Editor’s Note


Jesus, revealer of the Father (7-12)
Reason before the mystery (13-15)

“Wisdom knows all and understands all” (Wis 9:11) (16-20)
“Acquire wisdom, acquire understanding” (Prov 4:5) (21-23)

Journeying in search of truth (24-27)
The different faces of human truth (28-34)

Important moments in the encounter of faith and reason (36-43)
The enduring originality of the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (43-44)
The drama of the separation of faith and reason (45-48)

The Magisterium’s discernment as diakonia of the truth (49-56)
The Church’s interest in philosophy (57-63)

The knowledge of faith and the demands of philosophical reason (64-74)
Different stances of philosophy (75-79)

The indispensable requirements of the word of God (80-91)
Current tasks for theology (92-99)

CONCLUSION (100-108)

Editor’s Note:  Fides et Ratio is to my mind Pope John Paul II’s most radical encyclical to date, surpassing in its own way even the astonishingly countercultural Evangelium Vitae. This has not been generally recognized, mainly because the encyclical’s subject matter is not easily accessible to those who lack extensive philosophical training, and also because the document contains none of the proscriptions concerning sexual morality with which the Holy Father’s critics in the media and in theology departments are obsessed. Nonetheless, the adoption of the encyclical’s vision of intellectual inquiry would strike at the core of many of the epistemological assumptions endemic to the modern academy. In fact, it is precisely the widely-recognized malaise of the modern academy that makes the encyclical so interesting and challenging. I hope to address these issues in propia persona and in greater detail at a later time. For now I simply offer a quickly formulated guide to the encylical, including extensive quotations, that is meant to put the reader in a positition to see the document as a whole and to understand how the various parts are ordered to one another and to the whole.

Cautionary note:  The English translation of Fides et Ratio is not always what it should be.  The Latin is available on the Vatican website for those who can make use of it.


In this introduction the Holy Father gives a brief account of philosophy and the universal human drive to philosophize. He makes it clear from the beginning that at the present the main threat to genuine philosophical inquiry is an excessive pessimism about the power of natural reason.

  1. The basic human desire for universal elements of knowledge (metaphysics and moral theory), born of wonder.
  2. Philosophy defined as “rigorous speculative thought that is systematic.” The primacy of philosophical inquiry over any particular philosophical system; the historical achievements of philosophy (#4).
  3. Characteristics of much contemporary philosophy (#5): (a) excessive pessimism about the power of reason (skepticism, relativism, agnosticism) and (b) emphasis on the limitations of human knowing. The result: “undifferentiated pluralism.” It is clear that the Holy Father takes this sort of pessimism to be a more serious present challenge than the rationalist optimism with respect to reason that was the concern of the First Vatican Council. (See #8 below.)
  4. Note concerning young people: “It is undeniable that this time of rapid and complex change can leave especially the younger generation, to whom the future belongs and on whom it depends, with a sense that they have no valid points of reference. The need for a foundation for personal and communal life becomes all the more pressing at a time when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. This is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going. At times, this happens because those whose vocation it is to give cultural expression to their thinking no longer look to truth, preferring quick success to the toil of patient enquiry into what makes life worth living. With its enduring appeal to the search for truth, philosophy has the great responsibility of forming thought and culture; and now it must strive resolutely to recover its original vocation” (#6).



Chapter I establishes the primacy of revelation as a source of salvific truths and the primacy of obedient faith in Christ as the most fitting context for the inquiries of reason. Natural reason can discover some salvific truths, but not the most central ones concerning the mission of Jesus Christ. Christ is the answer to the ultimate question that philosophers (and ordinary people insofar as they participate in philosophy) have asked at all times and within all cultures. But faith does not by itself give us deep understanding; the mystery remains. And so reason has scope within the context of faith.
Jesus, revealer of the Father (7-12)

  1. The Holy Father begins with the primacy of revelation. The Church’s message is God’s wholly gratuitous and irreducibly historical self-revelation. This section is important because it shows the inherent limitations of reason, given that God’s self-revelation is not wholly accessible via non-historical universal truths that can be established by reason in metaphysics and moral theory. So reason needs faith, and it is important for the Church to affirm this, especially at those times when it is being denied. In declaring that reason and faith are both required as sources of truth, the First Vatican Council was responding to a rationalist (modernist) conception of philosophical inquiry that exalted reason and denigrated faith, going so far as to deny “the possibility of any knowledge which was not the fruit of reason’s natural capacities” (#8).
  2. Christ as the ultimate truth about human existence: “The truth communicated in Christ’s Revelation is therefore no longer confined to a particular place or culture, but is offered to every man and woman who would welcome it as the word which is the absolutely valid source of meaning for human life. Now, in Christ, all have access to the Father, since by his Death and Resurrection Christ has bestowed the divine life which the first Adam had refused (cf. Rom 5:12-15). Through this Revelation, men and women are offered the ultimate truth about their own life and about the goal of history. As the Constitution Gaudium et Spes puts it, ‘only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light’. Seen in any other terms, the mystery of personal existence remains an insoluble riddle” (#12).


Reason before the mystery (13-15)

  1. Still, “our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding.” Faith, as an obedient response to God, “alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently”, and “this is why the Church has always considered the act of entrusting oneself to God to be a moment of fundamental decision which engages the whole person” (#13). This is the highest and truest exercise of freedom, and it is necessary for our lives.


  1. But “the knowledge proper to faith does not destroy the mystery” (#13). The Holy Father uses the unity between signifier and signified in the Eucharist as the epitome of the sacramental character of divine revelation. Common signs are given a depth which is both accessible to us through the eyes of faith and yet hidden from common modes of thought. Christ reveals us to ourselves and makes clear our vocation to “share in the divine mystery of the life of the Trinity.” Hence, the obedience of faith alone correctly orients us.
  2. Revelation cannot be ignored. Faith ‘surrounds’ reason with two reference points, the meaning of human life and the mystery of God, both of which are revealed in their fulness by Christ. And it is within the realm defined by these points of reference that reason operates. Here St. Anselm serves as a model. Christian revelation “summons human beings to be open to the transcendent,” thus freeing us from “an immanentist habit of mind and the constrictions of a technocratic logic” (#15). We need to transcend ourselves, both as individuals and as members of a fallen race.
  3. The main point: “These considerations prompt a first conclusion: the truth made known to us by Revelation is neither the product nor the consummation of an argument devised by human reason. It appears instead as something gratuitous, which itself stirs thought and seeks acceptance as an expression of love. This revealed truth is set within our history as an anticipation of that ultimate and definitive vision of God which is reserved for those who believe in him and seek him with a sincere heart. The ultimate purpose of personal existence, then, is the theme of philosophy and theology alike. For all their difference of method and content, both disciplines point to that “path of life” (Ps 16:11) which, as faith tells us, leads in the end to the full and lasting joy of the contemplation of the Triune God” (#15) [my italics].


