Francesco Viola

The Human Person as Seeker of Truth

Francesco Viola
Professor of philosophy of law, University of Palermo, Italy

"On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason's drive to attain goals which render people's lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it" (Fides et ratio, n. 5).

From its very first lines, the Encyclical Fides et ratio shows that it is fully a part of the general plan that has characterized the Magisterium of His Holiness John Paul II, that is, a plan marked by the Church's concern for contemporary man, for his existential problems, aspirations and anxieties, for his limitations but also for his eternal vocation. The fact that the Encyclical closest to the themes and content of Fides et ratio is precisely Redemptor hominis, which came at the beginning of the Pontificate, is the unmistakable sign of a persistent fidelity to the Church's responsibility for the salvation of the whole person.

We can find the origins of this concern further back, in the words of Gaudium et spes: "Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling" (n. 22). This vocation is not something that happens unexpectedly or is extrinsically added to the human-creature's purposes, but contains in itself the whole person in his existential concreteness and gives him direction and meaning. Consequently, the Church'sconcern must refer to the whole person "in his unique unrepeatable human reality, which keeps intact the image and likeness of God himself" (Redemptor hominis, n. 13).

It has also been said that man is the Church's project because he is the great project of God, Creator and Redeemer. For this reason the Church cannot be indifferent to all that makes the human heart beat, that is, to all man's anxieties, undertakings and hopes: "the search for truth, the insatiable need for the good, hunger for freedom, nostalgia for the beautiful, and the voice of conscience" (Redemptor hominis, n. 18).

In this light, all magisterial interventions can be interpreted as a closer examination of a particular aspect of the human person, of his life and death, his sufferings and his need for forgiveness and mercy, of his moral problems, his world of relationships in the family, at work, in society and in politics, and above all, of his call to accept the life-giving gift of the Spirit. In all these dimensions of the human person the Church makes herself present with the knowledge that she is the guardian of a great treasure for humanity, which is preserved, increased and made fruitful by the Spirit only with Christ and in Christ.

Since the person perceives the mystery of himself only through his own life experience, the best way to begin to understand him is to observe him at work in the activities of life which outline the phenomenology of the person. It is a question of the common existential coordinates within which every human being lives his own life and seeks to fulfil himself. Here the use of the person's faculties and natural endowments also comes into play, with reference to his circumstances of life, his relationships with others and the means at his disposal.

We thus ask ourselves what criteria are the most correct, appropriate and suited to the person's dignity. This is a question of truth, because no one wants to live in error and falsehood, especially as regards the meaning of his own life (Fides et ratio, n. 25). What is sought is the rightness of his reason and its proper measure (Fides et ratio, n. 4). This implies that there are ideas, evaluations, ways of life and social practices which are destructive of the person, while others more or less correspond to that inner measure that he carries within himself, to that interior vocation to which he is called to be faithful. But it is a question of fidelity to himself and not to an external law or bond that represses his freedom.

The reference to the idea of recta ratio—perhaps without exaggeration is the keystone of the Encyclical's approach to the problem of human knowledge. It allows us not to lose sight of the existential dimension of human consciousness, whose subject and end are nevertheless always the person. It also suggests that reason is a faculty whose object is truth, and is not a power without direction or orientation. Precisely because reason is a faculty with its own measure, it can itself become a measure. Consequently, it is necessary to judge the development of philosophy and theology in terms of the correct exercise of reason, which by this very fact protects and fulfils a person in his inmost truth. Knowledge is for man, but man is for truth. In this sense it would be erroneous to speak either of anthropocentrism or cosmocentrism. Truth is central to the concept of the Church and in the last analysis can only be grounded in God.

This is why the search for recta ratio and the truth of things is not only a particular phenomenological sector of human experience, but a general undertaking which passes through all the person's states of life. If the right measure is unknown or lost, the person will find himself disoriented in relation to the world, to himself and to God.

This interior measure is both objective and subjective; it is a commensuration with the being of things and, at the same time, an interior correspondence to it and thus a personal responsibility. All this is contained in the adaequatio rei et intellectus, which is not a mere registering of objectivity, but precisely an ever closer (and ever perfectible) accord between the truth of things and the truth of the person (Fides et ratio, n. 82). Therefore, the search for truth combines both the requirement of an objective and rigorous knowledge, that is, of a truth which is not at the service of human passions and is in all senses nonfunctional, with its anthropological resonance. "In this sense, metaphysics should not be seen as an alternative to anthropology, since it is metaphysics which makes it possible to ground the concept of personal dignity in virtue of their spiritual nature. In a special way, the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being, and hence with metaphysical enquiry" (Fides et ratio, n. 83).

