John Paul II's new encyclical 'Faith and Reason' analysed

John Paul II's new encyclical 'Faith and Reason' analysed

Hayden Ramsay

Reviving the great tradition of Catholic philosophy

Why should the Pope choose to mark the twentieth anniversary of his pontificate with an encyclical letter on philosophy? Is not philosophy a matter of abstract thought carried on by an élite few, with no reference to the lives of ordinary people? Does he not owe us another encyclical on the great social and political problems of the day, adding to the series which includes Laborem Exercens, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae and so many others?

Here are four reasons why the philosopher-pope believes Church and society in 1998 urgently need sound philosophy.

Every one of us wants knowledge of the truth for ourselves and our families. No one is content to swallow ignorance, superstition or deceit once it is known as such, or to have loved ones caught up in these. Lofty though it sounds, those who struggle to educate their children, to maintain independence of thought in our media-culture, to continue to read and study, when pulp entertainment would be so much easier, are committed to discovering the truth.

Service of the truth

The Church in partnership with others has the duty to help us in this task: diakonia (service of the truth) is one of her great works. In this work she offers first and foremost the revelation of truth in Scripture, Tradition and recent Magisterium, but she has other resources too and one of these is philosophy.

Philosophy is not only an academic discipline carried on by university professors: for the Pope distinguishes the philosophical systems and debates of professional philosophers from philosophical enquiry which is carried on by all people at some stage in their lives. All of us ask at some point: "Does life have a meaning? Where is it going? Is there a God, and why does He allow such great sufferings? Are some things true or is everything a matter of opinion?" No one can avoid this questioning, neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person. Just as it is natural to people to seek good health, to work to care for their families and friends, to delight in beauty, it is natural to them, especially in moments of great pain or joy, to be infused with a feeling of wonder, to engage in awed enquiry before the facts of God and creation, including their own creation.

When we respond to this wonder and, calling on our faith, intelligence and the accumulated wisdom of other people, advance tentative answers to these questions, we build for ourselves a "personal philosophy", a vision for life: "beyond philosophical systems, people seek in different ways to shape a 'philosophy' of their own." The Pope believes this is a vital human activity and in recalling us to it he affirms the dignity of human intelligence by which we are made in God's image and distinguished from the rest of visible creation.

A first reason for this encyclical, therefore, is that it acknowledges the universal human yearning for truth and so encourages us in the face of the anti-intellectualism and reductionism sweeping society and its institutions. But the mere desire for truth is not enough. Whole cultures can be swayed by the philosophies of cultural relativism, scientific dogmatism, bureaucratic pragmatism and postmodern despair; each bringing its ideological challenge that, in truth, there is no truth. The Catholic corrective to this is the Church's account of the relation of reason and philosophy to revelation and theology: "there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith ... there is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other."

From its very beginnings, Christianity was not a fundamentalist, closed-minded cult but a public religion offering a rational account of God, creation and salvation, "superstitions were recognised for what they were, and religion was, at least in part, purified by rational analysis." This means, as John Paul teaches, that with those who do not share our faith philosophy is often our only means of dialogue and of communicating what it is we do and do not believe.


However, it does not mean that one who tries to work things out on purely rational grounds can reach the state of one who knows and accepts revelation; a philosophy of life based on reason alone gives only a pale, undeveloped and vulnerable understanding. Without revelation, even those of good will and right reason are prone to self-deception, mistakes and sin.

So what is the proper relation of divine faith to human reason?

In the Pope's words: "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." In other words, without reason, faith tends towards untutored feeling, emotion and intuition; without faith, reason tends towards unrestrained self-interest, the current 'isms' and our personal and transient satisfactions.

A second reason for this encyclical is that we need to be reminded that the Catholic faith is intellectually respectable ("faith has no fear of reason, but finds it out and has trust in it"), and that human intelligence will never be fully satisfied except by God. The Pope's roll-call of great thinkers who made the synthesis of faith and reason central to their work is truly inspiring and makes a claim that bears repeating: Catholics have made and continue to make an outstanding contribution to Western and global intellectual life. In this context too the Pope reaffirms "the incomparable value of the philosophy of St Thomas: in his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought."

A third reason for the encyclical concerns the need for good and faithful theology and theologians. Professional philosophy plays a key role here. Theological debates use, and presuppose mastery of, philosophical ideas and arguments: "Without philosophy's contribution it would in fact be impossible to discuss theological issues such as, for example, the use of language to speak about God, the personal relations within the Trinity, God's creative activity in the world, the relationship between God and man, or Christ's identity as true God and true man", some highly significant theological concepts, by anyone's reckoning.

