John Paul II’s “Fides et Ratio” is an act of daring: not only an exhortation to professional philosophers to return to foundational rationality, but an invitation to all and sundry to realize their natural philosophical capability. I find this call absolutely remarkable, not only as a Magisterial pronouncement for the faithful, but especially as an incitement to us all to reflect on the relation of faith to thought…


I would like to draw the attention of the St. John’s College community to Pope John Paul’s latest (and perhaps last) Encyclical, his circular letter to the Bishops, entitled, as is the custom, in accordance with its opening words, Faith and Reason.

As a historical institution and as the place of a program, this college has from its beginnings been involved in the issues that attend the offering of one and the same education to students of different religious backgrounds and, later on, in the problems that are inherent in carrying on a liberal education that takes dogma seriously without prescribing it.

When King William’s School was converted in 1784, the year the Revolution ended, into St. John’s College, the college was among the earliest of the new republic to be explicitly nonsectarian. Students were to be admitted, the Charter said, on merit only, “without requiring or enforcing any religious or civil test, or urging their attendance upon any particular religious worship or service other than what they… have the consent… of their parents to attend.” While thus nonsectarian, the school was nonetheless Christian; throughout the nineteenth century the coping-stone of studies was the course in Moral Philosophy and Christian Evidences taken by the seniors. I do not know when this requirement was dropped, but I was present when the college’s last link to St. Anne’s, that church on Annapolis’s Church Circle, was broken. Sometime in the sixties, Winfree Smith, himself ordained in that church, raised his voice in behalf of the separation of the baccalaureate service, which took place, as I recall, at St. Anne’s, from the commencement proper. He was acting—true Virginian that he was—in the spirit of Jefferson and Madison, the two great defenders of the separation of church and state, the former so that free reason might prevail over enforced dogma, the latter so that faith and reason might flourish together. Those of us who were somewhat indifferent to the religious aspect and more interested in the preservation of tradition heard his passionate and rationally irresistible arguments for separation with uneasy admiration. In the next two decades there were sporadic calls for changing the all-too-Catholic sounding name of the college, but here the traditionalists easily prevailed. These were the theological-political issues, now, I think, settled for good.

But the intellectual problems inherent in the New Program of 1937, in which works of faith were read as a part of liberal learning, remain unresolved. Indeed, this irresolution might be said to be part of the essence of the program, its tensed alertness to fundamental questions, in this case whether and how faith can be studied in a secular framework. But it is probably misleading to call our program of liberal learning “secular,” for its concerns are by no means merely temporal, worldly. Call it rather radically non-dogmatic. It embodies no teaching of substance but only pedagogic hypotheses, which, though they undeniably and I think unavoidably embody what might be called biases of attention, nevertheless deliver no dogma of any sort concerning the chosen learning matter. Thus we are forced to face the dogmas of faith non-dogmatically, and that ought to be for us a—carefully preserved—perplexity.

Now in this Encyclical Pope John Paul speaks as embodying the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church; thus he naturally affirms its dogma. But the main concern of the letter is an astounding claim, for which the stage is set in the first sentence:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth.

What is astounding is not only the unqualified claim of the coequality of faith and reason, but the way the reason-wing is developed throughout the Encyclical—not only as reason but also as philosophy. The letter is a paean to philosophy as the realization of a predisposition to inquiry: an “implicit philosophy” found in all human beings (8), “a journey of discovery which is humanly unstoppable” (51), beginning in “wonder” about the Creation (7), and carried on “by trusting dialogue and sincere friendship” (50). Such a search must be metaphysical in the sense of searching for grounds and foundations (122 ff), but the final cause and first task is to recover the “sapiential dimension,” wisdom about the ultimate meaning of life (119).

This is not so much a description of systematic reason as of an activity familiar to us. Is it not what we, students, alumni, tutors, strive to do, prepared by the program? But it gets more interesting yet.

