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Part I. Reason and Faith: The Catholic View

Chapter I: Catholic Teaching on Faith and Reason

1 In this and the three chapters that follow we shall study the relations of reason, faith and revelation as conceived by the Catholic church. There are advantages in beginning with the Catholic position. For one thing, it has been defined with care and precision by the doctors of the church. No similar statement is possible for Protestantism, since there are more than two hundred Protestant sects, each varying slightly in doctrine and attitude from its neighbours. Perhaps also, in beginning with Catholicism, we may profit from the renewed and widespread interest in it aroused by the World Council of the sixties. That Council fastened the eyes of mankind on the Roman church—its ancient creed, its impressive ritual, its incomparable history. The waves of interest then generated have still not died wholly away.

In some minds, the thought of the Council will raise a doubt. Has not Catholicism also become a house divided against itself? Did not the Council admit that the dogmas of the church must be accommodated to the new insights of changing times, and hence that there is no body of teaching that can any longer be put forward as the essential teaching of the church?

No; this is to misunderstand what the Council intended and what it achieved. It did, to be sure, make changes in Catholic practices and attitudes. It decreed that English, French and other local languages could henceforth be used in the mass. Over the demurrers of the Spanish bishops, it decreed that liberty meant liberty not only for Catholics in non-Catholic countries, but for non-Catholics in Catholic countries. It retained the Holy Office, but changed its somewhat tarnished name and limited its powers of censorship over persons suspected of heresy. It condemned anti-Semitism. It strengthened the voice of the bishops, as distinct from that of the Pope, in church administration. Above all, it opened long-closed windows to the circulation of ideas from the modern world—about birth control, about the celibacy of the clergy, about the value of Biblical criticism, about the importance of science—and in the spirit of its convener, Pope John, it sanctioned dialogue and co-operation with those of other faiths. It changed the temper of Catholicism from one of tight-lipped isolation to one of greater friendliness with those outside its walls and readiness to look critically at itself and at its image in the eyes of the world.

These are notable achievements. The Council will mark an epoch in church history, and to belittle it would be myopic. But the nature of its accomplishment has been widely misconstrued. While the Council did change the liturgy, the temper, and some of the practices of the church, it did not change in any important particular the corpus of Catholic belief. The dogmas, for example, that have given special difficulty to Protestants remain substantially what they were. Papal infallibility was less questioned at Vatican II than at Vatican I. Tradition, as a channel of revelation distinct from Scripture, was reaffirmed, though the reciprocal support of the two sources received more stress. The veneration of Mary, which to Protestants appears without any sound basis, was reasserted unequivocally, the main difference of opinion in the Council being on the question whether the Virgin should have a chapter to herself; and Pope Paul in his concluding address expressed a wish that she should be ‘still more honoured and invoked by the entire Christian people’ under the title ‘the mother of God’. As for the core of Catholic teaching—those relations of reason, revelation and faith with which we shall be concerned in this study—the Council left it conspicuously intact.1


2 On the question whether that core of teaching is today acceptable we shall have much to say. But on one point let us be clear at once. The Catholic church is not anti-rational; it has a profound respect for reason. Any fair critic must admit that it has made larger use of reason, that it has a creed more closely articulated intellectually, and that it has engaged in its service a more distinguished succession of philosophic minds, than any other religious body, Christian or pagan. It is far more distrustful of emotion than Protestantism, which has sometimes been content to hold that religion is ‘a feeling of dependence’ or ‘morality touched with emotion’ or ‘a way of life’. For Rome religion has an intellectual base. The church can say, as Newman did, ‘dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery’.2 Indeed, Catholicism grants to reason a larger role than would be given it by many or most of the secular philosophers of our day. It holds that reason can show the existence of God with certainty, and trace with a like certainty his principal relations to man and the world. ‘The holy mother church,’ said the First Vatican Council, ‘holds and teaches that God can be certainly known from created things by the lights of human reason to be the beginning and end of all things.3 At no time has there been so universal a belief in the power of mere reflection to illumine all things in the heavens above or the earth beneath as at the time when the church was in its ascendancy. Whitehead has noted that this was the truly rationalistic period in the history of thought, and that in the scientific period that followed reason was by comparison in eclipse.

