Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James
V. Schall, S.J. | February 1, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James
V. Schall, S.J. | February 1, 2007
"According to the
thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, human reason, to say it as such, 'breathes,'
that is, it moves on a wide-open horizon in which it can experience the best of
itself. Nonetheless, when man limits himself to think only of material and
experimental objects, he closes himself to the questions of life, about himself
and about God, impoverishing himself." -- Benedict XVI, Feast of Thomas Aquinas, January 28, 2007
A seminarian friend of mine in Connecticut brought my
attention, via e-mail, to the ZENIT copy of the Holy Father's Angelus for
Sunday, January 28, entitled, "On the Faith-Reason Synthesis: A Precious
Patrimony for Western Civilization." Naturally, I hastened to look it up as I had not yet read it. One good thing
about the weekly papal Sunday "Angelus" talks is that they are short, to the
point, and seldom designed to say more than one thing to the folks assembled
below the papal balcony to receive the papal blessing. As I had been reading
both Chesterton's Heretics and John Paul
II's Memory and Identity with a
class, this brief comment on Aquinas was of particular interest to me.
I have always considered particularly prophetic the
conclusion of Chesterton's book, written in 1905. It described, in his own
vivid and far-seeing way, what would, more than anything, be the philosophical
irony of the then upcoming 20th and 21st centuries, namely, the
"self-limitation" of the human mind so that it denied itself the power to get
outside of itself into a reality it did not make. In a certain almost verbatim
anticipation of the thesis of Fides et Ratio, Chesterton wrote of the coming centuries, "We (those with the faith)
shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We
shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed." The fact is that, a
hundred years after Chesterton wrote, it is primarily those with the faith who
can affirm that their senses and reason report to them a real world that
is. They are the ones with the courage to
speak of the skies as "heavens" even if blue and of the grass as green.
Chesterton's paradoxical passage, of course, presupposes that
we recall the famous conversation of Christ with the apostle Thomas after the
Resurrection. Thomas brashly clamed that he would believe it was actually
Christ only after he had put his hand in the side of the Lord's risen body.
Christ's equally paradoxical reply was "blessed are those, Thomas, who have not
seen but have believed." Here, we find Chesterton stating the obvious, that, in
our time, it is those with the faith who are most likely to be the ones who use
their senses and mind to see and affirm the world that is, who think that there really is a world to know.
The Pope, in his comment on Aquinas, adds that there are
things to be known by our reason that are not limited to the material realm,
about which latter many philosophers also doubt whether we can know other than
through our man-constructed scientific theories about them. Thus, on such a
premise, what we see are not things but our theories of things. And when our
theories change, we wonder whether we ever see anything at all. We have to "believe"
that what we see with our senses is really there.
Benedict, who is often said to be more of an "Augustinian"
than a "Thomist" philosopher (neither of which, be it noted, are sins), remarks
that Aquinas has the "charism" of both a philosopher and a theologian. Aquinas
"offers a valid model of harmony between reason and faith." Both of these
"dimensions of the human spirit (reason and faith)" are "fully realized when
they meet and dialogue." If we take this statement literally, as I think we should,
it means that philosophy is not philosophy if it is only philosophy, and
theology is not theology if it is only theology. To be what they are at their
best, both need the other, and more, both need in those who hold them the full
experience of human living itself. The notion that faith and reason should not meet--absolute "separation" of church and state,
complete "autonomy" of faith and reason--is itself a formula for not "fully
realizing" the whole, to which both theology and philosophy are to be open by
their own proper approaches. Revelation addresses itself to a reason that has
its own unanswered philosophical questions. Philosophy, when it knows what it
knows, realizes that it is but a "quest." Only the gods are wholly wise.
Benedict remarks that Aquinas' thought literally "breathes"
on the whole "horizon" of the reality to which it is open. Here the Pope uses
the analogy of "breathing" rather than that of "seeing." The Spirit "hovers"
over the waters, all waters. It is quite possible for us, however, voluntarily
to close ourselves off from things higher than those to which our scientific or
theoretical methods will allow us to grasp. What the Pope emphasizes here is
that this "closing off" is not a theoretically necessary thing, but a "choice" on
our part not to see certain things whose existence would impinge on our own
self-made image of the world, on the way we choose to live.
