‘Fides et Ratio’ (1998): Three theses on the Roman Catholic synthesis between faith and reason
An analysis of the encyclical letter published by Pope John Paul II on 14 September 1998.
02 MARCH 2021 · 10:00 CET
The publication of the encyclical letter "Fides et Ratio" (FR) on 14 September 1998 by John Paul II brought to the attention of the religious world and public opinion a theme of fundamental importance for Christianity, i.e. the relationship between faith and reason.
This document is considered to be one of the most important contributions given by the Roman Catholic Church to the interplay between theology and philosophy, Christianity and culture, and the Church and the world. These “theses” are an attempt to highlight its main message and to critically assess it from an evangelical perspective.
1. FR is important for what it says and for what it omits to say
FR shows the vastness and depth of Roman Catholic wisdom in a condensed and meditated form. In the classic style of the encyclicals, FR is a document that brings together a series of ideas woven into a discourse that tends towards a synthesis. To address the question of the relationship between faith and reason, FR lays the foundations starting from the reading of some biblical data, taken above all from the Wisdom literature and from Pauline writings. These biblical references are put in a theological framework that makes use of some patristic sources summarized in the expressions "credo ut intelligam" (i.e. I believe in order to understand) and "intelligo ut credam" (i.e. I understand in order to believe).
FR makes abundant use of references to texts, authors, and schools in the history of the church and more general intellectual history. Understandably, the text abounds in quotations or references to the pronouncements of the Catholic magisterium over the centuries (1). However, FR extends beyond magisterial boundaries, and the choice of thinkers, philosophers, theologians, and schools of thought mentioned or cited is interesting. This foundation is followed by a historical analysis of the trends of thought that shaped Western culture.
FR is interesting in what it says but also in what it omits to say. Its silences are just as revealing as its explicit citations. The catholicity of Rome is not all-encompassing, but responds to the selective logic of Roman catholicity. Above all, it is worth noting the lack of any reference to evangelical Protestant authors or sources. There is no citation of the Protestant Reformers, and the same negligence can be extended to Protestant orthodoxy (XVII century), to philosophers such as Jonathan Edwards, or to neo-Calvinism (e.g. A. Kuyper and H. Bavinck). On the one hand FR tries to include the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy (n. 74), while on the other hand it excludes that of Protestantism. Evidently, the Roman Catholic center of gravity of Thomism, on which the encyclical rests, may lean in one direction but not in the other.
2. FR understands the relationship between faith and reason on the basis of the nature-Grace interdependence
From its beginning, FR has an unmistakable Thomistic inspiration. The encyclical can be considered to be an authoritative affirmation of the importance of Thomism for the Roman Catholic worldview. Without the scaffolding provided by Thomism, FR would be unthinkable. FR is explicit in supporting the "enduring originality" of Thomas's thought (nn. 43-44). It endorses the philosophical framework of the 1870 dogmatic constitution “Dei Filius” of Vatican I (nn. 52-53), the 1879 encyclical “Aeterni Patris” (n. 57), and the Neo-Thomistic renewal of the twentieth century (nn. 58-59). Thomism is the trajectory that joins together medieval Roman Catholicism to the post-conciliar one. It represents "the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought" (n. 78).
FR does not stop at indicating the "enduring originality" of Thomism, but understands the relationship between faith and reason on the basis of the Thomist interdependence between nature and grace. The latter is upstream from the former. In a programmatic sentence, FR affirms that "as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason" (n. 43; see also n. 75). Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism, and the oil of anointing that convey grace), in the ability of reason to develop a “natural theology”, in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened by sin, nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism in whatever is natural to be graced. The nature-grace interdependence is particularly evident in the way FR conceives the autonomy of reason and the weak consequences of sin.
2.1 FR credits reason with an unsustainable autonomy
The encyclical reaffirms the Thomist thesis sanctioned by Vatican Councils I and II of the existence of two orders of knowledge, each of which has its own principles and objects of knowledge (nn. 9, 13, 53, 55, 67, 71, 73, 75, 76). Faith and reason therefore operate in distinct, though not separate, spheres. If, on the one hand, reason has its own area of autonomy with respect to faith, on the other, faith cannot disregard the contribution of reason which, while pertaining to another order of knowledge, is nevertheless indispensable for a correct exercise of faith. Reason opens up to faith and faith is grafted onto reason. In line with the Thomist vision, FR considers faith something beyond the “natural” realm of reason and brings it to completion.
According to FR, if properly understood and practiced, there is no conflict between faith and reason but only harmony and collaboration. It is no coincidence that the encyclical begins with the programmatic statement according to which "faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (n. 1). FR argues for the autonomy of reason. This autonomy reflects "the autonomy of the creature" (n. 15) and manifests itself on methodological (nn. 13 and 67) and normative (nn. 67, 73, 77) levels. Within the Thomist framework in which "Faith intervenes not to abolish reason's autonomy” (n. 16), autonomy is conceived as "legitimate" (nn. 75 and 79) and "valid" (nn. 75, 106). From an evangelical perspective, the Thomist picture of FR is flawed because it envisions an unwarranted autonomy to reason. According to the Bible, all of existence, reason included, must be lived coram Deo, and this excludes the idea that reason can be divorced from faith as if it were a self-subsisting faculty or detached from the reality of God. Life in its entirety finds its frame of reference in the broken or re-established covenant with God. Any human activity is experienced in the context of the covenant between God and man. Reason, therefore, is essentially religious: either in a broken-covenantal framework due to sin, or in a reconciled-covenantal framework given by Jesus Christ.
