John Paul II Identified the Source of Our Present Cultural Malaise

Late in life, Pope John Paul II gave a series of interviews subsequently collected in the book Memory and Identity (2005). There, in response to a question about the pervasive ideologies that had swept Europe during the past couple of centuries, and which had resulted in the slaughter of millions, he contended that in order to explain all this,

we have to go back to the period before the Enlightenment, especially to the revolution brought about by the philosophical thought of Descartes. The cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) radically changed the way of doing philosophy. In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say the cogito, or rather the cognosco, was subordinate to esse, which was considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior. This not only changed the direction of philosophizing, but it marked the decisive abandonment of what philosophy had been hitherto, particularly the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and namely the philosophy of esse.

Before Descartes, philosophy was concerned with being (esse), with what was real and with the reasoning necessary to bring the mind to an adequate knowledge of that reality. Since Descartes, the concern has been primarily (even exclusively) with questioning the instrument of reason—that is, with analyzing thought. Citing this shift from metaphysics to epistemology as first philosophy was not an especially new observation.

What was new was the pope’s resurrecting this reading of intellectual history when he did. In the early twentieth century, the advocates of neo-Thomism (a renewal of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s method of philosophy and theology) chose this Cartesian “break” as the obstacle to be overcome: we must get back to the reality of being and out of the cobwebbed darkness of thought, where philosophy had in a sense languished, turning and turning upon itself, unable to gain any traction. The two best-known Catholic philosophers of the age, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, averred that, if one took the Cartesian cogito as the starting point for philosophy, one could never get outside it. Extra-mental being was prior to thought and consciousness: real things stir the intellect into activity in the first place, and so there was no reason to begin philosophy in thought. Thought, in a sense, begins in being.

Such an overtly counter-modern agenda had been abandoned by most Catholic philosophers and theologians after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) in favor of roughly four projects: (a) historical theology, the study of the source texts and historical contexts of Christianity; (b) ecumenism, an effort to rearticulate Catholic doctrine in hopes of reaching out to other Christians, Jews, and non-Christians and moving toward reconciliation and cooperation where possible; (c) “relevant” evangelization, a turning away from speculative philosophy and theology in favor of trying to address the Gospel to varied generational and individual needs; and (d) philosophical and theological pluralism, in which theologians, abandoning the strict, some would say constricting, neo-Thomism of the previous half century or more, looked back to Patristic and other medieval traditions of thought in hopes of discovering other ways of thinking about the Revealed Word.

In many ways, John Paul II had played a supportive role in each of these post–Vatican II endeavors. As a philosopher trained in the Continental phenomenological tradition, he had distinguished himself in calling attention to personhood as the decisive terrain where the mystery and meaning of life must be addressed. Phenomenology’s prioritization in experience and subjectivity often seemed an advanced form of Cartesian philosophy, and certainly seemed to embrace the cognito and abandon esse. As pope, John Paul II scandalized traditionalists by praying with the leaders of other faiths and by emphasizing the inculturation of Catholicism into non-Western traditions. His failure to embrace the courtly practices of past popes, his very public travels, and his acceptance of rock-inspired liturgical music aimed at Western youth, patently set him apart from pontiffs past and raised many eyebrows. Was he placing the appearance of “relevance” ahead of the timeless truths expressed in doctrine?


In his major encyclical, Fides et Ratio (1998), John Paul II praised the achievement of these sorts of approaches to philosophy, theology, and evangelization, but far from suggesting they were achievements made possible by an abandonment of the traditions of Aristotelian and Thomist metaphysics, he suggested that these projects must be undertaken in the context of, and founded on, a sure philosophy of being. If theology lost its grounding in sound realist metaphysics, its truths would inevitably be lost-by-metamorphosis in the processes of inculturation and ecumenical rearticulation. If humanity in general lost confidence in being as the ground of reality and in reason as ordered to being, as the neo-Thomists claimed it was, then there would be no platform on which honest dialogue could occur among believers and nonbelievers.

