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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cardinal Ratzinger On Europe's Crisis of Culture

A niece of mine recently brought this Ratzinger lecture to my attention.

On July 26, 2005, the day before John Paul II died after a prolonged death watch, Joseph Ratzinger—soon to be Benedict XVI—gave an address at Subiaco on Europe's cultural crisis. This address was in the nature of a campaign speech for the papacy, setting out Ratzinger's views on the position of the Church in the modern world. He was presenting himself as a man of vision with a clear idea of the problems facing the Church—the implication being that he was therefore the right man to lead the Church after the long pontificate of John Paul II. This address is thus a handy summary of Ratzinger/Benedict's views.

Ratzinger begins his address by providing something of a laundry list of important problems facing modern man—symptoms of the cultural crisis. These are, in his view, problems that have developed over the last century and are representative byproducts of a cultural change in the West. Among those problems are the threat of terrorism, including the possibility that terrorists may soon obtain biological and/or nuclear weapons; the reaction to terrorism on the part of “lawful states,” which have adopted internal security measures that rival those previously associated only with dictatorships; the development of bio-technology which casts doubt on the dignity of man as God's image; and the growing inequality in the “distribution of the goods of the earth.” Ratzinger concludes by characterizing this crisis as a crisis of moral strength:
All this shows that the growth of our possibilities has not been matched by a comparable development of our moral energy. Moral strength has not grown together with the development of science; rather, it has diminished, because the technical mentality relegates morality to the subjective realm, while we have need, precisely, of a public morality, a morality that is able to respond to the threats that weigh down on the existence of us all. The real and gravest danger in these times lies, precisely, in this imbalance between technical possibilities and moral energy.
Having stated his view of the problem in general terms, Ratzinger presents his analysis of the crisis under seven headings.

A new moralism

Ratzinger first allows that a “new moralism” exists, but he considers that this “new moralism” is insufficient. In his view it lacks clear definition and consists largely of nice sounding but “vague” words—it relies heavily on rhetoric and thus is subject to exploitation in the strife of party politics typical of the West today:
It is true that a new moralism exists today whose key words are justice, peace and conservation of creation — words that call for essential moral values of which we are in real need. But this moralism remains vague and thus slides, almost inevitably, into the political-party sphere. It is above all a dictum addressed to others, and too little a personal duty of our daily life. In fact, what does justice mean? Who defines it? What serves towards peace?
It's easy enough to agree that Ratzinger has a point. However, it's puzzling even at this early stage of his analysis that, given his repeated reference to “justice,” he fails to note that, since the dawn of Greek philosophy, there has been in the West a millennia long cultivation of a science of morality based on the concept of human virtues, and which focuses especially on justice. This virtue based morality was incorporated into the Church's natural law theory of morality—which finds sanction in the writings of, inter alia, Paul (esp. Romans 1:19-20, cf. CCC 31-35--and remains to this day the norm of Catholic teaching.

In any event, Ratzinger continues with a focus on the inadequacy of this politically influence new moralism. He decries the totalitarian tendencies latent in moralities that derive from political ideology, and briefly alludes to the influence of these moralities even within the Church—a clear reference to the once fashionable “liberation theology.” He grants that many who have been attracted by these moralities are animated by idealism, but insists on the inadequacy of any morality that places political ideals above the individual and which transforms Christianity into a type of “political moralism.” Above all, he decries the exclusion of God from the new moralism and his replacement with “great words (and values)”:
Over the last decades we have amply seen in our streets and squares how pacifism can deviate toward a destructive anarchism and terrorism. The political moralism of the 70s, the roots of which are anything but dead, was a moralism that succeeded in attracting even young people full of ideals. But it was a moralism with a mistaken direction, in as much as it was deprived of serene rationality and because, in the last analysis, it placed the political utopia above the dignity of the individual man, showing itself even capable of arriving at contempt for man in the name of great objectives.

