In 1970, Michael Polanyi wrote an essay called “Why Did We Destroy Europe?” In it, he reflected on the cancerous spread of ideologies and war in the twentieth century. He argued that scientific rationalism had initially “been a major influence towards intellectual, moral and social progress.” But its chronic posture of skepticism and doubt had undermined human reason itself and bred a widespread nihilism. That nihilism had been weaponized by the pseudoscientific theories of Marxism and National Socialism with murderous results.
Despite its great achievements, scientific rationalism had, in effect, “become a danger to the spiritual conception of man.” And this had “brought about the destruction of liberal societies over wide ranges of Europe.”
Throughout his many books and essays, Polanyi—a fellow of the Royal Society and an acclaimed physical chemist before turning to philosophy—warned that the real threat to modern humanity was a bizarre form of “moral inversion” fed by a crisis of reason. A convert to Christianity in his thirties, he was deeply influenced by the work of the early Church Fathers, especially Augustine and his famous words Crede, ut intelligas—“Believe, so that you may understand.”
For Polanyi, humans are made to seek the truth. All knowledge requires a framework of preexisting belief to provide it with coherence. Rejecting the traditional philosophical foundations of Western culture gives rise to a spiritual turmoil that science, technology, and prosperity can’t quell. And when the soul is deprived of truth, it turns to toxic substitutes.
Polanyi wrote safely from England during and after World War II. But a Polish contemporary of the Hungarian-born Polanyi suffered those toxic substitutes firsthand. His name was Karol Wojtyła. A priest by vocation and philosopher by training, Wojtyła experienced both Nazism and Communism. And as Pope John Paul II, he engaged the modern crisis of reason in his encyclical from 1998, Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), which marks its twentieth anniversary this year.
John Paul wrote Fides et Ratio quite deliberately as a sequel to, and further development of, his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). They’re closely linked. But in Fides et Ratio, the pope seeks especially to concentrate
on the theme of truth itself and on its foundation in relation to faith. For it is undeniable that this time of rapid and complex change can leave especially the younger generation, to whom the future belongs and on whom it depends, with a sense that they have no valid points of reference. The need for a foundation for personal and communal life becomes all the more pressing at a time when . . . the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. This is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going.
John Paul’s target is the challenge of postmodern cynicism. The key postmodern claim is that all truth is culturally constructed. “Absolute truths” are merely the products of a given time and place, subject to critique and change. In this view, appeals to truth are often tools of the powerful, masked by sacred language and used to subjugate minorities. In response, John Paul II argues that the search for truth is central to any genuinely human culture. The drive to understand the world and our place in it is one of the most basic human hungers. Truth is not the enemy of freedom but its foundation, since it gives us the capacity to love reality as it really is. Knowledge of the truth expands our freedom to love.
Looking back on the past two decades, we can’t help but see Fides et Ratio as prophetic. Our social climate and public discourse are now ruled by what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls the morality of “emotivism.” We implicitly rank feelings over careful judgment, sincerity over facts, and authenticity to ourselves over collateral damage to others. Each person is free to think whatever he wishes about the universe, morality, personhood, religion (or the lack thereof)—but only so long as each person avoids offending the sovereign space of others.
Of course, this standard is applied selectively. And it’s guided by norms of political correctness that reflect the agendas of the leadership class. The hymns we sing to tolerance are theatrical and superficial. At the heart of today’s emotivism is a paradox. Modern secular morality is based on individual autonomy. In theory, each person forges the meaning of life for himself. But this autonomy can only be exercised within a narrowly conformist context: participation in the liberal, secular market, with its typical consumptions and pleasures. Increasingly absent is the intellectual and moral discipline that a community shaped by the classical virtues instills. Everyone is urged to develop an autonomous vision of one’s self, distinct from the herd. But each one is also pressed to conform to the opinions and behaviors of the herd. This leads inevitably to the culture of simultaneous egotism and groupthink paraded before us in our daily news feeds.
Fides et Ratio offers a remedy to this perverse individualism and the breakdown of common sense that precedes it. It does so first of all by underscoring the unity that exists between the search for truth and our capacity to love, between philosophical reason and intimate human communion. John Paul II was influenced by the thought of both Thomas Aquinas and Max Scheler, the twentieth-century German phenomenologist. He looks at philosophy, then, both as a vital activity of the human intellect and, in its concrete exercise, as a dimension of human relationships.
When we search for truth, we seek to know the real nature of the universe. What is a human being? What does science tell us about the cosmos? How should we live in our bodies? Are there philosophical reasons for believing in God? What is the nature of beauty? Can we identify objective moral norms?
