Theological Faith and Catholic Liberal Education
By Dr. Thomas J. Kaiser
Associate Dean, Tutor
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
August 30, 2019
It has been a longstanding custom at the College for one of the tutors to give the opening lecture on liberal education. The speaker is often recommended by the Dean, so I feel a bit awkward in picking myself to have the opportunity of giving the inaugural lecture at Thomas Aquinas College, New England. I did run the idea by the other tutors, and they all seemed perfectly willing to let me do it.
It was also once a custom that when a tutor of Thomas Aquinas College gives a lecture he gets no formal introduction. This is because our tutors are either well known to the students or they will be. This will be especially true at this campus because of the small size of our community. Tutors and students will get to know each other very well. So, at least for the near future, I would like to re-establish the custom of not introducing tutors from our campus.
The topic I have chosen for this lecture is how faith illumines reason. I am by no means an expert on this topic. Nothing I say tonight will be original. Much of what I say I learned from my own tutors, the founders of Thomas Aquinas College. Dr. McArthur, our founding president, periodically gave a talk on intellectual custom. He would give it as a pep talk to remind the students why they were at the College and the importance of what they were doing. After his death a version of that talk was published in the 2015 edition of the Aquinas Review. In that same volume there is an article by Dr. Neumayr, the founding Dean of Thomas Aquinas College, on faith seeking understanding. Marc Berquist, another of the founders, was one of the principal authors of the founding document of the College, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of a Catholic Liberal Education — we call it the Blue Book for short. I strongly recommend reading these papers when you have the time. All of these tutors have had a profound influence on my life. I have learned much from them on this very topic. Much of what I say tonight is drawn from them. Of course, the founders never pointed to themselves as being the teachers. They pointed to Our Lord, His church and to St. Thomas as the teachers. As you will see, I have taken much from St. Thomas as well as from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and from the writings of Pope John Paul II.
I also recollect that when Dr. McArthur gave his talk on Intellectual Custom, he acknowledged that much of what he had to say came from one of his teachers at the University of Laval, Monsignor Dione. Dr. McArthur would always ask the students to remember him in their prayers. I ask the same for our founders, both for those who have passed away and for those who happily are still with us.
It should be fairly clear that this is an appropriate topic for the opening lecture. The Blue Book states that, “the essential purpose of a Catholic college it to educate under the light of the Faith” (Blue Book, p.5).
Further on it says:
…the Catholic college has never really understood itself, has never, that is, thought out the exigencies of a liberal education which is undertaken in subordination to the teaching of the church, and which has as its aim an intellectual perfection which is possible and proper to the Catholic alone. Such an education demands that all the parts of the curriculum not ordered to technical concerns should be conducted with a view to understanding the Catholic faith, and that the Faith itself should be the light under which the curriculum is conducted (Ibid., p.10).
I remember Dr. McArthur putting it more positively: A program of study is formally Catholic when all the parts of the curriculum are integrated and ordered to the study of theology as the highest wisdom. This is in contrast to a college or university where there are numerous majors and minors with philosophy and theology tacked on as core requirements or electives. In this case the courses are not ordered to theology and may even contradict what is being taught there. The other disciplines are not serving as handmaids to theology; at best theology is just another required course, leaving one to think of it as less important than the courses in one’s major.
There is another point in that text which I intend to show in the course of this lecture, i.e., “the aim of a Catholic liberal education is a perfection of the intellect which is proper and possible to the Catholic alone.” It is this that justifies the title of my lecture.
Granted, then, that faith is essential to Catholic liberal education, I plan to divide this talk in to two main parts. In the first part I will talk about faith, in the second I will talk about the relationship between faith and reason. The first part is also divided into two parts. In the first I will talk about human or natural faith and distinguish it from doubt, opinion, and knowledge. In the second I will talk about the theological virtue of faith. It is in this that we are principally interested. It is this supernatural virtue of faith that illumines reason.
How do we distinguish what is held by faith from things held in doubt, or by opinion, or by knowledge? It should be clear that things held with doubt and things held with true knowledge are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. We have the least certitude or conviction about those things held with doubt and we have the most certitude and conviction about those things that we actually know. So where do opinion and faith fall in this lineup? Most would grant that we hold more firmly to things we believe to be true than to those things we opine to be true. If we are correct, the order from least to greatest conviction is doubt, opinion, faith, and knowledge.
