Theological commentary

Thoughts on Faith and Reason

By Anthony English

Pope John Paul II has recently released a new encyclical letter on faith and reason, entitled Fides et Ratio. The Pope has chosen to call his encyclical "Faith and reason" - not "Faith or reason" - because the two, in fact, work together. There is a profound unity and harmony between the two, "like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."1 This welcome encyclical letter serves as a great encouragement to those devoted to the dissemination of Thomism. It will be studied in more detail in future issues of Universitas. For the present I would like to offer a few personal reflections on reason and faith and their relation to the human intellect. I shall then attempt to show that the false dichotomy that is commonly posed between faith and reason leads to an undermining of both of them.

Faith and reason are distinct but they are not contradictory. Both are about attaining truth which is the perfection of the intellect. Reason proceeds by the light of principles which are known naturally. Faith adheres to truths believed on the authority of God. These latter are not known by natural reason but this does not mean that the intellect is compromised by faith. Faith adheres to supernatural truths which have been divinely revealed by Him who is truth itself and it is eminently reasonable to believe Him. An understanding of the complementarity of faith and reason will help to avoid the extremes of rationalism on the one hand and fideism on the other.

Rationalism and Fideism

Rationalism rejects the exigencies of faith, for it refuses to acknowledge that there is any truth beyond what the human intellect can discover for itself. Rationalism delights in the intellectís capacity to know truths so much that it denies even the possibility that there should be any truths above the human intellect. Fideism, seeing rationalismís exaggeration of the human intellect and recognising the widespread tendency of fallen man to fall into error, imposes a mistrust of the human intellect. Fideism goes so far as to deny that the human intellect can know any truth whatsoever without Divine revelation.

These are the two extremes regarding the intellectís relation to natural and supernatural truths. It is in the teaching of St. Thomas that we see the refutation of these errors, preserving both the certitude of truths known by reason alone and the certitude of faith. Faith and reason are not at all contradictory: they are complementary.

Both faith and reason attain truth Ė reason grasps natural truths and supernatural faith knows supernatural truths. Reason sees, faith believes, but what is seen or believed is the true. The intellect is ordered towards truth. No one wants to be deceived. That is why we reason about things: to get to the truth. Reasoning is not an end in itself: it is the means. We reason for the sake of arriving at true conclusions, conclusions which are contained virtually in the principles.

If reasoning is ordered towards truth it is because that is the perfection of the intellect - understanding what is true. Truth is conformity between mind and reality. It is conformity of our mind to reality for the truth we find, and conformity of that part of reality which we produce or enact to our mind for practical truth. Conformity of the whole of reality to the divine mind as its measure is the ultimate truth of things. Man first comes to be, but his being is naturally followed by knowledge and love of the cause of his knowledge. He longs to understand that reality in which he finds himself. He wants to know the truth about things, about the world, himself, what he is made for, the very meaning of life and love and suffering and happiness. Some truths, however, transcend the intellectís natural capacity. There are truths which we know for ourselves and there are other truths which are above our nature - supernatural truths. These latter are in the realm of faith. Those truths which God reveals are the matter of faith. The form of faith is the reason for believing: God revealing. Faith, like reasoning, is about bringing the intellect to its perfection - truth understood. But whereas natural truths proceed under the light of human reason and attain things which are naturally knowable, supernatural truths proceed under the superior light of faith. It is called light because it illuminates certain truths. But faith involves a certain obscurity, not because of lack of light but because of excess of it. Things which are in themselves more certain may appear to us less so on account of the weakness of our intellect "which is dazzled by the clearest objects of nature; as the owl is dazzled by the light of the sun."2 The fact that the truths are not seen by us but are seen by God and believed by us means we are reliant on Another to know that they are true.

Since truth is the intellectís perfection and both faith and reason attain truth, both are unto the good of the intellect. There is no contradiction between faith and reason. On the contrary, there is a supreme harmony and profound unity between them. As Pope John Paul says in Fides et Ratio, citing the First Vatican Council,

Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth.3

The faith of which the Pope is speaking is supernatural faith, faith in God as Revealer. He is not speaking of human faith here since faith in man does not always lead to the truth. As Aristotle prudently observed: "Where you have a man, there you have a potential liar." Supernatural faith however, cannot but lead to the truth since such faith is believing what has been revealed by God who is Truth, One who, as the catechism says, "can neither deceive nor be deceived."

