The Cultural Dimensions and Implications of the Encyclical Fides et ratio


The Catholic University of America

September 12, 2000



His Excellency Mons. Angelo Scola

Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University

President of the Pope John Paul II Center for Studies of Marriage and Family


I. The ineluctable anthropological question.

1.) Desire and nostalgia.

"I am absorbed by a question to which I do not know the answer...It is impossible to say what kind of cry I will emit." This most human plea of the poet and director Pier Paolo Pasolini finds a glimmer of a response in George Steiner. In countering the reigning claim of a "scientific universalism," Steiner rightly notes: "If I could just throw away the rubbish of a religious vision of the world. If I could just abandon this "childish malady!" But "nothing in science or logical discourse can resolve or banish the highest of all the questions posed by Leibniz: ‘Why isn’t there nothing at all?’ The positivist order that imposes upon the adult mind the limitation of only asking of the world and of existence ‘How?’ and not ‘Why?’ is among the most obscurantist forms of censorship. For me there exists the absolutely undeniable pressure of a presence foreign to all explanation." "We need a witness--even if his judgment is harsh--for our little heap of dust. In our sickness, in the concreteness of psychological terror, before the cadaver of a son, we cry out."

Are not the question and presence (mystery) perhaps the distinctive features of this humanum that cuts across cultures to express our common center of gravity? It would be arduous, which is not to say impossible, to grasp the cultural implications of Fides et ratio apart from this anthropological source, something at once personal and social. In fact the encyclical takes its starting point straight from "these questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart" (Fides et ratio [henceforth FR] 1). They are the expression of "the desire and nostalgia" (FR 33) for the achievement that constitutes it. They describe its drama. As capax Dei, men and women do indeed bear deep within this urgent need for fullness an inexhaustible answer they are unable to speak. Because of this, their desire takes on the features of nostalgia: not only for "something" that has been lost but especially for "someone" to trust as a source of "a true and coherent knowledge" (FR 33) in which "there is to be found the satisfying answer to every question as yet unanswered" (FR 17).

It is our enigmatic nature to impart this dramatic way of proceeding to our existence, for we are beings that exist but lack within ourselves the foundation of our existence. Our existence is real but receives its being from another. Nothing is decided in advance, and every circumstance, every situation, and every relation involves our freedom. The vertigo that attends this state of affairs is further compounded when the person perceives the risk, far from abstract, of determining one’s own freedom in a sense contrary to one’s own good. Using a limit concept (con una espressione limite), we can say that man in his path of self-consciousness intuits not only his incapacity for fulfillment by his own powers alone, but nothing less than the intrinsic possibility of self-destruction.

On this anthropological humus, the encyclical introduces its own critical comparison between faith and reason, one that cuts across the inseparable binomial culture/cultures. In Fides et ratio you can easily find the constitutive dimensions with which the magisterium, above all on the basis of Gaudium et Spes, prized highly the original relation between faith, reason and culture. Nevertheless, we recognize that it would be extremely reductive simply to paraphrase what has already been said. [Such efforts would be counterproductive;] it would be like[, as we say in Italian,] trying to boost one’s catch by using a wider meshed fishing net. It will still be useful to inspect the titles quickly. These are provided to us in quick succession mainly in paragraphs 69-71, within the sixth chapter, [entitled] "the interaction between philosophy and theology."

2) Cultural dimensions.

Against those who, "prompted by a mistaken notion of cultural pluralism, simply deny the universal value of the church’s philosophical heritage" (FR 69) and to respond to those who, in order to emphasize the importance of the "link between faith and culture, claim that theology should look more to the wisdom contained in peoples’ traditions than to a philosophy of Greek and Eurocentric provenance" (FR 69), Fides et ratio maintains that a correct examination of the nexus culture/cultures discloses the necessary and intrinsic orientation of the latter to philosophy because in the end we cannot be limited "to what people think" but we need to establish "what the objective truth is." Philosophy therefore sees its role within theology enhanced rather than diminished.