Benedict next refers back both to John Paul II's Fides et
Ratio and to his own Regensburg Lecture in
which these very issues were discussed in greater detail. The "challenge of
faith and reason" has directly to do with the problem of Western culture's
understanding itself, itself and other cultures. The Pope never misses an
opportunity to praise what in modern technological culture is worthy and even
noble. These good results "must always be acknowledged." Yet, there is an
Enlightenment problem. The tendency to consider true only "that which can be
experienced constitutes a limitation for human reason and produces a terrible
schizophrenia, evident to all, because of which rationalism and materialism,
and hyper-technology and unbridled instincts, coexist." Because something
cannot be "measured" or reproduced by mathematical methods, themselves rightly
based on matter, does not mean that everything is material. Mathematical
"ideas" are themselves, as Plato said, spiritual. If we insist that only matter
exists, we "reduce" our sights so that we only see what is material. We confuse
it for everything.
What is needed? We must "rediscover in a new way human
rationality open to the light of the divine Logos and to its perfect revelation that is Jesus Christ, Son of God made
man." Does this view not "restrict" our range of freedom and knowledge? Quite
the opposite. Any closing off of the mind from the full range of things to
which it is open is itself a denial both of freedom and reason. "When Christian
faith is authentic, it does not mortify freedom or human reason." There is no
reason for faith and reason to be "afraid" of one another. This is particularly
so because, when faith and reason meet in dialogue, both "can express
themselves in the best way." Reason by itself is not full reason. Faith by
itself is not full faith.
Benedict puts St. Thomas' famous dictum that "grace builds
on nature" in this way: "Faith implies reason and perfects it." When reason is
itself "illuminated" by faith, it finds strength "to rise to knowledge of God
and of spiritual realities." Does reason somehow "lose" something if it is
stimulated by faith to be more reasonable on its own terms? Hardly. Faith or
revelation is not in the least interested in a reason that is somehow under
compulsion from revelation or anything else. This lack of freedom would corrupt
both reason and faith. Faith calls for "free and conscious adherence." What is
seen by reason in faith makes sense to it, that is to reason, on its own
Thomas, Benedict points out, spent much effort, especially
in the Summa contra Gentiles, with the
thoughts and positions of Jewish and Muslim philosophers. Thomas is always
"present" in dialogue with other religions and cultures precisely because of
his ability to press the question of reason to any claim to truth, even a truth
of revelation. He simply wanted to know if what was held contradicted reason.
If it did not, its credibility was naturally much enhanced.
To "introduce this Christian synthesis between reason and
faith that represents a precise patrimony for Western civilization," which was
the achievement of Aquinas, is the key to dialogue with "the great cultural and
religious traditions of East and South of the world." The East and South, of
course, include but also go beyond both the Jewish and Muslim worlds. It is
significant that Benedict's vision is not a restricted one precisely because of
what is at the heart of the Western tradition, a universality of reason
addressed to any mind whatever its geographical or cultural or religious
background or intellectual component..
The second chapter of John Paul II's last book, Memory
and Identity, is entitled "Ideologies of
Evil." It is intended to ask about the meaning of the major ideologies of the
twentieth century, Nazism and Communism. Why so much evil? Does this not prove
that God does not exist? John Paul II, like Benedict in the Regensburg Address,
is conscious of the relation of historical events to salvation history. In
order to reflect on this issue, John Paul II, himself, like Benedict, no mean
philosopher in his own right, endeavors to explain, in theological terms, the meaning
of the fact of the evil of these ideologies and their actual record of human
devastation. In order to do this, Pope Wojtyla presents a brief history of
philosophy that serves to reinforce what Benedict had today of Aquinas.
John Paul II initially recalls his first three encyclicals,
on the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Following Augustine's definition
of pride, he explains the relation of modern ideology to the claim of man to be
able to form his own laws independently of God (modernity in the ideological
sense). The temptation of Adam and Eve is precisely to enable us to" decide
what is good and what is evil". To overcome this pride, the love of God must
replace the love of self. The evil of historic movements can only be overcome
by reestablishing the proper order of man to God. Mankind needs something more
than himself, a help which is offered in grace. But he may freely refuse it.
Out of this "refusal" comes most of the disorder in the world that we know.
