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Monday, September 14, 2009

0087: Brief Reflections Inspired by the Anniversary of Publication of Fides et Ratio

Entry 0087: Brief Reflections Inspired by the Anniversary of Publication of Fides et Ratio


The present article concentrates on one of the central messages of Fides et Ratio, the existence of one universal valid philosophy which serves as point of reference for all rational inquiry.


Eleven years ago today Pope John Paul II published the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio. The document was “signed in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on September 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, in the year 1998.”

At the time, Alessandra Stanley properly described John Paul II’s document as “one of his most personal pronouncements to date: a crystallization of his philosophical and theological thinking over a lifetime” (The New York Times, October 16, 1998).

Fides et Ratio calls attention towards the validity of a universal philosophy, a philosophy which transcends all cultures, particular times, individual thinkers, and the thoughts and lives of all men and women who sincerely seek the truth.

The encyclical defends an appeal to the 'philosophy of being' in order to show that it is possible to move from the historical and contingent circumstances which necessarily envelop philosophical production to the point of reaching the fundamental elements of knowledge produced by the "natural philosophy of the human mind."

John Paul II states, “The ‘philosophy of being’ is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very ‘act of being’ itself (ipse actus essendi), which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole” (Fides et Ratio, no. 97.)

It is this explicit reference to Aquinas’ notion of actus essendi what makes Fides et Ratio unique among the papal documents of such authority dealing with the value and universality of philosophy.

The expression actus essendi is a technical term used by Aquinas in its restricted meaning. Translated as ‘act of being,’ actus essendi is the most profound perfection of a thing; it is an internal incommunicable metaphysical principle inseparable from the thing itself, from the ‘essence’ of the thing, and from anything that exists in the thing.

With unmistakable clarity, in Fides et Ratio John Paul II directed the attention of philosophers, and thinkers in general, towards the methodology of the actus essendi. In favoring the ‘philosophy of the actus essendi,’ John Paul II identified the school of ‘sound’ thinking.

There is nothing more self-evident to the intellect than the ‘actuality in being’ and the truth that ‘actuality in being cannot be denied and affirmed at the same time.’

Otherwise stated, in the dynamism of acquisition, conception, and articulation of knowledge, a deviation from the order things themselves possess, is simply a poorly grounded inference because the intellect of every human being functions with a natural inclination towards first principles. And since 'actuality in being' cannot be denied -- it is the very first principle unfailingly available to us all -- a tacit affirmation of the methodology of the actus essendi is always at work in the mind of every person.

With the caliber of a philosopher and the authority of a teacher, in Fides et Ratio Wojtyla indicated what the code of discipline for philosophers is and emphasized the self-correcting capacity of true philosophy. “Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orth(o-)s logos, recta ratio” (Fides et Ratio, no. 4.)

Through philosophy’s work and the ability to speculate, the human intellect has produced a rigorous mode of thought. The most precious fruit of this process is the notion of actus essendi which carries with it an intrinsic and inseparable methodology.

John Paul II’s message that from the methodological point of view, the philosophy of the actus essendi is “a branch of knowledge that cannot be reduced to any other science whatever because is one that transcends them all by establishing itself as independent of them and at the same time as bringing them to completion in regard to their true nature,” has not been heard in a variety of circles.

The Pope’s fundamental attitude towards the ‘philosophy of being’ is clear and explicit but many interpreters of John Paul II -- dazzled by the novelty of Husserl’s phenomenology, Scheller’s personalism, and the philosophy of consciousness -- have ended up rejecting that in the Pope’s mind there is one universal valid philosophy.

In practice these interpreters are no longer giving priority to the actus essendi.

In Fides et Ratio John Paul II expresses forcefully that the Church does not canonize any philosophical system. But in developing the exposition the observation is plainly made equivalent to saying that, beyond the various systems and schools of thoughts, the ‘philosophy of being’ -- and more concretely the doctrine of the actus essendi -- is an inherent, essential ‘tool’ of the power of reason.

The actus essendi is an all-embracing point of reference on which the power of reason must rely to correctly exercise its functions.