In the Heart of the Church
Public Reason and the
Truth of Christianity IN THE TEACHINGS OF BENEDICT XVI
Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi
Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the
Director of the
Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory
March 10, 2007
Public reason is human reason that believes it can attain, through
dialogue and research, certain truths about man and, in particular,
about man in society. Public reason is certainly a critical reason,
but is also a constructive reason that is not only capable of
achieving the "consensus" of opinions, but can also attain the truth
and the good of man in society for which it has a cognitive and an
The ability to understand the foundations of the dignity of the
person, the main elements of the common good, the inalienability of
human rights, justice, the meaning of individual freedom and of
community ties, all depend on the possibility of a public reason.
The primary problem of public reason is to determine if it is
possible and, secondarily, whether it is self-sufficient, or whether
it needs a relationship with religion and, in particular, with the
Christian religion. Benedict XVI has addressed this topic on several
occasions and in different places, talking on the one hand of the
truth of reason and, on the other, of the truth of religions.
The public use of reason and relativism
Public reason is not possible in a culture that is dominated by the
"dictatorship of relativism," for a very simple reason:
Relativism is a dogma and therefore it a priori rejects rational
argumentation, even toward itself. Those with a taste for paradox
could say that relativism is a fundamentalism.
On several occasions, Benedict XVI said that now it has become a
dogma, or a presumption, and that it cannot be sustained if not
through some sort of faith. Hence, relativism rests upon blind
faith. This is unquestionably contradictory because the words
"dogma" and "relativism" are incompatible.
The thing is that relativism becomes a faith in order to overcome
its internal contradiction, only to fall into a new one. Relativism,
in fact, cannot be argued; otherwise it would refer to a capability
of reason to argue the truth. In this case, relativism would
contradict itself because it would admit the possibility of
non-relative truths. Thus, relativism can only be "dogmatically
The "dictatorial" character -- in the cultural sense -- of
relativism, prevents the use of public reason because it prevents
the public use of reason. At this point, it could be interesting to
go back to the writing where this public use was strongly proclaimed
for the first time -- the short essay entitled "An Answer to the
Question: What is Enlightenment?" written by Kant in 1784.
For Kant, reason has a public use that serves a critical purpose. To
illustrate this public use, Kant especially dwells on the rational
critique of religion, i.e. the complete freedom of citizens, indeed
even the calling, "to impart to the public all of his carefully
considered and well-intentioned thoughts concerning mistaken aspects
of that symbol, as well as his suggestions for the better
arrangement of religious and church matters."
Reason, with its own categories, claims to be the testing ground and
the measure of faith and religion too. Why is a public reason to
which Kant assigned such challenging tasks now reduced to
relativism, which is incapable of critiquing not just religion, but
Public reason and the self-limitation of reason
The reason lies in the "self-limitation" of reason, as Benedict XVI
has suggested many times. This self-limitation underpins the
dogmatically blind assumption of relativism and its inability to
play any kind of critical role. The faith in relativism can exist
only when the scope of reason has been drastically limited.
The self-limitation of reason consists in its being reduced to
mathematical-experimental knowledge, i.e. a type of rationality
that is incapable of founding even relativism. This type of
knowledge -- the mathematical-experimental type -- simply has "no
evidence" of relativism, nor can have any because it is not an
empirically observable fact.
Relativism is a philosophy and not a fact, and its foundation would
require a different kind of reasoning which, however, is excluded by
self-limited reason. This is why relativism can only either be
"implicit" -- lived and not justified -- or dogmatically "assumed"
-- accepted, for example, by an act of faith. In this sense then,
the "dictatorship of relativism" is the necessary conclusion of the
"self-limitation" of reason. However, with relativism, the public
role of reason fails.
Actually, this self-limitation was already present in Kant's
thought. In the above-mentioned 1784 short essay he "pretended" to
assign to reason the public role of critiquing even religion, but it
was an incautious claim as his vision of reason was already confined
to mathematical-experimental knowledge. This is why that claim has
to be denied, however, while nevertheless rejecting it and showing
how it leads to relativism. It must also be said that a different
reason, a reason that can fully breathe, can play a public role and
can also engage in some sort of critique of religion.
