End Notes: Cum Maria Philosophari

When Leo XIII issued Aeterni Patris in 1879 he set in motion a revival of Catholic philosophy and theology that had in Thomas Aquinas its great model and paladin. The urgency of the encyclical can only be understood against the background of those decades during which the Magisterium fashioned an ever more profound critique of modernity. The beleaguered Pius IX, who had been forced to preside over the dissolution of the papal states, ticked off in a Syllabus of Errors where human thought had gone awry.

A glance at philosophical developments through the 19th century makes clear that Pius IX was not being paranoid in seeing cultural forces arrayed against the Church. Doubtless Leo hoped that internal as well as external confusion would be quelled by the return to Thomas. But his successor Pius X was confronted with that mother of all heresies, modernism. Then and since, modernists and theological liberals have known that Thomas was their enemy.

Comes now John Paul II with Fides et Ratio, a magnificent document that could be called the charter for Thomism in the third millennium. It appears when by common consent secular philosophy is bankrupt, when relativism and nihilism have become academically chic, when it is reason, not faith, that has lost adherents. The silly notion that Vatican II deposed Thomas Aquinas rings hollow, as all the claims of the paracouncil do. The folly of those moral theologians who urged the Church to welcome the sexual revolution needs no comment. John Cardinal Newman came to think that there was only one choice, the choice between Catholicism and atheism. Now the choice has become Catholicism or nonsense.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Fides et Ratio is the spectacle of the bishop of Rome coming to the defense of reason. His chief custody is of course the deposit of faith, but as this encyclical emphasizes, faith presupposes reason. Once there were those who boasted and others who feared that reason was the enemy of faith. Now the faith is the only friend reason still has.

The Magisterium has long been the lone voice defending the most fundamental moral principles, precepts so obvious that only a mind clouded by confusion or muddled by sin could fail to recognize them. Freedom divorced from truth is but a way station on the road to slavery. A society that does not acknowledge the sanctity of life is already a tyranny. Students of Suetonius and Gibbon and devotees of I, Claudius are not surprised to see the meltdown of western culture accompanied by a pervasive sexual perversity. The ultimate “ta-ta” to reason is made with a wave of a limp wrist.

Fides et Ratio makes clear that the Magisterium is the final defender of speculative as well as practical reason. It is the mind’s ability to know reality that is doubted now, not just by jaded epistemologists in the privacy of their studies, but by nattering politicians and esthetes, by authors of op-ed pieces. Addressed to his brother bishops and through them, to the faithful and then to all men, Fides et Ratio is receiving a surprisingly attentive response. But it is the response of Catholic philosophers and theologians, and via them of Catholic colleges and universities, that will determine the shape of the third millennium.

Sustained by the ambience of the faith, human reason can regain its strength and self-confidence. The pursuit of truth, natural and supernatural, has to take place within the context of man’s pursuit of the happiness for which he was created. It is this truth that we have lost sight of in the academy. Jacques Maritain plucked from John of St. Thomas the motto: Philosophandum in fide—One must philosophize in the ambiance of the faith. Maritain did not think of this as a personal motto: It was the very charter of the successful use of reason.

We have come to expect that anything written by John Paul II will end with reference to Mary. And so it is with Fides et Ratio. The degree of surprise, perhaps even uneasiness, we may feel on reading the final paragraph of Fides et Ratio can be an indication of how secularized our minds have become. Holy monks once saw in Mary a lucid image of true philosophy and thereby “they were convinced of the need cum Maria philosophari.” The analogy drawn between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and that of the philosopher is one calling for prolonged reflection:

May Mary, Seat of Wisdom, be a sure haven for all who devote their lives to the search for wisdom. May their journey into wisdom, sure and final goal of all true knowing, be freed from every hindrance by the intercession of the one who, in giving birth to the Truth and treasuring it in her heart, has shared it forever with the world.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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