The Holy See
back up

Pauline Year/International Scientific Conference:
Sanctitas, Caritas, Veritas

Faculty of Theology
University of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński of Warsaw
18 May 2009


William Cardinal Levada
Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith


This is my first visit to Poland. I say this not with any pride. I recall vividly being in the crowd in St. Peter’s Square on the evening when Cardinal Karol Woityła of Cracovia appeared on the loggia as our new Pope John Paul II in 1978. My call to service as a bishop was from him, first in 1983 as Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, then in 1986 as Archbishop of Portland in Oregon, finally in 1995 as Archbishop of San Francisco, California, of which I am now Archbishop Emeritus. During the many fruitful years of his long pontificate, I had often expressed to myself, and sometimes to others, my desire to visit Poland. But something always interfered. So when then-Bishop Zygmunt Zimowski of Radom, now Archbishop-Bishop emeritus of Radom and newly-appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care of the Holy See, invited my participation in these days of Symposium in Poland I could not say no. I thank him and the authorities of this Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University for their invitation to be here today.

I want therefore to offer these few reflections as a tribute to the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, son of Poland, whose love for his native land inspired so many of us to understand better the great themes he would preach to us and teach us: especially about themes that involved culture, and the evangelization of our cultures. For this reason, I chose to speak on the theme assigned to me at this Symposium – “Encounter with the Fullness of Truth in Christ” – with a look back to his Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, whose tenth anniversary occurred just a few months ago, in the hope that I might offer some small tribute to the memory of this great Pope whose ministry has had such a significant impact on the lives and ministry of so many of us.

At this international conference marking the year of St. Paul, we could not fail to take as our point of departure Paul’s experience of the fullness of truth in Christ, for here we find the key to an authentic understanding of the harmony between faith and reason.

The encounter with the Truth who is Jesus Christ

It is striking that St. Paul’s encounter with Christ introduced into his thinking a completely new orientation. He reports that the “mystery of Christ… has now been revealed through the Spirit” (Eph 3,5). With astounding courage he could write: “I, who am less than the least of all the saints, have been entrusted with this special grace, not only of proclaiming to the pagans the infinite treasure of Christ, but also of explaining how the mystery is to be dispensed” (Eph 3,8). Paul was conscious that he had “a wisdom to offer… not a philosophy of our age… still less of the masters of our age”, but a “wisdom that God predestined to be for our glory before the ages began” (1 Cor 2,6-7). For this reason, in his preaching “there were none of the arguments that belong to philosophy; only a demonstration of the power of the Spirit” so that the faith of the Corinthians would “not depend on human philosophy but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2,4-5).

St. Paul teaches us that, in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, we find the Truth that beyond all expectation has been freely imparted to humanity by the eternal Father. That Truth is not just a statement of fact, or a logical conclusion based on empirical evidence, but the living person of the Incarnate Son of God.

The encounter with Christ is always an encounter with an inexhaustible mystery. In receiving this mystery, the human mind is expanded beyond its natural cognitive limits, and, as a humble recipient in faith, embraces a mystery greater than itself. The surprising discovery that we have a unique significance for God means that human history in its entirety and the personal history of each individual have a special place within God’s loving plan. Hence, the individual Christian, united with God through Christ, is invited to live out his own life in a personal openness towards the various and numerous advances of God that accompany him, that have preceded his conscious reception of them and that will continue to the final moment of his life, and even beyond, to eternity.

While we know that outside the realm of faith, religious and philosophical thinkers have raised profound questions about the meaning of life, the mystery of the divine Truth has not disclosed itself only in response to humanity’s anguished search for a salvific truth. The divine Truth manifested itself in Revelation basically un-requested and it transformed the entire human spiritual, intellectual and moral horizon first of the Jews and then—with the Incarnation of the fullness of grace and truth in Christ (John 1,16-17)—of the Christians.

As Pope John Paul II stated just ten years ago in his encyclical Fides et Ratio: “Underlying all the Church’s thinking is the awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself. The knowledge which the Church offers to man has its origin not in any speculation of her own, however sublime, but in the word of God which she has received in faith” (§7).” While the preaching of the Gospel is an essential missionary task of the Church, it is always preceded by the working of the Holy Spirit himself, who first transforms human hearts and minds by making them open to the word of the Gospel.

The grace of divine revelation

Not without good reason, therefore, has the Church consistently rejected all forms of what has come to be known as the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. The transfer from the natural to the supernatural plane, from a mere philosophical curiosity to a personal encounter with the living God, or from the ascetic struggle for moral perfection to a spiritual fecundity in action, does not come about through human efforts. The first contact with the living God, which generates a spiritual hunger provoking the reaching out towards him in some form of prayer and openness to his salvific influence, is already the fruit of the mysterious workings of grace in the human soul. It is not possible to yearn for God without being already attracted by him. As Jesus said: “No one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6,44).

