THE TWO WINGS OF CATHOLIC THOUGHT:
Essays on Fides et ratio
edited by D.R. Foster & J.W. Koterski SJ
(Catholic University of America Press, 2003, 215pp, $39.95. Available from AD Books)
The subtitle, Essays on Fides et ratio, indicates the scope of this book. Of all Pope John Paul's encyclicals, possibly Fides et ratio (1998) is the most significant. As the editors say in their Introduction, "the pope has struck a chord ... Fides et ratio caught the world's attention in a way that surpassed most other papal documents."
The editors state that the "purpose" of their volume of essays is "to help deepen appreciation for the stereophonic approach to truth that the Holy Father recommends." This can be achieved through "the various melodies that have resounded in the ideas of widely differing philosophers and theologians" who "each make a contribution to knowing the truth abut the things that matter."
Although it is now some years since Fides et ratio first appeared, the publication of this volume of essays is an indication of its continuing, indeed its increasing relevance and significance. (Melbourne readers may remember the well-attended Symposium on the topic sponsored by Australian Catholic University in 2000).
In this volume we are offered a collection of essays written by leading academics from the American Catholic University milieu. It is divided into three sections: four essays deal with doctrinal perspectives; two with the implication of the teaching of the encyclical for Catholic higher education; and four review the historical perspectives highlighted in the encyclical.
The opening essay by Cardinal Avery Dulles reviews the old question as to whether there can be a Christian philosophy. Whether or not this is the case, "the encyclical", he says, "is a pressing appeal for faith and philosophy to recover their profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony".
Another contributor writes in this regard: "The revelation of truths accessible to philosophy means that not only can faith be united with reason in theology, but that theologians must be philosophers as well, because a portion of what is believed can be understood philosophically" (p.166).
This last statement is the more important because the Pope has warned of the danger of what he calls "a creeping fideism." This is picked up by another contributor: "Two common dangers which [the Pope] highlights are biblicism and various forms of speculative theology exhibiting 'fideistic tendencies'" (p. 81, referring to n. 55 of the encyclical). The same concerns are taken up again in the concluding essay by Cardinal Dulles (pp. 193, 196).
The need to "recover the sapiential dimension of philosophy" (p.160) is developed in two essays, one titled "Philosophari in Maria" and the other which brings out the implicit philosophical assumptions and postulates of much of the Old Testament, especially in the Wisdom literature (p. 72). Later we read of how philosophical wisdom and theological wisdom can both be perfected by the infused gift of wisdom (p. 202).
The thematic thrust of Fides et ratio is well summed up in the two statements: "The essence of the encyclical is a defence of objective truth and the ability of human reason to know that truth" (p.111); and "The drama of the separation of faith and reason provoked by modernity represents the historical context and, with it, the central motive, for this timely document" (p.178).
The Pope has been especially concerned at the inadequacies of contemporary philosophic approaches - eclecticism, historicism, scientism, pragmatism, and nihilism - which he sees as "injurious to faith and to authentic wisdom."
As one of the essay writers puts it: "In settling for an absence of meaning, philosophy abandons its own project. Abandoning its pursuit of sure and abiding wisdom, it offers a prescription for intellectual despair" (p.206, referring to parts 83 and 91 of the encyclical).
The final essay by Cardinal Dulles merits full-length discussion on its own merits. One quotation will have to serve to illustrate.
He points out how "a note of positive encouragement resounds through the entire text like a refrain" (p.207) and he concludes by expressing the hope that "for Catholic universities Fides et ratio may provide a beacon for progress" (p. 208).
There are many other topics one might highlight. The survey of the history of philosophy from the patristic age to the post-modern (pp. 187 ff) is particularly impressive. But let me simply refer to the place accorded to St Thomas Aquinas and his philosophy in Fides et ratio.
First, we are told that "St Thomas is set apart from other Christian philosophers 'as a paradigm'" for his acceptance of this postulate: viz, that "philosophy can grasp some revealed truths presupposes that human reason, though weakened by sin, is capable of attaining metaphysical and ethical truths. That such truths are philosophically possible and thus that this union of faith and reason is possible" (p.169).
On the other hand, there is no question of there being a "canonisation" of Aquinas' philosophy: "There seems to be no elevation of Aquinas' philosophy to the level of magisterial teaching" (p.172; cf also pp. 202, 203).
The volume includes a summary of the encyclical useful for refreshing one's memory while proceeding through these commentaries, as well as a note on the professional standing of each of the contributors. One could hardly find a better introduction to this highly significant encyclical or an easier means of refreshing one's mind on its contents and emphases.
Br Christian Moe is a staff member at the Corpus Christi Seminary in Melbourne.