Fr. John M. McDermott  5 May 1999  Reflections on 'Fides et ratio' - 12

Dogmatic Theology Needs Philosophy

Fr. John M. McDermott, S.J.                                                                    Reflections Index

Besides its fourth chapter on the relationship of faith and reason, Fides et ratio dedicates the sixth chapter to the interaction between philosophy and theology. There is an obvious correspondence between the two chapters insofar as philosophy is par excellence the science of reason and theology the science of faith. Because of the close relationship between philosophy and theology, the Pope is very concerned, in the face of relativistic philosophies which result in nihilism, to defend reason. If reason is not capable of attaining truth, the foundations of the faith are undermined. Without reason no claim of truth might be ascribed to the Christian message that is proclaimed in words. Paradoxically, after centuries of defending the faith's difference from and superiority to reason against the claims of the Enlightenment, the Church must now defend reason itself to the heirs of the Enlightenment in the name of faith.

The Church's defence of reason is simultaneously a defence of freedom. If freedom is not grounded in truth, there is no final reason for any choice. "Freedom" would become a series of arbitrary impositions, subject ultimately to the passions and needs of nature. Freedom is central to the Christian message. "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1). Indeed, insofar as Christ is the Truth, "the Truth shall set you free" (Jn 8:32; 14:6). At the root of Catholic thought lies a double notion of freedom. On the one hand, "freedom is not realized in decisions made against God" (n. 13). Only when created freedom chooses God does it attain its purpose and achieve its essence. A sinner is not free, but a slave of sin (Jn 8:34; Rom 6:17, 20). Yet this aspect does not suffice; otherwise man would be free only in doing good and his free capability to commit sin could not be explained. There must be a freedom previous to its full realization in choosing God. Freedom can be exercised in a disordered manner (n. 80), and God respects men's autonomy and freedom in offering his truth for their salvation (n. 15). This "freedom of indifference" whereby man can choose to reject God or cooperate with grace constituted the point at issue in the 15th century when the Council of Trent defined that, despite the wounds inflicted by original sin, man retains the freedom to cooperate with grace in the work of justification (DS 1521, 1525f., 1528, 1554f.).

As a consequence of the Catholic understanding of freedom, the First Vatican Council defined as dogmatic truth man's capacity to know God "with certitude from created realities by the natural light of human reason" (DS 3004). Against the extremes of fideism and rationalism the Council Fathers realized that man can only accept faith freely if he has an understanding of what is being proposed to him. Without some ontologically previous knowledge of God, it is impossible to understand the claim of revelation to be God's word. Without understanding no free choice is possible. Such is the absolute demand of faith for following Christ unto the cross that only the truth of his claim can justify such a human response. The believer must be convinced that God's word is true and without contradiction. Hence the Council also insisted that faith and reason, though distinct, cannot contradict each other, having their single source in God (DS 3017).

This Catholic doctrine is well grounded in Scripture. Genesis recounted how in six days God created the universe in an orderly manner, one thing after another, to culminate in man, his image. All the parts were deemed "good", and after man's creation God found the whole universe "very good" (1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The author of Wisdom noted now God "created the world out of formless matter" and praised him, "but you have arranged all things by measure and number and weight" (11:17, 20). The intelligible order of the universe clearly reflects the goodness of the Creator. Even after sin marred the divine image and so warped man's freedom and knowing that he traded the truth of God for idols and was handed over to his passions (Rom 1:21-32), God's only Son refurbished the image by becoming man and revealing God’s loving plan of salvation. In the words of Vatican I repeated by Vatican II, "it has pleased [God's] wisdom and goodness to reveal to the human race in another, supernatural way himself and the eternal decrees of his will; as the Apostle says, 'in many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; last of all in these days he has spoken to us In the Son' " (DS 3004 citing Heb 1:1f.; Dei Verbum, n. 2). In the finite words and symbols of Christ's humanity God has addressed mankind for its salvation. Thus, Scripture testifies, before and after the fall there exists a structure of finite intelligibility that mediates knowledge of God and his will.

There are admittedly theoretical problems in talking about God from his creation. How may the Infinite God be grasped in the finite symbols of human discourse? If creation depends upon an absolutely free decision realized in God's infinity, how can man discover the final reason of creation? Again, if human thought proceeds according to laws (e.g., contradiction, sufficient reason) and these laws possess a necessity grounded in knowledge of the real, how is freedom, both human and divine, to be reconciled with the necessary, universal structures of thought?

The Encyclical, anchored firmly in Catholic tradition, affirms the analogy of being. Not only is God Truth (n. 92), but truth is also contained in human propositions composed of concepts (nn. 30, 66, 76). Though all beings are referred to God as the Absolute in whose reality they are ultimately grounded, there must also be intelligible intermediaries of God's Truth; otherwise all human thought would be vacuous. Purely relative to God, it would have no consistency in itself. Admittedly the analogy of being, which affirms unity and diversity between Infinite and finite, cannot be restricted to a simple rationalistic schema. Philosophers have recognized how the analogy of proportion, in which created realities stand in dynamic, existential dependence upon God, and the more static analogy of proportionality, whereby the common conceptual contents of divine and human natures are preserved, must complement each other. There is a natural mystery in being.