The recognition that we have been freely graced by God—thereby commencing the pilgrimage of faith that leads to the heart of Father—alters our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us. Human reflection on the cosmos, on the fact of the existence of reality, on anthropology with all its questions about human finality, happiness, abut the sense of life, love, social relations, suffering and death, as well as about the ultimate source of all reality—all this reflection, perfectly justified in itself and in its employment of various tools of cognition, be they philosophical, mathematical, or empirical, is immediately shifted and reassessed in the light of the direct divine intervention into the affairs of humanity. When the Son of God became incarnate, it was the eternal Word, the Logos, who became flesh (cf. John 1,14). God’s gift to humanity, apart from the first gift of creation, is not an ephemeral religious sentiment or an extraordinary but passing flash. It has the form of a Truth, a Word, a Wisdom that appeals to the human mind and can be absorbed by it—as the form of a divine Love, a Charity that transforms the personal inner springs of action. A content has been given that can be received, reflected upon, in some respect grasped, though it is never totally comprehended.

Thus, the Logos can then have an impact on human thought and judgment. The revealed content can be compared with natural human questionings and conclusions and with the achievements of human culture. But it must also be said that the Christian not only “holds” the truths based on the revealed Logos, but he is also in some sense “held” by the incarnate Logos. The revealed Logos who assumed human nature discloses the profound meaning of human life that transcends anything that could have been discovered on the basis of human aspirations, inquiries, or preferences alone.

The necessity of divine revelation

Great Christian thinkers accept, unabashedly, the fact that a divinely based teaching has been provided to us. Aquinas begins his great Summa Theologiae with the direct statement that we need a sacred teaching, based on Revelation, that goes beyond whatever philosophical reasoning may attain (cf. I pars, q.1, art. 1). This is explained by reference to the divinely ordained human finality. The ultimate end of human existence is in God, and since with its natural powers “no ear has heard, no eye has seen” (Isaiah 64,4) what God has prepared for us, the human mind needs to receive a teaching, coming directly from God that guides human choices and acts.

This statement cannot be demonstrated. It is not a conclusion of metaphysical reasoning on the inherent structures of the spiritual faculties or of a phenomenological analysis of human hungers, desires and aspirations, or even more of a study of the social need for religious expressions. That human life is directed towards God is accepted in faith as a basic premise—known because revealed to us even before we thought to raise the question. Before we began to study the Word of God we have received the grace of faith that opened our minds towards the self-revealing First Truth.

A purely rational reflection on God, the Absolute, the Prime Mover and the Ultimate End (in a “natural theology” or a “theodicy”) is of course possible, but, as Aquinas noted, the correct conclusions of such an intellectual endeavor can be known only by a few, after an arduous and lengthy effort and with the admixture of error. The acceptance in faith of the truths disclosed by God, the looking into them and the perception of their inherent coherence allows for a speedier, more apt and certain adherence to truths that are necessary for the ordering of one’s life in view of salvation.

Since the sacred teaching with its salvific finality has a divine origin, being ultimately the transmission of truths about God that God himself has revealed (cf. Summa Theol. 1a, q. 1, art. 7), it elicits an echo in the soul of the believer on a level that is deeper than purely logical conclusions would permit, or that the high points, or even prejudices and limitations, of culture would indicate. That echo may not immediately be recognized. An openness to it will need to be awakened and cultivated in the person who is not attuned to it. Still, we can expect this latent spiritual sense to appear in some moments of life, in a professional academic or in the average man in the street with a limited cultural horizon, or even in a person steeped in an atheist or totally non-Christian cultural milieu. Salvific truths find an appropriate “humus” (or soil) in souls that have been touched by a preceding gift of grace, bestowed according to God’s good pleasure, even in the presence of obstacles presented by cultural presuppositions, emotional resistance, social habits, or our human sinful actions.

The task of catechesis and preaching

The prime task of the catechetical and theological teaching within the Church lies therefore in the transmission of doctrines that have the living Truth of Christ as their foundation. The revealed mystery that is the Logos is addressed to human intelligence. It can be seen to present a coherent synthesis for human thought that establishes a worldview necessary for sensible and balanced living. A person, who not only believes himself to be encompassed by the providential care of God, but also draws conclusions from that belief, is rooted firmly in a structure of meaning that can resist the pernicious influence of the culture of nihilistic relativism, of living etsi Deus non daretur.

