‘I Believe in Order to Understand’: Fides et Ratio, Chap. 2

Benedictine College participated May 8 in a panel discussion that was shared on Facebook live by the Never Afraid Foundation, promoting St. John Paul the Great. Benedictine College president Stephen D. Minnis, Gregorian Institute editorial director Tom Hoopes, Dr. Edward Mulholland and students Monica Paolucci, Jake Leathers and Emily Harpole participated. What follows is a summary of the chapter written by Tom Hoopes.

I want to start by summarizing what Pope St. John Paul II is trying to do in chapter two of Fides et Ratio.

But I want to give a little context first.

The encyclical begins with that famous statement that we use so often here at Benedictine College: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

That is a really nice, visual way of expressing something we know to be true: without faith, reason falls flat and without reason, faith falls flat.

Not Whole Without Both

We see this all around us in the world today. On the one hand you might have fundamentalists of any faith who believe the tenets of their religion but reject science, or medicine. Or perhaps they reject the wisdom of human law or standard communication techniques. These fundamentalists don’t get very far.

On the other hand, you have a world that wants to embrace science and reason while rejecting faith. And these reason-only people quickly become unreasonable: They become cafeteria science-followers, choosing not to believe in chromosomal science that says who is a boy and a girl, or DNA science that shows who a human person is, or behavioral science that shows the proper way to raise children.

Without faith and reason, both wings, your mind is going to be limp along the ground, not soar. To new heights.

I love how Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn put this when he visited Benedictine College. He said that the agnostic scientist and the fundamentalist believer essentially have the same understanding of God. Both are victims of nominalism. They see God as entirely “other,” as inscrutable and unintelligible. We can’t understand him at all.

When God is so “foreign” to our experience, we either shrug our shoulders and say, “Who knows?” and look to reason without faith — or we look to faith without reason and accept a religion that is irrational, but which we follow out of “blind obedience.”  That is ultimately just another way of saying “who knows?”

Cardinal Schonborn said that we don’t follow God out of “blind obedience,” and neither do we follow him only after figuring everything out. We follow him in faith, and deepen our faith with reason.

He quoted a principle of Aquinas which I had never heard before. Paraphrased, it’s: “Do not defend your faith with stupid arguments, because by doing so you make faith look ridiculous.”

Reason without faith becomes a pseudo-religious ideology and faith without reason becomes a caricature of human logic. As Schonborn put it, Darwin is dragged down by blind Darwinism, belief in Creation is dragged down by blind Creationism.

He advocated vigorously studying any and all scientific theories. He also vigorously opposed making ideologies—“isms” — out of scientific theories.  “Have you ever heard of ‘Einsteinism’?” he asked. “Why should we have a Darwinism? Free Darwin from Darwinism!”

To think that life exists “by mere chance is stupid. It’s really an abdication of intelligence,” he said.

But by the same token, we are crazy not to “Let science do its work,” he said. “The discoveries of science do not disturb my faith. They only increases my wonder.”

Catholics have always believed that both faith and reason should do their work.

Faith Reveals; Reason Understands

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is talking about both when it says, “Faith seeks understanding.” (CCC158)

We aren’t just told the truth. We don’t just reason to the truth. In both cases we accept the truth by faith, and then we deepen our understanding of it by reason.

I thought of this once when I saw a tree that was just covered, absolutely carpeted, by ants crawling up and down it. At first, I saw the tree and trunk and I thought shadows were making it change its shape. Then I looked longer and saw that these were not shadows. Then I looked longer and realized I was seeing a tree covered with ants.

Faith is the eyesight that shows us the truth; reason is the faculty whereby we better understand what faith is showing us.

The Catechism describes that process two different ways.

First, consider Revealed Truth, the truth we are shown by Scripture.

Contemplating the truth of Jesus Christ works this way: “The grace of faith opens ‘the eyes of your hearts’ to a lively understanding of the contents of Revelation: that is …  their connection with each other and with Christ, the center of the revealed mystery. … As St. Augustine said, ‘I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.’

