Fr. Harold Panditharante was the second of seven children born to a leading family of Pitipane in Negombo on 9th March 1926. Having done his schooling at Maris Stella College and successfully passing the matriculation examination in 1943 and the Senior School Certificate, he had decided to join St. Aloysius’ Junior seminary in 1944.
Attending St. Joseph’s College, he sat for the Higher School Certificate the following year, which he got through brilliantly. By then, Archbishop Jean-Marie Masson, having seen in the young seminarian a solid vocation and one endowed with high intellectual acumen, had decided on sending him to Propaganda Fide College in Rome in 1946 for further academic studies and priestly formation.
In Rome, he read for a PhD with a research thesis on Hegel’s Concept of Indian Philosophy awarded with summa cum laude. In the meanwhile, he received priestly ordination in October 1950 which was a Holy Year, the year in which the dogma of the Assumption was defined by Pope Pius XII. He then proceeded in 1953 to the UK where he read for a second doctoral degree in Philosophy in the University of London in 1956, with the thesis: “The metaphysical problem of existence as involved in the dialectical and sense-datum analysis of sense-experience”.
Having returned to Sri Lanka the same year he was posted to the staff of St. Peter’s College for a short while and then returned to England for six years when he was attached to Bible College London and the University of Sheffield as a librarian. During this time he became an Associate of the Library Association of England (ALA). Returning to Sri Lanka in 1967, he rejoined St. Peter’s College and also taught at Aquinas College. Joining the staff of the National Seminary in 1972, he was appointed rector in 1974, a period of service that ended in 1981 but continues to be on the staff till 1992.
As rector, he had the great responsibility of seeing to the integral formation of Sri Lanka’s future priests, His greatest achievement has been the raising of academic standards in the department of philosophy and succeeding in obtaining the faculty for conferring the B.Ph. degree in affiliation with the Propaganda College. In all, his teaching career at the seminary spanned 20 long years before he retired to the Home for elders at Darley Road, Maradana. During these days of retirement, it was for him a great delight welcoming and conversing with his former student-seminarians now in ministry as brother priests.
A Genius Mind
Fr. Panditharatne won the hearts of his teachers and fellow students during his student days. At St. Joseph’s in recognition of his extraordinary and exceptional capabilities in studies, he was dubbed the “scientist”. Likewise. his performances in studies at the Roman College was so impressionable, that he became known as “il filosopho” (the philosopher) and is well remembered even to this day at this
He became a master-teacher in all main branches of Philosophy such as Logic and Scientific Method, Epistemology and Religious Language’ not to mention Mathematics, all of which he excelled in imparting to his dear students both in the national seminary and in other institutions of learning in Colombo.
Though these speculative sciences at times contain very complex concepts and ideas, he knew the pedagogical art of presenting and communicating them in simple language for the neophytes in these fields. He is known as the pioneer who introduced symbolic logic to Sri Lanka. Though primarily a philosopher, subjects like Theology, Science, Astronomy and Physics too caught his interest.
A Sharer of Wisdom
It is rather a matter of curiosity that despite the store of knowledge he possessed, long years of teaching and endowed with pedagogical talent, Fr. Panditharatne had not given thought to put out any formal books. He replied that his desire and joy was always to share with others in imparting to them all the knowledge and expertise he had gathered over the years. However, we all know that many, among them university dons, lawyers and others had come to him for consultation regarding topics bordering on education, school curricula etc: opportunities he was very happy to welcome as occasions for a fruitful encounter with higher echelons in those fields.
Having had his entire academic training in an ecclesiastical context, he knew the importance of a sound philosophical formation for those preparing for the priestly ministry especially in modern culture and social setting that calls for ministers of the Church to be knowledgeable and equipped with skills for right judgment and discernment.
He was more than convinced after years of study and scholarly research in Philosophy that religious truth does not militate against rational truth and that to believe is not against reason or irrational. Believing does not displace or destroy reason. Religious belief does not diminish or become a threat to reason. It is fundamentally accepted in Christian thinking that as St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century luminary of scholasticism has written, that there is a twin-pathway to the truth, namely the light of reason and that of faith.
"Religious belief does not diminish or become a threat to reason. As St. Thomas Aquinas said ..there is a twin-pathway to the truth, namely the light of reason and that of faith."
At the source of both God is present as the primordial source and ground of the truth. In the same way, reason touches the rational truth so is faith capable of touching revealed truth. Revealed truth is directly from divine revelation such as what we find in the content of the Bible (biblical truth) while rational truth is the fruit of sound and wholesome reasoning.
The relationship of Faith and reason has always to be defended against radically materialistic and empirical philosophers and scientism which demand empirical verification for anything declared to be true and rationally acceptable.
Fr. Panditharatne was more than convinced of this relationship and never saw in it an antinomy, dichotomy or contradiction. In our day, Pope St. John Paul II, the excellent philosopher that he was having been a university professor in the most famous national state university of his native Poland in Lublin and at the same time, a man of great spiritual stature and faith took up this perennial question in one of his greatly celebrated encyclical letters entitled: “Faith and Reason” (Fides et Ratio – 1998) in which it is said that faith and reason are “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”. Thus, the heart fulfils its God-given nature that is the desire to know the truth. The encyclical letter highlights the basic issues such as faith and reason, philosophy and theology, science and religion, self-knowledge and world knowledge and other important matters that relate to man’s ultimate search for truth.
Paradox: Religious and Secular in Philosophy
As a Christian philosopher and a teacher of philosophical subjects both in Catholic institutions and in secular faculties, Fr. Panditharatne invariably had to meet with this challenge of the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy and theology which to some might seem paradoxical in nature.
