Faith Walking with Reason – Foot Lamps for Life
At the outset of his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), Pope St. John Paul II characterized faith and reason as “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” God, he continued, places in our hearts the desire to know the truth, which is God Himself; it is by coming to know and love God that we can come to know the truth about ourselves, our world and the meaning of life.
Both faith and reason are needed to know the truth, the pope explained in his encyclical, expressing the fruits of a long Catholic intellectual tradition that includes saints like Augustine, Aquinas and Bonaventure. By faith, we accept what God has revealed to us; by reason, we use our intellects to reflect abstractly on our world and our experiences. Faith and reason, therefore, are essential allies in our search for truth.
Just as “grace builds on nature,” as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, faith builds upon reason and elevates it. As Pope Benedict XVI said in a 2007 Angelus talk, “Faith presupposes reason and perfects it, and reason, enlightened by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and spiritual realities.”
That harmony of faith and reason is the basis for the Catholic liberal arts tradition.
Cultivating the mind
Cardinal John Henry Newman, the great 19th-century convert from Anglicanism, was an advocate of liberal education, particularly within the framework of the Catholic faith. He envisioned a “real cultivation of mind,” a “perfection or virtue of the intellect” that is “impregnated by reason.”
At his opening lecture to students of a Catholic university he had helped found, Newman extolled the benefit of such an education. “[T]he man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgement, and sharpened his mental vision will not at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist” but will do so “with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger,” said Newman.
This education in faith and reason does something more than make us better at our professions or duties: It helps us become more virtuous. The human virtues “are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1804). Moral conscience, which directs us toward virtue and away from evil, is a “judgment of reason” (#1778).
And “the goal of a virtuous life,” says the Catechism in quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa, “is to become like God.”
Made for greatness
At Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, the goal of this preparation for life is embodied in a single catchword: “greatness.” It keys off a saying popularly attributed to Pope Benedict XVI: The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.
“The foundation of Catholic education is Jesus Christ, who is the highest possible expression of greatness,” said Benedictine president Stephen Minnis, a member of the Kansas City Chapter of Legatus. As a result of this education in faith and reason — invented by the Benedictines, whose monastic schools of the early Middle Ages were precursors to the modern university — “Western Civilization flowered in unprecedented truth, beauty and goodness,” he noted.
The college reminds students of this call to greatness through its academic programs, sacred art, student life, and career preparation. Its Gregorian Fellows Leadership Program, for example, aims to promote Catholic identity in public life “by forming a new generation of Catholic leaders who unite faith and reason in their work,” according to the college website.
At John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, California, formation in faith and reason provides a pathway toward transforming the world. “We have an intentional focus on preparing students to impact culture for Christ after graduation,” said president Derry Connolly, a member of the San Diego Chapter of Legatus. That focus requires two tightly integrated components: leading students to encounter Christ, and facilitating this encounter through the intellectual and human environment within the campus culture.
Students also “must become highly skilled in their professional discipline” if they are to make a positive impact on the broader culture, he added.
Preparing for the ‘real world’
William Fahey, president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, said a Catholic education too often is seen as a luxury.
“The Catholic has an obligation – a joyful and satisfying obligation – to enrich and care for his or her soul and mind,” said Fahey, a member of the Northeast Chapter of Legatus. While students need to discern a vocation and perhaps pursue specialized studies, the typical education provided to undergraduates at most colleges and universities “does not present the human person as a Catholic should understand him.”
Young Catholics face many grave and serious questions that require both faith and reason in order to discover the truth, Fahey indicated. On many secular and even Christian campuses professors “no longer believe in truth or rational discourse,” which only serves to perpetuate doubt and confusion.
A Catholic education, on the other hand, “is one in which the teachers proudly declare that men and women are rational creatures, but as with any characteristic, the capacity to reason must be formed, trained, exercised, and challenged with a sound community,” said Fahey. “You cannot learn either the faith or the truth from those who have neither faith nor interest in abiding truth.
“I can’t think of any preparation for the ‘real world’ as rich as a Catholic liberal arts education.”
Deacon Larry Oney, founder of Hope and Purpose Ministries and a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, likewise affirms the value of a Catholic education.
“I think that education is one of the powerful arrows in the quiver of the Church because education is a way to shape the minds of the young people to rationally develop an appropriate worldview that is disposed toward faith,” said Deacon Oney, a member of the New Orleans Chapter of Legatus. “It is only as we ponder the things of God that we develop a true and lasting relationship with God and feel a deep connection with our faith.”
When people encounter the living God, the experience can engage the emotions, but that emotional “high” is not sustainable, he said. That’s where education in thinking and reasoning come in.
“Reason helps the faithful continue after the emotional high wears off—they can begin to study the Scriptures, participate more fully in Mass, and partake of the sacraments on a new level,” he said. “Their personal commitment to their faith is stronger having both their emotions and their reason engaged…. It is our reason that allows us to remember how our hearts were engaged and follow that with perseverance in the faith.”
Catholic education, he concluded, “gives a person the tools they need develop their power of reason to continue their faith journey throughout life.”
GERALD KORSON a career Catholic editor and journalist, writes from Indiana