Why the Church needs philosophy: On the 20th anniversary of Fides et ratio

The philosophical currents that troubled John Paul II two decades ago and moved him to write Fides et ratio haven’t disappeared.

On September 14, 1998 Pope John Paul II promulgated his thirteenth encyclical, Fides et ratio. As my title suggests, in the encyclical the Pope discusses the Church’s need for philosophy, which he understands according to its Greek etymology as the “love of wisdom”. Because he sees philosophy as the love of wisdom he also sees it as a love of truth, in particular the truth about the things that matter (or should matter) most to us, ultimate truths about our origin and destiny as human persons. It’s with these truths that philosophy above all concerns itself.

The Church, of course, is also deeply interested and invested in these truths. After all, her primary mission is to draw humanity to the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ and thereby to be the path of salvation. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is our Alpha and Omega; he is the former as our Creator and Redeemer (as human persons have both a natural and a supernatural beginning), and the latter as the true happiness for which we long (the beatific vision).

Although philosophy, as a natural habit of reason, can’t demonstrably prove that we relate to the Christian God in the above-mentioned ways – that goes beyond its competence into what is proper to faith – it can show us that the Christian claims about the ultimate truths of human existence are the most reasonable ones.i On this ground and others, which I shall touch on below, John Paul sees philosophy, among all human disciplines, as theology’s most important ally.

The Holy Father’s decision to make philosophy the topic of an encyclical was motivated by worries over a growing threat to ultimate truths – or more precisely, to their pursuit and acknowledgment – that he perceived in contemporary culture. In reflecting on philosophy, he tells us, he is following the lead of his predecessors, and judges it “necessary” to do so now because “at the present time in particular the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected” (5). The Pope notes that the contemporary situation is the legacy of modern philosophies that “[r]ather than make use of human reason to know the truth,” have “preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned” (5). This move, he explains, “has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way in the shifting sands of widespread skepticism” (5). And to this collection of unfortunate trends he will later add nihilism (46, 81, 90-91).

As a professional philosopher, and one who works in modern and contemporary thought, I can say that the Pope’s observations here aren’t at all off the mark. I would add however, and I’m sure he would have no problem granting this, that some philosophers would apply different labels to the phenomena he names and would judge positively, and as progress, what he judges negatively, and as decline. Just to give one example, the influential contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, proponent of so-called “weak thought” (pensiero debole), certainly takes a view of the present situation very different from the Pope’s.

Before Fides et ratio

John Paul tells us, as I have just said, that in discussing philosophy he is doing something that his predecessors have also done. Many previous papal documents have dealt with philosophy and so have many conciliar documents and documents by Roman congregations. This isn’t the place to try to be exhaustive. But it is worthwhile to note the existence of this magisterial literature if only to point out that Fides et ratio isn’t unprecedented in making philosophy a theme.

Among the major relevant magisterial interventions of the past century and a half, we might mention three: the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith, Dei Filius (1870), which has some important things to say about our natural knowledge of God; Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), which proposes St. Thomas’s philosophy as an essential guide for Catholic thinkers and academic institutions; and Pius XII’s Humani generis (1950), which, among other things, identifies certain problematic philosophical currents of the time and encourages Catholic thinkers to form their minds according to the “sound philosophy” (sana philosophia) “handed down by earlier Christian ages” and accepted by “the Church’s magisterium itself” which has “judged it by the criteria of divine revelation” (29).

Dei Filius, Aeterni Patris, and Humani generis are all cited and appropriated by John Paul in Fides et ratio. But in terms of intention and strategy, it might be argued that Fides et ratio comes closest to Humani generis. In both there is a concern, on the one hand, to target erroneous philosophies and, on the other, to suggest the right philosophical way forward. I don’t wish, however, to put too much weight on the resemblance since there are also significant differences, and a more adequate comparison of the two encyclicals is a project to be pursued elsewhere.