Loyal Catholics would add that even today they are the true rationalists. Their allegiance to reason has remained unaltered while outside their borders, in theology, in science, even in philosophy, distrust of reason has become rampant. As for Protestant theology, they would hold that that ill starred vessel is disintegrating, the stern stranded on the rocks of Barthian anti-rationalism, while the prow is being engulfed by the humanism and naturalism of the day. Physical science itself, they point out, is becoming sceptical of its own foundations. If it is to take one secure step beyond what is given, it must validate the law of induction, and this it has found no way of doing; it is therefore itself living on a kind of faith. Even mathematics, traditionally conceived as giving certain knowledge of the world, has now been invaded by scepticism, since mathematical definitions and axioms have come to be regarded not as statements about the nature of things, but as postulates validated in the end by their advantage in use, or as mere linguistic conventions. As for philosophy, it has so largely lost confidence in the powers of reason that its central discipline, metaphysics, once looked upon as ‘the queen of the sciences’, has been for decades in semi-hiding. When the Catholic thinker observes this widespread defection from earlier hopes, he contends at times that he alone has kept full trust in reason. Speaking of the main anti-religious factions of the century, Dr D'Arcy has written: ‘They are all believers. The difference which I would maintain exists between their beliefs is that the Catholic one is founded on reason, the Nazi and the Communist on messianic expectation, and the Agnostic on disillusionment and an interior disharmony.’4 If one looks into the book called The Flight from Reason, by the late Sir Arnold Lunn, one will find that the title means not the abandonment of philosophy and science for religious superstition, but on the contrary, the abandonment by philosophers and scientists of the one true rationalism, that of the church.


3 Catholicism thus conceives itself as anything but an enemy of reason. But its reliance on reason has limits. On the hither side of a certain boundary it uses reason freely and confidently; reliance on it beyond that limit is discouraged and indeed proscribed. Where is the boundary drawn? It is at the line of demarcation between two orders of knowledge, that which is attainable by our natural powers on the one hand, and that which is attainable only through revelation on the other. The First Vatican Council puts the distinction clearly: ‘The Catholic Church with one consent has also ever held, and does hold, that there is a twofold order of knowledge, distinct both in origin and in object: in origin because our knowledge in the one is by natural reason, and in the other by divine faith; in object because, besides those things to which natural reason can attain, there are proposed to our belief mysteries hidden in God, which, unless revealed, cannot be known.’5

On the Catholic view of secular or natural reason little need be said. There is no discernible difference, outside theology, between the way in which a Catholic would go about it to establish a truth and the way of anyone else. The methods of Mendel in genetics, of Pasteur in physiology, of Gilson in secular philosophy, are the recognised methods of any competent person in these fields. The rules of evidence are common property for Catholics and non-Catholics. One difference only need be noted, a difference in tendency. Of the proper use of reason, particularly in the speculative sphere, Catholics have been provided with an officially approved model. In his encyclical Aeterni Patris of 1870, Pope Leo XIII instructed Catholic thinkers that henceforth they were to find their exemplar of thought in Thomas Aquinas; ‘reason, borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher’.6

It is not reason, however, that we are for the moment interested in, but rather that source of knowledge which lies, in the Catholic view, beyond the competence of reason, namely revelation. We have at our command a large mass of veritates a caelo delapsae, as the decree Lamentabili puts it, truths that have come down from heaven.7 Since these truths derive from a source at once other than reason and above it, and possess the completest sort of certainty, we must be as clear as we can about their nature and apprehension. Let us look at the main points of Catholic teaching about (1) the instruments of revelation, (2) its contents, (3) the way we lay hold of it, and (4) the grounds for accepting it.


4(1) Revelation has had various channels. The chief of these is the spoken word of Christ, who is conceived as incarnate Deity. But revelation has come through others also in the form of inspiration, in which the mind is moved by divine influence to form certain thoughts and give them utterance in certain words. The persons who have been thus inspired are many. It is often supposed by those who have not looked into the matter that Catholics are less inclined than Protestants to accept the entire body of Scriptural writings as inspired and inerrant. This is incorrect. ‘Holy Mother Church… holds that the books of both the Old and New Testament in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit… they have God as their author.…’8 The books to which such authorship is ascribed are those enumerated at Trent.9 This great Council accepted as canonical not only the sixty-six books which now form the Protestant Bible, but also seven others,10 so that the volume of Scriptural revelation is larger for the Catholic than for the Protestant, and very much larger than for those Protestants who, like Luther, would reject some of the sixty-six.

