The Reason for Reason: Fides et Ratio

Fides et Ratio has already prompted some commentators to observe the irony of the Church’s efforts to educate the modern mind. At the end of the last century, the popes had to defend the legitimacy of supernatural faith against the pretensions of secular rationalism; now, at the end of the 20th century, it takes a pope to defend reason against unreason.

However, something suggests that the Holy Father himself was not dwelling on the dramatic contrasts between his pontificate and some earlier papal moments. Recall that he signed his 13th encyclical on September 14, 1998, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The pope, it seems, published Fides et Ratio on this feast day because he conceives of the text as a prolonged and powerful reflection on what Christ’s cross accomplishes for the human race. If this is true, then the encyclical is about reconciliation. This biblical theme unites the many arguments and exhortations of John Paul II’s extraordinarily rich teaching on faith and reason.

Bringing the Hostility to an End

Fides et Ratio exhorts us to search passionately for the truth. Because he wants everyone to be prepared to accept the universality of faith’s content, John Paul II urges the human race to seek “what the objective truth is” (69). In other words, he proclaims a truth that is meant to encompass the whole world. This explains his insistence that the power of the Cross can never be compromised, even when the Gospel encounters unfamiliar cultural circumstances. While addressing this question of diversity, the pope appeals to a New Testament text that seems to be the key to interpreting the whole encyclical. The Letter to the Ephesians (70) confirms the purpose of Christ’s mission:

He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end (Eph 2: 14-16).

Fides et Ratio describes how this reconciliation works in the intelligent creature.

Like any document of the Magisterium, this encyclical aims to promote the pastoral care of souls. Because no one can embrace the divine mysteries of our redemption without first having discovered them, John Paul II clearly affirms that philosophy is a form of human adventure that lies open to every person. Just as all are called to believe, so all are invited to think about what they either do, or should, believe. Philosophy may no longer play the role of an ancilla, but it still serves as a pedagogue. One distinction must be maintained, however: Even when transformed by a higher perspective, philosophy remains a work proper to human reason. This encyclical is not directed solely to professional philosophers and theologians; the pope declares that all humans engage in philosophical enquiry, even if only by posing the simplest questions about our human origins and destiny. In the very first sentence of the encyclical, Pope John Paul reminds the bishops of the Catholic Church (to whom, significantly, this encyclical is addressed) that God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth so that “by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Fides et Ratio is itself a document of faith whose most important lesson springs from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so we should conclude that the principal reconciliation the pope aims to promote is the one that only Christ communicates to the members of the human race. It is not happenstance that in the encyclical’s first chapter, the pope cites Gaudium et Spes 22: “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” The pope goes on to acknowledge specifically the centrality of this conciliar theme in his teaching (60). GS 22 is like a beacon that illumines everything the pope writes. In Fides et Ratio John Paul II pleads for a philosophy that is also a true wisdom, so that people will come to realize that their humanity is all the more affirmed when they entrust themselves to the Gospel and open themselves to Christ. Such a self-donation leads to the first and indispensable reconciliation required of all human beings, the one that occurs between God and man. Each year, the Church celebrates this triumph for the human race on September 14.

The encyclical affirms that whenever the Church insists on the importance and true range of philosophical thought, she promotes both the defense of human dignity and the proclamation of the Gospel message. This ministerial service enables people to discover both their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life. Since Fides et Ratio promotes a kind of self-discovery that is entirely consistent with Christian ethics, it would be difficult to imagine a more felicitous message to all persons of good will.

But not everyone is happy. In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, John McLaughland wondered why some professional intellectuals greeted an encyclical that encouraged promotion of personal dignity with suspicion instead of appreciation. “For what,” asserted McLaughland, “is precisely so remarkable about the encyclical, which is in reality a gently worded discourse on the state of modern philosophy, is that it repeatedly insists that the Church does not canonize any particular philosophy. Instead it argues simply that philosophy is losing its way if it abandons the basic premise that human beings have a capacity to ascertain truth, whatever that truth may be.” It takes the secular press to point out that some persons have developed strategies for protecting themselves against a definitive personal commitment to truth. Certain circles of modern philosophy provide these hesitant pilgrims exactly what they need to avoid answering the urgent questions that the pope highlights in Fides et Ratio. No wonder John Paul II regrets that people no longer seek “to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal, and social existence” (5). And he is not thinking only of Catholics.

