Guarino’s Prolegomena of a Systematic Theology

Orthodox Christian belief must always be the standard against which any philosophy is measured. Fully integrating postmodernity into theology — with its rejection of metaphysics, its reduction of truth to practical reason, and its repudiation of traditional hermeneutics — results in a deeply historicized understanding of the Christian faith. I propose here a theological alternative which allows for a qualified use of postmodern thought, but one that must ultimately conform to Christian truth.

The Postmodern Context

Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology, Seton Hall University. His new book, The Unchanging Truth of God? Crucial Philosophical Issues for Theology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022), belongs to the prolegomena of a systematic theology or dogmatics. This prolegomena presupposes the following principle expressed by John Paul II in his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio: “The truths of faith make certain demands which philosophy must respect whenever it engages theology.” Guarino is a philosophical theologian whose book is a collection of discrete essays he has published in the last twenty years in respect of metaphysics, epistemology, alethiology, and hermeneutics.

The chief focus of the book is postmodernist thought and whether we can learn anything from it. The essays in one manner or another, and with different interlocutors (Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Tracy, Vattimo, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, et al), focuses on philosophical questions about the relationship between history, truth, and Christian doctrine. In addition to these questions, Guarino addresses the fundamental theological issues of the relation of creation and redemption, grace and nature, faith and reason, theology and philosophy. There is much to learn in these essays about the right understanding of all these issues. I will show how Guarino resists the impact of historicism, which denies the enduring validity of truth, on our understanding of the Christian faith. But I will also consider his view regarding what we can learn from post-modernity’s critique of reason’s pretended autonomy. Finally, I shall also raise some quibbles about Guarino’s assessment of John Paul II’s thought.

Guarino sides with John Paul II. On the one hand, John Paul writes in Fides et Ratio:

Modern philosophy clearly has the great merit of focusing attention upon man. From this starting-point, human reason with its many questions has developed further its yearning to know more and to know it ever more deeply. Complex systems of thought have thus been built, yielding results in the different fields of knowledge and fostering the development of culture and history. Anthropology, logic, the natural sciences, history, linguistics and so forth — the whole universe of knowledge has been involved in one way or another.

On the other hand, adds John Paul:

Yet the positive results achieved must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps towards a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice. . . . It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned (emphasis added).

Guarino acknowledges the import of the critique of the pretended autonomy of human reason that follows from accentuating reason’s limited and conditioned nature, that is, “accenting our contingency and ‘situatedness’.” Accordingly, Guarino agrees with dethroning “the idea that human rationality is exercised ‘apart’ from a world of historical contingencies.” Yet, the fundamental issue of realism and objectivity has been thwarted with the concentration upon human knowing. Thus, Guarino agrees with John Paul’s judgment, “This [dethroning of human reason] `has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way [to reality and objectivity] in the shifting sands of widespread scepticism. . . . A legitimate plurality of positions has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid, which is one of today’s most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth.” John Paul elaborates:

On this understanding, everything is reduced to opinion; and there is a sense of being adrift. While, on the one hand, philosophical thinking has succeeded in coming closer to the reality of human life and its forms of expression, it has also tended to pursue issues — existential, hermeneutical or linguistic — which ignore the radical question of the truth about personal existence, about being and about God. Hence, we see among the men and women of our time, and not just in some philosophers, attitudes of widespread distrust of the human being’s great capacity for knowledge.

It is against this background that Guarino addresses the question central to his book, namely, “what it means to speak of truth that is perpetual, universal, and materially identical over time.” In sum, “How does the socio-cultural embeddedness of all thinking affect the claim of doctrine to be universally, trans-culturally, and trans-temporally true?”

His theoretical defense of the enduring truth of doctrinal claims is not as such an apologetics for the rationality and truth of any specific claim of the Christian faith, but rather raises philosophical questions dealing with the nature and task of theology, indeed, with the nature of divine revelation. Here’s the core philosophical issue:

In truth, proper philosophical reasoning is essential to theology, supporting in the natural order the intelligibility of the doctrinal claims asserted by the Christian faith. And those claims are considerable. For Catholic teaching insists that it mediates states of affairs that are universally, trans-temporally and trans-culturally true. This robust insistence on the universal and perduring truth of divine revelation entails, by necessity, strong philosophical claims as well — both epistemological and metaphysical — which must themselves be defended.