The nature of philosophy

I’d like to discuss a few of Fides et ratio’s key topics and consider and respond – in a preliminary way – to some of the criticisms of the Pope’s teaching. The first topic is the nature of philosophy. Without an understanding of how John Paul conceives of philosophy the encyclical is unintelligible. I have already made some comments on how philosophy is understood in Fides et ratio. As the love of wisdom, philosophy pursues ultimate truths and tries to see reality in the light of these truths. Here are the Holy Father’s own words:

Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human. Among these is philosophy, which is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it. Philosophy emerges, then, as one of noblest of human tasks. According to its Greek etymology, the term philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Born and nurtured when the human being first asked questions about the reason for things and their purpose, philosophy shows in different modes and forms that the desire for truth is part of human nature itself. It is an innate property of human reason to ask why things are as they are, even though the answers which gradually emerge are set within a horizon which reveals how the different human cultures are complementary.ii

Although the Pope regards philosophy as partly a search for ultimate truths, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that he also teaches, as we see in this text, that philosophy can generate knowledge and find answers. This is why he rejects skepticism and nihilism. Of nihilism he writes that “it has a certain attraction for people of our time.” And further:

Its adherents claim that the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth. In the nihilist interpretation, life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has pride of place. Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional.

Evidently, nihilism is antithetical to Christian life, which calls for irrevocable commitments, first in baptism but then also in marriage and in holy orders. If we can’t show that truth is attainable – a task that is the business of philosophy – then these demands of Christian life would be rightly dismissed as irrational.

The Oxford Anglican theologian John Webster complains that the account of philosophy offered in Fides et ratio is “a-historical … one which takes very scant notice of the political, social and cultural frameworks of thought, detaching philosophical work from particular human projects, questions and activities.”iii Webster tells us that “[w]hat the encyclical has in mind is not philosophy as a practice, but philosophy as a grand unified theory of reality.”iv To be sure, philosophy, like any human practice, emerges in specific historical contexts. But it doesn’t follow from this, as Webster seems to assume, that we can’t identify a definite, universal nature in this practice just as we can in other human deeds. I can recognize that certain actions count as eating or reading or doing math, etc. Why should it be any different with philosophy? Webster doesn’t say and I’m unaware of a good reason to think that philosophy should be the exception. In other words, I don’t think John Paul is wrong to take philosophy to have a nature that would allow us to identify and re-identify it across different historical contexts.

Gianni Vattimo, whom I mentioned earlier, suggests that Fides et ratio defends a “violent” or, at any rate, misguided, view of philosophy. It’s misguided, Vattimo thinks, because it clings to the idea that there are objective and stable ultimate truths, i.e., objective and stable ways that we are and that the world is.v Along with Nietzsche, Vattimo holds that “reality” is nothing more than our interpretation of it and that this interpretation is endlessly shifting. Vattimo is prepared even to say that this claim about reality is itself only an interpretation. Again borrowing from Nietzsche, he calls this understanding of things “complete nihilism” (nichilismo compiuto).vi Presumably, though, Vattimo would have to concede that there are interpretations, that is, that they have being. But if they do have being, then wouldn’t they thus be subject to the “laws” of being, such as non-contradiction? If Vattimo does admit this, then he must also admit that reality isn’t interpretation all the way down. If he doesn’t, and is willing to throw out such things as non-contradiction, I’m not sure whether there’s much point to taking his views seriously.

The autonomy of philosophy

A second key topic in Fides et ratio is the autonomy of philosophy. I explained above that John Paul sees philosophy, among all human disciplines, as theology’s most important ally. Mediaeval theologians referred to philosophy as the ancilla theologiae, the “servant of theology”. I shall talk about that more in a moment. For now I want to observe that despite the service philosophy can and should render to theology, the Pope insists that philosophy also has a certain autonomy. What does he mean by this and why does he insist on it? Let’s turn to the text:

[E]ven when it engages theology, philosophy must remain faithful to its own principles and methods. Otherwise there would be no guarantee that it would remain oriented to truth and that it was moving towards truth by way of a process governed by reason. A philosophy which did not proceed in the light of reason according to its own principles and methods would serve little purpose. At the deepest level, the autonomy which philosophy enjoys is rooted in the fact that reason is by its nature oriented to truth and is equipped moreover with the means necessary to arrive at truth.vii

