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Faith and Reason, Aquinas the apostle of truth

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  • aquinas_all_the_way
    It is well known in Catholicism how faith and reason go together to explicate the truth of Revelation, given to us in the Person of Jesus Christ and foretold
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 10, 2009
      It is well known in Catholicism how faith and reason go together to explicate the truth of Revelation, given to us in the Person of Jesus Christ and foretold by the prophets.

      But how exactly does this happen?  If the subject of theology is God in himself and in relation to creatures, and the subject of philosophy is being insofar as it is being (ens inquantum ens), how do the two different orders of science and wisdom come together in synthesis?

      To answer the question of how philosophy and theology are related, let us turn to St. Thomas Aquinas and the famous saying  "cum enim gratia non tollat naturam sed perficiat", that is "since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should subserve the faith as the natural inclination of the will complies with charity" (oportet quod naturalis ratio subserviat fidei; sicut et naturalis inclinatio voluntatis obsequitur caritati)(Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 8 ad 2).

      Pope John Paul II quotes this text in the benchmark encyclical Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio).  Aquinas made much of the supernatural character of faith, yet for all that "the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an "exercise of thought"; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice" (FR 43).

      The pope continues:

      "This is why the Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology. In this connection, I would recall what my Predecessor, the Servant of God Paul VI, wrote on the occasion of the seventh centenary of the death of the Angelic Doctor: "Without doubt, Thomas possessed supremely the courage of the truth, a freedom of spirit in confronting new problems, the intellectual honesty of those who allow Christianity to be contaminated neither by secular philosophy nor by a prejudiced rejection of it. He passed therefore into the history of Christian thought as a pioneer of the new path of philosophy and universal culture. The key point and almost the kernel of the solution which, with all the brilliance of his prophetic intuition, he gave to the new encounter of faith and reason was a reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order" (Apostolic Letter Lumen Ecclesiae (20 November 1974), 8: AAS 66 (1974), 680.).

      "Another of the great insights of Saint Thomas was his perception of the role of the Holy Spirit in the process by which knowledge matures into wisdom. From the first pages of his Summa Theologiae ( I, 1, 6: "Praeterea, haec doctrina per studium acquiritur. Sapientia autem per infusionem habetur, unde inter septem dona Spiritus Sancti connumeratur"), Aquinas was keen to show the primacy of the wisdom which is the gift of the Holy Spirit and which opens the way to a knowledge of divine realities. His theology allows us to understand what is distinctive of wisdom in its close link with faith and knowledge of the divine. This wisdom comes to know by way of connaturality; it presupposes faith and eventually formulates its right judgement on the basis of the truth of faith itself: "The wisdom named among the gifts of the Holy Spirit is distinct from the wisdom found among the intellectual virtues. This second wisdom is acquired through study, but the first 'comes from on high', as Saint James puts it. This also distinguishes it from faith, since faith accepts divine truth as it is. But the gift of wisdom enables judgement according to divine truth" (STh II-II, 45, 1 ad 2; cf. also II-II, 45, 2).

      "Yet the priority accorded this wisdom does not lead the Angelic Doctor to overlook the presence of two other complementary forms of wisdom—philosophical wisdom, which is based upon the capacity of the intellect, for all its natural limitations, to explore reality, and theological wisdom, which is based upon Revelation and which explores the contents of faith, entering the very mystery of God.

      "Profoundly convinced that "whatever its source, truth is of the Holy Spirit" (omne verum a quocumque dicatur a Spiritu Sancto est) (STh I-II, 109, 1 ad 1, which echoes the well known phrase of the Ambrosiaster, In Prima Cor 12:3: PL 17, 258) Saint Thomas was impartial in his love of truth. He sought truth wherever it might be found and gave consummate demonstration of its universality. In him, the Church's Magisterium has seen and recognized the passion for truth; and, precisely because it stays consistently within the horizon of universal, objective and transcendent truth, his thought scales "heights unthinkable to human intelligence" (Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Æterni Patris (4 August 1879): ASS 11 (1878-79), 109). Rightly, then, he may be called an "apostle of the truth" (Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Lumen Ecclesiae (20 November 1974), 8: AAS 66 (1974), 683). Looking unreservedly to truth, the realism of Thomas could recognize the objectivity of truth and produce not merely a philosophy of "what seems to be" but a philosophy of "what is" (FR 43-44).


      St. Thomas freely used philosophy in his theology without, for all that, compromising the integrity of philosphical principles and methodology.  What he was concerned with however was that philosophy should not contradict theology or subsume it.  Philosophy is meant to serve theology, not overrule it.  The gift of wisdom from the Holy Spirit gives both the theologian and the philosopher the light to right judgment above and beyond natural reasoning.

      Perhaps this brief analysis of faith and reason gives you some idea of how they work together for the common cause of truth, be it revealed or not.


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