2.2 FR weakens the significance of the noetic effects of sin
In continuity with the non-tragic vision of sin proper to Thomism, FR also presents a biblically deficient doctrine of sin in relation to its impact on reason. The fragility, fragmentation, and limitations of reason are recognized (nn. 13 and 43), as well as an inner weakness (n. 75) and a certain imperfection (n. 83). Sin intervenes on the structure of reason, bringing wounds, obstacles, obfuscation, debilitation, and disorder (nn. 23, 82, 71). However, according to FR, the "capacity" of reason to know the transcendent dimension "in a true and certain way" (n. 83) remains as well as its ability to grasp some truths (n. 67), to rise towards the infinite (n. 24) and to reach out to the Creator (n. 8). The very fact that FR often refers to reason in an absolute sense highlights the effective intangibility of reason with respect to sin. Ultimately, FR is an invitation to nurture "trust in the power of human reason” (n. 56), demonstrating the fact that sin has had only a marginal impact. According to FR, even if touched by sin, reason has retained its potential and its autonomous status. From an evangelical point of view, the encyclical does not account for the biblical teaching regarding the radical and tragic effects that sin has determined in every area of life, including reason and the exercise of reason. For the Bible, sin has introduced a total distortion to the point that there is no longer any reason that is only partially affected by sin, but all reason is entirely imbued with sin. The noetic effects of sin undermine any confidence in the intrinsic capacities of reason and require abandoning any claim of absolute or partial neutrality of reason with respect to sin. The only hope that can be cultivated lies in the message of the salvation of Jesus Christ, which is aimed at the redemption of reason through the regeneration of the reasoning subject and the biblical reformation of the criteria of reason.
3. FR Explicitly Rejects “Scripture Alone”
The encyclical is very critical towards numerous trends of thought present in today's world. Among these, the pope lists the danger of "biblicism", which is defined as a "fideistic tendency" which "tends to make the reading of Sacred Scripture or its exegesis the only truthful point of reference" (n. 55). Here is the full text:
One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles”. Scripture, therefore, is not the Church's sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.
The recognition of the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium as the combined reference point for Roman Catholicism places the encyclical in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which rejected the “Scripture Alone” principle of the Reformation. The point is further reinforced when John Paul II writes that “theology makes its own the content of Revelation as this has been gradually expounded in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church's living Magisterium” (n. 65).
In FR we find the traditional doctrine that the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the evangelicals of the following centuries rejected, i.e. Scripture is with and under the Tradition of the Church past and present. The re-presentation of the Tridentine doctrine that is in direct contrast to the Reformation (even though it is not explicitly referred to) is central to FR. It shows that while renewing itself, Roman Catholicism never reforms itself in the light of Scripture. In short, FR reproduces the dynamics of the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine, i.e. updating without changing.
FR thinks of “Scripture Alone” as a danger. In the light of this contrast, it must be acknowledged that the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium is not compatible with the evangelical conviction that Scripture is the ultimate criterion for faith and reason. Either the former is true or the latter. Whereas FR, in continuity with Tridentine Catholicism, incorporates the Bible into Tradition and allows the Bible to speak only through the voice of the Magisterium, the evangelical faith recognizes the Bible as "norma normans non normata", i.e. the rule that rules without being ruled. FR stems from the Thomistic commitment of Roman Catholicism that presents severe problems for the evangelical faith at some fundamental points. While being full of interesting observations and comments, FR is not a reliable document to begin to frame the relationship between faith and reason in a biblical way.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and an expert in Roman Catholicism.
L. Jaeger, “La foi et la raison. A propos de la letter encyclique: «Fides et ratio»”, Fac-Réflexion 46-47 (1999) pp. 35-46.
M. Mantovani, S. Thuruthiyil, M. Toso (edd.), Fede e ragione. Opposizione, composizione? (Roma: Las, 1999).
R.J. Neuhaus, “A passion for truth: the way of faith and reason”, First Things 88 (1998) pp. 65-73.
C. O’Regan, “Ambiguity and Undecidability in Fides et Ratio”, International Journal of Systematic Theology 2:3 (2000) pp. 319-329.
A. Howe, “Faith and reason”, Evangelical Times (April 1999) pp. 14 and 30.
E.J. Echeverria, “Once Again, John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio”, Philosophia Reformata vol. 69/1 (2004) pp. 38-52.
- Councils: Synod of Constantinople, Chalcedon, Toledo, Braga, Wien, Lateran IV, Lateran V, Vatican I, Vatican II;
- Encyclicals: “Redemptor hominis” (1979), “Veritatis splendor” (1993), “Aeterni patris” (1879), “Humani generis” (1950), “Pascendi dominici gregis” (1907), “Divini redemptoris” (1937), “Dominum et vivificantem” (1986);
- Apostolic Letters: “Tertio millennio adveniente” (1995), “Salvifici doloris” (1984), “Lumen ecclesiae” (1974);
- Liturgical texts: Missale romanum;
- Other Magisterial texts can be found innn. 33-34, 41, 43, 52, 54, 61, 67, 92, 94, 96-97, 99, 103, 105-106.
(in order): Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Origen, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Dionysusthe Areopagite, Pascal, Aristotle, Tertullian, Francisco Suarez, John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Edith Stein, Vladimir S. Solov’ev, Pavel A. Florenskij, Petr J. Caadaev, Vladimir N. Lossky, Kierkegaard, Bonaventura, pseudo-Epiphanius.
(in order): Idealism, Atheistic Humanism, Positivist mentality, Nihilism, Fideism, Radical Traditionalism, Rationalism, Ontologism, Marxism, Modernism, Liberation Theology, Religious and Philosophical traditions of India, Cina, Japan, other Asian and African Countries, Eclectism, Historicism, Scientism, Pragmatism, Postmodernity.