Reason is our natural power to know truth. Although, like the rest of our nature, it has been wounded by sin, it hasn’t been destroyed. This means that we can still reach naturally knowable truths (as opposed to truths we can only know by supernatural revelation) on our own, and that includes ultimate truths, even if these require much more effort. Philosophy, then, can still accomplish a lot by its own lights. If philosophy couldn’t do this, we would have no revelation-independent way of ascertaining the reasonableness of Christianity’s central claims. Embracing Christian faith would, in that event, truly be a blind leap.

Consequently, not only is philosophy autonomous in the sense that I’ve just set out but it’s important to Christianity that it be so.

Yet Richard Bernstein, American philosopher and professor at the New School for Social Research in New York (and whose excellent Gadamer seminar I once audited as a graduate student many years ago), has doubts about the Pope’s sincerity in upholding philosophy’s autonomy.viii Bernstein has a couple reasons for these doubts. For one, he thinks that by asserting, as he does, that there are certain basic truths that are, in a way, known by all people and constitute a kind of “implicit philosophy” (philosophia implicita), John Paul is peremptorily limiting free philosophical inquiry. “If one is going to be true to the spirit of the autonomy of philosophy,” writes Bernstein, “then one must recognize that these alleged truths are still rationally debated by philosophers.” What truths does the Pope have in mind? He lists the following: the laws of non-contradiction, finality, and causality, the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness, and “certain fundamental moral norms” (4). These truths are said to be known by everyone “in a general and unreflective way” (sub forma omnino universali neque conscia).

No doubt many philosophers would challenge the Pope’s claims about these truths and he’s well aware of this. But nowhere does he say that people must accept his claims… or else! Even if he were to teach that a rejection of these claims is inconsistent with the Catholic faith (which I think is true), he would be the first to say that no one can be constrained to adopt this faith. As he explains in Redemptoris missio: “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience” (39).

A second reason why Bernstein questions John Paul’s sincerity in what he says about philosophy’s autonomy has to do with the Pope’s discussion in the encyclical of our search for an “absolute.” This is the passage that bothers Bernstein:

[P]eople 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.ix

Commenting of these remarks, Bernstein tells us that “a variety of philosophers have questioned the very idea of such an absolute and final truth.” He is careful to make it clear that the “best” of these philosophers aren’t arguing for an “anything goes” relativism as an alternative to an absolute. Instead they emphasize that the conclusions we reasonably come to can always be revised.

In any case, Bernstein once again suspects that the Pope is trying to shut down philosophical inquiry and is, therefore, threatening the philosophical autonomy that he tells us he supports. In response, I can only repeat what I have already said. John Paul is simply proposing, not imposing.

Philosophia ancilla theologiae

There’s a lot that philosophy can do to assist in the project of theology. Theology is essentially, to use St. Anslem’s well-known formula, fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding”. Theology’s purpose is to understand the content of revelation. So, it doesn’t leave reason behind but employs it in a new context, a context that comes to reason as a gift. Because of his emphasis on philosophy’s autonomy the Pope expresses some hesitation about speaking of it as the ancilla theologiae but, all the same, he recognizes that the connotations of the traditional term need not be negative.

In the encyclical he explores a number of different ways that philosophy helps theology but I can’t go into all of them now. I have already mentioned how philosophy can show the reasonableness of theological claims that surpass reason’s demonstrative capacity. The Pope also stresses philosophy’s role in helping theology to articulate the universality of revealed truths. Philosophy, by its nature, doesn’t stop at the particular but pushes on to the universal and transcendent. This is preeminently the case with the division of philosophy that we call metaphysics. The importance of metaphysics’ contribution to the theology, as the Pope sees it, is hard to understate.

