The Public Square
(December 1998)

Richard John Nuehaus

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 88 (December 1998): 65–80.

A Passion for Truth: The Way of Faith and Reason

Nearly 130 years ago the First Vatican Council, in a document called Dei Filius, affirmed the complete compatibility of faith and reason, and a few years later, in 1879, Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, "On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy," which affirmed the normative status of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Both texts come in for frequent mention in the new encyclical by John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), but this reflection of almost thirty thousand words also reaches back to biblical and classical sources, lifts up the pioneering intellectual work of the patristic era, pays high tribute to its development in the medieval period (with particular attention to St. Anselm of Canterbury as well as St. Thomas), and brings all this into critical conversation with the modern era and the Church’s response to it in the Second Vatican Council. Fides et Ratio is as breathtaking in its historical and intellectual reach as it is provocative in its argument.

Each time I work through the encyclical, 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. Reading it is rigorous mental exercise, which, given the subject matter, is not surprising. It is also, more than might be expected, a spiritual exercise. One’s purpose of course is "to think with the Church" (sentire cum ecclesia), and thinking with the Church begins with thinking. I will here present, in a straightforward and relatively brief manner, the argument of Fides et Ratio and then offer a few initial observations. I warmly recommend a reading of the complete text, for this encyclical will be grist for philosophical and theological mills for a long time to come, also, no doubt, in the pages of this journal. (The numbers in what follows refer to the sections of the encyclical. The complete text of Fides et Ratio appears on the Vatican web page at

We Are Natural Philosophers

Human beings, says John Paul in the introduction, are natural philosophers. In every culture, they ask the fundamental questions: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? To deny these questions is to deny our humanity (1). The Church accompanies humanity on its pilgrimage toward truth, bearing the message that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. The Church serves humanity by her service (diakonia) to the truth. Any truth attained is but a step toward the fullness of truth to be revealed in the End Time (2). Philosophy, meaning "the love of wisdom," is one resource for understanding the truth, and philosophy is universal (3). Philosophy begins in wonder at the world and oneself in it, then moves through speculation to produce systems of thought. Such systems are never final but must always recognize "the primacy of philosophical enquiry" from which they stem and which they are meant to serve. There are "core insights," such as the principle of noncontradiction, that are common to all philosophies and required by right reason (recta ratio) (4).

Such core insights are often denied in modern philosophy that is right to focus on the human being and has achieved much, but is so preoccupied with our knowing that it neglects what can be known. "Reason has wilted," no longer "daring to rise to the truth of being," with the resulting consequence of the threatening triumph of technique, agnosticism, relativism, and skepticism. Philosophy has lost its nerve, confidence in reason is abandoned; "with a false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human life, personal and social" (5). As the bearer of revelation, the Church proclaims that truth can be known. She assures us of our "capacity to know" and challenges philosophy "to recover and develop its full dignity." The purpose of this encyclical is "to pursue that reflection by concentrating on the theme of truth itself and on its foundation in relation to faith" (6).

Truth in History

In the "utterly gratuitous" initiative of the Word made flesh, it is revealed that "God desires to make himself known; and the knowledge which human beings have of God completes all other true knowledge of the meaning of their existence which their mind is able to attain" (7). Against the rationalist critique of that time, Vatican I stressed that there is "knowledge peculiar to faith" that transcends but does not contradict natural reason. Such knowledge is certain, said the Council, "since God neither deceives nor wishes to be deceived" (8). Vatican I affirmed a "twofold order of knowledge"; natural reason and divine faith are distinct in both their source and object. Philosophy and the sciences operate within the order of natural reason, while faith recognizes the fullness of truth that God has revealed in history, most definitively in Jesus Christ (9). Vatican II, on the other hand, stressed the historical character of revelation. God’s deeds in history have an "inner unity" with the words by which they are understood, with Christ being both the mediator and fullness of revelation (10). In the incarnation of Christ, truth is "immersed in time and history" and is "entrusted to the frail structure of our knowledge (11). Thus, in history is found the synthesis by which "the Eternal enters time, the Whole lies hidden in the part, God takes on a human face" (12).