In this Chapter the Holy Father delves into the nature of and necessity for faith, and begins to limn the affective prerequisites for well-ordered intellectual (philosophical and scientific) inquiry.
“Wisdom knows all and understands all” (Wis 9:11) (16-20)

  1. It is in the Wisdom literature that Sacred Scripture most deeply relates “the knowledge conferred by faith (cognitio fidei) and the knowledge conferred by reason (scientia rationis).” The wise man is the one who loves and seeks the truth.
  2. Faith as the context for natural scientia and consonant with it: “What is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge (cognitio) 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, analysed 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. Thus the world and the events of history cannot be understood in depth without professing faith in the God who is at work in them. Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence” (#16).
  3. Faith as the context for natural scientia and necessary for it: “On the basis of this deeper form of knowledge, the Chosen People understood that, if reason were to be fully true to itself, then it must respect certain basic rules. The first of these is that reason must realize that human knowledge is a journey which allows no rest; the second stems from the awareness that such a path is not for the proud who think that everything is the fruit of personal conquest; a third rule is grounded in the “fear of God” whose transcendent sovereignty and provident love in the governance of the world reason must recognize. In abandoning these rules, the human being runs the risk of failure and ends up in the condition of “the fool”. For the Bible, in this foolishness there lies a threat to life” (#18) [my italics]. Here we begin to see the affective rectitude that is necessary in order for reason to do its best. Notice, by the way, that this is a dominant theme in classical conceptions of philosophical inquiry, and is especially prominent in those Socratic dialogues (e.g., Gorgias, Apology, Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus) which fill out the picture of the philosopher’s way of life.
  4. The close ties in ancient thought between philosophy and natural science. The author of Wisdom explicitly affirms that the study of nature is a path to God. Note: “If human beings with their intelligence fail to recognize God as Creator of all, it is not because they lack the means to do so, but because their free will and their sinfulness place an impediment in the way” (#19). Here again we see the affective impediments to and prerequisites for philosophical inquiry.
  5. So Sacred Scripture values human reason without overvaluing it: “The results of reasoning may in fact be true, but these results acquire their true meaning only if they are set within the larger horizon of faith” (#20). So we see here that the Church has an interest in discouraging both excessive optimism and excessive pessimism about the potential of human reason. In the past two centuries she has had to contend with both–and the cure for both is the horizon of faith as the setting for inquiry.

“Acquire wisdom, acquire understanding” (Prov 4:5) (21-23)

  1. Summary of what has preceded: “[The] opening to the mystery, which came to [the human being] 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” (#21).
  2. In the first chapter of Romans St. Paul “affirms the human capacity for metaphysical inquiry” (#22). From here the Holy Father goes on to discuss the effects of sin on inquiry. It is only because of sin that we do not reach God with ease through natural reason. It is only through Christ that reason is freed “from the shackles in which it had imprisoned itself” (#22).
  3. This noetic ramifications of sin explain St. Paul’s contrast of the wisdom of God with ‘the wisdom of this world’.
  4. The centrality of the Cross for exposing the weakness of reason: “The beginning of the First Letter to the Corinthians poses the dilemma in a radical way. The crucified Son of God is the historic event upon which every attempt of the mind to construct an adequate explanation of the meaning of existence upon merely human argumentation comes to grief. The true key-point, which challenges every philosophy, is Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. It is here that every attempt to reduce the Father’s saving plan to purely human logic is doomed to failure. ‘Where is the one who is wise? Where is the learned? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ (1Cor 1:20), the Apostle asks emphatically. The wisdom of the wise is no longer enough for what God wants to accomplish; what is required is a decisive step towards welcoming something radically new” (#23). And again: “In order to express the gratuitous nature of the love revealed in the Cross of Christ, the Apostle is not afraid to use the most radical language of the philosophers in their thinking about God. Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give to reason the ultimate answer which it seeks. It is not the wisdom of words, but the Word of Wisdom which Saint Paul offers as the criterion of both truth and salvation” (#23) [my italics].
  5. In general, then, this part of the chapter emphasizes the necessity for faith in the Cross of Christ and the weakness of human reason, mired in sin, without it.


In this Chapter the Holy Father investigates natural reason in general as a preparation for the Good News, and delves once again into the necessity for trust in others as a condition for inquiry.
Journeying in search of truth (24-27)

  1. In this chapter, we examine natural reason as a preparation for the Gospel. The Holy Father begins with Luke’s account of Paul in Athens, trying to find common ground with the Athenians. “The Apostle accentuates a truth which the Church has always treasured: in the far reaches of the human heart there is a seed of desire and nostalgia for God …. There is therefore a path which the human being may choose to take, a path which begins with reason’s capacity to rise beyond what is contingent and set out towards the infinite” (#24) [my italics]. So the same deep desire for truth which has led to philosophical and scientific achievement leads us toward self-transcendence.
  2. The Holy Father makes clear that this need for self-transcendence applies to practical inquiry and moral theory as much as to metaphysics and natural science: “It is essential, therefore, that the values chosen and pursued in one’s life be true, because only true values can lead people to realize themselves fully, allowing them to be true to their nature. The truth of these values is to be found not by turning in on oneself but by opening oneself to apprehend that truth even at levels which transcend the person. This is an essential condition for us to become ourselves and to grow as mature, adult persons” (25) [my italics].
  3. The first question, posed especially in the face of certain death, is Does life have a meaning? Where is it going? No one can evade these questions, and everyone needs a certitude which allows one to anchor one’s life and give it direction. (Read ## 26 and 27. They’re magnificent.)

The different faces of human truth (28-34)

  1. The search for ultimate truth is so deeply rooted in us that it is unthinkable that it should be useless; at any rate, ignoring it would “cast our existence into jeopardy” (#29).
  2. The different modes of truth:
    1. Truths that depend upon immediate evidence or are confirmed by experience (experimentum). Proper to everyday life and scientific research.
    2. Truths of philosophy and religion–not limited just to what professional philosophers teach. Comprehensive visions and answers to question of life’s meaning (the preambles of the Faith).
    3. The truth revealed in Jesus Christ (the mysteries of the Faith).
  3. The importance of traditions into which people are born, though these traditions are themselves the object of critical inquiry. Here the Holy Father tries to make clear that all inquiry presupposes a framework of trust in what others have passed down to us. “This means that the human being–the one who seeks truth–is also the one who lives by trusting in the other (illi qui vivit alteri fidens)” (#31).
  4. The context of philosophical inquiry: “It should be stressed that the truths sought in this interpersonal relationship are not primarily empirical or philosophical. Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person–what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them” (#32) [my italics]. The most salient examples are the martyrs.
  5. “Step by step, then, we are assembling the terms of the question. It is the nature of the human being to seek the truth. This search looks not only to the attainment of truths which are partial, empirical or scientific; nor is it only in individual acts of decision-making that people seek the true good.Their search looks towards an ulterior truth which would explain the meaning of life. And it is therefore a search which can reach its end only in reaching the absolute. Thanks to the inherent capacities of thought, man is able to encounter and recognize a truth of this kind. Such a truth–vital and necessary as it is for life–is attained not only by way of reason but also through trusting acquiescence to other persons who can guarantee the authenticity and certainty of the truth itself. There is no doubt that the capacity to entrust oneself and one’s life to another person and the decision to do so are among the most significant and expressive human acts.