Political moralism, as we have lived it and are still living it, does not open the way to regeneration, and even more, also blocks it. The same is true, consequently, also for a Christianity and a theology that reduces the heart of Jesus' message, the "kingdom of God," to the "values of the kingdom," identifying these values with the great key words of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, as a synthesis of the religions.
Nonetheless, God is neglected in this way, notwithstanding the fact that it is precisely he who is the subject and cause of the kingdom of God. In his stead, great words (and values) remain, which lend themselves to all kinds of abuse.
Now, for the traditional Christian, Ratzinger's words will undoubtedly strike a congenial chord, but there is a subtle problem of emphasis and orientation in his presentation. If God is neglected, should we not be asking, why? Shouldn't a Christian leader be calling the modern world back to a consideration of the greatness of creation which points to its Creator? (Again, cf. Romans 1.) This has for two thousand years been the bread and butter of Christian apologetics--surely all the scientific and technological advances of the past several centuries point insistently to the greatness of the Creator of all the marvels that we have come to know! Above all, shouldn't Ratzinger be recalling his listeners to man's own nature as the basis for morality? Isn't this the proper approach for a “serene rationality?” We will need to keep these considerations in mind as we follow Ratzinger's analysis.

This review of the world's problems suggests to Ratzinger a method for his analysis. While the new culture of “scientific rationalism” (which Ratzinger associates with the “new moralism) has spread throughout the world, it is an historical fact that it first arose in Europe. Therefore, if we are to examine the European past in order to understand the rise of this scientific rationalism we must also examine “the situation of Christianity,” since Europe was at one time the Christian continent.

Godless society

This new culture of scientific rationalism, says Ratzinger, is characterized by the fact that it “excludes God from the public conscience, either by denying him altogether, or by judging that his existence is not demonstrable, uncertain and, therefore, belonging to the realm of subjective choices, something, in any case, irrelevant to public life.” Ratzinger identifies the problem as a “purely functional rationality,” by which he appears to intend an exclusive focus on science and, in particular, technology: rationality is, in this new culture, identified with the successful manipulation of material reality to the exclusion of whatever cannot be dealt with in those terms.

Again, there's no doubt that Ratzinger is touching on important issues—but only touching, not truly coming to grips with them. The problem is, while Ratzinger pays lip service to the notion of seeking to understand the historical roots of this new culture, in fact he fails to follow through. Does the new rationalism deny that it is possible to demonstrate that God exists? Shouldn't we then ask, What are the roots of this denial? The fact is, the roots of this denial are actually to be found hundreds of years before the Enlightenment, when Europe could still be plausibly characterized as Christendom. If Ratzinger had diligently sought the roots of the new rationalism, he would have found them in the steady development of the Platonic/Augustinian tradition in the West. As we have been at pains to emphasize, every form of thought that rests on Platonist assumptions, rationalistic as they may appear, has a built in bias that tends toward skepticism. Plato himself was frankly unable to reconcile his theory (myth?) of eternal Ideas with the common human experience of an ever changing reality, and this problem has bedeviled almost all Western thought—for the simple reason that, as Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote, most Western thought is simply a series of footnotes to Plato. As philosophical sophistication increased in the High Middle Ages, Christian thinkers were confronted with the inadequacy of the traditional Platonic influenced Augustinian approach. An all too common reaction of theologians was to take refuge in what Etienne Gilson has termed “theologism.” This involved the attempt to safeguard the truths of faith by more and more strictly limiting the scope of reason—the result being a marriage of “faith” with a philosophical skepticism. But this “faith” was radically different from what the official teachings of the Church understood by the word. It was in fact a fideism, which insisted that faith, rather than resting on reasonable grounds, was a subjective conviction that could not be proven. Thus, theologians sought to defend “faith” from the weaknesses of Platonic based thought by denying or severely limiting the claims of all philosophy and, ultimately, by casting doubt on man's ability to know reality—including human nature itself. Is it any wonder that so many people in the culturally resurgent West turned for truth to the rising new sciences, since “Christian” thinkers continually attacked philosophy, and the decadent philosophies then current offered no positive solutions? The ruin of Christian thinking, ruined from within, tempted the new science to its hubristic efforts to formulate a new morality.

