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Encyclical wins cautious praise


As Pope John Paul II marked the 20th anniversary of his papacy on Oct. 16, he issued an encyclical that reflects a greater openness to contemporary culture than many of his writings and pronouncements to date.

The encyclical, titled Fides et Ratio, Faith and Reason, is drawing generally positive reactions from theologians and philosophers around the country, including some who see it as a basis for common ground not only among philosophers and theologians, but also among liberals and conservatives within the church.

A student of philosophy for much of his life, the pope clearly laments that once-strong links between philosophy and theology have grown considerably weaker in modern times.

Yet, theologians braced for a sweeping condemnation of relativism found instead carefully nuanced arguments in this encyclical, arguments that, if tilted in favor of ultimate, absolute truth, stretched a friendly hand toward non-Western cultures and encouraged study of secular and non-Christian thought.

Most scholars interviewed by NCR acknowledged the sharp contrast between the generally positive tone of the 150-page document and the pope’s heavy-handed treatment of some scholars and theologians, most notably the Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Küng and the American moral theologian Fr. Charles Curran, both stripped of their roles in Catholic theology.

Some, however, had strong reservations about sections of the encyclical, and nearly all said their remarks should be considered provisional, pending further study.

"On first blush, I think it’s a wonderful encyclical,” said M. Shawn Copeland, associate professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Copeland sees the document as a “moment of encouragement for theologians and philosophers to steer toward a middle course,” leaning neither “too far to the right or left,” in their dialogue with modernity.

“I think the pope is bringing to our attention the difficulty we are having in theology in addressing what Bernard Lonergan called the ‘transition from classicist culture,’ ” she said. Lonergan (1904-84), Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian, wrestled with the difficulty of achieving spiritual integration in a contemporary world marked by a deep split between secular and religious views.

The encyclical, John Paul’s 13th, aims at overcoming that split by a return to metaphysics in philosophy and renewed emphasis on the role of reason in the search for truth.

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” the pope begins his encyclical. Yet he laments a few pages later that people today, displaying “a false modesty ... rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence.”

Still later he asserts, “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 idenity as true God and true man.”

Theologians were by and large gratified by the pope’s openness to the study of modern philosophy and by his insistence, despite considerable praise of St. Thomas Aquinas, that there is no such thing as a “Catholic philosophy” once and forever endorsed by the church. Some traditionalists decry the loss of the neo-Thomistic synthesis that undergirded study of theology as recently as the 1950s and urge its reinstatement. The pope, however, nudges academics forward.

Several readers were also pleasantly surprised by the pope’s use of inclusive language, his frequent references to “men and women.” The inclusiveness was unexpected, some said, given the Vatican’s resistance to inclusive language in the church’s liturgy.

Terrence Tilley, a theologian who chairs the religious studies program at the University of Dayton, described the work as “a masterpiece.” He found the pope’s argument to be “tight, beautifully nuanced,” but also generous.

“It’s going to take a while before we understand the depth of this encyclical,” Tilley said, noting that the pope has undertaken a difficult task. “He’s trying to hold together the definitive revelation of God in Christ while acknowledging that Christians can and must learn from other cultures and other traditions.”

Two readers familiar with modern philosophical trends -- Jean Porter of the University of Notre Dame and John Caputo of Villanova University -- praised the main thrust of the document, particularly its affirmation of the importance of philosophy and its openness to secular and non-Christian thought, even as they expressed strong reservations about the pope’s perspectives on contemporary philosophical trends.

He’s “swimming against the tide,” said Caputo, a professor of philosophy with serious interest in religious themes. The “sticking point” in the document, he said, is its emphasis on recovering philosophy as “a metaphysical buttress” for theology.

“I think the pope is a little spooked by relativism,” Caputo said. “He thinks that if we don’t come back to absolutes and universals we’ll end up in irrationality and nihilism. I think that’s probably too simple.”

The pope attributes the turn away from metaphysics to a “loss of confidence in reason,” Caputo said, “but it’s more complicated than that.” The trend developed in the last century “not because philosophy lost its nerve” but because of a recognition that metaphysics tended to be “overly ambitious” in its claim that reason could grasp ultimate, universal truths, he said. Today philosophers assign a more limited role to reason, viewing it as an analytical tool in making judgments -- “having good reasons for holding this rather than that.” Further, he said, they are likely to favor the approach of St. Augustine in the fourth century over that of Aquinas in the 13th: that is, “faith before knowledge, heart before intellect.”

Philosophers today, Caputo said, “have to be cautious because we understand that we’re shaped by traditions, institutions, gender roles.” For example, Caputo said he has learned to be wary of “the presuppositions of white males” and their place in his own thought. “That’s what the pope thinks is our failure of nerve, but it could also be defined as sensitivity to the other,” he said.

