The Problems of the Modern View of Faith

By Fr. Daniel Cardó 

Fr. Daniel Cardó received his doctorate from Maryvale Institute and holds the Benedict XVI Chair for Liturgical Studies at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He is also visiting professor at the Augustine Institute. Fr. Cardó is the author of What Does It Mean to Believe?: Faith in the Thought of Joseph Ratzinger.

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Photo Credit: Filip Bunkens

In considering the question of the validity of faith for modern man, we need to understand modernity’s approach to faith in the context of modernity’s broader approach to reality. For modernity, faith is considered a type of knowledge that fails to meet the fundamental criterion that validates all knowing: that which we can perceive with our senses. But to arrive at this point, Joseph Ratzinger explains, modernity has gone through two profound spiritual and cultural stages.  

He describes the first step as the birth of historicism. This moment was prepared by Descartes and reached its fullest expression in Kant, but Ratzinger draws particular attention to the role of Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Vico denotes, according to Ratzinger, “the real end of the old metaphysics and the beginning of the specifically modern attitude of mind. This first step consists in leaving the ancient idea of truth, verum est ens (being is truth), to pass on to verum quia factum (truth is what has been made).  

In other words, we can only truly know that which we have made. Vico formally bases this proposition on Aristotle: from the need for knowledge of causes, he concludes that we can only know something if we know the cause of it. Therefore, “the old equation of truth and being is replaced by the new one of truth and factuality.” With it comes the dominance of fact, and thus history, alongside mathematics, acquired a scientific weight that it had never had before.  

The second step consists in the move toward technical thinking, expressed as moving from verum quia factum to verum quia faciendum (truth is what is being made). What matters here is not what man has made, but what can be made, the makable over the made. Therefore, it is the future, not the past, which is now seen as definitive.  

Here, the influence of Karl Marx (1818–1883) is critical. In this step, the techne supplants history; truth is what is repeatable, and thus the only decisive and sure criterion for knowledge is the natural scientific method. From this perspective, knowing what can be made, knowing the new man that can be created, is more important than knowing the historical origins.  

From here we can see where the process has gone: “[T]he reduction of man to a ‘fact’ is the precondition for understanding him as a faciendum (as something “makable”) that is to be led out of its own resources into a new future.” These two stages culminate in what Ratzinger calls an essential “characteristic of our contemporary scientific attitude . . . the limitation to ‘phenomena,’ to what is evident and can be grasped.” It is a conception of reality made by the generalization of the scientific method as the definitive criterion for knowledge, suggesting that we can only truly know that which can be repeated. Consequently, “the scientific method, which consists of a combination of mathematics (Descartes!) and devotion to the facts in the form of the repeatable experiment, appears to be the one real vehicle of reliable certainty.”  

It is here that the scientific method becomes absolute, bringing with it “a self-limitation of positive reason, which is adequate in the technical domain, but which, when it gets generalized, mutilates man.”  

This conception of reality that is born from limiting truth to phenomena, what we can sense and that which can be proven, implies “a new concept of truth and reality” in which we cease “seeking the hidden ‘in-itselfness’ of things and sounding the nature of being itself; such activities seem to us to be a fruitless enterprise.”  

We now arrive at a point where we “no longer seek truth but only inquire about the correctness of the methods applied . . . The renunciation of truth itself and a reliance upon what is verifiable and upon the correctness of methods are typical of the modern natural scientific outlook.” The “methodic self-limitation” of modern thought results in brushing aside the great questions of humanity, giving up any hope of an answer, and concentrating exclusively on that which we can prove through natural science. The influence of this conception of reality limited to phenomena is so significant that the “scientific rationality” of modernity has generated a “technological culture made possible by science [that] places its stamp on what is now truly the whole world.” 

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In What Does it Mean to Believe?, Fr. Daniel Cardó outlines the different insights of Joseph Ratzinger on the act of faith—understood as a personal, integral, and ecclesial act. Cardó provides an organic view of the rich contribution made by the Pope Emeritus in his many theological works.