The Catholic View of Faith and Reason

The Catholic View of Faith and Reason

For centuries many people have considered faith and reason mutually exclusive rather than complementary. This notion has led many non-religious people to dismiss faith as blind, irrational, and superstitious. The same notion has led many religious people to dismiss reason as incompatible with faith, or even subversive of it.

The Catholic Church has never been dismissive of reason but over the centuries has grown wary of it, and that perspective has affected its teachings. Among the historical reasons for its wariness were the heresies and schisms it had to deal with (most notably the Reformation). From the hierarchy’s perspective, each of these events represented not only a threat to the Church but also a profound failure of reason by their challengers.

I wondered to what extent, if any, that wariness toward reason still affects modern Catholic teaching, so I examined twenty-one important papal encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis for the answer. Before explaining my findings, however, let me clarify the accepted meanings of some key terms:

Faith is firm, confident belief in an idea, person, or thing without the assurance of proof. Reason is the thought process that leads to judgments and conclusions. Logic is the body of principles and procedures that guide the thought process and help us avoid errors in reasoning. Assent is “the act of agreeing to something, especially after thoughtful consideration.”

All of the encyclicals I examined make numerous references to faith. Some also mention reason in passing references to “human reason, “natural reason,” or “right reason.” However, the majority make no reference to reason as an intellectual faculty or reasoning as a thought process, and few, if any, refer to the relationship between faith and reason. For example, Rerum Novarum mentions the importance of reason but does not discuss the reasoning process or its requirements. And Quadragesimo Anno states that reason reveals “the purpose which God ordained for all economic life” but does not elaborate on how reason reveals this. It also mentions “the norms of reason” but does not specify what they are, and it speaks of “what right human reason itself demands,” but does not specify how right reason differs from wrong reason or identify the demands.

Eight of the encyclicals offer somewhat more about the role of reason. Following are samples from each, with my comments in bold italics:

John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris notes that human reason “derives from the eternal law, which is divine reason,” and says reason requires “effect[ing] a thorough integration of the principal spiritual values with those of science, technology and the professions.” [This affirms the link between human reasoning and God’s eternal law.] 

Paul VI’s Gaudium et Spes, referring to Vatican I, points out that there are “’two orders of knowledge’ which are distinct, namely faith and reason,” each with its “own domain.” Moreover, it affirms that “man can freely search for the truth, express his opinion and publish it; [and] that he can practice any art he chooses.” [This affirms that reason, like faith, is a path to knowledgeHowever, it segregates reason and faith into separate domains, which suggests Paul believed that reason has no role in matters of faith.]

Paul VI’s , Lumen Gentium states,“In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” [This encyclical mentions the faculty of reason once (in reference to error). Also, it does not indicate that the laity’s reasoning has any place in matters of faith and morals; rather, it states that they are to give unquestioning assent to hierarchical teachings. Neither does it give any indication of whether reason plays any part in the formation of those teachings.]

John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio declares that discernment “is a gift that the Spirit gives to all the faithful,” including the laity, who “have the specific role of interpreting the history of the world in the light of Christ, in as much as they are called to illuminate and organize temporal realities according to the plan of God, Creator and Redeemer.” [Interpretation, illumination, and organization are functions of reason. To say that they are gifted for the laity to use according to God’s plan clearly suggests that God intends the scope of human reason to be broad rather than confined to a separate “domain.” This puts this encyclical at odds with Gaudium et Spes.]

John Paul IIEvangelium Vitae refers to Saint Thomas Aquinas’ statement that “human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence.’”  [Both St. Thomas earlier, and John Paul here, acknowledge the link between human reason and the eternal law.]

John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor gives more attention to the role of reason than any of the other encyclicals I examined. It rejects the idea of “complete sovereignty of reason in the domain of moral norms” and the related idea that morality is strictly governed by “human reason.”However, it affirms that “man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law” and“reason draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law, which is none other than divine wisdom itself.” It adds that the natural law “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation.” More specifically, “the light of natural reason and of Divine Revelation . . . manifest to [man] the requirements and the promptings of eternal wisdom.” Furthermore, John Paul explains, “man must freely do good and avoid evil. But in order to accomplish this he must be able to distinguish good from evil. And this takes place above all thanks to the light of natural reason, the reflection in man of the splendour of God’s countenance.”Accordingly, God “cares for man not ‘from without’, through the laws of physical nature, but ‘from within’, through reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God’s eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions. . . . “ Furthermore, “there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms . . . [giving them historical relevance] . . . [and] authentically interpreting their truth. But he goes on to say that “the norms expressing that truth . . . must be specified and determined . . . by the Church’s Magisterium . . . [after] the work of interpretation and formulation characteristic of the reason of individual believers and of theological reflection. (All the preceding italics are John Paul’s.)  [As I note above, this encyclical focuses more on the role of human reason than any of the other encyclicals I examined. Unfortunately, it is as silent as they are on the dynamics of reason—that is, on how reason proceeds in separating truth from error. Moreover, after numerous sentences suggesting that natural human reason bears the authority of eternal wisdom, John Paul says the Magisterium alone specifies and determines the norms of moral truth. The passage is murky, but it seems that the “interpretation and formulation” is done, not by believers, but only in a manner characteristic of them. John Paul evidently saw no role for the laity or clerics in determining moral truth, even if they are scholars and skilled in reasoning.]

Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est states that “the Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being.” [Here Benedict affirms the role of reason in the formation of Church teaching.] “The Church has an indirect duty here, in that she is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run.” [Note that Benedict here speaks of faith purifying reason but not of reason purifying faith—at least not of the formulations and expression of faith. Nor does he speak of the process by which the purification is accomplished.]

Benedict XVICaritas in Veritate states, “truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion.” [Note Benedict’s affirmation of the complementarity of faith and reason. What makes this statement especially important is that he says it is the intellect that reaches both natural and supernatural truth.} “Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development. . . Faced with these dramatic questions, reason and faith can come to each other’s assistance. Only together will they save man. Entranced by an exclusive reliance on technology, reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence. Faith without reason risks being cut off from everyday life.” [All italics are Benedict’s. ] [Benedict clearly acknowledges the complementarity of faith and reason. He also sees, in a way I did not find in any of the encyclicals I consulted, the need of each for the other, most significantly the need for reason to be purified by faith and faith to be purified by reason.]

Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudiumthe most recent of the encyclicals I examined, states thatreason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life.” And though it underscores that the Church’s “light’ of faith “transcends human reason,” it adds that the same light “stimulates reason to broaden its perspectives.” Even more significantly, the encyclical emphasizes that “faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since ‘the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God’ and cannot contradict each other,” so that “whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it.” [Even from these few passages it is clear that Francis sees the complementarity of faith and religion more emphatically and more positively than most of the authors of the other encyclicals I examined, notably in his statement that faith and reason cannot contradict each other because both come from God. This statement about contradiction is unfortunately ambiguous: Either he was speaking of correct faith and correct reason, thus allowing for the possibility of either or both to be incorrect, or he was ignoring the innumerable examples of faith and/or reasoning being mistaken.]

The stated or implied inconsistencies I noted among the encyclicals are as follows:

(1) Although reason is derived from the same eternal law as faith and is intended to draw together spiritual values and secular values (John and JP), it is considered to be in a separate domain from faith (Paul).

(2) Although human reason derives from the eternal law, which is divine reason (John), and “man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law,” and “reason draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law, which is none other than divine wisdom itself” (JP), when the bishops and/or pope speak, the laity are expected to put reason aside and “accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent “(Paul).

3) Although reason is given to all men and designed to discover and interpret moral truth (JP), and the Holy Spirit gives the gift of discernment to all men (JP), truth is to be specified and determined solely by the Magisterium (JP).

(4)) Reason and faith are complementary, each purifying and having profound need for the other (Benedict), yet faith transcends reason (Francis).

Before drawing a firm conclusion about how the Church has been affected by the idea that faith and reason are incompatible, and more specifically about whether the Church has acknowledged the role of reason in matters related to faith, I examined the Catechism of the Catholic Church (second edition) and found many sections about faith and many others about reason. I looked closely at the latter.

On the subject of reason, the Catechism, like the encyclicals cited above, says almost nothing about the process of reason or the principles and rules of logic that govern it. However, it is in some ways more consistent and illuminating than those encyclicals. Consider these passages.

Catechism, par 36: The Church “’holds and teaches that God . . . can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.’ Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created ‘in the image of God.’”[Consider what this says about the importance of reason: It is reason that enables us to know God with certainty and to welcome revelation, and the faculty of reason is the expression of our being created in the image of God.]

Catechism, par 37:“[Although] human reason is . . . truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, . . . the human mind is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin.” [This statement is clear and succinct in pointing out both the power and the limitations of reason.]

Catechism, par 47: “The Church teaches that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty from his works, by the natural light of human reason.” [The Catechism here repeats the message that reason offers certain—that is, dependable—knowledge of our Creator.]

