Bishop Walter Kasper  28 April 1999  Fides et ratio-11 Reflections

Magisterium's Interventions In Philosophical Matters

Bishop Walter Kasper                                                              Reflections Index

The term "intervention" sounds dramatic. Literally it means "coming between", "intervening", even "interrupting". Usually it means more than an intervention in the sense of a harmless request to say something during a debate. In its literal sense it can also refer to a surgical operation or to political and military action. This wide range of meanings and the drama they express also characterize the agitated relationship between philosophy and the Church.

The fact that the statements of the Church's Magisterium on philosophical questions always and essentially have the nature of an "intervention" in the sense of "intervening" can be clearly seen in the Encyclical Fides et ratio itself. This is because the Church has, as she herself stated in Pope Pius XII's Encyclical Humani generis, "no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others"; neither is it her task to make good the "lacunas" found in philosophical discourse—and this does not refer only to the philosophy of religion (n. 49).1 She respects the autonomy of philosophical knowledge, which would of, the name if it did im ply the full freedom corresponding to the boundlessness of the human spirit.

Certainly, it is not only philosophy which serves the truth. Despite the autonomy of philosophy, it is also the task of the Church's Magisterium, and thus of all the Bishops, in carrying out their service of being witnesses of truth (nn. 6, 50, 85) and of authoritatively testing and discerning the spirits in the light of revealed truth and the transmission of the faith,2 which means: frankly indicating when philosophical knowledge and conclusions contradict the Catholic faith, and—while paying attention to the different cognitive orders of reason and faith—"articulating the demands which faith's point of view makes of philosophy" (n. 50; cf. nn. 9, 63, 77). Referring to the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius of the First Vatican Council, to Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) and to the above-mentioned Encyclical Humani generis, Fides et ratio stresses that these "interventions" are intended "to prompt, promote and encourage philosophical enquiry", whether by correcting errors or by advocating a renewal of philosophical thought (n. 51; cf. n. 57).

The Encyclical mentions many examples of the Magisterium's interventions in philosophical matters, from the condemnation of Origen's teaching on the pre-existence of souls at the Synod of Constantinople in 543, through the controversies with Latin Averroism in the Middle Ages, to the condemnations of Louis Eugene Bautain's fideism and traditionalism, rationalism, semi-rationalism and ontologism in the 19th century, and the theological censure of modernism, Marxism, atheistic existentialism and other philosophical doctrines in modern times.

This list of interventions could be lengthened in number and topics. We would also have to mention—in the words of F. van Steenberghen—"the harshest condemnation of the Middle Ages" made by Bishop Tempier of Paris in 1277, the first compilation of a Catalogue des livres censures by the Theological Faculty of Paris in 1544, the subsequent Index of Forbidden Books and the Syllabus of Pope Pius IX (1864). Leo XIII's Encyclical Aeterni Patris on the significance of St Thomas Aquinas' philosophy was of a different sort, and even more so are the Holy Father's highly esteemed summer seminars at Castel Gandolfo. They are "interventions" in the sense of a participation in and promotion of philosophical discourse. This Encyclical itself is also an "intervention" of the Magisterium in an entirely new way.

The Magisterium's interventions in philosophical matters also include any influence that Catholic teaching has exerted implicitly and indirectly onthe philosophical thought of the Christian West. One example of this is the development of the philosophical concept of the person, which has become fundamental for modern philosophy, but which contemporary philosophers hardly see in relationship to the theological reflections and doctrinal decisions on the Trinity in which this concept has been pondered for over 1,000 years. The same is true for the history of human dignity as a basic ethical category or for the development of hermeneutics, i.e., the philosophical theory of knowledge, which hasone of its roots in biblical hermeneutics.

Rather than citing other examples given in Fides et ratio, it would be more important to indicate the various forms these interventions have taken and how they depend on a specific historical context. These interventions are not limited to a merely intellectual clash of opinions in the realm of pure thought, but are always the interventions of institutions which were and still are historically, politically, socially and culturally interrelated. Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that, historically, magisterial competence could be divided in different ways between the various holders of authority—the academic magisterium of theologians in contrast to that of the Bishops and the Pope—perceived in various ways and with different weight.