The Pope’s prolonged praise of philosophy has, of course, some practical aims, He is displeased that previous calls of the Magisterium to study philosophy have not been sufficiently heeded by theologians and those responsible for the preparation of priests. He is clearly anxious about the emotionalist and “biblicist” (in American terms, “fundamentalist”) tendencies in the Church. But he is also calling, in a more hopeful vein, for a new Catholic syncretism, a Summa for our time. Saint Thomas is “an authentic model for all who seek such truths” (114)—notice the indefinite “an”; the Church is not committed to Thomism. Among modern models he names Etienne Gilson and Edith Stein (108), who was born a Jew and recently made a saint. But the call is not only to priests and system-making theologians. Philosophy is “not restricted only to the sometimes ephemeral teachings of professional philosophers” (46). The call is to the whole laity; for “the human being is by nature a philosopher” (95). Even the Israelites’ “biblical world has made its own distinctive contribution to the theory of knowledge” (28); thus is Jerusalem made philosophic neighbor to Athens.

The Pope goes on to radicalize and expand Aristotle’s definition of a human being as an animal having logos to “the one who seeks truth” and “also the one who lives by belief” (45, 47). Again notice the little connective “also”—first, human beings are philosophers who think on their own, in this Encyclical at least. The Pope saves this human propensity from the despair and dispersion of subjectivism by the supposition that the individuation of seeking does not necessarily end in a subjectivism of finding; we may search on our own and yet come to common truths. This trust, or at least hope, which is I think behind every injunction to “know thyself ” and for that purpose to “study your world,” is for the Pope a matter of faith.

It seems to me then that this Encyclical is of some consequence to us. First practically: a good many of our students, including non-Catholics and non-Christians, seek out Catholic graduate schools such as The Catholic University of America, Boston College, and The Pontifical Institute, because there they hope to find the works they want to study seriously regarded. If this time around the Magisterium is heeded, philosophical study will be invigorated and consequently the zeal for philosophy not as a marginal professional specialty but as the “sapiential dimension” of all human activity might even make a (small) comeback in the secular universities.

And second, the Encyclical might affect us in the more elusive matter of our position in the intellectual world. I have traveled to scores of institutions in my life, and read about many more: I know no other school besides ours that makes philosophy, understood as radical inquiry and as the search for human wisdom, explicitly central. (Even at our Western look-alike, Thomas Aquinas College, philosophy is ancillary to sacred theology, which is studied in the four-year theology tutorial.) It is a strange, even uneasy, and yet somehow welcome fact that so huge an institution as the Catholic Church should now have been directed to include in its educational efforts an enterprise not dissimilar to ours. Many of us have long believed that all things truly central are apt to go on at the quiet margins of the world; nonetheless, it would be a nice change to find ourselves participants in an incipient mainstream.

Of course, as I said, the Pope affirms positive dogma in his letter, though sparsely; by far the greater effort is devoted to pointing out philosophical error. The Pope is well-read in modern and even postmodern philosophies, and these are his targets. In a neat rhetorical turn, he names only one person, the terrestrial archenemy Marx (182); the other offenders against truth are recognizably alluded to in terms of schools: modernism, nihilism, agnosticism, phenomenalism, immanentism, eclecticism, historicism, scientism, pragmatism, biblicism, social justification of knowledge, and postmodernism. What the Pope is most worried about is the subjectivism alluded to above which leads to irrationalism, and the abandonment of the search for being (10), be it in the positivism of scientists, the denials of nihilists or the indifferentism of postmodernists.

Truth to tell, these movements and schools are the very ones I have misgivings about, particularly those that make nonsense of our enterprise. For example, in the “social justification of knowledge,” truth is a social project, legitimized by the consensus of formally or informally certified experts, and that means that the conversation of determinedly extra-scholarly amateurs, such as make up this college’s extended community, is reduced to chatter without standing—not what I think of myself as doing. Others among these schools, however, seem to me to require serious engagement, willing or unwilling.