The claim that philosophy is essential to theology implies a relation between faith and reason, which is a relation also based on a Catholic understanding of the relation between grace and nature. There are two distinct kinds of understanding of truth, one by reason and the other by faith. Explains Guarino, on the one hand, “[T]here is a natural visibility to truth. . . . Nature [whether human nature, natural law, natural virtue, or a natural pathway to God], while wounded by sin, has an authentic independence, even if it is never entirely self-sufficient.” This understanding is formally expressed in philosophy. On the other hand, “To speak of nature … is always to invoke the overarching estate of grace which inexorably commands, irradiates, and transforms every natural reality.” The latter then is an understanding of nature that is transformed by grace, comes from revelation, and is about faith seeking understanding, which is formally expressed in theology.

Of course, not just any philosophy can be of service to theology. It must be a philosophy appropriate to the nature of revelation, and thus a philosophy that theology needs, according to John Paul II, “‘to confirm the intelligibility and universal truth of its claims’,” and supporting the knowability of divine revelation. Guarino, aligning himself with John Paul, argues, in this connection, for philosophies with a “metaphysical horizon,” and hence rejects any anti-metaphysical philosophical thought. Insists John Paul II, “A theology without a metaphysical horizon could not . . . allow the intellectus fidei to give a coherent account of the universal and transcendent value of revealed truth.”

A prime example of anti-metaphysical thought, which Guarino critically discusses throughout his book, is post-modernism. Post-modernism is too complex to be given a simple definition, and Guarino doesn’t do so. Yet, I take the following six claims made by American philosopher Alvin Goldman to state accurately its core philosophical framework.

  1. There is no such thing as transcendent truth. What we call “true” is simply what we agree with. So-called truths or facts are merely negotiable beliefs, the products of social construction and fabrication, not “objective” or “external” features of the world.
  2. Knowledge, reality, and truth are the products of language. There is no language-independent reality that can make our thoughts true or false.
  3. If there were any transcendent or objective truths, they would be inaccessible and unknowable by human beings, hence unavailable for any practical epistemological purposes.
  4. There are no privileged epistemic positions, and no certain foundations for beliefs. All claims are judged by conventions or language games, which have no deeper grounding. There are no neutral, transcultural standards for settling disagreements.
  5. Appeals to truth are merely instrument of domination or repression, which should be replaced by practices with progressive social value.
  6. Truth cannot be attained because all putatively truth-oriented practices are corrupted and biased by politics or self-serving interests.

Especially chapters 1, 2 and 4 critically discuss these claims in light of the understanding of divine revelation, as propositional revelation, that is, revealed truth, in the Catholic tradition, namely, “revelation is the epistemologically primary discourse, the norma normans non normata.” Philosophical forms should be “adequate to the content of revelation history as expressed in Christian doctrine.” Hence, we cannot philosophically “elaborate theological positions without a strong metaphysical (and realist epistemological) horizon. Only determinate philosophies [holding that transcendent truth not only exists but also is knowable] can be legitimately placed in service to the faith.”

Guarino explains: “Catholicism has traditionally taught, and [Vatican II’s] Dei verbum reaffirms, that in its essential dimensions revelation is universally, perpetually, and normatively true. . . . [This] entails an irreducibly cognitive dimension that is perpetual and irreversible.” Thus, contrary to the above claims, particularly, 1, 2, and 3, Guarino argues that a revelationally appropriate philosophy requires realism—epistemic realism and a realism about truth—and a corresponding foundationalist ontology, which leads to the rejection of the first three claims because “realism alone allows the Church to defend Christian doctrine as not only symbolic and disclosive but also as ontologically true” (emphasis added).

First, only philosophies with a metaphysical dimension can defend the ontologically true status of doctrines. For, says John Paul II, “‘a philosophy which shuns metaphysics would be radically unsuited to the task of mediation in the understanding of revelation’.” Otherwise, without a metaphysical horizon, the mediation of the continuity, universality, and material identity of doctrinal claims over time is indefensible. Guarino, then, rejects historicism, which denies the enduring validity of truth and holds “that truth is entirely mediated by historical flux, societal norms, and cultural warrants.” Guarino argues that we need a foundationalist ontology because absent that ontology we cannot account for the continuity and identity of the deposit of faith. Without it, we cannot maintain the truth-status of doctrine. He explains: “Obviously, a move towards nonfoundationalist ontology means either a turn toward significant mutability and flexibility in fundamental Christian teachings or, conversely, a fideistic assertion of the immutable truth of the gospel, prescinding for any attempt to establish this immutability reasonably.” In sum, “without a foundationalist ontology of some sort, there is no possibility for logically sustaining the stability of textual meaning or a referential notion of truth, essential principles for traditional understandings of doctrine.”