Faith opens your eyes, reason orders your understanding, and then your faith grows even stronger.

Second, the Catechism speaks to the way science sees and understands, and it says an astounding thing.

“The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.’

In fact, “There can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason,” says the Catechism. “Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”

Ultimately, “the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”

The Crisis of Meaning

Three years after the Catechism — edited by Cardinal Schonborn — raised these topics, Pope John Paul II raised them in the encyclical Fides Et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

At the time, the lead doctrinal official for the Vatican was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict. He clearly had a hand in helping write the encyclical Faith and Reason. In fact, it is one of two encyclicals on Faith that he contributed heavily to, and his name isn’t on either one: First was 1998’s Faith and Reason, by John Paul II, and second was 2013’s Lumen Fide (The Light of Faith) which was completed and published by Pope Francis.

Faith and Reason begins by the Pope saying why the Church cares about faith and reason in the first place.

“On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain goals which render people’s lives ever more worthy,” says John Paul II. “She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life.”

The Church cares because faith and reason together help us live a better life. We don’t just love theology, we love philosophy because, he says: “The Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it.”

But the encyclical does not just want to celebrate great philosophy. It wants to warn about bad philosophy. Later on, he says modern philosophy “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.”

In fact, later in the encyclical he calls the situation dire. We are in “crisis of meaning,” he says. Even before the Internet became so popular and widely available, he wrote that our time is marked by the “fragmentation of knowledge” amid a “maelstrom of data and facts.” He points out that “many people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning.” Too often, those who address these issue only “aggravate” this “radical doubt.”

This leads not just to skepticism but “indifference” to the truth and “various forms of nihilism” — belief in nothing; disbelief in everything.

The Foundational Truth Is God

But that comes later. He is building to that. He is using the encyclical to lay the foundation of how faith and reason work together and then identify the places they have pulled apart.

Thus, in the first Chapter he starts with the ultimate Truth: God himself.

On God’s part, he says, “As the source of love, God desires to make himself known.” On our part, he says “the knowledge which the human being has of God perfects all that the human mind can know of the meaning of life.”

He notes that the First Vatican Council defended revelation, the knowledge that faith gives us,against the rationalists who were denying it at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.

Then he notes that the Second Vatican Council identified this revelation ultimately in the person of Christ.

He quotes Gaudium et Spes from the Council saying “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light”

So, in the first chapter, John Paul wants to say that the truth is not an abstraction, it is a person. We find our ultimate meaning in Jesus Christ, the Logos (the Word) made flesh — the order and intelligibility of the universe become man in Jesus Christ.

Chapter Two: Seekers in the Bible

In the second chapter, the one we are focusing on today, St. John Paul is concerned with showing how, exactly, that happens. How do we find the truth in Christ?

The chapter is in large part a scriptural meditation on what the Word of God, the Bible, as to tell us about truth.

He sees a strong correlation between the way the great thinkers of the past and the inspired Biblical authors assessed the truth. Pay attention to how this reading, from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, shows the same relation between faith and reason that we started from.

This is from Sirach 14:20-27:

“Happy the man who meditates on wisdom and reasons intelligently, who reflects in his heart on her ways and ponders her secrets. He pursues her like a hunter and lies in wait on her paths. He peers through her windows and listens at her doors. He camps near her house and fastens his tent-peg to her walls; he pitches his tent near her and so finds an excellent resting-place; he places his children under her protection and lodges under her boughs; by her he is sheltered from the heat and he dwells in the shade of her glory.”

This is a man relentless in finding wisdom, in finding the truth. He is willing to go to great lengths to find her — and then rests in her once he does.

John Paul says this reading shows the same connection between faith and reason that the Church describes. He says:

“What is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith. The world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analyzed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process.”

But then he makes a key point when he starts to spell out the different roles faith and reason have.

One Search, Two Helpers

Faith doesn’t override reason, but it does purify it.

Says the Pope: “Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts.”

In other words, if my eyesight helped my reason understand that those were ants that were moving on that tree — faith helps our reason understand that when we watch events unfold before us, we are seeing God at work.