So it is very appealing that the Pope praises “the precious and seminal insights” (73) of modern philosophy, especially of hermeneutics and analysis (124). And in fact this Pope, who is generally thought of as almost rigidly conservative in matters ecclesiastical, turns out, amazingly, to be vastly latitudinarian in matters intellectual—a veritable liberal of the spirit. This Encyclical is irenic, Catholic, egalitarian (57), syncretic, progressive, or in English, peaceable, universal, populist, inclusive and hopeful—hopeful because time, which is of fundamental importance to Christianity (17), points forward; the Pope speaks expectantly of the next millennium as we might speak of the next decade, and the Last Judgment is nowhere in sight.

Here are some of the details of this inclusivism: Paul, Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard are specifically and positively named; the Second Vatican Council is frequently cited; it is hard to imagine that either these men or the outcomes of this event appeal to John Paul unqualifiedly. But his net is cast even wider, bringing up startling catches cheek by jowl, as when the Book of Job is mentioned in tandem with the philosophers of the absurd (42; I think that means certain existentialists). The pagan Greeks are included for their attention to “an unknown god,” the God made known to them by Paul (39). The East is drawn in, especially India as the land of “great spiritual impulse” (105). Yet all these influences are to be absorbed without detriment to the Church’s primary “inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought” (106). In his conclusion, the Pope turns to Mary, “the woman whom the prayer of the Church invokes as the Seat of Wisdom” (153).

Even taking into account the wise policy of appealing to the non-Western part of the world, whence increasingly come today’s converts, priests and religious as well as to the restless female members of the Church, there would be something puzzling in this philosophical multiculturalism, were it not in line with another teaching of the Encyclical mentioned above: The Pope recognizes philosophical errors, the ones just cited, but he asserts that the Church has no positive philosophy of its own (75, 110). Recall that Thomas was only a model, and only a model.

How is it intelligible that philosophy should be coequal with faith, as the hither wing of the spirit, and that this wing should flutter indeterminately? Doesn’t it undermine the seriousness of philosophy within the institution, which this Encyclical is intended to inculcate, not so much to postpone a commitment (as befits a search still in progress), but to declare every outcome in principle uncanonical (75)? Is it not even at odds with the pronouncement that philosophy is not contingent or hypothetical: “If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times…. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy” (43)? An institution like this college, which is radically nescient and dogmatically vacant, can and must say that it has no positive philosophy of its own (though a good many of its members may have the same philosophic adherences). But can a church that has a positive message of faith (14) and claims that faith and reason contain each other (29) leave its rational side undecided? Here is where a study of the Encyclical leads deep into questions that I for one have wrongly neglected, though some of our people, colleagues and alumni, here and in the Southwest, have spent their lives with them.

Therefore, the third and best reason why I recommend this papal letter to our common attention is the set of questions it must raise even, or especially, in the well-disposed reader’s mind. I want to say here that in the brief ruminations that follow, I am far from wishing to imply that the Pope willfully glosses over difficulties or carelessly introduces self-contradictions. No such thing: The letter is finite and the subject indefinitely great; moreover it has urgent ecclesiastical purposes that preclude subtle philosophical exposition. I have simply grown interested in its remarkable ramifications.

The Pope leaves philosophical dogma indeterminate to protect the autonomy of reason (75). How can reason that works in tandem with faith be autonomous? The Pope distinguishes autonomy from self-sufficiency (76). Reason has its own principles, methods and conclusions, but does not encompass the whole of knowledge; it is not “separate” from faith, that is, complete without the latter.

But what guarantees that reason, acting autonomously, will supply the “necessary preamble to theology” (99, n. 90), that it is never opposed to faith (51), that it is never in competition with faith (29)?

For the Pope enjoins

that faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. The parrhesia [freedom of speech] of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason (74).

The answer to the question seems to me in part to lie in the conjunction “and” of “faith and reason.” The autonomous natural reason that is harmoniously teamed with faith as its preamble is, just as the Pope intimates, self-limited by its formalisms, its method: principles, rigorous inferences, formal argumentation. The Encyclical names the law of noncontradiction as one such universally accepted principle (8). I do not mean that such rationality is merely formal and not governed by meanings, as that of symbolic logic. On the contrary, when it is said of Thomas that semper formalissime loquitur, “he always speaks most formally,” what is meant by the scholastic language is just the opposite: He always speaks of essences. What I do mean is that the reason that is both conjoined with and distinct from faith is self-denyingly rigorous and systematic. It is uncontaminated rationality.