Similarly, moral theology presupposes a grasp of sound philosophical ethics: the human good, natural law, conscience, freedom, intention, the moral act. Where their philosophical understanding is weak, theologians risk sentimentality, inaccuracy and heresy; likewise, where there is theological illiteracy philosophy risks triviality, incompleteness and relativism. Our Church needs sound philosophy to help and encourage our theologians, priests and people in their great task of rational communication of God and his mysteries.

Nevertheless, "the Church has no philosophy of her own, nor does she canonise any one particular philosophy in preference to others." The Church does not dictate to people's reason, or manipulate "the autonomy which philosophy enjoys"; nor can she support definitively any one philosophy - not even Aquinas's - because all "human reason is wounded and weakened by sin" and there is properly evolution and revolution in philosophical thought. The Pope gives some unexpected latitude here to non-Western Christians. He believes it is the "duty" of Asian, African and other Christians to investigate the resources of traditional philosophies in their own regions as ways of expressing their faith - so long as doing so does not conflict with perennial Catholic truths or contradict our rich Greco-Latin inheritance.

Although she has no "official philosophy", the Church will continue to indicate which philosophies are incompatible with faith and inappropriate sources for the premises of theological reflection. True philosophers will welcome such careful criticism, and the faithful will be preserved from the errors of those false thinkers who are intellectually and politically influential. The Pope provides a history of the Magisterium's interventions in philosophical matters (astrology, evolutionism, existentialism, rationalism, fideism ...) and shows how in each case intervention saved Christians from superstition and error, while acknowledging what was true in the modern view. Without this philosophical ground-clearing by his predecessors, John Paul's earlier encyclicals on capitalism, political action, abortion, etc, could not have made the impression that they did, for all are underpinned by sound philosophy.

A final reason for the Pope's plea to the bishops of the Church for a renewal of philosophy concerns education. The Pope is an academic, a teacher passionately concerned about young people. As corrupt philosophies come to dominate even the universities and churches the quality of education declines. However, we have moved far beyond concerns with quality control to a much more critical stage. Many university students are in no position to grasp and take issue with even a simplified argument; it is not just that so many are ignorant of the names of central thinkers and the history of great debates: they simply do not see the point of an activity like careful argument or the purpose in trying to appreciate a new or difficult perspective. Professional philosophy is not the answer to this crisis, but a recognition of the centrality of the 'philosophical itch' in human life and the power of reason to overturn all our preconceptions is a beginning.

John Paul believes strongly that young people need a "philosophy of life", but he fears they will simply go shopping in the market of ideas, which, like all markets, offers a seriously limited and undemanding selection. Building a sound and attractive alternative which they can be offered is the work of their elders. To this end, he calls theologians to re-examine their presuppositions and return to careful presentation of the central doctrines of the faith; philosophers, to consider again basic metaphysical questions, rational ethics and absolute truth; scientists, to ponder central philosophical and ethical values in their research and teaching; and teachers, to have courage and integrity in presenting the full truth and not only that part of it which is fashionable.

The Pope is especially insistent on a "solid philosophical foundation" for seminarians. Confirming Vatican II's recommendations, he urges "the importance of this philosophical formation for those who one day, in their pastoral life, will have to address the aspirations of the contemporary world and understand the causes of certain behaviour in order to respond in appropriate ways"; and he notes "with surprise and displeasure" the lack of interest of some theology teachers and seminary professors in sound philosophy.

Attacks on faith

The attacks on faith in general, and on their own faith, which our new priests face, involve subtle, manipulative and rhetorical argument; to respond to these debates priests need clear thinking, good debating skills and a thorough knowledge of philosophical positions. Theological knowledge will rarely count for much in the front line of battle with confused or frustrated parishioners, let alone the broader 'secular' society; however, a sound grasp of such philosophical concepts as purpose and nature, substance and accident, body and soul, natural law and freedom, gender and equality may work wonders.

The Pope has spoken often before on concrete issues of profit and the market, human rights and dignity, abortion and euthanasia, and sound moral formation. In Faith and Reason he attempts something even more difficult: a defence of sound intellectual formation and systematic intellectual enquiry in an increasingly materialist, hedonistic and nihilistic world. He reminds us that the major problems of our age cannot be confronted by a big heart and goodwill alone; to think that they can is alien to our tradition. In diagnosing our greatest errors as in large part intellectual ones and prescribing as a remedy the great tradition of Catholic philosophy he may well have made one of the most courageous and long-lasting contributions of his pontificate.

Dr Hayden Ramsay has taught philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University. He is presently a member of the Office of the Archbishop of Melbourne and teaches philosophy at Catholic Theological College where future priests undertake their studies.

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