Alongside the mystery of being is a mystery of action. In the order of creation God's omnipotence does not crush but constitutes human freedom. If man encounters only realities, whose finitude renders them relative, he can find no final reason for free choices. Every reason might be perpetually questioned, and choice would become irrational. Only the encounter with the personal Absolute grounds free choice. God's omnipotence it the condition of possibility for finite freedom. This mystery of freedom parallels the mystery of being, for both join while distinguishing divine infinity in being and action from human limitation in being and action.

Because freedom and being are mysteries, philosophy has to be open to novelty in history. History is constituted by the encounter of divine and human freedoms. No philosophy can reduce reality to a rational, necessary system entirely determined by human thought. Even the ancient Greeks recognized that alongside intelligible forms is found the mystery of matter, that principle of individuality which as non-being exists and resists the penetration of human intelligence. Prime matter not only reserves space for freedom and novelty but also forces a choice upon man. Insofar as the material real is concrete and is not grasped exhaustively by formal abstractions, these abstractions have to be referred to an infinity surpassing them. Much of modern philosophy, having rejected God, is deeply frustrated by man's inability to dominate reality in thought and action. In consequent despair it has referred knowledge to the void of matter, engendering the nihilism which the Pope identifies at the root of the culture of death. Catholic thought, on the contrary, has referred reality to the positive infinity of the good Creator who knows and loves thoroughly what he has created. Because God has created finite intellects with their finite ways of knowing, these intellects have a value that can lead men to him in freedom. Thus Christianity insists upon the meaning of the world, human intelligence and human freedom.

Why does Christianity insist upon this meaning in holding the delicate balance between infinite and finite being, knowing, and acting? A purely rational argument does not convince. The answer depends upon a more basic sense of meaning perceived in this life. Admittedly this world, marred by sin, is deeply ambiguous. Is man immortal? Man's knowledge, understood as conformity of mind and reality, can abstract from the material conditions of space and time; this intellectual operation transcending time gives ground for hope that man's rational soul survives death. Yet the soul is also the form of the body and truth occurs in judgement, the existential movement that inherently refers to a material phantasm. So man's being and knowing seem tied to matter and doomed to dust. Even deeper are the conundrums posed by suffering and sin. Since nature strives to realize itself and pleasure follows upon the unimpeded operation of a natural faculty, suffering indicates that the natural order is being frustrated. How can natural sense be made out of that? Sin, the choice of what should not be, resists rational explanation. Insofar as an explanation involves giving a cause and a cause implies necessity, no cause for sin can be given. For a cause would render necessary what should not be, resulting in an immoral universe. But where the modern nihilist, seeing ambiguity, suffering, and sin, despairs, the Christian sees Jesus Christ who gave his life to show what love means (cf. Jn 15:13) and in rising demonstrated that love is stronger than death and sin. For God is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16). Love does not abandon what he creates and those who love Christ even unto death do so in the power of his shared love, which is life eternal. The historical facts of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, which no philosophy can deduce, empower the Christian, in the face of life's ambiguities, to affirm the goodness, beauty and intelligibility of existence. Even the dross of suffering, once joined to Christ's self-sacrifice, is transmuted into gold by the purifying fire of love for the salvation of others (Col 1:24). Christ in himself joins God to man, justifying the analogy of being. He is the truth (nn. 34, 92, 108) in whom the Truth of God and the truth of human words are harmoniously reconciled. In. him, Creator and Saviour of the world, all things have their consistency (Col 1:17).

Within such a perspective it is clear how theological wisdom, which thinks from revelation, can and should judge philosophical wisdom. When human thought is tempted to absolutize itself and refuses to maintain the tensions of finite existence, theology reminds it of the greater mystery of love in which it stands and on which it depends. But theology also employs the human words of philosophy. The resurrection is not pure facticity. It has a meaning that the preaching of the Church communicates to men for faith. This meaning is expressed in human words. Jesus spent his public ministry teaching his disciples in all genres of human speech: commands, diatribes, parables, questions, prophecies, wisdom sayings, apocalyptical discourses, etc., in order that they be prepared for the cross and resurrection when he would be fully revealed to them. Surely none of his human words exhausted the infinite mystery of his person, but they illuminated this most intimate mystery of the kingdom to those who had the eyes to see and the ears to comprehend the truth of God's love. Similarly the resurrection was later communicated in various human words to awaken faith. This original auditus fidei, depending on the. authoritative testimony of eyewitnesses, has been framed in human speech. As such it presupposes other words and sentences, indeed a whole syntax and grammar. Speech, insofar as it refers to reality, presupposes in turn a philosophy if it is to remain consistent with itself. While the original meaning of the Easter proclamation was quite clear: Jesus rose from the dead, its implications about the ontological reality of Jesus, man and the universe had to be worked out. As Christianity expanded into the Hellenistic world, filled with all types of philosophies, the possibility as well as the meaning of its message were put into question. Responding to pagan objections and refuting heresies that adapted the Christian message to current philosophies, the Church Fathers often adopted the philosophical language of their adversaries in order more convincingly to refute them. They showed the weakness of those philosophies and demonstrated how Christian truth fulfilled the deepest intent of the philosophers' quest for meaning, adapting philosophical categories to the Christian message.

