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  • Editor's Introduction
  • Randall G. Colton, Guest Editor

This year marks the twenty-fifth and twentieth anniversaries of two of Pope St. John Paul's most important encyclicals. Promulgated in 1993, Veritatis Splendor sets out the principles of Catholic moral teaching and analyzes the dissent it has sometimes met; Fides et Ratio, written five years later, responds to certain errors with respect to the work of reason and its relation to faith, errors that underwrite a widespread lack of confidence in truth and a corruption of both philosophy itself and the attempts of plain persons to make sense of their own lives. John Paul himself draws the connection between these two encyclicals this way: "In . . . Veritatis Splendor . . . I draw attention to 'certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine. . . .' In the present letter, I wish to pursue that reflection by concentrating on the theme of truth itself and its foundation in relation to faith" (n. 6). These encyclicals, then, share a common emphasis on truth and faith.

Both encyclicals present careful arguments against various theories that deny the availability or significance of truth as a norm for our reasoning and acting. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul finds the roots of such phenomena as cultural relativism, distorted views of conscience, and the totalitarian potential of democratic politics in various sorts of failure to acknowledge that the truth about God and the human person is an internal element of freedom and not a threat to it. Likewise, in Fides et Ratio, John Paul focuses on the viability of the human search for truth and its expression in metaphysical inquiry and ecclesiastical proclamation. He criticizes versions of historicism, scientism, pragmatism, and nihilism as the results of a flight from the truth.

But John Paul's aims in these encyclicals go beyond these theoretical interventions. Together, these encyclicals constitute a kind of protreptic invitation to a way of life both philosophical and theological, both naturally human and fully Christian. They both begin, in their first chapters, by proposing the question of the meaning of life.1 This question emerges, in each case, out of a narrative context. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul begins with the [End Page 3] Gospel story of the rich young man's encounter with Jesus (n. 6); in Fides et Ratio, he begins with the story of a transcultural journey, the human quest for self-knowledge (n. 1). In this way, John Paul invites the reader first not into an intervention in a theoretical dispute but, rather, into a way of life. "In the young man" who meets Christ, writes John Paul, "we can recognize every person" (n. 7). And the quest for self-knowledge that he describes in Fides et ratio takes in the figures and activities of every culture. From the beginning, then, these encyclicals seek to draw the reader into a search for the meaning or significance of his own life, a meaning capable of giving shape and direction to it.

Since Pierre Hadot's groundbreaking work in Philosophy as a Way of Life and What Is Ancient Philosophy?, many philosophers have paid close attention to Hadot's call for a return to a vision of philosophy that reconnects with its ancient heritage. According to Hadot, ancient philosophy was a practice uniting affect and intellect and leading its practitioner toward wisdom through certain spiritual exercises.2 John Paul's encyclicals share many of these themes. For example, he insists that a philosophy true to itself and open to the word of God must "recover its sapiential dimension." Like Hadot, John Paul is dissatisfied with modes of philosophizing that confine themselves to quasi-technical solutions to small and manageable problems or nihilistic play, leaving aside or even denigrating questions about the meaning of a human life (FR n. 81). In the same way, he rejects accounts of moral reasoning that reduce it to a calculation of consequences or creative self-expression, since the young man's question—the reader's question—is ultimately a question about the good and even about God (VS n. 9). Furthermore, John Paul highlights the necessity for engaging the whole person in the inquiries he describes and exemplifies in both encyclicals. Consider, for example, his...


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