St. Thomas gives an account of this in the De Veritate (On Truth): (Q. 14, a. 1) where he says that the human intellect is in potency to all intelligible forms and is not, to begin with, more determined one way than another. There are two ways that the intellect can be determined: It will be moved either by an object (the knowable thing) or by the will. When moved by an object, the intellect is in a state of doubt when it is not more disposed to accept one side of a contradiction rather than the other. You freshmen will soon learn that one of the characteristics of contradictory propositions is that one must be true and the other must be false; they can’t both be true or both false. For example, the statement that all triangles have angles equal to two right angles is contradictory to the proposition that some triangles do not have angles equal to two right angles. One of these propositions is true and the other is false. If all triangles have angles equal to two right angles, then it is false to say that some do not, and vice versa. So, one is in state of doubt when he is no more disposed to one of these propositions than the other.
Again, if the intellect is moved by an object and it is inclined more to one side of the contradiction, but fears that the other side may be true, it has an opinion. If I hold that there is man-made global warming, but I fear that there is not man-made global warming, then I have an opinion that there is man-made global warming.
On the other hand, if the intellect moved by an object is determined to one side of a contradiction without fear of the other side being true, there will be understanding if the mind sees the evidence immediately, or there will be science, if it is based on an argument from immediately known things. Notice that understanding and science are both based on evidence the intellect has from the thing itself. It is because of this evidence that it does not fear the contradictory is true.
All of the above have in common the fact that the intellect is being moved in some way by the object itself. Now the intellect can also be determined by the will. In such cases, the intellect holds to something, not because it sees it but, rather, because it seems good to hold it. Here the will moves the intellect to assent to one side of a contradiction rather than the other because of something that is sufficient to move the will but not sufficient to move the intellect. If your geometry teacher tells you that in all right triangles the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the remaining sides, and you hold that to be true because you trust your geometry teacher, then you hold that proposition by faith. As St. Thomas puts it, you believe what another says because it seems fitting or useful to do so.
It is good to reflect on the role of faith in human learning. We are born into this world knowing nothing. Our first experience is wholly sensory, but it is clear that a child begins using its intellect when it begins to speak. The meaning of words comes from being taught by parents. When a mother says “eye” and points to her eye, the child believes that this is the name for that organ. The child naturally trusts its mother, thinks the mother truly knows these things, and that the child is being taught these things for its own good.
Think of the subjects studied in school: grammar, history, geography, math, science — all of these are learned and held primarily by faith. If we assent to what we hear in the news on the radio or television, we are assenting by faith. Moreover, it is worth noting that even in the so-called natural sciences themselves, given the way they are taught, most of the information is held by faith rather than by the intellect being moved by the objects themselves. No one has the time or the ability to see for himself all the things he is taught in the classroom. It is certainly more efficient to teach this way, but it doesn’t result in knowers in the strict sense of the word. So, it is good and natural to learn by faith. But, we are putting a lot of trust in people when we learn this way. As we go to school and advance in our education we are putting trust in people we don’t know well and who don’t know us well and do not care for us as much as our parents do. At some point we may want to ask why or whether we trust them. Nevertheless, as one gains more experience, things known first by faith can then become known through the things themselves. One is then truly a knower.
It is also worth noting that faith in this sense is not an intellectual virtue, i.e., it is not a perfection of the intellect. Rather, it can be a stepping stone to true knowledge. The intellect is not determined by the object itself and, therefore, is not conformed to or perfected by that object; it does not have evidence for what it believes and the intellect does not possess the certitude of knowledge.
There is also this danger: When the will is moving the intellect to assent because of some apprehended good, it may be difficult to change one’s mind even when faced with the object itself. The good apprehended by the will might impede a careful look at the object or overrule the apprehension of the object by the intellect. This problem manifests itself particularly in moral and political matters.
For example, the economic good of slave labor might overrule the judgement that all men are created equal. The perceived good of being free from the burden of parenthood might impede knowing that the developing embryo is a human being, or, granting that it is a human being, overrule the judgement that it is unjust to take an innocent human life.
The type of faith that we have described thus far does not, strictly speaking, illumine reason. Rather it may serve as a means of moving from not knowing to knowing by the natural power of our intellect. By believing something to be true, we may seek out the object itself and give it careful examination. The object will then be what determines our intellect and we will know the truth. However, there is another kind of faith we alluded to in our Introduction that has to do with divinely revealed things. It is included among the theological virtues along with Hope and Charity.
