Tuesday, March 18, 2014

BkNotes: Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Fides et Ratio

John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (an "Encyclical Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason"), Boston, Pauline Books & Media (Daughters of St. Paul), 1998, 131 pages.

WHAT IS AN ENCYCLICAL? An encyclical is a "letter" which a pope writes to the bishops of the Catholic Church. Each bishop is responsible for disseminating the information in the encyclical to Catholics in the bishop's jurisdiction. Around the year 2000, I attended a discussion of Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) held in the main auditorium of the University of Portland, a Catholic school in Portland, Oregon, USA. The auditorium was full, with many individuals sitting in the aisles as well. On stage, a panel of Catholics spoke about the main points of the encyclical. Panel members also answered questions from some of the three hundred members of the audience, including priests, monks, and nuns, but mostly laymen. The discussion was both intense and respectful.

The Church does not consider an encyclical to be infallible unless a pope chooses to speak ex cathedra in the encyclical. (An ex cathedral announcement is one that speaks solemnly, not casually, states a doctrine of faith or morals, and applies to all Catholics.) Nevertheless, if an encyclical contains doctrines applying to the Church, then the Church expects all Catholics to give their interior and exterior assent to the doctrine ("Encyclical," A Catholic Dictionary, general editor Donald Attwater, 3rd edition, 1958, reprinted by TAN Books in 1961.)

JOHN PAUL II'S PURPOSE. In Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) writes for three purposes. First, he wants to make easier the life of those Catholic individuals who are struggling intellectually to establish truth in today's post-modernist, secular culture. Second, he wants to "restore to our contemporaries a genuine trust in their capacity to know and [he wants to] challenge philosophy [which post-modernists have damaged] to recover and develop its own full dignity." (pp. 15-16) Third, he wants to explain the nature of truth and its relation to faith as fundamental. (p. 16)

SUBJECT. The book explains the Catholic view of the relationship of faith, reason, and culture. The author also examines the relationship of theology (which relies on faith) and philosophy (which relies on reason). (p. 5) John Paul II says that ideas, especially fundamental ideas, shape culture. He speaks of "[p]hilosophy's powerful influence on the formation and development of the cultures of the West." (pp. 11 and 16) As a related insight, John Paul II also identifies the existence of "implicit philosophy" in a culture: Broad principles are held by individuals but in an unthinking or uncritical way. (p. 13)

STYLE AND STRUCTURE. At least in this English translation, John Paul II's style varies with his changes in subject. For example, the first two chapters are more difficult to read than the third chapter. The fourth chapter is easiest. It is historical, a survey of the history of Western philosophy in Christian culture.

The chapter titles show the general structure of the book:
Ch. I. The Revelation of God's Wisdom
Ch. II. Credo ut Intelligam (I believe so that I might understand)
Ch. III. Intellego ut Credam (I understand so that I might believe)
Ch. IV. The Relationship between Faith and Reason
Ch. V. The Magisterium's Interventions in Philosophical Matters
Ch. VI. The Interaction between Philosophy and Theology
Ch. VII. Current Requirements and Tasks

THEMES. The main message of the book is that truth depends on faith as its foundation. (p. 16) A prefatory statement presents the theme: 

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and 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 (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2). (p. 7)

One sub-theme holds that truth is metaphysically objective: Truth is out there in the world, where God has made it available to us. For example, on p. 9, John Paul II speaks of humanity "engaging" truth. Where is this truth? As the book repeatedly tells readers, truth is in God's words as he revealed them to mankind. (p. 10, sec. 2) 

Another, though often only implied sub-theme is that humans need to integrate their items of knowledge and that the total has a structure resting on a foundation, that is, on fundamental principles. For example, John Paul II refers to "fundamental questions" (p. 9); he refers to the "unity of truth, natural and revealed" (p. 48); and he speaks of "a systematic body of knowledge," saying, "... every philosophical system ... should always be respected in its wholeness." (p. 12)