Concretely, though, the person who pursues such questions has a history of shared friendships, experiences, intuitions, loves and resentments, hunches and fears. These condition our search for the truth. If we place too much stress on the abstract idea of truth without weighing its personal dimension, we risk using it as a weapon against others. In contrast, emotivism—with its veneration of feelings over “legalisms”—emphasizes the subjective elements of our search for the truth. But this, in turn, too easily misses a key point: We can only resolve our inner confusions about life by seeking the objective truth about things, and by exploring that truth with others who hold us accountable to reality. As John Paul states bluntly, “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.”
In this respect, consider another event the Church celebrates this year: the fiftieth anniversary of Paul VI’s great 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. That text stressed the intrinsic relationship between spousal love and spousal openness to new life. Contraception breaks the relationship between marital union and the procreation and education of children. In doing so, it redefines the nature and purpose of human sexuality. We now have a fabricated world of sex without children, a world where we can generate (or even design) new life without human intercourse.
What does this do to the idea of human personhood? Paul VI understood, and Pope Francis has often repeated and reinforced, that the purpose of sexual intimacy is grounded in the complementarity of man and woman, open to life. If we ignore this truth, we scramble the identity and purpose of our species. We’re meant to be beings who relate to God, to one another, and to ourselves in genuine love, through our bodies and choices. Knowing the truth about our nature makes us free for that vocation.
Human beings are more fruitful and authentic in their relationships and inner lives when they know they’re bound by a truth beyond themselves. Fides et Ratio describes the connection between truth and human freedom. Knowing what’s true makes us free to be ourselves, to live for what’s real, and to appreciate the dignity of others. True knowledge of persons leads to an expansion of human love. That’s part of any sound philosophy.
Fides et Ratio also responds to another major intellectual problem of modernity: its bias against (or fear of?) transcendence. Human reason is naturally oriented toward exploring life’s deepest realities. We search for what is ultimate. We want to find the real origin of things. We ask why. This search leads us to the question of God. In the words of John Paul: “Wherever men and women discover a call to the absolute and transcendent, the metaphysical dimension of reality opens up before them: in truth, in beauty, in moral values, in other persons, in being itself, in God.” But our modern rationality too often adopts a crippling kind of skepticism that imprisons us within the world of politics, economics, and technology.
In his book A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor speaks about the self-possessed, radically distinct “buffered selves” that characterize the modern era. We live in a disenchanted world, which means a world remade by human hands, rationalized and technocratic. It is a world without transcendence. In it, we protect ourselves from the inconvenience of God, his demands and his invitations, by walling ourselves off from him. God is the one we may not name in polite conversation. Religious convictions are deemed awkward at best, and dangerous at worst. What happens to human reason in the absence of any reference to God is predictable. Its horizons lower. It becomes a tool of the modern sciences. And the materialist philosophy that results, scientism, regards as true knowledge only that which is achieved by modern empirical research.
Of course, this kind of reasoning is—or should be—obvious nonsense. It suggests that no real knowledge can be gained by ethics, law, literature, philosophy, or religion. It claims that only what can be empirically verified counts as true knowledge. But this very claim itself can’t be empirically verified. So in a sense it’s self-refuting.
But that doesn’t keep vast numbers of people from privileging reductive reasoning, for it gets practical results. In a seemingly post-ideological, pragmatic age, results are king. Thus, learning becomes equated with modern science and its technical by-products. Man is reduced to a physical animal who resolves his problems by technology, politics, and economics. Culture becomes an empty shell. The spirit is choked off from deep questions about justice, friendship, fidelity, worship, existence, God, beauty.
Against this cramped vision, Fides et Ratio is a hymn to the transcendent aspirations of human reason. The aim of any true philosophy, it notes, should be to find the unity of truth in all things, an understanding of the whole. This demands an engagement with the classical discipline we call “metaphysics,” which men still study in preparing for the priesthood.
Metaphysics is an exotic word for a very basic subject: the study of the deep truths and harmonies built into the world. Why, for example, does the world exist? Is matter—material reality—all that there is? Or is there something more? Is there a common human nature? What should we make of the many distinct kinds of things that exist in the world, the sheer givenness of their existence, and their goodness and beauty? How should we understand the human person as a distinct sort of reality? After all, a human person has unique abilities. Man is the creature who can know not only physical things, but even himself and others. Man can perceive the truth, goodness, and beauty in things. He’s a creature animated by questions of ultimate meaning, including whether God exists.