Man cannot get back onto his feet
unaided: he needs the help of the Holy Spirit. If he refuses this help, he
commits what Christ called "the blasphemy against the Spirit," the sin which
"will not be forgiven" (Mt. 12:31). Why will it not be forgiven? Because it
means there is no desire for pardon. Man refuses the love and the mercy of God,
since he believes himself to be God. He believes himself to be capable of
John Paul II wants to know: what "limits" evil, the actual
experienced evil of our times? To talk of its "limits" implies knowing what
evil is, or better, what it is not, that is, the lack of a good that ought to
be there in a good being.
John Paul II makes the following startling statement: "Over
the years I have become more and more convinced that the ideologies of evil are
profoundly rooted in the history of European philosophical thought." What we
think is not an indifferent matter, particularly if we think our minds are not
bound by what is. This intellectual
source of evil calls for a reexamination of the Enlightenment, which had a
somewhat different form in each European country, including Poland. It erupted
with particular violence in the 20th century with Marxism.
Demonstrating his own careful philosophical studies, John
Paul II examines the effect of Descartes and how his thought differed from the
philosophy of St Thomas. Aquinas began with being, with what is. Descartes began with thought itself, the famous cogito. At first sight, this difference might seem a mere
philosopher's quibble and not the origin of modern evils. But Pope Wojytyla
makes a good case for why this difference enabled modern ideologies to be so
In the pre-Cartesian period,
philosophy, that is to say cogito, or
rather the cognosco, was
subordinate to esse, which was
considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior. This not only changed the direction of
philosophizing, but it marked the decisive abandonment of what philosophy had
been hitherto, particularly the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, and namely the
philosophy of esse.
In Aquinas, thus, God was a real and self-sufficient Being
who created an actual world to which we are open. God was the "necessary ground
of every being."
The shift that took place with Descartes meant that God was
"thought." All being, including the divine being, remained within thought.
Indeed, in Descartes, for anyone to know anything outside of one's self, he
first had to prove the existence of God in his mind. "Philosophy now concerned
itself with beings qua content of
consciousness and not qua
existing independently of it."
The significance of this shift in emphasis is that a Creator
God who is subsistent Being (Aquinas) might be able to communicate with real
being from outside the causation of creatures, but a God totally under the
control of our minds (Descartes) could not do this.
The very possibility of attaining
to God was placed in question. According to the logic of cogito, ergo sum, God was reduced to an element within human consciousness;
no longer could he be considered the ultimate explanation of the human sum. Nor could he remain as Ens subsistens, or "Self-sufficient Being," as the Creator, the one
who gives existence, and least of all as the one who gives himself in the
mystery of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and grace. The God of Revelation
had ceased to exist as "God of the philosophers." All that remained was the
idea of God, a topic for free exploration by human thought.
And it was, ironically, precisely this notion of God as
being a "topic" of free explanation, ungrounded in being, that the Pope Wojtyla
sees as the origin of modern ideological evil.
Evil in the basic sense can only "exist" in something
actually good and real. This position is the foundation for any initiative to
counteract it. The "good" in the being lacking something, the evil, is always
there to continue its path of goodness. This is why, in the world of real
being, real esse, there is always
"hope," even in the worst evil. Thus, John Paul II could ask about the "limits"
of evil. He responded that the limits are only to be found in the "divine
mercy." "Evil, in a realist sense, can only exist in relation to good and, in
particular, in relation to God, the supreme good" (10). Strictly speaking, there
is no "evil" in an idea. The "idea" of evil as such is a good; we are supposed
to know what it is.
What was redeemed by Christ was real evil, or better the
evil that existed in some real good. The Cross--the redemption through
suffering--is the result of evil. But it is the divine way to turn it around to
the good. "Man was redeemed and came to share in the life of God through
Christ's saving work." That is, the Incarnation was real; the Son became man
and dwelt amongst us. This man, foretold by the prophets, was killed on the
Cross in a state execution. This happened in real time, in a real place. We
know the names of those who carried it out. It is not a product of any
imagination. We only know what it is because it happened. Scripture has a factual
historical component without which it is myth. This is why Scripture scholars,
as it says in Fides et Ratio, also need
to know a realist philosophy.
What happens, however, if we have a Cartesian philosophy to
explain our redemption? "The entire drama of salvation history had disappeared
as far as the Enlightenment was concerned. Man remained alone: alone as creator
of is own history and his own civilization; alone as one who decides what is
good and what is bad, as one who would exist and operate etsi Deus non
daretur, even if there were no God" (10).