A third sub-theme, but one which I infer, is the standard Catholic approach to issues: "both-and." Here is an example of the Church's even-handed, "both-and" orientation: The Church has issued more censures of Catholics formulating philosophies since 1850 than before. The reason is that defective, non-Catholic philosophers were in that century producing defective philosophies, and Catholic philosophers were responding, but with errors of their own. The Church's censures of new Catholic philosophies were "even-handed." For example, on the one hand, the Church censured both fideism (the notion that only faith is required) and radical traditionalism (the notion that only strict compliance with tradition is a suitable guide to Church policy); and, on the other hand, the Church has censured rationalism and ontologism "because they attributed to natural reason a knowledge which only the light of faith could confer." The First Vatican Council (1870) set the standard on issues about reason and faith. The Council "showed how inseparable and at the same time how distinct were faith and reason, revelation and natural knowledge of God." (pp. 69-70) 

At the root of the "both-and" approach of the Church is an intention to integrate its various positions. For example: 

The 'supreme rule of [the Church's] 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. (p. 74) 

WHAT CAN ONE KNOW, IN GENERAL? Let's look at knowledge in general first, and then at knowledge through reason. Truth is "born of ... a consonance between intellect and objective reality." (p. 75) According to John Paul II, one can know three "modes" of truth: 

(a) Sense-perceptible truths that "depend on immediate evidence or are confirmed by experimentation." (Perhaps John Paul II intends this to include knowledge of science and technology.)

(b) Philosophical truths, which are "attained by means of the speculative powers of the human intellect."

(c) Religious truths, which are partly grounded in philosophy and partly grounded in religious traditions. (pp. 42-43)

WHAT CAN REASON KNOW? John Paul II does not systematically present his views on reason. (His publication is a "letter," not a treatise.) His scattered comments about reason's capabilities do sketch reason's scope. Consider the following comments from John Paul II:

[1] The First Vatican Council teaches, then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: 'There exists a two-fold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With  regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known'. Based upon God's testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perception and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone. Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the 'fullness of grace and truth' (cf. in Jn 1:14) which God has willed to reveal in history and definitively through his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn 5:9; Jn 5:31-32). (p. 18-19)

[2] But our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently. (p. 22)

[3] By reading the "book of nature," John Paul II says, reason can bring an appreciation and perhaps even some knowledge of God. (p. 31) In John Paul II's comments, there is little discussion of using reason and the benefits it brings in technology for example. Why? Because the pope does not think reason is required? Or because he assumes that this reason is merely "instrumental" and not worth considering? Or because the issue is outside his subject, which is mostly religion and philosophy? I do not know.

[4] Not only is it [reason] not restricted to sensory knowledge [alone], from the moment that it can reflect critically on the data of the senses, but, by discoursing on the data provided by the senses, reason can reach the cause which lies at the origin of all perceptible reality." This ability "affirms the human capacity for metaphysical enquiry." (p. 33)

[5] The Church is "pro-reason," he says: On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason's drive to attain goals which render people's lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. (p. 13)

In my summary, John Paul II says the Church's position is to laud both faith and reason but place faith as superior because it sets the ethical and other broad contexts for what we do. Further, faith and reason working together are superior to the philosophical skepticism of the post-modernists.

WHAT ARE REASON'S LIMITS? John Paul II frequently speaks of "human reason." (p. 13) He sees it as a flawed vehicle distinguished from "divine reason," which is perfect. In general, there are two limits to reason. First, it is inherently finite and God is infinite, so there is only so much that reason can understand about God. (p. 24). Second, reason requires great toil and is wearisome (p.33). In the field of philosophy in particular there are two particular limitations of reason. First, formulations of a philosophy are shaped by their place in history. Second, every philosophy is "produced by human reason wounded and weakened by sin. This is why 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 being's relationship with God." (p. 68)

Despite reason's limits, it can achieve some success, but only by following three rules: (1) Be prepared for a long, hard journey. (2) Be prepared to accept help outside of one's own efforts. (3) Fear God. (pp. 30-31)

JOHN PAUL II'S VIEWS OF FAITH. Faith is not merely a virtue that the Church happens to recommend to everyone. Faith is fundamental. 

