DAILY CATHOLIC     FRI-SAT-SUN     October 16-18, 1998     vol. 9, no. 203

from a CATHOLIC perspective

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          VATICAN (CWNews.com) -- "Faith and reason," Pope John Paul II writes at the opening of his 13th encyclical, Fides et Ratio, "are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth..." The 154-page letter, unveiled in Rome today, is a meditation on the proper relationship between faith and reason, philosophy and theology.

          In the encyclical, the Pope writes that contemporary philosophical trends have undermined that relationship, severing the natural connection between faith and reason, and thereby placing undue emphasis on a strictly rational, empirical process devoid of spiritual inspiration. He observes: "It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation toward truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being.... "

          As a cure for this philosophical disease, the Holy Father recommends the "genuinely novel consideration for philosophical learning" advanced by the Vatican Councils I and II. The Church, he points out, teaches that the ultimate meaning of human life must be found in the Paschal mystery-- "a point of reference which cannot be ignored if the mystery of human life is to be known." Echoing the message put forward by Pope Leo XIII in his own 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, John Paul calls for the recovery of a genuinely Christian philosophy, best exemplified in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.

          At a press conference in Rome introducing the encyclical, a panel of Catholic theologians said that the Pope's message is an antidote to the pessimism that prevails in much contemporary philosophy. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was joined on the panel by Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin, Bishop Rino Fisichella of Rome, and Father Georges Cottier, OP, the theologian for the pontifical household.

          Cardinal Ratzinger observed that the Pope's latest encyclical followed in a line that had first been sketched in Redemptor Hominis, the first encyclical letter of his papacy. In that 1980 letter, Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, the Pope had warned of the philosophical disasters that ensue when reason is detached from faith. The cardinal said that truth, freedom, and love constitute a "triangle at the heart of [the Pope's] thought, the fundamental preoccupation of his pontificate."

          Archbishop Zycinski, using a term that is particularly popular in Poland, said that the new encyclical calls for "solidarity" in the intellectual life: a cooperative effort between secular philosophy and religious faith, working together to advance the search for truth. That solidarity, he said, could "conquer the temptation toward discouragement and pessimism."

          Father Cottier saw the document as a response to the excess of rationalism in contemporary philosophy, a trend which he said leads through methodical doubt to an ultimate despair of the power of reason.

    Below is a special article on Fides et Ratio by CWN editor and editor of Catholic World Report Phil Lawler:


By Philip F. Lawler
          "Faith and reason," Pope John Paul II writes at the opening of his 13th encyclical, "are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth..."

          Since the dawn of history, the Holy Father writes, men in all cultures have searched for answers to the same profound questions: questions about the meaning of life and the knowledge of truth. Insofar as these philosophical quests have produced some common understandings of the human condition, they might be called an "implicit philosophy," founded on reason.

          Christians, on the other hand, find the ultimate meaning of life in the Paschal mystery, and judge all truth against the standard of divine revelation. So religious faith provides another means of pursuing the truth. Fides et Ratio, a 154-page philosophical meditation released on October 15, outlines the relationship between these two methods of philosophical inquiry. Pope John Paul repeatedly argues that the two methods should be partners, but that philosophical errors can put them in conflict.

          Early in his analysis, the Pope provides a pithy summary of the errors that infect contemporary philosophical research. Having lost sight of the need for ultimate truth, he writes: "individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all." He continues:

          "It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation toward truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being.... Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned."

          Throughout the 20th century, the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church has struggled to correct this unhappy tendency in philosophical discourse. In the process the Church has offered her own understanding of how reason and faith should work together. The teachings of the First and Second Vatican Councils, taken together, John Paul II argues, constitute "a genuinely novel consideration for philosophical learning."

          The kernel of that "novel consideration" is this: Human reason seeks for truth, but the ultimate truth cannot be found by reason alone. "Revelation has set within history a point of reference which cannot be ignored if the mystery of human life is to be known. Yet this knowledge refers back constantly to the mystery of God, which the human mind cannot exhaust but can only receive and embrace in faith."

