Last October, the journal First Things carried my comments on the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. In March, it published my thoughts on Fides et Ratio. Each text needs the other. They’re a diptych. And both mark anniversaries this year; 25 and 20 respectively.
I went into a lot of detail in each of those First Things pieces, and I won’t repeat it here for two reasons. First, the landscape of the Church in the United States has changed drastically, and painfully, over the last six months. And second, I’m a pastor, not a scholar. My interest in any papal document is very practical: Does it help me help others to know God, live his will, and get to heaven, or not? For a layman – and by “layman” here, I mean anyone outside the academic community – Fides et Ratio can be a demanding text. It’s not an easy read, and it needs to be understood as a sequel to and completion of the project begun by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor.
Briefly put, that project is this. Permanent truths about good and evil, man and his behavior and meaning, do exist. Faith and reason are the means to find and know those truths. Each needs the other in its search. John Paul stresses this in the encyclical’s opening words: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
In a sense, Fides et Ratio, like nearly everything else written by Karol Wojtyla, is simply a working out of the genius in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, “Redeemer of Man.” The dignity and destiny of every human person as the child of a loving God were central themes of the John Paul II pontificate. I want to talk today about why Fides et Ratio is so important to those themes.
I’ll do that in three parts. I’ll talk first about the current state of the Church and her witness. Then I’ll turn to the realities of our culture. And finally I want to ask whether the Christian revelation is really true; whether it has anything useful to say to the modern heart; whether the Gospel message of hope and joy is anything more than a sentimental myth. Sooner or later, all of us as believers struggle with doubt. We need to decide whether our faith is reasonable; whether we’ve given ourselves to a beautiful but naïve illusion, or not. So let’s begin.
I have a friend, a wife and mother, who’s been an educator for 40 years. For the past two or three of those years, she’s been telling me that we’re heading into a kind of “new Reformation;” a Reformation 2.0. I’ve always found that idea suspect, and frankly alarmist. In a sense, there’s no comparison between now and then. The gulf in daily life between 2018 and 1518, the year Martin Luther’s name began to matter, is huge.
In the Europe of 500 years ago, belief in God was almost universal. Questions like who God is, who man is, and what happens after we die had clear answers. Society rested on religious assumptions. Theology was central to life. It penetrated every human activity. In the century before Luther, lay piety and engagement with the Church actually increased because of the rise in literacy. There were local heresies like the Lollards. There were countless local variants in religious practice. But the Catholic faith, uniform in its basics, animated the whole European continent. As a result, the Church had enormous social power — along with all the good and bad that implies.
Today, at least in much of the developed world, theology is a backwater. Metaphysics is a museum piece. Politics, not religion, shapes our public discourse and monopolizes our zeal. The sexual revolution has crippled our institutions of marriage and family. Our notions of gender identity and roles are in flux. Science and technology have dimmed the supernatural imagination. The sacraments, for many moderns, are just another form of magic. The big atheist murder-ideologies are dead. But they’ve been replaced by the far more effective practical atheism of a system based on consumer wants and needs. American advertising and entertainment are the most powerful catechists in history. Also the most pervasive.
Now that’s a pretty harsh assessment of our present circumstances. I’ve deliberately ignored the signs of religious vitality in American life. We’re still the most actively religious nation in the developed world. Most Americans believe in God. Most of us call ourselves Christians. And millions of Americans – actually tens of millions – honestly try to live their faith as a guide to their daily lives. As Catholics, our Church has plenty of new renewal movements and communities, thousands of good priests and still-vigorous parishes, and some extraordinary young lay and clergy leaders.
But this doesn’t change the studies that show American religious affiliation and practice bleeding out, especially among the young. We’re becoming a much more secular nation, and in some ways, aggressively so. The generation born between 1995 and 2012 is the least religious in our country’s history. And like any time in history, many people who do have faith, live their faith as a form of nostalgia or habit or a good moral code to organize their daily lives. Too many don’t really understand what they believe. And too many don’t know Jesus Christ. They have a kind of faith that can easily slide into apathy and skepticism, and disappear under pressure. Which is exactly the reality we face now.
I said a moment ago that I’ve always found talk of schisms in the Church or a “new Reformation” to be alarmist. I still do. The world is too different from half a millennium ago for easy parallels to apply. But I do think we’ve reached a tipping point or pivotal moment in the modern West, where even at the popular level, Christianity can be shed like dead skin.
