9. Faith and Reason

One of the arguments used frequently by those who attack the Church is to affirm that the faith is irrational – and therefore inhuman and disposable – and that the Church is the great enemy of science and progress. No matter that the history books are filled with data that confirm the protection of the church of thought and science for hundreds of years – which includes, for example, the creation of the Universities -, or that there have been hundreds of clergymen, philosophers or scientists, for example, Copernicus- or thousands of lay people who have been great investigators and profound believers like Pasteur, who said that “a bit of science takes you away from God, but a lot of science returns you to Him”-. They don’t care about all of that, because the topic is well established and is one of the axioms that they don’t miss pointing out and upon which they have constructed the current social life: to be a believer is the opposite of being smart. To address this issue, we are going to see some texts of the encyclical Faith and Reason ” of John Paul II, which will then be discussed.

Faith and Reason   Selection of texts:

“There is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of the faith… Reason and faith, therefore, cannot be separated without reducing the ability of man to know a way appropriate for himself, towards world and toward God.” (No. 16).

“Man, by his nature, seeks the truth. This search looks not only to the attainment of truths which are partial, empirical or scientific; he not only looks for the true good for each of his decisions. His search tends toward an ulterior truth that can explain the meaning of life; it is a search that cannot find a solution if it is not in the absolute. Thanks to the inherent capacities of thought, man is able to encounter and recognize this truth. As vital and essential for their existence, this truth is attained not only by way of reason but also through trusting acquiescence to other persons who can guarantee the authenticity and certainty of the truth itself. The capacity to entrust oneself and one’s life to another person and certainly is one of the most significant and expressive human acts… everything that I have said to this point it results in saying that men and women are on a journey of discovery which is humanly unstoppable: a search for the truth and a search for a person to whom they might entrust themselves. The Christian faith helps him by offering the concrete possibility of reaching the goal of this search. In fact, moving beyond the stage of simple believing the Christian faith immerses human beings in the order of grace that allows you to participate in the mystery of Christ, which in turn offers them a true and coherent knowledge of the Triune God. Thus, in Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, faith recognizes the ultimate appeal to humanity to carry out what we experience as desire and nostalgia” (No. 33).

“This truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. The two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction” (No. 34).

“Santo Tomás… had the great merit of highlighting the harmony that exists between reason and faith. He argued that the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God; therefore, there can be no contradiction between them. More radically, Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith, therefore, has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason” (No. 43).

“From the Middle Ages, the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning became more and more a fateful separation. As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions became more radical, becoming a philosophy, which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of the faith. Among the consequences of this separation was an ever-deeper mistrust toward reason itself. Some began to profess a general distrust, skeptical and agnostic, to reserve more space for faith, or to discredit any rational reference to it as possible. In short, what for Patristic and Medieval thought was a profound unity, producing knowledge capable of reaching the highest forms of speculation, was destroyed by systems which espoused the cause of rational knowledge separated from the faith or alternative to it” (No. 45).

“In the field of scientific research there has been imposed a positivistic mentality, which, not only has moved away from any reference to the Christian vision of the world, but also, and mainly, has forgotten all connection with the metaphysical and moral vision. A consequence of this is that some scientists, lacking any ethical reference, are in danger of putting at the center of their interest the human person and the whole of his life. Further still, some of these, aware of the potentialities inherent to technical progress, seem to succumb, not only to the logic of the market, but also to the temptation of a quasi- divine power over nature and over the human being. In addition, as a result of the crisis of rationalism, what has appeared finally is nihilism. As a philosophy of nothingness, it has a certain attraction for people of our time. Its followers theorize about the investigation as an end in itself, without hope or possibility of attaining the goal of truth. In the nihilist interpretation existence is only an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has first place. Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should not be assumed, because everything is fleeting and provisional” (No. 46).

“Revelation clearly proposes certain truths which, although they are not of themselves inaccessible to reason, might never have been discovered by reason alone. In this horizon is the notion of a free and personal God, Creator, which has been so crucial for the development of philosophical thinking and, in particular, for the philosophy of being. To this field belongs also the reality of sin, as it appears in the light of faith, which helps raise philosophically adequately the problem of evil. Even the conception of the person as a spiritual being is a peculiar originality of faith. The Christian proclamation of human dignity, equality and freedom of men has certainly influenced the philosophical reflection that modern have been carried out” (No. 76).

