As our attention seems to coalesce on next April 27, 2014—Divine Mercy Sunday—as the likely date Pope Francis has in mind for the canonization of Blessed Pope John Paul II (and likely along with him, Blessed Pope John XXIII), it’s worth recalling that this September 14—feast of the Holy Cross—marks the 15th anniversary of the promulgation of John Paul’s wonderful encyclical Fides et Ratio (FR), on the relationship between faith and reason.
This encyclical reminds us just how deeply John Paul was, every ounce, the philosopher pope, how he delighted in the pursuit of truth, how he was so often seemingly a lone voice—in the intellectual barrenness of post-modernity—insisting that truth exists.
We can benefit richly from a re-reading of Fides et Ratio, especially we who inhabit an age in which, on the secular view of things, Christian faith grows more and more quaint with every passing day, and the “big questions” (the very possibilities of human reason) are eclipsed by extremes of digitally-driven sensuality and immediacy of gratification never before seen in human history.
John Paul wrote Fides et Ratio as a response to “today’s most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth” (5). When canonized next year, John Paul the Great’s legacy will include—by his teaching, and by his own lived example—his passion to direct humanity back to the “foundation,” to the very “ground” of its own existence, to “reality in itself” and to the possibility of knowing this objectively and truly.
Fides et Ratio is an expression of John Paul’s “diakonia of the truth” (2), his stewardship, in the name of the Church, of the truth about human existence. He knew well that human maturity coincides with embarking upon the great journey of discovering truth born of a questioning wonder and amazement in the face of created reality. Writes the philosopher-pope:
“No one can avoid this questioning, neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person. The answer we give will determine whether or not we think it possible to attain universal and absolute truth; and this is a decisive moment of the search. Every truth-if it really is truth-presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth. If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times. Beyond this universality, however, people seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer-something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.” (27)
The message of Fides et Ratio is that Christian faith and human reason—together—can take us there; that philosophy and theology together can take us there. The late Avery Cardinal Dulles—in a wonderfully synoptic interpretation of Fides et Ratio written as only Dulles could write it—describes John Paul’s understanding of the interplay of faith and reason in these terms:
“Faith purifies philosophical reason in a twofold way. On the one hand, it cures philosophy of the pride to which it has at times been subject and with which it was reproached by Paul, Pascal, and Kierkegaard, among others. On the other hand, faith inspires philosophy with courage to tackle certain difficult questions, such as the problem of evil and suffering, that might seem insoluble except for the light cast on them by revelation.”
Faith purifies reason and opens up horizons that, of itself, reason could never consider. Reason in turn becomes the tool, as it were, with which faith can penetrate toward its goal knowing the Author of all truth.
Of course, the intellectual wonder of which this journey is born can be frightening. That explains to a large degree why our era is one of great digital escapes. Even fleeting sensations of this in-born thirst for truth are rendered almost imperceptible in a culture constantly awash in digital distractions.
It’s no secret, of course, that humanity loses touch with that thirst to its own peril. This “metaphysical boredom” —as George Weigel has so aptly labeled it—can lead to that human spiritual suspension we call agnosticism, and to the ultimate nihilistic desperation of feeling oneself afloat in a meaningless universe that does not give a damn about us.
Nowhere is such escapism more paradoxical and contradictory, however, than in the baptized who would otherwise count on the gift of faith—fides—to propel their own intellect—ratio—on the great journey, with confidence, and in a daily encounter with Truth who, by faith, we know to be a Divine Person and who became incarnate precisely that we could come to know him—Divine Love—as the ultimate ground of all things.
Thomas Aquinas taught that the ultimate end of the human person is to understand God (intelligere deum), and to attain to divine knowledge (divina cognitio). The greatest attainment of the rational, intellectual creature, the final frontier for reason, is the attainment, guided by faith, of the Absolute Being. To use Thomas’ own words, the human intellect “desires, and loves, and delights in the knowledge of divine things.”
One of the great challenges of our age—as Fides et Ratio reminds us—is our responsibility to lead our brothers and sisters beyond the immediate gratification, say, of awaiting their bff’s next text message … to the delights of eternal truths.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).