But numerous as are the Scriptural channels, the Catholic has still others: ‘before we can so much as know what Bible it is to which we are appealing, since the Bible itself never enumerates its own component parts, we have to go to an extra-biblical authority to learn what “books” are part of the infallible Bible, and what are not.’11 This needed guidance Catholics hold to have been provided by tradition. The inspiration of Mark and Paul, of Peter and the church fathers, cannot be supposed to have exhausted itself in what they wrote; if their writing was inspired, part at least of their oral teaching must have been so too, and this touched upon many points of belief and practice not explicitly dealt with in Scripture. In the words of Vatican II: ‘it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.’12

But how do we know which elements in the great mass of tradition are to be regarded as revealed truth and which are not? Here appears the third element of revelation, namely the church itself. Its authority derives directly from the words of Christ to the Apostle, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.’13 The authority given to Peter was transmitted by him to his successors, and it includes the power both to ‘govern the universal church’ and to define its doctrine; on these matters ‘none may reopen the judgement of the Apostolic See, than whose authority there is no greater, nor is it permitted to anyone to review its judgement’.14 Great as this authority is, however, it was instituted as a means of preserving and interpreting doctrine, not extending it. ‘For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith delivered through the Apostles.’15 When the Pope, in his capacity as vicar of Christ, formally pronounces judgement on the meaning of any passage of Scripture, or on any item in the extensive body of dogma which Catholics are required to believe, or on any problem of morals, he is infallibly guided; on such questions ‘this See of Saint Peter remains ever free from all blemish of error.…’16


5(2) When we turn from the channels to the content of revelation, we face an immense prospect. Fortunately a review of this content in detail is not necessary for our purpose, for the detail is inexhaustible. All the central dogmas of the church regarding God, the world, and man, every article in the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian creeds, the entire body of tradition as interpreted by the church, the official teaching about the sacraments, the plan of salvation, and the good life—all these are included within the scope of revelation. But there is a great deal more. Outsiders sometimes believe that only a few statements of cardinal importance are regarded by the church as inerrant. This is true if one is thinking only of official papal pronouncements. It is far from true if one is thinking of ‘inspired’ statements generally. There are literally thousands of these. We have seen that seventy-three Scriptural books ‘have God for their Author’. ‘All the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost,’ and as for error, such inspiration ‘excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the Supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true’.17 No distinction is made in these repeated and sweeping statements between moral and religious teaching on the one hand and factual statements on the other; St Thomas held, for example, that if Samuel was not the son of Elcana, ‘the Divine Scripture would be false’.18 Many persons, including many Catholics, suppose this teaching to have been altered or dropped at Vatican II and to have been replaced by a new freedom of interpretation; one may now accept from Scripture what one's own judgement only, or that of one's favourite archaeologist or historian, may approve as credible. This was certainly not the position of the Council. It reiterated in almost identical words the earlier teaching about the inspiration of the entire text of Scripture, though with certain qualifying phrases whose import we shall have to consider in the next chapter. Meanwhile it would be absurd to take as authoritative the views of restive and scattered revisionists regarding the true meaning of the ancient creed; if there is a difference of opinion as to what the church teaches, the critic should go to its supreme council and pay it the respect of assuming that it means what it says. And Vatican II said: ‘everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.’19

Though the details of this large body of revelation are beyond our present concern, there is one distinction within it that we must carefully note. Not all the truths that are revealed come to us by revelation only. Some of them come to us both by revelation and by the processes of ordinary inquiry; indeed in the view of Aquinas we have this double access to far the larger part of revealed truth. In the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles he considers hundreds of revealed truths about God, man, and nature, about saints, angels, and demons, for which he proceeds to offer demonstrations. His confidence in the power of reason to establish these things makes the ventures of any modern rationalist seem timid. Indeed, if we are to follow the Contra Gentiles, there would seem to be only five doctrines of major importance that prove in the end impenetrable to understanding: the creation of the world out of nothing, the Trinity, the incarnation, the sacraments, and eternal life. The acceptance of these two levels of revelation may at first seem strange. That truths beyond our own capacity should be vouchsafed by revelation may be credible enough, but why should so much be revealed which reason can achieve by itself? Aquinas answers that otherwise we should have discrimination in favour of the philosopher and against the plain man. Many of these truths are needed for the right guidance of life; the philosopher has intelligence, patience, and time to lay hold of them; the plain man has not. They must therefore come to him by revelation or not at all.20

