The Long View: The Duty to Know

Bl. Pope John Paul II was a prolific writer of encyclicals over his 28 year papacy. Fides et Ratio is one of my favorites of his. What John Paul is suggesting here is a way to put all the pieces of the Western mind back together again. John Reilly felt this kind of project was inevitable in late modernity, and indeed the evidence is everywhere. This is what links After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, Consilience by E. O. Wilson, A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram, and Francis Fukayama's End of History. This is also precisely the value I find in Thomism, a useful way to order the mind in light of the complexity of reality.

However, coverage of in America of Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular has been frozen in amber at least since Humane Vitae. It is not hard to find someone arguing that the Catholic Church will loosen up once the next pope comes along, and bless contraception, or women priests, or any number of other things that will in fact never happen. We've had two popes since John Paul II, and the stability of Catholic doctrine continues to defy expectations [for some].

This is unfortunate, since John Paul's message was in fact somewhat radical, and an inability to take the argument as presented meant many missed it.

"[I]n the light of faith which finds in Jesus Christ this ultimate meaning, I cannot but encourage philosophers-be they Christian or not-to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest in their philosophizing. The lesson of history in this millennium now drawing to a close shows that this is the path to follow: it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason."

John Paul was saying the floodgates of reason are wide open, and we ought to follow reason where it leads. One of John Paul's favorite saying was "Be not afraid!". He was not afraid of where reason would take us.

The Duty to Know

by John J. Reilly

John Paul II deserves better enemies. When his encyclical, "Fides et Ratio," was released in the middle of October, 1998, the document was indeed front page news, but many commentators seemed to have trouble fitting it into their usual script for what this papacy is supposed to be about. While the prestige media outlets, such as The New York Times and National Public Radio, did report that "Fides et Ratio" treated of the compatibility of faith and reason, they used the publication of the encyclical primarily as an occasion to trot out the usual Catholic-liberal authorities. These sources (Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame comes particularly to mind) then repeated their familiar complaints about the pope's authoritarianism in general and his refusal to modify traditional Catholic sexual ethics in particular. The unquestioned assumption was that John Paul's papacy is an essentially reactionary episode, whose doctrinal statements will inevitably be drowned out by the irresistible current of modernity when his reign ends.

This analysis represents a profound failure of imagination. Whatever else "Fides et Ratio" may be, it is not a reactionary document. Rather, it is nothing less than a project for the reconstruction of the Western mind after modernity (or after "postmodernity," if you prefer). For several centuries, the intellectual life of Christendom has been a process of analysis. It has taken apart the unity that anciently linked metaphysics, ethics, social relations and the natural sciences. The result was a historical explosion that has been both miraculously beneficial and catastrophic without precedent. What "Fides et Ratio" proposes is a way of putting the cooling shrapnel of the Enlightenment explosion back together.

Such a project is hardly unique these days. Advanced physics is greatly occupied with ideas for a "final theory" that would, among other things, unify particle physics and cosmology. Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man" proclaimed some years ago that democratic liberalism was the final state of political theory. More recently, Edward O. Wilson, in his book "Consilience," outlined a new unity of knowledge to be based on an expansive interpretation of sociobiology. In "Fides et Ratio," an even more ambitious unity is proposed, one that would include not just natural knowledge but philosophy, metaphysics and even elements of the supernatural.

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