Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered a great lecture at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington earlier this week for the Faith and Reason Institute. The lecture marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul the Great’s Fides et Ratio encyclical letter.
Permanent truths about good and evil, man and his behavior and meaning, do exist. Faith and reason are the means to find and know those truths. Each needs the other in its search. John Paul stresses this in the encyclical’s opening words: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
In a sense, Fides et Ratio, like nearly everything else written by Karol Wojtyla, is simply a working out of the genius in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis,“Redeemer of Man.” The dignity and destiny of every human person as the child of a loving God were central themes of the John Paul II pontificate. I want to talk today about why Fides et Ratio is so important to those themes.
I’ll do that in three parts. I’ll talk first about the current state of the Church and her witness. Then I’ll turn to the realities of our culture. And finally I want to ask whether the Christian revelation is really true; whether it has anything useful to say to the modern heart; whether the Gospel message of hope and joy is anything more than a sentimental myth. Sooner or later, all of us as believers struggle with doubt. We need to decide whether our faith is reasonable; whether we’ve given ourselves to a beautiful but naïve illusion, or not. …
a few words about Christian hope, and whether the Catholic faith can be “reasonable” for women and men in the current age.
About 25 years ago, the British scholar Michael Burleigh wrote a book called Death and Deliverance. I want you to read it. I said a moment ago that the Jewish Holocaust was a tragedy without parallel, and that’s true. But it did have a precedent; a kind of test run. Starting in the late 1930s, the Third Reich carried out a forced euthanasia program that murdered roughly 300,000 persons with mental and physical disabilities. Many of the victims were children, ages 6-15. The excuses given were legion: saving patients from their suffering; cleansing the Aryan gene pool; reducing the financial burden of unproductive citizens on the life of the community. Many patients were killed by injection. Some were starved. Others were gassed as groups in holding rooms or mobile “treatment” vans. German films and propaganda promoted euthanasia as a gift of mercy. Many of the institutions that housed the targeted patients were run by Protestant and Catholic organizations or religious orders. Most buckled under government pressure. Only a very few religious leaders – men like Munster’s Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen – spoke out publicly to condemn the program.
Blaming these murders on National Socialist race theory would be easy. And it would be accurate – but only part of the story. In reality, the German medical establishment began shifting to a utility-based morality as early as the 1890s. Doctors, not the Third Reich, first pressed for euthanasia as national policy. What occurred among medical experts, in the words of one German psychiatrist, was “a change in the concept of humanity,” with its perfectly logical consequences. Sentimental words about human dignity, unmoored from some authority or purpose higher than ourselves, were just that – words.
I mention Burleigh’s book because several of my friends have children with disabilities. Watching them parent is a lesson in what the author of the Song of Songs meant when he wrote, “love is strong as death.” My educator friend, the wife and mother I spoke about earlier, has a son with Down syndrome. She also has three grandchildren with disabilities ranging from the moderate to the severe.
Her son has an IQ of 43. His syndrome makes it hard for him to speak. Sometimes he needs to repeat a sentence three or four times to be understood, even by his family. He’s more prone to illness. Simple griefs like getting dumped by a girlfriend lead to inexpressible feelings because he doesn’t have the words to articulate his hurt. He’s likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease at some point in his life. Some persons with Down syndrome face it as early as their 30s. So my friend and her husband live with the knowledge that the son they love may one day be unable to recognize them.
And yet, he has a job. He has friends. He’s a distance runner. He’s a Special Olympian, an opinionated savant of restaurant fare, a master of the mysteries of the rosary, and a sports fanatic. His life is filled with good things, not sadness. He’s a daily education in the virtue of patience for his parents, and in what it means to be human for his siblings. And among his greatest blessings is this: He will never be alone. He will always be loved. None of his family’s behavior is rational in a worldly sense. Not one of my friends who has a child with disabilities is “rational.” All of them are unreasonable; all of them are irrational – unless, like Augustine, we believein order to understand.
The genius of Fides et Ratio, the beauty and the glory of the text, is its defense of the capacity of human reason to know the truth; a truth rooted in the deep harmony of creation. The world has a logic and meaning breathed into it by its Author, who is Love himself. And reason lit by faith can see that, and find the path to him.
There’s a plaque on the wall of my educator friend’s kitchen, and it overlooks every meal the family shares. Most of the time, nobody notices. Life is a busy and complex enterprise. But when they do notice, it reads, “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” It’s the final line in the greatest of all poems, Dante’s Divine Comedy:
… my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.
Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,
By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
There are many different types of logic, and depending on the sort of logic a people embrace a whole range of choices become either rational or irrational, prudent or imprudent, foolish or wise.