6 What is the relation between these two bodies of revealed truth? Is what is above reason also against reason? Aquinas and Catholic tradition are emphatic at this point; they deny that such opposition occurs or ever can occur.21 To be sure, when we ask how the three persons of the Trinity can also be one person, or how the bread and wine of the eucharist can also be flesh and blood, our intellects are baffled. But not to see how something can be true is a very different thing from seeing that it is not true. The doctrines of the Trinity and the eucharist are beyond reason in the sense that it is beyond our finite powers to understand them, but not at all in the sense that they are inherently unintelligible; they are supra-rational, if you will, but not irrational. The divine mind understands them even if we do not. We have no ground for supposing either that there is any incoherence in them or that, if we understood them, we should find them opposed at any point to the truths we grasp by reason. Indeed such a contradiction may be ruled out as impossible. For the things we clearly see by reason must be truths for God as well as ourselves, and to say that these at any point clash with the truths of revelation would be to ascribe incoherence to the divine mind itself. And that, for Aquinas, would be worse than absurd.22


7(3) But if a truth is unintelligible to us, how can we call it certain? How, indeed, can we accept it at all? The proposition that triangles with equal sides have equal angles, the proposition that it will rain tomorrow, are statements we can understand, and think we can accept as certain or probable as the evidence warrants. But how can we assert something as certain or probable when we do not know what we are asserting? Floods of ink have been poured out on this question; it has been canvassed by many of the doctors of the church—Augustine, Aquinas, Suarez; Newman devotes some hundreds of subtle though not wholly convincing pages to it in the Grammar of Assent. The main features of the accepted doctrine seem to be as follows.

(a) The truths that are above reason are not mere blanks for us. When we consider the three persons in one nature, we know what three means, and what one means, and to some extent what persons are, since we are acquainted with finite persons. To be sure, we do not know what an ‘infinite person’ means, if that is what is intended, or how he could combine several persons in himself. But to speak in metaphors and analogies is not to speak in mere riddles. We are not wholly in the dark as to what it is we are accepting.

(b) We are very largely in the dark, nevertheless.’ Quis est enim fides, ‘asks Augustine,’ nisi credere quod non vides? ‘And the question remains why we should assent to that which is unintelligible to us. Not only are the assertions we are supposed to accept obscure in themselves; there is no adequate evidence for them within the range of our experience or reason. If we are to arrive at a certain belief in them, therefore, it must be by a different route from that which leads us to belief when the evidence is compelling. Indeed the leading here is supernatural. The First Vatican Council laid it down that ‘no man can assent to the Gospel teaching… without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.… Wherefore faith… is in itself a gift of God.’23 And again:

‘this faith… is a supernatural virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that the things which He has revealed are true; not because of the intrinsic truth of the things as perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, who can neither err nor lead into error.’24

(c) Such faith involves the will as well as the intellect. It is defined by Aquinas as ‘an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will’.25 The mechanism, so to speak, of our assent to revelation is thus seen to be still further from that of belief in what is demonstrated or self-evident. There, once we have clearly seen, assent follows automatically. Revelation, on the other hand may present itself as actually repugnant to our reason and common sense. ‘According to its very definition, faith implies assent of the intellect to that which the intellect does not see to be true.… Consequently, an act of faith cannot be caused by a rational evidence, but entails an intervention of the will.’26 To make the matter painfully clear, Vatican I says, ‘If anyone shall say that the assent of Christian faith is not a free act, but necessarily produced by the arguments of human reason… let him be anathema’.27 It is strange to reflect that though Descartes and Aquinas agreed that belief was an act of the will, Descartes held that resort to this act before the intellect was clear was the root of all error, while Aquinas held it an indispensable means to salvation. For the Catholic, to refuse belief is sin; ‘nor will anyone’, according to official decree, ‘obtain eternal life unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end’.28

