On Oct. 11, 2012, Pope Benedict declared a Year of Faith for the Catholic world. This was in response to the growing secularism pervading nations which formerly were overwhelmingly Christian. The world of the late 20th and early 21st century suffers from two basic flaws, a loss of the sense of personal responsibility in morals and a loss of absolute truths.
Everything is seen as relative. There seems to be nothing to grasp firmly. This situation is a direct result of a Promethean acceptance of reason and progress as though these things alone can guarantee the final solution of the problem of human truth and even more of human evil. Even more, the affirmation that man can rival God through technology and be the captain of his own soul has mesmerized the human race, befogging the mind and deadening the soul to the good for which God has created man: union with him.
Coupled with this, even in the Catholic Church, there has been a great loss of catechesis caused by the theological questioning that often follows a great council such as Vatican II. This, too, has caused a general desertion of the strength and confidence once offered to so many millions through the holy Catholic faith.
The Pope is hoping that a renewed understanding of both the strength and limitations of human reason will lead to a rebirth of the depth and power of the Catholic faith and thus the consolation which the Church can offer to the human race. He also wants to point out that truth is nothing without witness, recalling Catholics to a more evident practice of the holiness offered to them from their doctrine.
In the last 400 years, modern philosophy has been plagued by a lack of certainty in knowledge that began with the rejection that one could arrive at "the truth" through reason or faith. The difficulties with reason began when, through the work of scientists — like Galileo’s proof that the heavenly bodies were all made of matter like Earth — philosophers began to question all the received wisdom from people like Aristotle, who held that Earth was of a different material. This led to a wholesale distrust of the perennial knowledge that had governed thinking in Europe for hundreds of years.
On the theological plane, there was the rejection of any kind of absolute authority in religion apart from the individual’s interpretation of Scripture, begun by Martin Luther. There were no truths one could hold on to as undoubted in either reason or religion.
The first great philosopher of the modern era, Rene Descartes, was stricken by the problem of finding certainty in knowledge. He was a careful thinker who wanted that one elusive principle which would be the origin of all truth. He could not find it in his everyday experience, since he discovered the senses could be flawed. After all, the stick can look bent in water because of refracted light. If one cannot believe one’s eyes, what can one believe? He was only certain of one thing: If he doubted, he thought; and if he thought, he must exist. If he existed, there must be someone keeping him in existence who guaranteed the existence of everything. Many thinkers call this a "turn to the subject." The origin of truth was then not in the objective world, but in the subject. Also, there was a divorce between the senses and the intelligence in such a way that one must either find truth in mere sense description or in the self. This led to skepticism.
In regard to faith, this divorce caused many problems. Either faith was emotion, as is the case with people like the Quakers or the Quietists, or it is pure thought and identified with reason, as is the case with the Masons. In any case, there was no need for another science apart from reason or emotion to enlighten the human race about the nature of God and Christ. The humanist faith was born. This is the religion where faith is merely a projection of man, not a revelation from the Trinity.
In this new religion, there is no need for any kind of Divine revelation, nor is faith interpreted as an ascent to another form of knowledge than the one science can bring through human reason. Reason or emotion implemented in an absolutely fixed evolution of human progress can solve the inner problem of the human soul. Sin is just the result of bad bureaucracies. The sin of Adam is interpreted to be merely bad example. This is a modern form of the heresy of Pelagianism, which taught that grace only aided a human being externally to do what he always had the power to do in himself.
Yet the more man tries to erase mystery from the world, the more mysterious the world becomes. The secularist age was born on this altar on which faith was sacrificed. Those who are its priests maintain that not only is the recourse to another form of knowledge than science and progress irrelevant and anachronistic, but it actually robs man of his reason and reduces him to a creature of superstition and fear.
In this new religion, Christ becomes a good man who is either a political revolutionary or a middle-class person who challenges his followers to nothing. Being nice is the purpose of faith, not the knowledge of a Supreme Being who is wholly other than us.
Yet the astonishing fact of the 20th and 21st centuries is that, despite all the efforts to make faith and religion inconsequential to man, it not only survives, but flourishes, in today’s world.
Of course, this is not often with the blessing of culture. Sometimes it is even against culture. Yet Pope Benedict is issuing a challenge to return to the beauty, dynamism and mystery of our religion. He is challenging us to realize that the human mind and thus the human heart can be stilled with nothing less than God. Man simply cannot arrive at God by his own knowledge.
Though science and philosophy have taught us many truths, real science also teaches that there must be a science of God in which ultimate truth is finally found. Only then can the problem of man have a blueprint for resolution. As Luke 8:50 says: "Fear is useless; only believe."
Dominican Father Brian Mullady is an academician of the Catholic Academy of
Science, adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
in Cromwell, Connecticut, and the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life.