Second, in addition to a metaphysical horizon, theology needs an epistemology appropriate to the knowability of revelation’s truth claims, protecting their continuity and material identity. Hence, it needs an epistemic realism and a corresponding notion of propositional truth such that a proposition is true if and only if what it asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, the proposition is false. “The human noetic faculty is connaturally proportioned to the logos structure of the world. Inasmuch as the intellect is capax mundi, it can and does represent existing states of affairs accurately.” Hence, to sustain material continuity of revelation’s truth claims a realist and referential notion of truth is necessary. Indeed, without the logos structure of reality, theology does not exist at all as a knowledge of transcendent truth. We can have true but inadequate knowledge of God even if not exhaustive knowledge; inadequacy of expression does not mean inexpressibility of divine truth. This is contrary to the third claim above. Doctrines expressed imperfectly in human formulations are open to legitimate development, albeit that they are fundamentally unchangeable. Thus, Guarino: “Is there a surplus of intelligibility in divine truth that allows for material continuity without any claim of exhaustion? Can theology defend unity [of truth] without lapsing into a simple-minded claim of absolute luminosity and presence?” The brief answer to this question here must be, according to Guarino, “Yes.”

Third, Guarino rejects the fourth claim above. There are privileged epistemic positions. A foundationalist theory of knowledge is needed in order to justify the claim that faith’s knowledge of God, concepts and dogmatic formulations of the propositional truths of faiths, are ontologically true in the sense of corresponding to reality. Non-foundationalist epistemologies presuppose an unqualified fallibilism such that all beliefs are open to revision. Unqualified foundationalism is the Achilles’ heel of non-foundationalist epistemology for Christian belief. That is so because such an epistemology is unable to sustain the irrevocability, continuity, universality, material identity, and objective truth of Christian belief. In contrast, Guarino affirms a qualified fallibilism, otherwise referred to as a historically conscious foundationalism in which the propositional truths of faith may require further thought and elucidation, that is, propositional truth may be reconceptualized and reformulated in a conceptually different framework. Indeed, no single conceptualization or formulation can exhaust the propositional truths of faith, but not every alternative reformulation is true, meaningful, or in accordance with these truths. Therefore, suitable restatements of the propositional truths of faith must keep the same meaning and the same judgment, to quote St. Vincent of Lérins: eodem sensu eademque sententia.

Fourth, accordingly, a hermeneutical theory consistent with Christian revelation, particularly the understanding of propositional revelation, is such that “texts have a stable and determinate meaning that may be recovered and re-presented by an interpreter (even centuries or millennia later) after proper philological and sociocultural analysis.” The key element to this hermeneutical theory is “a stable and recoverable textual meaning.” This hermeneutical theory is reminiscent of the hermeneutics of the fifth century monk, Vincent of Lérins.

Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia).

The latter is, arguably, based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, truth-content and context, in sum, propositions and sentences, which was implied by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. “For the deposit of faith [2 Tim 1:14], the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius, and this passage is itself from the Commonitorium 23 of Vincent of Lérins that I cited above. Yves Congar, for one, has argued that this distinction summarizes the meaning of the entire council. Although the propositional truths of the faith may be expressed differently, we must always determine whether those new re-formulations are preserving the same meaning and judgment, and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths. In sum, Guarino states, “A determinate meaning will be preserved, even if this meaning is re-expressed in another notional system.” In addition, the intelligibility of the form/content, propositions and sentences, distinction, with its corollaries of recoverable and representable textual meaning, is only viable within the presumption of a foundationalist ontology and a corresponding epistemology.