8 Four points about this act of will should be noted. First, just as reason requires divine illumination to assure that it is really confronted by revelation, so the will needs divine assistance to achieve the act of assent. In the face of a suggested belief which seems neither clear in itself nor in accord with the evidence, we may easily find ourselves unable to believe, even if we wish to. If at times we succeed, it is because, as Aquinas says, our own feeble will ‘is itself moved by the grace of God’. As Canon Smith puts it, ‘with the intellect of a Plato, with the iron self-control of a Stoic, with all the good-will of which man is capable, he can do nothing to prepare himself for faith without the help of God's grace’.29 Secondly, at some apparent cost of consistency,30 it is said that this act which is moved by grace is also a free act of our own. Thirdly, since it is thus free, we acquire merit by doing it. We likewise acquire demerit if we grant assent to anything contrary to revelation, however reasonable this may seem. In the Syllabus appended to his encyclical Quanta Cura of 1864, Pius IX condemned, as Proposition XV, the statement: ‘Any man is free to embrace and profess the religion which, led by the light of reason, he thinks to be true.’31 Hence, fourthly, our intellectual and moral ends seem at times to conflict with each other, since even when something presents itself to our reason as true and necessary, it may be our duty to deny it.32 When such conflict does seem to occur, the loyal Catholic may fall back on certain reassuring reflections. He may reflect, for one thing, that what seems to be required by reason in such a case could not satisfy it in the end, since it is certainly false; ‘the faith is always there and any conflict between his faith and his philosophy is a sure sign of philosophic error’.33 He may reflect, further, that it can never be morally wrong to believe what duty requires him to believe. What is his duty? To obey the divine will. What does the divine will ask of him? To do that which is needful for salvation. And we are expressly told that belief in certain things is a condition of salvation. To believe them as a means to this end is therefore natural and legitimate; ‘we believe divine revelation,’ says Aquinas, ‘because the reward of eternal life is promised us for so doing. It is the will which is moved by the prospect of this reward to assent to what is said, even though the intellect is not moved.…’34


9(4) We have seen that the assent of faith is given not because the intellect is clear, but in spite of its not being clear; one believes something because God has said it. But if we are called on to believe something that we do not understand, how do we know that God has said it? Here enter what are called ‘motives of credibility’, that is, grounds for believing that something really is revealed. Suppose that doubts should arise whether the Bible is genuinely a voice from beyond nature; two distinct lines of argument are open, either of which is enough, we are assured, to provide an unprejudiced mind with overwhelming evidence, a warrant from within, and a warrant from without. The warrant from within consists of the harmony and impressiveness of the Biblical story itself—miracles, the fulfilment of prophecy, the portrait of a figure morally perfect, the coherence of the vast plan of salvation, the growth and triumph of the early church against all human probability. If a mind is too darkened to feel the force of this witness, it may turn to the second warrant, the absolute guarantee of a church which, on all matters of this kind, speaks with infallibility. But the doubter may still doubt. ‘How am I to know that the authority of this church is what it says it is? This is the point on which the whole chain of argument seems to hang, and am I to accept it on an ipse dixit?’ By no means, comes the answer. The authority of the church is itself attested to any reasonable mind by marks or notes which only a divinely assisted body could exhibit. These notes are traditionally four: the unity of the church, that is, the identical form taken by its teaching and organisation in all times; its universality, that is, its identity in all places; its sanctity, that is, the production through the ages of lives pervaded by grace and goodness; and finally its apostolicity, that is, its unbroken descent from, and its fidelity to, the original teaching, spirit, and institution of the Apostles. No secular body can produce a parallel to the church in respect to any of these notes; and when the four are taken together, they offer a mass of converging evidence that will convince any open mind.