Transformations like the one sparked by Martin Luther start with simple anger and modest goals. They end by changing more than anyone intended. The issues of how we organize society, how we build a healthy culture, and how we understand the meaning and dignity of the human person, are all very much in play today. Our country and the world need a pure voice speaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a response. And this is what makes the current sex abuse crisis in the Church so damaging and dangerous, like a lit match in a roomful of kindling. The leaders tasked with witnessing Christian truth to the world as bishops and religious superiors are exactly the men who have too often failed their people, failed in their ministry, and even actively betrayed their vocation. We bishops and the Vatican itself are now seen as the problem. We need to face that fact honestly, and work to change it by our actions.
Before we move on, let me share one historical detail. Julius II was the Renaissance pope – a pope of secular power impossible today; the opposite of a Benedict or a Francis — who sowed the seeds of the Reformation with his lavish lifestyle, military aggressions, and massive spending on the arts and building projects. One of those projects was St. Peter’s Basilica. He financed it in part by the sale of indulgences. Julius died, feared and resented, in 1513. In 1514 the Catholic humanist and reformer, Erasmus of Rotterdam, wrote the little satire we know as “Julius Excluded from Heaven.”
The plot is simple. Julius dies and shows up self-satisfied at the gates of heaven. But he’s brought the wrong key. It’s the key to his secret money chest. He pounds on the gates, and St. Peter arrives to investigate the racket. In the ensuing argument, Peter turns him away for his greed, arrogance, pederasty, and violence.
It’s worth mentioning that Erasmus, in writing his text, was deliberately sardonic and unfair. Julius wasn’t quite the hypocrite he described. But too many of the bishops of his day, too many of the bishops Erasmus personally knew, were. And that’s the point. The world and the Church today are a long way from the world and the Church of Erasmus’s time. But his satire still stings. It’s something all of us as Christians might profitably read in the months ahead.
I want to turn briefly now to our cultural realities, and especially to three of the factors that shape or misshape them: sex, technology, and basic premises. That’s an odd trio, so I need to do some explaining. And obviously there are more than three factors that drive a culture. But these are among the most important. I’ll start with sex because it’s easily the most interesting.
The philosopher Augusto Del Noce ranked the sexual revolution of the mid-20th century as one of the two or three most disruptive events in the last several hundred years. He pointed especially to the 1936 book, The Sexual Revolution, by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. In it, Reich argued that a really deep revolution in human affairs can only be made at the level of sexual freedom. And it needs to begin by wiping away marriage, family, and traditional sexual morality.
What’s prophetic about Reich’s work is this. Eighty years ago, he saw the United States as the most promising place for that kind of revolution to happen, despite – or perhaps because of – its rigorous Puritan history. Americans have a deep streak of individualism, a distrust of authority, and a big appetite for self-invention. As religion loses its hold on people’s behavior, all of these instincts accelerate. The key idea in that sentence is “instinct.” Sex in today’s popular culture is mainly about impulse and desire, limited only – and sometimes not at all — by mutual consent. Rational self-mastery has little to do with it. Modesty is seen as a form of self-inflicted repression.
This leads to a second factor: technology. America’s religious roots are Calvinist. We’re a deeply pragmatic people, prone to remaking our world with the tools we invent. And just as we remake the world, so we remake ourselves. To borrow a thought from the philosopher Michael Hanby, “the sexual revolution is, at bottom, the technological revolution and its perpetual war against natural limits, applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding.”
Modern feminism depends on the technological conquest of the female body through the suppression of fertility. So too, Hanby argues, same-sex marriage depends on the technological mastery of procreation. Surrogacy and artificial reproduction can now provide same-sex couples with offspring. This reinforces their claims of equality with natural marriage. And if the state accepts the legal equality of same-sex and natural marriages – which it now does – then denying the traditional financial and political privileges of marriage to same-sex unions is clearly unreasonable. It’s a form of irrational bigotry.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, sexual freedom goes in directions and takes on shapes that nobody imagined. Ultimately it leads to questions about who a person is and what it means to be human. And that brings us to our third factor: the issue of a society’s basic premises.
The historian Christopher Dawson claimed that all human societies have a religious origin. Many would argue that a religious sense is ingrained in our nature. I believe that’s true — though Japan, for example, seems indifferent to religion in its Western forms. But all people, including the hardest core atheist, believe in something as an organizing and motivating principle. No one can bear the vacuum of a random life for very long. We all inherit or choose a lens through which we see and judge the world, and then act accordingly.