John Paul puts it this way: “Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence. Here the words of the Book of Proverbs are pertinent: ‘The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps’ (16:9).”

This is much like what the Catechism means when it says “Faith is a guide”.  Says the Catechism: “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived’” (CCC 156).

The Catechism is not saying that faith overrides our reason but that faith helps us see the evidence points to God; evidence which includes “miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability.”

Rules for Seekers

John Paul then continues his look at the way faith and reason unfold in the Old Testament, saying that “the Chosen People understood that, if reason were to be fully true to itself, then it must respect certain basic rules.”

What rules? He lists them:

1: Human knowledge is on a constant journey to a destination to which we never — quite — arrive. We can never fully understand the mystery of God.

2: The proud will fail on this journey because they won’t have the humility to stick with it.

3: God is not on this journey, he is the destination. But he is not just the destination, he owns the road and every means of traveling on it. Therefore he also sets the rules.

Says John Paul: “In abandoning these rules, the human being runs the risk of failure and ends up in the condition of ‘the fool.’”

Then, John Paul answers an objection to all this. The objection is simple: If the truth is a God who loves us, why is it so difficult to find?

It was not always so, he says.

Citing St. Paul, he says, “It was part of the original plan of the creation that reason should without difficulty reach beyond the sensory data to the origin of all things: the Creator. But because of the disobedience by which man and woman chose to set themselves in full and absolute autonomy in relation to the One who had created them, this ready access to God the Creator diminished.”

In other words, the truth used to be well within our grasp — but Adam and Eve broke all three of the rules above.

They sought to be like God and control their destiny, and reject God’s lordship.

So they — and we, their children — lost that easy access to the truth.

Says John Paul: “This is the human condition vividly described by the Book of Genesis when it tells us that God placed the human being in the Garden of Eden, in the middle of which there stood ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ (2:17). The symbol is clear: man was in no position to discern and decide for himself what was good and what was evil, but was constrained to appeal to a higher source. The blindness of pride deceived our first parents into thinking themselves sovereign and autonomous, and into thinking that they could ignore the knowledge which comes from God. All men and women were caught up in this primal disobedience, which so wounded reason that from then on its path to full truth would be strewn with obstacles. From that time onwards the human capacity to know the truth was impaired by an aversion to the One who is the source and origin of truth.”

He quotes St. Paul explaining that, after this sin, human thinking “became empty” and human reasoning became distorted and inclined to falsehood. (cf. Rom 1:21-22).

Try as we might, we would stare and stare at the trunk of that tree and not understand why it was moving.

Writes John Paul: “The eyes of the mind were no longer able to see clearly: reason became more and more a prisoner to itself.”

The Light of the Cross

But then, he says: “The coming of Christ was the saving event which redeemed reason from its weakness, setting it free from the shackles in which it had imprisoned itself.”

God became man: The Creator entered his creation. But more than that, God died for his creatures.

Thinking of those three rules above: God walked beside us on that journey, allowed us to kill him as an intruder, and thus restored the grace we lost by rejecting him in the first place.

Says John Paul: “The true key-point, which challenges every philosophy, is Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross.  …. Human wisdom refuses to see in its own weakness the possibility of its strength; yet Saint Paul is quick to affirm: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Man cannot grasp how death could be the source of life and love; yet to reveal the mystery of his saving plan God has chosen precisely that which reason considers ‘foolishness’ and a ‘scandal.’“

How is it possible that Jesus Christ crucified can be a new form of wisdom? To understand that you have to return to the beginning of the document, where John Paul said:

“In different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?”

When we say, “Seek the truth,” this is what we mean. These are the questions whose answers we seek. And these are the questions which the cross answers forever.

Thus, in Chapter Two, John Paul can say:

“The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is the reef upon which the link between faith and philosophy can break up, but it is also the reef beyond which the two can set forth upon the boundless ocean of truth. Here we see not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet.”

The conflict between faith and reason is ultimately summed up, and resolved, in the vertical and horizontal beams of the cross: The place where unseen eternity meets and corrects the wayward path of man.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.