10 Why is it that in spite of this extensive appeal to reason, so many philosophers have considered Catholicism faint-hearted in that appeal? It is because, as we have just seen, and by its own emphatic avowal, the church draws a line and says to reason firmly, however respectfully, ‘Thus far and no farther’. It makes extensive use of reason and at the same time sharply limits it. It cuts the world into two provinces, in one of which, to be sure, reason is given full scope. But in the other, the province containing those truths which it is most important for us to know, the authority of reason is superseded, and if it ventures to say anything at odds with church or Scripture, then regardless of the credentials it offers, it is trespassing where it does not belong and is conducted back across the border. Theology and philosophy are fundamentally different disciplines with different points of departure and different modes of proceeding, theology moving downward from a fixed and certain revelation, philosophy groping upward from the facts of experience. Properly speaking, theology, ‘the science of the truth necessary for our salvation,’35 is not a science at all, for what it expounds is absolute truth, attained by supra-rational means. Theology and philosophy are not rivals but complements of each other. ‘It is, therefore, the inalienability of their proper essences’, writes Professor Gilson, ‘which permits them to act upon each other without contaminating each other.… Thomism has room, by the side of a theology which should be nothing but theology, for a philosophy which should be nothing but philosophy.’36

Will this division of labour hold? We need hardly say that if it did, and our perplexed and burdened minds could be brought to see that it did, we should be saved incalculable effort, time, and anxiety. The man who can accept it is to be envied in many ways. Without the difficult, self-critical, tormenting wrestle of the philosophers with truth, renewed only to be followed by another fall, he knows—simply, smilingly, and absolutely; ‘God, his attributes, his providential designs in man's regard, man's own duties to his Creator and to his fellow men—all this, and much more, he knows with a certainty that is supreme’.37 He has been transported to somewhere near the end of the long road along which others must trudge laboriously. And the truth that is revealed to him is not some set of bleak abstractions about the structure of matter or the ultimate laws of energy, but an intimate report that behind those laws, sustaining them, using them, at times suspending them as he sees fit, is a Person infinitely wise and kind. Thus his main ground of practical as well as intellectual worry is swept away. From now on he knows that the power which made and controls all the galaxies of the universe broods over him night and day. He knows what he must do to fulfil the will of this Power, and knows that however badly things may go with him for an hour or a year or a lifetime, the whole resources of infinity are pledged to make things right for him in the end, and triumphantly more than right, if only he orders his walk obediently. To any observer with a heart, or with an eye for the parts played by hope and fear in the actual fixing of beliefs, the fascination that this creed has exercised, age after age, can be no matter for surprise. But of course its beneficence in the way of peace and comfort is no evidence of its truth, and we are concerned with its truth exclusively. And not even with its truth as a whole, but solely with that part of the creed which limits the use of reason.

11 For all its attractions, most philosophers, past and present, have declined to accept this limit. They would no doubt admit that in dealing with such dark problems as the nature of Deity and the origin and destiny of the world, reason halts and stumbles, but they would agree that if such things are to be known at all, they must be known by rational reflection which starts from the facts of experience and goes on to draw inferences from them; there is no quick non-rational road which, somehow skirting the infirmities of our natural powers and knowledge, conducts us to absolute truth. Of this they are firmly convinced; but how are rationalists of this persuasion to join issue with the Catholic? If they offer arguments designed to show that the ‘certainties’ of faith are illusions, he will merely smile at them. Such criticism quite obviously begs the question; it assumes the competence of our reason within the sphere where his theory has declared it incompetent, and however cogent to the rationalist, the argument is thus to the believer no argument at all. He is not to be refuted by naively assuming the untruth of his main contention. But if the rationalists are to be denied the use of reason in pursuing him into his city of refuge, what are they to do? He asserts that he has an insight which, since it is not intelligible to reason nor reached by rational means, is inaccessible to rational attack. All he asks, he says, is to be let alone in his supra-rational citadel. He insists that he has no enmity to reason in its own province. He has no wish to sally out on his besiegers, and they seem to have no way of getting at him. Is the high argument to die away in a stalemate?

12 If the Catholic claim were like some other claims to a truth above or below reason, we should have to acquiesce in such frustration. There have been mystics who, on descending from their hill of vision, have reported insights as unutterable as they were certain; but just because they were unutterable they were also incommunicable, unsupportable, and irrefutable. Sceptics have jeered that this sounded remarkably like an insight into nothing at all, and the mystics have replied: ‘That, of course, is how it must seem to you people on the plain, just as you yourselves will offend a blind man if you talk of the blue and gold of the morning. But your denial has no standing for us who have seen. It is a denial of you know not what, with the help of arguments that seem absurd at the altitude where we have stood.’ Now is it not barely possible that the mystic is right, that he really has had a vision into what is so discontinuous with all we know that we can form no conception of it? It is hard to see how the possibility of such vision can be ruled out a priori. And if so, it looks as if rational discussion with him were bound to end in bafflement.

