Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

"Paul II, Defender of Faith and Reason"

Jude P. Dougherty, Dean
School of Philosophy
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

Although Fides et Ratio is the 13th encyclical written by John Paul II, and published after twenty years into his Pontificate, it is not the first time he has had occasion to consider the relationship between faith and reason. As a philosopher and teacher of philosophy, Karol Wojytla could not avoid it. To open the Summa Theologiae is to confront the subject in Question 1, article 1, wherein St. Thomas defends the necessity of revelation in spite of philosophy's ability to demonstrate the existence of God and "other like truths about God." For Thomas faith presupposes natural knowledge.

The relationship between faith and reason is a subject of interest not only to the Holy Father as teacher of the universal Church but also to contemporary minds of various intellectual persuasions. Ratio und Fides, for example, is the title of a work by the German, Bernard Lomse (1958). Faith and Reason is a collection of essays by the noted British philosopher, R.G. Collingwood (1968). The same title is used by Richard Swinburne, another English scholar who at book length discusses the nature of religious belief and its relation to reason (1981). These are only a few of the many authors who have examined the relationship, but none has done so with greater authority than John Paul II. Although it makes no reference to contemporary discussions, Fides et Ratio was not written in an intellectual vacuum. It was produced in full awareness of the dominant trends in philosophy, which in their implication not only cut one off from faith but even render suspect the rational character of the natural sciences.

In contemporary literature the terms "faith" and "belief" are often used interchangeably, and "faith" is sometimes taken as a synonym for "hope." Given the diversity of usage, a lexicographer would have difficulty in fixing a meaning. In the history of Western philosophical thought the term "belief" has been used to designate diverse mental states and attitudes. To consider just a few, Plato distinguished between the realm of opinion and the realm of knowledge, and in the realm of opinion further distinguished between conjecture and belief (pistis). Belief in this Platonic sense denotes the comparatively firm assent that the plain man gives to whatever he directly sees or hears or feels.

Aquinas also distinguished between belief and knowledge, but for Aquinas, belief (fides) cannot refer to something that one sees or to what can be proved; belief is the acceptance of an assertion as true on the testimony of someone else. John Locke employs this concept when he defines belief as "the assent to any proposition not...made out of the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men we call revelation" (Essay IV: 182). Hume defined belief as practical certainty about matters that cannot be justified theoretically. Kant looked upon belief as the subjectively adequate but objectively inadequate acceptance of something as true. In contemporary psychological literature, belief is often identified with emotional conviction. Pragmatic conceptions emphasize the operative character of conviction. Some authors maintain that belief is relative to what the agent has at stake.

Even with the history of Western thought before us, certain key words remain ambiguous. Words like "belief," "faith," "knowledge," and "truth" vary in meaning from context to context and from author to author. And yet all of the authors cited have produced insights into the cognitive process, or, if you will, into the dynamics of rational assent. At different periods of history, interests are specific. Medieval discussions of belief focused upon religious belief and its relationship to empirically derived knowledge. Some of the most profound contemporary discussions of belief analyze the concept within the context of the physical sciences. The relatively recent works of a number of English-speaking philosophers carry such titles as Knowledge and Belief, Belief and Probability, and Belief, Existence and Meaning, all written from a purely secular perspective, have a bearing not only on our understanding of science but also on our understanding of religious faith.


One wrinkle in discussions of belief is the fact that some philosophers assume that the object of belief is propositional. They argue that one's internal commitment to the truth of a given proposition depends upon the external circumstances governing one's needs for action and one's stakes in these circumstances. There is merit in this analysis, but it is not the whole story. We do know, believe, or assent to many truths that have no bearing on our practical life. Furthermore, the giving of assent to propositions cannot be primary. The proposition, verbal or written, is simply the assertion of a judgment taken to be true.

If we start with the notion that each of us has a set of beliefs that can be expressed in propositional form, we must affirm that our beliefs depend in some way upon our awareness. That which is believed are judgments which we have previously accepted and which are usually asserted by means of propositions. Assertion, it should be noted, is closely tied to language but not exclusively so. Usually we speak or write to makes an assertion. Of course, not everything spoken or written is an assertion. Certain conditions must be met. The speaker must know what it is that he asserts. Usually by his assertion he intends to reveal his conviction in the proposition asserted. Certain non-standard cases come to mind, i.e., where a man does not believe what he asserts, or where he asserts a proposition other than that intended. These non-standard cases may be a problem, but they are not important for the present discussion. It should also be noted that there are conventions which enable assertions to be made without actual speech or writing. Hilaire Belloc noted that we daily communicate much more by our grunts and groans than we do through polished speech. Even so, this does not loosen the bonds between assertion and language for what is asserted is always capable of being expressed in language.

Any analysis must eventually establish the relationship between belief and judgment. From a Thomistic point of view, judgment is very much like private assertion. One may make a judgment without asserting it and later assert what he has judged. Judgments need not be manifested in the public conduct of the judger. For one thing, opportunities for such manifestation do not always arise. For another, the agent may be reluctant for prudential reasons to let his judgments be known. From the outside, it is often difficult to establish criteria for deciding when a person has or has not made a judgment. We all know what it is like to make a judgment, but the phenomenology of judgment is itself elusive. Judgment, it seems, has only partial and inconstant connections with an agent's conduct. The operative character of a man's belief in a given situation depends on his desires and the many other beliefs that he holds.

