On September 14, 1998, Pope St. John Paul II issued Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason,” Latin text, English translation), an encyclical letter on the relationship between faith and reason — or, to translate the Latin more literally, an encyclical letter on the nature of the relationship between the one and the other.
Addressed to the Church’s bishops, Fides et Ratio has an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion. It was the thirteenth of John Paul II’s fourteen encyclicals and the last of the 142 papal encyclicals of the 1900s.
The seven chapters are entitled
- The Revelation of God’s Wisdom
- Credo, ut Intellegam (“I believe, that I may understand”)
- Intellego, ut Credam (“I understand, that I may believe”)
- The Relationship between Faith and Reason
- The Magisterium’s Interventions in Philosophical Matters
- The Interaction between Philosophy and Theology
- Current Requirements and Tasks
The encyclical begins with a simile and concludes with an invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“Faith and reason,” St. John Paul began, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).”
“May Mary, Seat of Wisdom, be a sure haven for all who devote their lives to the search for wisdom,” St John Paul concluded. “May their journey into wisdom, sure and final goal of all true knowing, be freed of every hindrance by the intercession of the one who, in giving birth to the Truth and treasuring it in her heart, has shared it forever with all the world.”
To commemorate the encyclical’s twenty-fifth anniversary, CWR asked bishops and scholars to assess which portions of the encyclical, with the benefit of a quarter century’s hindsight, have proven to be most significant or influential. Some of them also discussed how Fides et Ratio has influenced their own intellectual life, academic work, or ministry.
The ‘Catholic synthesis’ of faith and reason
“The synthesis between faith and reason is the perennially valid achievement of the collective intellectual life of Catholics,” said Msgr. Michael Magee, dean of the School of Theological Studies, chairman of the systematic theology department, and professor of systematic theology and Sacred Scripture at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Pennsylvania.
“As one who came to full communion with the Catholic Church from a Protestant background, I have always marveled at the profound respect that the Catholic Church has always had for the human intellect, and at the brilliance of the intellectual heritage that has resulted from the Catholic synthesis between the two, which are not in competition with each other but mutually supportive,” he added.
Msgr. Magee told CWR that
the relationship between faith and reason is articulated nowhere more clearly and beautifully than in Fides et Ratio, n. 42: ‘Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.’
The awareness that realities exist that cannot be accessed by reason alone does not stifle reason; on the contrary, it allows reason to be presented with fresh material that it can probe without ever reaching the end.
The compatibility and continuity of Fides et Ratio with the whole Catholic intellectual tradition is also illustrated beautifully with the tribute that St. John Paul II pays to St. Thomas Aquinas as an example for all Catholic teachers (n. 43) … Also an important contribution for the present age is the section in which John Paul mentions various philosophical currents that are incompatible with Catholic thought and that need therefore to be rejected or sifted so as not to lead Catholic thinkers astray; these include rationalism, fideism, and historicism (n. 55) as well as relativism, scientism, eclecticism, pragmatism, and nihilism (nn. 80-91).
“I find no better guide for my theological research and teaching — not only in terms of methodology but also of attitude — than St. John Paul’s description of the lessons Israel learned along its journey with God” (n. 18), he continued. “The encyclical has helped me to unfold to seminarians the truly scientific character of theology and, at the same time, its close relationship to contemplation and to the wonder that we experience before the majesty of God and his revelation.”
“I think this particular encyclical will never be out of date, however much it may be supplemented in times to come by further reflections along similar lines,” Msgr. Magee added.
Faith and science
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln (Nebraska) and Father John Kartje, the rector/president of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake and Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, each reflected on the encyclical’s teaching on faith and science.
Describing Fides et Ratio as a “monumental encyclical,” Bishop Conley told CWR that “as a believer, you believe that everything comes from God, the Creator. And so there is nothing that we can discover or that science can bring to us that would contradict the faith, because if it’s from God and part of His creation, then it’s part of the harmony and the order of things.”
“There can never be a contradiction between faith and reason,” he continued. “There might be things in science we can’t explain, but that’s simply because it goes beyond the realm of being able to be proven” and “because reality is a mystery. We don’t know everything about reality, and we never will, because we’re dealing with God, God’s creation, and God is infinite, and we’re never going to unravel all the mysteries of the universe.”
Similarly, Father Kartje said that “in the broadest sense, the encyclical has proven to be a great encouragement to Catholic scientists, for it honors the centrality of the encounter with mystery which underlies the passion of both the scientist and the theologian. The gaze of both is directed toward the ‘sapiential horizon’ that John Paul II identifies so persuasively and eloquently” (n. 106).
