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The Drama of the Separation of Faith and Reason

by Fr. Giovanni B. Sala, S.J.


Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Fides et ratio by Fr. Giovanni B. Sala, S.J. of the Hochschule fur Philosophie in Munich, Germany.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, March 31, 1999

1. Two modes of knowledge

Distinguishing between reason and faith in a strictly philosophical context means distinguishing two basic modes of human knowing: knowledge produced immanently, i.e., the result of our own experience, intellect and judgement, and knowledge that we make our own on the basis of someone else's truthfulness. While reserving the term "faith" for the second mode of knowledge within the religious realm and, more particularly, for knowledge of the "mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known" (DS 3015), we can with the Encyclical Fides et ratio call this second mode of knowledge in all other contexts "knowledge by belief".

The way of belief or faith in the generic sense is no less rational than the way that consists in exercising one's reason to reach personally that evidence which grounds true knowledge. In fact, what a human being knows is a complex accumulation of knowledge personally acquired and knowledge borrowed from others and, more generally, from that common heritage which is the culture of the time (n. 31).

This twofold way applies not only to common sense but also to science. Science, particularly the natural sciences, have a social dimension and so are largely knowledge by belief. Without collaboration between scientists, those of the same era and those of subsequent periods, there would be no scientific progress, since every scientist would be forced to spend his whole life repeating what was done by others without ever making a new contribution of his own. "The human being — the one who seeks the truth — is also the one who lives by belief" (n. 31). The possibility of belief or faith is based on an intrinsic property of truth: by its very nature whatever is true is not private but public. The true is found only in a mind which has reached a well-founded judgement (St Thomas, Summa Theol., I, 16, 2); but what is known in this way is independent of the individual mind and is therefore communicable to another's mind through the process of faith.

2. Philosophy's encounter with the Christian faith

Now to consider religious faith, and more precisely the Christian faith, in its relationship with that particular exercise of reason which is philosophy — the theme of the Holy Father's writing — it would be helpful to sketch briefly the history of this relationship in order to realize what separation the Pope is referring to when he denounces "the drama of the separation of faith and reason".1

The history of philosophy is usually divided into the following periods: 1) ancient philosophy, spanning the thought of classical Greece and its direct continuation in Hellenistic-Roman thought; 2) patristic and scholastic philosophy; 3) modern philosophy.

The rise of Christianity marked a new beginning in the history of philosophy. "Although Christianity used ancient philosophy to develop and explain its doctrinal content, this doctrinal content and its entire conception of God, the world and man, and thus its whole spiritual attitude is in principle different from antiquity".2 But while the philosophy of the patristic era was not yet distinguished, either in principle or fact, from theology and the Christian religion — the Fathers, in fact, saw the Christian religion as the true philosophy — medieval philosophy, scholasticism, was well aware of the distinction between theology and philosophy. Nevertheless, for the scholastic doctors philosophical reflection had the proximate or remote goal of preparing rational tools for theological speculation.

The medieval scholastics were the first to accord philosophy a status of its own as a science distinct from theology, since philosophy is based on its own principles and follows its own methods; at the same time, however, they made this distinction within theology, the science par excellence in the newly founded universities. The systematic foundation underlying this distinction was the theorem of the supernatural formulated by Philip, chancellor of the University of Paris from 1218 to 1230, who brought to completion a complex movement of thought under way for some time. The theorem consisted in treating thematically two essentially distinct orders of reality: the order of grace, faith and charity, and the order of nature, reason and the natural love of God.3

This distinction not only makes it possible for philosophy to be a distinct, subordinate sphere within theology, but also urges reason to grow in the awareness of its own capacities and thus to require its own field of investigation. This is what happened at the beginning of the modern era with humanism and the Renaissance.

But once the distinction between faith and reason was established, it then became obvious that within reason's own sphere a further distinction was necessary between philosophy and science. However, just as in the 13th century theology was able to develop its own method as the science of faith only after it had been distinguished from philosophy, so in the modern era philosophy could not define its own nature and method without distinguishing itself from science, thus giving rise to science as a department of knowledge that establishes its own terms and ultimate principles without having to borrow them from philosophy.

What we have touched on here is simply the well-known growth process of human knowledge. This development consists not only in the accumulation of new knowledge but also in the gradual appearance, precisely because of new advances, of progressively higher viewpoints that make it possible to identify what was understood in a more general way at an earlier stage of knowledge. What we pointed out above in identifying the birth of theology, philosophy and science as different areas of knowledge, also applies within each of these three areas — particularly in the field of science. In this respect there is no reason to regret the fact that in contemporary culture philosophy has become one of the "fields of human knowing" (n. 47). The same cannot be said of the fact that philosophical reason, having set aside the search for the fundamental truths of life, particularly the search for the absolute, has taken "sidetracks" (n. 48) and has thus been reduced from sapiential knowledge to a marginal form of knowing that is often futile or even harmful to making life more human.

