The Recovery of Reason

Pope Benedict’s address to the German parliament

The most robust defense of reason today comes not from academics and politicians but from the papacy. At a time of growing skepticism and relativism, Pope Benedict XVI stands almost alone in reason’s defense.

In his 2006 Regensburg lecture, he guarded reason against two types of foes:  extremists from the East who push a distorted faith without reason and secularists from the West who advance a distorted reason without faith.

His September 22 speech to the German parliament in Berlin marks another signal contribution to the vindication of reason. This time Pope Benedict was addressing legislators who have abandoned the full range of reason as the basis for law and rely instead on a cramped and fashionable relativism. Over 50 German lawmakers boycotted the speech, providing an unwitting punctuation mark to the Pope’s call for the need to restore reason to politics. 

The relativism of the majority is a dangerous foundation on which to base the state, the Pope argued. Without leaders who exercise reason’s grasp of the natural law, on which human rights and justice absolutely depend, the state becomes nothing more than an expression of arbitrary power:

…“Without justice—what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”, as Saint Augustine once said. We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the state became an instrument for destroying right—a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss. To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician. At a moment in history when man has acquired previously inconceivable power, this task takes on a particular urgency. Man can destroy the world. He can manipulate himself. He can, so to speak, make human beings and he can deny them their humanity.

How is it that a majoritarian relativism has come to displace the natural law in politics? Pope Benedict traced the shift to the spread of positivism, an ideology based upon an artificially narrow concept of reason that treats any certain knowledge about right and wrong as an impossibility:

…The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing  into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term. Let me outline briefly how this situation arose. Fundamentally it is because of the idea that an unbridgeable gulf exists between “is” and “ought.” An “ought” can never follow from an “is,” because the two are situated on completely different planes. The reason for this is that in the meantime, the positivist understanding of nature has come to be almost universally accepted. If nature—in the words of Hans Kelsen—is viewed as “an aggregate of objective data linked together in terms of cause and effect,” then indeed no ethical indication of any kind can be derived from it.  A positivist conception of nature as purely functional, as the natural sciences consider it to be, is incapable of producing any bridge to ethics and law, but once again yields only functional answers. The same also applies to reason, according to the positivist understanding that is widely held to be the only genuinely scientific one. Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood. Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word. Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else—and that is broadly the case in our public mindset—then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded. This is a dramatic situation which affects everyone, and on which a public debate is necessary. Indeed, an essential goal of this address is to issue an urgent invitation to launch one.

Pope Benedict pointedly observed that coexisting with this positivist culture is an enthusiasm for ecology, a view “that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.” Why, the Pope asked, isn’t there an accompanying “ecology of man”?

“Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will,” he said. “Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

Even a tepid German media took notice of the Pope’s points, with a few publications suggesting that the speech may prove one of the most consequential of his papacy. The boycotting parliament members had dismissed the Pope as an irrational “sectarian” voice they didn’t need to hear. Lost on them is the irony that while they were hiding out in their secularist sectarian clubs the Pope was recovering the true meaning of reason for all.