Fifth, a variation of the sixth claim above is about the noetic influences of sin that renders human reason incapable of grasping truth. On the one hand, Guarino affirms “a complex of elements inescapably entering the cognitive equation: the role of antecedent subjective interests, for example, or the cultural background of the inquirer, or a life of sinfulness or holiness.” He explains, “There exists, undoubtedly, a web of suppositions, background beliefs, historical conditions, and ideological commitments that affect the noetic situation.” On the other hand, Guarino affirms the power, and thus the activity of human reason, within boundaries, reflecting the deepest foundation of what God made it, to have access to reality, to truth, and so to God. For example, quoting John Paul II on the rational knowability of the moral law, “despite the negative consequence of sin, it [the moral law] can also be known in its essential traits by human reason.” Guarino, following John Paul II, ardently defends the truth-attaining capacity of human reason.

A Quibble or Two

According to Guarino, both David Tracy and Hans-Georg Gadamer reject the key element in traditional hermeneutical theory that is crucial to the idea of propositional revelation, namely, that texts have “a stable and recoverable textual meaning.” He argues that these thinkers are proponents of a perpetual hermeneutics in which both truth and its formulations are subject to reform, and to reinterpretation from one context to another. Such interpretations succumb, in the words of John Paul II, to “the temptation … of understanding these truths in purely functional terms,” that is, a “dogmatic pragmatism.” This view is historicist in perspective, in short, collapsing the dogmatic distinction of unchanging truth and its formulations into a historical context.

My quibble here with Guarino is that there is more common ground with Tracy that he suggests. On the question of material continuity and discontinuity in respect of doctrine, Tracy’s position is more faithful to John XXIII’s Lérinian conception that Guarino gives him credit. Tracy says in a 2014 article, “Fidelity to orthodox judgment intrinsic to the particular meaning expressed in propositions is what counts, not the language itself.” Again, “The judgments endure but always need new cultural and therefore linguistic formulations.” And again, “A purely classicist understanding of language believes that a static unchanging, unchangeable, normative language is alone capable of expressing (semper idem) the community’s ortho-dox beliefs.” Pace Guarino, Tracy does not deny the intelligibility of the form/content distinction.

Another quibble I have with Guarino is with his interpretation of Gadamer whose hermeneutics, he claims, “denies the material identity of truth claims over time.” Guarino’s hermeneutics has more common ground with Gadamer’s position in Part III of Truth and Method than Guarino recognizes. We need, therefore, to say something about Gadamer’s ontology of meaning that provides the material identity of truth with a metaphysical buttress. Guarino is right that “the issue of stability within change, unity within multiplicity, perdurance within temporality, inevitably raise questions concerning the metaphysical and ontological dimensions of reality.” Briefly, pared down for my purpose here, I shall draw on Gadamer’s ontology of the meaning of the text that he inherited from Gottlob Frege via Edmund Husserl. Nicholas Wolterstorff gives the clearest account of this ontology and its bearing on the hermeneutic tradition, especially Gadamer. He explains:

Suppose we assume that the right way to analyze belief and judgment is into a content, on the one hand, and the stance of belief or the action of judgment, on the other hand. The context of the belief that 2+3=5, is that 2+3=5, and the content of the judgment that today is warm and sunny, is that today is warm and sunny. Let us further suppose that the content of beliefs and judgments are entities of some sort, so that believing something consists of taking up the stance of belief toward that entity which one believes, and judging something consists of performing the action of judging on that entity which one judges to be true. Frege called such entities Gedanken, that is, thoughts . . . Gedanken are not states of mind. He argues that whereas you and I can believe and assert the same Gedanke, we cannot share the same state of mind. Obviously Gedanken are also not physical entities. And neither, so Frege argued, are they to be identified with sentences, for the reason that two distinct sentences may express one and the same Gedanke. Gendanken have to be abstract entities — or as the hermeneutic tradition preferred to call them, ideal entities. What distinguishes them from such other abstract entities as properties is that they can be believed and asserted, and that they are all either true or false.

Contrary to Guarino’s interpretation of Gadamer, in which Guarino claims that Gadamer’s hermeneutics rejects the intelligibility of the form/content distinction, Gadamer calls the ontological status of the meaning of the text an “ideal” entity. On this point, we find him saying, “What is stated in the text must be detached from all contingent factors and grasped in its full ideality, in which alone it has validity.” Gadamer explains himself more fully in the following often overlooked passage that Wolterstorff brings to our attention.

