Vittorio Possenti

The Encyclical in Relation to Modern and Contemporary Thought

Vittorio Possenti

In the fabric of this Encyclical, perhaps the modern Church's most elaborate reflection on the theme stated in the title, critical and discerning dialogue with modern and contemporary philosophical thought has an important place: it confirms the Church's great interest in philosophy, which has intensified in the past 150 years, as attested by the two Vatican Councils and Aeterni Patris. Since the positions of Fides et ratio in this regard are organically connected with the entire document, to understand them properly it would be wise beforehand to outline its goals and perspectives. The two focal points around which the text is developed are already mentioned at the outset: faith and reason are like "two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth". Among the endeavours of reason in its search for the meaning of life philosophy emerges "as one of the noblest of human tasks".

The Encyclical expresses high esteem for philosophy and an awareness of its impact on culture, life and personal choices. The heritage of humanity's spiritual patrimony courses through philosophical research in the guise of an implicit thought which gradually takes shape and is expressed, among other things, in a core of well-grounded knowledge: in this regard, Fides et ratio refers to the principles of non-contradiction, finality, causality and several moral norms which should constitute a reference-point for the various philosophical currents. Esteem for philosophy is enhanced by the fact that it is an indispensable aid for reaching an understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel: its importance in evangelization is linked to the fact that every human person is naturally a philosopher and as such seeks the significance of everything and a meaning in life.

Two of the central messages of Fides et ratio are particularly prominent. One is the idea, a true guiding thread running through the text, that cooperation between faith and reason is appropriate and beneficial to both, contrary to the system of unnatural separation which has unfortunately prevailed in modern times: reason without Revelation risks being impoverished, shunning the mystery and newness of being, confining itself to narrow horizons; and faith without reason, far from thriving on the rubble of reason, tends to be reduced to myth, a sentimental expression without universality. The Encyclical's second message revolves around the invitation to think with an open mind, in the first place, of the absolute, combining it with the superior wealth of Revelation.

If we consider how the papal text portrays modern thought, we realize that, although no section is dedicated to this topic, it recurs in various parts which together offer vivid ideas for formulating an evaluation of philosophical modernity. There are passages where its positive aspects and great merits are acknowledged: e.g., the development of attention to man, to history and to the problem of knowledge; concern for the world of learning, etc. However, in the Encyclical's evaluation the darker aspects, the doubting or even negative judgements seem to prevail, to the point of raising the crucial question as to whether a large part of modern thought is capable of fostering that fides quaerens intellectum, that search for a genuine self-understanding of faith that thinks itself, which constitutes the pivot of Christian belief and the norm of its theology; and if it is not instead subject to agnosticism, relativism and scepticism. Indeed, if it is almost a commonplace to find in the philosophy closest to us an excessive distrust in the knowledge of reason, it is necessary again to invite the latter to heal itself and to receive an incentive from faith to move forward.

The spiritual experience which in modern times has rarely permitted a fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God is identified in the growing gap between reason and faith: "the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning [theology and philosophy] became more and more a fateful separation" (n. 45). The harmony between reason and faith achieved in patristic and medieval thought was compromised by philosophies that posited rational knowledge as separate from and alternative to faith and programmatically ignored the light of truth contained in God's message to man. This trend, which began in the 17th and 18th centuries, reached its peak in the 19th century, with expressions of idealism, with atheistic humanism, positivism and the passage from revelatory to utilitarian reason. One could say that the combined effect of these aspects is the loss of philosophy's sapiential dimension in the search for meaning.

Although the dialectic described allows for a certain Christian influence on modern philosophy despite the abandonment of Christian orthodoxy by many authors, it has not undergone substantial changes in contemporary thought, in which Fides et ratio identifies several critical elements: eclecticism, historicism, scientism, pragmatism. It is worthwhile stressing the third of these, which is still very widespread under the lead of the originally positivist and neopositivist idea that it is only science which knows, that only science can offer man the benefits of a unified and useful knowledge of the world. The Encyclical offers an evaluation that in some way summarizes philosophical modernity through the category of nihilism, an evaluation which is speculative as well as moral. Nihilism implies abandoning the real, the meaning of being, a rejection of every foundation and the denial of every objective truth, to the point that there is no purpose or "because": human and cosmic becoming mean nothing and have no goal. The "weak" and sceptical postmodern, who considers that the era of certitudes has given way to one marked by the absence of all meaning, is not saved from nihilism, to which the Encyclical assigns an unequivocal negative meaning, distancing itself from those postmodern currents which regard it as positive. It is not difficult to see how carefully Fides et ratio keeps its distance from certain positions that currently enjoy great popularity in contemporary thought, although they are not shared by all. We cite two of them: a) the theses of Heideggerian origin on the end of metaphysics and the arrival of post-metaphysical thought; b) universal fallibilism, according to which it is impossible to achieve a stable knowledge of anything, with the corollary that the only legitimate cognitive activity is the critical and never the constructive-positive.

