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 arguing ability.

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,"[1] 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.[2] 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 assumed."

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."[3]

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 even itself?

Public reason and the self-limitation of reason

The reason lies in the "self-limitation" of reason, as Benedict XVI has suggested many times.[4] 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[5] 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.[6] 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."[7] 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 die.

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.[8]

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 holy?"

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"[9] -- 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 eternal forms.

If we look at the Jewish religion, we find the same path.[10] 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.[11] 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."[12]

We believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word, with Reason and not Unreason.[13] 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 intrinsically impossible.

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 not relinquishable.

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.[14]

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."[15]

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,[16] 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.[17]

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 relativism.

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,[18] 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 religion.

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."[19] 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."[20]


[1] "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.

[2] 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 Francisco, 2004.

[3] 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.

[4] "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).

[5] It 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 Benedict," cit.).

[6] 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, Padua 2005.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede. Scambio reciproco per un'etica comune," [Faith and Reason. Mutual Exchange for a Common Ethics] cit., pp. 79-80.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, "The God of Faith and the God of the Philosophers" in "Introduction to Christianity," Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990, pp. 93-104.

[9] Benedict XVI, Lecture at the University of Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity" cit., pp. 77-93: "The Biblical Belief in God." Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990.

[11] 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.

[12] 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

[13] "So 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, 2006).

[14] "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).

[15] 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.

[16] "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).

[17] Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions" cit., p. 76. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004.

[18] 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.

[19] Second Vatican Council, Declaration on religious freedom "Dignitatis humanae," Dec. 7, 1965, No. 1.

[20] 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.


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