The Church effected this adaptation because a preliminary understanding of the Christian mystery is already contained in the auditus fidei. The structure of Christian reality is manifested in the Scriptures and in the whole life of the Church. Because of the sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, the whole Church lives the life of Jesus Christ. Without doubt the sacramental structure of the Church maintains the structure of analogy. God uses finite words and symbols to make himself present and engender man's response of love. The reality surpasses the sign but is present in it, effecting the grace which the sign symbolizes, just as Christ's divinity manifests itself in and through his humanity, which marks the new, supernatural initiative of God's love that generates a response in human hearts. Thus by reflecting on her own life, the Church might recognize what is in accord with it and what contradicts it. The same life which animates the Church provides also the ambient of love in which the scriptural words of love are to be properly understood. This provides the norm for the correction and adaptation of all philosophical systems.

Aside from some Stoic borrowings the Church Fathers and the Scholastic theologians adapted principally the categories of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies. Whereas an exaggerated Platonism leads to excessive spiritualization with the denigration of the body, time and history, an exaggerated Aristotelianism introduces rationalism and nominalism. For sanity and truth Platonism's transcendence and Aristotelianism's emphasis on inner-worldly intelligibility must balance each other. Neither system is completely closed to the insights of the other, and it fell to the lot of St Thomas to construct the most masterful synthesis of these complementary approaches to reality. His Christian vision balanced essential and existential orders, intellect and will, concept and judgement, necessity and contingency, nature and grace in such a way as to preserve the world's finite intelligibility while referring it ultimately to God and leaving room for historical novelty in the play of human and divine freedoms. Rightly the Church has recognized in him the normative master of sacred theology.

The balance of analogy is delicate and precarious. Responding to the challenges of an ever more autonomous philosophy, Thomas' disciples tended to develop a philosophy of natures as the foundation of supernatural theology. According to their needs they emphasized various aspects of his synthesis. In recent times divergences in the Thomist camp have led to some theological confusion. Conceptualist Thomists stress finite intelligibility, postulating a concept of being, seeing truth primarily as conformity and accentuating the analogy of proportionality. Since concepts permit a clear distinction of nature from the supernatural, revelation is thought to consist primarily of conceptual propositions imposed from without on God's authority by a Church established to preserve and proclaim Christ's message. In dogmatic theology conceptual abstractions encourage conceiving God in himself, apart from time and space, and from that vantage point develop a Christology from above. Conceptual clarity and reliance on authority make it easy to justify an institutional, juridical Church, and abstract notions of natures ground universally valid moral laws. In contrast, transcendental Thomists stress God's transcendence and the relativity of all finite realities to his infinity. For them being and truth are attained in a judgement, which goes beyond concepts to reality. The relativization of concepts de-emphasizes the natural-supernatural distinction in favour of the unitary movement of judgement toward the infinite God: the natural desire to see God in himself. The dynamic analogy of proportion is privileged. The object of faith beyond propositions is usually defined as 11 personal", even though it is God's infinity. Since judgement is a reflexive act, knowing is self-conscious, and God's presence to the soul as uncreated grace results in an experience of God that cannot be grasped adequately in concepts. This divine self-revelation affords a priority to the economic Trinity, God as experienced, and the immediate experience of God grounds a Christology and ecclesiology from below as the densest symbols of grace. The transcendence of concepts makes it difficult to ground a moral law that is universal; for the concrete, known by an active, intending subject enjoys a primacy over abstract universals.

While the diverse emphases of these Thomist interpretations give rise to oppositions, the foremost proponents of each school recognized the need to keep balance among the various poles of reality. Within the bounds of the faith there is room for different emphases in understanding the mysteries of God's love. The Magisterium has to intervene only when an exaggerated rational "consistency" neglects the balance of tensions and trespasses faith's boundaries. One cannot so insist on faith's transcendence as to render its content unintelligible; neither can one reduce theology to anthropology, lest the mystery and freedom of God be endangered. Christian love is the mystery most human and most divine. The recognition of love's primacy opens the way to theological progress. In The Acting Person (pp. 267-271) K. Wojtyla noted that traditional philosophy concentrated on nature. Without denying nature's intelligibility, he proposed rethinking reality from the standpoint of freedom and the person. His Love and Responsibility had anticipated that task, analyzing marriage in terms not of biological or natural drives, but of the personal communion and commitment that it entails. Similarly in his pontificate he has sought to express the truths of the Catholic faith in more personalist terminology, stressing God's love and human freedom. Always he has shown respect for the polar tensions of reality and God's transcendence, for the objectivity of truth and the responsibilities of freedom. Fides et ratio is consistent with the Pope's entire intellectual project and the truth of the Catholic tradition. In Christ the analogy of being is a personal union that unites while distinguishing God and man: Jesus Christ, Love incarnate. This man is the way to God because he first is God's way to men.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 May 1999, page 9

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