Faith, Reason, and the Mess We’re In

Much of the talk today about “faith and reason” is sloppy and inadequate. It discounts the effects of the Fall and improperly separates the natural law from the order of grace, where it fits within a hierarchy of divine helps given by God to assist man in achieving his ultimate purpose. Moreover, this sloppy thinking helps to advance a program of anthropological irrationalism and religious indifferentism whose ill effects now beset both the Church and civil society.

In certain Catholic intellectual circles, a great deal is written on the compatibility of faith and reason, with a careful emphasis on the capacity of the unaided human intellect to grasp truth and of the will to live according to that truth. Catholics schooled in such circles speak much of the common cause that we have in civil society with non-Catholics, and even flat-out non-believers, as long as all parties agree about natural law principles. Upon such a solid foundation (so the thinking goes), rooted in Graeco-Roman thought and broad “Judeo-Christian” principles — though without any need for agreement on religious dogma per se — a “conservative” synthesis may be found that will maintain a healthy status quo, at least so far as civil society goes. Beyond that, we are each free to pursue our own preferences in questions of religious doctrine.

Then, there are even those who call themselves “conservative” but who favor the libertarian solution: as long as government leaves us alone, we can each do what we think best without interference. Just as the free market with its own internal laws of supply and demand will bestow economic prosperity, a free market of ideas will lead to a certain intellectual and even religious prosperity affording all parties an equal share in the pluralistic “market of ideas.”

John Horvat addresses the errors of this second group in his piece, This Is Why Liberalism’s Pantheon Failed. Here, I would like to focus on the error of the former category, who are more “conservative” inasmuch as they would oppose libertarianism on moral grounds. But they, too, are in error for failing to give adequate consideration to the effects of the Fall, and to what postlapsarian man needs even to live rightly in this world according to the natural law. Their error is naïve at best; at worst, it stands in contradiction to the Church’s teaching.

To be sure, faith and reason are not only compatible, but necessarily so, as God is the author of both. So, too, the natural law is certainly naturally knowable, and would be easily so had not sin wounded man’s intellect. But the Fall happened, and because of it, our race was punished with certain effects: ignorance in the intellect, malice in the will, concupiscence in the emotions, and suffering and death in the body.

The existence of God is knowable, and belief in Him is integral to following the natural law; but consider for a moment what is implicit in this passage from the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith (ch. 2, par. 3):

It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error.

The implication is that even the existence of God and His fundamental attributes — admittedly knowable by natural human reason alone — are not now known “without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error.” We almost did not need the Church to teach us that, because we see ignorance of these things all around us.

Saint Thomas says that the natural law is equally known to all in its general principles (beginning with “do good and avoid evil”), but not in all it conclusions or details of practical action. He further argues that, while the natural law cannot be abolished from the heart of man in its primary precepts, its secondary precepts (and therefore, also its conclusions) can be effaced. How? The answer is revealing:

But as to the other, i.e. the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Romans 1), were not esteemed sinful.

I will come back to his Romans 1 reference later.

In Humani Generis (No. 3), Ven. Pope Pius XII makes explicit what was implicit in Vatican I, namely, that divine revelation “must be considered morally necessary so that those religious and moral truths which are not of their nature beyond the reach of reason in the present condition of the human race, may be known by all men readily with a firm certainty and with freedom from all error.” Note that Pius extended the scope of this need to “religious and moral truths” which are naturally knowable, and not merely the existence of God and his attributes.

In His mercy and goodness, God included the natural law in His supernatural revelation. Of the three parts of the Mosaic Law (moral, juridical, and ceremonial), the moral law, summarized in the Decalogue, is nothing more or less than the natural law. This is the only part of the Mosiac Law that the New Law of Christ did not abolish.

It follows, then, that the natural law falls within the Church’s purview. Despite the fact that certain modern theologians draw too wide a chasm between the natural and the supernatural and thus claim that the Church has no competence in the natural law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the Church’s authority in this domain:

The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God. [CCC 2036]

The irrational “compartmentalizing” of the natural law apart from the rest of the divine economy is not terribly new. It certainly predates Vatican II. In his book, Before Church and State, Dr. Andrew Willard Jones speaks of this artificial bifurcation of nature and grace with its accompanying naïveté regarding man’s postlapsarian capacity for living according to the natural law:

Within these disciplines [Catholic theology and philosophy], widespread among textbook articulations of Thomas’s political thought is the implicit notion that he conceived of the divine law as an addition to the intact and universally accessible natural law in such a way that they existed side-by-side or in two clearly demarcated stories. We find often the notion that mankind not only has simple, rational access to the content of the natural law, but also has the ability to follow it, as if the divine law — and with it, grace — could be removed and the natural law would remain an unproblematic guide to human life which naturally virtuous humans could follow, as if, without divine law and grace, we would be left with “natural” government. In effect, social virtue (and so “natural government”) is treated as somehow immune from the effects of the Fall. While the theologians certainly acknowledge that Thomas thought that due to wounded human nature the individual cannot live according to the natural moral law without grace, somehow this acknowledgement is lost in many treatments of his political thought, within which Thomas is found suggesting that society could live by the moral law, that the “State” could be virtuous, that somehow the natural law, when considered socially, is clear and unproblematic and that un-graced mankind is capable of obeying it.