This tragic story of the breakdown of Christian philosophy is essential to an understanding of the modern crisis, but it is one that Ratzinger utterly fails to mention. In fact, Ratzinger even signally fails to assert that it is possible to demonstrate God's existence. It's true that Ratzinger did address some aspects of this problem, shortly after he became Benedict XVI, in his famous address at the University of Regensburg. In that address Benedict singled out for criticism the “voluntarist” moral thinking of Duns Scotus, whose thought is in the Augustinian tradition (Benedict fails to mention that important contextual point). Voluntarism presents morality as simply a series of essentially arbitrary Divine orders, with no rhyme or reason beyond the brute fact of God's will. But even in this context, Ratzinger/Benedict fails to mention the one significant alternative to the Platonic/Augustinian tradition: Thomist thought, with its espousal of natural law morality based on reasoned insight into human nature. Surely this is more in line with the “serene rationality” that Ratzinger desires?

And yet, in his analysis of the “new moralism” of “scientific rationalism,” rather than appealing to natural law and the virtue morality of Greek culture, Ratzinger appeals instead (albeit in an irenic outreach to Jews) to “the Christian roots of Europe [which] go back to Mount Sinai: They bear the sign of the voice that made itself heard on the mountain of God and unite with us in the great fundamental orientations that the Decalogue has given humanity.” Unfortunately, behind Ratzinger's traditional sounding rhetoric, there is a serious inadequacy of analysis that reflects ideas that are not as traditionally Christian as one might expect.

To begin, the Decalogue as a moral code is, in most aspects, far from unique to Israel. It is, in fact, an Israelite reflection of a common morality widespread throughout humanity and especially in the ancient Near East. Most importantly, the moral ideas contained in the Decalogue reflect insights into human nature that are common to almost all cultures. Seen from this point of view, the backdrop to the Decalogue and related moral thought in surrounding cultures is the common approach of deriving moral laws from a conception of human nature. In other words, a simple form of natural law morality is presumed; the Decalogue should not be understood as mere positive lawgiving . Indeed, this is the understanding of the Decalogue presented in the CCC (2070-2071), which Ratzinger was intimately involved in developing and promulgating. Ratzinger's references to the Decalogue in this address suggest a simplistic, almost fundamentalist approach (and, we must point out, a certain affinity to voluntarism). The fact is, to the extent that Christian morality has made a deep impression on humanity, it has not been by preaching the Decalogue—the tenets of which are, for the most part not news to most of humanity—but instead by the sophisticated analysis of human nature by which Christianity has explained, developed and extended these fundamental ideas to all aspects of human life.

Ratzinger should have made this connection explicit, in the interests of clarity and sound analysis, but as is his usual practice he refused to make any reference to natural law morality or its underpinnings: Thomist metaphysics. Instead, Ratzinger transitions to the next section of his address by noting the exclusivist pretensions of Enlightenment culture:
The motivations of this twofold "no" [no to God, no to the Christian roots of Europe in the Preamble of the European Constitution] are more profound than one would think from the reasons offered. They presuppose the idea that only the radical Enlightenment culture, which has reached its full development in our time, could be constitutive for European identity. Next to this culture, then, different religious cultures can coexist with their respective rights, on the condition and to the degree in which they respect the criteria of the Enlightenment culture, and are subordinated to it.
Culture of rights

The notion of a “culture of rights” is well worth discussion. Natural law morality, the basis for Catholic moral teaching, treats human activity in terms of what is good or bad for human nature, what is or is not in accord with human nature. From this standpoint, then, it is clear that repeated actions that become habitual and run counter to the good of human nature are bound to have a harmful effect on any culture in which they become common. Now, the culture of rights--characterized by “rights talk”--did not arise spontaneously; it had a history and it constitutes a mistaken but nonetheless rational response to misguided developments in Christian thinking. Briefly, the culture of rights arose in the wake of the breakdown of medieval philosophy and the theological attack on man's ability to know reality by means of natural reason, to which we referred above. It was in this connection that the voluntarism referred to in the preceding section was developed as an alternative to natural law morality. The notion of “human rights” was also developed precisely as an alternative to the two major trends in Christian moral thought. On the one hand, it sought to avoid the irrationalism of voluntarism; on the other hand, it accepted the negative critique of natural law morality based on Thomist metaphysics: if human nature is unknowable, as the late Augustinian tradition tended to claim, then the best idea was to sidestep those debates altogether by agreeing on a list of  human “rights.” Of course, at the popular level common sense versions of natural law morality have continued to predominate, but Ratzinger is addressing what could be called the “civic theology” or philosophy of the West--what is allowable in public discourse. In that sense he is perfectly correct in describing the post Enlightenment West as a “culture of rights”--with the caveat that it is regrettable that he provides no historical background and no explanation of what the Church was doing while these destructive developments were taking place.

