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 | By Dr. Tom Dorsel

Reasoning our faith: Encyclicals for Dummies

America was, in part, built on freedom of religion. While freedom of religion is generally considered to be between religions — that is, one is entitled to practice any religion they choose — there is also the issue of freedom within religion, as expressed by St. John Paul II in his 1998 encyclical letter on faith and reason entitled Fides et Ratio.

Letter? Well, that is putting it mildly: 80 pages worth. And while I am no more likely than you to curl up with my favorite encyclical, I did read the whole letter, two pages at a time for 40 days, because it addressed my scientific and philosophical nature in trying to understand my faith.

I would now like to save you from the tedium of reading an entire encyclical by summarizing the key points of Fides et Ratio, as I understand them.

In other words, let me offer myself up as Exhibit A in a potential new series entitled Encyclicals for Dummies. Here are some key takeaways.

All cultures have a piece of truth

We are inquisitive creatures when it comes to trying to understand ourselves and our existence. All cultures, East and West, have made valuable contributions to this process, and all have a piece of the truth.

Our job is to find a common core of philosophical insight, certain universal principles that serve as a point of agreement for all philosophical schools of thought.

Interestingly, man uses his capacity to reason to try to understand beyond reason, where faith must take over because reason can go no further.

Knowledge must allow for faith

The eternal God entered time through Jesus Christ, who brought divine revelation with him. The sequence of understanding what we can’t humanly know is as follows: God reveals, reason takes us as far as it humanly can in understanding what God reveals and then faith takes over.

It is wise to seek knowledge, but it must allow for faith — the faith that “only God knows all things.” Reasoning and the pursuit of knowledge can’t understand everything.

It is impossible to verify every truth

Man should seek truth through philosophy and science. He should also be open to truths that transcend philosophy and science. The actual truth, when found, is universal for all people.

Seeking truth defines human beings. Furthermore, humanity would not begin the search if we knew it was futile. Like scientists, we all expect to find an answer.

Consider that we cannot verify for ourselves every truth (fact) regarding events and things around the world. Not many have personally seen Mount Everest, yet we believe it exists because others have told us so. Generally, we try to verify as much as we can personally, but in large part, we have to believe and trust in others.

The things Jesus told us may never be fully understood in our human condition, but that does not mean we shouldn’t believe them any more than we shouldn’t believe Mount Everest exists because we haven’t seen it.

Seeks understanding, suspend judgment

The desire to understand the transcendent spurs reason to go further and further. When reason faces the incomprehensible, it should be satisfied if it simply makes further progress. Reason does not have to accomplish resolution of the incomprehensible — which would be impossible, or it wouldn’t be incomprehensible. It merely has to seek further understanding, all the while suspending judgment as to what the final answers might be.

Truth is a generational task

St. Thomas Aquinas said that faith and reason are gifts from God. Hence, there can be no contradiction between them. It is simply the extended task over the course of history for each generation to continue to try to understand the relationship between faith and reason. No single generation should expect or demand immediate answers at any one time in history.

Aquinas sought the truth wherever it might be found — theology, philosophy, science. Curiously, it was theology that was open to freedom of exploration by science and philosophy; but science and philosophy, in return, rejected theology rather than working together to understand the incomprehensible. It would seem that the incomprehensible made scientists and some philosophers nervous — that is, they couldn’t tolerate uncertainty or suspension of judgment.

Philosophy leads to revealed truth

The Church has no philosophy of her own. Indeed, philosophy has to be on its own in seeking the truth. However, since the truth has been revealed in Jesus, an accurate philosophy must lead to that truth or that philosophy is in error. The Church’s job is to consider all philosophical positions in light of faith in what has been revealed, thereby trying to bring reason on board with faith.

This seems like a tough thing to take — the Church seems to be saying, “Go ahead and think about the transcendent, but you must come to the same conclusion as we, the Church, have.” Perhaps an analogy might help — if one knows the answer (the truth) to a riddle, and others (different philosophies) are guessing at the answer, then the bearer of the answer (the truth) is entitled to say certain guesses (philosophies) are accurate and others are inaccurate. 

More concretely, if a tree exists and scientists are theorizing about what goes into the tree’s existence, then they can theorize all they want. But, their theories can’t come to the conclusion that the tree doesn’t exist.

Multifaceted convergence on truth

The Church is in no way against philosophy or science. The truth has been revealed in Jesus — we just want to understand it more fully. And if philosophy and science can help in that regard, the Church welcomes it.

The ultimate goal is to become unified in our vision of the truth, with all sources of knowledge converging on the truth, rather than being segmented and working in isolation. No modern currents of thought have all the answers. There must be a merger of ideas all leading to the truth.

The search points beyond

Science never purports to prove anything or to find any truth, but only to conduct research that supports movement in the direction of whatever the truth (facts) might be regarding any topic. So, why then is it so difficult for science to accept the notion of a transcendent truth that is beyond science’s capability to prove? It seems like the ultimate task for science is to accumulate support for the Theory of God.

Science reminds us, and should remember itself, that the search for truth is never ending. It always points beyond the immediate object of study, always leading to more questions that give access to greater understanding of the ultimate mystery, the truth.

Thomas Dorsel, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of psychology and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He lives on Hilton Head Island with his wife Sue and is a parishioner at St. Francis by the Sea Church. Visit him at