Mons. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo

For a Metaphysics Open to Faith

Mons. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo
Chancellor Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

We can immediately say that the starting-point and pivot on which the new Encyclical Fides et ratio is based is the dignity of the human being as a person, which raises him above all other beings and accords him an absolutely privileged position, i.e., freedom for Transcendence. It is God who has instilled in human beings a desire "to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves" (Proemium).

At the dawn of Greek thought, Heraclitus had already said: "I sought to know myself" (B 101), and right from the Introduction, like Hegel at the beginning of his philosophy of spirit but in a personal ontological sense, the Encyclical makes its own the famous admonition "Know yourself carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a mini mal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as 'human beings’" (n. 1). At this point philosophy, which is the unavoidable journey for "personal self-knowledge" and "emerges as one of the noblest of human tasks" (n. 3), is immediately declared "the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life" (n. 5). This applies not only to the philosophy that originated in Hellas, but also to the patristic-medieval philosophy for its creative synthesis of reason and faith, and even to modern philosophy for its anthropological themes (nn. 5, 91). The Encyclical, however, distinguishes "every philosophical system" where "we are clearly dealing with a 'philosophical pride' which seeks to present its own partial and imperfect view as the complete reading of all reality" (n. 4), with an appeal also to Pascal and Kierkegaard—I believe the only modern lay (i.e. non clerical) philosophers of universal importance mentioned—(nn. 76, 13), from "philosophical enquiry from which [every philosophical system] stems and which it ought loyally to serve"; in other words, "a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole", which "may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity". The Encyclical may be thinking for example, perhaps optimistically, of "the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and Intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness" (n. 4).

At this point we can see a basic dynamic framework in the Encyclical, which intends to distinguish, but not separate, God's way to man from man's way to God, emphasizing the "circular relationship" (n. 73) and "complementarity" (chap. 4) between the route that starts from the credo ut intellegam (chap. 1 and 2), which always opts for the Logos in preference to any kind of Mythos, and the route followed by autonomous human reason and its processes, called intellego ut credam (chap. 3). It is a question of faith and reason, which are "like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth" (Proemium), or the "twofold order of knowledge", according to Vatican I's Dei Filius (n. 9), which relies on the "enduring originality" of the thought of St Thomas Aquinas: "Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason" (n. 43). Vatican 11 focuses on Jesus as revealer and treats of time and history. God is not only manifested in nature, but history too "becomes the arena where we see what God does for humanity" (n. 12).

Journeying in search of truth

The Christian's ascending journey in search of truth is often exemplified by the so-called Pauline approach taken by the Apostle in his address to the philosophers of the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22ff.; cf. nn. 24, 36). "One altar in particular caught his eye, and he took this as a convenient starting-point to establish a common base for the proclamation of the kerygma" (n. 24). This common base is the clear affirmation of the "unknown God" as the one Principle in which "we live and move and have our being" and whose offspring man is. Paul's ascending journey echoes the famous beginning of Aristotle's Metaphysics: "Allhuman beings desire to know" (n. 25), which culminates in the demonstration of God's existence and his principal attributes (Met., XII, 7-9). According to the Encyclical: "if pagans were to understand them, the first Christians could not refer only to 'Moses and the prophets' when they spoke. They had to point as well to natural knowledge of God and to the voice of conscience in every human being". Since in pagan religion this natural knowledge had lapsed into idolatry (cf. Rom 1:21-32), "the Apostle judged it wiser in his speech to make the link with the thinking of the philosophers, who had always set in opposition to the myths and mystery cults notions more respectful of divine transcendence". At this point the Encyclical praises Greek philosophy, which is significant for the basic metaphysics it offers: "One of the major concerns of classical philosophy was to purify human notions of God of mythological elements" (n. 36; n. 41). On this basis the Fathers of the Church continued the Pauline approach by entering into fruitful dialogue with ancient philosophy.