This paragraph comes near the beginning of Dr. Jones’ enlightening chapter-long discussion of Saint Thomas’ views on law. By the end of the chapter, this false optimism about man’s unaided human reason and its capacity for proper social ordering is roundly defeated, thanks to solid arguments supported by 148 footnotes, mostly from the works of Saint Thomas.

For Saint Thomas, the natural law is the creature’s participation in the mind of the eternal law. Even the natural law was “promulgated” by God. It is essentially incomplete, though, for perfecting man, even in this life. To realize our final end, which is supernatural, we need the revealed law of the New Testament, which is primarily the grace of the Holy Ghost and secondarily the written law of the Gospel. But aside from man’s final end (salvation), even to live virtuously in this life according to the natural law, Saint Thomas says that man needs human law as a further specification of the natural law. These human laws flow from the natural law and direct man to follow it. In the Old Testament, the ceremonial and judicial precepts of the Mosaic Law were given by God to fill this need for human law. All law is social in character, ordering men to live rightly in regard to others; accordingly, the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law properly ordered man’s relationship with God, while the judicial precepts properly ordered man toward his neighbor.

Very important to mention in this connection is the complementary doctrine of Saint Thomas that the (natural) love of God and neighbor is also part of the natural law. This is love (dilectio, in Saint Thomas) is not to be confused with supernatural love (caritas), but it is still a love of benevolence, willing the good of the other.

The Old Law was a preparation for the New Law of Christ; with the dawn of the grace of the New Testament, the ceremonial and judicial parts of the Mosaic Law have been both fulfilled and superseded, while the kernel of the natural moral law yet remains. It is up to Christian societies, both civil and ecclesiastical, to codify human laws that further specify the natural law. The Church gives us her own “ceremonial precepts” rightly ordering us to God in her rubrics and other liturgical laws. She further regulates our life in the society of the Church with the “judicial precepts” of her canon law, and the State does the same for civil society in its own codes of law.

According to Saint Thomas, the temporal lawgiver has as his duty to promulgate laws that further specify the natural law and thereby help man to attain his final end, his true good. Yet, the modern temporal lawgiver, i.e., the State, is not, for the most part, promulgating laws that “further specify” the natural law. In fact, the modern State now more often promulgates laws that flatly contradict the natural law, which technically means that they are not “laws” at all, as they are not for man’s good. (For an explanation of why they are not laws, see This is the End of the Law.)

The Church, in her human element, is to blame for this sad state of affairs, for she is meant to be a bulwark against such errors. To the Church was given the task to “preach to all nations.” The individual souls dwelling in those nations are not atomized monads, but men living in society. How their societies are governed — by what laws — is either a help or a hindrance to the Church’s divine mission to save souls. When we discover, to borrow from a passage of Saint Thomas already quoted, that “even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Romans 1), [are] not esteemed sinful” by Catholic priests and bishops, then we understand that these men who are supposed to be living according to the highest principles of the supernatural life are ignorant of the natural law and reject the grace to live it. These men — and their name is legion, for they are many — are not even living according to the imperfect law of the Old Testament, yet they are appointed by God to impart to the faithful what we need to live in the grace of the New Testament. The men I refer to, sodomites under the curse of Romans 1, have been given up to a “reprobate sense” (v. 28) and do not know God. How can they lead us to holiness and salvation? How can the Catholic Church successfully combat the errors and vices of the modern world when these men are tasked with the mission?

Fear not. There are good priests yet. And God will purify His Church in the crucible of suffering, the best remedy for effeminacy in all its forms.

At its zenith, Christendom gave us a wonderful synthesis of faith and reason. That was before the Protestants threw out reason and the Enlightenment rationalists threw out faith. Sadly, in modernity, even Catholics have lost the tradition of the great medieval synthesis, as is all too evident from the grim ecclesiastical landscape we now survey with great sorrow. The Church has a duty to proclaim the one true Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Logos, boldly and fearlessly. When we have done this perseveringly amid great afflictions, God will grant us a new Christendom in our own times — and men and nations will be saved.

It will happen. Deus vult!


(Note: Dr. E. Michael Jones’ insightful thoughts on Logos (as expressed, for instance, in this interview: Dr. E Michael Jones on the Logos, the Trinity, Aquinas, and Hegel) are of great value in considering further these questions of “faith and reason.”)