“In Book 1 of the Summa contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the mode of inquiry taken up in theological study. He distinguishes two types of truth which the theologian seeks to understand. The first is that which unaided reason can know on its own. These arguments have demonstrable proof, and demand assent from all who understand them. Arguments like these, such as the (Ed. cosmological, if you subscribe to that type) proofs for the existence of God, or that 2+2=4, can be carried out without the light of faith. The second type of truth is that which surpasses reason and is only known by faith. These truths are above our natural capacities of understanding and we rely upon God’s revelation to know them.
There can be a temptation then to believe that truth is somehow divided and separate: that there is a truth of reason and a truth of faith. These two truths propose different ideas and are accepted variously. Faith becomes opposed to reason, and thus becomes the enemy of a supposedly rational people. Only a generation before Lacordaire, the Cathedral of Notre Dame had been desecrated by the revolutionaries and turned into the “Temple of Reason.” The scene must have been striking. It represented the supposed fall of religion, having been overcome by pure and unfettered reason.
Yet, for St. Thomas, this presents us with a false dichotomy. Faith and reason are not fundamentally opposed, but rather two sources to gain true knowledge. Both come from one source, God. Truth is twofold only for us, by our manner of coming to know it. Yet truth is fundamentally one, for it has one source, God. God is the source for all truth, whether we come to know it by natural abilities or as inspired by Faith. As truth has one source, no two truths can ever contradict each other. A truth of faith can never be contradicted by a truth gained through reason, nor vice versa.
Thus, Voltaire’s critique of the unreasonableness of Christians is itself against truth. Faith elevates what we can know. St. Thomas argues further in the Summa contra Gentiles that it is most unreasonable to assert that we cannot assent to truths which are above reason. We are not the arbiters of Faith, but trust in the inner coherence of the unity of the created world. While some Christians have certainly been guilty of denying rational truths, the real task remains to show the compatibility between Faith and reason. Lacordaire presents us with an example of how this should be done.
In an age not unlike ours, where men seek first to be free, Lacordaire came proclaiming that it was only in God that one could achieve real freedom. This is attained in being released from real bondage. The world was, and remains, captive to sin. What the Incarnation brought was redemption, merited by the blood of Christ. In order to have true freedom, the dream of the Enlightened world, one first needs salvation. Lacordaire showed that only in Christ would the modern ideals, correctly understood and moderated, ever be achieved.
While apologetics as a subject might not be particularly popular today, it still has a place in Catholic theology. Lacordaire provides us an example of how this can be carried out. There are some foundational principles which we can learn from him.
First, good apologetics address the questions that people are really asking in a mode that they understand. In an age like ours, where men seek first to be free, Lacordaire came proclaiming that it was only in God that one found true freedom. It was not “a law of bondage” that some had claimed. He also used numerous external references to history, psychology, philosophy, poetry, and literature to illustrate his points to his own particular audience. A good apologist has to meet people where they are, speaking in a way they can understand, answering the questions people are asking. Dominicans seem uniquely qualified to respond to such questions. A life lived both in prayer and study, as well as in an apostolate, allowed Lacordaire to best confront the issues of his time.
Next, apologetics done rightly show that answers to life’s deepest questions can only be found in the Catholic Church. This is what we preach to a world looking for redemption. Lacordaire gave his orations with expressiveness and enthusiasm, emphasizing that values familiar to his own day and age: liberty, equality, fraternity, patriotism, self-giving, and a sense of sacrifice, could only be truly achieved within the Catholic Church. As he argued, “The Church had the words reason and liberty on her lips when the inalienable rights of the human race were threatened with shipwreck.” Finally, perform apologetics from a position of charity and humility. Nothing is more off-putting to modern man than a position of assumed authority. Again, Lacordaire: “Real excellence and humility are not incompatible one with the other, on the contrary they are twin sisters.” We have to show that we too are pursuing truth, like all people, and that we want to find it with them. The Catholic Church has provided us with answers, and we merely want to share them.”(1)
Faith, Hope, Love,