In his analysis of “Enlightenment culture Ratzinger first notes that it is essentially defined by the right of freedom; it stems from freedom as a fundamental value that measures everything.” We needn't argue over the priority of or ordering of rights, since to the extent that they ignore human nature they are all equally arbitrary. What is important is that, rather than contrasting this culture of rights with a culture based on natural law/virtue morality--which would have allowed him to discuss freedom as a human capacity that is oriented toward fulfillment of the good of human nature—Ratzinger proceeds to argue that
It is evident that this canon of the Enlightenment culture, less than definitive, contains important values which we, precisely as Christians, do not want and cannot renounce; however, it is also obvious that the ill-defined or undefined concept of freedom, which is at the base of this culture, inevitably entails contradictions; and it is obvious that precisely because of its use (a use that seems radical) it has implied limitations of freedom that a generation ago we could not even imagine. A confused ideology of freedom leads to dogmatism, which is showing itself increasingly hostile to freedom.
Remarkably, Ratzinger manifests no interest in offering a positive alternative to the “culture of rights” that he clearly views as inadequate at best. His only concern is the negative one of maintaining that the culture of rights leads to seemingly contradictory positions, and primarily this: that while the culture of rights appears to value freedom above all else, it has become increasingly “dogmatic” and intolerant of religious freedom.

Universal culture?

Continuing from his twin contentions that the culture of rights is both inadequate yet possessed of an arrogant pretension to be the exclusive voice allowed in public life, Ratzinger poses two questions: is this Enlightenment philosophy, this culture of rights, both scientifically rational and so universal to human nature, and is it really “complete in itself,” self contained and in no need of input from any other source?

Ratzinger's reply to these questions rests on his previous assertion—lacking though it was in historical detail—that the Enlightenment philosophy arose in the West and from Christendom. From this base he goes on to make two further assertions. The first is that, as a matter of cultural fact, not all societies have proven to be receptive to the democratic political party system prevalent in the West. This means that “the total religious neutrality of the state, in the majority of historical contexts, has to be considered an illusion.” Ratzinger's second assertion is that these modern philosophies are “positivist and, therefore, anti-metaphysical.” By this he means that they “are based on imposed limitations of reason, characteristic of a specific cultural situation that of the modern West.”

What is notable in Ratzinger's position is that it doesn't rise to the level of theory. With regard to his first contention—that not all societies have proven receptive to Enlightenment values—one might reply that the cultural institutions of those societies need to be destroyed and that new Enlightenment societies can be built on the cultural rubble. That, after all, is what has happened in the West. Ratzinger doesn't oppose this in principle, probably because to do so would require him to address the question of whether there is a human nature common to all men. Since Ratzinger consistently declines, as we have seen, to address the question of human nature on a philosophical level, he probably doesn't want to go down that path. This is unfortunate, because Ratzinger's position has merit—but only if developed further.

With regard to his second assertion—that the anti-metaphysical stance of the Enlightenment is culturally conditioned—we are also in substantial agreement, with this proviso: we are eager to discuss the nature of those cultural conditions that proved favorable to the Enlightenment, whereas Ratzinger is notably reticent in that regard. Further, we are also eager to discuss an alternative to both the Enlightenment philosophy as well as to the Platonist based Augustinianism that formed the secularized base of the Enlightenment. Ratzinger refuses to mention any alternative, even though the most obvious alternative—Thomism--remains the normative thought of the Catholic Church. Finally, Ratzinger fails to address the possibility that the Enlightenment, while culturally conditioned from the historical point of view, happens to be true on the theoretical level. Ratzinger's sole real complaint is that the Enlightenment philosophy rejects its historical roots and seeks to exclude Christianity from public life. He asserts that rejection of historical roots deprives a culture of the “ regenerating forces from which it sprang,” but doesn't address this question as a theoretical matter. One can easily imagine a pagan Roman making the same argument in the 4th century AD.