3. The distinction between faith and reason becomes a separation

The distinction, corresponding to the intrinsic requirements of reason in its "natural" exercise and in its task of "fides quaerens intellectum", gradually became in modern philosophy a separation in the sense of estrangement, even of reason's frequent opposition to faith. If it is true, then, that philosophy in the modern period cannot be understood without considering the profound influence of the religious-Christian problematic developed by patristic-scholastic philosophy, it is no less true that the direction it took marked a turning-point which became a growing opposition to the original content of Christian thought (n. 46).

In this sense the Encyclical speaks of the "drama of the separation of faith and reason". It is a separation which, far from producing an abundant flourishing of human reason, has instead "abased" it (n. 84), confining it to an horizon of immanence which represses that dynamism of enlightened openness which the medieval doctors recognized as a "natural desire to see God".

Kant and the German idealism that followed had a decisive impact on this separation process. With Kant the backdrop of immanence fell definitively on philosophy: his turn to the subject took the form of a turn to a subject confined to the limits of sense experience. It is no surprise, then, that Kant only recognized this subject, cut off from its unlimited dynamism of transcendence, as having the ability to attain the truth of what is an "appearance". The natural desire to see God thus becomes the transcendental idea of God, source of a "natural and inevitable illusion" (Critique of Pure Reason, A 298).

Although the way of practical reason remains open to the mind, Kant explains at the end of his final version of the "moral proof of God's existence" that it is a postulate which does not furnish "an objectively valid proof of God's existence" (Critique of Judgement, B 424 note), since it is based on "subjective reasons" (Critique of Pure Reason, A 829). The consequence of this practical faith in God, which Kant posits in place of an assent of faith which the mind can make in conformity with its innate requirement of truth, is that being a religious person really means "acting as if [a/s ob] such a ruler of the world [God] were real" ("Von einem neuerdings erhobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie", Akademie-Ausgabe, VIII 397 note).

What Kant separated, Hegel reunited. For Hegel, religion and faith are one of the cultural products in which the becoming of absolute spirit unfolds. While absolute spirit manifests itself in revealed religion as the object of faith, in the supreme cultural sphere, i.e., philosophy, it becomes the object of an idea in which absolute knowing becomes completely itself. In this way Christian faith loses its status as something distinct from reason, something which reveals to man his creaturely status and thus spurs him to be faithful to a reason recognized as a reflection of the divine wisdom.

The history of later philosophical thought shows the influence of Hegel's all-encompassing system, which can scarcely be overestimated. The theme of the absolute in relation to human reason became the unavoidable subject of countless philosophical discussions; but separated from its primary truth, it has come more and more to resemble an elitist speculation as intellectually subtle as it is existentially sterile, reminiscent of the "empty" thinking for which St Paul rebukes the pagans (n. 22).

We should not be surprised that a culture in which reason is separated from faith in the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ and takes its place has been dominated by two characteristic phenomena of contemporary culture. On the one hand, the spread of education has gone hand in hand with the rise of mass atheism, for the most part a "practical atheism". That God whom philosophical thought accords only the status of an "as if" reality, or of the absolute spirit which is unfolding in the dialectical movement of human self-consciousness, cannot represent either a truth capable of giving ultimate, valid meaning to human life or an authority binding man's exercise of his freedom. On the other hand, reason is reduced to a merely functional role. To a scientistic outlook, the radical mistrust of reason, wherever the latter searches for truths and values beyond the field of sense experience, is accompanied by "the temptation of a quasi-divine power over nature and even over the human being" (n. 46), which leads many to think that anything technically possible is morally admissible (n. 88).

Noting the recent developments of a philosophical knowledge incapable of discovering any meaning in life that is not subject to temporal finitude, the Pope denounces a philosophy which teaches that in life "everything is provisional and ephemeral" (n. 91) — a teaching referred to elsewhere in the Encyclical when it speaks of "the sometimes ephemeral teachings of professional philosophers" (n. 30).

4. Ethics without a foundation in God and without the natural law

Although ethics has always been a privileged area of philosophical reflection, it is no exaggeration to say that today we are seeing an inflation of published writings on ethical topics. There are two peculiar features of contemporary ethical discourse whose existential impact seems to be in inverse proportion to its rhetoric.