Important moments

Among the important moments in this encounter of faith and reason the Encyclical also recalls Justin and Clement of Alexandria, who "understood philosophy, like the Mosaic Law, as instruction which prepared for Christian faith and paved the way for the Gospel" (n. 38). It mentions Origen, who used Platonic philosophy in his response to the philosopher Celsus. In this work of christianizing Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought, the Cappadocian Fathers, Dionysius called the Areopagite and especially St Augustine were important. The great Doctor of the West is particularly recalled in the Encyclical for his Confessiones (n. 40). We might add that in his more mature work, De Civitate Dei, Augustine approaches the knowledge of God as cause of being, ground of truth and meaning of life starting from philosophy as a whole (natural philosophy, logic and ethics), assigning to natural theology the task of determining the true nature of divinity: "agitur de naturali theologia, utrum ... uni Deo an pluribus sacra facere oporteat" (VIII, 12; cf. also 9 and 5). Thus the greatest philosophical minds were also able to know, at least in part, the truth about God and so be worthy of divine honours (ibid., 11, 7). St Thomas echoes Augustine when he says: "The philosophers excel in the consideration of truth" (In lob, c. 12, lect. 2). The Encyclical then makes an overall assessment of this moment in the encounter of faith and reason: "It is therefore minimalizing and mistaken to restrict their work simply to the transposition of the truths of faith into philosophical categories. They did much more. In fact they succeeded in disclosing completely all that remained implicit and preliminary in the thinking of the great philosophers of antiquity" (n. 41). And again: "History shows how Platonic thought, once adopted by theology, underwent profound changes, especially with regard to concepts such as the immortality of the soul, the divinization of man and the origin of evil" (n. 39).

St Anselm is profoundly and indirectly present in this Encyclical. He is acclaimed as "one of the most fruitful and important minds in human history, a point of reference for both philosophy and theology" (n. 14). Not only is the famous Proemium of his Proslogion quoted at length to show how God's Revelation stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort (ibid.), but also the Monologion, to confirm once again the harmony between philosophy and reason: "Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents" (n. 42). Lastly, the Archbishop of Canterbury is included in the great triad of Medieval Doctors (n. 74).

A quite special place in this difficult development belongs to St Thomas, who is particularly applauded in two sections(nn. 43 and 44), but is the central and constant reference-point for the Encyclical's theology and philosophy (nn. 57-61, 66, 69, 74). "In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason" (n. 78). Moreover, the Encyclical rightly acknowledges that "although they insisted upon the organic link between theology and philosophy, St Albert the Great and St Thomas were the first to recognize the autonomy which philosophy and the sciences needed if they were to perform well in their respective fields of research" (n. 45). In fact, we could say that, when Aristotle's philosophy becomes the predominant viewpoint, the organic and differentiated framework of the Aristotelian sciences is acknowledged. So too the distinction between a dialectical and demonstrative use of reason is accepted. This new framework is articulated in St Thomas' Summa contra Gentiles. While postponing to the

fourth book a consideration of the mysteries that admit only dialectical reasons (the Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection), it discusses in the first three books the truths that reason can demonstrate about God in himself -and. as, the cause of the world and the goal of man. Thus there are well-founded reasons for attributing a philosophical dimension to the discussion in the first three books, even if it remains a work of speculative Christian theology to the extent that everything is directed to knowledge of the revealed God. Therefore, the first hints of a philosophy of religion and a philosophy of revelation find their inspiration in this magisterial work.

This lofty peak of autonomy, collaboration and subordination is followed, for the Encyclical, by "the drama of the separation of faith and reason". In short, "what for Patristic and Medieval thought was in both theory and practice a profound unity, producing knowledge capable of reaching the highest forms of speculation, was destroyed by systems which espoused the cause of rational knowledge sundered from faith and meant to take the place of faith" (n. 45). The forms of this dramatic separation, especially in Western history, are many, varied and even contradictory (rationalism, fideism, ontologism, empiricism, phenomenalism, criticism, idealism, pragmatism, eclecticism, historicism, etc.), but which lead to nihilism (nn. 46-48, 58, 81, 84, 86-90). The Encyclical mentions them, weaving together their history and theoretical importance in such a way that they shed light on each other, especially in relation to what is called the Magisterium's discernment as diakonia of the truth (nn. 49-56).

The Church's interest in philosophy, especially through the Magisterium, is not limited however to pointing out the misperceptions and mistakes of philosophical theories. "With no less concern", the Encyclical says, she "has sought to stress the basic principles of a genuine renewal of philosophical enquiry, indicating as well particular paths to be taken". It is at this point that Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris, which proposes the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas as a guide for advanced philosophical studies, is important not only as an assessment of the past but above all as a task brimming with hope for the future. The Encyclical remarks that the text "remains to this day the one papal document of such authority devoted entirely to philosophy". And it adds, as if to indicate its own aim of continuity: "More than a century later, many of the insights of his Encyclical [Aeterni Patris] have lost none of their interest from either a practical or pedagogical point of view—most particularly, his insistence upon the incomparable value of the philosophy of St Thomas" (n. 57).

