Personal Knowledge: A Footnote to an Encyclical

Pierre Rousselot

Pope Francis’s first encyclical Lumen Fidei concluded that faith is ultimate grounded in love’s knowledge of God in Christ. Faith belongs to the order of interpersonal knowledge because God is personal. “It is love,” I wrote in my initial commentary, “that opens the eyes of the mind.” “Faith’s understanding is born,” according to the encyclical, “when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes” (no. 26). I concluded, “God, ”the encyclical confesses,“is a subject who makes himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship” (no. 36).

For Catholic theologians and philosophers of my generation the proposition that that the mode of knowledge proper to faith is personal knowledge is basic. In philosophical studies, after wading through the history of the epistemological question of the universals (How human ideas grasp the real), we found the crowning book of the course to be Carlos Cirne-Lima’s Personal Faith (Herder, 1965). The Brazilian philosopher made the case that the closest experience to the knowledge of faith humans enjoyed was interpersonal knowledge of a loved one and that faith’s knowledge of God is personal knowledge.


Around the same time, the Second Vatican Council was making a similar case in the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, Dei Verbum, that faith is faith in the person of Christ whom we love. The Council declared, “Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, was sent as "a man to men." He "speaks the words of God" (John 3;34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave Him to do (see John 5:36; John 17:4). To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9)” (DV, no. 4). The Christocentric presentation of faith found in Vatican II had been championed by several theologians who served as experts or periti at the council, especially Henri DeLubac, and by several others whose work was coming to fruition about that time. Behind them lay the work of the early 20th century Jesuit theologian, Pierre Rousselot (1878-1915) whose promising career was cut short by his untimely death in the First World War.

Rousselot has been called “the theoretician of love.” While his most famous book is titled The Intellectualism of Saint Thomas, the underlying theme in all his work, including the only somewhat less famous Toward a History of Love in the Middle Ages, is love. At a dangerous time for cutting edge theologians, the years of the Modernist Crisis, Rousselot dared to attempt to resolve the centuries-old debate between truth and love. While Plato gave us both The Republic, an assent by knowledge to Truth itself, and The Symposium, an assent by love to the Good, the Medievals debated which approach was superior to the other.

Despite the scholastic axiom Bonitas, veritas et pulchritudo convertuntur (Goodness, Truth and Beauty are interchangeable), the Medievals somehow assumed one had to choose among them for the most important transcendental. Perhaps because of their belief in the reasonableness of faith and the structure of Catholicism as a dogmatic religion, the Dominicans and much of the later Catholic tradition acted as if that truth trumped love. So, too, did heresy-hunting, post-Vatican I Catholicism. Nonetheless Rousselot revived the ancient debate and attempted to resolve it by arguing that there was a dimension of love in understanding and of truth in love.

Rousselot argued that our ideas can communicate the truth because we are already in touch with the real. Love, in other words, leads the mind, because love has a prior grasp on the real that is a desire for understanding. In a pair of articles in 1910 under the title “The Eyes of Faith” in Recherches des Sciences Religieuses, Rousselot argued that the individual affirmations of faith are rooted in our real prior unity with God in Christ. We affirm dogmatic propositions as true because we already enjoy a relationship with God in Christ. The unity of truths is Christ himself.

If you were puzzled, as I was, at how Pope Francis could move from Benedict’s truths of the faith to the truth revealed by love in the latest encyclical, it was the pioneering work of Pierre Rousselot, with the mediation of his disciple Henri De Lubac, that made it possible. Rousselot took the first steps that moved theology from the propositions of faith to faith as the knowledge of love. (See B. Pottier, “Les Yeux de la Foi après Vatican II: I. Pierre Rousselot” [Bibliographical information missing].) He was not the only one to make such a move. One thinks of Newman and Blondel to name just two, who attempted to retrieve the unity between thought and life for the sake of faith. But Rousselot was the first modern theologian to articulate the relationship underlying the believer’s faith in God as one of love.

Drew Christiansen, S. J., a former editor of America, is a visiting scholar for calendar year 2013 at Boston College.

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Frank Gibbons
5 years 6 months ago
Father Christiansen, Can you elaborate on what you mean by "Pope Francis could move from Benedict's truths of the faith to the truth revealed by love in the latest encyclical..."? Thanks.
Michael Barberi
5 years 6 months ago
Fr. Christiansen, On a practical basis, what is implications for a theology as the propositions of faith, versus, faith as the knowledge of true love in interpersonal relationships? This sounds like we must view theology, especially moral theology, with a greater emphasis on love (God's love for Christ, and Christ's love for humanity found in interpersonal relationships), than on normative rules that at times create a profound tension with collective human experience, reason and interpersonal love.
Bruce Snowden
5 years 6 months ago
Let me comment without erudition or theological credential, which seems foolish to do. But I don’t mind being foolish in my search for our elusive God and to whatever pertains to the honor and glory of the Mysterious and Holy One, who bathes in the heavenly pool of love and fidelity, the Godhead's "holy water." We are told, “God is love.” If this is true it seems to me that God must necessarily have unflinching Faith or belief in himself, as it is impossible to be fully faithful to something or someone, not fully loved. Love and Faith are one and the same, two sides of the same coin bearing two identical images on each side. Thus, I believe and accept that the relationship underlying the believers Faith in God, to be one of love. I’m in my 47th year of Christian marriage. If I did not totally love and believe in my wife and she in me, that relationship could not long endure or flourish. If God did not totally love with total fidelity to himself, God could not exist! Love and Faith are intrinsically one. If God is Love, He is also Faith. Thus, as Pope Francis says in some way in Lumen Fidei and as theologians propose and as Fr. Christiansen, himself theologically erudite explains, “It is true that the relationship underlying the believer’s Faith in God (is) as one of love." As far as I can see it cannot be otherwise.


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