[The] capacity for being written down is based on the fact that speech itself shares in the pure ideality of the meaning that communicates itself in it. In writing, the meaning of what is spoken exists purely for itself, completely detached from all emotional elements of expression and communication. A text is not to be understood as an expression of life but with respect to what it says. Writing is the abstract ideality of language. Hence the meaning of something written is fundamentally identifiable and repeatable. What is identical in the repetition is only what was actually deposited in the written record. This indicates that “repetition” cannot be meant here in its strict sense. It does not mean referring back to the original source where something is said or written. The understanding of something written is not a repetition of something past but the sharing of a present meaning.

The Fregean-Husserlian ontology of textual meaning then affirms the objectivity of meaning in general and is thus anti-historicist. I join Wolterstorff in siding “with Frege and Husserl that the right analysis of judgment is that, in judgment, there is something that one judges to be true that’s to be distinguished from both that particular act and the sentence one uses to make the judgment.” What is more, thoughts, meanings, and propositions — what Wolterstorff elsewhere calls noematic content — are true if and only if what they assert is in fact the case, being the way things are; otherwise, they are false. In short, regarding the status of meaning, the way things are, objective reality, is what makes “meanings” true or false. Furthermore, adds Wolterstorff, “readers of texts can often find out the noematic content of the discourse of which the text is the medium — so that, in that sense, noematic content is ‘transferable’ from one mind to another.” One could add here: propositions are transferable as well to different contexts and conceptualities in which we seek to understand and communicate truth, including divine truth.

A More Serious Quibble

My more serious quibble with Guarino is with the accuracy of his judgment about John Paul. He writes:

Related to the issue of realism and objectivity is the matter of human subjectivity in knowing truth. The encyclical [Fides et Ratio] ignores, for the most part, important dimensions of the noetic act which, of themselves, do not necessarily frustrate the realism of objectivity Fides et Ratio wishes to defend. One sees very little, for example, about the turn to the subject, horizon analysis, theory-laden interpretation, the constructive dimension of knowledge, or the tacit and intuitive elements of epistemology. This failure to acknowledge the subjective element in knowing counts as a significant omission to a document discussing human rationality and its relationship to faith. . . . One wonders, however, if by ignoring the anthropological dimensions of knowing prominent in modern thought, the encyclical does not ignore modernity itself, thereby militating against its own goal of establishing a new synthesis which takes account of the entire philosophical tradition.

As a generalization of John Paul II’s thought, Guarino is misleading. Guarino would have qualified his judgment about John Paul’s thought if he had referred to Karol Wojtyla’s (aka John Paul II) earlier writings where he knit together a new synthesis of a relatively traditional Thomism with existential and hermeneutical phenomenology and personalism. This new synthesis comes to expression in Love and Responsibility (1960), his 1969 philosophical magnum opus, Person and Act, and other seminal essays written in the period of the late 1950s to the 1970s, and collected in Person and Community. Guarino should have asked why this new synthesis doesn’t play a significant role in Fides et Ratio. I dare say that the “turn to the subject, horizon analysis, theory-laden interpretation, the constructive dimension of knowledge, or the tacit and intuitive elements of epistemology,” all of which Guarino misses in Fides et Ratio, are arguably present in these works.

Indeed, Karol Wojtyla explains how he gradually began to concentrate his philosophical interests more and more on the anthropological dimension of knowing, that is, “on the human person as the fundamental ethical — and not only ethical reality.” Indeed, Wojtyla reverses the classical attitude where “the knowledge of man and his world has been identified with the cognitive function,” and approaches man himself through action. “For us action reveals the person, and we look at the person through his action.” Wojtyla explains, “The path in that direction led through a study anterior to Person and Act entitled Love and Responsibility, in which I attempted to manifest the profound personalistic sense of conjugal morality (indirectly of the entire so-called sexual morality). After having written that ethical study, I concluded that yet a much more thorough work aiming at revealing the fundamental structures constituting the personal ‘I’ of man is indispensable, so that the personalistic sense of the entire human morality (and not only—though perhaps in some measure — conjugal and so-called sexual morality) is revealed more and more fully.” More on this personalistic sense of morality below.