It must not be forgotten that reason too needs to be sustained in all its searching by trusting dialogue and sincere friendship. A climate of suspicion and distrust, which can beset speculative research, ignores the teaching of the ancient philosophers who proposed friendship as one of the most appropriate contexts for sound philosophical enquiry” (#33) [my italics].

  1. It is at this point in our search that Christ comes to meet us, offering the concrete possibility of the wisdom which we seek. Here we pass beyond mere trust to the order of grace. “In Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, faith recognizes the ultimate appeal to humanity, an appeal made in order that what we experience as desire and nostalgia may come to its fulfilment” (#33). Thus, the search for truth is a preparation for the Gospel.
  2. The unity of truth is a “fundamental principle 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” (#34).
  3. Fundamental conclusion: “What human reason seeks ‘without knowing it’ (cf. Acts 17:23) can be found only through Christ: what is revealed in him is ‘the full truth’ (cf. Jn 1:14-16) of everything which was created in him and through him which therefore in him finds fulfillment (cf. Col 1:17)” [my italics].
  4. Introduction to what follows: “On the basis of these broad considerations, we must now explore more directly the relationship between revealed truth and philosophy. This relationship imposes a twofold consideration, since the truth conferred by Revelation is a truth to be understood in the light of reason. It is this duality alone which allows us to specify correctly the relationship between revealed truth and philosophical learning. First, then, let us consider the links between faith and philosophy in the course of history. From this, certain principles will emerge as useful reference-points in the attempt to establish the correct link between the two orders of knowledge” (#35)



Here we get a historically sensitive systematic account of the relation between faith and reason.
Important moments in the encounter of faith and reason (36-43)

  1. We are now treated to an interesting historical synopsis of the relation between philosophy and Christian faith. The first Christians tried to find what common ground they could with pagan philosophers. St. Paul, we are told by St. Luke, talked with Epicureans and Stoics; in general, the pagan philosophers themselves had questioned pagan religion and mystery cults, and so they seemed to be a group worth addressing on their own terms. “It was the task of the fathers of philosophy to bring to light the link between reason and religion. As they broadened their view to include universal principles, they no longer rested content with the ancient myths, but wanted to provide a rational foundation for their belief in the divinity. This opened a path which took its rise from ancient traditions but allowed a development satisfying the demands of universal reason. This development sought to acquire a critical awareness of what they believed in, and the concept of divinity was the prime beneficiary of this. Superstitions were recognized for what they were and religion was, at least in part, purified by rational analysis. It was on this basis that the Fathers of the Church entered into fruitful dialogue with ancient philosophy, which offered new ways of proclaiming and understanding the God of Jesus Christ” (#36) (my italics–note that the Holy Father still insists on the tie between philosophy and the myth-traditions).
  2. Wariness about gnosticism, and the attempt to distinguish it from philosophy with universal pretentions. Brief reference to the re-emergence of claims to esoteric knowledge in the contemporary world.
  3. At the same time, Christianity rejects the intellectual elitism of the classical philosophical schools. There are non-philosophical paths to the Truth as well as philosophical ones. So non-philosophers are not assigned an inferior status, as they were by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, by way of example. This is crucial. Also mentioned here are Justin Martyr’s cautious use of philosophy and Clement of Alexandria’s claim that philosophy is important not to complete Christian truth but to ward off sophistry. (#38)
  4. Origen uses Platonism in order to withstand the attacks of Celsus. Christian theology emerges as the fulfillment of pagan philosophical theology, i.e., first philosophy or metaphysics. That is, theology makes use of pagan philosophical ideals of wisdom at the beginning, even though it transforms pagan doctrines.
  5. The Cappadocian Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, and especially Augustine play central roles in the development of Christian thought. Augustine’s motive for embracing Catholic faith was its honesty about the fact that its central mysteries are inaccessible to natural reason. In speaking of the Fathers, the Holy Father says this: “They were not naive thinkers. Precisely because they were intense in living faith’s content they were able to reach the deepest forms of speculation. It is therefore minimalizing and mistaken to restrict their work simply to the transposition of the truths of faith into philosophical categories. They did much more. In fact they succeeded in disclosing completely all that remained implicit and preliminary in the thinking of the great philosophers of antiquity. As I have noted, theirs was the task of showing how reason, freed from external constraints, could find its way out of the blind alley of myth and open itself to the transcendent in a more appropriate way. Purified and rightly tuned, therefore, reason could rise to the higher planes of thought, providing a solid foundation for the perception of being, of the transcendent and of the absolute.

“It is here that we see the originality of what the Fathers accomplished. They fully welcomed reason which was open to the absolute, and they infused it with the richness drawn from Revelation. This was more than a meeting of cultures, with one culture perhaps succumbing to the fascination of the other. It happened rather in the depths of human souls, and it was a meeting of creature and Creator. Surpassing the goal towards which it unwittingly tended by dint of its nature, reason attained the supreme good and ultimate truth in the person of the Word made flesh. Faced with the various philosophies, the Fathers were not afraid to acknowledge those elements in them that were consonant with Revelation and those that were not. Recognition of the points of convergence did not blind them to the points of divergence” (#41) [my italics].

  1.  St. Anselm initiates Scholasticism, with its intellectual rigor, by showing that the function of reason is “to find meaning, to discover explanations which might allow everyone to come to a certain understanding of the contents of faith. Saint Anselm underscores the fact that the intellect must seek that which it loves: the more it loves, the more it desires to know ….. The desire for truth, therefore, spurs reason always to go further; indeed, it is as if reason were overwhelmed to see that it can always go beyond what it has already achieved. It is at this point, though, that reason can learn where its path will lead in the end ….. 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” (#42). That is, faith gives reason a higher goal to shoot for and spurs it on.

