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25th Anniversary of ‘Fides et Ratio’

Nine helpful directives for preparation of homilies

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Twenty years into his pontificate, Pope St. John Paul II promulgated perhaps the most substantial magisterial document to date on the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy and theology, and the universal quest for truth in his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio. The sometime-ethics-professor-turned-pontiff was uniquely positioned to write on the topic, and one sees in the document the influence of both John Paul’s history as a teacher of philosophy and his profound pastoral solicitude. While the lengthy document might seem to be directed to those involved in philosophical and theological research, Fides et Ratio is filled with both explicit directives and helpful reminders for our ongoing formation and in preparation of homilies.

With that in mind, here are nine directives that John Paul provides for our reflection.

1. The quest for truth is a universal human one. The thirst for truth is a constitutive feature of human nature. John Paul reminds us that “all human beings desire to know” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.1) and “truth is the proper object of this desire” (Fides et Ratio, No. 25). Christianity has consistently affirmed everyone’s right to access this truth, regardless of race, social status or gender. The elitism characteristic of the ancients’ search for truth is abrogated in favor of universal access to the person of truth.

As homilists, it is good to recall that the people in the pews have a thirst for the truth, and we, as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1), have something essential to offer them in that quest.

2. There is a “profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith” (No. 16). The Greeks reached certain profound truths through careful metaphysical abstraction, and the Israelites arrived at essential truths through intuition and cooperation with revelation (cf. No. 16). Christianity offers a synthetic approach encapsulating both the finest of philosophical reasoning and the fullness of revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, recorded in the Scriptures and entrusted to the Church. These can never be at odds. “There is thus no competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action” (No. 17).

We must recognize that there is a deep interdependence and cohesion between faith and reason. This reminds us that we must never be afraid that rigorous reasoning will somehow undermine our faith, or that eliminating the reasoning enterprise will somehow help protect the faith: “It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition” (No. 48).

3. The results of natural reason must be contextualized by faith. As is becoming ever clearer, the same scientific datum can be used to either undermine religious belief or to amplify the glories of the Creator (cf. No. 20).

Pastors should welcome and promote the contextualization of the latest results of empirical reasoning within the broader horizon of faith. If the People of God are hearing about recent scientific developments that seem to undermine the possibility of creation by a personal Creator, a pastor should be eager to contextualize these developments as realities that promote — rather than destroy — belief in the Creator.

4. The truth can be scary. While all human beings are meant for the truth, truth makes demands on us. “People can even run from the truth as soon as they glimpse it because they are afraid of its demands” (No. 28).

We are called as pastors of souls to join people in this moment of fear, and to accompany them on the journey, serving as a source of stability and peace. Often, people resist the truth not because of an apprehensive limitation, but an appetitive one: They are afraid of what the believing truth might lead them to do (or not do). People can find comfort in their errors, and we are called to guide them tenderly into the warm and wonderful light of truth — and to make the movement toward the truth as joyful as possible.

5. Our beliefs depend on the influence of others. John Paul astutely notes that there are “many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification” (No. 31). We simply do not have the time or cognitive resources to obtain belief only through evidence acquisition, but rather must come to trust the conclusions of others, in and through a community of truth seekers. Belief “brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring” (No. 32).

Thus pastors of souls need to create vibrant communities of belief — families, parishes, schools — where people’s beliefs are shaping in accord with the truth. If we do not provide a forum for socialized truth-seeking, an entire alternative worldview is eager to inundate the flock with anti-Christian falsehoods under the pretense of truth. Priests can seek to create communities where the truth is presented credibly and beautifully through small groups, Bible studies, ongoing formation lectures for youth and adults and thoughtful preaching.

6. The Holy Spirit illuminates our minds. Leaning on St. Thomas as “a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology” (No. 43), John Paul points out that one of the Common Doctor’s great contributions was his recognition of the Holy Spirit’s role in moving from knowledge to wisdom (cf. No. 44). While the intellectual virtue that comes through ongoing formation is important, we also must open ourselves to the wisdom from on high (cf. No. 44).

In addition to philosophical (or natural) wisdom (based upon the capacity of the intellect) and theological wisdom (based upon Revelation to explore the contents of the faith) we also need the infused wisdom of the Holy Spirit. To be wise in the Spirit means to not only worship on the wood of the cross of the desk, but to learn in the classroom of the chapel, where the Holy Spirit illuminates our minds with profound insight.

When we are struggling with an issue theologically, pastorally or homiletically, we certainly must turn to the intellectual resources at our disposal, but we also must be sure to turn to the Holy Spirit who enlightens every heart. Here, the unwavering commitment to daily prayer and personal intimacy with the Lord is indispensable.

7. Priests should continue philosophical formation in addition to their theological formation. John Paul states the study of philosophy “is fundamental and indispensable to the structure of theological studies” (No. 62). The Fifth Lateran Council confirmed the need for philosophical studies to proceed with theological studies, which still take place in seminaries today. For some priests, however, there is a temptation to “end” their intellectual formation once they leave seminary, as other demands increasingly press in on their time. However, priests should budget time for reading each day or week and consider returning to occasional philosophical formation as part of ongoing formation. Describing the “Church’s intense interest in philosophy” (No. 63), the pope reminds us that the study of philosophy is essential to evaluating the different philosophical opinions and systems that the world offers today. Questions that trouble the People of God are as often philosophical as they are theological — for example, the problem of evil or the existence of an immortal soul. We need answers to such pressing questions in the order of nature before we can offer answers in the order of grace.

Likewise, questions that are properly theological often still rely on philosophical principles for a correct answer. John Paul enumerates a number of these issues: “the use of language to speak about God, the personal relations within the Trinity, God’s creative activity in the world, the relationship between God and man, or Christ’s identity as true God and true man,” as well as moral issues such as “moral law, conscience, freedom [and] personal responsibility and guilt” (No. 66). Of course, revelation-based thinking provides deeper and fuller answers, but erring in the way of nature will inevitably lead to erring in the way of grace. Further, “philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith” (No. 104) and is thus important for evangelization.

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8. Priests have the duty of offering a view of the whole to the People of God. Particularly as the academic disciplines become increasingly fractured and independent, the People of God suffer from lack of possession of a vision of the whole. “The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people today from coming to an interior unity. How could the Church not be concerned by this? It is the Gospel which imposes this sapiential task directly upon her pastors, and they cannot shrink from their duty to undertake it” (No. 85). People yearn for a coherent way to understand the world and the human being, and it is our task to provide a framework for this quest for the whole.

9. There is a universally valid truth, and this is the object of our dialogue. When engaging people of other faith traditions, it can sometimes seem easier or more welcoming to set aside claims to the universally valid truth claims of Christianity. While everything true need not always be said, John Paul reminds us that the claim to universally valid truth is “is in no way to encourage intolerance; on the contrary, it is the essential condition for sincere and authentic dialogue between persons. On this basis alone is it possible to overcome divisions and to journey together towards full truth, walking those paths known only to the Spirit of the risen Lord” (No. 92). 

FATHER REED FREY, CO, is a member of the Congregation of the Pittsburgh Oratory of St. Philip Neri and is a doctoral student in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame.



“A quite special place in this long development belongs to Saint Thomas, not only because of what he taught but also because of the dialogue which he undertook with the Arab and Jewish thought of his time. …

“Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an ‘exercise of thought’; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice.” — Fides et Ratio, No. 43


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