The transmission of the sacred teaching through catechesis and preaching cannot remain only at the level of kerygma or on the level of religious sentiment and culture. The Truth of the divine Logos needs to be presented as a comprehensive and coherent synthesis that appeals to the mind, and, with clarity, nurtures and maintains true convictions. It is only when the spiritual and affective faculties are permanently habituated by adherence to the truth and goodness, sustained by intellectual and moral virtues, that the persistent cleaving to an authentic Christian life is possible. When this is lacking, people easily withdraw from the truth and readily embrace the changing opinions of the majority. Those who hold only opinions and not personal convictions do not want to appear as representing an unfashionable minority opinion.

In the previous century, when the great ideologies deeply marked European history, did not people have doubts as to the truth of the Nazi or Marxist-Leninist ideology? Despite their doubts about these state-imposed ideologies, they nonetheless followed, accepted and even embraced them, because they preferred to remain at the level of opinion, and social and political expediency. Only those whose minds and hearts were habituated by intellectual and moral virtues had the courage to stick to their convictions against the sway of the crowd, sometimes even at the expense of martyrdom.

When people are not formed to know, to articulate, to relate to contrary visions, and to defend the truths that they profess, then they may more easily switch from one ideology or opinion to another, without really adhering to any of them, and these shallow ideologies or passing opinions will compose the intellectual horizon of their minds.

The interplay of faith and reason

As we have seen, sacred teaching based on Revelation can be articulated in a series of articles of faith and moral teachings that then contribute to the formation of personal convictions through the intellectual and moral virtues. The truths known from Revelation are subject to human questioning and a correspondence between them and the results of reason can be recognized.

There is also room for addressing the difficult questions where reason and faith seem to be in contradiction. The history of Christian thought has shown that in many cases where faith and reason seemed to be in conflict, a correspondence between them could be found when faith was purified from secondary elements, and when reason was not allowed to encroach on fields beyond its competence.

Still, even as faith and reason courteously meet, clarifying their positions and perceiving the limits of their appropriate fields, the acceptance of the revealed mystery in faith by reason will still be experienced by some people as a casting out into the unknown that may initially be quite difficult. Reason by nature aspires for clarity as well as a mastery over the known truths. Faith places the reason in a more humble position that is disposed to reach out to what is beyond reason’s limits. This is not unreasonable for reason, because reason can acknowledge its limits and the possibility of its being drawn out into a life-giving mystery. For reason, however, this is always something of an adventure into an unknown realm where it may feel insecure.

As it reaches out towards the revealed truths, faith places reason in a relative position. But this is not a denigration of reason. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio: “The mystery of the Incarnation will always remain the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself. The challenge of this mystery pushes philosophy to its limits, as reason is summoned to make its own a logic which brings down the walls within which it risks being confined”(§80). Faith, as it “liberates reason from presumption, the typical temptation of the philosopher”(§76), “stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true” (§56). Something more, beyond philosophy, is shown to reason, and so the philosophizing mind needs to accept its subordinate position.

In this connection, John Henry Newman in a university sermon preached in Oxford while he was still an Anglican observed: “Human philosophy was beaten from its usurped province, but not by any counter-philosophy; and unlearned Faith, establishing itself by its own inherent strength, ruled the Reason as far as its own interests were concerned, and from that time has employed it in the Church, first as a captive, then as a servant; not as an equal, and in nowise (far from it) as a patron.”[1] Paradoxically, the encounter with faith is always beneficial to reason “which grows more penetrating and assured because of the support it receives from faith” (Fides et Ratio, §106) even as it ceases to hold the highest pedestal.

In the light of a theological epistemology, John Paul II could therefore summon philosophers “to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest in their philosophizing” (Fides et Ratio, §56). The higher viewpoint that revealed truth offers allows for the discernment of the dignity and usefulness of reason as it also exposes the shyness into which reason has ultimately fallen, once it has placed itself in opposition to faith. The Enlightenment’s elevation of reason, combined with a denigration of faith as being mere superstition, has not in fact promoted reason. Paradoxically, reason has become skeptical, and now faith needs to invite reason to return back to its own natural self-confidence.

This is necessary not only for reason itself, and for the philosophy and culture based upon it, but also for the life of faith. “Faith has no fear of reason” (Fides et Ratio, §43), but finding itself in a culture permeated by a “deep-seated distrust of reason” (ibid., §55), faith is tempted to also become irrational, stressing only “feeling and experience”, thereby running “the risk of no longer being a universal proposition” (ibid., §48). This is a profound contemporary danger for faith.