We see the effort at reconciling what had been thought oppositional positions—Cartesian-inspired phenomenology and Thomist metaphysics—in the first chapter (“The Revelation of God’s Wisdom”). The pope emphasizes that it is in our particular, personal encounter with God’s revelation within the horizon of historical experience that all our reasoning takes place. In the personal interior experience of wonder and desire to know, and in the absolute universality and absolute historical particularity of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word of God (§11–15), we wonder, we think, we desire to know the truth about ourselves and about reality. And, in that subjective experience, we become open to encountering in faith what God alone can reveal. In this account of human experience, the distinction between modern “subjective” philosophy and pre-modern “objective” metaphysics vanishes: what we, as subjects, want to know is the truth, that which is objective—unconditioned being, esse, what is real. All truth is universal, but our most profound natural questions call out for answers from a truth that is also absolute and so brings our inquiries—our infinite yearning—to rest (§27).

What stimulates the pope to write, however, is not merely a desire to reconcile competing but independently acceptable philosophical traditions. In the interview quoted above, after all, he suggests that modern philosophy contributed to the disasters of the world wars and the rise of communist and fascist ideologies that had taken turns torturing and dominating John Paul II’s native Poland for much of six decades. Post-Cartesian philosophy, with its impetus to doubt everything, to deny human experience and tradition, and to settle for nothing less than apodictic (self-grounded and self-demonstrating) “mathematical” certainty, ultimately led to a shrinking of mankind’s trust in reason and to a consequent shrinking of the horizon of human experience. If man is, as the pope claims, the creature who knows himself, then this emergence of a culture of doubt was itself dehumanizing. Persistent doubt, in turn, led not to the shelving of expired ideas but to a clearing of the field for evil ones.

Depending on which moderns one reads, man despairs of knowing the truth and despairs of life having meaning at all (e.g., Friedrich Nietzsche) or he refuses to give any further thought to the intractable problems that nonetheless reside at the very core of his being (e.g., David Hume). These amount to surrendering both the subjective and objective drives to philosophy: we decide we cannot know being and we consequently devalue the experience of human nature as a rational animal, as a creature who seeks to know the truth about himself. Thus, in the broadest context, the Pope summons us to thought in an age largely mired in nihilism (those who do think, believe nothing), pragmatism (the refusal to think in any terms outside those regarding what man can control or dominate), and historical relativism (the presumption that thought is always the useless expression of one’s historically contingent feelings; we thus assume anything is right to the extent it conforms to our pleasurable feelings, even as we recognize that the term “right” is mostly empty of content).

Contemporary philosophers and theologians manifest symptoms of this larger cultural malaise. The dominant figures in philosophy either shrink from or smile darkly upon the questions the pope sees as central to their discipline. Contemporary Continental philosophy takes its orientation from Nietzsche and, largely, sets out merely to describe what the world looks like to one who no longer believes in the integrity of the human person as subject or the integrity of the world as grounded in truth and being. Contemporary analytic philosophy could be called, in a sense, Humian, in that it gives up “idle speculation” about big questions and restricts its inquiry to describing the nature and function of statements in human language. It deliberately does not ask “big questions,” though it may explore the structure of a phrase like “big questions.” Neither of these traditions answers the subjective need to philosophize born of wonder, and neither leads us to a certain encounter with the foundations of being. Theologians since Vatican II, as we have seen, have also turned away from questions of reality in favor of a call to relevance that leads to relativism and a call to historical study that leads to a pedantic historicism. These theological turns distrust reason and consequently stop asking fundamental questions in favor of either seeking out facts (historical positivism) or of assuming an “irrational” or nonrational foundation behind theology (such as we find in Protestant and postmodern forms of fideism).

