Ralph McInerny on the Importance of Natural Theology
ROME, 19 MAY 2003 (ZENIT).
In an age of skepticism, philosophy is often viewed with a suspicious
eye by people of religious faith.
However, philosophy has always been an integral part of the life of the
Church as outlined by John Paul II in his encyclical " Fides
Ralph McInerny is using his appointment as the Eugene McCarthy Lecturer
at the Gregorian University to discuss the branch of philosophy that
searches for God, known as natural theology. He recently shared his
thoughts with ZENIT on this topic.
McInerny is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
He will present a public lecture at the Gregorian on May 23 entitled,
"From Shadows and Images to the Truth."
Q: What is natural theology? In other words, explain what it means that
it is an article of faith that God can be known by reason apart from
McInerny: It is, by another name, philosophical theology; that is, the
knowledge of God that can be attained from common human experience of
the world, without dependence on religious faith.
Plato, and especially Aristotle, in pre-Christian times, carried the
theology of the philosophers to heights which are still cause for
marvel. The whole point of classical philosophy—the love of wisdom—was
to attain such knowledge of God as is possible for the human mind. It is
in contemplating God that the most perfect happiness is found. So
natural theology is not just a special set of topics, but the key to
The Catholic tradition sees in Romans 1:19-20 the scriptural basis for
what was defined by Vatican I, namely, that it is "de fide"
that God can be known by natural powers of man unaided by faith.
Q: Does natural theology aim to prove the existence of God?
McInerny: That is the first step, of course, and proving the existence
of God is no easy matter. There is a garden-variety certainty that most
people have that the universe is governed by its Maker and that we are
answerable to him.
Philosophical proofs seek to make it logically inescapable that God, the
first cause of all else, exists. But what is he like? The attributes of
God, efforts to describe him, are the next step. He is intelligent,
good, the source of order, our ultimate end, etc.
Q: Why is it important to distinguish between natural theology and
McInerny: Faith consists of truths about God accepted on the authority
of his revelation, whose interpretation is in the custody of the
Catholic Church. Truths like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the
Resurrection, forgiveness of sins, etc., cannot be proved by appeal to
the ordinary canons of proof. They can be proved to have been revealed,
but that is something else.
Natural theology is an achievement; faith is a gift. To demand that the
mysteries of faith be proved in the usual way, is the beginning of the
loss of faith.
Q: Why is natural theology important for understanding Catholic
McInerny: As the Holy Father reminded us in "Fides et Ratio,"
our faith is reasonable. There is a complementarity between faith and
reason, each needs the other. One of the uses of natural theology is
precisely to show that it is reasonable to accept truths about God we
cannot in this life comprehend.
St. Thomas Aquinas observed that the truths about God that philosophers
establish are part of what has been revealed, embedded in them, as it
were. You cannot believe that God is three persons in one nature without
accepting that God exists.
Most of us accept revelation as a whole from our mother's knee without
distinguishing between the mysteries it conveys and the truths about God
that can be known, in the usual sense of know, such as that he is, that
he is one, maker of all, etc.
Thomas called these knowable truths included in revelation
"preambles of faith." If some of the truths God has revealed
about himself can be known in the usual sense of know, then it is
reasonable to accept the others as intelligible in themselves, however
obscure to us in this life. This saves us from the fideism that
characterizes the Protestantism that rejects natural theology.
Q: Why do the claims of natural theology seem to contradict what we know
about God from the Bible? How is this problem overcome?
McInerny: The rule is that there cannot be a real conflict between faith
and reason. Both have their source in God who does not contradict
himself. If there really is a conflict—a contradiction—between a
rational claim and the faith, the rational claim must be false, or not
as strong a claim as it purports to be, perhaps only a theory.
Sometimes a deeper understanding of Revelation and Scripture has been
prompted by difficulties arising from reason, so it is to a degree a
In the Middle Ages the so-called errors of Aristotle provided Thomas
Aquinas with opportunities to exhibit how supple the interaction of
reason and faith often is. Aristotle thought the world is eternal, which
conflicts with Genesis. Aristotle is wrong here, but Thomas observes
that there is no philosophical way to disprove the eternity of the
world. Thus, Aristotle's view was false—as we know from Scripture—but
is nonetheless a plausible philosophical opinion. Not everything that
conflicts with the faith can be disproved.
Q: Why is there such strong resistance among both theologians and
believers in general to the "God of the philosophers"?
McInerny: There are many reasons for this, most of them bad. Pascal
seemed to think the God of the philosophers was somehow numerically
different from the God of Abraham and Isaac.
Sometimes I suspect people are put off by the secularizing and skeptical
character of much mainstream philosophy. St. Paul warned us not to be
misled by philosophy.
Kierkegaard, in the 19th century, sought to protect the faith from
Kantian and Hegelian efforts to turn it into a philosophical project
that would yield its truth to German philosophy professors.
Unfortunately, he included natural theology in what he would protect
from such presumption.
Q: How does natural theology account for and understand atheism?
McInerny: In "Gaudium et Spes," we have a remarkable little
treatise on atheism and its many sources, most of which are moral. What
could be more tragic than for a human being to be cut off from God, to
deny his maker? The fathers of the [Second Vatican] Council saw
contemporary atheism as a chief obstacle to evangelization.
Natural theology gives only indirect comfort to the heart wounded by
injustice and misfortune. Unless the pursuit of reason is complemented
by the pursuit of virtue it can become a snare and delusion. Our natural
theology tradition goes hand in hand with the realization that without
the support of religious faith even natural truths becomes obscured and
The motivation for natural theology is to be found in the faith itself,
as the reference to Romans and Vatican I makes clear. Any suggestion
that acceptance of the mysteries of faith is akin to belief in the Great
Pumpkin must be thoroughly rejected. Faith has as its object the first
truth who is God and its truths, again, cannot be in conflict with
truths gained by natural reason.
It is noteworthy that in "Fides et Ratio," the Holy Father
comes to the defense of reason at a time when many, many philosophers
have lost confidence in our ability to attain the truth. The
epistemological turn taken by Descartes continues to cut the human mind
off from reality. Philosophy becomes interpretation, a subjective
account of our experience, unable to reach an objective basis in the
things that are. This is why the Thomistic revival inaugurated by Leo
XIII remains of vital importance.
Q: Does the natural law require the existence of God for its claims to
McInerny: One must distinguish between the content of natural law—common
moral truths—and the theoretical account of such knowledge. The latter
makes reference to God explicitly but this may be only implicit in the
ordinary recognition of right and wrong.
A philosophy without theism, without natural theology, can never give an
adequate account of morality. Natural theology and natural law provide a
lingua franca in which believer and nonbeliever can communicate. That is
why the Church is such a champion of both. ZE03051921