The Encyclical therefore approaches philosophy and theology in the perspective of the person and can only do so because the Church is concerned about man's salvation and all that leads to it. And so rather than speak of philosophy and theology as products of human effort, we speak of the acts and faculties which give rise to them, of fides and ratio. The enormous growth that occurs from the accumulation of theological, scientific and philosophical knowledge tends to obscure the profound sources from which this knowledge comes, and often blurs its purposes. In fact, without the desire and the search for truth which define man as a person, as "the one who seeks the truth" (Fides et ratio, n. 28), it is all meaningless and becomes a pure and simple game of ideas, if not a tragic forgetfulness of being.

Faith and reason both belong to the desire for truth and it is precisely because of this common root that they are compatible sisters who need one another (Fides et ratio, n. 17). We are very far from the perspective of Kant, who felt constrained to humble science in order to make room for faith. On the contrary, it must be said that faith helps reason to discover itself and its openness to transcendence. It prompts it not to withdraw and be limited to radically worldly projects and to the reassuring certainties of empirical and factual truths. If that were the case, it would be futile to seek a response to the meaning of life and things.

This openness to the ultimate truths and to the first cause is inscribed in the very nature of human reason, as was noted by Aristotle. Faith helps reason not to forget this, for otherwise faith itself, in its capacity to listen to the revealed word, could not exist either. Only a rational animal can have faith and, in a certain sense, must have it. Indeed, the very work of reason is based on belief. The search for truth never starts from zero, but always presupposes a trust in knowledge, ideas and data which we cannot always control by ourselves. Moreover, the search for truth is not an individualistic undertaking, but a community act which involves not only our contemporaries, but also the successive generations of human history. It is nourished by trust and friendship (Fides et ratio, n. 33).

Therefore we would say, on the contrary, that to save science we must make room for faith and that the one who seeks truth is also the one who lives by belief (Fides et ratio, n. 31), on condition however that we realize that believing in something means believing that that thing is true. And this is not altogether obvious, because there are philosophical currents which, after denying reason's capacity to know the truth, consequently see belief as a practical trust dictated by utilitarian or comforting motives, a sort of provisional morality for navigating through life. The Christian faith itself is no longer understood as the intellect's assent to revealed truth, but as a pure and simple expression of human solidarity and fraternal love, to say nothing of the Church herself being presented as a charitable organization.

In this way the reasons for faith, that is, trust and friendship between human beings and listening to a loving God who reveals himself, become the very content of belief and what leads to truth becomes the goal of the search. Is believing simply "entrusting" oneself or is it accepting as true what we receive in the name of this trust? Moreover, how could we ever say that we trust except through acts proper to faith? And if we do not receive truth, will trust not soon become suspicion?

The fact that faith means an assent of the intellect requires that theology be understood and developed as a true and proper speculative wisdom, and not as mere practical knowledge about religious salvation (Fides et ratio, n. 43).

The symbiosis between faith and reason has very solid philosophical roots. We are taught by modern thought to think of reason only as a faculty and this explains why there came to be a contest between faith and reason, between demonstrative knowledge and revealed knowledge. On this basis the areas of competence are divided and the premises of the conflict laid. But medieval philosophy knew another meaning of reason, not only ratio ut facultas, but also ratio ut natura. This natura of the person is precisely what opens him to receiving the being of things and leads him beyond himself towards the transcendent absolute, to the One who—as Ecclesiastes says—put the idea of eternity in the human heart. This is the common basis of philosophical reason and religious faith (Fides et ratio, n. 42).

The encounter of philosophy and theology takes place in the human person. The latter is not an extrinsic place, a mere container indifferent to its contents. On the contrary, the very way of understanding philosophy and theology, the exercise of thought in both realms, depends on the understanding of the human person, on his faculties and desires, his aims and his resources. The whole history of philosophy could be interpreted as a succession of the images the person makes of himself, as a continual seeking and interpretation of what he is. At times he sees himself immersed and enclosed in a body, to the point of feeling imprisoned in it; other times he rises above it, to the point of believing he can do without everything because of a disembodied angelism. Sometimes he thinks that his faculties are tied to his senses and to facts, making it absolutely impossible to know essences, or even if there are any, and at times he believes he can rise to absolute knowledge, soaring above nature and historical experience. These oscillations have marked and continue to mark the history of the self-understanding of the human person, who—as the Greek tragedians, Pico della Mirandola and Pascal have vividly noted—must find his place in the world between beast and angel, experiencing at the same time, and therefore dramatically, the struggle for physical survival of the former and the disembodied spiritualism of the latter. The result is often a "crisis of meaning" (Fides et ratio, n. 81).

