can legitimately claim to embrace the totality of truth, nor to be the complete explanation of the human being, of the world and of the human beings relationship with God.

Philosophical Error

The Magisterium of the Church, and this pope in Fides et Ratio, do claim the authority to intervene in philosophical matters to respond clearly and strongly when controversial philosophical opinions threaten right understanding of what has been revealed, and when false and partial theories which sow the seed of serious error, confusing the pure and simple faith of the people of God, begin to spread more widely. So, although diverse philosophical systems may legitimately be embraced by Catholics, and while various systems can contribute to understanding the faith, the Churchs view of philosophy is not a relativistic one. There are false and destructive philosophies, false and dangerous philosophical claims. The pope lists among these not only scientism and nihilism but also eclecticism, which ignores the logical requirement of internal coherence and sometimes abandons even the principle of the unity of truth; historicism, which relativizes truth by denying its enduring validity; and pragmatism that sacrifices moral principle to perceived interests and expediency. Philosophical errors are possible in part because of the weakening of reason itself by sin. In the absence of revelation and faith, even those aspects of the moral life that can, in principle, be grasped and understood by reason would remain hidden from view to some extent. Reason needs faith to illuminate even those truths to which it has access. A point central to the encyclical is that faith also needs reason. Just as there are philosophical errors, so there are theological ones. The abandonment of philosophy, or the failure to develop and deploy sound philosophical methods, results according to Fides and Ratio in some of the errors characteristic of contemporary theology including Catholic theology. Above all, fideism particularly manifest in what the pope labels biblicism is the consequence of a theological error about philosophy, that theology can do without philosophy, that faith can get along without rational inquiry, understanding, and judgment.

Perhaps this is puzzling, for is Catholic doctrine anything other than the Churchs understanding of biblical revelation? How can biblicism be a vice? How can an utter reliance on faith be an error?

The pope describes biblicism as a view that:

Tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church. . . . Scripture is not the Churchs sole point of reference. The supreme rule of faith derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.

When unpurified by rational analysis, the pope notes that religion degenerates into superstition. He states, Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience, and so run the risk of no longer being a universal proposition. Scripture is not self-interpreting and the required interpretation proceeds according to the canons of rationality that one must bring to the scriptural text. An interpreter may wish to let the sacred text speak for itself, free of any alleged distortions introduced by philosophical principles. In reality, the most any interpreter can hope for is to bring philosophically sound principles of interpretation to the text. It is only in the light of such principles, or so the pope in line with the entire Catholic tradition teaches, that the word of God may be accurately understood.

Indispensable Philosophy

Philosophy and other forms of rational inquiry are often indispensable to understanding the full implications of propositions revealed in Scripture. The pope declares:

Without philosophys contribution, it would in fact be impossible to discuss theological issues such as, for example, the use of language to speak about God, the personal relations within the Trinity, Gods creative activity in the world, the relationship between God and man, or Christs identity as true God and true man. This is no less true of the different themes of moral theology, which employ concepts such as the moral law, conscience, freedom, personal responsibility and guilt, which are in part defined by philosophical ethics.

The soundness of what the pope says in this regard is clearest today in the moral sphere, where rational inquiry and particularly philosophical analysis is crucial to understanding revealed truths. Take the question of marriage. Philosophical work is indispensable to understanding the full meaning of the biblical conception of marriage as a one-flesh communion. It is not merely that philosophy is needed to defend the Jewish and Christian understanding of marriage against the critique being waged against it with great force by liberal secularism; the meaning of the proposition cannot be fully understood without philosophical reflection. What does it mean for a man and woman to become one flesh? Is the biblical notion of one-flesh union merely a metaphor? If not, do married couples become one flesh only in the sense that they are genetic contributors to their biological offspring? Are marriages between infertile spouses truly marriages? Can an infertile man and his wife become one flesh? If so, why not two persons of the same sex? Why not more than two persons?