The word of God refers constantly to things which transcend human experience and even human thought; but this “mystery” could not be revealed, nor could theology render it in some way intelligible, were human knowledge limited strictly to the world of sense experience. Metaphysics thus plays an essential role of mediation in theological research. A theology without a metaphysical horizon could not move beyond an analysis of religious experience, nor would it allow the intellectus fidei to give a coherent account of the universal and transcendent value of revealed truth.x

Not everyone, of course, shares the Holy Father’s appreciation for the use of metaphysics in theology. To come back to John Webster, he argues that “the search for critical and universally communicable concepts” to articulate the content of revelation is not an innocent matter and goes on to say that the translation of the divine action of creation into the language of causality “sowed the seeds of the doctrine’s decline into marginality and, indeed, virtual unintelligibility.”xi Unfortunately, Webster does nothing to back up this contention. But I doubt that he could anyway. Unless he’s prepared to deny a reality that transcends the physical world – and, from what I know of Webster’s work, he isn’t – then it would be hard for him to reject metaphysics in principle. The problem, then, would perhaps reduce itself to a mere question of learning the concepts and language of metaphysics. Of course, the concepts and language of any discipline with which we lack experience will appear to us initially as unintelligible. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be learned.

Fides et ratio 20 years later

The philosophical currents that troubled John Paul II twenty years ago and moved him to write Fides et ratio haven’t disappeared. If anything, they have become more prominent. In that respect, we could say that the encyclical is even more relevant today than it was in 1998.

However, as I hope I have made clear, Fides et ratio wasn’t just a warning against errors. By also reflecting on the positive ways that philosophy and theology should work together John Paul wished to revitalize Catholic philosophy and theology. But for that to happen we must take his message to heart. On this twentieth anniversary of the promulgation of Fides et ratio I invite all Catholic philosophers and theologians to do just that.


i I’m not saying that philosophy can’t conclusively prove that we have a divine Creator or that our happiness ultimately lies in him. What I’m saying is that philosophy can’t demonstrate in a formal way that this divinity is the Christian God.

iiFides et ratio, 3.

iiiFides et ratio, articles 64-79,” New Blackfriars 81 (2000), pp. 69-70.

ivFides et ratio, articles 64-79,” p. 70.

vDopo la cristianità: per un cristianesimo non religioso (Garazanti, 2002) p. 123.

viThe Responsibility of the Philosopher (Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 77.

viiFides et ratio, 49.

viii See his “Faith and Reason: Response to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Fides et Ratio,” Books and Culture: A Christian Review, (July/August, 1999).

ixFides et ratio, 27.

xFides et ratio, 83.

xiFides et ratio, articles 64-79,” pp. 71-72.

About Joseph G. Trabbic 4 Articles
Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of Thomistica.net, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.


  1. Another ultimate truth that’s important for the Pope in Fides et ratio is the nature of the human person. If I could be the first critic of my essay, I would say that my failure to comment on that in a meaningful way is striking!

  2. In a clarifying footnote (#1), Trabbic has this to say about one limit to formal philosophy: “I’m not saying that philosophy can’t conclusively prove that we have a divine Creator or that our happiness ultimately lies in him. What I’m saying is that philosophy can’t demonstrate in a formal way that this divinity is the Christian God.”

    On this very limit emeritus Pope Benedict XVI explains further that more than one kind of proof serves the adventure of searching for truth: “Christianity’s claim to be true cannot correspond to the [formal] standard of certainty posed by modern science, because the form of verification here is of a quite different kind from the realm of testing by experiment—pledging one’s life for this—is of a quite different kind. The saints, who have undergone the experiment, can stand as guarantors of its truth, but the possibility of disregarding this strong evidence remains” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, 2003).

    Including abstract metaphysics as part of philosophy (as does Pope St. John Paul II), Etienne Gilson gives us this earthy one-line response to today’s fascination with historical relativism: “Philosophy always buries its undertakers” (The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 1937/1965).

