In his Encyclical Fides at Ratio or Faith and Reason (1998), Pope John Paul II maintained that faith and reason were never contradictory but rather complimentary, and that theology was also a rational science in its own right that provided answers to the ultimate questions about the meaning and purpose of life. At no time has Catholic tradition been anti-intellectual or hostile to philosophy and science, nor is it based on unreason and blind faith. Even so, as Paul often pointed out, the Revelation of the Bible transcends human reason and wisdom and cannot be arrived at through logic and intellectual processes alone. Christian morality is also transcendent and universal, although the Church also recognizes that certain natural laws and processes are as well, such as cause and effect (John Paul II 1998). Despite all of its accomplishments in modern times, scientific reason does not have the answers to the ultimate questions, however, and in the case of postmodernism, reason divorced from faith comes to doubt even the existence of rationality or truth of any kind, and devolves into nihilism. Genuine reason, on the other hand, always searches for truth, whether in better understanding the nature of the world and the physical universe or human society (John Paul II 1998). Throughout history, going back to the time of Paul, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the Church has also borrowed heavily from Western philosophic traditions, such as Plato and Aristotle, but also Christianized them at the same time. At the same time, the Church always allowed a great deal of autonomy for human reason and philosophy in their fields, but in the modern world this has all too often become a total separation, to the detriment of both faith and reason (John Paul II 1998).
In his Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities (1990), John Paul II again stated that the primary purpose of the Church and its educational institutions is to bring the message of the Gospels and the Kingdom of God to humanity. As Herbert McCabe put it, the Church exists “to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God and to foster in us that life in the Spirit by which the Kingdom is already beginning” (McCabe 45). At the same time, all Catholic schools and universities should also be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge at truth in every field of learning and research, while at the same time recognizing that human knowledge and reason are not independent of faith and that ultimate truth comes from God (John Paul II 1990). Aside from teaching students worldly knowledge and how to pass tests, the most important purpose of Catholic educational institutions is to “raise their children in the faith, enabling them to lead good and fulfilling lives that will bring them eventually to salvation” (Haldane 2008 204). Faith and reason both contribute to the search for truth, and human reason, science and philosophy really do not arrive at conclusions that contradict faith (John Paul II 1990). Nor should reason and science operate independently of Christian morality, but instead should always consider the effect that new developments in research will have on society.
Since the 18th Century, atheists and materialists have often argued that the Church is obsolete and that its teachings have been replaced by advances in scientific knowledge, although naturally Catholics have never accepted these views. Here again, the Church never claimed to have a monopoly on all knowledge or infallible answers to every question, but it always offers its moral and spiritual guidance to human beings based of its own special traditions and revealed truth based on Scripture (John Paul II 1990). At the same time, it denies that faith only existed in a prescientific or preliterate era, in which human beings simply made up supernatural beings to explain a universe that they could not comprehend otherwise (Haldane 2008 106-07). At no time did the Church assert that it had infallible teachings on science, social sciences, politics or government, all of which have changed and evolved greatly in modern times. Catholic teaching in the Magisterium as limited to questions of faith and morals derived from the Bible and revelation (the deposit of faith) and “also to those things without which this deposit cannot be properly safeguarded and explained” (Dulles 74). This is why John Paul II could claim papal infallibility in his opposition to abortion, euthanasia and the ordination of women, but did not extend this authority to every other area of human life and society (Dulles 72).
The Church does not assert that it has ultimate, absolute answers or revealed truth about scientific questions or issues of government, taxation and economic policies, although it may offer general moral guidance in these areas. In Catholic traditions, at least in modern times in countries where the people have higher levels of education, the Church no longer exercises the political power that it once did in ancient and medieval times, but has largely left these matters to the laity (Pell 27). Christianity teaches that God is a rational Being and that therefore the physical universe follows rational laws and principles. It long ago accepted that democracy was the modern form of government in most of the Western world and that all human beings were entitled to dignity and natural rights. At the same time, though, it does not agree with the proposition that the majority is always rights or that individuals have unlimited autonomy to do just as they please, and for this reason sometimes stands opposed to popular opinions on matters like abortion, birth control, feminism and homosexuality (Pell 53). Even though liberalism has become dominant in the Western world over the last 200 years, this has also meant that “dogmatic secular liberals increasingly use liberalism to exclude the voice of the Church” (Pell 63).
Catholic tradition is not some kind of dogmatic and inflexible fundamentalism that holds reason and intellectual activity in contempt or demands that its followers simply accept all of its ideas on blind faith. It has always recognized that God created human beings with minds and a natural curiosity about nature and the physical universe, which operate according to certain natural laws. From the era of Augustine and Aquinas, it accepted and incorporated much of what was known of science and philosophy at that time, although obviously much of this older knowledge has been surpassed by the discoveries and research of the last 300 years. For instance, no one today believes that the universe is made up of four elements or that the sun revolves around the earth no more than kings and emperors have absolute power by divine right. In modern times, it has not attempted to silence science and hold back important research and discoveries as it did with Galileo, and in fact John Paul II publicly conceded that the Church had made an error in that case. That was in the 17th Century, of course, when the Church still had political and secular power and authoritarian rule was the norm, but in the modern world it has accepted the reality that democratic types of government are the norm and that reason, science and philosophy have a great deal of autonomy in their fields. At the same time, though, it has continued to insist that its moral traditions and special Revelation of faith derived from the Bible, Christ and the Apostles are still relevant to the modern world and a highly scientific and technological age, and that reason separated from faith and morality will tend toward nihilistic or destructive ends.
Dulles, Avery. Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith. Naples, FL: Sapientia Press, 2007.
Haldane, John. The Church and the World. Gracewing Publishers, 2008.
Haldane, John. Seeking Meaning and Making Sense. Imprint Academic, 2008.
John Paul II. Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities. 1990.
John Paul II. Fides et Ratio. Papal Encyclical, 1998.
McCabe, Herbert. The Teaching of the Catholic Church: A New Catechism of Christian Doctrine. Darton, Logman and Todd Ltd., 2000.
Pell, George. God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics and Society. Catholic University of America Press, 2007.