We can identify six main dimensions that constitute the relation culture/cultures according to Fides et ratio, above all in paragraphs 63-71:

1.) First of all, when one speaks of culture, one must account for its plural dimensions: culture lives concretely in cultures tied to space, to time, and to the particularities of the peoples that created it. This particularity sometimes can appear to be an obstacle to communication.

2.) Nevertheless, "when they are deeply rooted in human experience (nell’umano), cultures show forth the characteristic openness of men and women to the universal and transcendent. Therefore they offer different paths to the truth, which assuredly serve us well in revealing values which can make our lives ever more human."

3.) Cultures are by nature dynamic, in a process of development although not necessarily in a linear fashion: "Inseparable as they are from people and their history, cultures share the dynamics which the human experience of life reveals. They change and advance because people meet in new ways and share with each other their ways of life" (FR 71).

4.) As a reality expressive of the humanum, [cultures] are structurally open to fulfillment: "All people are part of a culture, depend upon it and shape it. Human beings are both child and parent of the culture in which they are immersed. To everything they do, they bring something which sets them apart from the rest of creation: their unfailing openness to mystery and their boundless desire for knowledge. Lying deep in every culture, there appears this impulse toward a fulfillment. We may say, then, that culture itself has an intrinsic capacity to receive divine revelation" (FR 71).

5.) The proclamation of the Gospel in diverse cultures reveals, on the one hand, its unifying and universalizing potency. On the other hand, this nonetheless does not hinder its intended audience from maintaining its own cultural identity: "[c]ultures are not only not diminished by this encounter; rather, they are prompted to open themselves to the newness of the Gospel’s truth and to be stirred by this truth to develop in new ways" (FR 71).

6.) "This means that no one culture can ever become the criterion of judgment, much less the ultimate criterion of truth with regard to God’s revelation" (FR 71).

In extreme synthesis, we can say that a profound realism emerges from this catalogue of quotes. For one thing, the encyclical always refers to "cultures" [in the plural] because [they are] the necessary and multiple expressions of the variegated experiences of women and men situated in history. Moreover, cultures share in common [the characteristic] of being an expression of the humanum. That is to say, they possess a structural openness to mystery. This makes them capable of welcoming, through a necessary process of maturation, the universal message of Jesus Christ.

Thus, Fides et ratio hearkens back to an anthropological conception of culture spread out over the entire magisterium of John Paul II. Let it suffice to call to mind the famous speech of June 2, 1980 at UNESCO. The Pope in turn looks especially to Gaudium et spes and Evangelii nuntiandi.


II. Faith, reason, and culture.

The constitutive dimensions of the binomial culture/cultures are therefore meaningful expressions of the humanum in its historical concreteness. These are the fruit of a twofold, indivisible dynamism of the universal and the particular. Here is the reason why faith in Jesus Christ has need of an intellectus fidei (theology) in which reason (philosophy) bears the burden of responsibility for culture/cultures. [In this manner,] we do not lose the essential logic of the incarnation and deprive it of its universal salvific scope.

Having recalled the cultural dimensions of Fides et ratio, we can now ask about its implications. These follow directly from the underlying anthropology of the encyclical but are also capable of suggesting ways of reading contemporary reality.

So as not to betray what was said above regarding the dimension of particularity proper to cultural phenomena, it behooves us to say that our point of reference will be the dominant cultural climate of the West that, despite its rather varied customs, styles, and traditions, is still shared by Europeans and Americans alike.

I am going to propose an anthropological/cultural journey in three stages. In each of these, we will attempt to show how a foundational element of Christian anthropology with its relative cultural implications is required by an adequate relation between faith and reason. [Likewise, each element] permits a comprehension of decisive elements proper to the sociocultural context in which many Christian communities of the North of the planet live.

1.) The question of meaning and the desire for truth.

There are countless paragraphs of the encyclical in which the Holy Father describes the nucleus of the humanum while speaking about the desire for truth and the question of meaning. These are insuppressible traits of men and women that make them unique and open them to a transcendent mystery: "The desire for knowledge is so great and it works in such a way that the human heart, despite its experience of insurmountable limitation, yearns for the infinite riches which lie beyond, knowing that there is to be found the satisfying answer to every question as yet unanswered" (FR 17). In this way, men and women, starting with the wonder with which reality unfolds within them the questions constitutive of the heart, inexorably aim at truth even if they cannot reach it in its fullness on their own accord.

a.) Capable of truth.