The Encyclical mentions a few of the positive results of Leo's summons: "... many scholars had courage enough to introduce the Thomistic tradition into the philosophical and theological discussions of the day". And again: "The most influential Catholic theologians of the present century, to whose thinking and research the Second Vatican Council was much indebted, were products of this revival of Thomistic philosophy" (n. 58). The Encyclical points out, however, that the Thomistic revival "was not the only sign of a resurgence of philosophical thought in culture of Christian inspiration" (n. 59). Further on, the Holy Father himself will say with regard to thinkers who in this period showed a fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God: "I gladly mention, in a Western context, figures such as John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson and Edith Stein and, in an Eastern context, eminent scholars such as Vladimir S. Soloviev, Pavel A. Florensky, Petr Chaadaev and Vladimir N. Lossky" (n. 74). In another context, however, he does not forget to mention a Spaniard. To show the "fundamental" and "indispensable" importance of philosophical courses in the curriculum of ecclesiastical studies and how it indirectly "promoted" modern philosophy, he says: "One telling example of this is the influence of the Disputationes Metaphysicae of Francisco Suarez, which found its way even into the Lutheran universities of Germany" (n. 62).

Current requirements and tasks

At this point in the Encyclical, after retracing the important historical and speculative ground covered, the Pope begins to discuss what we could call a metaphysical approach open to faith or "the enterprise of philosophy open—at least implicitly—to the supernatural" (n. 75): "It is my task to state principles and criteria which in my judgement are' necessary in order to restore a harmonious and creative relationship between theology and philosophy" (n. 63). He says that Christian theology "presupposes and implies a philosophy of the human being, the world and, more radically, of being, which has objective truth as its foundation" (n. 66). Then, "with its specific character as a discipline charged with giving an account of faith (cf. 1 Pt 3:15), the concern of fundamental theology willbe to ... show how, in the light of the knowledge conferred by faith, there emerge certain truths which reason, from its own independent enquiry, already perceives". The Encyclical is considering, "for example, the natural knowledge of God, the possibility of distinguishing divine Revelation from other phenomena or the recognition of its credibility, the capacity of human language to speak in a true and meaningful way even of things which transcend all human experience" (n. 67). Moreover, moral theology "has perhaps an even greater need of philosophy's contribution". In short, it "requires a sound philosophical vision of human nature and society, as well as of the general principles of ethical decision-making" (n. 68). To the broader objection that the theologian should nowadays rely less on a philosophy of Greek and Eurocentric provenance than on history and above all on the sciences,-"the extraordinary advances of which in recent times stir such admiration", he replies by affirming the clear distinction between science and philosophy. They belong to different intellectual perspectives: "Reference to the sciences is often helpful, allowing as it does a more thorough knowledge of the subject under study; but it should not mean the rejection of a typically philosophical and critical thinking which is concerned with the universal. Indeed, this kind of thinking is required for a fruitful exchange between cultures". Precisely because philosophy searches for the ultimate meaning of truth, being, life and man in themselves, in its nature as reflective awareness "the specific contribution of philosophical enquiry enables us to discern in different world-views and different cultures 'not what people think but ,what the objective truth is"' (n. 69).


Like Paul at the Areopagus in Athens, John Paul II voices in the new Areopagus of a globalized world, ready to celebrate the Jubilee of Redemption, the "indispensable" philosophical requirements which appear as tasks and challenges for contemporary philosophers. Christians know "that what we experience is not absolute: it is neither uncreated nor self-generating. God alone is the Absolute". They also know that from the Bible "there emerges a vision of man as imago Dei. This vision offers indications regarding man's life , his freedom and the immortality of the human spirit". And they know that evil "stems not from any material deficiency, but is a wound inflicted by the disordered exercise of human freedom". In short: "The fundamental conviction of the 'philosophy' found in the Bible is that the world and human life do have a meaning and look towards their fulfilment, which comes in Jesus Christ" (n. 80).

Therefore, the first step or task of a philosophy open to faith is to recover "its sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life". In this regard, "it will be not only the decisive critical factor which determines the foundations and limits of the different fields of scientific learning, but will also take its place as the ultimate framework of the unity of human knowledge and action, leading them to converge towards a final goal and meaning". Defining the concept of truth represents the human being's first stance towards being as such and reaches the essence of human freedom through the choice of the ultimate end. The sciences however—i.e., the sciences of nature as well as those of the mind -operate in specific fields. Thus, "this sapiential function could not be performed by a philosophy which was not itself a true and authentic knowledge, addressed, that is, not only to particular and subordinate aspects of reality—functional, formal or utilitarian—but to its total and definitive truth, to the very being of the object which is known". This prompts a second requirement or task: "that philosophy verify the human capacity to know the truth, to come to a knowledge which can reach objective truth by means of that adaequatio rei et intellectus to which the Scholastic Doctors referred" (Thomas and Bonaventure are cited in the footnote); or "a philosophy which does not disavow the possibility of a knowledge which is objectively true, even if not perfect" (n. 82).