The enduring originality of the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (43-44)

  1. St. Thomas has a special place in the history of the interaction of faith and reason: “Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of 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 fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God” (#43). (Note that here nature is identified as philosophy’s proper concern. Question: Why say this? Or, alternatively, aren’t there broader conceptions of philosophy?)
  2. The primacy of Wisdom as a gift of the Holy Spirit (sapientia per inclinationem) over philosophical and theological wisdom (sapientia per cognitionem), even though the latter are not devalued.
  3. In Thomas, the Church’s Magisterium has seen and recognized the passion for truth; and, precisely because it stays consistently within the horizon of universal, objective and transcendent truth, his thought scales ‘heights unthinkable to human intelligence’. Rightly, then, he may be called an ‘apostle of the truth’. Looking unreservedly to truth, the realism of Thomas could recognize the objectivity of truth and produce not merely a philosophy of ‘what seems to be’ but a philosophy of ‘what is’.


The drama of the separation of faith and reason (45-48)

  1. Now comes the sad part of the story. St. Albert and St. Thomas insisted upon both an organic link between philosophy and theology and autonomy for each. The Holy Father does not here say what this autonomy amounts to, but does bemoan the fact that “from the late Medieval period onwards the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning became more and more a fateful separation. As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions grew more radical and there emerged eventually a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith. Another of the many consequences of this separation was an ever deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself. In a spirit both skeptical and agnostic, some began to voice a general mistrust, which led some to focus more on faith and others to deny its rationality altogether” (#45).
  2. The Holy Father does not hesitate to charge that rationalist or modernist conceptions of inquiry, which inspired both (i) the various demythologization projects (I think of Spinoza, Kant, Bultmann, Hegel) and (ii) “atheistic humanism” (here he has in mind the likes of Marx and Nietzsche), “gave rise to totalitarian systems which have been disastrous for humanity” (#46). In addition, modernism inspired a positivistic mentality with respect to the natural sciences and thus separated scientific inquiry from any moral context intrinsic to it as such. And, finally, the present “crisis of rationalism” has led to nihilism, whose adherents claim that “the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth. In the nihilist interpretation, life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has pride of place” (#46). As a result, we see “the widespread mentality that a definitive commitment should not be made.”
  3. In the process, philosophy itself has been marginalized and replaced by instrumental conceptions of rationality which serve inappropriate ends such as pleasure or power or wealth. “In the wake of these cultural shifts, some philosophers have abandoned the search for truth in itself and made their sole aim the attainment of a subjective certainty or a pragmatic sense of utility. This in turn has obscured the true dignity of reason, which is no longer equipped to know the truth and to seek the absolute” (#47).
  4. Despite the interesting philosophical insights that have admittedly resulted from these wayward approaches to inquiry, the link between faith and reason stands in need of close examination because “each without the other is impoverished and enfeebled. Deprived of what Revelation offers, reason has taken side-tracks which expose it to the danger of losing sight of its final goal. Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience, and so run the risk of no longer being a universal proposition. It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition. By the same token, reason which is unrelated to an adult faith is not prompted to turn its gaze to the newness and radicality of being” (#48).


The Magisterium’s discernment as diakonia of the truth (49-56)

  1. Philosophy retains its autonomy, but it can go wrong in ways that lead it into conflict with revelation. Here the Magisterium cannot remain silent. “It is neither the task nor the competence of the Magisterium to intervene in order to make good the lacunas of deficient philosophical discourse. Rather, it is the Magisterium’s duty 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 (#49). [Note: Those of us actively involved in teaching Catholic undergraduates should not be tempted to dispute this by invoking the claim that today’s Catholics in the Western world are too highly educated to be treated paternalistically in this way by the Magisterium. If anything, today’s highly educated Catholics are for the most part very poorly educated in the Faith.] “In the light of faith, therefore, the Church’s Magisterium can and must authoritatively exercise a critical discernment of opinions and philosophies which contradict Christian doctrine” (#50).
  2. The justification here invokes the unity of truth: “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” (#51). What’s more, “today, with the proliferation of systems, methods, concepts and philosophical theses which are often extremely complex, the need for a critical discernment in the light of faith becomes more urgent, even if it remains a daunting task. Given all of reason’s inherent and historical limitations, it is difficult enough to recognize the inalienable powers proper to it; but it is still more difficult at times to discern in specific philosophical claims what is valid and fruitful from faith’s point of view and what is mistaken or dangerous. Yet the Church knows that ‘the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ are hidden in Christ (Col 2:3) and therefore intervenes in order to stimulate philosophical enquiry, lest it stray from the path which leads to recognition of the mystery” (#51).
  3. From here the Holy Father reaffirms the historical interventions of the Magisterium in philosophical matters, and explicitly confirms the interventions of his 19th and 20th predecessors, even while indicating below that some thinkers who have been under suspicion have in the end been vindicated in part. (For even if they have been vindicated, it is simply because they did not hold the radically mistaken views attributed to them. There is no indication that the views themselves should not have been condemned.)
  4. In particular, the Holy Father reaffirms Vatican I’s condemnation of fideism and radical traditionalism for their denigration of reason’s natural powers and of rationalism and ontologism for granting to natural reason capacities which we have only by faith. (Radical traditionalism teaches that we cannot know God by reason, but that “natural” knowledge of God and morality was given in an original revelation which has been passed down from generation to generation; ontologism teaches that even in this life we possess by nature an immediate intuitive knowledge of God.) By way of summary, he says: “The Magisterium’s pronouncements have been concerned less with individual philosophical theses than with the need for rational and hence ultimately philosophical knowledge for the understanding of faith. In synthesizing and solemnly reaffirming the teachings constantly proposed to the faithful by the ordinary Papal Magisterium, the First Vatican Council showed how inseparable and at the same time how distinct were faith and reason, Revelation and natural knowledge of God” (#53).
  5. The Church has insisted on the distinction between the mysteries of the faith and the findings of philosophy, even while upholding the integrity of both. So both rationalism and fideism have been condemned as theories of inquiry.
  6. #55 lays out present-day dangers as the Holy Father sees them. This is worth quoting in full:

    “Surveying the situation today, we see that the problems of other times have returned, but in a new key. It is no longer a matter of questions of interest only to certain individuals and groups, but convictions so widespread that they have become to some extent the common mind. An example of this is the deep-seated distrust of reason which has surfaced in the most recent developments of much of philosophical research, to the point where there is talk at times of ‘the end of metaphysics’. Philosophy is expected to rest content with more modest tasks such as the simple interpretation of facts or an enquiry into restricted fields of human knowing or its structures.