It is worthwhile noting the sharpness of John Paul II's intellect here. That
Latin phrase, etsi Deus non daretur,
was from the famous Dutch international lawyer Hugo Grotius. It was, as Charles
N. R. McCoy used tirelessly to point out, the key concept by which God was
removed from natural law which, in turn, became itself "autonomous." Once
autonomous, subject only to our own consciousness, we could fashion it as we
pleased in principle. From hence forward, ominously, we had "natural rights"
which were not based in anything but human will.
This result is precisely what John Paul II spells out. "If
man can decide by himself, without God, what is good and what is bad, he can
also determine that a group of people is to be annihilated." And that, he
thinks--since this is what did happen--is the intellectual origin of 20th
century ideologies of evil These crimes seem outlandish until we realize their
But John Paul II, like Benedict, sees this same ideology not
only in Marxism or Islamic voluntarism but also in our liberal and democratic
tradition that itself denies any grounding in esse, in being, in what is.
The fall of the regimes built on
ideologies of evil put an end to the forms of extermination just mentioned in
the countries concerned (Germany and Russia). However, there remains the legal
extermination of human beings conceived but unborn. And in this case, that
extermination is decreed by democratically elected parliaments, which invoke
the notion of civil progress for society, and for all humanity.
Killing the unborn, of course, is not "civil progress,"
especially in a world like that of Europe itself in desperate need of babies.
John Paul II, who seemingly never tired of talking of "human
rights," was quite aware of the dangers involved in a conception of voluntarist
rights with no grounding in what is. "It
is legitimate and even necessary," he continued, "to ask whether this is not
the work of another ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden perhaps, intent
upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family."
There can today be little doubt that this new "ideology of evil" is prevalent
among us. There can be no doubt that many refuse to call it what it is, "an
ideology of evil."
If we "close ourselves off to life," to ourselves, and from
God, as Benedict put it, we "impoverish" only ourselves. The point of these
reflections, then, is that evils and their ideologies have an intellectual history
and their own inner persuasiveness. The philosophy of Aquinas, its realism, is
not merely an indifferent option. It teaches us what is at stake when we refuse
to allow our minds know reality but insist rather that our own consciousness is
responsible for our freedom and our own reason. We claim ourselves to be the
causes of what is good and what is evil, both in our own lives and in our
public fora. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict denies the good things that
exist in the modern world. Both insist, however, in our knowing where we go
philosophically wrong. They insist that we see the result of ideas that are no
longer rooted in what is.
But there are "limits" to evil. God draws good out of the
good in which evil exists. Yet, the divine mercy is not a "voluntarism" that
would permit God to declare what is good to be evil and what is evil to be
good. God is good. Rather it is a "mercy," a willingness itself to accept
suffering, even of the Cross, to forgive those who want to be forgiven. The
divine mercy is neither a denial of justice nor a formation of a world with
principles opposite of natural law and the Commandments. Rather it is an effort
to appeal to our freedom, to our minds, the only basis on which we can finally,
if we will, acknowledge the good that is.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in
Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
St. Thomas and St. Francis | G.K. Chesterton
"A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty": On Benedict and the
German Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Intellectual Charity: On Benedict XVI and the Canadian
Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
John Paul the Great | William Oddie
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Pope Benedict XVI, Regensburg, and Islam | Various Articles and Authors
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Author page for G. K. Chesterton
Related Ignatius Press Books and Resources:
Summa Theologica (hardcover) | St. Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologica (softcover) | St. Thomas Aquinas
Aquinas: On Reasons for Our Faith | St. Thomas Aquinas
Guide to Thomas Aquinas | Josef Pieper
The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas | Josef Pieper
John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas | John Paul II
St. Thomas Aquinas and the Preaching Beggars | Brendan Larnen, Milton Lomask, and Leonard Everett Fisher
St. Thomas Aquinas Commentary on Colossians | St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy | David Berger
Trinity in Aquinas | Gilles Emery
Memory and Identity |
John Paul II
Love and Responsibility |
Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Jeweler's Shop |
Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Legacy of John Paul II: Images and
Memories | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Pope John Paul II: In My Own Words
| Pope John Paul II
Witness to Hope:
The Biography of Pope John Paul II | George Weigel
Miracles of John Paul II |
Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II
on Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the Modern World | Fr. Richard Hogan and Fr. John LeVoir
The Funeral Mass of
John Paul II (DVD)
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy
at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent book is
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!