“Another considerable danger is scientism. This is the philosophical notion which does not admit as valid forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences, relegating to the realm of mere fantasy the religious and theological, as well as the ethical and aesthetic forms. In the past, this same idea was expressed as positivism and neopositivism, which considered metaphysical statements to be meaningless. Epistemological criticism has discredited this position, which, however, returns to emerge under the new form of scientism. In this perspective, values are relegated to being mere products of the emotions and the notion of being marginalized to give rise to the pure and simply factual. Science would thus be poised to dominate all aspects of human life through technological progress. The undeniable triumphs of scientific research and contemporary technology have helped to propagate a scientistic outlook, which now seems boundless, given its inroads into different cultures and the radical changes it has brought. You must admit that as regards the question about the meaning of life, it is considered by scientism as something that belongs to the field of the irrational or imaginary. No less disappointing is the way in which this current of thought about other great problems of philosophy which, if they are not ignored, are faced with analyzes based on superficial analogies, without rational foundation. This leads to the impoverishment of human thought, which is deprived of the basic problems that the animal rationale , has pondered constantly from the beginning of his earthly existence. In this perspective, the critique offered by ethical judgment, the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to the idea according to which, what is technically possible is therefore morally admissible” (No. 88).

“No less dangerous is pragmatism, an attitude of mind which, in making its choices, precludes theoretical considerations or judgments based on ethical principles. The consequences of this mode of thinking are significant. In particular, it has been affirming a concept of democracy which is not covered by the reference to foundations of axiological order and thus immutable. The admissibility or otherwise of a particular behavior is decided by the vote of a parliamentary majority. The consequences of such an approach are obvious: man’s great moral decisions are subordinated, in fact, to the deliberations taken each time by the institutional bodies. Moreover, anthropology itself is severely compromised by a one-dimensional vision of the human being, the great ethical dilemmas and the existential analyzes of the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, of life and death” (No. 89).

“To believe it possible to know a universally valid truth is in no way to encourage intolerance; on the contrary, it is a necessary condition for sincere and authentic dialog between persons” (No. 92).

“The Church is deeply convinced that faith and reason “mutually support each other”, exercising to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding” (No. 100).


The doctrine of the Church, as the encyclical makes clear, is that there is no opposition between scientific or philosophical truth and truth of the faith. As Santo Tomás said, both come from God and there can be no contradiction between them. If there is a contradiction, it must be considered that this is only apparent and that it is a misinterpretation of one side or the other. Philosophy and science, for its part, do not exhaust all human knowledge, that is completed by the Revelation. In addition, both philosophy and science — as practiced by man are open to trust in someone, because the man needs not only to know, but also trust – for example, in the loved one, in the political party to vote, in the traffic light that works correctly, the doctor who assists you, in whom you trust – a fundamental element of the faith- not only is not inhuman or is it at odds with the intelligence, but it is essential to the nature of man, and without it we could not live. What is going to make Christianity is to offer, as the encyclical says, “a person in whom they can entrust themselves” with total guarantee and that person is Jesus Christ. A catholic may say: “I trust my reason and I trust Christ, because the one opens horizons and the other, Jesus, opens others distinct and complementary”.

These horizons which Christ opens, who opens the Christian faith, are not at odds with those open to philosophy and science, the two fields in which reason works. Rather, as the encyclical says, “the two orders of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness” (No. 34). It is as if, having two eyes to see, we had to choose between one or the other; the best thing is, without any doubt, being able to see clearly with both at the same time.

The problem, therefore, is not at the root, as if what faith teaches were by nature in contrast with what the reason teaches. The problem is in what has happened and is happening with thought and which has occurred or may be occurring with theology. The Pope puts it very well in the encyclical, pointing out the dangers for both disciplines when they move away from each other. While theology without reason – which is not the case in the Catholicism- can degenerate into Fundamentalism, in general, that is not the most common deviation, at least among us. If it is frequent, in contrast, the diversion is contrary: Reason is considered to be self-sufficient, is proud of his accomplishments – especially in the field of science- and it despises the faith and what she carries with it, as is ethics the “consequence of this is that some scientists, lacking any ethical reference, are in danger of not putting at the center of interest the whole person” (No. 46). “You have to admit lamentably, that with regard to the question about the meaning of life is considered by the scientism as something that belongs to the field of the irrational or imaginary… In the critique offered by ethical judgment, the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to the idea according to which what is technically possible it is therefore morally admissible” (No. 88). That is to say, a reason closed in on itself ends up forgetting the ethics and, as a result, is able to achieve technical progress that can be destructive to man; the ecological crisis, as it was before, the atomic crisis, are examples of this. Therefore, John Paul II said: “Yes to science with a conscience”, yes to science when it does not forget ethics, when it does not close to what, at least from that perspective, brings with it religion.

In conclusion, having faith does not make man less intelligent, nor does it prevent him from developing his intelligence. There opens another, complementary dimension that without the light of reason he could not reach. In addition, it is going to prevent him from falling into the ethical subjectivism or, what is worse, into nihilism (“according to which a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional” No. 46), and always placing before his eyes a barrier that he should not cross: that of human rights, of science and technology that are at the service of man, of all men. One of the most famous engravings of Goya is entitled: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”; could be applied to the debate between science and faith, saying, “The omission of faith by reason produces monsters that destroy man.” Once more, Christ shows us how He is the Savior, not only from our external enemies, but the enemy that dwells in our inner self, which leads us to believe that we do not need anyone to save us, that we can do all ourselves with our own intelligence and our will. That enemy is called pride.

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