In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger participated in a debate with
philosopher Jurgen Habermas in Munich that focused exactly on the
public role of reason. On that occasion, he argued that if
terrorism that is fuelled by religious fundamentalism is the symptom
of a pathology of religion that must be corrected by reason, then in
the same way the technical-scientific capability of producing human
beings is the symptom of a pathology of reason that needs to be
corrected by religion.
This is his conclusion: "There are extremely dangerous pathologies
in religion that require us to consider the divine light of reason
as a control mechanism ... there are also pathologies of reason that
are not less dangerous … therefore reason has to accept warning as
to its limits and must be willing to listen to the great religious
traditions of mankind." As we can see, he credits reason with the
ability of "controlling" religion. Christianity, then, does not ask
reason to shrink from its public role but to fully fulfill it;
however, in order to do that, reason needs to rediscover its own
greatness. Christianity wants a reason that is able to breathe and
is willing to help reason do that. It wants to be "put to the test"
by this reason.
Philosophical relativism and religious relativism
What are the repercussions of the dictatorship of relativism and of
such a reductive vision of religions on the part of reason? The
consequence of philosophical relativism can only be religious
relativism: All religions are different and yet actually the same.
They are irrational, they are the result of an unfounded choice, and
thus they cannot be compared.
Relativism, unfoundedly dogmatic, views religions as unjustified
beliefs. Because it does so in an unfounded manner, it cannot
demonstrate it, hence it simply "believes it." Relativism "believes"
that religions are unfounded, thus they cannot be compared. In other
words, it believes that religions have nothing to do with reason and
truth. Then all religions are dogmatic, in the trivial sense of the
word, i.e. in the sense of "accepted without evidence" (just like
relativism, but relativism does not seem to be aware of that).
In the current relativistic vulgate, in fact, the word dogma
generically and superficially means "something that is accepted
without evidence and thus in a dogmatic manner." Just as
philosophical relativism deprives religion of a true public role,
the corresponding religious relativism deprives religion from
playing its public role. As we will see better later, the public
role of reason and that of religious faith either stand together or
In this way, all religions are reduced to myth, i.e. to a way of
exorcizing mysterious, bizarre and irrational forces. If religions
are unfounded, it means that the divine forces they refer to are
irrational and that arbitrariness rules the word. If the primordial
forces are arbitrary, religion is a form of insurance against the
repercussions of this imponderableness. Therefore religious
relativism regresses to a kind of religious primitivism: religion is
a way of exorcizing irrational forces.
The critique of religion as myth of the Greeks and Israel
To consider religion as something irrational, according to Benedict
XVI, is entirely inconsistent with our whole Western and Christian
history. In fact, both Greek thought and the Jewish religion, as
well as Christianity, of course, rejected the vision of religion as
myth and conceived religion as knowledge and God as Logos.
Let us take a brief look at Greek thought. If we examine the Greek
religions of "the mysteries" and even the Olympic religion, we find
the characteristic features of the pre-rational myth: mysterious and
unfathomable forces, arcane, obscure, underground impulses, the
arbitrariness of the gods where the same human action can be either
good or bad depending on the deity, man's struggle to placate divine
wrath and exorcize these unforeseeable forces.
Nevertheless, Ionian Physics search for the "Arché," which is the
nomos that transforms a chaos into a cosmos, the Pythagoreans say
that everything is measure and for Anaxagoras a distinct and highly
noble pure Mind rules all things. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates
asks Euthyphro what holiness is and when an action can be said to be
holy. Euthyphro answers that holiness is that which is dear to the
gods. However, Socrates notes that different things are dear to
different gods and then asks the crucial question: "The holy is holy
because it is dear to the gods or is dear to the gods because it is
In the first case, the gods are arbitrary, in the second case they
are connected with truth and good. As we can see, the issue raised
by Benedict XVI in Regensburg, using a quotation from Manuel II
Paleologus, emperor of Constantinople -- "not to act in accordance
with reason is contrary to God's nature" -- has deep and ancient
roots. Socrates' question raises the issue of whether the gods are
capricious and arbitrary like acrobats and jugglers or whether they
follow the good and the truth.