The Theological Virtue of Faith
Let me say a few words about the theological virtues in general. In the Summa Theologiae (I-II, Q.62), St. Thomas argues for the necessity of theological virtues in the following way: Man is directed to happiness through being perfected by virtues. However, man’s happiness is two-fold,
One is proportionate to human nature, a happiness which man can obtain by means of his natural principles. The other is a happiness surpassing man’s nature, and which man can obtain by the power of God alone, by a kind of participation of the Godhead, about which it is written (2 Pet 1:4) ‘that by Christ we are made partakers of the Divine nature.’
Because this kind of happiness surpasses the capacity of human nature, the natural virtues are insufficient to achieve it.
“Hence it is necessary for man to receive from God some additional principles, whereby he may be directed to supernatural happiness, even as he is directed to his connatural end, by means of his natural principles. These virtues are called theological firstly because their object is God insofar as they rightly direct us to him. Second, because they are infused in us by God alone. Third, these virtues are not made known to us except by Divine revelation.
Notice that God is the object of the theological virtues, but not as an object that is seen directly. Rather He is the object in the sense that He is the end to which we are directed. He is the object of our desire. We see Him through a glass darkly. The second point is that unlike the natural virtues which can be acquired by practice and discipline, the theological virtues have to be infused in us by God. They are had by us as a result of grace, a free gift from God. The third point is that what we believe, hope, and love is made known to us by Divine revelation. Faith comes from hearing. The knowledge of the Creed is not infused in us at Baptism, we have to hear it.
At this point we can begin to see that faith illumines reason in the sense that it gives us knowledge of things that can only be known by Divine revelation. These things are above the power of natural reason to know. In the second part of the second part of the Summa, St. Thomas goes into more detail about the theological virtues. In Question 1, Article 1 he argues that the object of faith is First Truth. Remember above, when he was treating the theological virtues generally, he said that God is the object. St. Thomas is now giving a more formal account the object of faith. He says in the body of Article 1 that the object of every cognitive habit includes two things: first, that which is known materially, i.e., the object itself or, we might say, the subject matter. And the second is that whereby it is known, which is the formal aspect of the object. He gives an example from geometry. The conclusions of geometry are what are materially known by the science. As in the example above, the interior angles of a triangle are equal two right angles. This is what is known by the science. The formal aspect, St. Thomas says, is the means of demonstration through which the conclusions are known.
Let me give another example: horse, car, house, and tree are all objects of sight materially, but they are all objects of sight by being colored. Hence “being colored” is the formal aspect by which they are known. Therefore, many vastly different things are objects of sight materially, but formally they are objects of sight by being colored. So, how does this distinction help us understand the object of Faith?
St. Thomas says,
… if we consider, in faith, the formal aspect of the object, it is nothing else than the First Truth. For the faith of which we are speaking, does not assent to anything except because it is revealed by God. Hence, the means on which faith is based is Divine Truth.
This argument needs some unpacking. How do we move from the formality of being revealed by God to Divine Truth and First Truth?
In the body of this article St. Thomas goes on to say that if we consider the object of faith materially, many things other than God can be considered objects of faith, but only insofar as these other things bear some relation to God, for example, how man is helped by God to achieve beatitude. In this way all other truths of the faith are considered only insofar as they are related to the truth about God. It follows that the truth about God is not only Divine Truth but also First Truth. St. Thomas seems to be equating Divine Truth with First Truth because it is the Truth by which all other truths are known.
To pursue this question more deeply we need to ask the question Pontius Pilate asked Our Lord: What is truth? We must ask further whether God is Truth. St. Thomas did this in the First Part of the Summa, Q. 16. In the first article of this question he asks whether truth resides in the intellect only. To answer this question he first distinguishes between the tendencies of appetite (such as the will) and those of the intellect. He says that knowledge is according as the thing known is in the knower, while appetite is according as the thing desiring tends toward the thing desired. The tendencies go in opposite directions. The term of desire, which is the good, is in the object desired. While the term of the intellect, the true, is in the intellect itself.