Revelation remains "charged with mystery" because our vision "is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding." Faith is obedient response to God, assent to His testimony, and the act of entrusting ourselves to Him, which is an act of intellect and will that is consummately free, since "there is no exercise of true freedom when decisions are made against God." It cannot be true freedom to reject "the very reality which enables our self–realization." In the free act of faith the person "reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth." In a sacramental way, illustrated by the Eucharist, revelation bears the signs that disclose its meaning in an "indissoluble unity between the signified and the signifier" (13). The knowledge of faith does not abolish the mystery but constantly "refers back to the mystery of God which the human mind cannot exhaust but can only receive and embrace in faith." Between that knowledge and that mystery, human reason has free play to enquire and understand, "restricted only by its finiteness before the infinite mystery of God." Revelation impels reason to leave "no stone unturned" in seeking the truth, knowing with St. Anselm ("one of the most fruitful and important minds in human history") that the ultimate truth, namely God, is "not only that than which nothing greater can be conceived" but also that which "is greater than all that can be conceived" (14).

The words of Jesus, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free," speak of revelation’s summons to be "open to the transcendent." This revelation is neither the product nor the end of human reason, but a gratuitous expression of love that anticipates the ultimate truth, which is the theme of philosophy and theology alike (15). In the wisdom literature of Israel and other cultures, we learn that the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of reason are bound in a "profound and indissoluble unity." Reason can best reach its goal when its search is set within the horizon of faith (16). There must be no separation or competition between reason and faith: "one is in the other, and each has its own scope for action." God’s glory, the fullness of the mystery, makes possible human nobility, which is the exercise of reason. The heart knows there is an answer to every unanswered question (17). Israel, which opened reason to the path of mystery, understood, first, that knowledge is a journey that allows no rest; second, it is not a way for the proud who seek personal conquest; third, it must be traveled in the "fear of God." When these rules are forgotten, one ends up as "the fool" who is a threat to himself and others (18). Wisdom literature, like Greek philosophy, understood that "the book of nature," read by reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator (19). Faith, however, "liberates reason" to set its knowledge "within the ultimate order of things" (20).

Reason and the Infinite

Israel understood man as "being in relation"—with himself, others, the world, and God. The opening to the ultimate mystery allows reason to "enter the realm of the infinite." Our mission from God is to be explorers on the way to truth, leaving "no stone unturned," resisting doubt, and leaning on God (21). In Romans 1, St. Paul affirms reason’s capacity for knowledge of God, but reason was "wounded" and "warped" at "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" in the human assertion of autonomy in deciding for ourselves what is good and evil. "Reason became more and more a prisoner to itself," an imprisonment from which it is released by the coming of Christ (22). In 1 Corinthians, Paul contrasts the wisdom of the world with the foolishness of the cross. "Human wisdom refuses to see in its own weakness the possibility of its strength," namely, that it is supported by the gratuitous love of God. The cross is the definitive critique of the pride that thinks truth can be autonomously possessed. "The preaching of Christ crucified 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" (23).

In every human heart there is "a seed of desire and nostalgia for God," as is made evident in the arts, literature, philosophy, and other work of creative intelligence (24). We all desire to know the truth, and want to live the truth we know (25). Truth comes to us first in the form of questions about the meaning of life, of suffering, and, most particularly, of death (26). The answer we give such inevitable questions will determine whether we think universal and absolute truth is possible. "Every truth—if it really is truth—presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole." On such questions there is a universal search for "a certitude no longer open to doubt" (27). There are obstacles to reaching the goal, but we may define the human being "as the one who seeks the truth" (28). "It is unthinkable that a search so deeply rooted in human nature would be completely vain and useless." The very search "implies the rudiments of a response"; in everyday life, as in scientific method, the search is premised upon the intuition that there is an answer. To deny the "thirst for truth [is to] imperil existence" (29).

There are different "modes of truth": the truth of evidence and experiment, the speculative truth of philosophy, and religious truth, which is "to some degree grounded in philosophy" (30). Truths are socially embodied in traditions, and we all live by more truths that are simply believed than by truths acquired by personal verification. Therefore, "the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief" (31). In believing, we entrust ourselves to others and the knowledge they impart. Such knowledge, while not primarily empirical or philosophical, is not inferior, for it engages "the truth of the person" and the human capacity for "self–giving and fidelity." Here the martyr is the most compelling example (32). The search for truth is sustained by trust and friendship. "A climate of suspicion and distrust . . . ignores the ancient philosophers who proposed friendship as one of the prime requirements for sound philosophical enquiry." The search for truth, which is "humanly unstoppable," is finally a search for a person to whom we can entrust ourselves. Beyond simple belief, Christian faith immerses us in the order of grace; in the mystery of Christ we are offered "true and coherent knowledge of the Triune God," in whom our desire and nostalgia come to fulfillment (33). This truth of faith is not opposed to the truth of reason. "The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning," and that unity is "rendered certain" by the truth that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history (34). We now explore the connection between revealed truth and philosophy, beginning with the history of that connection (35).

