The age of reason

This past week our family quietly transitioned beyond where our household has been for a very long time. With the 7th birthday of our youngest child, there aren’t any babies here anymore. I have to admit that part of me wants to shout “No more 6-year-olds -- Hallelujah!” But there is that other side of it, that sentimental reflection of older adulthood which sees a bit of sadness in the passing of that era in our home.

At 7 years of age, kids can make use of the minds God has given them. I’ve witnessed this myself this past year as our two youngest daughters have crossed the threshold beyond 6. The conversations they have and the conclusions they draw, even the language they choose to express their thoughts have all moved up a notch or two. They can distinguish between reality and fantasy. They have a sense of fairness and of what is right and wrong. They know sarcasm when they hear it. And while they are still pretty self-absorbed, they have begun to understand the idea that they share the world with others, and have responsibilities that extend beyond just themselves.

Seven, the Church has held, is the age of reason. That is why, in 1910, Pope Pius X lowered the age of First Holy Communion in the Latin Church to 7. A child of 7 possesses all he or she needs to appropriate the mystery of Eucharist. That doesn’t mean that he will fully understand it. (After all, who of us does?) But it does mean that the child of 7 has been counted as fully competent to receive the fullness of Eucharist in both mind and heart.

Catholic Christian faith has never been afraid of where thinking might lead us. The early Church Fathers of both East and West made extensive use of what flowed from ancient schools of thought, in many ways putting the ideas and language of philosophy at the service of divine revelation. Living in the midst of a pagan world, they were not afraid of a clash between human reason and eternal truth. That is because they wisely saw God as the source of both.

Saints throughout the centuries have testified to the fact that those who truly dedicate themselves to finding the truth will, in the end, find it in God. Great minds like Athanasius, John Chrystostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Edith Stein -- all of them, and many more, saw not only the limits of human intellect, but also its use.

The complete text of the Holy Father’s speech in Germany, the one that inspired such a visceral reaction in the Islamic world, wasn’t really about Islam at all. Benedict was simply taking an opportunity to affirm the Church’s position on the relationship between faith and human reason. That is, that faith and reason are complementary and are not by nature opposed to one another. The main thrust of his words were directed towards the Western World, and in particular Europe. The pope warned us, and rightly so, not to build a society on human rationality that is completely devoid of faith. He suggested that reason apart from faith was as inhuman and dangerous as faith without reason. That is, that religious fanaticism and super-rationalism are based on the same false opposition between the human mind and the human heart.

Can we believe and still be reasonable? The Church teaches that we cannot do otherwise. Can we be reasonable and still believe? Perhaps that is the challenge we face in societies like our own, where highly-educated people seem at a loss to find a deeper meaning and purpose in their lives. Medical science, I think, can help us see the problem clearly. When a person’s heart stops, he dies. When his brain is no longer functioning, he is dead. To be fully human and fully alive, or as St. Irenaeus of Lyons put it, to be the glory of God, humanity must have both a beating heart, and a think-ing brain.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.