“I had just finished a post-doc in astrophysics and was in my first year of seminary when the encyclical was released,” Father Kartje recalled. “I recall the joy at knowing our Pontiff was so concerned about offering such a clear, in-depth, and contemporary discussion of the relationship between faith and reason.”
“As a Catholic scientist, I had never felt conflicted by the pairing of these ‘two wings’ [of faith and reason,” but I was often frustrated by not having a definitive magisterial document to which I could refer skeptics” — a document “that treated the topic as comprehensively and deeply as is warranted by serious thinkers. Overall, it was a great encouragement to my vocational discernment, as it affirmed for me that I was traveling consistently down the one path God had called me to follow and not veering off it.”
Father Kartje said that “JP II’s warning against the inroads of ‘scientism’ (n. 88) has turned out to be especially prescient, insofar as claims for the hegemony of scientific research over the need for divine revelation has continued to make significant inroads throughout popular culture, particularly among the young.”
In a similar vein, Bishop Conley said that “unfortunately, young people are taught in secular education that the things of religion, faith, those things that are of the spiritual realm, are not as important or significant as science. And therefore, a lot of young people have become atheists, because they believe that the truths that religion presents are somehow less important because they cannot be proved scientifically. And that’s just a very shallow way to look at the world.”
“If we pursue an education which is void or devoid of any dimension of faith, or revelation, or philosophy, then we’ve kind of truncated knowledge, and it really limits our horizons,” said Bishop Conley. “If we separate faith and reason, we are left in a murky haze … For a Christian, learning is an adventure of faith seeking understanding, as St. Anselm describes it.”
Bishop Conley described Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on moral theology, and Fides et Ratio as “the pillars of the monumental pontificate of John Paul II” and expressed sadness that “twenty-five and thirty years later, both of them are being called into question.”
“There’s a certain givenness, there’s a certain reality objectively that is given to us, and we have to discover what that is,” he said. “We may be confused about it, but the fact is, it’s absolute, it’s objective, and can’t be changed. And we can’t impose or create a reality on our own, through our own mind.”
Bishop Conley added:
And for my own life, Fides et Ratio has helped me understand that unity of faith and reason, and to see faith and reason, theology and philosophy, religion and science as something that can mutually enrich each other …
So, with this anniversary of Fides et Ratio, we need to revisit this. There’s so much more that can be understood about it. John Paul II has given us this wonderful body of teaching that still hasn’t been plumbed to its depths, but needs more and more study. And people need to read it more often, and more people need to read it, because it really is so relevant today, even more so, I think, than it was twenty-five years ago when it was promulgated.
An encyclical for a post-Christian society
Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester (Massachusetts), a former chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education and Committee on Religious Liberty and a current member of the Committee on Doctrine, told CWR that “since the publication of the encyclical in 1998, Western culture has unfortunately continued to unravel intellectually and morally as it has embraced intellectual and moral relativism. One instance of such relativism is the toxic ideology of wokeism that is spreading through our American society like a cancer.”
“Since the human person is created in the image and likeness of God with gifts of intelligence and freedom, he or she has a natural desire to know God, which is to say, to know Truth itself,” he continued. “In a post-Christian culture, faith in Divine Revelation is often marginalized if not completely dismissed as incapable of making any absolute truth claims about human reality generally and human morality specifically. Such a culture thus eliminates a source of truth that is salvific but that cannot be completely known by human reason. In a word, the encyclical consistently argues that when faith and reason are separated, the human project is hindered significantly in its pursuit of truth.”
Bishop McManus continued:
That is why we should celebrate the 25th anniversary of Fides et Ratio by an ecclesial re-reading of this prophetic text in the light of “the signs of the times.”
Especially today as so much theological reflection has surrendered rigorous intellectual reflection for an emotivist and popular psychological perspective, I also believe that the fundamental teaching of the encyclical needs to be recalled repeatedly. That teaching is found in the conclusion of paragraph 42 of the encyclical: “The fundamental harmony between the teaching is knowledge of faith and the knowledge of philosophy is once again confirmed. Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.”
Bishop McManus, who described Fides et Ratio as “extraordinarily helpful” to his episcopal ministry, added that “in the rapid unfolding of a post-Christian society, many members of such a secularized culture try to eliminate the voice of the Catholic Church in the public square, especially in the case of neuralgic social and moral issues such as abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. They do this by framing the Church’s social teaching as ‘sectarian’ or ‘faith-based’ only.”