One cannot simply look up the answers to these questions in the Bible. To achieve an adequate understanding of biblical teaching, one must advert to philosophical truths. To grasp the profound, and quite literal, sense in which spouses in marriage truly become one flesh and not merely in their children, and even if they cannot have children one must think through the matter philosophically. One must understand correctly, for example, the status of the human being as an embodied person, rather than a nonbodily person who merely inhabits and uses a nonpersonal body. For the biological (organic) unity of spouses in reproductive-type acts (even where the nonbehavioral conditions of reproduction happen not to obtain) unites them interpersonally and such interpersonal unity provides the bodily matrix of a comprehensive (and, thus, truly marital) unity only if persons are their bodies (whatever else they are) and do not merely inhabit them. Is the body part of the personal reality of the human being? Or is it merely an instrument of the conscious and desiring part of the self? These are philosophical questions that cannot be evaded if we are to understand, much less defend, the biblical view of marriage.

But if reason is, as the pope concedes, weakened by sin in the fallen condition of humanity, how can we trust it not to corrupt the interpretation of Scripture? As individuals, we have no guarantee that we will understand Scripture correctly. No philosopher enjoys the charism of infallibility. No Catholic can be certain that he has interpreted the data of revelation correctly, or worked out its true implications, before the Magisterium of the Church, drawing on all of her resources including the work of exegetes, theologians, and philosophers resolves the issue definitively. It is in the Church and her Magisterium that authority and the charism of infallibility reside.

Fallibility, while demanding of philosophers both professional and lay (and all of us, as the pope says, are lay philosophers) an attitude of humility and a policy of rigorous self-criticism, should not engender a radical distrust, much less fear, of reason. Philosophical fallibility is no ground for fideism biblicist or otherwise much less does it warrant the antiphilosophical positions of positivism and nihilism. It is not as if there is a reliable alternative to philosophy.

Harmonious Partners

The Churchs Magisterium cannot do without philosophy. To settle disputed questions in exercising her teaching office, philosophical reflection on the data of revelation is often necessary. Thus, the pope speaks of the fundamental harmony between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of philosophy, saying that faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.

There are certain truths of faith that cannot be known by unaided reason. For example, that God is three Persons Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Were this truth unrevealed, it could not be known. Still, even with regard to this truth of faith, as Fides et Ratio explicitly teaches, philosophy plays a central role in theological understanding. How could the Church even begin to understand the relations of the persons within the Holy Trinity without an adequate understanding of the concept of a person? And while talk of God is necessarily analogical, the pope rightly asks: Where but to philosophy can the Church go in seeking its understanding?

It is sometimes said that so long as science and religion remain in their proper spheres, there need be no conflict between them. Peace, if not always mutual respect, is insured by separation. There is truth in this. Religion and science have all too often invaded each others spheres. As the pope says, faith and reason enjoy a legitimate independence from each other but are also profoundly interdependent.

This interdependence is signaled in the encyclicals magnificent opening sentence: Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth. This is not to say that there are two truths that something can be true as a matter of faith, yet false as a matter of science, history, or philosophy. The pope firmly reasserts the unity of truth. Thus, if Christ is not risen bodily from the dead as a matter of historical and scientific fact, He is not risen as a matter of faith; and if His resurrection is indeed a truth of faith, then it is also true historically and scientifically. This is not to deny the autonomy of theology and philosophy or faith and reason. Faith and reason are two orders of knowledge, linked and overlapping. Some truths are known only by revelation, others only by philosophical, scientific, or historical inquiry. Those known by revelation are often, however, fully understandable or their implications fully knowable only by rational inquiry. Often the full significance of those knowable by philosophical, scientific, and historical inquiry only become evident in the light of faith. Also, there is the category of truths, particularly in the moral domain, knowable at least in principle by philosophical inquiry but also revealed. Here revelation illuminates the truths of natural law, bringing into focus their precise contours and making apparent to people of faith their supernatural significance. At the same time, natural law principles inform the Churchs understanding of the content of revelation (as in the example of marriage) and enable the believer to grasp more fully the meaning and implications of what is revealed. Thus, it is on the two wings of faith and reason that the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.

