Fides et ratio  - Reflection 1

Crisis Of Meaning Proves The Encyclical's Timeliness

Fr Georges Cottier, O.P.                                                          Reflections Index

The Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio is driven by a powerful spirit. Its broad exposition of topics is impressive and calls for reflection. It offers a new, wellarticulated synthesis of the themes treated by John Paul II from the start of his Pontificate, beginning with Redemptor hominis and stressing the Christological perspective of Gaudium et spes: the mystery of man truly comes to light in the mystery of the incarnate Word (n. 22). It enables us to grasp the inner logic and vital continuity of his teaching.

One of the reasons for the Church's existence is the duty imposed on her to exercise the diakonia of the truth.

The Successor of Peter reminds his Brother Bishops, "witnesses of divine and catholic truth" (Lumen gentium, n. 25), of the current need to exercise it: "To bear witness to the truth is therefore a task entrusted to us Bishops; we cannot renounce this task without failing in the ministry which we have received. In reaffirming the truth of faith, we can both restore to our contemporaries a genuine trust in their capacity to know and challenge philosophy to recover and develop its own full dignity" (n. 6).

He then gives a second reason. In Veritatis splendor the Pope had drawn attention to "certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied". "In the present Letter, I wish to pursue that reflection by concentrating on the theme of truth itself and on its foundation in relation to faith" (ibid.).

A single intention links the two Encyclicals.

We should recall that in analyzing the present crisis, Veritatis splendor saw its origin in the separation of human freedom, created freedom, from truth: the reflection on truth now proposed by the Magisterium was anticipated in a way by the earlier Encyclical.

However, the Encyclical is not a self-contained analysis of a crisis endured as something inevitable. On the contrary, it accepts the challenge and takes the opportunity to invite human thought to discover its identity and exalting responsibility. The next few lines help us understand the ethos of the document as a whole: "With its enduring appeal to the search for truth, philosophy has the great responsibility of forming thought and culture; and now it must strive resolutely to recover its original vocation. This is why I have felt both the need and the duty to address this theme so that, on the threshold of the third millennium of the Christian era, humanity may come to a clearer sense of the great resources with which it has been endowed and may commit itself with renewed courage to implement the plan of salvation of which its history is part" (ibid.).

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How timely is the Encyclical? The question leads us to ask what is its contribution and to what need does it respond. To grasp its urgency enables us to understand its newness.

As regards principles, the Encyclical is a continuation of the First Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, as elaborated by the Constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council, which, as everyone knows, stressed the historical nature of Revelation.

"The truth about himself and his life which God has entrusted to humanity is immersed therefore in time and history; and it was declared once and for all in the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth" (n. 11). In the light of Christ, who perfects and fulfils Revelation, we see the fundamental importance of history, a path which the People of God are called to follow to the end, "so that by the unceasing action of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13) the contents of revealed truth may find their full expression".

The definitive word expressed in Christ's Revelation gives meaning to life, meaning which the human intellect could not have discovered by its own power. It is addressed to all men and women in every generation.

The Church's mission, which continues the mission of the incarnate Word and is under its influence, is meant to serve this encounter to which all are called. In this sense, the Magisterium must evaluate the true conditions of an era and respond to its expectations. John Paul II is convinced that the situation in our time calls for this message about faith and reason.

The First Vatican Council had distinguished between the natural knowledge of God and Revelation, between faith and reason. Here reason means the capacity to know by relying on one's own resources. The natural knowability of God's existence is presumed by Revelation itself. There can be no divergence between these two orders of knowledge because it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith, and who places the light of reason in the human spirit: he cannot deny himself, nor can the truth contradict the truth (cf. n. 53).

In line with Dei Filius, Leo XIII's Encyclical Aeterni Patris will say: "Just when St Thomas distinguishes perfectly between faith and reason, he unites them in bonds of mutual friendship, conceding to each its specific rights and to each its specific dignity" (quoted in n. 57).

The cultural context in which these statements were made was one of triumphant rationalism. Sure of itself, reason proudly asserted its self-sufficiency; it did not tolerate any doctrinal authority higher than its own supremacy.

Here we see the timeliness of the new Encyclical. Actually, the intellectual horizon has profoundly changed. The demiurgic pride of reason is no longer asserted in great philosophical systems but in a concept, or better, in an ideology of science polarized by technical advances. But this Promethean thrust is accompanied by an unspoken restlessness. Reason has doubts about itself. This loss of confidence in reason's natural powers is the defining feature of the crisis, the crisis of meaning, to the point that people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning. Without denying all the positive contributions made by modern thought, the Encyclical attributes the origin and continuation of the crisis of reason to those present-day currents. These currents of thought converge in a nihilist interpretation, "which is at once the denial of all foundations and the negation of all objective truth". This conception appears today as "the common framework of many philosophies which have rejected the meaningfulness of being" (cf. nn. 88-90). "Quite apart from the fact that it conflicts with the demands and the content of the word of God, nihilism is a denial of the humanity and of the very identity of the human being" (ibid.). This is the greatest challenge John Paul II intends to make: to give reason back its self-confidence, particularly philosophical reason. In this regard several points deserve special emphasis.