“This is simply not true,” he said. “Because of the preeminent place that natural moral law reasoning has played and should play today in the Church’s moral reflection on these social and moral issues, bishops as moral teachers have not only a biblical or theological language to present reasonably the moral and social teachings of the Church, they also have the language of natural moral law reasoning. So, briefly stated, the contribution of Fides et Ratio to my pastoral ministry as a bishop and teacher of the Church’s moral doctrine has been highly significant.”
A providential encyclical on human nature
“It is not difficult to see the providential character of the saint’s encyclical coming ever more into view with each passing day,” said Mary Bolan, Ph.D., M.D., professor of philosophy at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in New York. “For these days are ones during which we witness an all-out assault on the nature that is human; and it is St. John Paul II in Fides et Ratio who indeed highlights nature, as the proper object of the study of philosophy” (cf. n. 43).
Pope John Paul’s “insistence on the importance of philosophy in the life of the Church is an insistence on the importance of nature in the life of the Church – in particular, the nature that is human, following the Catholic axiom that ‘grace builds on nature,’” she continued. “The Catholic Church uniquely advocates what John Paul II calls an ‘intense interest in philosophy’ (n. 63), because the life the Catholic Church promulgates is one that never leaves nature behind: it is precisely our human nature that is redeemed.”
Dr. Bolan added:
From the point of view of a seminary professor, I note in particular that at the conclusion of the encyclical, John Paul II’s thoughts turn to philosophy’s role in the formation of priests (cf. n. 105). In my experience, there is nothing, at least academically speaking, that contributes more to the solidity and groundedness of a Catholic seminarian’s education than does proper formation in philosophy, educed in the way the Church has in mind, and as the saint lays out in Fides et Ratio.
This is because it is precisely nature – philosophy’s proper object – that is the foundation upon which the life of grace is built, and indeed endures upon. It is not accidental, then, that it is nature that is under assault today, for what better way to attack anything then to target its foundation. There is no surer way to undermine the Church’s mission than to undermine that which is the enduring object of that mission; namely, our human nature.
Further, without a proper understanding of this nature, it is impossible that a Catholic theologian would have a proper understanding of grace. Most theological errors are at base philosophical ones, owing to this ever-presence of foundational nature in all things Catholic. John Paul II’s advocacy of the Church’s “intense interest in philosophy” indicates his deep mindfulness of these things.
“On a personal note, at the time of John Paul II’s publication of Fides et Ratio, I was at a crossroad in my studies,” she recalled. “I had completed graduate degrees in both philosophy and theology and was discerning which of the two disciplines I would do my doctoral studies in. It was John Paul’s Fides et Ratio that made the decision for me, so much did his emphasis on the importance of philosophy in the life of the Church impress me, as well as did his laments on the consequences of its neglect.”
“I enrolled in a pontifical university in Rome for doctoral studies in philosophy,” Dr. Bolan added. “Significantly, I there observed that doctoral students in philosophy, as compared to those in theology, were vastly underrepresented. And I suspect that this situation may continue to the present day; for it is fairly commonplace, for example, that a young, academically prominent priest would be sent to Rome or elsewhere for doctoral studies in theology, but rarely for doctoral studies in philosophy.”
Yet this might be the continued neglect of the foundation that John Paul warned us against, at a time when we need it most – at a time when nature, the proper object of philosophy, is so relentlessly attacked: “The grave responsibility to provide for the appropriate training of those charged with teaching philosophy both in seminaries and ecclesiastical faculties must not be neglected” (n. 105).
We need Catholics – Catholics gifted intellectually – to take up the study of philosophy in whole-hearted service of the Church’s mission. The good news is that John Paul II saw this twenty-five years ago, and offered us the key – the key to the solidity and stability that paying attention to the foundation provides, and that the saint promoted in Fides et Ratio.
A ‘broadside toward secularism’
“Pope St. John Paul’s magnificent Fides et Ratio casts a veritable broadside toward secularism,” said Patrick Lee, president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. “Secularists would have us believe that concern for the eternal detracts from concern for the temporal, and that religious belief is a blind leap, either opposed to, or at best, an end run around reason and science.”
“The encyclical boldly and confidently explains how Catholic faith—far from competing with reason and science—encourages the use of reason and the pursuit of science,” added Dr. Lee, a professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville and director of the Center for Bioethics there. “The Catholic Church and [her] teaching have abundant signs of credibility which indicate that the act of faith is a morally responsible and reasonable act.”