Nevertheless, Caputo said he finds “a lot I can approve of” in the encyclical. “I’m glad to hear the pope saying that philosophy should enjoy a privileged place in our colleges and universities. I think that is central to preserving our identity ... our Catholic character.” And he agrees with the pope that philosophy “needs the word of God.” He noted that some contemporary philosophers, notably the French thinkers Emmanuel Levinas and Jean Luc Marion, have been interested in religious themes and experience.

Jill Raitt, a Catholic theologian who heads the religious studies department at the University of Missouri, is, like Caputo, concerned that the pope gives “too much weight to intellect in faith.” Many come to faith by hearing the word preached and finding it speaks to their hearts, she said. Further, she said, “the emphasis is so strongly on faith as reasoned, that it gives too little place to mystery.”

Paul Knitter, theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, was pleased to see the pope’s warning about the dangers of relativism. Knitter, regarded by some conservatives as a relativist himself, acknowledged that some of his own critics might find his agreement ironic. Knitter, a specialist in world religions and interreligious dialogue, has made the assertion, highly controversial in some quarters, that most religions of the world make equally valuable and valid “truth statements about who we are as humans, and how we can live and know God’s life.”

Knitter said the pope’s denunciation of relativism is needed. ‘Our ‘postmodern consciousness,’ as the academics call it, doesn’t allow us to make affirmations of truth that are needed to find common ground,” he said. On the other hand, Knitter said, he finds the pope to be “disturbingly unambiguous” in his conviction that reason should ultimately lead to the absolute truth of Christian revelation. He wonders, given the pope’s acknowledgment that the ability to know truth is “partial, limited, in progress,” how the pope can be so sure that truth is “unchanging and absolute,” its fullness found “only in Christ.”

“Speaking as a Catholic and a Catholic theologian, if my friends in the philosophy department of my university, as well as my Hindu and Buddhist friends, have to choose between a relativism which never gives them any sure answers and an absolutism which finds the final definitive answer in Christianity, they will choose relativism as the lesser of two evils.” For many, “Christian imperialism” looms large as something to fear, he said.

Still, Knitter finds it encouraging that the pope “is telling us we can find common ground and act on it together.” In fact, he said, it made him chuckle to see that the pope “is really in fundamental agreement with Hans Küng and many others who are calling for a global ethic.”

Early in his papacy, John Paul declared Küng, a priest who teaches at the University of Tübingen in Germany, to be “no longer a Catholic theologian” because of his outspoken disagreement with church teaching in some areas.

Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Clooney, professor of comparative theology at Boston College, with a specialty in the religions of India, was among readers surprised to find the pope encouraging the study of postmodern thought. “That’s the sort of thing we might not expect of a pope,” he said. Clooney also found it “striking” that the pope had singled out India for attention in one section of the encyclical. “In India particularly,” the pope wrote, “it is the duty of Christians now to draw from this rich heritage the elements compatible with their faith, in order to enrich Christian thought.” Clooney said that statement will be cause for rejoicing among Indian theologians as well as among U.S. scholars of Indian thought.

“It’s great for somebody like me,” said Clooney, whose most recent book in comparative theology is Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children (Orbis, 1998). “But it’s also a real challenge to Indian Catholics to take seriously the philosophical systems of India.”

Like Knitter, Clooney is concerned that the pope, while willing to accord a role to Indian philosophy, is less open to learning from other religions when it comes to revelation. “It would not impress a Hindu to hear the pope say Hindus have a wonderful philosophical system but only Christians have sacred truth,” he said. Academics who have given a lot of thought to the question of revelation “might stress more the inevitable variety of ways people think about revelation.”

Michael Downey, professor of systematic theology and spirituality at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, Calif., was thrilled with the pope’s description of the nature of the theological task. The pope wrote that “the very heart of theological enquiry will be the contemplation of the mystery of the Triune God,” said Downey, a specialist in Christian spirituality. Further, he noted, the pope described the “prime commitment” of theology as “the understanding of God’s kenosis,” his selfless self-emptying in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“This to me is the real beauty of the theological vision articulated in this encyclical,” Downey said. “It’s a contemplative vision of theology .. one that we see in the lives of really significant theologians both past and present.” In particular, Downey said, he was reminded of the work of the late Catherine LaCugna, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and author of God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (HarperCollins, 1991). LaCugna died last year of cancer at age 44.

Downey said such a vision of theological inquiry would “serve well as a gentle corrective to those approaches in theology, even some approaches in Catholic theology, which have come, or seem to have come, untethered from prayer, worship and contemplation.