But this is not the case of the Catholic. He is not an irrationalist. He respects reason enough to hold that nothing in the end can be true if it is not reasonable and intelligible; true reason is the voice of God. The supra-rational is not really above reason, but only above reason as we know and use it—a very different thing; there are no contradictions in revelation, nor yet between revelation and any part of natural knowledge. With a person who conceives the role of reason as generously as this, discussion is possible. If he is convinced that anything is really against reason, he cannot, even as a loyal Catholic, accept it. We have already quoted his highest authority as saying, ‘there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has conferred on the human mind the light of reason, and God cannot deny himself’.38 Thus between the Catholic and the secular philosopher there is a large common ground.

Throughout the discussion that follows, we shall try to proceed upon that ground. In the Catholic account of the relation between reason and revelation, three theses are central. I. There is accessible to us a body of revealed truth which, though transcending reason, is still in accordance with reason. II. Since this revelation contains only what is true, there is, and there can be, no conflict between any of its statements and the truths of natural knowledge. III. To a person who approaches the issue with an open mind, the fact of such a revelation can be convincingly shown by reason. In the three chapters that follow, these theses will be considered in order.

  • 1.

    For an English translation of the pronouncements of the Council, see Walter M. Abbott, S.J., ed. The Documents of Vatican II (N.Y., Guild Press, The America Press, 1966).

  • 2.

    John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, 67 (Everyman).

  • 3.

    ‘Eadem sancta mater ecclesia tenet et docet, Deum rerum omnium principium et finem naturali humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis certo cognosci posse…’ (session III, chap. 2). The Council added in its uncompromising way: ‘Si quis dixerit, Deum unum et verum, creatorem et dominum nostrum, per ea, quae facta sunt, naturali rationis humanae lumine certo cognosci non posse; anathema sit’ (ibid., Canones II). I am reluctant to burden the text with footnotes, but when one is criticising a position, it is essential to have it correct, above all at crucial points. For the Latin text of official pronouncements by popes or councils I have mainly relied on Mirbt's Quellen zur Geschichte des Papstums und des Römischen Katholizismus (3rd edn., Tübingen, Mohr, 1911).

  • 4.

    M. C. D'Arcy, Belief and Reason (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1944), 49.

  • 5.

    Decree of Vatican Council I, session III, chap. 4. ‘Hoc quoque perpetuus ecclesiae catholicae consensus tenuit et tenet, duplicem esse ordinem cognitionis, non solum principio, sed obiecto etiam distinctum: principio quidem, quia in altero naturali ratione, in altero fide divina cognoscimus; obiecto autem, quia praeter ea, ad quae naturalis ratio pertingere potest, credenda nobis proponuntur mysteria in Deo abscondita, quae, nisi revelata divinitus, innotescere non possunt.’ Mirbt, Quellen, 360.

  • 6.

    ‘… ratio ad humanum fastigium Thomae pennis evecta, iam fere nequeat sublimius assurgere…’ Mirbt, 376. This passage occurs in a much longer passage of unqualified panegyric for Aquinas.

  • 7.

    The twenty-second error condemned by Pius X in this decree of 1907 was that ‘Dogmata quae ecclesia perhibet tamquam revelata, non sunt veritates a coelo delapsae, sed sunt interpretatio quaedam factorum religiosorum quam humana mens laborioso conatu sibi comparavit.’ Mirbt, 408.

  • 8.

    Vatican II, Constitution on Divine Revelation, chap. 3, sec. 11. This repeats the words of Vatican I, ‘spiritu sancto inspirante conscripti Deum habent auctorem.’ Session III, chap. 2.

  • 9.


  • 10.

    Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees.

  • 11.

    A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London, Macmillan, 1930), II, 209.

  • 12.

    Constitution on Divine Revelation, chap. 2, sec. 9.

  • 13.