The question of meaning and the desire for truth represent the apex of human reason: "as the poetic genius of every time and every people has shown, posing again and again--almost as the prophetic voice of humanity--the serious question which makes human beings truly what they are...[W]hen the why of things is explored in full harmony with the search for the ultimate answer, then human reason reaches its zenith and opens to the religious impulse. The religious impulse is the highest expression of the human person, because it is the high point of his rational nature. It springs from the profound human aspiration for the truth, and it is the basis of the human being’s free and personal search for the divine."

What does such an anthropological nucleus imply for the relation between faith and reason? In the ultimate analysis, the urgent need in Fides et ratio to search for the ultimate truth without letting oneself be charmed by those who claim that reason is impotent when confronted by the truth is based precisely upon this relation between faith and reason: "It is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it, or the audacity to forge new paths in the search" (FR 56). "We face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent" (FR 83).

By recalling this "metaphysical capacity" of the human being, [Fides et ratio] nevertheless does not privilege the choice of one school of thought: "Here I do not mean to speak of metaphysics in the sense of a specific school or a particular historical current of thought. I want only to state that reality and truth do transcend the fact and the empirical, and to vindicate the human being’s capacity to know this transcendent and metaphysical dimension in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical" (FR 83). In this context philosophy acquires all of its objective importance. Above all in the sapiential dimension that reveals (apre) the ultimate meaning of life, we see the efficacy of favoring the encounter between cultures and Christian faith: "Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith...[with] the followers of other religions and all those who, while not sharing a religious belief, have at heart the renewal of humanity" (FR 104).

b) The impossibility of analogy?

[Fides et ratio] argues forcefully in favor of the genuine capacity of human reason beginning with the ineluctable (religious) question of meaning and it recognizes the importance of philosophical thought and its necessary contribution to a culturally situated elaboration of how we understand our faith (intellectus fidei). All of this implies a confrontation with a marked trait of Western culture, one which becomes particularly accentuated with so-called postmodernity.

With ever increasing frequency, beginning with modernity, it has been maintained variously that it is impossible to express Being by joining the One with the many.

Some of the secular commentators on Fides et ratio, at least in Italy, have noted that the critical dialogue partner of the papal proposal is not to be sought so much among the proponents of [what in Italy is referred to as] "weak thought," [a movement] basically allied with nihilism. Such things should not merit that much attention! What really is deserving of attention are [the arguments] of those who maintain the radical aporia of thought itself. This would denote the impossibility of [any] recourse to the figure of analogy. [In this view,] the One, while self-expressive, cannot be said apart from the many. Likewise, man is structurally relegated to multiplicity. We would be ontologically suspended from the dia-porein[, i.e.,] the ineffability of being would be primary with respect to its capacity for self-disclosure. Nor would it be conceivable to untie this problematic knot without falling into a violent gnosis that would conclude by transcribing onto the very heart of thought the nowadays undisputed logic of the scientific and technological domain. It is precisely such scientific universalism that fails to tolerate the existence of questions without answers. Being, by contrast, would by its very nature be a question without a response.

Moreover, this Destruktion of the fortress of Western thought as the inheritor of classical Christian thought would not be--again according to these commentators--the work of "vandals" attacking from the outside. On the contrary, the majestic architecture of thought founded on the analogy of being and culminating in Thomas would have collapsed from within when first [John Duns] Scotus and then [William of] Ockham dared to assert that all is mere names because even in analogy nothing is said about the thing. If you allow me poetic license, I would add that this position not only aims to explain the uneasiness of a Heidegger or the lucid folly of Nietzsche but successfully presents atheism itself as the biological son of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

What do you say to a similar, harsh criticism that perhaps allows us to decipher better the numerous contradictory manifestations of culture, of politics, of social life, at least in the West? It suffices to think of the dramatic questions that arise regarding birth and death, of the split between personal and civil freedom (ethics), of the dialectic of law and economy. Must we really abandon analogy as the primary condition for thinking about the real? Or should we not rather–taking our cue from the shrewder of the thinkers in our midst--rethink analogy sheltering it from the intellectualist reduction, still noticeable in Barth and perhaps even in Przywara, and that this criticism in fact targets?