“Even though the pope emphasizes the importance of Thomas Aquinas in the encyclical, his vision of the task of the theologian is really more in step with that of St. Bonaventure.” he said. St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Dominican, systematized medieval theology; St. Bonaventure, the 13th-century Franciscan, systematized spirituality.

Both Tilley and Downey agree that the most controversial points in the encyclical will be the pope’s notion that there is “a givenness” to truth, an objective order that reason can grasp, albeit partially, and his belief that the truth is one. “The pope is aware that there are currents in philosophy and often theology which would hold there is no givenness” to truth, Downey said, no absolute, universal truth revealed for all people for all time. The pope’s understanding of revelation as something gratuitous, “something given to us in terms of the Word transmitted in Scripture and in the context of Christian tradition,” is likely to provoke “considerable discussion” among philosophers and theologians, he said.

Porter, a professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Notre Dame, found the tone of this encyclical to be more positive in its assessment of contemporary trends of thought than previous encyclicals promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae, a previous encyclical affirming the inviolability of human life, was “almost completely negative toward contemporary Western culture,” she said. Given that, however, Porter said she finds the pope’s treatment of contemporary philosophy in Fides et Ratio to be “simplistic” and lacking in “sympathy or critical engagement with the trends it criticizes.”

In one section of the encyclical the pope denounces what he describes as negative currents in contemporary philosophy. “I think he is moving too quickly” in this section, she said. His treatment “fails to do justice to the complexity of the contemporary discussions.”

Some of the pope’s assertions about contemporary philosophy are “very contestable,” Porter added. “I can’t really imagine any disinterested philosopher taking it seriously as a philosophical critique.”

Porter, who describes herself as a “sympathetic reader” of contemporary American and British philosophy, said she doubted that the document would have “any impact at all” on philosophers “except for that minority who also have some commitment to Catholicism.” Even among those, “it’s difficult to say what impact the encyclical will have,” she said. “Where it could have a positive impact is among theologians who I think should welcome the openness, even the limited and very much conditioned openness, to engaging wider trends of contemporary thought.”

Like Tilley, Robert Masson, a theologian from Marquette University and a specialist in the theology of Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, views this latest encyclical as one that demands “very careful reading” and attention to nuance. Understandably, he said, people often read texts from political perspectives. “I can see liberals being concerned that if we grant the pope anything here, we’ll have to grant his position on some applications, so they will ... miss the nuances,” he said. “I’m equally afraid conservatives will read into it too much support.” This document, he said, “is the sort of thing we ought to be able to take up as common ground.”

As evidence that such a project might be remotely feasible, the encyclical was praised by Michael Novak, a theologian of a considerably more conservative bent than the other scholars who spoke to NCR.

“From my point of view, this is the Catholic understanding of faith and reason I grew up in, was educated in, always shared,” said Novak, who is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “It’s just much more beautifully expressed, with the hand of a poet. It’s elegantly done, compared to the treatments of this subject when I was younger.”

In an op-ed piece about the encyclical, published Oct. 16 in The New York Times, Novak warned that when a society sets reason aside, “power trumps” and “thugs win.” Civilized people “regard one another as reasonable and free and wish to persuade one another only in the light of evidence,” he said. “Barbarians use clubs.”

To María Pilar Aquino, Latin-American theologian who teaches at the University of San Diego, however, the significance of this encyclical is considerably more far-reaching than a restatement of the theology of Novak’s youth. She finds encouragement in the pope’s assertion “that revelation is not confined to a particular place and culture.”

The encyclical invites contemporary theologians to draw on models of theological methods from the past, like those of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who developed their theologies “in dialogue with the cultural and intellectual developments of their time,” Aquino said. Theologians should be galvanized by this latest document “to use their own intuition and creativity” in doing the same for the people and cultures of today.

“This insight has been the driving force of liberation theology,” she said. “So in a sense, the encyclical confirms the intuitions and contributions of liberation theology.

“The pope makes it very clear that he does not ... endorse a particular philosophical tradition,” Aquino said. “He asserts that theological activity does not consist in mere repetition of theological statements of the past,” and that it is conditioned by cultures and history.

By stating that Greco-Latin thought, while important to Christianity’s heritage, should not be considered normative for faith, and by asserting that it is “the duty” of Christians to draw from non-Western philosophical and religious traditions, Aquino believes, pending further study, that the encyclical “puts an official end to the myth of Western European theological supremacy” and to the “claims of universality” that have bolstered the Western theologians who dominate Christian thought.

What the pope acknowledges “is that theological interpretations are always connected to cultural contexts,” she said. The theologian’s task, then, lies not in repeating theological statements from earlier cultures or historical contexts, but in addressing questions arising from “their own historical contexts,” she said.

To read this encyclical click on the Documents button on NCR Online.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998