Euthyphro does not answer, but the path had been opened by Socrates
and will be ratified by Plato: "The gods are not magicians who
transform themselves, neither do they deceive mankind in any way"
("The Republic," II, 376 c). Therefore Greek philosophy detaches
itself from myth and definitely turns to God as Logos. For
Aristotle, the supersensible Substance is Intelligence that
eternally grasps itself. The world has an order that is transparent
to reason and reason can know it because the gods are rational and
act according to truth, as Plato's Demiurge, who does not mould and
shape things at random, but drawing inspiration from the truth of
If we look at the Jewish religion, we find the same path. The
"God of the Fathers" Israel looks to is not a local or a political
god, he is not Baal nor Moloch. He is "he who is," he who existed
before all powers and will continue to exist even after them. The
God of Abraham is not fixed in one place but is everywhere. He is
not linked to any specificity, he does not depend from a people, he
does not even depend from the Temple, he does not need sacrifices.
He is the Spirit of which the world is a reflection, he is the
Spirit that is capable of creating matter. Just as Greek
philosophy surpasses itself and goes beyond its own religion of
myth, the faith of Israel saves him from belonging to a people.
For all these reasons, Benedict XVI said at Regensburg that there is
a profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the
word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.
Christianity was the ultimate synthesis of all this: For the Gospel
of St. John, Jesus is the Logos, he is the spirit of God that
created all things. Christianity does not borrow from the many
religions of the time, the religions of the myth, but presents us
with God-truth reconnecting directly with Greek thought and
developing the experience of Israel. It relates "to that divine
presence which can be perceived by the rational analysis of reality
… In Christianity, rationality became religion."
We believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word,
with Reason and not Unreason. Justin (second century) believed
that the Word had sown its seeds in Greek philosophy because what is
true for reason comes always from the Word. Clement of Alexandria
even thought that Greek philosophy had been a natural revelation of
the Christian God. There was often the danger of sliding toward an
irrational God but it has always been met and overcome by the
authentic orthodox line that was embraced by the Church.
William of Ockham, in the 14th century, argued that God, in his
omnipotence, could quite as well have created a diametrically
opposite world. He, in his absolute power, could have given us one
table of the law that was the exact opposite of the Ten
Commandments. Ockham embraced and echoed many similar ideas that had
already been expressed before and would be expressed again in later
centuries, especially after the Protestant Reformation. They
believed that a God who was subject to truth was not an omnipotent
God. The point is this: Not even God can produce something that is
This is precisely what Ockham thought: To say that God cannot
produce something that is intrinsically impossible would be to limit
the divine freedom and omnipotence. Then came St. Thomas. His
opinion is the following: "Whatever implies contradiction does not
come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have
the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such
things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them." Divine
omnipotence is wise, not arbitrary and capricious.
Christianity and the public use of reason
Christianity, and especially Catholicism, cannot accept
philosophical relativism, cannot be linked to philosophies that
exclude the problem of the truth. This would mean to negate creation
and the existence of a creative Spirit. For the same reason, the
rational notion of "human nature," which is currently questioned, is
Therefore, Christian faith confirms and supports the rational search
for truth and calls for a public role of reason that will also
include the critique of religions. In fact, we cannot say that all
religions relate to truth and reason in the same way as
Christianity. They relate to truth and reason in a different manner,
which is the same as saying that they are more or less rational and
that they can more or less adequately support the public role of
reason. This was the theme touched upon by the Holy Father at
Regensburg. A God who preaches violence is not a rational God,
because reason rejects violence as means of transmission of faith.
What is not rational cannot come from the true God.
We see here a very important criterion for the evaluation of
religions that, in some way, is new to our eyes. Religions are
concerned with eternal salvation. Religious relativism says that as
far as salvation is concerned, religions are incommensurable, it is
not possible to establish which is the most rational. Religions,
however, in addition to the promise of an eternal salvation, also
say that it starts here on earth.
If a religion teaches a way of life that is not righteous, it cannot
be a true religion. Only when man has lost sight of the ability to
know what is good and what is true, then all offers of salvation
become the same. If we do not have any standards of right living,
then all religions are the same. If the standards for right living
are relativized, man remains trapped inside religions. Again, this
demonstrates that religious relativism is founded on philosophical
relativism. Cardinal Ratzinger points out that St. Paul (Romans
2:14ff) does not say that non-Christians will be saved by following
their religion, but by following natural religion.