          The "wisdom literature" of the Old Testament shows the influence of the search for truth and meaning which had driven philosophers in so many ancient civilizations. Indeed the Pope argues that in these texts, "the voices of Egypt and Mesopotomia sound again." However, the wisdom literature adds a cautionary note, warning against the "fool" who believes he has found all truths for himself. In the New Testament, St. Paul takes that theme much further, observing that the "foolishness" of the Cross has overcome the "wisdom" of all secular philosophies.

          So once again, the search for wisdom points toward Christ. Here the Pope concludes: "The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is the reef upon which the link between faith and philosophy can break up, but it is also the reef beyond which the two can set forth upon the boundless ocean of truth."

          The search for knowledge-- the search for the meaning of life-- is essentially a search for God, the Holy Father writes. At its best this search is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and responds to his calling. The honest searcher learns from others, as for example a philosopher learns from a scientist. The same cooperation should mark the relations between philosopher and theologian.

          In the earliest days of Christianity, some Church leaders (such as Origen, for example) were skeptical of the value of secular philosophy. But with time the Church fathers learned to appropriate the methods and insights of philosophical discourse, and use them to expand the Christian understanding of the human condition. St. Augustine provided a crucial impetus to the Christian understanding of platonic philosophy, and St. Anselm offered a new vision of philosophy as a Christian enterprise. In St. Thomas Aquinas that philosophy reached its zenith, and the links between faith and reason were made explicit.

          At the end of the medieval period, however, the history of philosophy saw a highly significant development: an explicit break between faith and reason. "It is not too much to claim," the Pope writes, "that the development of a good part of modern philosophy has seen it move further and further away from Christian revelation, to the point of setting itself quite explicitly in opposition."

          How should the Church be involved in such philosophical problems? The Holy Father explains that the magisterium intervenes in an effort to guide philosophers onto more productive paths of inquiry, and at the same time to protect "the pure and simple faith of the People of God." He notes that since earliest ecumenical councils, the Church has offered cautions and corrections to curb the influence of various philosophical trends.

          If they are not corrected, the Pope continues, the unhealthy tendencies of secular philosophy can be spread throughout society, so that they shape a people's outlook on life, and become a part of "the common mind." Today, he laments, that "common mind" is infected by post-modern philosophical trends that point in the direction of nihilism, denying the existence of absolute truths and universal imperatives.

          The Pope points out that this trend has been developing for decades, and recalls that Pope Leo XIII cautioned against the widespread mistrust of philosophy a century ago. Like Leo XIII, John Paul II offers the work of St. Thomas Aquinas as an antidote to the disease.

          What must be done to correct the defects of contemporary philosophy, and restore the proper partnership between faith and reason? Pope John Paul mentions three necessities.

          First, the world of philosophy must shake off the temptations toward nihilism, and recover the sense that life does, after all, have meaning. Thus the Pope cites the need to accentuate the "sapiential dimension" of philosophy--the sense that man's reason can be engaged in "a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life."

          Second, philosophers must acknowledge "the human capacity to know the truth..." The work of reason is not a completely subjective process; things can be known with certainty, and errors can be conclusively refuted. "Sacred Scripture always assumes that the individual, even if guilty of duplicity and mendacity, can know and grasp the clear and simple truth," the Pope writes.

          Third, philosophers must rediscover the "metaphysical range" of their study. That is, they must recognize that philosophical reason can reach beyond the framework of bare facts, toward the ultimate mysteries that transcend the empirical data.

          Warning against some of the "isms" that clutter the path of contemporary philosophical discourse-- eclecticism, historicism, modernism, skepticism, scientism, and pragmatism-- the Pope concludes his encyclical with a call for the recovery of philosophy as a Christian enterprise. He urges philosophers, theologians, and bishops to join in the effort to quest to recover a distinctively Christian philosophy.

Articles provided through Catholic World News Service.
CWN is not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provides this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

October 16-18, 1998       volume 9, no. 203


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