The path along which one can discover the sense in which the One revealed in the many can be known--hence, the path to know the truth--can be the path of reformulating analogia entis as analogia libertatis. Not, of course, according to the norm of an ab-solute reason that, arrogating to itself cosmic centrality, presumes to measure reality in an immediate way, but rather through each person’s free knowing self-abandonment to the manifestation of the foundation that continues to shine forth in all things (cf FR 83). Jesus’ theandricity is not a gnostic construction of a chimerical being that holds God and man in an impossible dialectical sublation but is the ontological condition of His free (sponte), saving cor-respondence to the trinitarian foundation. In soteriology substantial analogy is realized by the highest ponti-fex, for analogy implies the idea of a bridge. In this manner, the possibility of being really free is offered to the act of my freedom through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The interlacing of faith and freedom could permit growth in a culture undergoing difficulty, as Fides et ratio teaches: "It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: It is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom...Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth" (FR 13).

Closely related to this criticism of analogy is the thesis that thought is weak, on account of which there is not much to say about reality. Moreover, it is better to be satisfied with the way things are than to say little. According to certain authors, even Catholic ones, it would really be a good thing for Christianity: whatever reason does not say would in fact be said by Christian faith! This is a trap since faith in Jesus Christ is not just a wager. Even if reason cannot set its own demands upon it, [faith] must be reasonable and deeply in accord with the human heart. Consequently, being Christian today implies more than ever a struggle for reason. Fides et ratio reminds us of this in several of its paragraphs.

c.) The return of the gods.

For years the cultural climate of nihilism had prognosticated the disappearance of the religious sense and its replacement by the definitive imposition of a "worldly world" (secularization). More recently[, however,] it has had to account for the explosion of a wild form of religiosity. And it does so, as the encyclical states, by taking recourse to new forms of esotericism. Into this context a kind of neo-pagan polytheism has been reintroduced, at least in the West, that does not scorn explicit reference to a necessary "return to the gods."

In the spring of this year an important exponent of the European intelligentsia, Roberto Calasso, an editor of the sophisticated Italian editorial house Adelphi gave a lecture series at Oxford under the title "Literature and the gods." With the most learned and perspicacious references to the history of progressive returns of paganism, mainlydrawing upon Heine and Baudelaire, Calasso speaks of the gods that now, on a daily basis, lie right in front of us: "there are a multitude that sprout in an exterminated city. They no longer live in vast dwellings spread out over the slopes of a mountain. It matters not that their names are often exotic and unpronounceable like those we read by the doorbells of the houses of immigrants. The power of their story continues to exert its influence. But the situation exhibits this particularity--that the tribe composed of the gods now subsists only in history and in its scattered idols. The cultic path is barred."--Secularism strikes even neo-pagan polytheism!--"Oh why is there no longer a devout people that performs ritual deeds? And why are the rites in any case coming to an end too early? The statues of Diva or Vishnu continue to be moist with homage, but Varuna is already an indistinct and remote entity for an Indian of today. And Prajapati is found only in books, and often in books that few open. Is it perhaps a prelude to extinction? Only in appearance...When all is said and done, the world--and now is the time to say it even if the news is disagreeable to so many--has no intention of being disenchanted. If for no other reason than that if it were to happen, then we would be too bored."

The media are immersing us on a daily basis into a melting pot of cultures (il grande bouillon de culture). [Because of this,] we are all victims, more or less consciously, of the empty religiosity in which one faith is the same as another, and the true, the good, and the beautiful evaporate with the aid of scientific universalism. It is noteworthy that this return to the gods, as a neo-pagan renewal of polytheism, discloses the objective orientation of our culture: "finish it off with the infamous Galileo," as the young intellectual of the l’École païenne of Baudelaire once said. It is not possible to ask further in this session to what degree this orientation is an immediate consequence of the religious and cultural apostasy of the West and how much it is a strategy employed by certain intelligentsia convinced of the necessity of a radical secularization. Like the insistent [motion of the] waves beating upon the rocks, this cultural mix, the true nature of which lies in the return to polytheism, homogenizes rather than cancels out every distinguishing feature of the Christian identity of the baptized peoples.