Furthermore, even with respect to Fides et Ratio, Guarino’s judgment is inaccurate. Guarino says that John Paul II mostly ignores important dimensions of the noetic act that deal with the matter of human subjectivity in knowing truth. I think that Guarino would have been more accurate in his assessment of John Paul’s Fides et Ratio if he had considered the significance of human testimony in John Paul’s adumbration of the doxastic practice of testimony in acquiring truth, discussing human rationality and its relationship to faith. John Paul II belongs to an illustrious line of thinkers, both Protestant and Catholic, throughout the ages, even up until our own time, in which testimony has a significant place in their Christian epistemology; thinkers, such as, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Reid, John Henry Newman, B. B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, G. E. M. Anscombe, Josef Pieper, Bernard Lonergan, S. J., Richard Swinburne, and Joseph Ratzinger aka Benedict XVI.

A doxastic practice is a way of forming beliefs and epistemically evaluating them. Such practices include perception, memory, reasoning, and human testimony. There remains to ask: what is the meaning here of belief in the doxastic practice of testimony? In his Catechesis on the Creed Vol. I, John Paul states:

“To believe” means to accept and to acknowledge as true and corresponding to reality the content of what is said, that is, the content of the words of another person … by reason of his credibility. This credibility determines in a given case the particular authority of the person — the authority of truth. So then by saying “I believe,” we express at the same time a double reference: to the person and to the truth; to the truth in consideration of the person who enjoys special claims to credulity.

Moreover, the importance of testimony subordinates seeing to hearing in the acquisition of justified true belief about a whole range of matters; scientific, historical, moral, theological, and many others. Suppose we distinguish the conditions under which something is true from the conditions under which I come to know that something is true. John Paul’s aim is to defend trust in another as rationally justified and hence yielding testimonial knowledge. In John Paul II’s own words in a lengthy passage from Fides et Ratio that repays reflection:

Human beings are not made to live alone. They are born into a family and in a family they grow, eventually entering society through their activity. From birth, therefore, they are immersed in traditions which give them not only a language and a cultural formation but also a range of truths in which they believe almost instinctively.

Clearly, John Paul alludes here alludes to the social and cultural dimension of epistemology in arriving at the truth of something.

Yet personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry. It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are “recovered” as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning.

Here, in this passage, John Paul argues that some truths initially accepted by testimony, as he says below, accepted on the word of another, will eventually be personally verified, in which case we see the truth of something for ourselves. “Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification.” He explains:

Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being — the one who seeks the truth — is also the one who lives by belief. In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people.

Indeed, believing involves not only believing a proposition, that is, believing that something is true, but also believing a person that what he says about something is true. There are many things we would not know without trusting others. John Paul elaborates on an epistemology of personal relations when we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This is testimonial knowledge.

This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.

Now, although propositional truth is an indispensable dimension of truth itself, how truth is authenticated — that is, lived out, practiced, carried out — in testimony cannot be reduced to it — to being merely believed, asserted, and claimed, because knowing truth is more, although not less, than a bare adequatio, as Guarino often says. Elaborates John Paul:

It should be stressed that the truths sought in this interpersonal relationship are not primarily empirical or philosophical. Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person—what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them.

Clearly, this social epistemology grounded in testimony, in a trust between persons, involves a turn to the subject, indeed, to intersubjectivity, that is, a “dynamic relation of faithful self-giving with others.” We return here to the personalist character of believing for John Paul II because knowing the truth is more than a bare adequatio. Briefly, “by saying ‘I believe’, we express at the same time a double reference: to the person and to the truth; to the truth in consideration of the person who enjoys special claims to credulity.” This, too, is Aquinas’s view: “Whoever believes, assents to someone’s words; hence in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the principal place and to be the end, as it were, while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place.” Hence, for Aquinas, “it belongs to faith to believe something and in someone.” I don’t understand why Guarino missed out on this aspect of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio.

Finally, I conclude with a brief account of Wojtyla’s personalist approach to the moral question of premarital sexual relations in order to illustrate the point that he does not ignore the “anthropological dimension in human knowing.”

In his 1974 article, “On the Meaning of Spousal Love,” which continues the discussion concerning the problems of conjugal morality begun in Karol Wojtyla’s 1960 Love and Responsibility, Wojtyla addresses the moral problem of premarital relations. Here’s a passage from the article that makes clear the problem that Wojtyla is addressing.