How We Got Where We Are

On the Areopagus (Acts 17) St. Paul positively engaged the natural knowledge of God, even though it had lapsed into idolatry. A major concern and achievement of classical philosophy was to employ rational analysis in purifying religion of its superstitious and mythological elements. On that basis, early Christianity entered into fruitful dialogue with ancient philosophy (36). While engaging philosophy—understood as practical wisdom—St. Paul warned against gnosticism and "the various kinds of esoteric superstition widespread [also] today, even among some believers who lack a proper critical sense" (37). The fathers such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria employed Greek philosophy in order to show that Christianity is "the only sure and profitable philosophy" (Justin) and to expose the errors of those who attacked the truth. Clement wrote, "Greek philosophy is rightly called the hedge and the protective wall around the vineyard" (38).

In critically adopting Platonic thought, Origen began to construct a Christian theology of rational discourse expressing the true doctrine about God (39). Christianizing Platonic and Neo–Platonic thought, St. Augustine, "the great Doctor of the West," produced "the first great synthesis of philosophy and theology" (40). Augustine and others did not simply put the truths of faith into philosophical categories. They disclosed what remained implicit and preliminary in the philosophers, showing how "reason could find its way out of the blind alley of myth" and be opened to the absolute. This was more than a meeting of cultures. "It happened in the depths of human souls and was a meeting of creature and Creator," demonstrating that "reason could attain the supreme good and ultimate truth in the person of the Word made flesh" (41).

In medieval thought, Anselm’s view of the understanding of faith (intellectus fidei) is one of the intellect seeking that which it loves: the more it loves, the more it desires to know. He wrote, "To see you was I conceived, and I have yet to conceive that for which I was conceived." Given reason’s capacity to exceed whatever it attains, it is not defeated by the inability to understand the object of its love. Anselm: "Thought has comprehended rationally that God is incomprehensible." The harmony of faith and philosophy is again confirmed. "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" (42).

St. Thomas Aquinas saw that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to understanding divine revelation. "Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to perfection, so faith builds upon and perfects reason." Faith is also an "exercise of thought," and Paul VI was right to say that what St. Thomas "gave to the new encounter of faith and reason was a reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the gospel" (43). Convinced that all truth is of the Holy Spirit, Thomas underscored the harmony among the Spirit’s gifts of wisdom, philosophical wisdom, and theological wisdom. In St. Thomas we see "the passion for truth" tied to "realism," which produced not merely a philosophy of "what seems to be" but a philosophy of "what is" (44).

A Fateful Separation

With the late medieval universities, the distinction between faith and reason "became more and more a fateful separation." The profound unity of patristic and medieval thought was sundered by, at the same time, an exaggerated rationalism and a distrust of reason’s capacity to reach the highest forms of speculation (45). The nineteenth century was the apogee of philosophy pitted against Christian revelation, with some trying to transpose the contents of Christian faith into structures of dialectical reason, while atheistic humanists constructed new religions in the service of projects that "gave rise to totalitarian systems which were disastrous for humanity." In science, positivism, combined with technological progress and the logic of the market, removes the human person from the center of concern, and results in a nihilism that denies the human possibility of attaining truth (46).

In contemporary culture, philosophy as universal wisdom has been marginalized by "instrumental reason" which is divorced from the search for absolute truth, and ends up by debasing the dignity of reason and turning it against man himself (47). This "rapid survey" of the history of philosophy shows the growing separation of faith and reason. Notable achievements of modern philosophy notwithstanding, reason "has taken side–tracks" and lost sight of the goal of wisdom. "Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience, and so runs the risk of ceasing to make a universal claim. . . . Faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition." Faith and philosophy each have their own autonomy, and the boldness of one must be matched by the boldness of the other (48).

