John Paul II on Why Faith and Reason Go Together

Amid a Hostile Modernity, an Invitation to Dialogue

LONDON, OCT. 11, 2003 ( Not all commentators are impressed by the 25th anniversary of John Paul II. The British daily Guardian’s writer Hywel Williams, in an Oct. 4 article, described this papacy as one that “has been relentlessly hostile towards modernity, castigating all questioning as faithlessness.” In addition to rejecting the Pope’s ecumenical efforts as a sham, Williams argued that John Paul II has promoted a “peasant church” based on unquestioning obedience.

This sort of characterization of John Paul II as promoting a backward vision of the Church and its doctrine is not new, and is often accompanied by sneering references to an allegedly medieval Polish view of society. However, these writers usually show little signs of familiarity with the outpouring of John Paul II’s magisterium in the last 25 years, or of his philosophical works that predate his papal election.

In fact, those who call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” often prefer to dismiss religion as inferior to their enlightened ideas. Dinesh D’Souza, writing in the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page Oct. 6, drew attention to a recent claim by philosopher Daniel Dennett. The latter, writing in the New York Times, said that atheists now favor being referred to as “brights.”

Counting himself among this group, Dennett explained that a “bright” rejects a supernatural view of the world. “Mr. Dennett,” noted D’Souza, “like many atheists, is confident that atheists are simply brighter — more rational — than religious believers.”

Chicago school

The superiority of rational inquiry was also upheld by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In a readers forum published Feb. 20 on the Web site of the British daily Independent, Dawkins affirmed his atheism. He contended that belief in God is something you can grow out of, just as children stop believing in Father Christmas, a.k.a. Santa Claus. Asked what he would do if after death he found himself facing up to St. Peter at the gates of heaven, Dawkins replied that he would admit his error: “But I was wrong for the right reasons. Those guys in there were right. But just look at their reasons.”

The discipline of economics also provides ample scope for thinkers who find little time for religion’s role in society, as Robert Nelson explained in a 2001 book. In “Economics as Religion,” he lamented how the social sciences have for many become the religion of the modern age.

Economists, Nelson said, became the proselytizers of a form of secular religion that based its hopes on material progress. He noted that one of the founders of the influential University of Chicago economics department, Frank Knight, held that one of the main threats to freedom was the Christian religion.

A later generation of Chicago economists, including the 1992 Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, dismiss as an illusion biblical teachings such as the Ten Commandments. Instead, they see economic self-interest as the key force driving human behavior. Nelson observed, however, that no one has been able to devise a value-neutral economics, and that whatever economic method is selected, there is bound to be a set of value assumptions behind it.

Complementary, not opposed

John Paul II probed the relationship between human reason and religious faith in the encyclical “Fides et Ratio,” published five years ago last Sept. 14. In it the Pope observed how people are driven to discover the truth, in order “to understand themselves better and to advance in their own self-realization” (No. 4). He added: “On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain goals which render people’s lives ever more worthy” (No. 5).

But the Pope also defended the value of Christian Revelation, explaining that it is an “absolute truth, it summons human beings to be open to the transcendent, while respecting both their autonomy as creatures and their freedom” (No. 15). As such, it is not the product of human reason, but an anticipation of the ultimate vision of God.

John Paul II argues that faith and reason complement each other. Within the natural order of human intelligence we desire to know the truth about what surrounds us. “This is what has driven so many inquiries, especially in the scientific field, which in recent centuries have produced important results, leading to genuine progress for all humanity” (No. 25).

This process of inquiry does not remain only at a scientific level. People search for values that can be chosen and pursued in their lives, “because only true values can lead people to realize themselves fully, allowing them to be true to their nature.” The encyclical continues: “The truth of these values is to be found not by turning in on oneself but by opening oneself to apprehend that truth even at levels which transcend the person” (No. 25).

This search extends to looking for a truth that explains the meaning of life, explained the Pope. And such a truth as this is attained not only through an individual’s human reason, but also by trusting “other persons who can guarantee the authenticity and certainty of the truth itself” (No. 33). This trust in other people who can guarantee the truth for us is not only a practice common to the area of Revelation, notes John Paul II. “Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based?” (No. 31).


Unfortunately, modern philosophy has tended to move further and further away from Christian Revelation, the Pope observed. Some forms of atheism regard “faith as alienating and damaging to the development of a full rationality” (No. 46). In the field of scientific research, “a positivistic mentality took hold which not only abandoned the Christian vision of the world, but more especially rejected every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision.”

As a result, the danger exists that priorities other than the well-being of the human person will occupy the center of scientific research. The Pope warned that technological progress runs the risk, not only of being guided by a market-based logic, but of succumbing “to the temptation of a quasi-divine power over nature and even over the human being.”

John Paul II expressed his hope that modern reason and revealed truth can be reconciled. Revelation should not debase the discoveries and legitimate autonomy of reason. But, on the other hand, reason should be “conscious that it cannot set itself up as an absolute and exclusive value,” and “must never lose its capacity to question and to be questioned” (No. 79).

Concluding the encyclical, John Paul II called upon everyone “to look more deeply at man, whom Christ has saved in the mystery of his love, and at the human being’s unceasing search for truth and meaning” (No. 107). He called upon people to enter within the “horizon of truth,” where it will be possible for “people to understand their freedom in its fullness and their call to know and love God as the supreme realization of their true self.”

Far from proposing a peasant Church, John Paul II is inviting a dialogue between faith and modern thought that requires an openness to truth in its fullest extension.

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