In this context, he would have relished the wonderful insights Pope John Paul II had presented in the document referred above, in which was seen the transparency of the once polish philosopher who had to contend with the communist ideology and dialectical materialism that prevailed in his native country.
The harmonizing of these two branches of knowledge and articulating their mutual correspondence and complementarity is always the daunting challenge thrown to all Christian philosophers. Fr. Panditharatne, our priest-scholar was more than convinced and conscious of this daunting task and stood up to it valiantly. Elucidating their complementarity, the polish philosopher considers the discipline of philosophy as the science in pursuit of the study of ultimate truth, critical enquiry, logical analysis, questioning and interpretation of facts under the natural light of reason. It is autonomous in principle and has a method of its own.
"He was convinced ...that religious truth does not militate against rational truth and that to believe is not against reason or irrational. "
On the other hand, theology is the study of the Catholic faith, with revelation as its first principle. Accordingly, as a Christian philosopher, Fr. Panditharatne’s calling was to legitimize matters of the religious faith of Christianity which are solidly God-centred and transcendental in character vis-a-vis philosophical currents prevalent today.
An expert in Hegelian Philosophy, having researched on Hegel both in Rome and in London, an excellent proponent in Logic and epistemology, he was obliged to work out this synthesis that is both salutary to faith and respective of reason.
How could one justify a transcendental purpose as the ultimate end of human life, the mystery of human suffering, a creator-God, a God of love in the face of the presence of physical disasters and manifold moral evil?
In various articles written by him, we find covered topics such as human rights and justice, criteria for ethical rectitude, the problem of evil and human freedom, atheism and philosophy of religion etc.
Being engaged in the formation of catholic seminarians makes him all the more convinced of the imperative need of philosophical formation of the clergy, seeing in this phase the empowering of the priest-students to distinguish real knowledge in depth from the welter of opinions that characterize the world of pluralism today.
Fr. Panditharatne has also broached on topics that are relevant to any religious thinker and very particularly to a priest in the Catholic Church and had brought to bear his surprisingly striking analytical thinking into modern questions like atheism and Christology.
He seems to have had a very insightful knowledge about the current trends in biblical exegetical studies and theological issues as well. He had in an article on the “Consciousness of Christ” highlighted the problem of the fore-knowledge of Christ about his impending death and Resurrection as saving events
Did these events just overtake him which made him submit to them as God’s will but seen as salvific only by the Gospel writers and especially St. Paul much later? However, it would seem according to exegetes and biblical scholars that there is enough evidence in the New Testament writings to show that Jesus did have foreknowledge of the paschal events to follow and that they were perceived as events that had a saving effect and was expiatory.
"Hegel seems to have helped our priest-philosopher in many ways to reconcile those traditional paradoxes between faith and reason, God and evil, providence and human freedom"
Fr. Panditharatne is all for the Spirit category of Hegel in which he appreciates the link between God and the world as well as between God and man.
Hegel had said that without the world, God is not God! This brings him to place Jürgen Moltmann’s classical insight and thesis about crucified God as a real God of Christianity who is deeply involved in the sinful condition of mankind which he evenly matched with his earlier theology of Hope.
Thus, radical theism and monotheism are unacceptable and a fortiori, atheism. Of course, there is a dialectical tension between our concepts of God and man, or of God and world-history. The Jesus of history and Christ of faith distinction emerged out of this background theological insight as to the Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx has well shown in his works. It is to be well noted that despite the universal spirit (Geist) of Hegelian philosophy being pervasive in its presence, there is however no stain of pantheism in it. This is the genius of the Hegelian dialectic. Fr. Panditharatne appreciates the intention of Hegel who claimed to have continued the task of St. Anselm and other Mediaeval theologians who proposed the thesis that theology is faith seeking understanding (Fides quaerens intellectum) and went on to strongly declare that philosophical statements unfold themselves only when they do unfold religion.
Hegel seems to have helped our priest-philosopher in many ways to reconcile those traditional paradoxes between faith and reason, God and evil, providence and human freedom.
Hence, in Fr. Panditharatna, priest of God, philosopher and “guru” we see a marvellous synthesis of a thinker, a man of faith and one whose priestly spirituality was firmly grounded in a convinced and committed faith. His has been a life-style of a spiritual teacher, a man of wisdom who could galvanize the best of modern philosophy to enhance theological thinking and the formulation of faith-statements. Among few priests that we have in Sri Lanka, he would be counted as one who could explain to us clearly the correspondence and the non-contradiction between religion and philosophy and one who could strongly defend the idea of a philosophy of religion. His philosophical thinking was firmly grounded in logical reasoning. However, he was not without moments of loss when having to confront paradoxes in life and
“The metaphysical problem of Being is, thus, the problem of asserting of myself that I am an Existing or Real being, an individual or person. It is the problem of finding a proper sense for this assertion. For, if I am to hold Hegel’s view – and, as I said, I am very much inclined to agree with his reasoning – it makes no sense to make this assertion. In contrast, if I am to hold the view of Aquinas, I do not see what justification there is for calling on a Revealed Being in the seat of philosophy. I confess I am painfully puzzled, and I would be grateful for any philosophical illumination”.
While being a man of strong and deep faith, he would relentlessly labour to find ways and means to justify and defend matters pertaining to religion, faith and spirituality and the transcendental ideals he was committed to in his personal life. Above all, despite the intellectual giant, he was, his humility characterizing him as one always open to listen in patience and learn from other sources and persons who would provide better insights in his judgement, Fr. Panditharatne is indeed to be very much admired. That distinguishing trait truly marks him as a wise man who deserves our laurels and one from whom as a guru, we can all learn and appreciate the discipline of Philosophy.
Fr. Ratnasekera is a member of the National Seminary, Kandy.