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Renewing theDialogue Between Faith and Reason: Engaging Academics and Artists

by Jem Sullivan, PhD
Adjunct Faculty
Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies

At the conclusion of the recent Synod on the New Evangelization, Cardinal Donald Wuerl emphasized that, "the New Evangelization is not a temporary moment. The New Evangelization is not a program but a way of seeing the world around us and how to proclaim the Gospel." (Cardinal Donald Wuerl, statement to the media on the propositions from the Synod on the New Evangelization, October 28, 2012). Cardinal Wuerl went on to observe that the synod fathers recognized the need for dialogue and communication between the scientific world and the Church. A number of synod propositions highlighted this dialogue of the Church with specific areas in the scientific and academic community. One of these synod propositions affirmed that, "the dialogue between science and faith is a vital field in the New Evangelization. On the one hand, this dialogue requires the openness of reason to the mystery which transcends it and an awareness of the fundamental limits of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, it also requires a faith that is open to reason and to the results of scientific research" (General Synod on the New Evangelization, Proposition 54: The Dialogue Between Science and Faith,

As Cardinal Wuerl explained, "the Church is aware that somehow the beauty of the Gospel message has to be translated into the world in which so many people find themselves academically, scientifically, and technologically." He added that "it is important not to just say that our Lord is good but that he is also beautiful. The Gospel is beautiful (and that beauty) is deeply rooted in the history of the Church. In Rome, we are surrounded by beauty and I think that was one of the things the Synod was trying to say. We must not lose the ability, not just in art but in music and liturgy as well; we must not lose that (in order) to awaken people to the beauty that is God" (Wuerl, statement).

The recent Synod on the New Evangelization affirms the vital importance of the dialogue between faith, the arts, and the sciences. It also prompts reflection on the nature of faith itself. This essay will take up these questions as it considers the challenge of renewing dialogue between faith and reason by engaging artists, scientists, and academics in the life of faith and the Church.

Contemplating the nature of faith in the Year of Faith

"The Year of Faith" as the Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith stresses, "is intended to contribute to a renewed conversion to the Lord Jesus and to the rediscovery of faith, so that the members of the church will be credible and joy-filled witnesses to the risen Lord in the world of today – capable of leading those many people who are seeking faith to the 'door of faith.'" This "door" opens wide man's gaze to Jesus Christ, present among us "always, until the end of the age (Mt 28:20)"  (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith, January 6, 2012).

The rediscovery of faith and Christian witness, during the Year of Faith and beyond, leads us to consider first the nature of faith itself. What does it mean to be a person of faith? How are faith and reason, belief and science, related to one another? How is faith and reason to be reconciled in a world that often sets them in opposition? We begin this reflection by considering such questions.

The Nature of Faith

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that "believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit" (CCC 154). And so we are invited to be open to the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit, the principal agent of the new evangelization. The Catechism goes on to affirm that "trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed are contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason" (CCC 154). In other words, faith and reason are not contrary to each other; in fact, they both elevate and deepen one another.

Blessed Pope John Paul II spoke of the relationship between faith and reason in the opening sentences of his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio when he wrote, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and 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 (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2)" (Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Fides et Ratio, September 14, 1998, Introduction).

In the same vein, the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults summarizes well the relationship of faith and reason in this way:

Faith seeks understanding and is a friend of reason. Faith as a grace or gift from God makes it possible to gain some understanding of all that he revealed to us, including the totality of his plan as well as the many mysteries of faith. Growth in understanding God's revelation is a lifelong process. Theology and catechesis help us. We never completely understand these divine mysteries, but we often gain insight into them. In this context, faith and reason work together to discover truth. To ever suppose that human thought or scientific research can or should be in conflict with faith is a mistaken approach because this position denies the basic truth that everything has been created by God. Scholarly and scientific research that is carried out in a manner faithful to reason and to moral law will not conflict with truth as revealed by God"  (United Sates Catholic Catechism for Adults, Chapter 4 – Bring About the Obedience of Faith, 38).

Christian faith is also not a blind obedience of the mind, heart, and will to God. In fact, faith is a free response of the whole human person to God who reveals. As the Catechism teaches,

"What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason; we believe 'because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.' So 'that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that the external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.' Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church's growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all; they are 'motives of credibility' which show that the assent of faith is 'by no means a blind impulse of the mind'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 156).

To affirm that belief in God is not contrary to human freedom or reason opens the path for believers to enter into dialogue with those dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge in every field of human endeavor. This dialogue can flourish particularly in those sectors of society dedicated to the intellectual life, such as science and technology, and in the fields of human culture, such as the arts and communications media. The basis for the dialogue between believers and those engaged in the sciences and the arts is the fundamental principle that faith and reason are not opposed to each other, but that they are, in fact, "two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth" (Fides et Ratio).

Faith and science

The relationship between faith and science is also rooted in the capacity of the human mind to be enlightened by faith. To be human is to be created in the image and likeness of God, endowed with reason and will. We believe that God can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason. "Without this capacity," as the Catechism notes, "man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created 'in the image of God" (CCC 36).

In understanding the relationship between faith and science we affirm that "faith is a friend of reason," in the words of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Chapter 4 – Bring About the Obedience of Faith, 38). In that light we can be sure that when scientific research is conducted according to moral laws it will not stand in opposition to revealed truths of faith. As the Catechism notes,

"'Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.' 'Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried outin a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are'" (CCC 159).

Faith and the arts

The relationship between faith and reason, grounded in the reality of God the creator of the world, opens the way for reflection on the relationship between the Church and the arts. For two thousand years the Church has supported and encouraged the creation and preservation of the arts. In times past, the Church was the principal patron of the arts. In our time, the Second Vatican Council laid the foundation for a renewed relationship between the Church and culture, between Christian faith and the world of the arts.

At the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Council fathers addressed a special appeal to artists when they stated that, "this world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and the tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration" (Pope Paul VI, Address to Artists, December 8, 1965,

In his 1999 Letter to Artists Blessed John Paul II noted the importance of bridging the world of faith and the arts. He also spoke of the invaluable contributions of artists to the life of the Church when he stressed that, "the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. . . . in order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art" (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, April 4, 1999, 10 and 12,

One of the many challenges of the new evangelization will be to engage artists in every field of human creativity in a dialogue of respect and understanding. In the words of Blessed John Paul II, "I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theater and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists … you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man … (for) humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny" (Ibid., 14).

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from General Synod on the New Evangelization, copyright © 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV), Vatican City; excerpts from Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith, copyright © 2012, LEV; Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, copyright © 1998, LEV; Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, copyright © 1999, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.