    Matt. 16:18.

  • 14.

    ‘… sedis vero apostolicae, cuius auctoritate maior non est, iudicium a nemine fore retractandum, neque cuiquam de eius licere iudicare iudicio.’ Vatican Council I, Session IV, chap. 3.

  • 15.

    ‘Neque enim Petri successoribus spiritus sanctus promissus est, ut eo revelante novam doctrinam patefacerent, sed ut, eo assistente, traditam per apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent.’ Session IV, chap. 4.

  • 16.

    ‘… hanc sancti Petri sedem ab omni semper errore illibatam permanere.…’ Session IV, chap. 4.

  • 17.

    Encyclical Providentissimus Deus, 1893.

  • 18.

    Summa Theologica, pt I, q. 32, art. 4: ‘Indirecte vero ad fidem pertinent ea ex quibus negatis consequitur aliquid contrarium fidei; sicut si quis diceret Samuelum non fuisse filium Helcanae; ex hoc enim sequitur Scripturam divinam esse falsam.’

  • 19.

    Constitution on Divine Revelation, chap. 3, sec. II.

  • 20.

    Contra Gentiles, I, chap. 4.

  • 21.

    Vatican I, session III, chap. 4: ‘Verum etsi fides sit supra rationem, nulla tamen unquam inter fidem et rationem vera dissensio esse potest; cum idem Deus, qui mysteria revelat et fidem infundit, animo humano rationis lumen indiderit; Deus autem negare seipsum non possit, nec verum vero unquam contradicere.’

  • 22.

    Contra Gentiles, I, chap. 7.

  • 23.

    Vatican I, session III, chap. 3: ‘nemo tamen evangelicae praedicationi consentire potest… absque illuminatione et inspiratione spiritus sancti.… Quare fides ipsa in se… donum Dei est.…’

  • 24.

    ‘Hanc vero fidem… virtutem esse supernaturalem, qua, Dei aspirante et adiuvante gratia, ab eo revelata vera esse credimus, non propter intrinsecam rerum veritatem naturali rationis lumine perspectam, sed propter auctoritatem ipsius Dei revelantis, qui nec falli nec fallere potest.’ Ibid.

  • 25.

    Summa Theologica, pt II, II, q. 4, art. 5.

  • 26.

    E. Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (N.Y., Scribner's, 1938) 73–74.

  • 27.

    Vatican I, Canones III, 5: ‘Si quis dixerit, assensum fidei christianae non esse liberum, sed argumentis humanae rationis necessario produci… anathema sit.’ Cf. Aquinas: ‘Credere autem, ut supra dictum est, non habet assensum nisi ex imperio voluntatis; unde, secundum id quod est, a voluntate dependit. Et inde est quod ipsum credere potest esse meritorium; et fides, quae est habitus eliciens ipsum, est secundum theologium virtus.’ De Veritate.

  • 28.

    ‘Quoniam vero sine fide impossibile est placere Deo… ideo nemini unquam sine ilia contigit iustificatio, nec ullus, nisi in ea perseveraverit usque in finem, vitam aeternam assequetur.’ Vatican I, session III, chap. 3.

  • 29.

    Canon George D. Smith, ed., The Teaching of the Catholic Church (N.Y., Macmillan, 1949), I, 17.

  • 30.

    See fn. 27 above.

  • 31.

    ‘Liberum cuique homini est earn amplecti ac profited religionem, quam rationis lumine quis ductus veram putaverit.’ Mirbt, 353.

  • 32.

    Cf. the words of St Ignatius Loyola: ‘In order to be entirely of one mind with the Catholic Church, we must—if it declares that something which to our eyes appears white is black—confess that it is black.…’ Quoted by C. J. Cadoux, Catholicism and Christianity (London, Allen & Unwin, 1928; N.Y., Dial Press, 1929), 122 fn.

  • 33.

    E. Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (Sheed & Ward; Scribner's, 1936), 6.

  • 34.

    De Veritate, xiv, I.

  • 35.

    E. Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (2nd edn, Cambridge, Heffer, 1929), 48.

  • 36.

    Ibid., 52–3.

  • 37.

    Smith, ed., op. cit., I, 1.

  • 38.

    Vatican I, session III, chap. 4.

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