Given the furor over Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’s new encyclical, by people of many faiths and philosophies, and the fact that we have commented on a small portion of it, we thought it might be useful to explain why we felt it necessary to do so, that is, our take on the respective roles of faith and reason, especially from what we understand to be the traditional Catholic understanding — so here goes.
Man, as Aristotle noted in the Politics, is the rational animal. (Politics, 1252a.)Anything that shifts the human person away from reason as the foundation of a faith or a philosophy contradicts essential human nature, that is, what it means to be human.
Ralph Michael McInerny (1929-2010), professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, once commented that fideism is the single greatest danger to Catholicism in the world today. (Ralph M. McInerny, Miracles: A Catholic View. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1986, 22.) Fideism is the idea that truth is determined by what one believes, rather than what can be proved by reason or that is consistent with reason and thus conforms to natural law. Natural law is defined here as the universal code of human behavior, while human understanding of truth is that which conforms to reality, reality being something independent of the human mind that perceives it. (Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990, 21-22. Cf. J.M. Bocheński, The Methods of Contemporary Thought. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968, 3-5, 6.)
|Dr. Ralph M. McInerny|
Behind fideism is the idea that truth as truth is no longer an ultimate goal or good. As with people who believe in a flat Earth, for example, what is objectively true becomes of lesser importance, in extreme cases even irrelevant compared to what they want to believe. Their adherence to personal opinion or blind, uncomprehending acceptance of dogma, persists even after they are presented with evidence to the contrary.
Often what matters are the pronouncements of whatever authority someone accepts, usually interpreted to fit some predetermined position. Faith in authority becomes more important than empirical validity or logical consistency.
Disagreements become settled not on the basis of fact or of logical argument, but by whoever’s faith is stronger or (more accurately) whose opinion can be expressed most forcefully or becomes most popular. As legal scholar Heinrich Albert Rommen (1897-1967) noted, by abandoning reason and basing beliefs solely on faith, what follows is moral positivism — the belief that right and wrong depend only on the will of some authority, not objective reality or truth — leading almost inevitably to nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless. (Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 51-52.)
Moral positivism and nihilism lead to contempt for other people, then of everything except one’s self, and finally even of one’s self. That is why, as Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) remarked, there is so little real argument these days, and so much sneering. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 126.)
By shifting the determination of truth and goodness from what can be observed of human nature, to some human authority or to an idealized abstraction of humanity, fideism directly undermines the dignity of every child, woman, and man. Dignity, which relates to all human needs (including security and survival), is the “quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” (“Dignity,” Meriam-Webster Dictionary.)
Every single human being, simply because he is a human being and thus a person, is “worthy, honored, or esteemed.” By calling fundamental truths into question, fideism undermines or even nullifies the power every person needs to control his own life. By attacking truth, faith without reason is thus not only a serious threat to the Catholic Church as McInerny claimed, but to any and all natural religions and philosophies throughout the world.
|Mortimer J. Adler|
One of the most serious problems associated with fideism is the tendency to confuse conclusions and beliefs based on religious faith, with those derived from scientific enquiry. Both religious truth and scientific truth are true, but some believers are tempted to impose beliefs based on faith on others who do not accept their particular faith.
Forcing religious beliefs on others violates free will and offends against human dignity. It also fails to take into account that while scientific truth and religious truth are both true, they are, nevertheless, different aspects of the truth as a universal and absolute principle, and are proved or accepted in different ways. As the Great Books philosopher Mortimer Jerome Adler (1901-2001) commented in a discussion of knowledge and opinion,
Religious belief or faith would lose all its efficacy if it were reduced to mere opinion. But the grounds on which it makes such a claim are so utterly different from the criteria we have employed to divide genuine knowledge from mere opinion that it is impossible within the scope of this discussion to put religious faith or belief into the picture we now have before us. (Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes: Basic Errors in Modern Thought — How They Came About, Their Consequences, and How to Avoid Them. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985, 105-106.)
|Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
Attempting to impose religious beliefs or lack thereof on others in the form of a political, social, or economic philosophy (or anything else) is not merely contrary to reason and therefore to nature. It is detrimental to the common good, that vast network of institutions (social habits) within which people realize their personal goods. (Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., Introduction to Social Justice. New York: Paulist Press, 1948, 23-30. Józef Maria Bocheński, O.P., of the Kraków Circle Thomists, construed the common good as a vast network of interdependent “states of being.” Bocheński, The Methods of Contemporary Thought, op. cit., 2-3. Cf. Alexis de Tocqueville, “Principal Causes Which Render Religion Powerful in America,” Democracy in America, I.xvii.)
That there is a Creator, and that the Nature of that Creator consists of absolute good, can according to Catholic belief be proved by human reason, but nothing more. (Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 1, aa. 7-8; First Vatican Council, Canon 2.1; The Oath Against Modernism; Humani Generis, § 2. See also Adler, Truth in Religion, op. cit.) Anything else is based on faith that, while it cannot contradict reason, also cannot be proved empirically; it is necessarily an abstraction.
Abstractions are created by human beings and have no existence apart from the human mind. Thus, especially these days when moral relativism has attained the status of dogma, it is essential to restore a philosophy that is not centered on a subjective abstraction, but on objective reality. What is needed is personalism, a way of thinking based on the actuality of the human person created by God.
Consequently, what has been called the “Just Third Way” does not force people to conform to idealized and presumably perfect abstractions imposed by whomever happens to have enough power to control the lives of others. Rather, people are guided by their admittedly inadequate and imperfect understanding of the absolute values of ultimate reality reached through reason and observation. In this way, might does not make right; rather, we all grow and prosper when each and every person is able to relate to each other, society, and the common good as a whole in conformity with universal values, such as truth, beauty, love, and justice.