Since the purpose of this essay is to provide a theological and philosophical defence of these propositions of the Vatican Council, some preliminary comments by way of clarification seem appropriate. We should first note that these statements are decrees of a council of a Christian church taking responsibility for its own proper concerns, which are with the accurate statement of the nature of Christian faith and belief. As such none of them, not even canon 2.1 above - which is about what the natural light of reason can know of God - are intended to be philosophical statements, whose truth is proposed as known by 'the natural light of reason'. That canon is intended as a statement of faith, concerning what a true understanding of faith entails about the capacity of human reason to know God, namely that it is possible for human reason to know God and that the God of faith is one and the same God as the God who can be known by reason. But as such, it is not, as it were, some pretentious, cross-disciplinary claim to a merely arbitrary epistemic hegemony of faith as if, say, equivalently, a microbiologist were on grounds of some need of microbiological theory absurdly to require the mathematician to come up with a particular mathematical result regardless of whether it could be defended on mathematical grounds. For, as we shall see (though only towards the end of this essay), if, on grounds of faith, it seems necessary to conclude that the existence of God is rationally demonstrable, then it must also be the case that that demonstrability of God's existence is knowable rationally - or, at the very least, it must be possible rationally to rebut counter-claims. For, as the Vatican Council says, even though faith is 'above reason', there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, for God has created both, and 'God cannot deny himself'. Faith cannot invent rational truths for itself of which reason could not know on its own terms.
However, the proposition that faith can know of a purely rational possibility might, at first blush, seem to contain a logical oddity if one notes further that the council offers no support for any particular way of knowing the existence of God by the light of reason, except to say that it can be known thus 'with certainty from the things that have been made'. And since I take the expression 'known with certainty' to mean that the existence of God can be formally and validly proved by rational argument, the logical oddity would seem to be that of declaring a priori that a proposition is rationally demonstrable in the absence of any commitment to how and by what means that proposition might be demonstrated. But it is not clear that there is any real logical oddity there, since, as mathematicians say is the case, there are mathematical procedures for proving the prov-ability of a theorem which are not themselves proofs of the theorem; and, in another sort of case, there is no problem knowing that whether there is or is not a cat on the mat is an issue which can be settled empirically even if you have no idea where the cat or the mat actually is or of how to find either of them. That the council knows of the provability of the existence of God by faith without commitment to any particular proof is not, on that same account at least, logically incoherent.
Conversely, the council's claim for a hegemony of faith in respect of reason's capacity is not merely a matter, as it were, of faith's external relations with an alternative source of knowledge of God. Lying within the claim for an autonomous rational theological capacity is a concern with the necessary condition of faith's own self-articulation through the exercise of reason within faith, that is to say, with what reason must be capable of in its own terms if it is to serve its purpose within faith's self-exploration as quaerens intellectum. The council's decree is as if to say: if human reason is to serve faith, and so theology, within that strategy of 'seeking understanding', then it must be equipped so to do. And the view of Vatican I seems to be that that capacity of reason must be such that the certain knowledge of God from creatures lies within its own reach strictly as reason. Hence, it is not so much that having to hand some rational proof of the existence of God is required by faith, still less that faith can dictate which arguments validly prove it. The council's decree is negative:
to deny reason that capacity in principle is so to attenuate its scope as to limit excessively its service to faith.
But even as thus moderately interpreted (and nowhere in this essay do
1 defend a stronger interpretation than that), the Vatican Council's doctrinal decree would seem to stand in more than one form of conflict with most philosophical and theological opinion of recent times. To consider just three such opinions, it stands in conflict in one way with the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in another with the Protestant theology of Karl Barth, and in yet a third way with certain schools of thought within Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century.
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