Fides et ratio - Reflection 2

Philosophy Is One Of The Noblest Of Human Tasks

Enrico Berti                                                                                      Reflections Index

1. Philosophy is rooted in human nature

Whoever is professionally engaged in philosophy can only feel a certain uneasiness at the announcement of a papal Encyclical on this subject. Both the believing and the non-believing philosopher recognize, although to a different degree, the Catholic Church's great moral authority, and so are certainly flattered by the attention she shows to their field of work. At the same, both may fear, again in different measure, that the Church's stance might in some way restrict philosophy's autonomy, or not sufficiently recognize its importance, or at any rate take a position that could harm the development of this discipline. I must admit, then, that I set about reading Fides et ratio with some anxiety.

Now, after reading it, I can say that ,not only did I feel relief at having all my fears dispelled, but also great joy, because the Encyclical speaks of philosophy in entirely positive terms such as we could expect from no other institution today. Everyone, at least those involved in culture, knows how philosophy has been marginalized by university, political and international institutions, and oftentimes even by colleagues in the arts and sciences and by public opinion itself. Now, I am sure that being a believer does not make my assertion any less objective, if I state that in no other document have I found words of such great appreciation, esteem and trust for philosophy as in this Encyclical. And I am sure that my non-believing philosophical colleagues, at least the most objective among them, would readily agree.

Right in the introduction the document recognizes that among the many resources men and women have for generating greater knowledge of truth, .philosophy emerges ... as one of the noblest of human tasks" (n. 3). Immediately afterwards it recalls the importance of "wonder", a theme dear to all philosophers, which Plato and Aristotle had already seen as the source of philosophical enquiry, and says that the Church "sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life" (n. 5). To confirm this assertion, the document quotes the Old and New Testaments, precisely the Book of Wisdom, which says that human beings can "know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements", and interprets this passage as meaning that they "can philosophize" (n. 19); in addition, it cites Paul's famous speech to the Athenians, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, which says that the Creator has determined that men and women would "search for God", and interprets it as meaning that "in a special way philosophy has made this search its own" (n. 24).

But with equal approval the Encyclical quotes the famous introduction to Aristotle's Metaphysics: "All human beings [by nature] desire to know" (n. 25), deriving a true and proper definition of the human being as "the one who seeks the truth" (n. 28) and stating that this search is "deeply rooted in human nature" (n. 29), so that "all men and women ... are in some sense philosophers" (n. 30) or, as it says further on, "the human being is by nature a philosopher" (n. 64). No one today, as I mentioned before, is willing to take such a clear, categorical and unconditional stance in favour of philosophy, neither in the realm of what is called secular culture (a term often used very improperly), nor in the realm of Catholic culture itself (an equally improper expression).

With sincere disappointment the Pope recalls how in contemporary culture philosophy "has been consigned to a wholly marginal role", which has "obscured the true dignity of reason" (n. 47). Reason has been reduced to "weak reasoning" (n. 48). Therefore, the Church intends to fulfil "a humble but tenacious ministry of service which every philosopher should appreciate, a service in favour of recta ratio" (n. 50), that is, "to prompt, promote and encourage philosophical enquiry" (n. 51).

Philosophy has fared no better in Catholic circles. The Pope laments that "in the years after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic faculties were in some ways impoverished by a diminished sense of the importance of the study not just of Scholastic philosophy but more generally of the study of philosophy itself", which has often been replaced in pastoral formation by the "human sciences" (n. 61). Against this tendency the Pope wishes "to repeat clearly that the study of philosophy is fundamental and indispensable to the structure of theological studies and to the formation of candidates for the priesthood" (n. 62) and that Church has "intense interest" in philosophy (n. 63). At the end of the Encyclical he summarizes the whole meaning of the document in the assertion: "For these reasons, I have judged it appropriate and necessary to emphasize the value of philosophy for the understanding of the faith" (n. 100).

I think there can be no doubt, then, about the reasons behind this Encyclical, the goal it sets for itself and the attitude it professes towards philosophy. But it concerns not only a problem within the Catholic Church, i.e., it is not just a directive to remedy certain aberrations that may have occurred in Catholic faculties. The Pope in fact states that "philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith"; therefore, "reflecting in the light of reason and in keeping with its rules, ... Christian philosophers can develop a reflection which will be both comprehensible and appealing to those who do not yet grasp the full truth which divine Revelation declares" (n. 104). This is a recognition of the valuable role philosophy can play in the dialogue between believers and non-believers, between "Catholic culture" and "secular culture", a dialogue in which, as the Pope himself acknowledges, problems common to all humanity, such as "ecology, peace and the coexistence of different races and cultures", may "possibly find a solution" (ibid.).

2. A non-renunciative philosophy

The Encyclical Fides et ratio does not stop at affirming the need for philosophy in general. It encourages philosophy to pursue its search to the highest level, which involves the first causes of all reality, the ultimate foundation or the absolute itself, i.e., it affirms the need for the philosophical discipline traditionally called metaphysics. This is a further sign of its appreciation of philosophy, because it concerns the latter's boldest expressions, precisely those for which it is looked on with distrust by believer and non-believer alike. The Pope laments that "at the present time in particular, the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected" (n. 5), where "ultimate truth" means precisely the object of metaphysics. He also laments that contemporary philosophical reflection has tended "to pursue issues - existential, hermeneutical or linguistic - which ignore the radical question of the truth about personal existence, about being and about God" (ibid.).