The Encyclical Fides et ratio invites a critical analysis of the "Magisterium's interventions in philosophical matters" that have occurred in the past and asks to what extent they desired and were able to "prompt, promote and encourage" the philosophical enquiry of their time in the positive sense the Encyclical gives them, or whether they too were influenced by other passions than the love of truth: ultimately whether they were made in a way which—at least to the contemporary mind—could hardly be described as encouraging. As the millennium draws to a close, the Pope himself has called for an honest examination of the faults which have burdened the Church in her members and, at times, in her institutions. It is significant and welcome, then, that in the Encyclical Antonio Rosmini has finally been given well-deserved recognition contrary to the earlier condemnations of several of his theses (n. 74).

From our contemporary perspective, the interventions of the Church's Magisterium are particularly significant in the area of modern philosophy. The history of the "drama of the separation of faith and reason" (cf. nn. 45-48) took place in this context. Under closer examination, it becomes clear that the Church's Magisterium, despite all the criticisms of distinguished contemporary thinkers which should be judged discriminately—, was not at all prepared to withdraw into the ghetto of fideism. Just as it strongly opposed the rationalism and the dynamics of modern secularization, so too it resisted the temptation of .fideism and—as we would say today—fundamentalism. In the modern era the Church did not break the bond between faith and reason, even when that bond was sometimes on the verge of being torn apart by excessive tension. She of course held both poles together, but without canceling their essential differences. She always spoke in favour of a critical as well as a constructive exchange between fides and ratio. The criticism of the Enlightenment's encroachments and the indication of its limits, however, did not lead in the opposite direction to irrationalism , or fideism; when she indicates the limits of the Enlightenment, it is more a clarification of herself.

With that, we can now discuss the Encyclical Fides et ratio's own importance as a contemporary "intervention of the Magisterium in philosophical matters". This Encyclical—as the excursus on Thomas Aquinas (nn. 43-44) and the reference to the First Vatican Council show—is in complete continuity with previous interventions. Inview of today's philosophical challenges, it also unequivocally criticizes any separation of faith and reason. It would be "an illusion", the Encyclical says, "to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be ,more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition" (n. 48). Thus faith has no interest at all in disparaging reason. On the contrary, its own interest is to encourage and challenge it.

That is why Fides et ratio criticize agnosticism, relativism, scepticism, in different pluralism, mistrust of human reason, nihilism, atheism, the modern utilitarian exploitation of reason, the reduction of truth to consensus theory, as well as pantheism, esotericism, materialism, eclecticism, historicism, scientism, pragmatism and every self-styled postmodern philosophy which calls into question reason's capacity for truth (nn. 5, 47, 56, 80-91, et al.).

Today, after the "great narratives of modern times" have lost their credibility, the Church's Magisterium once againsees itself in the position of inviting modern philosophy on many points to shed light on its own enlightenment and to demythologize its own myths. For this reason the Encyclical devotes much of its attention to the positive interactions between philosophy and theology and to the ensuing requirements! and tasks which are constructive for both of them (cf. Chap. VI-VII).

Fides et ratio intends today "to prompt, promote and encourage" philosophy and the discussion between the science of faith and philosophy. The Pope very appropriately criticizes contemporary philosophy for its dismissal of metaphysics and its mistrust of reason". He points out the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of rationalistic concepts in contemporary systematic theology, as well as those of a "fideistic biblicism" which abandons the unity of Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium in a positivistic way or uncritically ignores the hermeneutic problems of biblical interpretation. He condemns a "latent fideism" In theology which thinks that it can disregard or ignore philosophy (nn. 55, 61), because theologians who shun philosophy run the risk "of doing philosophy unwittingly and locking themselves within thought structures poorly adapted to the understanding of faith" (n. 77). Lastly, the Pope urges theology "to enter into a demanding critical dialogue with both contemporary philosophical thought and with the philosophical tradition in all its aspects, whether consonant with the word of God or not" (n. 105).