Once again men and women reject the "Christian claim:" in Jesus Christ, God, without ceasing to be God, is made man. In Him, through the power of the Father actuated in the Spirit, a miracle takes place whereby an exemplar becomes an image without losing its own nature as exemplar. In His death and resurrection the "Christian claim" reaches its own apex because the exchange between the two natures (human and divine) can, in their rightful distinctions, be offered to the freedom of each one and to all. But to follow Christ, perfect image of the Father, as Fides et ratio cogently reminds us, is to recognize the consistency of the real, the capacity of reason for the truth, and the religious nature of the humanum. It seems better to abandon everything to the recurring temptation to pretend to be God. And, playing on the compassion for the constitutive fragility that binds human beings and peoples, it is better to fashion yourself after the demigods of the new cosmopolitan Olympus than to accept the demanding embrace of the Father. But the cult of idols is either the first ingenuous approach to God, typical of the dawning of humanity, or it becomes mere hybris (violence).

2.) "Found in Him" (Philippians 3:9)

What permits men and women not to reject the search for meaning? What can satisfy the fabric of the human heart?

Only the encounter with Truth because, as the Pope recalls, "Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy" (FR 27). For two thousand years the Church has repeated indefatigibly its message: the Church "through the Paschal mystery...received the gift of the ultimate truth about human life" (FR 2). In fact, "[t]hrough this revelation, men and women are offered the ultimate truth about their own life and about the goal of history" (FR 12).

Such an affirmation becomes comprehensible only in the christological horizon of anthropology advanced by Gaudium et spes. The famous paragraph #22 of the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council signals from its very preamble the entire magisterium of John Paul II. In paragraph#80 of Fides et ratio, the Pope re-expresses this conviction: "the mystery of the incarnation will always remain the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself."

a.) Faith as a resource for reason.

On this point the same encyclical takes on the task of recalling a highly important methodological consequence of the relation between faith and reason. If the definitive revelation concerning the human being is given to us in Jesus Christ, precisely because we are created in Him, then revelation constitutes the greatest resource for human reason and never a limitation.

The Pope testifies to this in several paragraphs of the encyclical: "Revelation therefore introduces into our history a universal and ultimate truth, which stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort; indeed, it impels reason continually to extend the range of its knowledge until it senses that it has done all in its power, leaving no stone unturned. (FR 14)" In this perspective, reason is valorized but not overvalued, avoiding the emphasis of the enlightenment that, paradoxically, succeeded in engendering sceptical mistrust in the confrontation with the truth. Moreover, Christian revelation--not only by virtue of its role in purifying reason (the subjective aspect) but also in its enlargement of the sphere of knowing (the objective aspect that allows for an emphasis on content)--[in both these respects, namely,] Christian revelation represents an enrichment of philosophy and an extraordinary possibility of growth for cultures.

b.) The "good life."

But this proposal of Fides et ratio must today [also] account for the increasingly prevalent tendency to erect "consensus" as the criterion of truth. The Pope speaks directly to this point (dice in proposito): "In particular there is growing support for a concept of democracy which is not grounded upon any reference to unchanging values: Whether or not a line of action is admissible is decided by the vote of a parliamentary majority. The consequences of this are clear: In practice the great moral decisions of humanity are subordinated to decisions taken one after another by institutional agencies" (FR 89).

This conception is fundamentally a result of today’s rigid separation between the public and private sphere, a factor that continues to lead down more than a few blind alleys in social and political life, especially in Western countries. According to Ross Poole, in current market society, the division between public and private is by now insuperable. Private life must remain excluded from public life. In fact, the latter must be controlled by rationality, especially juridical rationality, to the point that all ethics derives properly from this source, while the former, centered on domestic relations, on the bearing and education of children, is the sole, vanishing place for subjective desires, irrational emotions, and selfish affections (attaccamenti interessati). In this way an exclusion of the subject occurs that is neither involuntary nor surreptitious but does lead to its abolition.