When the Pope says that reason and faith contain each other (29), he does not, I think, mean that they infect each other but rather that they take account of and recognize each other as other, in particular that “philosophy is always open…to the supernatural” (109). The various alternative routes that rigorous reason will take, depending on its principles (as do mathematical systems), is just what may account for the Pope’s rejection of one canonical system of reason for the Church.

But here enters what seems to me to be a significant duality in the Encyclical, the one I mentioned in the beginning. Throughout the text “reason” and “philosophy” are used interchangeably in exhortation, though in description they are not really the same. Reason, recta ratio, produces coherent and correct systems (8) and is a specialized project.

Philosophy, on the other hand, is a human activity, implicit in all of us; it is a desire (40), a journey (42), a search (44)—not a vain one, for our very philosophical capacity “implies the rudiments of a response” (45). Though the Pope’s usage is not systematic, the descriptive difference is discernible; it is the philosophical rather than the rational mode that produces my sense of an affinity between our enterprise and his injunction to the educational institutions of the Church. The Pope himself delineates philosophy by the absence of two human limitations: the “philosophical pride” that insists on representing its partial view as a complete view of reality (7) and the “false modesty” that rests content with partial truth and gives up on radical inquiry (11).

I put the problem of this duality to myself in a figure. The Catholic Christian’s spirit is borne on the two wings of faith and reason; the thoughtfully inclined pagan’s soul rises on the single wing of philosophical desire; members of the college will recognize it from the one dialogue they read twice in the program, the Phaedrus. How does the reason that is conjoined with faith differ from the impulse of philosophy that flies solo?

If I try to define to myself in kind what are the objects of faith, I find three: extraordinary sensible occurrences like miracles, ordinary sensible events with extraordinary meaning like the Incarnation, and suprasensible facts like the Trinity. These may not be within the purview of natural reason, when they are taken as baldly singular facts and events. But taken in kind they are not alien to the “wonder awakened… by the contemplation of creation” (7), or for that matter of an uncreated world: the miracle of sensible appearance, the sudden manifestation of divinity in a human being, the revelation of unity-in-diversity of an ideal realm—these are kinds of experience not unknown to philosophy.

Hence it seems to me that the activity of philosophy encompasses reason, being in stretches—though only in stretches—rigorous in refutation or proof. For philosophy begins in medias res and includes within itself all manner of modes: mundane trust, encouraging belief, revelatory illumination, while reason in this understanding is bounded not only by the singular historical facts of faith—that is why time is so important to Christianity—but also by its principled beginnings and its methodical purity. Hence it is not self-sufficient and complete: “It is impossible that faith and knowledge [scientia] should be of the same thing” says Thomas (On Truth 14.9). And so an outside source, Revelation, is required, not so much that human knowledge might be perfect as that the soul might be saved.

The philosophy of the pagans, on the other hand (and I here use “pagan,” derived from pax, “peace” in its Christian meaning: a pacific civilian not enrolled in the army of Christ), is often represented as being in itself salutary and as including within itself the possibility of experiences that are the generic and ever-available counterparts to the singularities of faith. Moreover, there are no objects philosophy is not about: non-being, appearance, being, objects of ignorance, opinion, knowledge—all come under the purview of philosophy. The limits of philosophy come from the finitude of the thinker, not from the occurring objects, and its bearing medium is hopeful trust, not certain faith. Thus the soul flying on the single wing of philosophy sets no bounds to its own desire.

If there is any truth in my observation that reason and philosophy are separable notions in the Encyclical Fides et Ratio, it is an act of daring: not only an exhortation to professional philosophers to return to foundational rationality, but an invitation to all and sundry to realize their natural philosophical capability. I find this call absolutely remarkable, not only as a Magisterial pronouncement for the faithful, but especially as an incitement to us all to reflect on the relation of faith to thought.

This essay is republished with gracious permission from The St. John’s Review (Volume 45, No. 1, 1999). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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