Knowing is doing

This section merely reprises the previous section, with largely rhetorical content. Ratzinger makes no attempt to suggest that the Enlightenment philosophy is theoretically insufficient; he simply asserts that it is “incomplete” because it fails to maintain “contact with its roots.” This argument relies for its force on a type of historico-cultural determinism and fundamentally undercuts the received understanding of Christian revelation.

Removing God

At this point Ratzinger presents the tactic that he has been hinting at when discussing the Enlightenment claim to exclusivity and its hostility to religion:
The real opposition that characterizes today's world is not that between various religious cultures, but that between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on one hand, and from the great religious cultures on the other.
This is a variation on a familiar tactic: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In addition to being logically fallacious, it ignores the fact that, in spite of the undoubted hostility of the Enlightenment culture toward Christianity, the religious roots of positivism remain significant and provide a greater common ground than Christianity possesses with other religions. For example, the notion--presented by Benedict at Regensburg--that Christianity has significant theological common ground with Islam is almost certainly an illusion based on hope. The experience of Christian faith is simply radically different from the experiences that form the basis of other “religions” or cultures that are based on archaic ontology.

The Permanent Significance of the Christian Faith

And Ratzinger is not so delusional as to be unaware that Christianity does in fact have features in common with the Enlightenment, although he is notably shy about spelling them out and drawing the necessary distinctions. Thus, Ratzinger returns to the theme of reason (which he developed further at Regensburg):
Is this a simple rejection of the Enlightenment and of modernity? Absolutely not. From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the "Logos," as the religion according to reason. In the first place, it has not identified its precursors in the other religions, but in that philosophical enlightenment which has cleared the path of traditions to turn to the search of the truth and towards the good, toward the one God who is above all gods.
Now this is a truly radical statement, one which will require significant unpacking. Let us rephrase several of the key assertions in this paragraph, to better understand what is being said. For our purposes we can summarize them in two statements.

First, Ratzinger states baldly: Christianity does not identify its precursors in “the other religions.” At first glance, this would appear to deny Christianity's Judaic roots. On consideration, however, I believe that, behind Ratzinger's typically awkward expression, is an identification of Christianity's Judaic roots with the Prophetic and Wisdom literature referenced in the Gospel of John. Ratzinger has, in other writings, associated this Israelite literature with the Greek philosophical enlightenment, and in fact they do share much in common—as do religion and philosophy generally. However, Christianity's Judaic roots go far beyond these intellectual expressions of late Judaism and incorporate elements that are also common to “the other religions,” such as the sacrificial system.

Secondly, and significantly, he specifies that Christianity identifies its precursor in “that philosophical enlightenment which ... cleared the path of traditions to turn to the search of the truth and towards the good, toward the one God who is above all gods.” We must say that this is typical of Ratzinger's viewpoint. He appears to regard Christianity not so much as a faith based on the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, but as an intellectual movement. For all his talk of historical roots, steeped as he is in post World War II existentialist German scholarship he has little feel for the historical understanding of a G. K. Chesterton, who was able to understand the deep affinity of Christianity for human experience through the millennia (cf. ).

This uncritical infatuation with Greek/Hellenic thought seems all too typical of Ratzinger's worldview. In his address at Regensburg Benedict will once again manifest a remarkable, and erroneous, tendency to identify Greek/Hellenic thought with Christianity. In that address Ratzinger identifies the spirit of the West—which, for him, means Christianity--with reason. And reason, to him, is associated with Hellenic culture. But in fact the key insight of Christianity is that of creative monotheism, which developed from Israelite religion over the course of centuries. This insight was foreign to and strenuously resisted by the tradition of Greek reason, nor did it develop from the notion of the 'Logos' that Ratzinger is so fond of citing. In this regard it is interesting to note that Ratzinger's trinity of the true, the good, and the one has a distinctively Greek and Platonic flavor to it, as opposed to the Christian preference for terms more closely associated with the conception of God as creator, such as being and love. In this light, we can hardly fail to contrast Ratzinger's obvious love for Platonism and Hellenism with Gilson's association of Aquinas' thought with the monotheism that developed from the religion of Israel.