Thus, it would not be possible [in this view] to propose what the classical Christian tradition has called the "good life." This expression refers, in the end, to the teaching of Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) taken up by Saint Thomas (above all in the beginning of the Seconda pars of the Summa theologiae). For these authors "human action for a rational agent must be considered from the perspective of life understood as a whole and therefore ordered to the ends and goods that characterize it essentially."

But without pursuing the aim of the good life with realism, it is impossible to harmonize personal conduct with the common good.

We are all familiar with the objection that is made to such a statement. A conception of the good life must be anchored in objective criteria of truth, but the question of the truth cannot be posed except in intrinsic connection with liberty of conscience. Consequently, to affirm an objective and necessary connection the between good and the true can be agreed to only in the individual case of one’s private life. In public life, by contrast, a similar statement would inexorably be repealed by [a plea for] "pluralism" and [charges of] "intolerance." Hence the pragmatic principle of banning all prohibitions ("the only thing forbidden is to forbid") arises, which unfortunately is paraded about without any criticism whatsoever.

c.) "The most civic of men."

Charles Péguy, in his inimitable style, affirms that Christians are "the most civic of men...heirs to the ancient citizens, universally, eternally civic men." Also, and perhaps especially in the West, it is a matter of showing the richness with which the experience of faith of God’s people can build up a civil society such that differences are not only tolerated but symphonically valorized. This will be impossible without a considerable dose of heroism (and perhaps even martyrdom). Who can ignore the fecund gift that the Judeo-Christian matrix contributed--just limiting ourselves to recent decades--in the (Dietrich) Bonhöffers and (Maximilian) Kolbes, the Simone Weils and Edith Steins, or, to return to our own day, the abbot of the Algerian monastery of Tibhirine?

In fact, if the edification of the polis consists in pursuing that "good life" simultaneously required by individual and community, then this [goal] is inconceivable except as a practical consequence of the positive value that Being, whose face ultimately is that of the Triune reality, irradiates within all things. As a matter of fact, in every thing being shows itself (pulchrum), gives itself (bonum), and speaks (verum) and thereby interpellates the freedom of the individual.

Neither the refined Greek polis nor the articulate Roman civitas, in spite of the development of laws, got to the point of understanding society as family (the home). In both versions, in fact, men were conceived as citizens to the degree that from birth the State recognized under various titles that they bore rights. And as citizens they came to be defined as so-called "free men." What was missing was the figure of the father, in the sense of the source that guarantees a priori the sacral dignity of every person and continuously engenders a unity between siblings that becomes the foundation of authentic social development. [This] source [is] also capable of regenerating the freedom that cannot consequently be considered as the absence of ties. The axis freedom and faith thus comes back into play.

Christianity integrates the notion of citizen with that of person, [a concept, which in turn entails] the expression of freedom and, at the same time, a subject of social intercourse (rapporto) and personal relationships (relazione). Individual and community are thus kept in their original twofold unity, one that issues from a conception of person as a communal being and social craftsman (artifice) of "this" culture and of "this" civilization: "We are not dealing with the ‘abstract’ man, but the real, ‘concrete’,’historical’ man." The State, in this view, accepts the functional existence of a civil society animated by the pluriformity of intermediary bodies. Even in the diversified society of the Middle Ages, one can trace a consciousness of the original unity that goes beyond the task that each of the so-called three states (nobility, clergy, people) were summoned to carry out. The same conception of a tie between governing and the divine will (think, as just one example, of the conception that the Christian societies of Europe had of the king) does not create distance between persons: it is a question, and here one cannot but perceive the trace of a legacy from the Old Testament, of an election in every function.

Precisely by dint of this surplus in the concept of civis (person--citizen), the birth of the modern nations constitutes the novum of civilization carried by Christianity to Europe. (It suffices to consider the tie that bound the great cities of Europe to the monasteries.) Today less than ever can we reduce the existence of the civis to the simple proclamation of the equality between men and women and to a formal conception of their rights. Men and women are not only equal but also share responsibilities, in freedom, towards one another. The self-consciousness of the modern citizen risks being reduced to the disconcerting words of Cain: "Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Gen. 4:9) [since] the modern citizen is always more concerned to defend the individual’s own rights and always less responsible to the body to which he belongs. But Cain’s question can surely not be applied to the citizen/person as a member of societas in the same way that the heart of men and women marked by Christianity would wish it to be.

