Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) examines the relationship of philosophy and theology from Plato to the present day and delivers an impassioned plea for secular thinkers to consider the great metaphysical issues that modern philosophy has virtually abandoned.
Homo sapiens may be defined as a creature who desires to know, John Paul II says. Human beings want answers to questions like: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?
Yet philosophers have ceased to ask these questions. Instead of concerning themselves with thinking about "being" they focus on "knowing" and restrict themselves to arid speculation about the meaning of language or even the meaning of meaning. At best, it is restricted, at worst, purely formal.
All this is part of modern man's and woman's "crisis of meaning". In a world where knowledge is increasingly fragmented, the search for meaning seems difficult and often fruitless. "In this maelstrom of data and facts in which we live many people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning," he writes. "Reason has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights."
By default society has adopted "a philosophy of nothingness" in which "life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences". Post- modernism dictates that "the time of certainties is irrevocably past, and the human being must now learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning, where everything is provisional and ephemeral". People no longer ask what is true, only what will work.
"It is a world crying out for philosophy but philosophy has made itself marginal," said Dr Janet Martin Soskice, of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge, at the launch of the encyclical in London yesterday. "The Pope raps modern philosophers sharply over the knuckles for not doing their philosophy well enough."
The reprimand applies not just to those continental philosophers engaged in continual deferrals of meaning. It applies also to Logical Positivism and its successors, whose thinking about the verifiability of language claims has focused philosophy throughout the 20th century on the minutiae of reasoning - neglecting big questions on the meaning of life.
"What the Pope is doing is seeking to reconnect the spiritual and intellectual questions that lie at the heart of human existence," said Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster. "Faith and reason are not opposites. Both depend upon a belief in the objectivity of truth." Both need one another if they are to bear maximum fruit.
The document is an impressive review of the history of the relationship between theology and philosophy. It seeks to steer a middle way between the extremes of blind faith and a reason directed not towards searching for meaning in life but instead to utilitarian ends such as the promotion of enjoyment or power.
In the process, John Paul II warns against various "isms". He admonishes "eclecticism" for drawing individual ideas from different philosophies without concern for their internal coherence, their place within a system or their historical context. And "scientism" is rebuked for the idea that only those things that are empirically verifiable are real: "reality and truth do transcend the factual and empirical", he writes.
But unlike some of the Pope's earlier writings, it does not ban, outlaw or vehemently condemn those with whom he disagrees. Philosophy must remain autonomous, he says, praising it for the insights it has developed.
Rather Fides et Ratio is a nuanced and open-minded document that seeks dialogue with the secular world. It wants to replace what the Pope calls the present "undifferentiated pluralism" with a legitimate plurality of positions. That cannot be done without effective philosophical inquiry to enable us to discover in our different cultures, he says, the difference between what people think and what the objective truth is.
Where are they now?
Review, front page
Faith and Reason: The Main Points
Modern men and women lack a sense of meaning in their lives and exist in an unarticulated state of nothingness. So what is technologically possible, or what the market finds profitable, becomes their defining criteria.
The post-modernist view that all beliefs should be given equal status - that morality is a matter of opinion - is the result of a lack of rigour in philosophy.
Philosophy should help us to make judgements about the conflicting claims of different values in a multi-cultural society.
Modern philosophy has gone down a blind alley, abandoning metaphysics in favour of narrow discussions on the theory of language or the meaning of meaning.
Philosophers need to turn again to discuss the nature of truth, evil, suffering, life and death. Philosophy must remain independent of theology.