The enduring characteristic or nature of belief may be contrasted with the relative transitory character of judgment. Judgments made here and now may remain as lifelong beliefs or as components of a belief system. A person's beliefs remain while he sleeps or is otherwise unaware of them, and, indeed, many of one's beliefs, some of which are held with great security and endurance, are rarely, perhaps never, brought to consciousness. Consequently, an individual as a moral agent may have many beliefs that are never overtly manifested or consciously recognized. If a particular occasion had not arisen, the belief may never have been apparent to the person or to others.

If belief is not necessarily manifested directly by a person's conduct, it must nevertheless be admitted that by its endurance, dispositionality, and causal relation with the person's awareness that belief does seem to be more closely related to action, and in a different way, than does judgment. A person's beliefs may be more public and objective than his judgments. And because a person can be surprised by his beliefs, he may be mistaken about them--i.e., he may judge falsely that he does or does not believe something. In short, a person may have incorrect beliefs about what he believes. Interestingly, we are much readier to contest an agent's assertions about his beliefs than we are to contest what he says about his judgments.


A final note regarding belief, judgments, and truth. Belief and truth may coincide, but a person may believe certain things to be true which ultimately turn out to be false. Those philosophers may be right when they acknowledge the dispositional character of belief although belief may not be identical with preparedness to act. Much of what we hold to be true is of a speculative nature, consisting of the science that we have inherited. Disposition, as a psychological state, characterizes the subjective side of the cognitive process and is not be ignored. Recognizing the dispositional character of belief, we are more likely to avoid the danger of hasty judgment. But it must be emphasized that it is in the judgment act of intellect that we achieve truth. In the judgment act of affirmation or denial we assert that reality is in fact as we have grasped it. Propositions are merely the vehicles by which acts of judgment are expressed first internally, then externally. Our statements may become objects of belief for others, but they are not primary objects of knowledge for us or even for others. In this analysis, John Paul II would concur. If I explain to a student that the electron configuration of the copper atom is such and such, I am making a statement which I hold to be true. I hold be true on faith because I have not performed the chemical analysis that revealed the element's structure nor have I made the observations that lead to the structural explanation. A disposition to assent is not the assent itself. A student is disposed to accept the word of his teacher. A teacher is careful to substantiate his assertions, though in many cases substantiation may elude him. Substantiation amounts to demonstration. Demonstrative knowledge we normally call scientific knowledge. Some, but not all of our beliefs, are based on demonstration. When certitude which depends on demonstration is not available, we get opinion. The strength of our opinion will determine action or inaction. The conviction that intervention by the Federal Reserve will create monetary stability may lead a president to take action. Where there is no certainty that a given action will have the desired result an intemperate move may nevertheless lead to action. But does action really demonstrate the strength of the opinion held? Rashness remains possible. This analysis may help to explain the permanence of scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and the rashness or disparity between belief and action on the other.


We return now to the key issue addressed by Fides et Ratio. Although discussions of the above sort are not explicitely invoked, John Paul II is aware of the many insights and distinctions provided by contemporary literature. Aware, too, of the distrust of reason found in much contemporary philosophy, he is at once a defender of reason per se and of the reasonableness of belief.

To accept the Catholic Faith is not to take a leap into the dark. Reason lays the foundation for belief, insofar as philosophy can demonstrate the existence of God and disclose something of His nature. As a result of rational inquiry, it is reasonable to believe that a benevolent God, out of love for mankind, has revealed truth about himself that unaided reason could not attain. John Paul II speaks of the intellectus fidei and its innate unity and intelligibility, a body of knowledge, logically coherent in itself, consistent with experience, and perfective of natural understanding. Such knowledge comes to us as a logical and conceptual structure of propositions through the teaching Church. Of necessity the Church's teaching is framed in language that draws upon a host of definitions and distinctions provided by natural reason, that is to say, by philosophy. While philosophy assists in articulating and clarifying the truths of the Faith, John Paul II is convinced that philosophy is valuable only insofar as it remains true to its own methods. Philosophy is not apologetics. He is convinced that if it retains its professional integrity, it will remain open, at least implicitly, to the supernatural. "The content of Revelation can never debase the discoveries and legitimate autonomy of reason." Yet to the believer, "Revealed truth offers the fullness of light and will therefore illumine the path of philosophical enquiry." Reason must never lose its capacity to question, but is not itself above being questioned.

These reflections have implications for Catholic education at all levels, especially for the training of future priests and for the curriculum of Catholic colleges and universities. John Paul II is aware that some remedial work needs to be done where second-order disciplines have been substituted for logic, metaphysics, and philosophical anthropology. To fully master the Catholic intellectual tradition, one needs to be steeped in the history of Western philosophy, but such mastery does not cut one off from insights to be garnered from other traditions. The Holy Father specifically mentions India as a locus of a major cultural and intellectual tradition.

While his appeal to philosophers not of the Catholic faith to recover the great classical tradition flowing from ancient Athens and Rome, a tradition commented on and amplified in every generation since, is an appeal that may go unheeded, it is rightly proffered. In a previous generation it would have been endorsed by Werner Jaeger, Etienne Gilson, and Jacques Maritain among countless others. Only someone standing on the shoulders of his giant predecessors can say with assurance to his now-directed contemporaries, "Look what you are missing."