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In his now historic address at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI boldly stated that European civilization as we know it emerged from the “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry.” He argues that the Gospel didn’t just happen to spread in a culture where a certain philosophical mindset reigned, but that it was part of God’s providential plan.
Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria speak of a praeparatio evangelica, a “Gospel preparation,” and argue that Greek thought was part of God’s plan to render the soil fertile for the first announcement of the Gospel.
Yesterday I wrote about how our culture can lose sight of “old verities” that were clear and evident for generations, because we fail to make the necessary intellectual effort to continue to see them and appreciate their truth. Now that the synod in Rome about the New Evangelization has concluded and the final documents are being prepared, I believe it is important to reflect on the fact that any new announcement of the Gospel will require a re-fertilization of the soil.
In a culture ruled by relativism, the seed of the Gospel cannot grow. It is the rocky soil, or the soil that lacks depth mentioned in the Parable of the Sower. There can be emotional conversions, but when the emotions wane, convictions will wither for lack of reasoned roots.
One cannot worship what one does not in some way understand. If one’s faith is not at least a reasonable faith, then when one suffers a crisis of faith, there is no handhold to think oneself back again. The real point of the Regensburg Lecture was that neither faith nor reason can be fully themselves without the other.
So as the Church prepares to launch a New Evangelization, there has to be an effort to reargue a philosophical mindset that will allow the faith to take root and flourish. Contemporary academia in Europe and North America, outside of some small isolated pockets, has largely rejected the philosophical legacy of the West. What many undergraduates hear in philosophy classrooms these days would not pass one of the most important tests philosophers used to use as a bellwether: the test of common sense.
For the New Evangelization to be successful, Catholic universities will have to be faithful to Catholic teaching. But they will also have to be faithful to the tradition of perennial philosophy. For such institutions, such fidelity is part and parcel of Catholic identity.