“In theology too the temptations of other times have reappeared. In some contemporary theologies, for instance, a certain rationalism is gaining ground, especially when opinions thought to be philosophically well founded are taken as normative for theological research. This happens particularly when theologians, through lack of philosophical competence, allow themselves to be swayed uncritically by assertions which have become part of current parlance and culture but which are poorly grounded in reason.

“There are also signs of a resurgence of fideism, which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God. One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a ‘biblicism‘ which 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 which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: ‘Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles’. Scripture, therefore, is not the Church’s sole point of reference. The ‘supreme rule of her 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.

“Moreover, one should not underestimate the danger inherent in seeking to derive the truth of Sacred Scripture from the use of one method alone, ignoring the need for a more comprehensive exegesis which enables the exegete, together with the whole Church, to arrive at the full sense of the texts. Those who devote themselves to the study of Sacred Scripture should always remember that the various hermeneutical approaches have their own philosophical underpinnings, which need to be carefully evaluated before they are applied to the sacred texts.

“Other modes of latent fideism appear in the scant consideration accorded to speculative theology, and in disdain for the classical philosophy from which the terms of both the understanding of faith and the actual formulation of dogma have been drawn. My revered Predecessor Pope Pius XII warned against such neglect of the philosophical tradition and against abandonment of the traditional terminology” (#55) [my italics].

  1. In #56 the Holy Father indicts ‘consensus’ theories of truth and indicates the intellectual threat posed by specialization. How can there be an ultimate and unifying meaning of life? “Nonetheless, in the light of faith which finds in Jesus Christ this ultimate meaning, I cannot but encourage philosophers–be they Christian or not–to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest in their philosophizing. The lesson of history in this millennium now drawing to a close shows that this is the path to follow: it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason” [my italics].

The Church’s interest in philosophy (57-63)

  1. The Magisterium has not just criticized philosophy, it has also worked for philosophical renewal. Here the Holy Father cites Aeterni Patris and its positive consequences. The Church continues to recommend St. Thomas and the other Scholastic writers. There were as well positive developments among Catholic thinkers outside of Thomism and neo-Thomism. (##57-59)
  2. Vatican II continued in this vein continues this tradition by providing in Gaudium et Spes 14-15 “a virtual compendium of the biblical anthropology from which philosophy too can draw inspiration. The chapter deals with the value of the human person created in the image of God, explains the dignity and superiority of the human being over the rest of creation, and declares the transcendent capacity of human reason” (#60). Further, Vatican II made clear the importance of philosophy for priestly formation.
  3. The directives on the value of Thomistic philosophy and on the importance of philosophy for priestly formation have been reiterated because they have not been followed “with the readiness one would wish ….. I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians” (#61). The Holy Father explains:

“There are various reasons for this disenchantment. First, there is the distrust of reason found in much contemporary philosophy, which has largely abandoned metaphysical study of the ultimate human questions in order to concentrate upon problems which are more detailed and restricted, at times even purely formal. Another reason, it should be said, is the misunderstanding which has arisen especially with regard to the ‘human sciences’. On a number of occasions, the Second Vatican Council stressed the positive value of scientific research for a deeper knowledge of the mystery of the human being. But the invitation addressed to theologians to engage the human sciences and apply them properly in their enquiries should not be interpreted as an implicit authorization to marginalize philosophy or to put something else in its place in pastoral formation and in the praeparatio fidei. A further factor is the renewed interest in the inculturation of faith. The life of the young Churches in particular has brought to light, together with sophisticated modes of thinking, an array of expressions of popular wisdom; and this constitutes a genuine cultural wealth of traditions. Yet the study of traditional ways must go hand in hand with philosophical enquiry, an enquiry which will allow the positive traits of popular wisdom to emerge and forge the necessary link with the proclamation of the Gospel” (#61) [my italics].

  1. Suarez’s Disputationes Metaphysicae is mentioned as an important example of how Lateran V’s insistence on philosophy in seminary education led to important steps in the development of modern philosophy.


The knowledge of faith and the demands of philosophical reason (64-74)

  1. Introduction: “The word of God is addressed to all people, in every age and in every part of the world; and the human being is by nature a philosopher. As a reflective and scientific elaboration of the understanding of God’s word in the light of faith, theology for its part must relate, in some of its procedures and in the performance of its specific tasks, to the philosophies which have been developed through the ages. I have no wish to direct theologians to particular methods, since that is not the competence of the Magisterium. I wish instead to recall some specific tasks of theology which, by the very nature of the revealed word, demand recourse to philosophical enquiry” (#64) [my italics].
  2. Theology as the intellectus fidei seeks to respond through speculative inquiry “to the specific demands of disciplined thought” (#65). This means that theology, beginning with the auditus fidei, must by its nature seek the sort of completeness and systematicity that any philosophical system demands. In other words, the formal properties of wisdom as delineated by classical philosophy are requirements for complete understanding which serve as ideals for theology as well. This does not exhaust theology, which has other sides as well, just as metaphysics and moral theory do not exhaust philosophy broadly construed. But it does mean that the metaphysical drive is present in the inner dynamic of theology itself.
  3. Philosophy aids both the auditus fidei and the intellectus fidei. The Holy Father here goes through the main branches of theology and shows the role of philosophy in each. Dogmatic (systematic) theology, he says, would be impossible without philosophy, since it must articulate the faith “through concepts formulated in a critical and universally communicable way” (#66). The same holds for moral theology, which needs philosophical concepts such as law, conscience, freedom, etc., “which are in part defined by philosophical ethics.” This is even more obvious with respect to fundamental theology, which aims to “expound the relationship between faith and philosophical thought” (#67). It must, for instance, delineate the range of the natural knowledge of God, articulate the distinction between divine revelation and other forms of human cognition, the nature of faith, the status of language about God, etc.
  4. Here the Holy Father counters the objection that nowadays the social sciences are more important aids to theology than are the philosophical disciplines. He emphasizes the duty of theology “to go beyond that particular and concrete, lest the prime task of demonstrating the universality of faith’s content be abandoned” (#69). It is precisely philosophical inquiry which can discern objective truth in different world-views and cultures.
  5. The Holy Father next spends ##70-73 discussing the relationship of philosophy and theology to different cultures, something that has always been on the Catholic agenda because of the universality of the Church and of the message and work of Christ. The Holy Father tries, as one would expect, to find a middle ground, emphasizing the importance of the contribution that different cultures can make to the understanding of Christian doctrine, while at the same time emphasizing the need for critical reflection, under the light of faith, to purify cultures and bring them to perfection according to the universal message of salvation. Christianity both “collapses the walls between cultures” and treasures the different lights that the various cultures can shed on the Christian message. “While it demands of all who hear it the adherence of faith, the proclamation of the Gospel in different cultures allows people to preserve their own cultural identity. This in no way creates division, because the community of the baptized is marked by a universality which can embrace every culture and help to foster whatever is implicit in them to the point where it will be fully explicit in the light of truth” (#71). The Holy Father singles out India especially as a culture which Christian thinkers should investigate more thoroughly.
  6. “In the light of these considerations, the relationship between theology and philosophy is best construed as a circle. Theology’s source and starting-point must always be the word of God revealed in history, while its final goal will be an understanding of that word which increases with each passing generation. Yet, since God’s word is Truth (cf. Jn 17:17), the human search for truth-philosophy, pursued in keeping with its own rules-can only help to understand God’s word better. It is not just a question of theological discourse using this or that concept or element of a philosophical construct; what matters most is that the believer’s reason use its powers of reflection in the search for truth which moves from the word of God towards a better understanding of it. It is as if, moving between the twin poles of God’s word and a better understanding of it, reason is offered guidance and is warned against paths which would lead it to stray from revealed Truth and to stray in the end from the truth pure and simple. Instead, reason is stirred to explore paths which of itself it would not even have suspected it could take. This circular relationship with the word of God leaves philosophy enriched, because reason discovers new and unsuspected horizons” (#73) [my italics].