If it is true that the way of understanding philosophy and theology depends on the person's self-understanding, it is also true that the latter itself is conditioned by the way in which the exercise of thought is developed in a given era and environment. The human person is not an isolated monad capable of attaining the meaning of his own life solely by his own efforts. To understand himself he must converse with other people and, consequently, receive from the forms of this discourse logical and social structures which influence for good or bad the discovery of meaning. So it happens that philosophical thought is at once the free expression of the person and the cultural bond which brings people together, even at the price of their autonomy. This is why not only must each person respect himself and the truth he represents, but the society of persons must also be attentive to building structures of thought that can help its members truly to know themselves. In fact, respect for the dignity of the human person is always entrusted to human persons and it is through them that the most terrible violations have occurred in history. The "structures of sin" which were fittingly discussed in Sollicitudo rei socialis are not only forms of social behaviour but also and primarily distorted forms of thought which become entrenched in the human mind and lead to attitudes held to be spontaneous, but which in fact are the result of cultural conditioning and steel cages imprisoning the person.

It is not enough to talk of the dignity or sacredness of the person. Today no one—at least in words—denies this truth. Respect for the person has become a sort of cliché in an era of pluralism. Attempts are even made to extend this dignity to animals, and some ecologists pursue a cosmic transpersonalism which leads to the divinization of nature. The crucial problem today is not the person, but the "human" person, that is, the prerogatives and limits of his humanness. Paradoxically, the impending danger in our time is not the loss of the sense of the sacred present in the universe, but the loss of the sense of man, of his "humanity", longing for truth and transcendence but never able to embrace them fully except through the gift of Revelation in Jesus of Nazareth (Fides et ratio, n. 15). For this reason, philosophy and theology are activities of thought in which the meaning of man is jointly at stake.

Philosophy is the "love of wisdom", that is, not the complete possession of it, but a ceaseless searching for truth which is always open-ended and never completed once and for all. Man is the only being who philosophizes; certainly not animals, which are incapable of seeking the truth of things, and certainly not God, who knows everything. Today we are far removed from those claims to absolute knowledge which characterized the idealist systems of the past. Today, if anything, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction towards epistemological relativism and a metaphysics of the insecurity and radical contingency of being, to the point of open nihilism (Fides et ratio, n. 90). While the person is released from the fetters of human nature, the individual in his existential contingency is attracted by the vortex of nothingness. Philosophy seems to adapt to this cultural situation and prepares to live in it without dramatics but—we would say—almost with joyous freedom.

The love of truth, where it is pursued with earnest radicalism, is in fact a source of anxiety and suffering, because the search is also pain and sorrow. A society that aspires above all to free itself from suffering can thus be tempted to give up the search for truth. This shows once again the universal significance of the wisdom of the Cross, whose "foolishness" constantly spurs reason not to abandon the search for ultimate things and unmasks any attempt to imprison truth in closed systems (Fides et ratio, n. 23).

We should not forget that recta ratio, to which the Encyclical constantly refers, is not only an objective measure, but also an inner disposition. Truth, whatever the order it belongs to, cannot be adequately grasped if the person does not make himself ready to receive it. There is not only the truth of things, but there is also the truth of the person, that is, his inner rectitude. The one implies the other, because person means openness and acceptance; it means making oneself the other, putting oneself in the other's shoes and—as Thomas Aquinas noted—in a certain sense becoming all things. Precisely for this reason, every truth, regardless of where it comes from and whatever its status, the moment it is learned by the person becomes his substance, helps to fulfil him and in a certain sense has a salvific meaning for him. "Salvation" is not only preservation and healing but, after all, fulfilment and completeness. God the Creator is already Saviour.

At the same time, since the person is "human", he is called to attain his ultimate end and must order his knowledge and action in this light. This calls for putting order into scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge, so as to recognize in their convergence the overall meaning of human life and to attain true wisdom (Fides et ratio, n. 44), because the person cannot answer the question about himself if he does not know the world in which he dwells and the God from whom he comes and to whom he must return. Then knowledge becomes wisdom of life, and what has been achieved by the effort of ideas becomes spiritual joy and gratitude. Recta ratio becomes wisdom, the search for and contemplation of truth, and from this stems the human person's love and self-giving.

It is precisely in this close connection between the knowledge of truth in all its breadth and of the goals of one's own life that—in my opinion—is found the key to the conception of the human person which the Encyclical Fides et ratio, from its very first lines, offers for the consideration of Christians and of all those who do not want to abandon their quest for the meaning of human life.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 September 1999, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069