Catechism, par 50: “By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his [that is God’s] works. But there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation, [which God has revealed] by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.” [Note that the comparison here is between reason and “divine Revelation,” rather than between reason and faith.]

Catechism, par 157 :“Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but ‘the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.’” [Note that in the first sentence the word “faith” is not used in the usual way to mean a firm belief without the assurance of proof, but instead to mean The Catholic Faith. This is clear because the second sentence shifts to “revealed truths.” The implication is that the Catholic Faith is synonymous with revealed truths. However, that is not true. Some articles of Catholic belief are arrived at not by faith in a revealed truth but by reason interpreting a revealed truth.}

Catechism, par 1804: “Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith.” [Here the suggestion is that reason and faith are complementary, as several encyclicals stated.]

Catechism, par 1954: “The natural law expresses the original moral sense, which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.” [This affirms the power of reason to discern moral truths.]

Catechism, pars 1960 and 1978: . . . “The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit. . . . [and is also] is a participation in God’s wisdom and goodness by man formed in the image of his Creator.” [The natural law referred to here is the same one that paragraph 1956 explains was established by reason.]

The kindest passage toward reason in the Catechism is this one in paragraph 1956:

Reason “establishes” the natural law that is “present in the heart of each man . . . is universal in its precepts . . . expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties . . . There is a true law: right reason [that is] in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal. Its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense  …. To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely.”

It is strange that though the Catechism is consistent in praising reason, many encyclicals give it no attention at all, and others are either inconsistent or reserved in discussing it. That strangeness is amplified by the fact that relatively few of the authors of the encyclicals provide any indication that they are conversant with the principles and processes of reason. Indeed, many seem to regard God’s gift of reason as a fully formed mental faculty rather than a capacity that requires the learning of principles and procedures and the formation and maintenance of productive habits of mind. (This may explain why virtually none of the encyclicals mentions such requirements.)

This inconsistency of Catholic teaching about reason is ironic because for centuries the Catholic Church was the foremost champion of reason and produced such great thinkers as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Catherine of Siena, and Erasmus, to name but a few. In recent centuries it has faced the challenges of Positivism, Romanticism, Social Darwinism, Freudianism, Behaviorism, Secular Humanism, and Hereditarianism, among other movements. Those battles were understandably enervating and, it seems, caused the Church to view reason not so much as the path to God’s truth but as the path to falsehood.

This development explains, in large part, the inconsistency in Catholic teaching toward reason and the resulting confusion among the laity, priests and religious, and, in some ways, among the hierarchy themselves. The timing of this development could not have been more tragic. Modern Western culture has abandoned both reason and religion and embraced Relativism and Selfism. Lamentably, truth is no longer sought outside ourselves but within, and through emotion rather than reason.

At this moment in history, reason desperately needs a champion, and the Catholic Church needs to restore reason to its rightful relationship with faith. That these needs are occurring simultaneously is surely not coincidental. This is a moment of great opportunity for the Church. The question is whether the hierarchy will seize it.

Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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  • Professor Ruggiero has provided a fascinating review of the history of reason in Catholic thought surmising, as he says, an “inconsistency of Catholic teaching about reason”. He attributes that ‘inconsistency’ to the development of the challenges presented by the battles (of the Enlightenment). He says: “Those battles were understandably enervating and, it seems, caused the Church to view reason not so much as the path to God’s truth but as the path to falsehood.”

    This illustrates well the fact that human reason, corrupted as it is by concupiscence, is a two-edged sword. It is no accident that the ‘Enlightenment’ is often referred to as ‘The Age of Reason’. “The challenges of Positivism, Romanticism, Social Darwinism, Freudianism, Behaviorism, Secular Humanism, and Hereditarianism…” which he cites have one thing in common: the total exclusion of any transcendent notion of Faith. I submit, contrary to the Professor’s claim, that those ‘challenges’, based as they were on reason alone, thrive today and are the essential elements that modern Western culture has embraced in the form of what he calls “Relativism and Selfism”. When Faith is minimized or abandoned reason runs (is running) amuck.

    The professor concludes: “At this moment in history, reason desperately needs a champion, and the Catholic Church needs to restore reason to its rightful relationship with faith… This is a moment of great opportunity for the Church. The question is whether the hierarchy will seize it.”

    No professor, you’ve got it backwards: Faith desperately needs a champion, and the Catholic Church needs to restore Faith to its rightful (dominant) relationship to reason. There is, indeed, a question whether the (current) hierarchy, with its endemic climate of confusion, will seize it.