In my opinion the positions addressed by the Encyclical's critical exposition can be traced back to an anti-realism which denies objective ontological knowledge and clings to phenomenism, relativism and the rejection of metaphysics, without which access to the realm of the transcendent becomes wishful thinking; and to the principle of immanence, not yet overcome, which is the basis for the claim to an absolute self-grounding of reason within the insurmountable circle of self-knowledge. In a more or less conscious way we find this criterion taken up again in the positions of schools which, according to the case, intend programmatically: 1) to proceed etsi Deus non daretur in moral issues; 2) to place themselves above revealed religion, regarded as an inferior form of knowledge (e.g., idealism); 3) to reduce Revelation solely to reason and solely to the ethical element. Here we think of the Kantian position and his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, while Fides et ratio would suggest a very different title, for example: "Reason open to the message of Revelation".

By way of completion it should also be said that there have been philosophers, thinkers and theologians who were able to combine faith and reason in modern times. They were not modern in relation to the speculative context when the latter proved unjustifiably closed to Revelation and took the form of a "separate philosophy", but they were personally modern: they lived, worked and struggled in modernity, critically accepting its demands and reformulating them when necessary. It is satisfying to see that the papal text pays tribute to the work of a large number of modern Christian thinkers who worked for an encounter between Revelation and reason: Newman, Rosmini, Maritain, Gilson, Stein. And it is significant that names from Eastern Europe are included in this list: Soloviev, Florensky, Chaadaev, Lossky (cf. n. 74).

The delineation of the limits (and relative merits) of modern thought becomes even sharper in relation to the constructive discourse that occupies most of the text. It presents the text as a Magna Carta for a new encounter in the third millennium between Christ and postmodern thought, beyond the framework of a "lazy reason" which stops at the empirical and the phenomenal; it also proposes a "daring reason". The pivotal element should be seen in the demands made by God's word on both believing and contemporary thought, summarized in the elaboration of a metaphysical philosophy consistent with it. In line with an ancient and uninterrupted tradition, in the papal text, knowledge of God is considered the summit and fulfilment of any other true knowledge. This knowledge follows the two paths of reason and faith, natural knowledge and that which stems from Revelation. Adopting the positions of the First and Second Vatican Councils, which in turn refer back to the Old and New Testaments (cf. the Book of Wisdom and the Letter to the Romans), the text maintains the knowability of God starting from created things. Reason's ability to rise above the empirical and the contingent is also attested by literature, poetry, music and art. These great realms of the spirit express a feeling and nostalgia for something that goes beyond the merely human level about which Baudelaire wrote, commenting on Poe: "it is this admirable, immortal instinct of the Beautiful which leads us to look at the earth and its spectacles as an essay, a correspondence from heaven.... It is by means of poetry and through poetry, by means of and through music, that the soul glimpses the splendours beyond the grave".

Without declaring a preference for any school, the Encyclical recognizes philosophy as the best way to reach the intellectus fidei and to articulate a renewed dogmatic theology: an open and dynamic philosophy of being that is based on the act of being (actus essendi). Here it is suggested that one of the greatest limitations of modern enquiry is to have bracketed being, not to have succeeded in positing itself as a philosophy of being, thus encountering greater difficulties in finding the sapiential dimension proper to philosophical thought and in addressing the fragmentation of knowledge. With the reference to metaphysics it is justifiable to mention, in contrast, that area of contemporary philosophy which is described as post-metaphysical, wishing thereby to allude to the irreversible undermining of the foundations of the true and the valid which it observes in Western culture. It the speculative value of the diagnosis remains somewhat problematic, on the other hand, it confirms the precariousness of finding meaning and of preserving the content of moral insights when thought is programmatically separated from onto-theology and religion.

Fides et ratio is in profound continuity with what the Second Vatican intended to present without ambiguity. In fact, cultural dynamics and the interpretation of the Council have taken a different course: there are positions which in some post-conciliar currents have been attributed to the Council but which the Council did not intend to assert. And there are others which it stated insistently over and over again but which have been disregarded on the presupposition that it did not express them, or had no desire to support them. The importance of philosophical thought for evangelization and the possibility of reaching a knowledge of the metaempirical are among the things the Council said, although many people have acted as though it preferred to remain silent about them.

Fides et ratio is qualified to speak of Christian and contemporary thought, since it takes into account the present spiritual phase in culture and philosophy. Indeed, the undiluted, harsh rationalism of the 18th century was abandoned some time ago. The impending risk today does not consist in putting excessive trust in reason, which at one time tried to sideline Revelation, but in having too little confidence in reason, which is considered in its proper place only if it deals with the empirical and acts as the stockbroker of the finite. If many voices warn thought not to seek things too lofty, Revelation invites it never to stop in its quest since it can only rest in the Absolute and can do so if it does not rise to self-sufficient totality. All philosophy "needs to be completed, because, basically, all that is finite, insofar as it is created, has been put in relationship with God, and the latter is not exhausted by the resources of philosophy" (Edith Stein, letter to Jacques Maritain, 16 April 1936).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 September 1999, page 10

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