The Church has no philosophy of her own, but respects the autonomy of reason that is by its nature oriented to truth. "A philosophy which did not proceed in the light of reason according to its own principles and methods would serve little purpose." The Church does respond to errors in reason that threaten what has been revealed (49). The Church takes note of philosophical ideas and systems that are incompatible with her faith, which is also a service to philosophy in support of recta ratio, "reason reflecting rightly on what is true" (50). Philosophers recognize the need for self–criticism and should know that no philosophical system "can legitimately claim to embrace the totality of truth." The Church "intervenes to stimulate philosophical enquiry" lest it stray from the path that leads to recognizing the mystery hidden in Christ (51). This encyclical is in continuity with past interventions, notably that of Vatican I in Dei Filius, which corrected both the underestimation (in fideism and radical traditionalism) and the overestimation (in rationalism and ontologism) of reason’s natural capacities (52). Vatican I taught that faith and reason, revelation and the natural knowledge of God, are distinct but inseparable. Against rationalism, the distinction is emphasized, together with the "transcendence and precedence" of the mysteries of faith. Against fideism, the inseparability is emphasized, which is grounded in the unity of truth, which is, in turn, grounded in the unity of God. "This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth" (53). In this century, the Magisterium has cautioned against rationalism and "modernism," as well as errors of reason connected with evolutionism, existentialism, historicism, and Marxism. These past interventions are "an invaluable contribution which should never be forgotten" (54).

"I cannot fail to note with dismay . . . "

Today, old problems return in new forms. There is a deep distrust of reason that leads some to speak of "the end of metaphysics." Theological research frequently succumbs to an uncritical rationalism. There is also a resurgence of fideism, "which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed the very possibility of belief in God." Fideism is evident in a "biblicism" that neglects the living tradition of the Church or limits scriptural interpretation to one methodology that has its own philosophical underpinnings (55). John Paul urges, "I cannot but encourage philosophers—be they Christian or not—to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves too modest goals in their philosophizing. . . . One must not abandon the passion for ultimate truth. . . . It is faith which stirs reason to reject all isolation and to run risks gladly that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good, and true. Thus faith becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason" (56). To this end, Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris ("the one papal document of such authority devoted entirely to philosophy") is still pertinent, especially in "his insistence upon the incomparable value of the philosophy of St. Thomas" (57). That initiative produced a great revival in Thomistic studies (58).

Thomism and Neo–Thomism were not alone, however. A number of Catholic philosophers and schools have produced remarkable syntheses that "have sought to keep alive the great tradition of Christian thought which unites faith and reason" (59). Vatican II, especially in Gaudium et Spes, offers "a virtual compendium of the biblical anthropology from which philosophy too draws inspiration." The Council teaches that Christ, the new Adam, "fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling." The Council underscores the importance of philosophy in Christian education, especially in the formation of priests and those preparing for theological studies (60). Unfortunately, this teaching has not always "been followed with the readiness one would wish." "I cannot fail to note with dismay and displeasure that [the] lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians." Reasons for this lack of interest include contemporary philosophy’s distrust of reason, a disordered preoccupation with the "human sciences," and a misunderstanding of cultural pluralism, especially in relation to non–Western cultures (61). Since the late Middle Ages the Church has understood that "the study of philosophy is fundamental and indispensable" to theological studies and priestly formation. Without philosophical training, there is an inability to dialogue with modern thought and culture or "an indiscriminate acceptance of any kind of philosophy" (62). "It is my task to state principles and criteria which in my judgment are necessary in order to restore a harmonious and creative relationship between theology and philosophy" (63).

Theology is "a reflective and scientific elaboration of the understanding of God’s word in the light of faith," and that task demands "recourse to philosophical enquiry" (64). Philosophy’s study of the structure of knowledge and personal communication helps theology to both receive and understand faith, while philosophical training is also necessary to understand the thought forms employed by the Magisterium and great theologians of the Church’s tradition (65). The intellectus fidei recognizes that revelation "enjoys an innate intelligibility, so logically consistent that it can stand as an authentic body of knowledge." This is not only of intellectual interest, but brings to light "the salvific meaning of these propositions" in leading people to share in the mystery of Christ by their assent of faith. Dogmatic theology must articulate the universal meaning of God and salvation "both as a narrative and, above all, in the form of argument." Likewise with moral theology, which depends in part upon philosophical ethics. "Believing reason needs to acquire a natural, consistent, and true knowledge of those created realities—the world and the human being—which are also the object of divine revelation" (66).

