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On Faith and Reason

Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Fides et Ratio ("Faith and Reason"), addresses the need to repair and heal what may be the most important rift in modern times, a rift that began with the Reformation, grew into a great chasm in the so-called Enlightenment period, and became different worlds in modern times. Today, it is typical for the average person to put reason in one mental, emotional, social and political compartment and faith in another. It is a commonplace for a putatively Catholic politician in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, Mexico or Central or South America, for example, to espouse a "woman's right to choose." No clearer contradiction between such a politician's faith and reason is possible. Yet, that same politician will be scandalized when his or her bishop declares them unfit to approach Communion, and their existentially incoherent position will be vehemently insisted upon by our secular news media.

In reality, what is involved here is not actual faith in the word of God. What is involved here is faith in ritual practice and faith in principles of secular humanism. The former, in the context of the latter, amounts to nothing deeper than pure superstition. It does not even deserve to be called hypocrisy, because hypocrisy entails an understanding of the contradiction1.

The Pope's encyclical addresses this contradiction, and also addresses the polar extremes. Faith without reason is, in the Pope's words, "fideism and radical traditionalism." Reason without faith, on the other hand, is "rationalism and ontologism." [See ¶ 52.] In ¶ 55, the Pope goes on to characterize the problem in our post-modern era.

Surveying the situation today, we see that the problems of other times have returned, but in a new key. It is no longer a matter of questions of interest only to certain individuals and groups, but convictions so widespread that they have become to some extent the common mind. An example of this is the deep-seated distrust of reason which has surfaced in the most recent developments of much of philosophical research, to the point where there is talk at times of “the end of metaphysics”. Philosophy is expected to rest content with more modest tasks such as the simple interpretation of facts or an enquiry into restricted fields of human knowing or its structures.

In theology too the temptations of other times have reappeared. In some contemporary theologies, for instance, a certain rationalism is gaining ground, especially when opinions thought to be philosophically well founded are taken as normative for theological research. This happens particularly when theologians, through lack of philosophical competence, allow themselves to be swayed uncritically by assertions which have become part of current parlance and culture but which are poorly grounded in reason.

There are also signs of a resurgence of fideism, which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God. One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles”. Scripture, therefore, is not the Church's sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.

Moreover, one should not underestimate the danger inherent in seeking to derive the truth of Sacred Scripture from the use of one method alone, ignoring the need for a more comprehensive exegesis which enables the exegete, together with the whole Church, to arrive at the full sense of the texts. Those who devote themselves to the study of Sacred Scripture should always remember that the various hermeneutical approaches have their own philosophical underpinnings, which need to be carefully evaluated before they are applied to the sacred texts.

Other modes of latent fideism appear in the scant consideration accorded to speculative theology, and in disdain for the classical philosophy from which the terms of both the understanding of faith and the actual formulation of dogma have been drawn. My revered Predecessor Pope Pius XII warned against such neglect of the philosophical tradition and against abandonment of the traditional terminology.

We can summarize the post-modern dilemma by saying that both secularists and fundamentalists have reached the same conclusion, albeit for fundamentally different reasons, namely, that reason itself is fundamentally suspect. This is a consequence of the modern rift between faith and reason2. Thus, the post-modern fideist so distrusts human reason that he/she rejects much of modern science, while the post-modern secular humanist so distrusts human reason that he/she rejects the existence of ultimate truth and finds, instead, a new dictatorship of relativism, in which it insists on radical tolerance of all points of view so that the ultimate objective is making people happy, and, in particular, not offending anyone with truth claims that are contrary to their own. Even though both of these positions are clearly self-contradictory, the radical distrust of reason helps the post-modernist remain comfortable with this self-contradictory nature of their faith3

  • 1. Clearly, however, a politician that does appreciate the dissonance, and who nevertheless insists upon living in accordance with it — bestowing lip service to the Word of God and body and mind service to the word of the secularists — is a hypocrite.
  • 2. Pope John Paul traces the Church's efforts to address this modern problem to Vatican I's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius." , the insights of Pope Pius X in his encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, and those of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Humani Generis.
  • 3. Indeed, if pushed far enough, a post-modernist may seek refuge in eastern mysticism, claiming that it is only this higher mode of thought that enables a person to live in the real world.

    It seems clear enough that the post-modern understanding of Christ is, at best, superficial, and, at worst, contradictory. This failure of understanding accounts, in part, for a failure of appreciation. The failure to appreciate the wisdom of Christ accounts, in large measure, for the failure to recognize that it transcends mere human wisdom. It is largely due to this failure that partial success has led to a bifurcation of human life, a bifurcation into fideism and minimalist rationalism, both of which justify themselves by a basic distrust of the power of human reason.

    In the essays of this section, I would like to emphasize the importance of reason in purifying faith. In a recent encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the role of reason in purifying love. More specifically, he emphasizes that love must operate in the truth. See Caritas in Veritate.

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