The two requirements or tasks already stipulated imply a third, essential task: "the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth" (n. 83; cf. also n. 106). The cornerstone therefore of a philosophy open to faith is the profession or conviction that God exists, as the First Principle and ultimate end which man can discover by reason alone, before and apart from Christian faith, as is repeatedly said in the Wisdom books, in St Paul, in the Church's Magisterium and in the writings of so many Jewish, Christian, non-Christian, Muslim and Indian philosophers and sages from the North to the South of the globe. "This requirement", the Encyclical says, "is implicit in sapiential and analytical knowledge alike; and in particular it is a requirement for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself". Naturally the Pope states: "Here I do not mean to speak of metaphysics in the sense of a specific school or a particular historical current of thought" (n. 83; cf. also n. 49, beginning). It is a sensitive point, which the Pope himself explains: "I want only to state that reality and truth do transcend the factual and the empirical, and to vindicate the human being's capacity to know this transcendent and metaphysical dimension in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical". We know, for example, that Aristotle was the first to speak of analogy, and that the Pseudo-Dionysius and St Thomas spoke of the analogical knowledge of God. Not the last to be concerned with the problem of God were many capable contemporary philosophers (Stein, Fabro, Ricoeur, Marias, Gadamer, etc.). It seems the Pope wants to avoid any reference to a school or system, however necessary they may be to philosophers, to indicate instead the "move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent" (n. 83), which the philosopher experiences and undertakes as a duty to discuss, interpret and write about in varied ways. Perhaps we can see in this primordial task of affirming God that exalted moment when philosophy achieves an identity in diversity: diversity in its systems and thinkers, but unity in its foundation, which is the meaning of archē, i.e., the first principle and ultimate end.

For this lofty task, however, the Encyclical rehabilitates, though in a nonsystematic way, certain ideas which come indeed from the "Christian tradition" but are characteristic of St Thomas. It says, for example: "By virtue of the splendour emanating from subsistent Being itself, revealed truth offers the fullness of light and will therefore illumine the path of philosophical enquiry" (n. 79). Can anyone doubt that the beautiful image of the splendour of life emanating from subsistent Being is distinctively Wojtylan? Even more does it suggest the now famous image of Splendor veritatis, the beginning of the other highly philosophical Encyclical of this Pontificate. On the other hand, the idea of God as Ipsum esse subsistens isThomistic, as is the other notion that the light of each thing emanates from the actuality, of its own being (cf. In De Causis, 6). The Encyclical says repeatedly that we must turn to the "philosophy of being" (nn. 76, 97 and passim) and this "in harmony with the demands and insights of the entire philosophical tradition, including philosophy of more recent times, without lapsing into sterile repetition of antiquated formulas". He describes this sort of thought as follows: "Set within the Christian metaphysical tradition, the philosophy of being is a dynamic philosophy which views reality in its ontological, causal and communicative structures. It is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself, which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole, surpassing every limit in order to reach the One who brings all' things to fulfilment" (n. 97). We know that for St Thomas the principle of the real, i.e., of a being, is the act of being (actus essendi), being itself as already glimpsed by Parmenides, revisited by Hegel, and today by Heidegger as being itself (Sein selbst), considered for the first time by Aquinas using Aristotle's "act", with the definition of God as actus essendi per essentiam, or "ocean of reality" (Damascene), and the creature as a being by participation.

Nothing new, then? The fact is, all of this comes from St Thomas but the awareness is new, very new, to our "postmodern" times. The Encyclical thus revisits the profound meaning of Aeterni Patris—ofthat fundamental choice which matures especially in the Church's life from within the spirit in the Spirit—but in a new way. The intention is not to propose the Thomistic system, developed and defended by the Thomistic school, as a new venture for that primordial task of creating room for transcendence, but to suggest the reappropriation of that exceptional potential of theoretical meaning which has remained inactive, i.e., St Thomas' most profound metaphysical discoveries.

