Seven Ways One Encyclical Predicted the 21st Century’s Crisis

Faith without reason will grow weak and superstitious; reason without faith will grow stunted and warped.

That’s what St. John Paul II warned 25 years ago in Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), and if you look at the headlines, he was right.

A September 16, 2023, online conference at Benedictine College will celebrate the anniversary St. John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical and feature:

  • Theologian Larry Chapp, spotlighting faith’s need for reason;
  • Ethics and Public Policy’s Theresa Farnan, who has done extensive work on gender ideology showing reason’s need for faith;
  • Des Moines Bishop William Joensen, who left the study of medicine for the seminary, showing their unity.

Here are seven ways St. John Paul II Fides et Ratio was prophetic about our times.

First, he said getting faith and reason right is crucial to human dignity. 

The 1990s was the most significant decade in memory for papal encyclicals as John Paul addressed politics (Centesimus Annus, 1991), morals (Veritatis Splendor, 1993), the Culture of Life (Evangelium Vitae, 1995), and Christian unity (Ut Unum Sint, 1995).

It was also a decade of hope, as the Pope rebooted Catholic higher education with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, transformed the Church in America with the Denver World Youth Day, transformed the Church worldwide with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and led the Church on a years-long retreat for the Great Jubilee 2000.

But all of that will be for nothing if we fail to reunite faith and reason, he told U.S. bishops: “In the Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, published only last week, I wished to defend the capacity of human reason to know the truth,” to head off “a new spiritual crisis.”

“If this crisis deepens, utilitarianism will increasingly reduce human beings to objects for manipulation,” he warned, and the 21st century will be “a new era of barbarism, rather than a springtime of hope.”

Second, he said reason would wilt without faith.

In our times, reason has accomplished great practical aims, Fides et Ratio says, but without faith, it has lost its belief in the truth.

Without God, “reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge — and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being,” he wrote.

Third, he warned faith would withers without reason.

“Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience, and so run the risk of no longer being a universal proposition,” John Paul wrote. “It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition.”

Fourth, uniting faith and reason overcomes race and wealth barriers, he said.

It used to be that only upper-class men had the opportunity to learn. Not anymore. “Think of Christianity’s contribution to the affirmation of the right of everyone to have access to the truth,” he wrote. That’s because Christians uniquely knows that, “Since access to the truth enables access to God, it must be denied to none.”

This caused a worldwide revolution. “In dismantling barriers of race, social status and gender, Christianity proclaimed from the first the equality of all men and women before God,” he wrote and, thanks to faith, “The elitism which had characterized the ancients’ search for truth was clearly abandoned.”

Fifth, he said even non-believers benefit by struggling with faith questions. 

“I cannot but encourage philosophers — be they Christian or not — to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest in their philosophizing,” he wrote.

He pleaded for humanity “not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search.”

Sixth, he said that faith provides the humility necessary for reason to thrive.

“As a theological virtue, faith liberates reason from presumption, the typical temptation of the philosopher,” he explained.

“The philosopher who learns humility will also find courage to tackle questions which are difficult to resolve if the data of Revelation are ignored — for example, the problem of evil and suffering, the personal nature of God and the question of the meaning of life or, more directly, the radical metaphysical question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’”

Seventh, John Paul demonstrated the importance of Fides et Ratio with a single unforgettable image.

The encyclical begins with these words: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” The image perfectly sums up his argument, painting the picture of a bird soaring through the air, wings outspread — or of an injured bird careening back to earth.

That image led directly to the conference I’m helping out with, because Benedictine College enshrined it in two strategic plans and a statue on campus.

Once faith and reason take flight, John Paul said, we soar: “It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true.”

This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Raven, Joshua Tree National Park, Flickr.

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.