Nations do the same. Every country has some set of loyalties or principles from which its identity grows, and on which the rationality of its actions depends. America is a legal invention. It was built from biblical and Enlightenment thought. All our talk about natural rights and human dignity presumes a Christian anthropology without actually naming it. Otherwise, our pious words about rights and dignity have no firm grounding and make no sense; in fact they’re unreasonable. The Enlightenment sought to keep the essence of Christian morality and anthropology while disposing of their supernatural roots. It doesn’t work, because it can’t work. It’s like cutting the heart out of a living creature.
As the biblical elements of the American experiment bleed out, the nation becomes more utilitarian and more anti-human – but not necessarily less “rational.” Its reasoning simply grounds itself on a different foundation that ultimately betrays and attacks reason itself. Thus the murder of six million Jews in the Shoah was entirely rational, or at least logically consistent, based on the perverse ideology that drove it. The fact that it was also a horror and tragedy of historic proportions doesn’t change that.
I’ll end with just a few words about Christian hope, and whether the Catholic faith can be “reasonable” for women and men in the current age.
About 25 years ago, the British scholar Michael Burleigh wrote a book called Death and Deliverance. I want you to read it. I said a moment ago that the Jewish Holocaust was a tragedy without parallel, and that’s true. But it did have a precedent; a kind of test run. Starting in the late 1930s, the Third Reich carried out a forced euthanasia program that murdered roughly 300,000 persons with mental and physical disabilities. Many of the victims were children, ages 6-15. The excuses given were legion: saving patients from their suffering; cleansing the Aryan gene pool; reducing the financial burden of unproductive citizens on the life of the community. Many patients were killed by injection. Some were starved. Others were gassed as groups in holding rooms or mobile “treatment” vans. German films and propaganda promoted euthanasia as a gift of mercy. Many of the institutions that housed the targeted patients were run by Protestant and Catholic organizations or religious orders. Most buckled under government pressure. Only a very few religious leaders – men like Munster’s Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen – spoke out publicly to condemn the program.
Blaming these murders on National Socialist race theory would be easy. And it would be accurate – but only part of the story. In reality, the German medical establishment began shifting to a utility-based morality as early as the 1890s. Doctors, not the Third Reich, first pressed for euthanasia as national policy. What occurred among medical experts, in the words of one German psychiatrist, was “a change in the concept of humanity,” with its perfectly logical consequences. Sentimental words about human dignity, unmoored from some authority or purpose higher than ourselves, were just that – words.
I mention Burleigh’s book because several of my friends have children with disabilities. Watching them parent is a lesson in what the author of the Song of Songs meant when he wrote, “love is strong as death.” My educator friend, the wife and mother I spoke about earlier, has a son with Down syndrome. She also has three grandchildren with disabilities ranging from the moderate to the severe.
Her son has an IQ of 43. His syndrome makes it hard for him to speak. Sometimes he needs to repeat a sentence three or four times to be understood, even by his family. He’s more prone to illness. Simple griefs like getting dumped by a girlfriend lead to inexpressible feelings because he doesn’t have the words to articulate his hurt. He’s likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease at some point in his life. Some persons with Down syndrome face it as early as their 30s. So my friend and her husband live with the knowledge that the son they love may one day be unable to recognize them.
And yet, he has a job. He has friends. He’s a distance runner. He’s a Special Olympian, an opinionated savant of restaurant fare, a master of the mysteries of the rosary, and a sports fanatic. His life is filled with good things, not sadness. He’s a daily education in the virtue of patience for his parents, and in what it means to be human for his siblings. And among his greatest blessings is this: He will never be alone. He will always be loved. None of his family’s behavior is rational in a worldly sense. Not one of my friends who has a child with disabilities is “rational.” All of them are unreasonable; all of them are irrational – unless, like Augustine, we believe in order to understand.
The genius of Fides et Ratio, the beauty and the glory of the text, is its defense of the capacity of human reason to know the truth; a truth rooted in the deep harmony of creation. The world has a logic and meaning breathed into it by its Author, who is Love himself. And reason lit by faith can see that, and find the path to him.
There’s a plaque on the wall of my educator friend’s kitchen, and it overlooks every meal the family shares. Most of the time, nobody notices. Life is a busy and complex enterprise. But when they do notice, it reads, “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” It’s the final line in the greatest of all poems, Dante’s Divine Comedy:
. . . my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.
Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,
By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Despite all the crises in the Church, despite all the failures and sins of her leaders, despite all our distractions and weaknesses and indifference as a people, God guides the world. He informs and sustains it with his Love. In seeking that love, and finding it, and living it with all our mind and heart – therein lies our joy. Therein lies our hope.