St. Thomas goes on to make a further comparison between appetite and intellect. He says that the good exists in things insofar as they are related to appetite. In other words, they are called good because they are desirable. So the aspect of good passes from the object to the appetite in such a way that the appetite is called good from the goodness of the object desired. (Our will is called good when we will good things) In the intellect, on the other hand, truth is in the intellect insofar as it conforms to the object understood. Hence, the attribute of “true” passes from the intellect to the object. Therefore the object is called true insofar as it has some relationship to intellect. However, the relationship between object and intellect can be either essential or accidental. It is essential when the object actually depends on the intellect that knows it. A house is related essentially to the mind of the architect that built it but only accidentally to someone who happens to see it. St. Thomas concludes by saying that truth resides primarily in the intellect and secondarily in things insofar as they express a likeness to the exemplar in the mind of the maker. So artificial things are called true insofar as they conform to the mind of the one who made them; natural things are called true insofar as they conform to the mind of the creator. Hence, when considering the various definitions of truth his predecessors have proposed, St. Thomas prefers the following definition: the adequation (adequatio) or conformity of thing and intellect. He prefers this because it is applicable to either of the above considerations of where truth resides.
In Q.16, A.2, St. Thomas makes an important distinction between having the truth and knowing the truth. It is one thing to have the likeness of the thing known in the intellect; it is another to know that there is conformity between the mind and the thing known. The former is having the truth, the latter, knowing the truth. The senses, St. Thomas argues, can in no way know that there is conformity between them and the sense object. So the sense does not know the truth, but it can have the truth. Only the intellect can judge that the thing corresponds to the form in the intellect. Knowing the truth, therefore, adds a further perfection to the act of knowing and brings in more explicitly the notion of certitude.
In Article 5, St. Thomas argues that God is Truth. In the Sed Contra he cites John 14.6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” St. Thomas clearly thinks this is literally true. His argument in the body of the article is very brief:
…truth is found in the intellect according as it apprehends a thing as it is, and in things according as they have being (esse) conformable to an intellect. This is to the greatest degree found in God. For His being (esse) is not only conformed to His intellect, but it is the very act of His intellect; and His act of understanding is the measure and cause of every other being and of every other intellect, and He Himself is His own existence and act of understanding. Whence it follows not only that truth is in Him, but that He is truth itself, and the sovereign and first truth.
In other words, if we consider the conformity between God’s existence as object and His existence as apprehended by Him as knower, there is not only conformity between the two, there is complete identity. Because of the divine simplicity, all of God’s operations are the same as His essence or existence. (Time does not permit me to prove this point; you are going to have to believe me. You will see the argument for this Junior year.) He is Truth because the conformity between intellect and object is so complete that there is no distinction. Or you might say that He is that most perfect conformity. Since there can be no conformity prior to this conformity, we can call Him First Truth. Moreover, He is First Truth because all other truths depend on His Truth. God’s understanding is the cause of every other being and every other intellect. So He is the cause of the truth of all things, whether it is truth residing in the intellect or truth in things.
This discussion gives us a more complete notion of what it means to say that the object of faith is First Truth. As we said above, this object is not known face to face, which leaves us dissatisfied and yearning for more. It is worth noting, however, that the object of faith is the cause of all other truths.
Definition of Faith
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines faith in terms of an act or activity: “Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning in life” (Pt.1, Sect.1, 26). The response of man is an activity. He is responding to God; he sees God as the source of revelation, and he sees the good that gives ultimate meaning to life. The first two have to do with the intellect, the last with the will. So, we have a definition of faith in terms of its activity, but how do we define faith that is the principle of that activity?
As you freshmen have learned from the Meno, it is difficult to define things well. In the Meno, Socrates asks for a definition of virtue. Meno makes several unsuccessful attempts, which leaves you wondering how to define it. We are very fortunate in this case that God not only gives us the gift of faith, He has even revealed its definition.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul defines faith as, “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11.1). For you Latin scholars: “est autem fides substantia sperandarum rerum, argumentum non apparentium.” I am citing this not to sound scholarly, but to make it clear that the English is a very literal translation of the Latin.
Right away we can see that this differs significantly from the Catechism definition. Substance and evidence are not activities. How do we understand this statement of what faith is?
St. Thomas begins his discussion of this by saying that some have denied that it is a definition. He says, however, “that if we look at it aright, it overlooks none of the points in reference to which faith can be defined, albeit that the words are not arranged in the order of a definition.” I do not want to go into his complete analysis of this definition, but I do want to point out that he takes the word substance seriously. He notes that the object of faith is First Truth as unseen. But the theological virtues have the same thing as object and end. So the First Truth is the end of the act of faith. But since it is unseen, it is something to be hoped for.