We have to always bear in mind that also the reverse influence is
true as well: Religious pluralism in turn produces philosophical
relativism. In fact, Benedict XVI reminded us that "The convergence
of differences must not convey an impression of surrendering to that
relativism which denies the meaning of truth itself and the
possibility of attaining it."
The common good and the truth of religions
If it is possible to criticize religions starting from the reasons
of man, then it must also be possible to criticize them starting
from the reasons of man in society, that is from a public
religion. Then it becomes clear that not all religions are equally
respectful of the good of man in society.
It is also clear that the political power that seeks to organize
society according to reason not only cannot relate to all religions
in the same way, but should also cherish its obligations to the true
religion. Of course, if the political power is based on the
relativistic democracy, it will not feel any obligation in this
regard. Relativism, in fact, can only express a procedural public
reason. When the truth is replaced by the decision of the majority,
culture is set against truth. The relativistic presumption leads to
the tearing up of people's spiritual roots and the destruction of
the network of social relationships.
Relativism regards all religions as equivalent. It does so because
it is incapable of engaging in a public critique of religions
because for relativism common good cannot be rationally identified.
By doing so, it precludes the possibility for the true religion to
religiously support what men do to attain the common good. Here,
too, we see a negative spiral. Relativistic democracy produces
religious relativism and this strengthens ethical and social
All this happens when a society is no longer able to use public
reason to criticize religions that proclaim polygamy, that
incorporate the rite of physical mutilation, that do not respect the
dignity of women, that preach violence or offer religious paths that
depersonalize and hamper human reason and knowledge. How will our
public reason be able to discern between religions if it loses sight
of authentic humanity?
The state, the Church and the problem of reciprocity
The respective roles of state and Church are clear, in their
complementary distinction, if we take the example of the so-called
reciprocity. Benedict XVI has often stressed the importance of
interreligious dialogue. He particularly focused on this issue
during his trip to Turkey.
However, dialogue requires reciprocity without which there is no
real dialogue. The problem is this: Who should demand such
reciprocity, the Church or to the state? Not the Church, who must be
guided by charity and truth. Her only duty toward the faithful of
the other religions is to bear witness to the charity and the truth
of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, reciprocity should guide the
actions of the states that recognize elements of public truth in
Christianity, i.e. a fundamental contribution to the common good.
These states often acknowledge the contribution of Christianity to
their history and to the formation of their cultural identity.
This is extremely important: Acknowledging that their roots are
grounded in Greek thought, in the Jewish religion and in
Christianity is a crucial step for developing the awareness of their
own identity. However, it is not sufficient because, unfortunately,
the past can be forgotten and, given the rapid disenchantment of the
new generations, it is possible to lose sight of the importance of
Christianity even in the face of historical, artistic and cultural
examples that bear witness to its civilizing function.
Alongside the criteria of history and culture we also need the
criterion of truth, i.e. of public rationality. This, then, will
also foster appreciation for our history and the pride of our own
identity. If, instead, we lose sight of the idea that Christianity
expresses a truth that relates to the human being and that
Christianity corresponds to authentic public reason more than other
religious confessions, we also lose appreciation for our history and
the pride of our identity. When Benedict XVI bitterly wondered if
the West truly loved itself, this is exactly what he meant: Does
it truly love the truth it has inside itself?
Interreligious dialogue is not founded on religious relativism or
indifferentism. This is true for the Catholic religion, but is also
true for a public reason that has not entirely surrendered to the
dictatorship of relativism. By proclaiming the right to religious
freedom, the Church has never meant to deny that Christianity is the
true religion or that the state has obligations towards the true
According to the declaration "Dignitatis humanae" of the Second
Vatican Council, the right to religious freedom "leaves untouched
traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies
toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."
Now, from where does the state, which is secular, derive these
obligations to the true religion?
Not from being a "Christian" state, but from reason, that is from
the natural ability to see truths about man in society, from the
ability to understand the common good. This also founds the ability
to see that one religion consolidates and helps pursue humanization
objectives while another contributes to the degradation of man.