3.) Jesus Christ, enigma and drama.

a.) Imago Dei, faith and reason.

Christian anthropology, following Scripture, has used the expression imago Dei to give a synthetic presentation of the human person that takes as its starting point the indivisible binomial, i.e., (religious) question of meaning and faith in Jesus Christ.

With the two accounts of the book of Genesis (Gen. 1:26-27 and Gen. 2:18-25) that converge in their affirmation of man created in the image and likeness of God, the Old Testament brings to light the singularity of men and women in comparison with all other creatures. The notion of image testifies to this irreducible singularity with respect to relation with God, with one another, and with the world. To comprehend it fully, however, one must be aware of the fact that in the New Testament the notion of imago Dei in the complete sense [of the term] is attributed to Jesus Christ (2 Cort. 4:4, Col. 1:15), [who is ] confessed as the perfect image of the invisible God. Biblical revelation thus gives us an anthropology founded in the comprehension of men and women ad imaginem Imaginis [created in the image of the Image]. This formula expresses that a man is both creature of God and son of God. The creative act of the Father reveals the unicity of the divine plan centered on Jesus Christ and the vocation of men and women to become sons and daughters in the Son. Therefore, the primary referent of every authentic reflection on man is Jesus Christ and not Adam: Jesus Christ alone "reveals the human enigma without determining in advance the outcome of the drama for him" (Balthasar).

The Holy Father refers to the anthropological key to the imago conceived in this manner when he affirms that "[f]rom the Bible there emerges also a vision of man as imago Dei. This vision offers indications regarding man’s life, his freedom, and the immortality of the human spirit" (FR 80). Precisely because being imago is characteristic of men and women, it is possible to maintain that "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" (FR preface).

Once again the anthropological starting point orders the relation between faith and reason as understood in light of that of culture and cultures. Especially by dint of the imago Dei conceived according to the dual unity of religious meaning and faith, the encyclical can show how freedom is co-original with, and not derivative from or extrinsic to, the relation between faith and reason. Only if freedom is seen in light of its ontological and gnoseological foundation can it be adequately positioned in relationship to the truth. The encyclical dedicates illuminating passages to this connection: "Once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free. Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery" (FR 90).

B.) Nature and freedom.

The papal reflection thus takes us to the often dramatic encounter with a dominant trait of the pragmatic and utilitarian mentality of today, which is closely tied to "scientific universalism." I am referring to the attempt to eviscerate the concept of nature of any meaning. Human freedom as a created reality is objectively referred to a given that, at least in the Western cultural tradition, has been called "nature." The freedom of the "I" cannot be separated from its existence as the one of "body and soul," of "man and woman," and of "individual and community." Finite freedom flourishes on a substrate (nature) that possesses precisely these characteristics. [Freedom] encounters constitutive polarities at its very source; it discovers them as givens. This does not at all imply a "biologistic" conception of nature, from which all possibilities of dynamic evolution are necessarily excluded, especially those coming from the varied inventions of which contemporary "cultures" are capable. But it is a matter of recognizing that culture cannot produce nature ex nihilo since contingency inevitably binds men and women to an original polarity of nature and culture. Speaking of which, when Thomas treats the "inclinations," he offers us a teaching of inestimable value: human liberty (that of Dasein [existence], i.e., dramatic anthropology) is aroused by constitutive inclinations that surface as biological instinct and, through the unconscious and the "spiritual pre-conscious," press forward to full consciousness. In any case, if you want to define the complex question of nature, you cannot deny in the end that nature possesses as one objective, normative function the regulation of freedom.

It is just this function that has been ignored by so-called "scientific universalism," which in the present phase of globalization and media domination conditions human self-consciousness on an even more massive scale. The expression "scientific universalism" identifies the now dominant cultural trend reaching to all levels of the humanum that claims to create an objective and universally valid discourse based upon the abolition of the subject. Scientific universalism, exemplified in the narrowly focussed but impregnable fortress of technical language, centers philosophical and anthropological thinking on two principles simultaneously: [the objective principle] that everything knowable can be reduced to the empirically measurable (physicalism), and the subjective one that everything that is possible is licit. The subject, caught in a profound vertigo, no longer finds any beneficial limits.