Metaphysics and anthropology

But there is more in this philosophical field as well. It is a difficult point and I do not want to be misunderstood. I quote the most significant text: "Metaphysics should not be seen as an alternative to anthropology, since it is metaphysics which makes it possible to ground the concept of personal dignity in virtue of their spiritual nature. In a special way, the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being, and hence with metaphysical enquiry" (n. 83). The thinking is dialectic and oscillating. It passes from metaphysics to anthropology and from anthropology to metaphysics, from being to the person and from the person to being, without fusing the terms or confusing the ideas, much less equivocating about the realities implied, but by passing through the "mediation" of the human being who is the person. It is a new, anthropologically inspired approach which affirms the human being's emergence and independence, but an emergence and independence derived from the First Principle of spiritual and material beings, which is God. Today more than ever, after the road traveled by modernity, perhaps the one important medieval way is not the only route to take, i.e., to go from created being to the uncreated Being, skimming over the problem of the human being, of his interiority and his intersubjectivity, which after St Augustine and the anti-Averroistic polemic of St Thomas (hic homo singularis intellegit, vult, amat) seems to have been forgotten in a "pan-onto-logic". Our Pope, who "knows contemporary philosophy and is at home in it" (J. Marlas), is aware of a new richness in modernity and is not pessimistic: "I certainly wish to stress that our heritage of knowledge and wisdom has indeed been enriched in different fields. We need only cite logic, the philosophy of language, epistemology, the philosophy of nature, anthropology, the more penetrating analysis of the affective dimensions of knowledge and the existential approach to the analysis of freedom" (n. 91). Indeed, from the very start the Encyclical focuses on the speculative aspect: "Modern philosophy clearly has the great merit of focusing attention upon man" (n. 5).

In every age, including our own, philosophy has been and remains crucial. Human action and man himself, as a person different from every other thing (made of body, soul, spirit and ego), projective, mortal in his corporality but postulating immortality through his desire for it, appear today as a privileged locus for understanding being and its meanings. We can go from the acts that transcend the empirical structure to the powerful and effective being (first act) of the individual ego which these acts reveal. The centrality of human action but the decentralization towards oneself of every individual person who is and who knows he is, but is not (and knows he is not) being by his essence, thus postulates the grounding presence of the Ipsum esse subsistens as the causal fullness of the actualities that operate in the individual as a participation in God. What is essential in this anthropological capacity for interpreting being is the analogical decentralization of interiority, i.e., of the individual self, and an analogical re-centering on what is above, i.e., God; this is also what the later Thomas did: "Deus est et tu: sed tuum esse est participatum, suum vero essentiale" (In Psal., 34, 7). Thus the experience that depends on the ego, anthropology and metaphysics or first philosophy are linked in their respective function and substance, opening a "breach" in Kant's transcendental, which nevertheless keeps consciousness always on the alert.

Thus, the metaphysics that the Encyclical proposes has the task of opening and strengthening the horizon of transcendence beginning with the two pillars of God's existence and the immortality of the soul. It is a question of transcendence in Transcendence. The first transcendence is that of man vis-a-vis the totality of nature through his spiritual essence endowed with a free and intellectual soul; the second is that of the First Principle and ultimate end "whom everyone calls God" and who shares his own nature with man, making him capax Dei. The beginning of this journey is interchangeable: one can go from God to the soul to God—the descending process typical of biblical wisdom; or one can go from action to the soul and from the spiritual subject to God—the ascending process typical of Aristotle and modern thought. A philosophy open to faith follows its own path: it works with the "natural light" of reason, but employs it within the transcendent reality which is God the creator and the soul as a free spiritual subject. It is man himself then who, by immersing himself in the presence of Transcendence, can infinitely expand the project of his existence, as Heraclitus had already sensed with the Logos, and Aristotle in presenting Anaxagoras' mind as "capable of becoming and doing all things" (430a 14-16).


Therefore we should admire and thank the Holy Father for this Encyclica which certainly meets the Church's ardent expectations, as evidenced by among other things, the recent document from the deans of the philosophy faculties of France's Catholic universities. Not only for the determination which John Paul II shows, but for the subject itself which touches directly on the defence and preservation of sacra doctrina, the present Encyclical will surely be considered a dogmatic fact, i.e., a stand that marks a significant step by the Magisterium in its mission of showing men and women the way to promote the saving truth. Therefore the Encyclical gives us reason to hope that philosophical enquiry open to faith belongs not only to the past but especially to the future: more to the 21st century than to the glorious 13th. Lastly, the Encyclical once again demonstrates the Pope's love as a "diakonia of the Truth", but also the Vicar of Christ's love for Our Lord, because, if for Dante "there is a Rome where Christ is Roman", then we can say that there is a philosophy where Christ is the philosopher. And that is the real issue.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 September 1999, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069