In a cultural climate dominated by skeptical and even nihilist rationality, faith has often become reduced to the level of sentimentality. While not attributing the ultimate word to reason and philosophy, faith, as it receives the revealed truths, needs the support of a robust intelligence for its own understanding of the content of Revelation and for an authentic and mature moral life. When faith is divorced from rationality or set against it, remaining only in the realm of fideistic personal sentiments or even communal religious experiences, it fails to cultivate true convictions and authentic decisions. Impressive large scale expressions of religious sentiment, while supplying a certain social reinforcement to faith, may at the same time be coupled with a total contradiction of that faith in practical life or the abandonment of faith once social support systems are eroded.

The truths of faith need to inhabit the mind with well explained and firmly rooted structures of thought. “It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating” (ibid., §48). Faith needs intellectual rigor as it is articulated by the mind. The training of the mind within philosophy will enable one to attain confidence in the reason’s natural capacity to know with certitude what is true, and not just passing opinions. As Pope John Paul noted in Fides et Ratio, core philosophical truths, like “the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness” as also “certain fundamental moral norms” form a “body of knowledge, which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity” (ibid., §4).

This heritage, known and accepted on the natural grounds of reason, allows for a deeper and convinced self-understanding, as well as an understanding of surrounding culture, enabling a critical dialogue with it. It is also useful for the comprehension of the philosophical roots of the terminology used in traditional theological discourse. But it must always be remembered that, while philosophy is extremely useful, it is not the main field of discourse and argument in the Church. The Christian needs to be able to articulate the truths of faith, within the mystery of faith, without expecting or even attempting to prove them on purely rational grounds.

In this connection, the role of apologetics is, minimally, to show that the position of faith is not absurd, but, more completely, to clear away difficulties that stand in the way of the comprehension of the truths of the faith. Sometimes these misunderstandings confound Christian believers themselves. At other times, there is the necessity to clear away confusion in the minds of non-believers. What must be avoided in apologetics is the attempt to present the truths of faith in the light of or even according to criteria that are external to faith. This may be motivated by a poorly understood “pastoral” disposition, but it sometimes involves a refashioning of faith so as to make it look relevant and attractive, by subordinating it to some intellectual criteria, political options, presuppositions and fads, in which it is forgotten that divinely revealed truths are always relevant, independently of whether the world, or some particularly vociferous or “politically correct” fragment of the world, or some cultural and intellectual current in its limited vision, is willing or unwilling to receive them. In Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Following Saint Paul, other writers of the early centuries, especially Saint Irenaeus and Tertullian, sound the alarm when confronted with a cultural perspective which sought to subordinate the truth of Revelation to the interpretation of the philosophers” (§37).

The attribution of supremacy to intellectual criteria and to this-worldly projects above faith destroys the filial relationship with the living God. The prime pastoral effort is to assist in the maintaining and nourishing of faith, without attempting to prove it according to some purely rational basis. The intellectual mission in the Church is to serve in the building of thought structures, but always within faith together with the formation of moral structures. The principles of growth in divinely based wisdom and in infused moral virtues need to be explained, but it must be remembered as Newman said: “There is no act on God’s part, no truth of religion, to which a captious Reason may not find objections; and in truth the evidence and matter of Revelation are not addressed to the mere unstable Reason of man, nor can hope for any certain or adequate reception with it. Divine Wisdom speaks, not to the world, but to her own children, or those who have been already under her teaching, and who, knowing her voice, understand her words, are suitable judges of them. These justify her.”[2]

The main effort in preaching and teaching in the Church is addressed not to atheists but to believers, especially when their life of faith may be undeveloped and even latent. The teaching mission of the Church and of all those who in some way participate in that teaching is to facilitate in the working out of a comprehensive and cohesive worldview, well understood, firmly rooted in the mind, illuminating various implications and ramifications that extend out into all aspects of thinking and into the entire ethos, with full respect towards the achievements of the natural reason and of contemporary culture, but always profoundly and primarily rooted within the revealed truths and opening out towards the never fully exhausted mystery of the living God. It is only when the mysterious truths of faith have been received as such, forming permanent structures in the mind and heart, that Christians may live consistently according to the Gospel, and then that Gospel may become a life giving leaven to civilization. I conclude with a final thought of Cardinal Newman: “Say they are few, such high Christians; and what follows? They are enough to carry on God’s noiseless work. The Apostles were such men.”[3]

[1] Sermon IV, 4, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University at Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), p. 58.

[2] Op. cit., Sermon IV, 1, p. 55.

[3] Op. cit., Sermon V, 35, p. 96.