C.) The weight of difference.

The anthropological consequences of such a position are particularly visible in the delicate field of the second anthropological polarity, namely, that of man and woman. Not a few scholars have observed that the conflict between Christian experience and a culture in favor of eroticism has today replaced the conflict from some years ago between Christianity and revolution and grown in equal importance to it. In fact, eroticism attacks the heart of the nuptial mystery, a mystery which weaves sexual difference, love as reciprocal gift, and fecundity together into an inseparable unity. [By doing so, eroticism,]seems to radicalize the way in which the rise and fall (la parabola) of modernity has disfigured the vision of man and woman.

Even at first glance, the claim of this eroticist cultural climate begins from the conviction, presented as self-evident, that the natural given of sexual difference can be eliminated. We find ourselves facing one of the most serious wounds inflicted on elementary human experience, namely, that in order to transfer systematically a technology of fertilization from zoology to the human realm (cloning), we would effectively run the risk, for the first time in history, of abolishing man himself.

It thus becomes ever more necessary to give adequate thought to the difference within identity. And to do so without confusing the pair identity and difference--by their nature always intrapersonal--with the pair equality and diversity, which always isolates relationships between individuals. Identity and difference bespeak the way in which the other takes the form of the "I" while equality and diversity always begin with a relation between two. According to its own linguistic etymology, "difference" (from dis-ferre) signifies bearing the same thing to another place while diversity is based by its very nature on multiplicity and plurality.

Speaking of the abolition of difference may seem imprudent only thirty years after the death of Martin Heidegger, owing to the prominent position accorded to his inquiry into ontological difference as the efficacious synthesis of Paul Ricoeur demonstrates. But not even Heidegger brought to a close the modern tendency, beginning with Descartes, to abolish the original difference between "I" and "oneself." Here we face, among other things, the root of the insuperability of sexual difference that, according to psychoanalysis (which itself is not suspected of connivance with Christian experience), cannot be defined because it cannot be inferred from some other principle (perché indeducible).

Thinking difference adequately, that is to say, thinking difference at all levels of anthropology, ontology, and theology is the principal way to discover identity itself. The necessity of overcoming all discrimination can be pursued properly because difference in the strong sense (anthropological, ontological, and theological) is never in itself inequality. Here we see the sleight of hand (l’escamotage) to which the prevailing eroticism resorts. [Its exponents] introduce difference as a [kind of] diversity that generates discrimination in order to eliminate difference. Rather than eliminating it, saving difference is the indispensable condition for safeguarding elementary human experience.


III. Integral human experience: against nihilism and the will to power.

The journey [proposed at the outset] is now finished. Starting from a synthetic explanation of the cultural dimensions of Fides et ratio, this led us to show, through an analysis of some of its implications, the importance of the relation culture/cultures. For the encyclical this relation holds in balance the relation between faith and reason inasmuch as history documents the pertinence of a dramatic anthropology that respects the inseparable binomial (dual unity) of the question of meaning, i.e., of the religious sense, and Christian revelation, i.e., faith in Jesus Christ. In this manner, the encyclical proposes a method of Christian life (a culture) that makes possible a persuasive proclamation of Jesus Christ to men and women in our society today.

A culture that trivializes the religious sense becomes formal (moralistic) and sterile, and a religious sense that does not encounter faith wears itself out if, as we have seen, it is not already corrupted. Such a method permits Christians to live out the Christian life in all its splendour as each day passes. It also serves as a salutary provocation for [the so-called] "secular people (laici)." Both Christians and "secular people" are invited by Fides et ratio to take stock of themselves in accordance with the horizon of the question that is their own, thus avoiding the mistake of allowing their nostalgia to degenerate into nihilism and their desire to go the route of a promethean will to power, whether it be social (the reduction of anthropology to ethics and politics) or scientific (the universalism of science and technology).