In support of human reason's ability to arrive at the ultimate foundation, the Pope quotes the loci classici of Scripture, i.e., Wisdom 13:5, which says: "From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator" (n. 19); Romans 1:20, which says that through all that is created the "eyes of the mind" can come to know God (n. 22); and Acts 17:18ff., where Paul appeals to the natural knowledge of God attained by Greek philosophers, clearly preferring what today we could call "the God of the philosophers" to the idols of pagan religion (n. 36). But the First Vatican Council had already pronounced in favour of the "natural knowability of the existence of God", which the present Encyclical explicitly recalls (n. 53).

The document is equally explicit in its support of metaphysics when it notes, regarding Romans, that "this important Pauline text affirms the human capacity for metaphysical enquiry" (n. 22); when it laments the "deep-seated distrust of reason" expressed in talk of the "end of metaphysics" in favour of the "simple interpretation of facts" (n. 55); when it states "the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range" (n. 83); when it stresses "the importance of metaphysics" with respect to "hermeneutics and the analysis of language" (n. 84); when it recommends "a hermeneutic open to the appeal of metaphysics" (n. 95); and in the conclusion, when it urges theologians "to recover and express to the full the metaphysical dimension of truth" (n. 105).

Lest there be any doubt as to what kind of metaphysics is meant, the Encyclical notes that the world of experience is not the absolute, but includes "a call to the absolute and transcendent", which is why we must "move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent" (n. 83). In short, it is a question of the so-called "classical metaphysics" which was first expressed in philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, intentionally used by the Fathers (Augustine) and the Scholastics (Thomas, but not alone) respectively but which was also expressed in other forms by other modern and contemporary philosophers, some of whom the Pope mentions: Newman and Rosmini Maritain and Gilson, Edith Stein an( Eastern European philosophers such as Soloviev, Florensky, Chaadaev an; Lossky (n. 74).

As a further clarification of his sup port for a non-renunciative philosophy the Pope explains that St Paul's well known polemic against philosophy (cf for example, Col 2:8) is directed at gnosticism and similar forms of esoterism (n. 37), i.e., philosophies which claimed to replace faith; moreover, he takes a stand against any form of rationalism and ontologism, because "they attributed to natural reason a knowledge which only the light of faith can confer" (n. 52), but also against any form of fideism or traditionalism, "for their distrust of reason's natural capacities" (ibid.). A latent form of fideism, the Pope says, is "biblicism", i.e., the identification of the word of God with Sacred Scripture alone; another form is "disdain for the classical philosophy from which the terms of both the understanding of faith and the actual formulation of dogma have been drawn" (n. 55). Against these positions he states: "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" (n. 66).

3. A philosophy both autonomous and 'open'

What philosophers, especially the non-believing, generally deplore in the Church's attitude towards philosophy is the tendency to deny its autonomy, to impose limits or obligatory conclusions in a dogmatic, authoritarian way. This accusation is completely denied by the Encyclical Fides et ratio. There the Pope does not hesitate to affirm that 11 reason has its own specific field in which it can enquire and understand, restricted only by its finiteness before the infinite mystery of God" (n. 14); that faith "intervenes not to abolish reason's autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action" (n. 16); that the reason why the Church has always proposed Thomas Aquinas as the model philosopher is that he was one of the first to recognize "the autonomy which philosophy and the sciences needed" (n. 45).

For this reason, the Encyclical continues, "the Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others", because philosophy "must remain faithful to its own principles and methods". And it adds that "the autonomy which philosophy enjoys is rooted in the fact that reason is by its nature oriented to truth and is equipped moreover with the means necessary to arrive at truth" (n. 49). Even with regard to the expression ancilla theologiae, the term used for philosophy in Christian tradition, the Pope states that it "can scarcely be used today, given the principle of autonomy to which we have referred" (n. 77).

But autonomy does not mean being closed to faith or excluding it; nor is it a claim to absolute knowledge. Obviously, the Church cannot approve of philosophies that are incompatible with the faith, such as relativism, materialism and pantheism (n. 80), or dangerous to it, such as absolute historicism, scientism and nihilism (nn. 87-90). However, the relationship it establishes between philosophy and faith does not subordinate the former to the latter, or give priority to faith over philosophy. In this regard, the Encyclical repeatedly uses a concept which, if I am not mistaken, was not so widely found in previous documents of the Magisterium, that is, openness".

Look, for example, at the passages stating that human beings must " be open to the transcendent" (n. 15); that philosophy "is capable of accepting" the foolishness of the Cross (n. 23); that the Fathers "fully welcomed reason that was open to the absolute" (n. 41); that the philosophical enterprise, as a search for truth within the natural order, "is always open - at least implicitly to the supernatural" (n. 75). This idea of openness suggests the priority, at least from the logical standpoint, of philosophy as natural knowledge over faith, whose proper concern is the supernatural: a priority also mentioned in reference to Thomas' position that "faith builds upon and perfects reason" (n. 43), and in the statement that philosophy is "a truly propaedeutic path to faith" (n. 67).

But the idea of openness does not imply any necessary, obligatory, "dialectical" move, as if the content of faith could be demonstrated on the basis of philosophy and the philosopher would be compelled to believe. The idea of openness, however, means the possibility, and thus the freedom, of the act of faith, without which the [after would no longer have sense. I think this is something new and important in the Encyclical Fides et ratio, which obviously does not deny the past - something perhaps too evident in phrases such as "subsistent Being itself" (n. 79), or "the very act of being itself" (n. 97), which clearly smack of Neoplatonism -, but expresses it in a new way, much more acceptable to the philosophy of our times, as long as the latter itself remains truly "open" to dialogue and not dogmatically shut up in itself.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 November 1998, page 10

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