By its very nature, Revelation, of which the Church is the guardian, asks questions of philosophical reason. A lapidary formula explains why: "The word of God is addressed to all people, in every age and in every part of the world; and the human being is by nature a philosopher" (n. 64; cf. n. 30). The universality of Revelation explains why it cannot do without philosophy; in this way it is addressed to man himself, because it is human nature itself which is expressed in philosophy. The message is universal: it deals with what constitutes man's very humanity. A fully developed philosophy, which often uses highly technical concepts, presupposes a more basic level: it is concerned with the fundamental questions that sooner or later everyone asks himself in one way or another. A philosophy's authenticity is measured by its ability to welcome, clarify and explore these questions. Therefore, the following principle sheds light on the paragraphs dealing with inculturation and the encounter with cultures (nn. 70-72): "When they are deeply rooted in experience, cultures show forth the human being's characteristic openness to the universal and the transcendent" (n 70).

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The message of salvation, communicated through Revelation, is a message of truth. By its very nature it is addressed to reason and thus implies the recognition of its prerogatives. For this reason, the Encyclical says repeatedly: reason is able to arrive at universal and absolute truth, to acquire the certitude of truth and of its absolute value; man is a being in search of truth. Faith has trust in reason (cf. n. 43). It knows that the latter "is by its nature oriented to truth and is equipped moreover with the means necessary to arrive at truth". The Encyclical adds: "A philosophy conscious of this as its 'constitutive status' cannot but respect the demands and the data of revealed truth" (n. 49). Errors are possible, such as rationalism and fideism. If faith were to require the debasement and humiliation of reason as its condition of possibility, it would be turned against itself. On the contrary, "faith ... becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason": "it is necessary not to abandon 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 move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true" (n. 56).

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Although wounded by sin, the human mind has not lost its innate ability to know the truth. What we need, then, is a philosophy "of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth" (n. 83). Sacred Scripture recognizes this innate ability. We read: "We face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent". Numbers 82-84 are among the most important for the Encyclical's overall structure. John Paul II, moreover, stresses this when he writes: "If I insist so strongly on the metaphysical element, it is because I am convinced that it is the path to be taken in order to move beyond the crisis pervading large sectors of philosophy at the moment, and thus to correct certain mistaken modes of behaviour now widespread in our society" (n. 83).

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The theme of wisdom, running through the whole Encyclical from the beautiful chapters on the Wisdom books to the "wisdom of the Cross" incomparably taught by St Paul, is an essential element of the Encyclical's message.

The Fathers of the Church accepted the legacy of Greek philosophy and purified it. Thomas Aquinas, in turn, did not hesitate to accord the prerogative of wisdom to Greek thought, because of its unifying power based on the highest principles of reason. But, in the Christian dispensation, it can no longer hold the highest rank. It fits harmoniously into a hierarchy of wisdom, in which the primacy belongs to that wisdom which is the gift of the Holy Spirit. This same primacy enhances the value of two complementary forms of wisdom: "philosophical wisdom, which is based upon the capacity of the intellect, for all its natural limitations, to explore reality, and theological wisdom, which is based upon Revelation and which explores the contents of faith, entering the very mystery of God" (n. 44).

This reference is meant to explain the timeliness of the question.

The separation of reason and faith which has occurred in modern times, leading to the present crisis, results in a marginalization of philosophy and an overall fragmentation of knowledge. The crisis of meaning is a direct result of this fragmentation. Hence there is an urgent need to rediscover the sapiential dimension of philosophy as a search for the "ultimate and overarching meaning of life". When philosophy embarks on this path, it is doing nothing other than "conforming to its proper nature". It will therefore lead the various fields of scientific learning, as well as human action, to converge on a final goal and meaning. The immense expansion of humanity's technical capability makes this sapiential dimension all the more necessary. The concluding words of n. 81 reveal the Encyclical's profound purpose and its spiritual inspiration: "The word of God reveals the final destiny of men and women and provides a unifying explanation of all that they do in the world. This is why it invites philosophy to engage in the search for the natural foundation of this meaning, which corresponds to the religious impulse innate in every person. A philosophy denying the possibility of an ultimate and overarching meaning would be not only ill-adapted to its task, but false".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 November 1998, page 10

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