Remaining Open to the New

At the same time, fundamental theology "should show how, in the light of the knowledge conferred by faith, there emerge certain truths which reason, from its own independent enquiry, already grasps." "Although faith, a gift of God, is not based on reason, it can certainly not dispense with it. At the same time . . . reason needs to be reinforced by faith, in order to discover horizons it cannot reach on its own" (67). Moral theology has perhaps an even greater need for philosophy, since "moral theology requires a right philosophical vision of human nature and society, as well as general principles of ethical decision–making" (68). Admittedly, theology needs many other kinds of knowledge, but I emphasize philosophy "lest the prime task of demonstrating the universality of faith’s content be abandoned" (69). The Church, commanded to go "to the ends of the earth," has from her beginning known about the encounter of cultures. St. Paul tells the Ephesians, "You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are saints and members of the household of God." The great truth is that "faith’s encounter with different cultures has created something new." In the household of God, the "seminal revelation" in all cultures is brought to fulfillment (70).

"Cultures survive and flourish insofar as they remain open to the new." Culture has "an intrinsic capacity to receive divine revelation." As demonstrated by Pentecost, cultural identity is secured and what is implicit "will be made fully explicit in the light of truth." No one culture is normative for revelation; all cultures "are prompted to open themselves to the newness of the gospel’s truth and to be stirred by this truth to grow still more" (71). The challenges of "inculturating" the gospel today are "not unlike those faced by the Church in the first centuries." The East, and India in particular, can greatly enrich Christian thought. If this is to happen, we must keep in mind, first, "the universality of the human spirit" despite disparate cultures. Second, the Church cannot forget her "inculturation in the world of Greco–Latin thought," which is part of God’s providential plan for the Church through history. Third, a legitimate defense of the uniqueness of Indian thought cannot mean that "a particular cultural tradition should remain closed in its difference." This is true for all of Asia, and for the traditional cultures of Africa, "which are for the most part transmitted orally" (72).

In all this, the relationship between theology and philosophy is "best construed as a circle." Theology begins with the word of God and has as its final goal a deeper understanding of that word. Since God’s word is truth, the human search for truth—i.e., philosophy pursued according to its own rules—has the same goal. God’s word stirs reason to discover new and unsuspected horizons (73). The fruitfulness of this relationship is confirmed by theologian–philosophers whose writings "warrant comparison with the masters of ancient philosophy." For instance, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas, John Henry Newman, and Antonio Rosmini. Both philosophy and theology are weakened by neglect of such thinkers (74).

Christian Philosophy?

Before Christianity, there was philosophy completely independent of the gospel. Such philosophy had a valid aspiration to be an autonomous enterprise obedient to reason alone. Also today, theology must respect philosophy’s "rigorous rational criteria [that are necessary] to guarantee that the results attained are universally valid." Philosophy, on the other hand, should not claim a "self–sufficiency of thought" that refuses "the truth offered by divine revelation, since this precludes access to a deeper knowledge of truth" (75). We must be careful in speaking of "Christian philosophy" since the Church has no official philosophy. The term indicates "a Christian way of philosophizing" that has both subjective and objective aspects. Subjectively, the theological virtue of faith guards against presumption, "the typical temptation of the philosopher." St. Paul, the church fathers, Pascal, and Kierkegaard must be heeded on this score. Objectively, Christian philosophy proposes truths that might not be discovered by unaided reason, although they are not naturally inaccessible to reason. Truths proposed by revelation about anthropology, time, history, event, and sin "broaden reason’s scope for action." Much of contemporary philosophy would not exist "without this stimulus of the word of God" (76).

Theology needs philosophy "as a partner in dialogue in order to confirm the intelligibility and universal truth of its claims." From the patristic period on, philosophy was called ancilla theologiae (the handmaid of theology), in the same sense that Aristotle said the experimental sciences are "ancillary" to philosophy. Such terminology leads to misunderstanding today, but it underscores the inseparability of theology and philosophy. Theologians who reject philosophy end up in accepting thought structures uncritically, while philosophers who reject theology completely are "forced to master on their own the contents of Christian faith, as has been the case with some modern philosophers" (77).

