Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 1, 2007 | 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 grounds.

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 self-sufficiency.

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 lethal:

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 intellectual heritage.

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 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 | Pawel Zuchniewicz
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 website.

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