The void appears especially in academic settings, where the separation of faith and reason has reached dramatic proportions. The encyclical is meant for everyone, but it would he naive not to recognize that the pope clearly has professional philosophers and theologians in mind when he sets down guidelines for pursuing their sciences well. We are invited to follow a philosophical enquiry undertaken by the first pope who himself has studied modern philosophy professionally. Like a good father in Christ, the pope wants to explain to us—not just tell us—what he finds wrong with some directions in modern philosophy and theology. In the little syllabus of errors embedded in Fides et Ratio (86-91), the pope points out the hazards of, among other things, “eclecticism.” Here we recognize another plea for reconciliation. This time, John Paul II calls for a reconciliation between the theological disciplines—especially as practiced within the setting of seminaries, ecclesiastical faculties, and Catholic colleges—and the truth of the Catholic faith. And he makes a similar appeal mutatis mutandis to philosophers, especially when he stresses the importance of metaphysics (83-84).

Philosopher Pope

Fides et Ratio exhibits the pope’s considerable powers of synthesis at work; we see the fruit of his own reconciliation of faith and reason. A diocesan priest who is personally acquainted with John Paul II remarked of the encyclical, “This is what he would have been doing with his life if he had not become pope.” His latest encyclical also continues a discussion that dates back 20 years to the beginning of his pontificate and, in a way, recapitulates the entire post-conciliar Magisterium of John Paul II. For instance, the theme of Christian reconciliation emerges in the pope’s first encyclical Redemptor Hominis (1979), again in Mater Redemptoris (1987), and, more recently, in Veritatis Splendor (1993). Each of these encyclicals—and the eight others not mentioned—explains in one way or another the reconciliation that the pope believes must occur at the center of the human drama. John Paul II sees that every sphere of human life requires Christ’s work of “bringing the hostility to an end.”

Exploring the mystery of reconciliation opens up many different ways of examining the central question that the Incarnation imposes on every Christian believer. Put briefly, what is the relationship between nature and grace? In Mater Redemptoris, Pope John Paul II presents the Blessed Virgin Mary as an icon of the reconciliation that God achieves between what is authentically and intrinsically human, and what is bestowed gratuitously on the baptized. In this encyclical devoted to the Mother of the Redeemer, the pope explains further that “motherhood ‘in the order of grace’ preserves the analogy with what ‘in the order of nature’ characterizes the union between mother and child” (45). The image of the Virgin and Child concretely shows that the divine will is to save every human being and, at the same time, draws us into the reconciliation that is already fully realized in Mary.

It should come as no surprise, then, that even Fides et Ratio, with its references to some very specialized issues in the history of philosophy, closes with the invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary—a hallmark of John Paul II’s pastoral writings and addresses. In this peroration, the pope recalls that the holy monks of Christian antiquity referred to Mary as “the table at which faith sits in thought.” In the Blessed Virgin Mary, the pope continues, “they saw a lucid image of true philosophy, and they were convinced of the need to philosophari in Maria” (108). John Paul II himself is persuaded that “to philosophize in Mary” alone ensures that a thinking person will come to a full knowledge of the truth. For him, Mary embodies that “path of life” (Ps. 16:11) to which both philosophy and theology point. The attainment of this ultimate goal, affirms Fides et Ratio, lies open only to the person who like Mary assents in faith to divine revelation.