Fides et Ratio argues that any culture that ignores man’s ultimate metaphysical questions locks itself in a false and empty immanence. It can no longer approach the question of God. And by this very fact, it will scar the inner life of the human person. As John Paul notes, “Christian Revelation is the true lodestar of men and women as they strive to make their way amid the pressures of an immanentist habit of mind and the constrictions of a technocratic logic.” This message is strikingly contemporary. Our modern universities typically avoid God as a serious subject of inquiry. Without God, or at least some sense of a higher order or meaning to nature, the dignity of the human person is little more than folklore, the residue of pre-Darwinian beliefs. God and the soul are in exile. And that’s because classical philosophy is in exile, to the detriment of genuine learning.
Fides et Ratio also confronts the crisis of truth within the Catholic Church herself. Catholic theology studies the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This truth is made known to us by the Holy Spirit. It’s not one we come to know by our own natural powers. But good theology depends upon vigorous philosophy, at least in this sense: We can’t think correctly about God’s revelation unless we cultivate a reasonable philosophical attitude toward God, the world, and other human persons.
The benefits of a vigorous cultivation of both philosophy and theology flow both ways. The rigor of philosophical reason, as Benedict XVI said, purifies religion. It prevents religious faith from lapsing into superstition. Theology, in turn, helps philosophers to cultivate an attitude of openness and accountability to all of reality. Far from being anti-intellectual, Catholic theology raises the expectations for human reason. Everything we can come to know is part of the created order and therefore “friendly” to the authentic revelation of God.
Philosophy in the Catholic tradition pays special attention to the ways we speak about God “analogically” from comparison with creatures. The created world around us exists and is good. So, too, God exists and is good—but in an infinitely higher and incomprehensible way. So when God reveals himself to us as the Holy Trinity, he is simultaneously the God of revelation and the God of natural reason, the God of the Bible and the God of the philosophers.
This way of thinking about the harmony of faith and reason is central to the Catholic tradition, from Church Fathers such as Justin and Augustine to medievals such as Bonaventure and Aquinas down to modern Catholic councils, both at Vatican I and Vatican II. This harmony is expressed in the opening lines of Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Sound philosophy helps us understand the human and natural dimensions of the world, and adjust to them. But it also allows us to remain open to the most profound understanding of the world, which comes from the light of the Holy Trinity.
What happens to theology in the absence of a healthy philosophy, one truly open to the mystery of the transcendence of God? First, core doctrines of the Church become unintelligible to many Catholics. The Church confesses the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation as central mysteries of our faith. She promotes a deep understanding of human nature, wounded by sin and redeemed by grace. All of this presupposes some kind of natural concept of God and what it means to be human on our part. Philosophy safeguards the perennial confession of our faith.
In the words of John Paul, “Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness.” The absence of this philosophical tradition undermines our capacity to come to terms with what we as a Church truly confess.
Lacking sound philosophy, theology can become faddish. We try to wed Catholic doctrines to the latest cultural or political trends. Relevance eclipses substance. There’s much to be said for openness to the insights of our age. But it’s also easy to lose touch with our tradition in the process. Having the right balance requires that we have a deep knowledge of our tradition and that we make proper applications of its truths to new contexts. Often, however, Catholics fall into the relativistic thought we call “historicism.”
As John Paul II notes: “The fundamental claim of historicism . . . is that the truth of a philosophy is determined on the basis of its appropriateness to a certain period and a certain historical purpose. At least implicitly, therefore, the enduring validity of truth is denied. What was true in one period, historicists claim, may not be true in another.” Under the pressures of this way of thinking, Catholic theology becomes simply a history of opinions: The Church used to teach this, then that, now another thing.
John Henry Newman taught that the development of church doctrine is organic, so that later developments build on and preserve previous teachings in a continuity of meaning. Vatican II and the Council of Trent need to be read in relation to each other, as do the papacies of Francis and Benedict XVI. Historicism in theology transforms this organic development into a process of division or arbitrary change. And this in turn splits the Church, the body of Christ. But the unity of Catholic theology is primary through all the changes of history, just as the unity of the Church remains and needs to be acknowledged above the fray of all passing opinions. Philosophy protects the core of Christian faith against historicism and encourages a disciplined approach to questions of development in the Church’s teaching.
Finally, without vigorous philosophy, theology and the very life of the Church risk slipping into emotivism. In the name of being pastoral, the Church threatens to become merely indulgent, malleable, affective, and practical; in effect, anti-intellectual. This is exactly the wrong moment for that kind of mistake.
