Faith and Reason.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004


Reason Informed by Faith, and Faith Informed by Reason


It seems that everyone within and outside of the Roman Catholic Church knows that she teaches certain things with what she calls "infallible authority". We Catholics consider Sacred Scripture to be God's word to us, and we believe that Sacred Tradition faithfully preserves and develops reflection on what occurred in Christ in such a way that the Pope and the college of Bishops can make definitive and irrevocable definitions of doctrines that all Catholics accept as matters of faith.

What sometimes seems less clear is that the Roman Catholic Church also teaches with this same infallible authority that all of her own teachings must be able to be apprehended by a rational mind (even if not fully comprehended). In other words, the Church does not teach that truth is known through appeal to authority alone. Faith and reason overlap, with some aspects of faith going beyond reason. Yet no aspect of faith should contradict reason.

In the non-religious sphere, many truths are not rational deductions. Many things that are apprehended rationally are not fully comprehended. For example, beauty, love and freedom are experienced truths that go beyond reason. The number, "infinity" is apprehnded by the rational mind, but no mind can comprehend infinity.

When the Church teaches with infallible authority, these teachings may go beyond reason, but they should never contradict reason nor be inapprehensible. There is a difference between saying a truth is apprehended non-rationally, and saying a something irrational is true. In fact, the irrational cannot be true.

The teachings of the Church must be rationally consistent and interconnected such that there are no internal inconsistencies. This is highlighted in paragraph 90 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The paragraph reads as follows:

The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. "In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith."
Thus, one cannot simultaneously believe in a doctrine such as the doctrine of the Trinity, and simultaneously deny the divinity of Christ. The reason for this is the interconnectedness between the two doctrines. It is a contradiction (irrational) to believe one and not the other.

Furthermore, not only must her teachings be internally consistent, but they cannot contradict any truth whatsoever. If the rational mind really apprehends a truth - such as the fact that the earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the earth - any dogma contradicting this truth must be interpreted in light of this truth. Many times, science and reason inform our faith. Those who believed Galileo was wrong based on irrational appeals to a mistaken notion of revelation were simply wrong.

On the other hand, there are times when faith informs our reason. For example, we cannot simultaneously believe that Mary was immaculately conceived, and doubt that an unborn child has a soul at conception. The Church believes that it goes beyond the state's authority to state that a living human organism is not a person or does not have a soul.

According to Session III, Chapter IV, Canon 5 and 6 of the First Vatican Council:
Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.
God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the Church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason. Therefore we define that every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is totally false.
Canon 10 continues:
Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds.
The life-long intellectual challenge of a Roman Catholic is to avoid blind obedience to authority that denies the value of human reason on the one hand, and exaltation of the latest rational theory over tried and true dogma on the other. For a Catholic, reason supports faith and informs faith - and faith informs reason and even supports reason.

Part of this process is carefully examining our assumptions about what is true in secular sciences. However, part of this process is also carefully distinguishing what is really infallible teaching from what is not, and making sure that we accurately understand the intended meaning of a doctrinal pronouncement.

When we perceive a conflict between faith and reason, we are either mistaken in understanding the faith, or mistaken in our natural reasoning. Reason should support faith and faith should support reason.

There are those who are not believers who will ask how faith supports reason. The most fundamental assumption of the rationale mind is that the world perceived through reason is true - that the world itself is reasonable. This presupposes that the mind interpreting the world through reason is somehow apprehending the world as it actually exists.

In other words, the world is not chaotic and random nonsense. Reason is a function of the imagination. The condition for the possibility of using reason in the real world is that reason itself is a valid and true interpretation of the world apart from our imagination. If we approach reality with a belief that the world was created by One with a mind that reasons something like our own, even if infinitely more intelligent, then we are presupposing that all things make sense to this mind.

On the other hand, if we presuppose a universe that simply exists apart form any sort of creation by a rational intelligence, there is no reason to accept reason itself as a valid interpretation of reality!

When anyone sees a contradiction in Catholic teaching, or a contradiction between Church teaching and rational judgments in the sciences there are a few possibilities other than assuming the Church is wrong:

1) We have misinterpreted a teaching of the Church, and our reason is actually correctly in agreement with what the Church actually teaches.
2) We have made a logical or rational error of deduction, and the Church teaching properly understood will guide us back to a reasonable explanation.
3) We have misinterpreted the world perceived through the senses, or made a false rationale assumption leading to an erroneous conclusion of reason that contradicts the Church.
4) We have mistaken a widespread mistaken belief of Catholics for infallible teaching when the matter in question has not been declared or defined infallibly.

There are probably other possibilities as well.

The bottom line of this short little essay is that all doctrine should be explainable in some sort of rational framework. Either, we should be able to appeal to sciences and other agreed upon principles, or in discussing an issue that goes beyond reason to another believer, we should be able to show how our point is interconnected and logically consistent with other matters of faith. There is not a single doctrine of the Church that should rest on blind appeal to authority alone!

Peace and Blessings!

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posted by Jcecil3 5:01 PM

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