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
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:
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 righta
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
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
…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 naturein the words of Hans Kelsenis 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 elseand that is broadly the case in our public mindsetthen
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.