Here again, St. Thomas is "the guide and model for theological studies" and indeed "for all who seek the truth." "In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis which human thought has ever attained, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by revelation while never demeaning the venture which is proper to reason" (78). Philosophy must obey its own rules and principles. Truth, however, can only be one. Revelation does not undermine reason, and reason "should never lose its capacity to question and be questioned." Revelation is "the true point of encounter" between philosophy and theology in the search for "a philosophy consonant with the word of God." This is the common task of believers and nonbelievers alike. Believers are reminded by St. Augustine: "To believe is nothing other than to think with assent. Believers are also thinkers: in believing they think and in thinking they believe. If faith does not think, it is nothing" (79).

Mutual Challenges

(The following chapter, the seventh, deals with the challenges the word of God poses to philosophy, and then the challenges posed to theology.) We and our experience are finite, neither uncreated nor self–generating. God alone is the Absolute. The Bible provides an account of the drama of man, created in the image of God, giving rise to moral evil through the disordered exercise of freedom. The world and human life have meaning and promised fulfillment in the mystery of the Incarnation. "This mystery challenges philosophy in ultimate ways, because reason is summoned to make its own a logic that destroys the walls within which it risks confining itself." In the Incarnate Word, human nature and divine nature are safeguarded in all their autonomy and mutuality, without confusion (80).

Our time is marked by a "crisis of meaning" and increasing fragmentation of knowledge, which often leads to skepticism and nihilism. Philosophy must "recover its sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life." Otherwise, instrumental reason in the service of technology and utilitarian ends "becomes potentially destructive for the human race" (81). Philosophy should "verify the human capacity to know the truth, to come to a knowledge which can reach objective truth." "Scripture assumes that the human being, though guilty of duplicity and mendacity, can know and grasp the simple truth." In articulating her own faith, the Church needs the help of philosophy "which does not disavow the possibility of a knowledge which is objectively true, even if it is not perfect" (82).

Further, we need a philosophy of "genuinely metaphysical range," addressed to knowledge that transcends the empirical and is "true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical." The human capacity for self–transcendence requires a philosophy that "moves from phenomenon to foundation" in the task of "mediating the understanding of revelation." Such metaphysics is necessary also to theology, for theology without metaphysics cannot get beyond an analysis of religious experience, and cannot give a coherent account of universal and transcendent truth (83). Current developments in hermeneutics and linguistic analysis often undermine confidence in the powers of reason. "Faith clearly presupposes that human language is capable of expressing divine and transcendent reality in a universal way—analogically, it is true, but no less meaningfully for that." Were that not the case, there would be no revelation of God but only interpretations of interpretations of human notions about God (84).

"I am well aware, " the Pope notes, that this argument goes against the grain of much philosophy today. Philosophy should resume its place "in organic continuity with the great tradition which, beginning with the ancients, passes through the Fathers of the Church and the masters of Scholasticism, and includes the fundamental achievements of modern thought." This tradition is not "a mere remembrance of the past" but the cultural patrimony of all humanity. "It is we who belong to the tradition and we cannot dispose of it at will." Precisely by being rooted in the tradition can we develop for the next millennium "an original, new, and constructive mode of thinking" (85). If that is to happen, some errors and consequent risks must be noted.

Necessary Corrections

"Eclecticism," for instance, appears in both philosophy and theology when ideas are picked from here and there "without concern for their internal coherence," resulting in thought that is neither serious nor scientific (86). Closely connected is "historicism," which, at least implicitly, denies the enduring validity of truth. In theology this is a form of the "modernism" that, trying to make things understandable, "exchanges truth for relevance" (87). Another threat is "scientism," which limits real knowledge to the positive sciences and "relegates religious, theological, ethical, and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy." Metaphysical statements are declared to be meaningless, although "critical epistemology has discredited such a claim" (88). No less dangerous is a form of "pragmatism" that precludes principled moral judgment and supports an idea of democracy in which there is no appeal beyond parliamentary majorities or institutional agencies. It proposes a "one–dimensional vision of the human being" which denies "the great ethical dilemmas and existential analyses of the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, of life and death" (89).

