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Reason depends on faith

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 19, 2008

“What is most embarrassing to the world today,” said Georgetown professor James Schall, S.J., “is that the most intelligent voice it confronts, or deliberately refuses to confront, is that coming from the papacy.” Fr. Schall has a point. He was commenting on Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical, “Spe Salvi,” which drew its title from its opening words, “‘SPE SALVI facti sumus’-in hope we were saved.” The message is simple: “A world without God is a world without hope.” No. 44.

Benedict admits that “we need the … hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope which … can only be… the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety.” No. 31. A secularist culture, he insists, can offer no hope for anything after death. No future. In contrast, their “encounter with Christ” gives Christians their “distinguishing mark” which is “the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details… but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.” No. 2.

A point of interest to a university community is the relation between the lack of hope and what Benedict had described at Regensburg in 2006 as “the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable” so that “questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.” When reason is so limited, affirmations of God and objective morality are dismissed as non-rational. No one can know anything about God. And “justice” becomes, in the words of Hans Kelsen, the foremost legal positivist of the last century, “an irrational ideal.”

Benedict describes as “presumptuous and false,” the idea that “[s]ince there is no God to create justice… man himself is now called to establish justice.” “It is no accident,” he said, “that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice…. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.” No. 42. Justice will be whatever man decrees. Thus Kelsen said that Auschwitz and other Nazi exterminations were “valid law.” In accord with his “philosophical relativism,” he could not reasonably criticize them as unjust.

“Spe Salvi” traces “the foundations of the modern age” to Francis Bacon and others who thought that “man would be redeemed through science.” Nos. 16, 25. “[U]p to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ…. Now, this ‘redemption,’ the restoration of the lost Paradise is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis [practice, action or conduct]. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level – that of purely private and other-worldly affairs – and… it becomes… irrelevant for the world…. This …vision… shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is … a crisis of Christian hope. Thus hope too… acquires a new form. Now it is called: faith in progress…. [T]hrough the interplay of science and praxis… a totally new world will emerge, the kingdom of man.” No. 17

Benedict affirms the achievements and potential of science, but he cautions that “[i]f technical progress is not matched by … progress in man’s ethical formation… it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.” No. 22. The problem is that ethical formation is impossible unless reason can offer answers on moral right and wrong. But reason cannot do that if it is limited to the empirical, without “integration through… openness… to the differentiation between good and evil… [R]eason… becomes human only if it is capable of directing the will along the right path and it is capable of this only if it looks beyond itself…. Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope… God truly enters into human affairs only when, rather than being present merely in our thinking, he himself comes towards us and speaks to us…. Reason… and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and their missions.” No. 23

Because of protests, Benedict XVI cancelled an address last month at La Sapienza University in Rome. In the address he had prepared, he said, “the danger for the western world… is that… because of the greatness of his knowledge and power, man will fail to face up to the question of truth.”

That comment is pertinent to the United States, where the Supreme Court has misinterpreted the First Amendment to impose an impossible neutrality between “religion and irreligion.” In theory, that “neutrality” forbids any public official to affirm that the Declaration of Independence is in fact true when it identifies God as the author of rights. Similarly, public education is founded on a non-theistic religious proposition, that moral questions can – and must in the public sphere – be decided without reference to any controlling role of God and His law. Instead, each person creates his own moral truth. He is his own god. The result is not neutrality but an established agnosticism devoid of ultimate hope.

“Spe Salvi” is part of Benedict’s ongoing project to rescue reason by integrating it with faith and objective morality, so that it can address questions beyond the empirical. He would have told the Sapienza students that “if reason, out of concern for its alleged purity, becomes deaf to the great message that comes to it from Christian faith and wisdom, then it withers like a tree whose roots can no longer reach the waters that give life to it.”

Fr. Schall described Benedict XVI as “the only universal voice in the world.” He is that. His vindication of reason should be taken seriously, especially in universities that claim to be Catholic.

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. He may be reached at (574) 633-4415 or at rice.1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.