To modern philosophy and, it must be said, in some theological circles, it seems that the claims of faith are considered to be contrary to reason. Miracles are explained away by natural phenomena. If there is any apparent contradiction between faith and reason, or between faith and science, or between faith and history, it is the claim of faith that is guilty until proven innocent. To some, faith seems to imply an intellectual weakness, a compromise which leads the believer to have a clouded judgment. Only reason independent of faith is thought to be truly rigorous, intellectually sincere and independent. At best, faith can be held merely as a private devotion and should bear no mark on the workings of the human mind. Faith is seen as an emotional crutch.

Two movers of intellect

Faith however, is not unreasonable, nor does it distort the intellect. The human intellect is a power, a can understand. What is it that will move it from can understand to does understand? Clearly it cannot move itself, since potency does not actualise itself. There are only two movers of intellect: seen evidence and will. Evidence is such as when I see that something is so, that it must be so, that it cannot but be so. Once I understand the terms "four times four" and the term "sixteen" I canít help but put a resounding "is equal to" between the two to identify them. I see that four fours are sixteen and nothing will convince me otherwise. I will never let go of that truth once I see it. This is what is meant by seen evidence.

The other mover of intellect is the will. I can choose to believe something which I donít clearly see for myself. There might be very good grounds for believing it (as in supernatural faith) or they may be pretty flimsy, such as when I believe what is in fact a lie. If the motive for believing is God revealing then faith is entirely reasonable in that reason sees that it must necessarily be true. Scripture speaks of it as the "obedience of faith." Obedience, because it requires a submission of the will to the Revealer.

Does such submission compromise the intellect? And even given that faith be true, why should we need it? Why even seek to adhere to truths which transcend the intellectís natural, God-given capacity for truth?

In the very first article of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas asks whether besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required. He explains that it was necessary for manís salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason. He shows that means must be proportioned to their end, and that if manís end is supernatural, then the means by which he knows and reaches that end must also be supernatural. We need sacred theology:

Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Wherefore as manís whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth, therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.4

Given that God has ordained man to reach a supernatural end, a supernatural revelation is necessary for man to reach that ultimate end, namely his salvation. Now if such a revelation is necessary then so is the knowledge of it. That knowledge cannot come by means of any natural power since the end is supernatural and, as was said, the means of knowing it must also be supernatural. So faith is necessary for salvation.

In an act of assent there are two motives: there is the motive to do the act, which is something willed; and there is the specification of the assent. The motive for this specification may be either evidence or the will. In the act of faith the intellect is specified by the will. The believer makes his act of faith because he wills to do so. His motive for assent to a truth is not from reason. But neither is it against reason. It is above reason, and it is not unreasonable to believe truths we do not and cannot see for ourselves, provided we have good reason for believing they are true. In fact, as the Angelic Doctor shows, it is necessary for salvation. To reject that faith would be to reject reason since there is good reason to believe the omniscient God.

Light and obscurity

All truth has its foundation in God. There can be no opposition at all between the truths known by human reason and the truths known by faith. Philosophy proceeds from principles which are clearly understood by the light of reason. Sacred theologyís principles are not understood naturally but believed by the supernatural virtue of faith. For this reason we can speak of the obscurity of faith. For all that, faith is a certain light, that is, a light that is founded on certitude. What is obscure to man is perfectly luminous to God, and everything true, whether it be naturally knowable or known only through faith, follows from God, who is Truth.

As the supernatural transcends the natural, so faith transcends reason. Nevertheless, both faith and reason attain truth. Human reason can conclude that there is a God and that He is the supreme truth. Truth known by man - whether it be a natural truth or a supernatural one - is about the mindís conformity with reality. Since reality is one and truth is about the mindís agreement with that reality, there cannot be any contradiction between truths. Since there is no contradiction in God it is impossible that there be one truth which contradicts another truth.

Faith and reason cannot be divorced. When reason rejects faith it becomes ultimately unreasonable since it refuses even the possibility that a God who - as reason shows - is infinite truth, should reveal to us a truth beyond our natural grasp. Similarly, faith which denies the intellectís natural capacity for understanding truth becomes groundless. Such "faith" leads merely to personal preference. Indeed, it destroys the very possibility of belief in anything or anyone.

To hold to the principle that grace perfects nature is to affirm that both faith and human reason are intrinsically valid. Neither can be rejected without contradicting the good of the intellect created by God and ordered towards truth. Faith and reason complement each other, each leading by different paths to God, the Truth who alone can fully perfect our intellect.

Thanks are due to the teaching staff of the Centre for review of the manuscript of this article.


1. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, introduction.

2. Aristotle, Metaphysics ii, lect. I.

3. Ibid, 53; First Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius, IV: DS 3017.

4. Ia, q. 1, a. 1.

Anthony English is a student of the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia, and regular speaker to other groups.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 2.
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