These trends lead to "nihilism," which not only contradicts the word of God but "is a denial of humanity and of the very identity of the human being." To lose touch with objective truth is to lose touch with the ground of human dignity. All that is left is a destructive will to power or despair. Nihilism promises freedom but: "Truth and freedom are either joined together or together they perish in misery" (90). Modern philosophy has notable achievements to its credit, but the irony is noted that the dominant rationalism of the past has provoked a new irrationalism that radically disputes what was once thought indisputable. This mood is sometimes called "postmodernity," which is an ambiguous term. Yet currents of thought that claim to be postmodern merit attention. Irrational nihilism is understandable in view of the terrible evils experienced in our age. The century began with the rationalist optimism of history as the triumphant progress of reason, and is ending in the temptation to despair. At the same time, however, many still subscribe to the illusion of the omnipotence of scientific and technological progress (91).

Theological Tasks

Turning to the tasks of theology, it must help the Church to evangelize, remembering that its primary duty is to the ultimate truth of revelation. "The Truth, which is Christ, holds out to theology and philosophy alike the prospect of support, stimulation, and increase." The knowledge of a universally valid truth does not encourage intolerance but, on the contrary, is the essential condition for authentic dialogue (92). "The chief purpose of theology is to provide an understanding of revelation and the content of faith." In doing so, theology is committed to an understanding of God’s kenosis, a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return (93). With the help of philosophy, theology explores the relationship between fact and meaning, meaning and truth. Human language embodies the language of God, "who communicates his own truth with the ‘condescension’ that mirrors the logic of the incarnation." In interpreting the texts of revelation, the theologian is not limited to "neutral facts" but draws on "the Church’s constant reading of these texts over the centuries, a reading which preserves intact their original meaning" (94).

The statements of dogmatic theology, like all human language, are historically and culturally conditioned, "but the human being can express truths which surpass the phenomenon of language." Truth is known in history, "but it also reaches beyond history" (95). Hermeneutical problems are real and complex, but "certain grounding concepts retain their universal epistemological value and thus the truth of the propositions which express them." Otherwise, "philosophy and the sciences could not communicate with one another," nor could they be understood in different cultures. Philosophy should seek to clarify the relationship between conceptual language and truth (96). The intellectus fidei requires a philosophy of being, especially in dogmatic theology. The "dogmatic pragmatism" that viewed the truths of faith as mere rules of conduct has been refuted, but there remains the temptation to think of these truths in purely functional terms. If the intellectus fidei is to integrate the theological tradition, it must turn to a philosophy that "proposes anew the problem of being"—"a dynamic philosophy that views reality in its ontological, causal, and communicative structures" (97).

With respect to moral theology, the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) argued that our moral crisis is a "crisis of truth." Conscience is no longer understood as an act of intelligence in discerning the truth, but as an individual right to determine the criteria of good and evil. "Moral theology must turn to a philosophical ethics that looks to the truth of the good," which presupposes a philosophical anthropology and a metaphysics of the good (98). Theology in the Church serves proclamation and catechesis. Catechesis can benefit greatly from philosophical inquiry that clarifies the relationship between truth and life, event and doctrine, transcendent truth and human language. Here, too, reciprocity between philosophy and theology can deepen understanding of the faith (99).


More than a century after Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris, it is important to emphasize the value of philosophy for the understanding of faith and the Church’s conviction that faith and reason "mutually support each other" (100). Theology challenges philosophy to be open to "the radical newness found in God’s revelation"; in theology, philosophy finds a "communal reflection" that holds together "many different fields of learning and culture within the unity of faith" (101). The mission of the gospel requires that people "discover their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of existence." The "mediation of philosophy" can lead people to Christ, and thus "they will become more human" (102). In "cultures of ancient Christian heritage," philosophy can contribute to the "new evangelization," preparing the world for the new millennium (103). Christian philosophers should shape arguments in a way that provides common ground with those of other religions and all "who have at heart the renewal of humanity." "A philosophy in which there shines even a glimmer of the truth of Christ" can contribute to "the true and planetary ethics that the world needs now" (104).

John Paul calls on theologians to "enter into a demanding critical dialogue" with philosophy in all its aspects, "whether consonant with the word of God or not." Theologians must remember the words of St. Bonaventure, "that great master of thought and spirituality," who recognized the inadequacy of "reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God" (105).