Thus we can hardly be surprised that Ratzinger should launch into a virtual paean to the Enlightenment. We can, of course, agree with his criticism of the unfortunate way in which the Church too often in history allowed itself to become the “tradition and religion of the state.” But what are we too make of such expressions as:
It was and is the merit of the Enlightenment to have again proposed these original values of Christianity and of having given back to reason its own voice. In the pastoral constitution, On the Church in the Modern World, Vatican Council II underlined again this profound correspondence between Christianity and the Enlightenment, seeking to come to a true conciliation between the Church and modernity, which is the great heritage that both sides must defend.
Yes, Ratzinger is correct, in a sense, to locate the Enlightenment's roots in Christianity, but those roots are in a deformation of Christianity—as we have seen. Those roots are not in the official belief of the Church but in a theological and philosophical tradition associated with Christianity. This is a very necessary distinction that we too often lose sight of. Reason never lost its voice, even if this deformation of Christianity attempted to deprive reason of its proper role; the voice that the Enlightenment gave to reason was a distorted voice because it was based on the same Platonic misunderstandings that inspired the distorted theology of the Augustinian tradition. There is no correspondence between the Enlightenment and true Christianity, because the Enlightenment follows in the Augustinian tradition of Platonism that has done so much to distort and disrupt Christianity in the West.

All that said, Ratzinger is correct to call upon Christians to cling to reason and to reject fashionable ideas such as that the world is an irrational development:
However, a reason that springs from the irrational, and that is, in the final analysis, itself irrational, does not constitute a solution for our problems. Only creative reason, which in the crucified God is manifested as love, can really show us the way. In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the "Logos," from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.
Nevertheless, the problem that we have emphasized all along remains. Ratzinger maintains that the West is in crisis—and we agree. The Church should be a leader in finding a way out of this crisis, but being “open to all that is truly rational” hardly seems to be the leading role for a faith that professes the Son/Logos made flesh. Yet Ratzinger has resolutely declined to appeal to all the intellectual resources that the Church has at its disposal; he has specifically declined to appeal to the highest level of intellectualism in the philosophical field: Thomism. What does Ratzinger have to offer to the modern world?

"As if God existed"

In this concluding section Ratzinger makes “a proposal to the secularists.” I wish I could say that it amounted at least to a modest proposal, but it is in fact more in the nature of a frivolous proposal—certainly it is non-serious.

Ratzinger first recalls that at the time of the Enlightenment there were attempts made to “understand and define the essential moral norms” such that all men could agree with them, “even in the case that God did not exist.” These attempts came to nothing:
The search for such a reassuring certainty ... failed. Not even the truly grandiose effort of Kant was able to create the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God could be known in the realm of pure reason, but at the same time he had represented God, freedom and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which, coherently, for him no moral behavior was possible.

Here if anywhere is the place for Ratzinger to forthrightly state: Kant is wrong. The Church has always maintained, from its earliest beginnings through Thomas Aquinas and to the present day, that man can come to a knowledge of God by natural reason. God is not a mere postulate, serving a practical purpose. Incredibly, however, Ratzinger suggests a return to Kant, by way of the Jansenist Pascal
Does not today's situation of the world make us think perhaps that he might have been right? I would like to express it in a different way: The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man's ever greater isolation from reality. We must reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even one who does not succeed in finding the way of accepting God, should, nevertheless, seek to live and to direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God existed. This is the advice Pascal gave to his friends who did not believe. In this way, no one is limited in his freedom, but all our affairs find the support and criterion of which they are in urgent need.
In the final analysis this is all Ratzinger has to offer the West in its crisis of culture: faith as a purely pragmatic decision. This is a faith that is essentially defensive and even reactionary, lacking in a true, outgoing, evangelical spirit, lacking in the intellectual optimism of a Thomas Aquinas.






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