“We hope for that which we see not” (Rom 8.25) because to see the truth is to possess it. Now one hopes not for what one has already, but for what one has not … Accordingly, the relation of the act of faith to its end, which is the object of the will, is indicated by the words: Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for. For we are wont to call by the name substance, the first beginning of a thing, especially when the whole subsequent thing is virtually contained in the first beginning. However, the first beginning of things to be hoped for is brought about by the assent of faith, which contains virtually all things to be hoped for.”
This fits with the Catechism 163: “Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below. Then we shall see ‘face to face’, ‘as He is.’ So faith is already the beginning of eternal life.”
In the second part of the definition, St. Thomas takes the word “evidence” in the definition to signify the result of evidence, because the result of evidence is firm adherence by the intellect to the truth. By faith we have a firm adherence to a non-apparent truth. So, St. Thomas says that the word “conviction” would also be appropriate.
St. Thomas concludes by reformulating the definition: “Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent.” This definition, according to St. Thomas, distinguishes faith from all other things pertaining to the intellect. Because we can describe it as evidence, it is distinguished from opinion, suspicion, and doubt, none of which make the intellect adhere to anything. It is distinguished from understanding and science because it is of things that appear not. It is distinguished from natural faith, which has no reference to the beatitude we hope for (paraphrasing Thomas here).
There are other comparisons that can be made. From what we have just said, we have been calling supernatural faith a virtue all along, while we noted that natural faith is not a virtue. Why is this? In our discussion above of the theological virtues, we saw that man had to be perfected by virtues that are principles for attaining eternal happiness. These principles, faith, hope, and charity, are a participation in the divine life. Therefore, they exceed any natural perfection man can attain. On the other hand, holding something to be true by natural faith is not a virtue of the intellect, because it is more in accord with the intellect to hold with certitude the things it sees itself. The object perfects the intellect. If there is virtue involved with natural faith it has more to do with the will. One who learns readily from another can be called docile or obedient, but we do not say that they understand or know, in a strict sense. So, the intellect is not in a state of perfection, and, therefore, not is a state of virtue.
The Catechism refers to the “obedience of faith,” even when speaking of the theological virtue. “To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to learn or listen to) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard…” This is common to both types of faith. But even here the Catechism makes a distinction:
Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature (150, emphasis mine).
Do these last two statements need defense? We have shown above that God does not simply have the truth or know the truth, He is the Truth. Therefore, He can neither deceive nor be deceived. Unhappily, this cannot be said about man.
This leads to another distinction between the two types of faith. The certitude of human faith is less that the certitude of knowledge or understanding. But the certitude of revealed things is greater than the certitude of things understood or known by natural reason, because a more certain cause has a more certain effect. The foundation of revealed things is Divine Truth, which is God Himself, as was shown above. Natural faith is based on our own judgement or that of others, both of which are fallible.
The Catechism (157) puts it strongly:
It (Faith) is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but ‘the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.’ ST, II-II, 171.5, ad.3 “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” (Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. 239)
Speaking of difficulties, Christians reading the same scriptures sometimes have contradictory views about the meaning of the text. For example at the Last Supper Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Some take this to mean that when Christ said those words the bread became His body. Others say that the bread does not become His body. Logically, one of these propositions must be true, the other must be false. Can they both be held by faith? St. Thomas argues that because the formal aspect of the object of faith is First Truth, nothing false can stand. He argues further that since the true is the good of the intellect, it follows that all virtues which perfect the intellect exclude the false altogether. So, one cannot have supernatural faith in what is false. It is not, however, contrary to human faith to believe what is false, because, as we said, it is not a virtue or perfection of the intellect. This is a scary thought. How do we know that what we believe is true? We may hold what we believe with great conviction, but that is not the measure of its truth. If we believe something false about Divine Revelation, it must be human or natural faith and not the theological virtue of faith.
Faith comes from hearing (Rom.10.14). But who has the authority to say what Scripture means? Who has the authority to teach? As Catholics we believe that Our Lord left us a church that teaches with His authority. This authority given to Peter and his successors is needed to address the moral and doctrinal questions that will continue to rise until the end of time. When the Church formally teaches on faith and morals, we have certitude the teaching is true.
Let me conclude this part of the talk by summarizing how faith illumines reason. Faith gives us knowledge of God, and of things insofar as they are related to Him, that surpasses the ability of our natural reason to know. It is an infused virtue of the intellect that is a participation in the Godhead and a beginning of eternal life. The certainty we have by this faith is greater than any other certitude that the intellect can have in this life. The object of faith is First Truth, Who is the cause of all other truths.