We live in a time when Christian truth is increasingly misunderstood, disdained, or simply unknown, even among baptized Catholics. Michael Polanyi would have recognized our culture’s contradictions, and its emerging shape. It’s a mix of “fierce moral scepticism [paradoxically] fired by moral indignation. Its structure is exactly the same as that of the moral inversion underlying modern totalitarianism”—a contempt for traditional morality, fused with and fueled by ferocious moralizing for social change. Rational consistency is irrelevant. Passion becomes its own justification.
At a more immediate level, the pastor of a local church must meet his people in their hearts and real lives, but also in their minds. We’re beings made for the truth. Thus a clear, appealing presentation of the faith plays a vital role in forming Christians. As a bishop, I sometimes hear from parishioners that one of their concerns with some priests has to do with the content of the homilies they hear each week. They’re happy with calls for kindness or generosity, but they also hunger for homilies that present the substance of the faith, its mysteries and doctrines, in ways that are accessible and attractive. That kind of homily isn’t easy to do. But it’s impossible to do if we don’t have a credible theology, one informed by the strong philosophical traditions of learning that are at the heart of the Church and her patrimony.
Writing in the wake of Vatican II, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce made three simple observations. First, our era is a “peculiar combination of the greatest perfection of means with the greatest confusion about goals.” Second, in the face of modern atheism—often less a hatred of God than a technology-driven indifference to him—“for a large part of today’s religious thought, the quest for aggiornamento simply means surrendering to the adversary.” And third, much of what styles itself as Christian progressivism, no matter how good its intentions, serves as the instrument of that surrender.
For Del Noce, the Church’s mission in every era is to bring the world into line with eternal principles while respecting the good in those things which are new. Much of progressive thought does the “exact inverse, since [it seeks] to bring Catholicism into line with the modern world.” By stressing action over contemplation and politics over metaphysics, progressivism reduces the supernatural core of Christian faith to a system of social ethics—a kind of baptized, humanitarian chaplaincy to a world that doesn’t need or want it. The result is obvious. The proof, for Del Noce, would be the hollowed-out national churches that now mark much of northern Europe.
A truly great Catholic intellect, in contrast, speaks from the heart of the Church because he or she is both a rigorous thinker and deeply attuned to the Word made flesh, wisdom incarnate. The confusion that dogged the Catholic world in the years immediately after Vatican II emerged in part from the absence of that kind of rigorous intellect fused with a deep and sincere faith. John Paul did much to heal the confusion. But it has never entirely disappeared, and it’s alive in our own day with new force. This is why the substance of Fides et Ratio is so important—not just for scholars, but also for everyday Christians who turn to the Church for guidance and a path to eternal life.
Ultimately, as Fides et Ratio reminds us, the strongest bridge between philosophy and faith is the person of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus of Nazareth speaks to the philosopher in each of us. His life is one that is especially human, beautiful, accentuated by charity and truth. His death underscores the reality of evil in our world, both natural and moral. The Christian proclamation of his resurrection from the dead touches directly upon many unresolved issues that philosophy confronts: What can we hope for? What is the destiny of the human person beyond this life? Who is God, truly? Christ himself claims to answer that last question in John’s Gospel, in speaking about himself as “the Truth,” the Word of God himself, present in our human flesh.
John Paul writes, “Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give to reason the ultimate answer which it seeks.” It is only by the grace of faith that we can enter into the mystery of Christ as God and man, and understand his life, death, and resurrection as the central drama of human existence. But that light of faith does no harm to our natural human reason or our philosophical quest for understanding. On the contrary, it speaks directly to what is best and deepest in our minds and hearts. Faith invites us as creatures who naturally seek truth to discover truth in a higher register: in the epiphany of God in our midst.
Each of us lives in a limited window before death, a time privileged with responsibility and choice. We’re made in the image of God, beings blessed with self-awareness who seek the truth and are meant to communicate it with courage and love. The greatest compassion we can show our neighbor is the mercy of preaching and teaching Jesus Christ. Our age presents us with a time of decision. We stand in a shadowland between faith and unbelief, witness and accommodation, even within the Church.
We who have received the truth can shrink from our vocation to preach the gospel. We have that freedom of will. Or we can embrace the sequela Christi, the following of Christ, in season and out. Fides et Ratio guides us toward a fuller embrace of the privilege of teaching and preaching the beauty of the Church, her doctrines and her vision of man. We can and should follow that path without being afraid. Because today, tomorrow, and always, her truth is rooted in Jesus Christ, the foundation that will never falter.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Philadelphia.
Image by José Cruz/Agência Brasil (2003). License via Creative Commons.