Fides et Ratio

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Pope john paul ii's thirteenth encyclical, Faith and Reason, issued on the feast of the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14, 1998). Addressed to the world's bishops, it is concerned with the relation between faith and reason, especially faith and philosophy in the contemporary world. It comprises an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion.

In the introduction (16), the pope notes that both Eastern and Western thought have asked the fundamental questions of human existence. In the West, the questions have been the special focus of philosophy, which uses reason to search for ultimate truth. Modern philosophy, however, has been so absorbed in the study of human subjectivity that it has neglected the search for transcendent truth or become skeptical of its attainability. This is a matter of concern to the Church, which as the bearer of the revelation of truth in Jesus Christ, has a special mission of service (diakonia ) of the truth.

Chapter 1 (715) considers revelation, basing its treatment on Dei Filius of vatican i and Dei verbum of vatican ii. God's revelation, known through faith, is distinct from and surpasses what reason can know. It is "immersed in time and history" through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. Only in Christ is the ultimate truth about human existence to be found. Revelation does not disable reason but drives it to extend its knowledge as far as possible. Christian revelation "summons human beings to be open to the transcendent, while respecting both their autonomy as creatures and their freedom"(15).

Chapter 2, "Credo ut intellegam [I believe so that I might understand]" (1623), considers biblical teaching on faith and reason. Biblical texts reflect a "conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith"(16). The Old Testament writers understood the use of applying finite reason within the context of the human relation to the mystery of God. Saint Paul holds that reason can know God, but that this capacity has been damaged by human disobedience to God. The crucifixion of Christ challenges our habitual ways of thinking and overcomes any attempt to construct an account of the meaning of existence in purely human terms.

Chapter 3, "Intellego ut credam [I understand so that I might believe]" (2435), speaks of the human search for truth, which is based ultimately in the human heart's desire for God. "One may define the human being as the one who seeks the truth" (28), in particular, the truth about the meaning of life and death. The search for truth is not solitary but immerses us in communities and traditions. Most of what we know, we do not experience directly but believe on the testimony of others. The search for truth requires "trusting dialogue and sincere friendship"; "a climate of suspicion and distrust" is destructive of it. Christian faith meets the human search, offering both "the concrete possibility of reaching the goal" and "a person to whom they might entrust themselves" (33).

Chapter 4 (3648) surveys the history of the relationship of Christian faith with philosophy. The early apologists and church fathers used philosophy to express and defend Christian faith; at the same time they contributed to philosophy, purifying it of mythological elements. The medieval Scholastics continued this project, culminating in the work of thomas aquinas. Convinced of the harmony of faith and reason as coming from the same God, he gave reason its full scope, recognizing the autonomy of philosophy as well as its organic link to theology. But later medieval thought began an increasing separation between philosophy and faith, until in the 19th century much of Western philosophy explicitly opposed Christian revelation. Today, philosophy's search for truth and meaning has given way, even among many philosophers, to "instrumental reason" in the service of the market, technological power, and enjoyment. As a result, a nihilistic outlook, which claims that ultimate truth is unattainable and "everything is fleeting and provisional" (46), has gained strength. Philosophy needs faith, to recall it to its true goal, while faith needs philosophy, to temper its stress on feeling and experience and to save it from myth and superstition.

In chapter 5, "The Magisterium's Interventions in Philosophical Matters" (4963), the pope states that the church has no official philosophy; philosophy must retain autonomy, "faithful to its own principles and methods"(49). But when philosophical opinions threaten the understanding of revealed truth, the church's magisterium must intervene. Such interventions serve right reason and are intended to stimulate philosophical inquiry. In the nineteenth century they defended reason against fideism and faith against rationalism. Today's chief problem is a "deep-seated distrust of reason" (55) and of "universal and absolute statements." Philosophers must not set "goals that are too modest"; they must not "abandon the passion for ultimate truth" (56).

Besides warning against errors, the church has also tried to promote a renewal of philosophy, as in the encyclical aeterni patris of Pope leo xiii, which sparked a revival of thomistic philosophy. Catholic philosophers who adopted more recent methods are also commended. Although the Second Vatican Council encouraged the study of philosophy, in the years since a lack of interest in philosophy has affected many Catholic faculties and even, as "I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure," many theologians (61).

Chapter 6 (6479) discusses "The Interaction between Philosophy and Theology." Theology needs philosophy in order to understand the meaning of revealed truth and the way it is proclaimed. Neither the human sciences nor the traditional wisdom of non-Western cultures can take philosophy's place. The human sciences are helpful in studying human opinions but not in arriving at the objective truth in theology. The encounter with other cultures today is something like the encounter with Greek philosophy in early Christianity, but the church cannot neglect the universality of the human spirit across cultures nor "abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought" (72).

There is a circular, mutually enhancing relationship between philosophy and theology, as can be seen in the great philosopher-theologians ancient and modern, Eastern and Western Christian. Christian philosophy is "a philosophical speculation conceived in dynamic union with faith" (76), which gives philosophy material for reflection, while purifying it and keeping it humble. Faith, in turn, "grows deeper and more authentic when it is wedded to thought and does not reject it" (79).

Chapter 7 (8099) lays out "Current Requirements and Tasks" for philosophy and theology. Scripture affirms that "the world and human life do have a meaning"(80), which is centered in Jesus Christ. But currently we are in a "crisis of meaning" (81). We are overwhelmed with data and conflicting theories, to the point where the question of meaning may itself seem to have no sense. "To be consonant with the word of God," philosophy must recover its character as a search for the ultimate meaning of life and as "the ultimate framework for the unity of human knowledge and action" (81). It must acknowledge the human capacity to know objective truth. And it must be capable of transcending sense experience and speaking metaphysically. It must avoid eclecticism, historicism, scientism, and a democratic pragmatism that bases moral values on majority vote.

Theology requires the belief that it is possible to know universally valid truth. It needs philosophy in order to clarify the relation between historical fact and enduring meaning in Scripture and to deal with the relationship between the permanent truth of dogmatic statements and their historical and cultural conditioning. moral theology requires "a philosophical ethics that looks to the truth of the good" and is "neither subjectivist nor utilitarian" (98).

The "Conclusion" (100108) reiterates that philosophy and theology need one another and stresses that training in philosophy is an important part of priestly formation. The pope addresses scientists, urging them not to lose sight of the need to join science with "philosophical and ethical values" (106). He concludes by invoking Mary, who gave herself in order that "God's Word might take flesh" (108), as an image for philosophy.

Bibliography: For the text of Fides et ratio, see: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 91 (1999): 588 (Latin); Origins 28, no. 19 (October 22, 1998): 317347 (English).

[w. j. collinge]

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Fides et Ratio

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