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We must not allow the year 2023 to slip away without commemorating the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (FR). That great document, surely the most important ecclesial statement on faith and reason since Vatican I, is a strong reaffirmation of Catholicism’s trust in both the supernatural gift of faith and the natural gift of reason. A commemoration of FR is all the more required in light of Pope Francis’s recent apostolic letter, Ad Theologiam Promovendam (On the promoting of theology). Francis's letter calls for a new approach to theology, emphasizing that theology must be “capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live daily, in diverse geographical, social and cultural environments.” This focus on different cultural contexts is certainly important, but it is essential to supplement the letter with Fides et Ratio, which emphasizes faith's universal and objective claims on all cultural contexts and peoples. 

Re-reading FR reminds one that John Paul II’s encyclical is a tour de force. The papal letter is long and detailed, exhaustively examining the relationship between theology and philosophy. I have discussed FR’s accomplishments elsewhere, but an abbreviated list includes: the defense of faith and reason as complementary modes of understanding humanity; the rebuttal of the Nietzschean position that the very notion of truth is chimerical; the upholding of the supreme importance of philosophy, science, and natural reason; the insistence that revelation introduces a universal and ultimate certitude into history; the claim that there exists a logos-structure to the cosmos itself mediative of truth; and on and on. Fides et Ratio is a rich and encyclopedic examination of theology’s achievements. 

Compared to the long and detailed reflections in FR, the short letter by Francis is merely a stub. In that respect, the two documents are barely comparable. Nonetheless, some elements in Francis’s apostolic letter can be elucidated—and other elements critiqued—by the major themes in John Paul’s encyclical. 

The similarities are several. For example, while Francis insists on a culture of dialogue with all traditions, John Paul also maintains that theologians must engage in discussion with the entire philosophical tradition “whether consonant with the Word of God or not.” And the encyclical promotes Aquinas as the paradigmatic theologian, one who dialogued not just with the ancients but with Arab and Jewish thinkers as well. 

While Francis trumpets the importance of “popular” theology, John Paul II anticipated this idea, stating that the young churches have contributed “an array of expressions of popular wisdom” constituting “a genuine cultural wealth of traditions.” John Paul adds, however, that the study of popular wisdom must go hand in hand with philosophical inquiry. And he cautions against the unnuanced view that theology “should look more to the wisdom contained in peoples’ traditions than to a philosophy of Greek and Eurocentric provenance.” 

Francis expresses the desire that theology be attentive to differing social and cultural contexts, with the Incarnation as an archetype. John Paul II also wishes the Church to be aware of global contexts, singling out the non-Christian cultures of India and China for discussion. These civilizations can certainly enrich the Church; however, the encyclical also asserts that “to every culture Christians bring the unchanging truth of God.”

Finally, Francis insists that theology is not only about scientific reasoning, but also sapiential wisdom. Fides et Ratio addresses this concern, too, stating that “philosophy needs first of all to recover its sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.” 

These are a few areas of overlap between the two documents. But what salutary critique can FR offer Francis's motu proprio

First, John Paul emphasizes, in a way that the apostolic letter does not, the universality of truth. Contextual knowing alone is insufficient. On the contrary, “Every truth—if it really is truth—presents itself as universal. . . . If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times.” Indeed, John Paul warns against “a widespread distrust of universal and absolute statements.” 

Second, while Francis rightly accents the concrete, existential situation of humanity, John Paul declares that theology must go beyond the concrete: “What I wish to emphasize is the duty to go beyond the particular and the concrete, lest the prime task of demonstrating the universality of faith’s content be abandoned.” When studying different cultures and worldviews, one finds an interesting welter of opinions; however, John Paul affirms, one must also be able to discover truth in all its objectivity.   

Third, in what is perhaps the most acute critique that FR levels at the motu proprio, the encyclical insists that philosophy must have a “genuinely metaphysical range.” FR even makes the bold claim that “a philosophy which shuns metaphysics would be radically unsuited to the task of mediation in the understanding of Revelation.” Why this sharp insistence on metaphysics? Because the truth of revelation is universally valid—and only by invoking some metaphysical dimension can theology give a coherent account of the transcendent, perpetual, and universal character of revelation’s claims. 

Fides et Ratio intends to show that the historical and socio-cultural conditioning that attends all thinking cannot and does not obviate the objectivity and universality of truth. But one must strain hard to see any sense of this in Pope Francis’s new document. The apostolic letter, emphasizing that theology should have a pastoral stamp, that theology must address the existential situation of the believer, is surely legitimate. But Pope Francis's emphasis needs to be complemented by a similarly strong accent on the universal truth that revelation brings to men and women of every context and culture—and on those philosophies that can support faith’s universal and perpetual claims.   

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and the author of The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II.

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Image by Queensland State Archives licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.  

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