Different stances of philosophy (75-79)

  1. Here the Holy Father distinguishes three different stances (status). The first is philosophy completely independent of Gospel revelation, as in the classical pagan philosophers and others, even today, who have not heard the Gospel. “We see here philosophy’s valid aspiration to be an autonomous enterprise, obeying its own rules and employing the powers of reason alone. Although seriously handicapped by the inherent weakness of human reason, this aspiration should be supported and strengthened. As a search for truth within the natural order, the enterprise of philosophy is always open-at least implicitly-to the supernatural” (#75). The criteria of rigor (systematicity) and completeness express philosophy’s aspiration to be universally valid. Almost immediately, however, the Holy Father distinguishes this autonomy from the self-sufficiency claimed for philosophy “by some modern philosophers.” (It would be worth exploring this notion of autonomy.)
  2. The second stance is Christian philosophy, a “philosophical speculation conceived in dynamic union with faith” (#76). This has both a subjective aspect, in which faith as a theological virtue purifies the individual’s reason and liberates the intellect from presumption, and an objective aspect, in the sense that faith gives us hints about truths which reason is capable of discovering but probably would not without the assistance of faith guiding it.
  3. The third stance is philosophy as called upon by theology. “As a work of critical reason in the light of faith, theology presupposes and requires in all its research a reason formed and educated to concept and argument. Moreover, theology needs philosophy as a partner in dialogue in order to confirm the intelligibility and universal truth of its claims. It was not by accident that the Fathers of the Church and the Medieval theologians adopted non-Christian philosophies. This historical fact confirms the value of philosophy’s autonomy, which remains unimpaired when theology calls upon it; but it shows as well the profound transformations which philosophy itself must undergo” (#77) [my italics].
  4. At this point the Holy Father makes a very interesting comment: “When it adopts this stance, philosophy, like theology, comes more directly under the authority of the Magisterium and its discernment, because of the implications it has for the understanding of Revelation, as I have already explained. The truths of faith make certain demands which philosophy must respect whenever it engages theology” (#77). This is significant because it indicates that the Catholic philosopher will sometimes naturally engage in theology, for in this third stance the distinction between philosophy as practiced in this context and systematic theology evaporates. Or that, at least, is the way I read it. So, for instance, if I as a Catholic philosopher am writing a piece on the metaphysics of the Incarnation, then I am engaging in a properly theological task and also, within this third stance, a properly philosophical task. Here the distinction between doing philosophy and doing theology breaks down, even though philosophy as a whole contains extra-theological elements and theology as a whole contains extra-philosophical elements. The Holy Father then invokes St. Thomas as the “authentic model for all who seek the truth ….. In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason” (#78).

Now the Holy Father sets the stage for the next chapter by “developing further what the Magisterium before me has taught” and boldly pointing out “certain requirements which theology ….. makes today of philosophical thinking and contemporary philosophies.” He continues: “As I have already noted, philosophy must obey its own rules and be based upon its own principles; truth, however, can only be one. The content of Revelation can never debase the discoveries and legitimate autonomy of reason. Yet, conscious that it cannot set itself up as an absolute and exclusive value, reason on its part must never lose its capacity to question and to be questioned. By virtue of the splendour emanating from subsistent Being itself, revealed truth offers the fullness of light and will therefore illumine the path of philosophical enquiry. In short, Christian Revelation becomes the true point of encounter and engagement between philosophical and theological thinking in their reciprocal relationship. It is to be hoped therefore that theologians and philosophers will let themselves be guided by the authority of truth alone so that there will emerge a philosophy consonant with the word of God. Such a philosophy will be a place where Christian faith and human cultures may meet, a point of understanding between believer and non-believer. It will help lead believers to a stronger conviction that faith grows deeper and more authentic when it is wedded to thought and does not reject it” (#79) [my italics].
The indispensable requirements of the word of God (80-91)