  3. And yet it was John Paul II who in these encyclicals and other writings effectively unprivileged Thomism and its place in Catholic theology and concluded the metaphysics of Thomas did not “tell the whole story of man.” By corollary of this conclusion, almost a kind of emanation there was also proclaimed this now (suddenly) increased awareness of ‘the dignity of man.” Because of personalism? Phenomenology? World War II?

    Please note how this newfound awareness of the “dignity of man” is used also by those who favor abortion, euthanasia and same sex marriage.

    It is arguable that the Augustinian component of the Thomistic synthesis was also neutralized effectively…by virtue of this new realization (“New Advent?”) of “human dignity,” everyone’s a redeemed/saved “Catholic” whether they know it or not and “every child” the baby Jesus at Bethlehem.

    What does this never before realized awareness of human dignity say about Revelation and Scripture? Simply a “development?”

    Please tell me how John Paul II’s prudential statement? of “rarely” for the death penalty in intellectual, philosophical terms can ever be based on a paradigm of justice or truly promote “justice?” On what basis is the “rarely” one who is executed being executed?

    My point: a more measured “celebration” is in order in my opinion…what led us to where we are now in ALL areas.

    In the final analysis the Catholic Church seem more committed to establishing a this-world NGO status than proclaiming “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

    • It is bizarre when people claim that JP II worked against Thomism. I have no idea where you people get these ideas. You make them, up, as far as I can tell, because you disagree with Vatican II, and you have invented a string of things to complain about that did not really happen.

      • John Paul II thought he has assisting/supplementing Thomism. Do I think he “succeeded” in that? No. One does not have to be against Vatican II to conclude that Thomism was indeed unprivileged after Vatican II. The young Cardinal Wotyla thought there was not enough about “the dignity of man” in the Council. Personally I am not “against” the Council. I attend the Novus Ordo But if you think kissing the Koran is no problem. and let’s add on Mother Teresa’s help-whatever-they-are-be-better-whatever-they-are….frankly I think we need a big return to Augustine at this time within Thomism not personalism

        • If Thomism was “unprivileged” it was because modern theologians as a whole went crazy during the 60’s and thought they were on control. Yet some cranks like to blame this on JP II, when in fact he corrected this misbehavior on the part of progressive theologians, and showed them where they were wrong. I have a clue for you. Seeded within Thomas Aquinas is the idea of the dignity of man. This is not some new thing that JP II thought up. It has always been a fundamental of church teaching. You just get confused when modern theologians try to pervert the idea, and so you falsely blame it on JP II. Wrong.

  4. At its best I agree with JP2, but the Catholic Church’s near obsession with philosophy has also given birth to an unintended side effect where creative philosophers can “reason” their way into anything (even evil).

    In the modern Church we see evidence of this all around us. There’s a reason why the term “Jesuitical” is often applied to crafty philosophical game playing.

    Yes, philosophy can at times be a helpful tool but we must remember we worship and follow a plain speaking carpenter, not an effete toga wearing philosopher. It’s that carpenter who teaches us that our “yes” should mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no”. Word games and philosophical acrobatics usually just lead us to ruin.

    • People have bad thoughts and commit evil acts. Should thinking and acting be condemned? (To condemn either would require thought and actions, so…) Anything good can be used for ill ends. In fact, that’s really always the case, isn’t it? The gnostics and Arius and other heretics misused Scripture. Others have misused theology. Many have misused power, money, sex, food, and a host of other things.

      Secularists say the Catholic Church disdains reason and cling to superstition; you say the Church is close to obsessed with philosophy. Both are incorrect.

      One of the many reasons I became Catholic was because the Church embraces the life of the mind and is not afraid of good philosophy (while offering the best critiques of bad philosophy). One need not be a philosopher to be a good Catholic, but good philosophy has always been a part of Catholicism.

      • I don’t argue against the use of philosophy as a tool. That’s all it is and like all tools it has a time and a place. Philosophy should always be subordinated to revelation. In Fides et Ratio JP 2 uses the analogy of faith and reason being the two wings of a bird. In other words, he makes them equal. I disagree. We run into danger when we think human reasoning to be equal to that of God’s.

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