Christian religion has this claim, the claim of preaching a "God
with a human face."
 "Today, having a clear faith based on the creed of the Church is
often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is,
letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every
wind of doctrine,' seems the only attitude that can cope with modern
times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not
recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists
solely of one's own ego and desires" (Joseph Ratzinger, Homily at
the Mass "Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice," April 18, 2005). See also
Benedict XVI, Address at the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the
Participants at the Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome,
June 8, 2005, p. 7. See the analysis of G. Crepaldi, "Brief Notes on
Laity According to Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI," in "Social
Doctrine of the Church Bulletin," January-February 2006, pp. 3-16.
 Expressions such as "the dogma of relativism," "the presumption
of relativism," or relativism as "the religion of modern man" are
frequent in the book: Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance:
Christian Belief and World Religions," Ignatius Press, San
Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?,"
translated by Ted Humphrey in "Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace and
Other Essays," Hackett, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 41-46.
 "Self-limitation of reason" is the expression used by Ratzinger
(Joseph Ratzinger, "Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures -- The
Europe of Benedict," Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2006).
is a "purely functional rationality" that "maintains that you can
only call rational what can be proven with experiments" (Joseph
Ratzinger. "Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures -- The Europe of
 Joseph Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede. Scambio reciproco per
un'etica comune" [Faith and Reason. Mutual Exchange for a Common
Ethics], in J. Habermas-J. Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede in dialogo"
[The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion], Marsilio,
Joseph Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede. Scambio reciproco per un'etica
comune," [Faith and Reason. Mutual Exchange for a Common Ethics]
cit., pp. 79-80.
 Joseph Ratzinger, "The God of Faith and the God of the
Philosophers" in "Introduction to Christianity," Ignatius Press, San
Francisco, 1990, pp. 93-104.
Benedict XVI, Lecture at the University of Regensburg, Sept. 12,
 Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity" cit., pp.
77-93: "The Biblical Belief in God." Ignatius Press, San Francisco,
Many times and in many places Benedict XVI wonders, rhetorically,
whether it is more rational to think of a Spirit that creates matter
or of matter that creates spirit.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Conference "2000 Years After What?,"
University of Sorbonne, Paris, Nov. 27, 1999 in "Christianity. The
Victory of Intelligence Over the World of Religions," English text
in 30 Days, no. 1/2000, pp. 33-44
we end up with two alternatives. What came first? Creative Reason,
the Creator Spirit who makes all things and gives them growth, or
Unreason, which, lacking any meaning, yet somehow brings forth a
mathematically ordered cosmos, as well as man and his reason"
(Benedict XVI, Homily at "Islinger Feld," Regensburg, Sept. 12,
 "We have to ask what heaven is and how it comes upon earth.
Future salvation must make its mark in a way of life that makes the
person "human" here and capable of relating to God" (Joseph
Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World
Religions" cit., p. 205. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004).
Benedict XVI, Message to the Bishop of Assisi on the occasion of the
20th Anniversary of the Interreligious Meeting of Prayer for Peace
of Oct. 27, 1986. "One cannot simply see in any and every religion
the way for God to come to man and man to God" (Joseph Ratzinger,
"Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions" cit., p.
75). Ratzinger reflected on the theme of interreligious prayer for
peace and on the possibility that it could foster relativism and
provided clear answers also in "Truth and Tolerance: Christian
Belief and World Religions" cit., pp. 106-112.
 "Salvation begins with becoming righteous in this world --
something that always includes the twin poles of the individual and
society." (Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief
and World Religions" cit., p. 205).
Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World
Religions" cit., p. 76. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004.
 Joseph Ratzinger, "The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday,
Today and Tomorrow," in Joseph Ratzinger & Marcello Pera, "Without
Roots: the West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam," Basic Books, New
York, 2006, p.86.
Second Vatican Council, Declaration on religious freedom "Dignitatis
humanae," Dec. 7, 1965, No. 1.
 Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the Fourth
National Ecclesial Convention of Verona, Oct. 19, 2006. The Holy
Father also mentioned "God with a human face" on Nov. 3, 2006 in the
Address at the Gregorian Pontifical University.