  1. “The fundamental conviction of the ‘philosophy’ found in the Bible is that the world and human life do have a meaning and look towards their fulfilment, which comes in Jesus Christ. The mystery of the Incarnation will always remain the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself. The challenge of this mystery pushes philosophy to its limits, as reason is summoned to make its own a logic which brings down the walls within which it risks being confined. Yet only at this point does the meaning of life reach its defining moment. The intimate essence of God and of the human being become intelligible: in the mystery of the Incarnate Word, human nature and divine nature are safeguarded in all their autonomy, and at the same time the unique bond which sets them together in mutuality without confusion of any kind is revealed” (#80) [my italics]. This is a pretty bold challenge to the world of professional philosophy. “You philosophers feel marginalized out there? Well, here’s where you’ve gone wrong.” But it’s important to remember that Plato wouldn’t be very satisfied with the present state of professional philosophy, either.
  2. The Holy Father takes us to be in a crisis of meaning, both because of the pervasive pessimism with respect to reason and because of the fragmentation of the academic disciplines. As he puts it, “This makes the search for meaning difficult and often fruitless ….. and can easily lead to scepticism, indifference or various forms of nihilism” (#81). This drives us further within our selves in “an ever deepening introversion” without an opening to the transcendent and self-transcendent. So the first thing that philosophy must do is “recover its sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life …… this sapiential dimension is all the more necessary today, because the immense expansion of humanity’s technical capability demands a renewed and sharpened sense of ultimate values” (ibid.)
  3. This leads to the second requirement, viz., “that philosophy verify the human capacity to know the truth, to come to a knowledge which can reach objective truth by means of that adaequatio rei et intellectus to which the Scholastic Doctors referred ….. Sacred Scripture always assumes that the individual, even if guilty of duplicity and mendacity, can know and grasp the clear and simple truth” (#82).
  4. The first two requirements entail a third: “the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth. This requirement is implicit in sapiential and analytical knowledge alike; and in particular it is a requirement for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself ….. In this sense, metaphysics should not be seen as an alternative to anthropology, since it is metaphysics which makes it possible to ground the concept of personal dignity in virtue of their spiritual nature” (#83)
  5. “We cannot stop short at experience alone; even if experience does reveal the human being’s interiority and spirituality, speculative thinking must penetrate to the spiritual core and the ground from which it rises. Therefore, a philosophy which shuns metaphysics would be radically unsuited to the task of mediation in the understanding of Revelation ….. A theology without a metaphysical horizon could not move beyond an analysis of religious experience, nor would it allow the intellectus fidei to give a coherent account of the universal and transcendent value of revealed truth. If I insist so strongly on the metaphysical element, it is because I am convinced that it is the path to be taken in order to move beyond the crisis pervading large sectors of philosophy at the moment, and thus to correct certain mistaken modes of behaviour now widespread in our society” (#83).
  6. Likewise, we cannot stop short at hermeneutics. We need to get beyond the text to the reality it signifies. This is just another indication of a general loss of 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 this not so, the word of God, which is always a divine word in human language, would not be capable of saying anything about God. The interpretation of this word cannot merely keep referring us to one interpretation after another, without ever leading us to a statement which is simply true; otherwise there would be no Revelation of God, but only the expression of human notions about God and about what God presumably thinks of us” (#84).
  7. This is a lot for the world of professional philosophy, and the Holy Father is well aware of this. Once again, the theme of the unity of knowledge emerges clearly: ” I am well aware that these requirements which the word of God imposes upon philosophy may seem daunting to many people involved in philosophical research today. Yet this is why, taking up what has been taught repeatedly by the Popes for several generations and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council itself, I wish to reaffirm strongly the conviction that the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge. This is one of the tasks which Christian thought will have to take up through the next millennium of the Christian era. The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people today from coming to an interior unity. How could the Church not be concerned by this? It is the Gospel which imposes this sapiential task directly upon her Pastors, and they cannot shrink from their duty to undertake it” (#85). The only solution is for philosophers to identify themselves as part of the 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 and contemporary thought” (ibid.). In summary, the Holy Father puts it this way: “In the present situation, therefore, it is most significant that some philosophers are promoting a recovery of the determining role of this tradition for a right approach to knowledge. The appeal to tradition is not a mere remembrance of the past; it involves rather the recognition of a cultural heritage which belongs to all of humanity. Indeed it may be said that it is we who belong to the tradition and that it is not ours to dispose of at will. Precisely by being rooted in the tradition will we be able today to develop for the future an original, new and constructive mode of thinking. This same appeal is all the more valid for theology. Not only because theology has the living Tradition of the Church as its original source, (104) but also because, in virtue of this, it must be able to recover both the profound theological tradition of earlier times and the enduring tradition of that philosophy which by dint of its authentic wisdom can transcend the boundaries of space and time” (ibid).
  8. The dangers to which philosophical work is prone: (i) eclecticism, which is not enough concerned with internal coherence and historical coherence (#86); (ii) historicism, which denies the “enduring validity of truth”(#87); (iii) scientism, which limits absolute truth to the findings of the positive sciences and relegates other knowledge claims to the “realm of mere fantasy” (#88)–the Holy Father sees positivism as re-emerging as the modern rejection of value in favor of technology; (iv) pragmatism, with its disdain for a thick concept of the common good and of the moral good in favor of majority rule; and nihilism, which is the result of the other four and constitutes the rejection of “the meaningfulness of being … the denial of all foundations and the negation of all objective truth” (#90). Nihilism as a cultural phenomenon, leads people “little by little either to a destructive will to power or to a solitude without hope. Once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free. Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery” (ibid.).
  9. #91, an assessment of the present state of philosophy, is worth quoting in full:

“In discussing these currents of thought, it has not been my intention to present a complete picture of the present state of philosophy, which would, in any case, be difficult to reduce to a unified vision. And I certainly wish to stress that our heritage of knowledge and wisdom has indeed been enriched in different fields. We need only cite logic, the philosophy of language, epistemology, the philosophy of nature, anthropology, the more penetrating analysis of the affective dimensions of knowledge and the existential approach to the analysis of freedom. Since the last century, however, the affirmation of the principle of immanence, central to the rationalist argument, has provoked a radical requestioning of claims once thought indisputable. In response, currents of irrationalism arose, even as the baselessness of the demand that reason be absolutely self-grounded was being critically demonstrated.

“Our age has been termed by some thinkers the age of “postmodernity”. Often used in very different contexts, the term designates the emergence of a complex of new factors which, widespread and powerful as they are, have shown themselves able to produce important and lasting changes. The term was first used with reference to aesthetic, social and technological phenomena. It was then transposed into the philosophical field, but has remained somewhat ambiguous, both because judgement on what is called “postmodern” is sometimes positive and sometimes negative, and because there is as yet no consensus on the delicate question of the demarcation of the different historical periods. One thing however is certain: the currents of thought which claim to be postmodern merit appropriate attention. According to some of them, the time of certainties is irrevocably past, and the human being must now learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning, where everything is provisional and ephemeral. In their destructive critique of every certitude, several authors have failed to make crucial distinctions and have called into question the certitudes of faith.

This nihilism has been justified in a sense by the terrible experience of evil which has marked our age. Such a dramatic experience has ensured the collapse of rationalist optimism, which viewed history as the triumphant progress of reason, the source of all happiness and freedom; and now, at the end of this century, one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair.