Dr. Lee continued:
The encyclical teaches that all of us have a duty to seek the truth about the fundamental meaning of life and live in accord with the truth we find. The eternal does not negate the specific and personal goods in this life, grace does not supplant nature, and faith does not oppose reason. The encyclical makes an urgent call to Catholic intellectuals—philosophers, theologians, scientists, historians, and so on—to make their specific contributions to handing on God’s truth and love.
‘Required reading’ amid a ‘crisis of reason’
Father Anthony Giampietro, C.S.B., president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, told CWR that “it is my sense that [the] widespread influence of Fides et Ratio is yet to come. The same can be said about Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture (2006), exploring as it does the providential relationship between Athens and Jerusalem, and the confidence that reason can provide an adequate critique of some claims made by religious believers.”
“As many have said, there is today a crisis of reason,’ Father Giampietro said. “We see more and more cases of brute power and censorship, all exercised by people irrationally claiming to be using reason to justify imposing their will.”
“Fides et Ratio and the Regensburg Lecture are tremendous resources for those who begin to see that openness and tolerance simply cannot coexist with such irrationality,” he continued. “Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI (along with many others in our tradition) highlight the fact that the Catholic faith is constantly being purified by reason and is capable of facing contemporary challenges. This is a consolation of immense value especially for those who have a sense of the precariousness of our political order (along with many other orders).”
Father Giampietro added:
If you think there is a conflict between the Catholic faith and reason, then either your reasoning is faulty, or your theology is inadequate. Fides et Ratio explores in great depth how to understand this statement, and it provides answers to numerous questions that flow from it. This simple but profound fact has positively affected my teaching and preaching, as well as my everyday interactions.
Fides et Ratio should be required reading for “modern intellectuals.” Many of them have settled for answers whose inadequacy will become more and more clear as greater light penetrates their intellects. I note also that many philosophical traditions are represented in the encyclical, presenting a variety of “mentors” to those seeking to understand all that is.
Father Giampietro cited selections from the second paragraph of n. 1 and the fourth paragraph of n. 16 as particularly significant passages of the encyclical. “I would not say that these passages have been influential; rather, taken together, they should be influential,” he said.
An “essential encyclical”
Father John Cush, director of seminarian admissions and professor of dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, recalled that “studying theology in Rome as a seminarian [in the 1990s] was like living through Pope St. John Paul II’s ‘greatest hits,’ if you will.”
“I began my seminary studies right after the Catechism of the Catholic Church was translated into English, and I ended my time in the seminary with the release of Fides et Ratio,” he said. “Reading that encyclical, especially in light of the prevailing attitudes of ‘my truth,’ as opposed to objective truth, is absolutely essential.”
Father Cush said that
Fides et Ratio n. 5 speaks of “undifferentiated pluralism,” and that seems to sadly be the lived experience of too many today. Fides et Ratio n. 13 has been a tremendous boon to my own Eucharistic spirituality, namely the fact that “the knowledge proper to faith does not destroy the mystery.”
As a professor of dogmatic and fundamental theology, I have used this essential encyclical in almost all of my classes. In particular, chapter 6 of Fides et Ratio, on the interaction between theology and philosophy, has become a major part of my own teaching. Watching the seminarians in the first year of their theological studies transition from the study of philosophy to the study of theology, which, of course differs in its object and its end, has been a joy in fundamental theology classes.
A ‘harmonious interplay’
Dr. Grattan Brown, vice president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, told CWR that St. John Paul’s insistence on the “harmonious interplay of faith and reason, even when it is difficult to see, has made a powerful impact on those willing to consider the validity of both.”
“Understanding that interplay is a great help when reason without faith runs aground in the impossible contradictions of practices like transgender surgeries and embryo-destructive research,” he continued. “But those contradictions are so well-ingrained that it is difficult for many people to think their way out of them. ‘Credo ut Intelligam’ [the title of the encyclical’s third chapter] blazes a path.”
Brown added that the encyclical’s discussion of “the search for wisdom has most influenced my life and work. After charity, nothing beats wisdom for a happy life.”
“Fides et Ratio teaches all the back-and-forth ‘movements’ to gain wisdom,” he said. “Sometimes you start with faith and end up with knowledge, other times with knowledge and end with faith; sometimes you accept and wonder about particular teachings and how the Magisterium has articulated them; other times you examine the outcomes of Church events and movements, see how the Spirit has worked, or wonder how Christians could have failed so badly, and what there is to learn from the past.”
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