Originally created 10/17/98

Analysis: Pope pitches old-fashioned philosophy



NEW YORK -- Memo to candidates for the Catholic priesthood who hate taking all those philosophy courses: Don't throw away your textbooks yet.

Pope John Paul II's 13th encyclical letter, "Fides et Ratio" ("Faith and Reason"), issued Thursday, contends that the thoroughly modern priest must bone up on Aristotle, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.

Call me old-fashioned, the Pope indicates, but "the study of philosophy is fundamental and indispensable."

Why bother? John Paul is worried that if religious faith is "poorly grounded in reason" it won't be tough enough, or true enough, to thrive over the long haul.

"We cannot stop short at experience alone," he contends. Emotion is essential, but Christians must balance it with reason.

Encyclical letters are the most authoritative form of papal teaching. In the latest one, as usual, the 78-year-old pontiff shows that while he may be aging he's keeping up on religious and intellectual trends worldwide.

Though John Paul's prose is clear, no small accomplishment with such a heady topic, this letter is addressed mainly to the world's Catholic bishops and to intellectuals. His pronouncements on more down-to-earth matters like Christian unity and the universal right to life -- the topics of encyclicals in 1995 -- have been addressed to all "people of good will."

"Fides et Ratio" is the latest of several documents in which the pope sets forth his church's world view in preparation for the new millennium. His other landmark encyclicals are "Centesimus Annus" (1991), a ringing call for justice in capitalist economies after the collapse of European communism, and "Veritatis Splendor" (1993), a vigorous defense of unchanging, absolute rights and wrongs in morality.

"Fides et Ratio" casts a skeptical eye on various contemporary "isms." The pope worries about a resurgence of "fideism," the view that rational knowledge has little to offer religious faith. The pontiff is especially worried about what he sees as a form of fideism labeled "biblicism," in which study of the Bible becomes "the sole criterion of truth."

This section is a thunderbolt for Christian ecumenism.

A synonym for biblicism is Protestantism, which follows Martin Luther's dictum that "Scripture alone" is the final source of God's revelation. The pope doesn't mention that. But the most militant and successful form of his "biblicism" is the conservative Evangelical movement, which competes keenly with the Catholic Church, especially in Latin America.

In line with Catholic teaching, John Paul insists that divine truth comes through three sources: the Bible, the sacred tradition of the church, and the magisterium, a term that refers to the Catholic hierarchy's authoritative interpretations of the Bible and tradition.

The pope is concerned not only with Protestants but the confrontation with major world religions in Asia and traditional faiths in Africa. These other paths may contain truth, he says, but it takes careful philosophical work to find it.

Though respectful toward these other traditions and open to multiculturalism, John Paul remains rather Eurocentric. He insists that the church "cannot abandon what she has gained" from the Greek and Latin writers of ancient times, and especially champions St. Thomas Aquinas, a figure from medieval Italy and France.

The new decree updates a previous papal directive on the study of philosophy, the encyclical "Aeterni Patris," which was promulgated in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII. Leo's document placed Thomas Aquinas in first place among history's Christian thinkers, sparking a boom for philosophical Thomism that lasted well into the 20th century.

Since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, Thomism has become less fashionable among Catholic philosophers. But like Leo a century ago, John Paul says the monumental writings of the man known as the Angelic Doctor are "the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought" and should be "the guide and model" for Catholic theology today.

The bulk of the new encyclical consists of a call for thinkers to "move beyond the crisis pervading large sectors of philosophy at the moment." The pope, who once taught philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, believes his own academic specialty has lost its way during modern times, first by cutting itself off from God's revelation, then by abandoning the great questions of the human heart, such as:

Does God exist? How do we know about him? What is truly good? Does life have a meaning? Why do I exist? why does anything -- rather than nothing -- exist?

The pope asserts that philosophy has largely abandoned these broad issues in favor of narrow technicalities. He also laments "the distrust of reason found in much contemporary philosophy."

John Paul takes pointed aim at the current academic trend known as postmodernity. Its thinkers, he says, believe humans must "learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning, where everything is provisional and ephemeral."

But people cannot live by this "destructive critique of every certitude," which he says undercuts the essentials of Christian faith.

The pope thinks that this sort of nihilism, an understandable reaction to the 20th century's terrible evils, fosters "the collapse of rationalist optimism, which viewed history as the triumphant progress of reason." In response, John Paul upholds the continuing validity of human reason as well as the universal truths conveyed by Christianity.

Basically, John Paul's millennial message is identical with the dictum he quotes from St. Augustine of 16 centuries ago: "Believers are also thinkers. In believing, they think, and in thinking, they believe. If faith does not think, it is nothing."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Richard N. Ostling, an AP religion writer based in New York, has covered news about religion, including the papacy and Catholic affairs, for more than two decades.