“Even so, it remains true that a certain positivist cast of mind continues to nurture the illusion that, thanks to scientific and technical progress, man and woman may live as a demiurge, single-handedly and completely taking charge of their destiny.” [my italics]

Current tasks for theology (92-99)

  1. The Holy Father now moves on to theology, though philosophy remains prominent even here because of its contributions to hermeneutical theory and because of the central role the Holy Father attributes to metaphysics in theology. Vatican II gave theology the twofold task of (i) renewing its specific methods in order to serve evangelization and (ii) looking to the ultimate truth and never being content to stop short of it. It is this second task that implicates metaphysics, with its claims to universally valid truth. The Holy Father adds, in reply to those who find the apologetic task morally questionable: “To believe it possible to know a universally valid truth is in no way to encourage intolerance; on the contrary, it is the essential condition for sincere and authentic dialogue between persons. On this basis alone is it possible to overcome divisions and to journey together towards full truth, walking those paths known only to the Spirit of the Risen Lord” (#92).
  2. The chief purpose of theology is to “provide an understanding of Revelation and the content of faith” (#93). This involves, first of all, the interpretation of texts–Sacred Scripture and the texts of the teaching Tradition of the Church. Here good philosophy must play a central role if we are to avoid errors and see these texts as having a meaning in and for the history of salvation. The word of God has a universality which transcends the particular times and cultures in which it is articulated. This enduring validity extends to the conceptual language used in Conciliar definitions (##95-96). The Holy Father adds: “This is a complex theme to ponder, since one must reckon seriously with the meaning which words assume in different times and cultures. Nonetheless, the history of thought shows that across the range of cultures and their development certain basic concepts retain their universal epistemological value and thus retain the truth of the propositions in which they are expressed. (113) Were this not the case, philosophy and the sciences could not communicate with each other, nor could they find a place in cultures different from those in which they were conceived and developed. The hermeneutical problem exists, to be sure; but it is not insoluble. Moreover, the objective value of many concepts does not exclude that their meaning is often imperfect. This is where philosophical speculation can be very helpful. We may hope, then, that philosophy will be especially concerned to deepen the understanding of the relationship between conceptual language and truth, and to propose ways which will lead to a right understanding of that relationship” (#96).
  3. Even more vital than the interpretation of sources is “the understanding of revealed truth, or the articulation of the intellectus fidei.” After dismissing as already refuted the functional interpretation of doctrines, the Holy Father asserts, “If the intellectus fidei wishes to integrate all the wealth of the theological tradition, it must turn to the philosophy of being, which should be able to propose anew the problem of being–and this in harmony with the demands and insights of the entire philosophical tradition, including philosophy of more recent times, without lapsing into sterile repetition of antiquated formulas. Set within the Christian metaphysical tradition, the philosophy of being is a dynamic philosophy which views reality in its ontological, causal and communicative structures. It is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself, which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole, surpassing every limit in order to reach the One who brings all things to fulfilment. In theology, which draws its principles from Revelation as a new source of knowledge, this perspective is confirmed by the intimate relationship which exists between faith and metaphysical reasoning” (#97).
  4. He then reaffirms this sentiment for the case of moral theology: “In order to fulfil its mission, moral theology must turn to a philosophical ethics which looks to the truth of the good, to an ethics which is neither subjectivist nor utilitarian. Such an ethics implies and presupposes a philosophical anthropology and a metaphysics of the good. Drawing on this organic vision, linked necessarily to Christian holiness and to the practice of the human and supernatural virtues, moral theology will be able to tackle the various problems in its competence, such as peace, social justice, the family, the defence of life and the natural environment, in a more appropriate and effective way” (#98) [my italics].
  5. At this point, the Holy Father makes the important connection between theology and catechetics, insisting that “theological work in the Church is first of all at the service of the proclamation of the faith and of catechesis” and that “catechesis has philosophical implications which must be explored more deeply in the light of faith” (#99). Catechesis has as its primary goal the doctrinal and spiritual formation of the person. So catechesis must present the Church’s doctrine in its fullness and connect it with the life of faith. Here philosophy can articulate the connection between doctrina (or veritas) and vita.

CONCLUSION (100-108)

  1. The Holy Father explains that he has felt a need to deal “in a more systematic way” with the relation between faith and philosophy a hundred years after Aeterni Patris: “The importance of philosophical thought in the development of culture and its influence on patterns of personal and social behaviour is there for all to see. In addition, philosophy exercises a powerful, though not always obvious, influence on theology and its disciplines. For these reasons, I have judged it appropriate and necessary to emphasize the value of philosophy for the understanding of the faith, as well as the limits which philosophy faces when it neglects or rejects the truths of Revelation. The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason mutually support each other” (#100). Theology must recover its true relationship with philosophy, but it is just as important that philosophy recover its true relationship with theology.
  2. #102-104 emphasize the importance of philosophy as both the cause and effect of culture. Philosophy can inspire people to discover “both their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life” (#102). Further, as a “mirror of culture,” philosophy is essential to the new evangelization that Pope Paul VI called for and, indeed, philosophy is often necessary as a ground for understanding and dialogue between believers and non-believers: “Reflecting in the light of reason and in keeping with its rules, and guided always by the deeper understanding given them by the word of God, Christian philosophers can develop a reflection which will be both comprehensible and appealing to those who do not yet grasp the full truth which divine Revelation declares. Such a ground for understanding and dialogue is all the more vital nowadays, since the most pressing issues facing humanity-ecology, peace and the co-existence of different races and cultures, for instance-may possibly find a solution if there is a clear and honest collaboration between Christians and the followers of other religions and all those who, while not sharing a religious belief, have at heart the renewal of humanity” (#104).
  3. The Holy Father ends with separate appeals to theologians, philosophers, and scientists.

    To theologians he says: “The intimate bond between theological and philosophical wisdom is one of the Christian tradition’s most distinctive treasures in the exploration of revealed truth. This is why I urge [theologians] to recover and express to the full the metaphysical dimension of truth in order to enter into a demanding critical dialogue with both contemporary philosophical thought and with the philosophical tradition in all its aspects, whether consonant with the word of God or not. Let theologians always remember the words of that great master of thought and spirituality, Saint Bonaventure, who in introducing his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum invites the reader to recognize 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 Holy Father then adds a few words aimed especially at those involved in priestly formation.

    To philosophers and, significantly, teachers of philosophy he says: “[I ask] them to have the courage to recover, in the flow of an enduringly valid philosophical tradition, the range of authentic wisdom and truth–metaphysical truth included–which is proper to philosophical enquiry. They should be open to the impelling questions which arise from the word of God and they should be strong enough to shape their thought and discussion in response to that challenge” (#106).

    To scientists he says: “In expressing my admiration and in offering encouragement to these brave pioneers of scientific research, to whom humanity owes so much of its current development, I would urge them to continue their efforts without ever abandoning the sapiential horizon within which scientific and technological achievements are wedded to the philosophical and ethical values which are the distinctive and indelible mark of the human person” (#106)

    Before invoking the assistance Mary, Seat of Wisdom, at the very end, the Holy Father urges “everyone to look more deeply at man, whom Christ has saved in the mystery of his love, and at the human being’s unceasing search for truth and meaning. Different philosophical systems have lured people into believing that they are their own absolute master, able to decide their own destiny and future in complete autonomy, trusting only in themselves and their own powers. But this can never be the grandeur of the human being, who can find fulfilment only in choosing to enter the truth, to make a home under the shade of Wisdom and dwell there. Only within this horizon of truth will people understand their freedom in its fullness and their call to know and love God as the supreme realization of their true self” (#108).



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