The pope’s close attachment to the Mother of God explains why he does not hesitate to tell the world about the importance of getting philosophy straight. In championing reason, the pope raises issues that touch every aspect of philosophical and theological investigation. He focuses on the relationship between philosophy and the human good: “It should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity” (90). At the same time, he encourages fruitful exchange among persons who hold different views, another form of reconciliation: “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” (92). One of John Paul II’s greatest achievements is putting dialogue in the service of the Gospel. By making dialogue an outstanding feature of what he calls Christian philosophy, the pope rescues this uniquely human form of exchange from becoming a tool of relativism and individualism. But not any sort of dialogue will do. For dialogue to achieve the reconciliation that Fides et Ratio desires, at least one of the partners in dialogue must understand that the Church already possesses in its fullness the truth which she still strives as a body to attain. This consideration returns us to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who stands at the center of the Church because she already possesses all that we hope to become.

 The Sacraments of Reconciliation

When Fides et Ratio (98) asserts that the crisis of truth is linked to the current crisis in morality, the encyclical returns to a central theme developed in Veritatis Splendor. There the pope makes the political claim that without a consensus about objective truth, the foundations of free society will erode. Two years later, he went on to point out a significant indication of this wholesale threat to the human good, namely, the culture of death. So dire are our present circumstances that in Evangelium Vitae, he made the bold assertion that, today, God must shore up reason, because the eclipse of God has impaired the human. We should remember that both Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae not only supply instruction about the moral life but also contain diverse calls for reconciliation, an indication of the connection that the pope sees between the pursuit of truth and the good of human society. While the gentle and consoling words that the pope addresses to women who have had abortions are among the most powerful expressions of this call, the invitation to seek reconciliation is meant for the whole Church. No one escapes the need for this divine beneficence, except the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was preserved from the sinful fragmentation that first set up “the wall of hostility.”

In the 1984 post-synodal exhortation, “On Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today,” the pope addressed the most precious form of reconciliation: the sacramental gift of Penance. The exhortation begins by recounting the parable of the Prodigal Son. What is most significant about this post-synodal exhortation is the fact that as early as the mid-’80s the main theme of Fides et Ratio already appeared in John Paul II’s teaching. The exhortation clearly states the fundamental connection between truth and reconciliation: “The Church promotes reconciliation in the truth, knowing well that neither reconciliation nor unity is possible outside of or in opposition to the truth” (9). One could even wonder whether the pope first conceived Fides et Ratio in the confessional, that sacred place where any penitent with the right dispositions can come forward and, in the person of the priest, meet the reconciling Christ. If this hypothesis is true, then it is not too far-fetched to think that the latest encyclical of John Paul II provides still another way of his saying, “Do not fear! Open your doors to Christ!”

St. Edith Stein makes an appearance in Fides et Ratio as a paradigm of faithful philosophical enquiry. Edith Stein offers a challenge to women and men to pass beyond the constraints imposed on our created and sin-affected human reason, and to welcome the full truth of the Gospel. In his diocesan paper, Cardinal Bernard Law expressed this view: “Edith Stein appears in the encyclical as an example of one whose work in philosophy led her to the Truth and, in a mystery of divine providence that must strike us all with awe, ultimately led her to a unique share in the Holy Cross of Christ.” Her martyrdom confirms the possibility of achieving even the most difficult reconciliations.

The witness of Edith Stein also alerts us to the sense of urgency that we find in Fides et Ratio. In the month following the publication of the encyclical, the pope made this plea explicit in an address at the Pontifical Urban University. There he announced “not only the necessity but the urgency” of bringing faith and reason together. Philosophy should not be a study only for specialists, he explained, but should play a role in the formation of conscience for all Christians. After all, “only in Christ is it possible to know the fullness of the truth which saves” (98). As the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 approaches, the pope continues to urge reconciliation so that everyone will be ready for the special graces the celebration promises. But what is the source of his confidence? St. Paul put it simply when he reminded the Corinthians, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”


  • Rev. Romanus Cessario, O.P.

    Rev. Romanus Cessario, O.P., is a Dominican and professor of systematic theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts.

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