The Pope appeals to philosophers to have the courage to recover the great tradition of philosophical enquiry into authentic wisdom and truth, being assured that the Church respects "the rightful autonomy of their discipline." He asks scientists, whose achievements "never cease to amaze us," never to abandon "the sapiential horizon" in which scientific achievements are wedded to philosophy and ethics, "which are the distinctive and indelible mark of the human person" (106). "I summon everyone to look more deeply at the human being, saved in the mystery of Christ’s love, and at his unceasing search for truth and meaning." Only within the "horizon of truth" can we understand our freedom and our call "to know and love God as the supreme realization of the true self" (107). Among her many titles, Mary is called "Seat of Wisdom." As Mary offered herself so that "God’s Word might take flesh and come among us," so philosophy that offers its "rational and critical resources" in response to the gospel’s truth is in no way compromised but sees that "all its enquiries rise to their consummation." The ancient monks called Mary "the table at which faith sits in thought," and so it is with philosophy when it is true to itself (108).

Four Preliminary Observations

The argument of Fides et Ratio is breathtaking in its ambition and comprehensiveness. Permit me a few preliminary observations. First, it is a powerful restatement of the radical humanism of Catholic Christianity, a truth that has been so relentlessly pressed by John Paul II. Were this to be the final encyclical of his pontificate, it would be a fitting capstone to the repeated insistence that Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man but also the revelation of man to himself. Second, one is struck by the adamant contention for the unity of truth. The way to truth is "twofold," but it is not, as in some earlier Catholic treatments of faith and reason, two–track. It is not as though faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, belief and knowledge are on separate tracks that finally converge on the one truth. Rather, the transcendent truth, which is revelation, is the horizon and guarantor of the immanent truth of human reason—and all this because the truth, Jesus Christ, is the Absolute incarnate in the human project.

Third is the way Fides et Ratio criticizes both philosophy and theology. Modern philosophy has lost its nerve, and John Paul urges that it resume its dignity and duty in addressing the big questions that are born in wonder and directed to ultimate meaning. Theologians, on the other hand, are censured on several scores: their false sense of self–sufficiency, their uncritical acceptance of bits and pieces of philosophy without regard to theological consequences, and their violation of the necessary autonomy of the philosophical task. Fourth—and this has enormous significance for evangelization in the next century—Fides et Ratio is a very sharp criticism of any and every form of fideism. Anything that pits faith against reason, belief against knowledge, or religious experience against critical intelligence has no place in authentically Christian thought.

John Paul is keenly aware of the postmodernist mood and the idea promoted by some Christians that the collapse of Enlightenment rationalism is a great opportunity for evangelization. He, too, looks forward to the next century as a possible "springtime of evangelization" (Redemptoris Missio), but he insists this must not happen on the postmodernist or multiculturalist assumption that the gospel is simply one truth among other truths. Even if it seems to be in the short–term interest of Christianity, any evangelization that seeks to use fideism, or superstition, or irrationalism, or religious emotivism in advancing the gospel is, in fact, a betrayal of the gospel. The Catholic Church, he says, will have none of it. The gospel is universally true—and can be perceived as such by both faith and reason—or it is not true at all. Augustine is right: "If faith does not think, it is nothing." One studies the bold argument of Fides et Ratio with this purpose in mind: Sentire cum ecclesia—to think with the Church, knowing that to think with the Church begins with thinking.

While We’re At It

Sources for While We're At It:

On Ralph Nader protest over ad for "12 DAYS TILL CHRIS-MOUSE," personal correspondence. Linda Chavez on her childhood reading, Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1998. On the Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books, Times Literary Supplement, January 16, 1998. James Shapiro on Norman Mailer, New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1998. Adam Gopnik on the gay sensibility, New Yorker, May 18, 1998. The Pleasure Principle by Michael Bronski reviewed in Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1998. On Fourth Circuit upholding Virginia law requiring notification to parents of teenagers seeking abortions, press release of The Family Foundation; ruling on internet ( On Belmont Abbey College, personal correspondence. Linda Greenhouse on Justice Lewis F. Powell, New York Times, August 26, 1998. On Israeli protest over appointment of Catholic bishop in Galilee, Pilot (Boston), August 28, 1998. "Mass Found in Elusive Particle: Universe May Never Be the Same," New York Times, June 5, 1998. On the phrase "Work makes you free," New York Times, June 27, 1998. Eamon Duffy on Hell, Tablet, December 13, 1997. On Protestantism in Latin America, Origins, April 16, 1998.