Marriage as an institution is not something merely “external” in relation to the whole truth of persons, of a man and a woman, when their love and self-giving are to be expressed with the “right to such a gift.” Marriage as an institution does not only proceed from the juridical-social order or a religious order as “external” in relation to the person and his love. Indeed, as an element of this order, marriage proceeds from the very “interiority” of this love, for the shape of the reciprocal self-giving of a man and a woman demands it.

In other words, on the one hand, if marriage as an institution is essentially viewed from the juridical or canonical viewpoint, then the inner nature of marriage is external to conjugal love, that is, it is the imposition of an extrinsic form upon the relation between a man and a woman. This marks the institution “with juridicism and signifies the primacy of an institution over man with his ‘interior truth’.” On the other hand, if conjugal love, which is the reciprocal self-giving of a man and a woman, is the qualification of the inner nature of a marriage bond, then how do we avoid a subjectivism of love, which is a variable and subjective feeling, unsuitable to substantiate not only a permanent life-companionship, of indissolubility, but also the ethical demands for justifying sexual intercourse between a man and a woman?

Wojtyla avoids subjectivism because love is not merely a feeling. His ontology of love expressed in his anthropology involves attraction, need love, which is love that longs for the good of oneself, benevolent love, which is altruistic, friendship, and, most importantly, reciprocal love, which is inter-personal love such that it is something two-sided, something “between” persons, such that love between persons becomes one “we.” “Reciprocity is decisive precisely for this ‘we’ to come into existence.” Wojtyla adds, “For love can survive only as a unity in which the mature ‘we’ is manifested. . . . Love has a structure of interpersonal community.” It is a union of persons such that a man and a woman “constitute, in a sense, one common subject of action.” This union of persons is grounded in a common good, which is the objective good of the person, and a common end, which is procreation, children, family, that binds a man and a woman.

Love. . . is conditioned by the common relation of persons to the same good that they choose as an end and to which they subordinate themselves. Marriage is one of the most important areas for realizing this principle. For in marriage, two persons, a woman and a man, unite in such a way they become in a sense “one flesh” (to use the words of the Book of Genesis [2:24]), that is, one common subject of sexual life.

Finally, his ethical anthropology finds it perfection in spousal love. “The essence of spousal love is giving oneself, giving one’s ‘I’.” This love is to be realized as a virtue such that the full ethical rectitude of a man and woman is realized in the deepening of spousal love as an interpersonal fact. This fact constitutes the “objective situation, the state, in which sexual intercourse — conjugal in its essence — can be the true and reciprocal gift of the person for another person. Because this intercourse is in its essence conjugal, this objective situation and state is called and is marriage.”

The “law of the gift” is fundamental to Wojtyla’s anthropology and hence to spousal love, so we need to define it. Wojtyla explains:

The “law of the gift,” which God as the Creator inscribed in the being of the human person, of a man and a woman, and the meaning of which was confirmed and deepened by him as the Redeemer in the consciousness of every man, constitutes the proper basis of thatcommunio personarum.” From the very beginning, the Creator wills that marriage is this “communio personarum” in which a man and a woman realize day by day and in the dimension of their whole life the ideal of the personal union by “giving and receiving each other.” Spousal love can be understood as the realization of this ideal.

Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is substantiated in light of “the full ethical rectitude of a man and a woman’s union and intercourse in marriage, which for Christians is a sacrament of faith, [and it] requires spousal love.” Spousal love is the full ethical rectitude or the whole truth of persons such that a man and a woman “give themselves to each other in sexual intercourse, such self-giving is fully justified; [such self-giving] corresponds to the truth of love and mutually safeguards the dignity of the person, only if both a man and a woman perform it as spouses, as husband and wife. Otherwise, an abuse of the ‘law of the gift’ takes place.”

I have said enough here to outline Wojtyla’s personalism as it bears upon conjugal morality. We come full circle now back to Guarino’s assessment of John Paul II. I have raised some quibbles about his assessment. Still, his book is a masterful treatment of the question central to his book, namely, “what it means to speak of truth that is perpetual, universal, and materially identical over time,” in short, the unchangeable truth of God.

Eduardo Echeverria About Eduardo Echeverria

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his STL from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of many publications, most recently Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (2018), and Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (2019).


  1. Avatar Laura Smit says:

    Very helpful, Eduardo!