PHILADELPHIA — St. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio will mark its 20th anniversary this year, on Sept. 14. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia reflected on the encyclical in his essay “Believe That You May Understand” in the March 2018 issue of First Things.
Making the case that the 1998 encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason was a “prophetic” document that “confronts the crisis of truth within the Catholic Church herself,” the archbishop warned against “faddish” theology. Vigorous philosophy and good theology are, rather, mutually enriching. “Knowledge of the truth expands our freedom to love,” Archbishop Chaput said.
In an interview with CNA, he spoke more about the encyclical’s relevance for today.
How can the average Catholic benefit from Fides et Ratio, 20 years after its publication?
The first thing to know is that it’s not the sort of text you can browse like the Sunday paper. Fides et Ratio takes time to read and absorb. Most people are rightly focused on things like raising a family and earning a living. So a lot of good people may never read it. But that doesn’t lessen its importance for the average believer.
The main takeaway from Fides et Ratio is that learning how to think clearly, with the Church, in a mature and well-informed fashion, is vital. It’s every bit as crucial as feeling our religious convictions deeply. Sentiment isn’t enough, and that directly affects how we understand the role of conscience.
Christian faith is more than goodwill and kind intentions. Conscience is more than our personally sincere opinions. A healthy conscience needs a strong formation in the commonly held truths of the Catholic community. Without it, conscience can very quickly turn into an alibi machine. The world is a complicated place. It requires sound Catholic reasoning skills rooted in the teaching of the Church.
The trouble is that we’ve now had at least two generations of poor catechesis and very inadequate conscience formation. So when voices tell us to leave today’s hot-button moral decisions to the “adult consciences” of our people, we might want to agree — ideally — but before we do, we need to examine what exactly that means. We have a great many otherwise successful, credentialed adults who see themselves as Catholic but whose faith education stopped in the sixth grade. Recovering the discipline of good Catholic moral reasoning is urgent.
If someone finds himself or herself in a cultural or ecclesial environment dominated by poor philosophy and theology, how should he or she respond?
Ignore the nonsense, read, watch and listen to good Catholic material, and live your faith in conformity with what the Church has always taught. The basics still apply on marriage, sex, honesty and everything else. There are no “new paradigms” or revolutions in Catholic thought. Using that kind of misleading language only adds confusion to a confusing age.
If we’re in an environment with good philosophy and theology, what do we need to guard against?
Pride and complacency, and taking the blessing of good teachers and pastors for granted. All of us are called to be missionaries. We preach Jesus Christ best when we witness our faith well in the charity and justice of our daily actions.
Why do you think these problems of faith and reason are so recurring in our time?
Science and technology can seem — but only seem — to make the supernatural and sacramental implausible. The language of faith can start to sound alien and irrelevant. This is why we lose so many young people before they even consider religious belief. They’re catechized every day by a stream of materialist distractions that don’t disprove God, but create an indifference to him.
The Church is struggling with a lot of self-doubt. It’s natural in an age of rapid change. I think many Church pastors and scholars have simply lost confidence in the rationality of faith and the reliability of God’s word, without being willing to admit it. Instead, they take refuge in humanitarian feelings and social action. But you don’t need God for either of those things, at least in the short run. In the long run, God is the only sure guarantor of human rights and dignity. So we need to think our Christianity — deeply, faithfully and rigorously — as well as feel it.
Which is why Fides et Ratio is so important. It reminds us.