Cardinal Ratzinger presents John Paul II's latest encyclical

Cardinal Ratzinger presents John Paul II's latest encyclical

Michael Gilchrist

'Faith and Reason' assails modern philosophy's nihilism

Pope John Paul II's 13th and latest encyclical - Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) - was presented at the Holy See's Press Office by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 15 October (see analysis on pp. 10-11). It was the Pope's first encyclical since Ut Unum Sint in 1995, which dealt with ecumenism.

In his address, Cardinal Ratzinger explained that the encyclical "summons all people, given that every person harbours the desire to know the truth and to find answers to the basic questions of existence." The central matter of the encyclical, he said, was "the question of truth, ... the basic question ... which spans all eras and seasons of life and of the history of humanity."

The Cardinal continued: "The general cultural and philosophical climate today denies the capacity of human reason to know the truth, and reduces rationality to being simply instrumental, utilitarian, functional, calculating or sociological. In this way philosophy loses its metaphysical dimension and the model of human and empirical sciences becomes the parameter and criterion of rationality ... In the face of this cultural situation the encyclical's message responds, proposing again, strongly and with conviction, the capacity of reason to know God and to arrive at ... the basic truths of existence."

In the weeks following its presentation, Faith and Reason prompted relatively little media coverage or controversy - as had been the case with Veritatis Splendor and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Perhaps the absence of references to contraception or a male-only priesthood left many journalists and commentators bereft of much to sink their teeth into. In any case, the encyclical's intellectual depth did not lend itself readily to simplistic analysis.

Such media comment as there was tended to be favourable, with The Weekend Australian taking the opportunity to comment on the Holy Father's 20-year reign in complimentary terms: "... what none deny him is an intellect and spirit which towers over most of his contemporaries. In his encyclical, Fides et Ratio - Faith and Reason - issued on the eve of his anniversary of election ... the Pope assails post-modernism."

Britain's Guardian Weekly, however, while conceding the positive aspects of the Papal encyclical, claimed these only emphasised what it saw as 'contradictions' in John Paul II's pontificate. It was admitted that Faith and Reason was "an impassioned call for humanity to remember unfashionable concepts of idealism, beauty, truth and goodness" in the face of "a nihilistic culture of despair," and "an optimistic, generous document which, while unapologetically holding to Christian truth, believes that truth will be enriched by a dialogue with other faiths."

On the other hand, the Weekly continued, "the record of the Church over the past two decades is strikingly at odds with the message of Fides et Ratio."

The London Times described the encyclical as underlining "the doctrinal absolutism that has been a hallmark of [John Paul II's] papacy." This was shown in his reference to modern philosophy dealing in "partial and provisional truths," whereas only Christianity offered "absolute moral truth."

On a more positive note, the London Telegraph noted that "Roman Catholic critics of what they see as John Paul II's conservative papacy suggested that the latest encyclical shows a greater openness and readiness to engage in dialogue with other cultures and philosophies." John Wilkins, editor of the liberal English Catholic weekly, The Tablet, was quoted as observing: "The Pope thinks that philosophy should be concerned not with the meaning of words but the meaning of life. He thinks that the Western world has become too trivial, particularly his homeland, Poland, under capitalism."

The Tablet subsequently provided a detailed summary of the encyclical and elsewhere cited the favourable observations of Dr Janet Martin- Soskice from the School of Divinity in Cambridge University during a press conference with Cardinal Hume. Dr Martin-Soskice, a former president of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, said that the Pope had quite rightly "rapped modern philosophers over the knuckles" for not being brave enough to ask the "big" questions about "being" and the meaning of life. She argued that the Pope was well aware that this was an era "marked by a crisis of meaning."

Absolute truth

The Chicago Tribune columnist, Steve Kloehn, reported positively on the encyclical, describing it as "an important restatement of the Church's belief in absolute truth, against a culture that doubts not only human ability to find that truth, but truth's very existence." The Pope, Kloehn writes, "argues that philosophy needs God, and the Church needs philosophy, if either is to survive the frenetic pace and intellectual fragmentation of society at the end of the millennium."

Philip Lawler, Editor of the US religious monthly, Catholic World Report, noted that Pope John Paul II "provides a pithy summary of the errors that infect contemporary philosophical research" so that "having lost sight of the need for ultimate truth," the Holy Father observes that "'individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as persons ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all ... Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned'."

Ireland's national weekly, The Irish Catholic, published a detailed analysis of Faith and Reason by Fr Seamus Murphy SJ, a lecturer in moral philosophy at the Milltown Institute. Fr Murphy described the encyclical as "a statement of the basic principles underlying Catholic teaching. It is about the connection between faith and reason: the age-old Catholic doctrine that faith and reason (philosophy, science, etc.) need each other ...".

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