[1] Underlying all the Church's thinking is the awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself (cf. 2 Cor[inthians] 4:1-2). The knowledge which the Church offers to man has is origin not in any speculation of her own, however sublime, but in the Word of God which she has received in faith (cf. 1 Th[essalonians] 2:13). (p. 17)

[2] It is a "fundamental truth of Christianity" that "'the obedience of faith must be given to God who reveals himself'." (p. 22) "By faith, men and women give their assent" to God's revelations, which are God's "divine testimony." (p. 22) Faith leads to certainty of knowing. (p. 23)

[3] Faith is assent to the "knowledge" that comes through one form of mystical channel or another. This opening to the mystery, which came to him [Biblical man] through revelation, was for him, in the end, the source of true knowledge. It was this which allowed his reason to enter the realm of the infinite where an understanding for which until then he had not dared to hope became a possibility. (pp. 32-33)

WHAT CAN FAITH KNOW? Faith can know ideas that are beyond man's natural limits. Ethical ideas in particular are the payoff of having faith:

The symbol [of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in the Garden of Eden] is clear: man was in no position to discern and decide for himself what was good and what was evil, but was constrained to appeal to a higher source. The blindness of pride deceived our first parents into thinking themselves sovereign and autonomous, and into thinking that they could ignore the knowledge which comes from God. All men and women were caught up in this primal disobedience, which so wounded reason that from then on its path to full truith would be strewn with obstacles. (p. 34)

Faith brings supernatural knowledge. John Paul II favorably quotes Thomas Aquinas: 

[W]hat you neither see nor grasp, faith confirms for you, leaving nature far behind; a sign it is that now appears, hiding in mystery realities sublime. (pp. 23-24)

THE RELATIONSHIP OF REASON AND FAITH. John Paul II offers a view of faith and reason that integrates the two, leaving reason as subordinate: 

[T]here is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith. The world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analyzed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process. Faith intervenes not to abolish reason's autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts. (p. 29)

Reason needs starting points that come from faith. Faith needs reason for thorough understanding of faith. 

Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way. (p. 30)

There is thus no [justification] for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope of action. (p. 30) Exploring truth (coming from faith) by using reason is noble. (p. 30)

"Right reason" (orthos logos in Greek and recta ratio in Latin) means reasoning which is logical in process and consistent with the principles of Catholic ethics (based on God's revelations). (pp. 12-13) Note the implications: Right reasoning is reasoning that operates in the context set by mysticism. This supports the Catholic position, which is that mysticism overrides reason. Reason should, whenever there is a seeming conflict, yield to mysticism. The mystery of "Christ crucified and risen" is "not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet." (p. 36)

The following passages summarize John Paul II's positions on faith and reason: 

In brief, human beings attain truth by way of reason because, enlightened by faith, they discover the deeper meaning of all things and most especially of their own existence. (p. 32) 

The truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (pp. 47-48)

Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth. (p. 71)

FOR CHRISTIANS, WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PHILOSOPHY? John Paul II says philosophy has a role: "Among these ['resources for generating greater knowledge of truth'] is philosophy .... Philosophy emerges, then, as one of the noblest of human tasks." (p. 11, sec. 3) While the Church does not have an official philosophy, the Church does evaluate philosophies for their compatibility with revelation and Church doctrines. (pp. 66-67)

Two statements summarize the Catholic view of the relationship of faith and reason. First, John Paul II says that historically Christians have valued not only reason, if it was "open to the absolute" (p. 55) coming from the supernatural world, but also valued a synthesis of philosophy and theology, as in the works of Augustine and Thomas (p. 54). Further, John Paul II notes: 

The fundamental harmony between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of philosophy is once 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. (p. 57)

Second, John Paul II says: ... I make this strong and insistent appeal ... that faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. (p. 65)

John Paul II is not "tolerant," in the meaning of passively accepting anything. He denounces some streams of modern philosophy which, for example, emphasize reason's limits more than its strengths. He says that agnosticism, relativism, and skepticism—which Catholics reject—arise from that emphasis. (p. 14)

CONCLUSION. The Catholic position of faith and reason, as described by Pope John Paul II, is historically and philosophically sophisticated. The Church does not adopt an official philosophy. It accepts reason, as subordinate to mysticism (faith in Holy Scripture, revelation, tradition) but as useful within limits set by an ethics learned from revelation.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here

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