Of course, biblical faith is not merely a way of knowing, it is also a kind of trusting. As the assurance of what is hoped for and the conviction of things unseen, in the words of The Letter to the Hebrews, faith is placing oneself in Gods hands. In line with the entire Catholic tradition, the pope declares faith is also reasoned and reasonable. Faith is trusting and believing, but not without reasons and reasoning, and simultaneously, faith supports reason. As the pope expresses, it is in the light of faith that we can trust reason despite our human fallibility. Those faith traditions that resist the collapse into fideism provide critical resources for understanding practical reason as a moral truth-attaining faculty or power. While reason can be more than merely instrumental and more than emotions ingenious servant, it is no accident that resistance to the positivistic reduction of reason (or the nihilistic denial of rationality) comes primarily from philosophers firmly rooted in traditions of faith. If faith has nothing to fear and much to gain from reason, then reason has nothing to fear and much to gain from faith.

Different Paths to Truth

But there are different, and competing, traditions of faith, and their engagement has often been less than friendly; indeed, it has sometimes been bloody. John Paul II has been more candid than any pope or religious leader in acknowledging this sad fact. By far the greatest ecumenist in the history of the papacy, he does not draw the conclusion that the Church should avoid engagement of theological issues with those who do not share the Christian faith, or her version of it. On the contrary, it is the quest for truth that provides the common ground of honest theological engagement and ecumenical cooperation. Here philosophy is crucial precisely because of a lack of shared faith. Philosophical thought, the pope says, is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith. He makes abundantly clear that by philosophy, he means the real sapiential and analytic thing not ideology, not apologetics, not sophistical techniques of persuasion:

When deeply rooted in experience, cultures show forth the human beings openness to the universal and transcendent. They offer different paths to the truth, which assuredly serve men and women well in revealing values which can make their life ever more human. Insofar as cultures appeal to the values of older traditions, they point implicitly but authentically to the manifestation of God in nature.

The Gospel allows people to preserve their cultural identity. No one culture can ever become the criterion of judgment, much less the ultimate criterion of truth with regard to Gods Revelation, the pope says. The truths of the Gospel transcend particular cultures just as they cannot be captured in any one definitively true philosophical system. Yet, just as faith cannot do without philosophy, it cannot do without cultures which are particular and limited. People understand, appropriate, and live the truths of faith in light of particular cultures. Faith is mediated by and through cultural structures even as it necessarily transcends every culture. This transcendence follows from the nature of truth, as understood by the pope and the Church. Truth is, in Christian teaching, both universal and universally longed for. God is truth Jesus Christ, as the Son of the living God, is the way, the truth, and the life. As the pope says in the second half of the opening sentence of Fides et Ratio, God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth in a word, to know himself so that by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

Whoever sincerely pursues truth, existentially as well as in the scholarly disciplines, seeks and thereby honors the God who is truth. Whoever exhibits the human beings characteristic openness to the universal and transcendent is indeed on a path to the truth. And God, as He is understood by the pope and in Catholic tradition, is (like the father of the prodigal son in the Gospel parable) already calling out to him in welcome.



George, Robert P. The Renaissance of Faith & Reason. Crisis 18 no. 1 (January 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

The Author

George7Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. He also serves as the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. George has been called America's "most influential conservative Christian thinker." He is a co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life and the author of Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays,Conscience and Its Enemies, The Clash of Orthodoxies, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality and In Defense of Natural Law. He is the editor of The Autonomy of Law: Essays on Legal Positivism, Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality,The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals, and Constitutional Politics: Essays on Constitution Making, Maintenance, and Change. Robert George is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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