To use the words of Pope John XXIII, the Encyclical would "rather apply the medicine of mercy than take up the arms of severity". She is convinced that "she best meets the needs of the present day by more thoroughly explaining the strength of her teaching than by condemning".3 Following the lines Indicated by the Second Vatican Council,4Fides et ratio creates an atmosphere of good-willed yet critical dialogue between the Church and contemporary philosophy (cf. n. 73). At the same time, the Church respects the autonomy of human reason; she respects Its claim to truth. But she also asserts her own claim to truth and thus does not excuse philosophy from the duty of confronting the claim of God's word and the question about the meaning of life and the transcendence of the human spirit (cf. nn. 81ff., 103, 106).

Today the Church intervenes in philosophical matters, all the while expressing great respect but also great expectations for philosophers and—since every human being who asks questions about himself and the meaning of his life is in some way a philosopher (cf. nn. 1ff., 30)—for all our contemporaries, such as found in no other social institution.

She staunchly declares her support for autonomous human reason—in its capacity for truth and in its proneness to error—in its ability to order and understand reality and in its need to remind all philosophical systems again and again of their own limits. She expresses her relationship with philosophy in a way that calls both philosophy and theology to a lofty dialogue and to mutual cooperation that does not allow narrow-minded disdain, naive indifference or arrogant demands on one side or the other (nn. 17, 82, 92, 103f.).

The Encyclical makes an ardent appeal: faith and philosophy should "recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. The parrhesia [frankness] of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason" (n. 48; cf. n. 101). For this reason she calls for "the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason ... to run risks" (n. 56). Fides et ratio is firmly opposed to any philosophical escapism which no longer tackles the considerable metaphysical, epistemological and practical philosophical problems of the present day, but denies they are problems or avoids any question of their validity in a pluralistic arbitrariness, just as she is opposed to ideological flight into a religious ghetto.

Indeed, certain contemporary philosophical and theological approaches seem to be primarily distinguished by the fact that they no longer risk anything intellectually. On the other hand, many Christians in late-modern Western society, instead of starting from the supra-individual, communicable truth and hope of their faith, have accepted Christianity's role as an esoteric, folkloric and, ultimately, unimportant reality. As an "intervention of the Magisterium in philosophical matters", Fides et ratio—to borrow Michel de Certeau's apt phrasing—"creates a space. Truth, to which it bears witness, makes no claims for itself; it leaves it free, without possessing it. It creates a risk, which it shares".5

The Church counters "weak thought", which surrenders before the risk of truth, and arrogant thought, which believes it can eliminate the risk and whose weakness is ever so obvious today, with the powerful weakness of faith (cf. 1 Cor 1:18ff.). The Church herself must always take this risk, exposing her own teaching and practice to the demands of human reason and philosophy (cf. n. 100). She sees herself more and more challenged "to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that [she] may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true" (n. 56). Her risk is not that of the Greek hero Odysseus who returned to his starting-point; Emmanuel Levinas saw him as the paradigm of a self-identical, isolated subjectivity. The risk of truth is the risk of Abraham, who left his homeland to seek a yet unknown land.6


1. The numbers in parentheses refer to sections of the Encyclical,

2. Cf. also the Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Pastoral Off ice of Bishops Christus. Dominus, n. 13; CIC, can. 386 and the corresponding expositionIn Book III on the Church's ministry of proclamation.

3. Pope John XXIII, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, Address for the Solemn Opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, in O. Muller (ed.), Vaticanum Secundum, vol. 1, Leipzig 1963, p. 217; critical text in G. Alberigo and A. Melloni, "L'allocuzione Gaudet Mater Ecclesia di Giovanni XXIII (11 ottobre 1962)", in Fede Tradizione Profezia: Studi suGiovanni XXIII e sul Vaticano II, Brescia 1984, pp. 185-283.

4. Cf. Decree on Priestly Formation Optatam totius, n. 15; Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, nn. 19-21 (regarding atheism), and lastly, the revolutionary Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatishumanae.

5. M. de Certeau, "Autorites chretiennes et structures sociales", in Faiblesse de croire, Paris 1987, pp. 77-128; quotation, p. 128.

6. Gn 12:1; cf. E. Levinas "Die Spur des Anderen", in Die Spur des Anderen: Untersuchungen zur—Phanomenologie und Sozialphilosophle, Munich 1983, p. 215f.; cf. also de Certeau, "La misere de la theologie", in op. cit., p. 260.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 April 1999, page 5

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