First of all, the ethics being developed by a wide circle of thinkers is characterized by autonomy, that is, by an obligation whose ultimate origin is found in man himself. Here too Kant's thought has been decisive. "The autonomy of the will", Kant wrote in The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics (A 78), adopting the Enlightenment's passion for emancipation, "is the supreme principle of morality". Autonomy for Kant means self-legislation, the individual's independence from any will outside himself, including the will of God, which Kant lists among the "spurious principles of morality" (ibid. 88).

Secondly, it is an ethics which has largely turned its back on the "natural law", that is, on the normativeness which the Creator has inscribed in nature and in man himself, to replace it with utilitarian arguments based on a reductive conception of the human being. It is no wonder, then, that academic chairs and philosophical writings prove incapable of demonstrating the inhuman nature of forms of behaviour that are more and more widespread; on the contrary, they provide pseudo-justifications for them. Think of abortion, justified on the one hand by the mother's self-determination and, on the other, by denying the unborn human being the status of "person"; of euthanasia, seen as an expression of the right to decide for oneself when to depart this life; of the manipulation of the very sources of human life by the gradual removal of every barrier blocking the project of creating the genetically perfect human being — a project which has rightly been described as creation on the eighth day; of the institution of marriage and the family, which are collapsing under the joint assault of an emancipation from values and norms based on human nature and of legislation which is steadily assuming the role of reflecting and approving the de facto situation.

The obvious fact that in a culture of immanence the absoluteness of the moral imperative is put in doubt and moral relativism gets the upper hand confirms the close connection between recta ratio and faith in God, recognized as the personal Absolute which grounds moral obligation. One can hardly deny that the current moral decline in a society where technical-pragmatic reason enjoys resounding successes is not related to the dissociation of human reason from religious faith.

Another aspect of the relationship between faith and reason in the area of moral knowledge deserves to be mentioned. Morality is an essential dimension of the human person, for whom the knowledge of moral norms is per se one of reason's capacities. In reality, however, this reason is no longer intact as it was at the beginning when it came from the hands of the Creator. As a result of original sin, man was not only deprived of the supernatural grace God had given him as a gift, but he was also wounded in his very nature. His reason was darkened and his will weakened, to the extent that he can no longer live authentically as a human being (n. 22). Now, God came to the aid of this darkened reason with Revelation. Therefore, through faith in the word of God proclaimed by the Church, man can know with greater ease and certainty the specific contents of that command to do good which he discovers in his own conscience (DS 3005). The listening of faith opens the mind to recognize and understand those principles and norms of the moral order which flow from human nature itself. In this way philosophy is not diverted from its own paths; on the contrary, having regained its rationality with the help of faith, reason makes its own the truths that originally belonged to it. The Pope writes: "The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason 'mutually support each other' (DS 3019)" (n. 100).

5. Beyond 'reason alone'

The help which faith gives to reason shows the overall relationship between supernatural reality and human nature. The inability to achieve a consistent development and fulfilment of human nature, at both the personal and the social level, reveals to every sincere humanist the limits to which the human person is actually subject. Since human reason itself requires a higher wisdom, man's goal of building his city with his own hands means engaging in a task that will be continually frustrated by human irrationality and irresponsibility. Man's proud intention to be completely man and only man4 is inevitably accompanied by the tragedy that in the present order, in which the answer to the problem of evil in man is really supernatural, "to be just a man is what man cannot be".5

It is hard to ignore this nemesis inherent in the course of history; it is difficult to deny that the tragic situation of disorientation in which humanity finds itself today is not the result of the separation of reason and faith in God, the Author of man and the world. The Encyclical's call to restore a friendly, cooperative relationship between faith and reason (n. 63) is an appeal to contemporary culture, particularly to those engaged in philosophy — "one of the noblest of human tasks" (n. 3) — to open itself to a transcendent truth which, far from humbling reason, challenges and encourages it to be fully itself.


1 It would be a mistake to restrict religious belief to the Christian faith and to limit philosophy to its "Western" form. It is not without reason, however, that the Encyclical focuses on the philosophy which grew out of classical Greek thought. On the one hand, this philosophy had a development and exerted a cultural influence unparalleled in other philosophical currents, to the point that it has now acquired a global dimension; on the other, it was elaborated in such close contact with the Christian faith that neither the history of this philosophy nor its content can be understood apart from Christianity.

2 Bernhard Geyer, Die patristische und scholastische Philosophie, 1927, p. 1 (vol. II of GrundriB der Geschichte der Philosophie).

3 Cf. Bernard Lonergan, S.J., Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St Thomas Aquinas, London 1971, pp. 15f.

4 Programmatic for modern culture is the title Kant gave his work on religion: "Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone". See also Fides et ratio, n. 23.

5 Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, London 1957, p. 729.

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