13

In philosophy, fideism seems to be used as a label to refer to epistemological approaches that tend to prioritize faith over reason. And this makes sense; after all, "fideism" is just Latin for "faith-ism."

In the context of Catholic theology, fideism is a bad thing. John Paul II warned against "a resurgence of fideism" (Fides et ratio) and Pius X links it to modernism in Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

But it turns out that "fideism" is actually a very vague term, particularly so because it is frequently used pejoratively by opponents of certain belief systems. One person might be accused of fideism for believing that reason alone cannot demonstrate God's existence, while another might be accused of it for believing that reason alone cannot change a sinner's heart.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gets to the heart of it:

Fideism claims that truths of a certain kind can be grasped only by foregoing rational inquiry and relying solely on faith. [source, emphasis added]

Using this language, my question is: What are the "truths of a certain kind" found in the fideism rejected by the Catholic Church?

Put another way: According to Catholicism, in what matters is it legitimate to prioritize faith over reason? For example, consider doctrines like:

  • the nature of the Trinity
  • The immaculate conception of Mary
  • The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
  • The descent of Jesus into Hades after his crucifixion
  • The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist

Are these doctrines thought to be discernible exclusively or primarily through reason? Or do they find their primary support in one's faith in the Scriptures and Tradition?

How does the Catholic Church define the fideism that it rejects?

I am particularly interested in direct quotes from papal encyclicals and official documents of the Vatican, particularly post-Vatican II.

  • 1
    Great question. I've always wondered how this plays into the distinction between general and special revelation. The doctrines you list are in the latter, so technically our reason alone can't grasp them. But we can supposedly get to them by subscribing to the Church, which is itself entered in by faith and reason. – Joseph Hinkle Dec 12 '18 at 21:20
  • 1
    There's a good EWTN documentary on the Personalism John Paul II that had a whole lecture devoted to fideism, that was the first time I'd ever heard the term. Not sure if I can elaborate based on remembrances of that program beyond what you already said in your post though. – Peter Turner Dec 12 '18 at 21:29
2

Problematic fideism in Catholicism occurs when faith is exalted at the expense of reason. That is, when faith involves or requires irrationality. Doctrines such as the Trinity are beyond reason and accessible only to faith, but they do not entail a transgression of reason. This can also occur in a lesser mode when appeals to faith downplay or undermine the role of reason. For example, John Paul II warns against privileging faith in scripture over the rationality of tradition and the Magisterium:

There are also signs of a resurgence of fideism, which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God. One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition,73 the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles”.74 Scripture, therefore, is not the Church's sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith” 75 derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.76

Fides et Ratio, 55

John Paul II goes some way towards defining fideism when he quotes Dei Filius of the First Vatican Council. As noted above, problematic fideism is not the belief in the superiority of faith, but rather the belief that there can be a true divergence between faith and reason which results in a contradiction between the truths of faith and the truths of reason:

“Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth”.65

Fides et Ratio, 53

1

Fideists think faith is based on a feeling and not something that resides in the intellect.

Faith is the assent of the intellect to the truths* revealed by God**.
*Faith's material object    **Faith's formal object, the First Truth    (cf. the question "Whether the object of faith is the First Truth?")

This assent requires absolute certitude, not probability:

  • Vatican I Dei Filius ch. 3 "On Faith":

    the assent of faith is by no means a blind action of the mind

  • condemned proposition in Pope St. Pius X's Lamentabili sane:

    25. The assent of faith ultimately rests on a mass of probabilities

  • Sauvage, G. (1909), Fideism:

    before we believe in a proposition as revealed by God, we must first know with certitude that God exists, that He reveals such and such a proposition, and that His teaching is worthy of assent, all of which questions can and must be ultimately decided only by an act of intellectual assent based on objective evidence.
    These things are called the preambles of faith (præambula fidei), because they come before faith:
    The main premises of reason on which the act of divine faith depends as on its rational foundation. They are mainly three: 1. the existence of God; 2. his authority, or right to be believed because he knows all things and is perfectly truthful; and 3. the fact that he actually made a revelation, which is proved especially by miracles or fulfilled prophecies performed in testimony of a prophet's (or Christ's) claim to speaking in the name of God. (Etym. Latin praeambulus, walking in front: prae, in front + ambulare, to walk.)

  • Catechism of the Council of Trent pt. 1 a. 1 "I believe…":

    Faith Excludes Doubt
    The knowledge derived through faith must not be considered less certain because its objects are not seen; for the divine light by which we know them, although it does not render them evident, yet suffers us not to doubt them. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath himself shone in our hearts (2 Cor. 4:6), that the gospel be not hidden to us, as to those that perish. (2 Cor. 4:3).

  • ibid. "Necessity of Faith":

    That faith thus understood is necessary to salvation no man can reasonably doubt, particularly since it is written: Without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:6). For as the end proposed to man as his ultimate happiness is far above the reach of human understanding, it was therefore necessary that it should be made known to him by God. This knowledge, however, is nothing else than faith, by which we yield our unhesitating assent to whatever the authority of our Holy Mother the Church teaches us to have been revealed by God; for the faithful cannot doubt those things of which God, who is truth itself, is the author. Hence we see the great difference that exists between this faith which we give to God and that which we yield to the writers of human history.2

    2. On the necessity of faith see Summa Theol. 2a. 2ae. ii. 3 ["Whether it is necessary for salvation to believe anything above the natural reason?"], 4 ["Whether it is necessary to believe those things which can be proved by natural reason?"].

Fideism, as Pascendi Dominici gregis §7 points out, results in thinking that faith is based on a sentiment or feeling,

without any prior judgment of the mind (nullo praevertente mentis iudicio).


According to Catholicism, in what matters is it legitimate to prioritize faith over reason?

All the truths you list above, which are beyond the capabilities of human reason alone to discover, can only be known through faith. See, for example: "Whether the trinity of the divine persons can be known by natural reason?" (Summa Theologica I q. 32 a. 1).

Just because there are truths beyond our human natural reason, that doesn't mean faith is not an intellectual virtue grounded in reason.

See: Summa contra Gentiles I ch. 6: "That to give assent to the truths of faith is not foolishness even though they are above reason".

An analogy: One wouldn't say that because calculus is beyond arithmetic that arithmetic is to be despised or is not necessary.

  • 1
    Thanks – that "preambles of faith" is definitely on target. Most of the rest of the answer seems to focus on the certainty of faith, which, while perhaps related, doesn't seem directly tied to whether reason or faith is primary. If you are suggesting that the fideism rejected by Catholicism specifically goes beyond the faith vs. reason primacy issue and includes the "faith is blind / probability based" idea, it'd be helpful to more explicitly establish that. – Nathaniel Dec 13 '18 at 1:04
  • You've explained what faith is well, but not what fideism is nearly so much. – curiousdannii Dec 13 '18 at 11:38
  • @Nathaniel "fideism rejected by Catholicism specifically goes beyond the faith vs. reason primacy issue" Yes, there is no "faith vs. reason primacy issue" in Catholicism (cf. Dei Filius ch. 4 on Faith and Reason). "Faith vs. reason primacy" is an issue for fideists, because they think reason endangers faith. – Geremia Dec 13 '18 at 13:54
  • @curiousdannii I've focused more on defining what faith is because fideists think it is a feeling and not something intellectual. – Geremia Dec 13 '18 at 13:54
  • @Nathaniel «"preambles of faith" is definitely on target» Check out Ralph M. McInerny's Præambula Fidei. – Geremia Dec 14 '18 at 4:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.