Relationship Between Faith and Reason
I want to conclude by saying a few things about the relationship between faith and reason.
In speaking about this the Catechism puts it well:
‘Faith seeks understanding.’(Our College motto, taken from St. Anselm’s Proslogion) It is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love. ‘The grace of faith opens the eyes of your hearts to a lively understanding of the contents of Revelation; that is, of the totality of God’s plan and the mysteries of faith, of their connection with each other and with Christ the center of revealed mystery. ‘The same Holy Spirit constantly perfects the faith by His gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly understood.’ In the words of St. Augustine, ‘I believe in order to understand; and I understand in order to believe.’ (Credo ut itelligam, itelligo ut credam)(Sermo 43, emphasis mine)
Noteworthy in this citation is the fact that faith seeking understanding can lead to an increase of both faith and understanding.
In his encyclical, Fides et Ratio (F&R), Pope John Paul II has chapters devoted to each part of St. Augustine’s profound statement. In Chapter 2, I believe in order to understand, he begins by looking at the Wisdom books in Scripture pointing out that what is distinctive in them is the conviction that “there is a profound and indissoluble union between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith.” He says that faith and reason cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way.”
In this chapter the Pope describes the “book of nature” as the “first stage of divine revelation.” If read properly, it can lead to the knowledge of the existence of God and to the knowledge that our happiness consists in knowing and loving Him. If we fail to do so, it is not because of the lack of means, but rather, because our sinfulness we have put impediments in the way. And even when we arrive at truth about God by the use of natural reason, knowledge of the Faith gives us a larger context in which to understand them. So,
faith liberates reason insofar as it allows reason to attain correctly what it seeks to know and to place it within the ultimate order of things, in which everything acquires meaning. In brief, human beings attain truth by way of reason because, enlightened by faith, they discover the deeper meaning of all things and most especially of their own existence.
Enlightened by faith, especially through the science of Sacred Theology, reason can judge the truth of conclusions reached by natural reason. It does this without destroying the nature of the natural sciences themselves. The natural sciences retain the principles and methods proper to each; they don’t become branches of theology or receive their principles from divine revelation.
On the other hand, the Pope argues that “truth conferred by Revelation is to be understood in light of reason.” He says of St. Thomas in particular that he recognized that the study of nature “could contribute to the understanding of divine revelation … Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason.” The Pope says further on that,
without philosophy’s contribution, it would in fact be impossible to discuss theological issues such as, for example, 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.
This is also true in the realm of moral theology, which depends upon a knowledge of man’s nature and his end. In this way the lower sciences serve as handmaids to theology. Just as grace builds on nature and perfects it, so sacred theology builds upon the natural sciences and at the same time, perfect them. In his Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II puts it this way:
While each discipline is taught systematically and according to its own methods, interdisciplinary studies, assisted by a careful and thorough study of philosophy and theology, enable students to acquire an organic vision of reality and to develop a continuing desire for intellectual progress.
Time does not permit me to go into detail about what happens when faith and reason are separated. We are living in times that suffer from that division. In Fides et Ratio the Pope points out that the immediate result of the separation of faith and reason is skepticism, which in turn often leads to atheism and finally to nihilism where one despairs of the possibility of knowing anything at all. “All our intellectual endeavors then become directed to utilitarian ends, the enjoyment of pleasure and power” (F&R, 47).
We can now take another look at the statement from the Blue Book that I quoted at the beginning: “The aim of a Catholic liberal education is a perfection of the intellect which is proper and possible to the Catholic alone.” Given what we have said about the theological virtue of faith and how faith illumines and guides reason, we can see that such a Catholic liberal education leads to a perfection of the intellect which exceeds the natural power of reason and is a participation in the divine. But this is further qualified by the phrase: “proper and possible to the Catholic alone.” What did the College’s founders have in mind by this addendum? We have already alluded to the fact that faith must be taught. But in order to have certitude of faith, we need to know that what we are taught is in fact what God has revealed. We are assured of this by the authority Christ gave to the Apostles and their successors to teach on matters of faith and morals. Hence the Blue Books states:
The first and most pressing duty, therefore, if there is to be a Catholic education, calls for reestablishing in our minds the central role the teaching Church should play in the intellectual life of the Catholic teachers and students. Since the faith liberates the believer from error in his submission to its teachings, it both guides and strengthens his intelligence in the performance of those activities which constitute his very life as a thinker (Blue Book, p.13).
Streaming & downloadable audio
Receive lectures and talks via podcast!