The pope’s summons proves extremely daunting: he wants a philosophy attentive to metaphysics in order to reground modern theology in a concern with reality—with objective and absolute truth. But, in 1998, he finds no one (or few) in contemporary philosophy turned toward the questions of being. Who any longer treats philosophy as founded in its sapiential dimension—that is, in its drive to explore the foundational human questions all persons need answered if they are to live fully (§81)? And who endeavors to arrive at philosophy’s “genuinely metaphysical range” (§83), its concern with being, with what is real? And so Fides et Ratio makes an intervention in philosophy in hopes of building up a population of philosophers who might, someday and in turn, help to rebuild modern theology as a discipline attentive to the foundations of reality rather than merely the phenomena of history or experience. Beyond analytic and Continental philosophy, we need, as it were, a renewal of “plain old-fashioned philosophy.”


Thus, the provisional nature of this encyclical. It makes insightful arguments about the history of religions and intellectual inquiry in general; it recovers a reading or narrative of history often dismissed as the alibi of an anti-modern Church; but in doing so it primarily makes the case for others to begin a new work: the rediscovery of human life as an intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage whose terrain is always what is real (being) and whose horizons are the specific historical revelation of God’s Word and the “infinite mystery” of God Himself (§14). We are asked to rediscover that the reason of “separate philosophy” leads finally to despair of reason. If, on the contrary, we recognize that reason is preceded by faith (as we experience, for instance, in the already present desire to know the truth about ourselves) and that reason is completed by faith (reason opens onto truths that, finally, surpass it and that it can see in only fragmented fashion) (§13)—we discover something grand. Reason participates in the human being’s circular journey from the gift of being and the gift of revelation toward a theological understanding of those gifts. It is man’s natural means of searching for a truth that ultimately transcends human life and reason alike and brings all searching to an end (§73).

In the years since the encyclical’s publication, the rise of the Radical Orthodoxy theologians—some of whom are Roman Catholic, but most of whom are Anglo-Catholic—suggests that John Paul II’s commission did not fall on deaf ears. John Milbank, their best-known representative, has called into question what he calls “secular reason,” the consensus view of reason in a “scientistic” liberal society. By this term, he intends the notion of reason as self-grounded in its own powers—a conception we often express in terms of rational “disinterestedness” and “objectivity,” and which we implement by insisting that it is only rational to affirm as true that which is based in verifiable empirical observation and thorough quantitative analysis. Like John Paul II, Milbank argues that human reason is conditioned by a faith prior to it and finds its completion in truths that transcend it. We misrepresent our own everyday reasoning if we think it is grounded in the empirically self-evident. We foil the aspirations of our reason if we close it off to truths given from a source beyond its control.

Radical Orthodoxy also recovers for theology the metaphysical dimension John Paul II called on philosophy to provide. But its metaphysics is chiefly that of Christian Platonism. Does this fully answer the call? It is hard to say, but I would suggest that if the demolishing of secular reason was long overdue, it does not necessarily entail the loss of what we might call “secular being.” John Paul II clearly believed as much. While he affirmed that reason is preceded and completed by faith—or rather, while he affirmed that the journey of faith “uses” philosophical reasoning instrumentally—he did not suggest that faith closes off the truth of the Christian from speaking to and hearing the nonbeliever. It is in philosophy, above all in metaphysics, that we discover the “only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith” (§104). Being is in this sense “secular.” We encounter it, and think in its terms, regardless of whether we perceive that our reason is grounded beyond itself and beyond being. If the surpassing of “secular reason” is not to prove yet another postmodern withering of reason, then it shall probably have to acknowledge the secularity of being—that being is the term all human intellects drink and is the primary act of the real. Only a philosophy that can meet this metaphysical challenge will answer John Paul II’s summons and help us to overcome the centuries of destruction, doubt, and diminished horizons that many persons still have the naiveté to call “progress.”

This article originally appeared on First Principles on April 15, 2010, and is reprinted with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.


James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). His latest book is titled The Fortunes of Poetry in An Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015). Readers can learn more about his writing at

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