Of Reason and Faith: A Reply to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Stephen Eric Bronner



s the reign of Pope Benedict XVI begins the world looks for indications of his intentions and policies. He has already reached out in a small way to Muslims, Jews, and even unbelievers. But the new pontiff has also expressed his desire to re-affirm the “Christian roots” of Europe and build a more doctrinally unified Catholic Church.  His concerns mirror those of many conservative and fundamentalist religious leaders of all faiths and “In Pursuit of Peace,” an article that appeared in 2004 when the Pope was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,[1] provides an exceptional insight into this general worldview. Taking his ideas seriously is particularly necessary at a time of religious upsurge in the United States and many parts of the world. That is the rationale for this critical commentary.

“In Pursuit of Peace” begins with the Pontiff’s reflections on D-Day and the subsequent liberation of Europe from the Nazis. What resulted was an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity whose framers, somewhat arbitrarily chosen, are seen by him as deriving their political motivations from their Christian beliefs. With the help of the Marshall Plan, and the military backing of the United States, Western Europe squared off against the Communist bloc. Pope Benedict XVI is right when he notes that the lie born of “ideological tyranny” predominated under the Communists as surely as it had predominated under the Nazis. Nevertheless, the world looks different depending upon the side of the North/South divide that one is standing.

Leaders of all the “great powers” who built the postwar compact were complicit, some perhaps more and others perhaps less than their predecessors and successors, in shaping the nightmare of poverty and instability that still hovers over the once colonized world. Even the greatest figures of the struggle against totalitarianism – Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman – had supported crass imperialist exploits, compromised with tyrants, and justified the creation or use of nuclear weapons. None have the same aura in India, Latin America, and Asia that they have in the West: it is instructive that, -- with the agreement of Roosevelt -- Churchill specifically exempted British colonial possessions from the principles of the Atlantic Charter.

Pope Benedict XVI views the problems of the non-western world as deriving from its inability to maintain the rule of law, which would enable different groups to live together, and its mixture of cynical interests with various forms of misusing, or abusing, “faith” that inhibit the exercise of conscience. Recourse to the terror unleashed on the 11thof September 2001 is a logical consequence and, according to the Pontiff, its devastating potential has grown worse since biological and nuclear weapons no longer are the preserve of western nations alone. But that the Pope chose not to mention the devastating impact of imperialism or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems a terrible omission. His Holiness also evidences little sense of the bitter irony generated by the United States lecturing the once colonized world about the dangers of nuclear proliferation while leading all other nations in the sale of weapons and reserving for itself alone the right to engage in a “pre-emptive strike” whenever its leaders feel the necessity exists to do so.

Ultimately, however, it is not the “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam that is the Pontiff’s primary focus. It is instead the growing “pathological” embrace of either “reason” or “religion,” and the need to restore a proper balance between the two: more secular reason in the Orient and more religious faith in the Occident. On first blush, therefore, his article exhibits a reasonableness that is difficult to deny. What results, however, is an abstract stance that considers the existence of too much fanaticism and repression as essentially equivalent with the existence of too much tolerance and freedom. The fear of the Pontiff is that in the West the “good” is becoming subordinated to the “useful” and that the more truth becomes identified with objectivity, and the testability of scientific claims, the more morality and religion will turn into matters of purely “subjective” belief or opinion. Such is the legacy of scientific rationality or, better, a form of uncritical positivism that has often been conflated with Enlightenment philosophy. Thus, while His Holiness does not explicitly use the term, he sees “enlightenment fundamentalism” as the principal danger to western societies. 

The argument of the Pope shows an impressive debt to the thinking of contrasting philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Max Horkheimer. No less than they, however, the Pontiff forgets the way in which the unfettered ability of science to question authority was historically intertwined with the emergence of political democracy. No less than they, he is also mistaken in suggesting that (neo-) positivism, which now teaches the importance of falsifiability, implies merely the rule of the majority (Mehrheitsprinzip) rather than – precisely because truth is deemed provisional – the rights of the minority to contest received opinions. For just this reason, most major positivist philosophers were political liberals while the attack on positivism became a telling characteristic of all totalitarian regimes.[2] Also, in the same vein, it is interesting that the nineteenth century socialist parties formally identified with a “positivistic,” “deterministic,” and  “scientific” Marxism should have produced the first mass democratic organizations in Europe, the most enthusiastic supporters of the interwar republics, and the most principled opponents of communist and fascist totalitarianism. [3]

There is, by the same token, something profoundly exaggerated about the claim that “Christian belief” produced the worldly states wherein all could live in peace: the ghetto was not exactly a Jewish invention and “the white man’s burden,” which promoted Christian missionary activity, did not exactly help foster peace in Africa. The Church opposed the democratic revolutions and consistently sought to block republican attempts to integrate Jews and Muslims into the everyday life of European civil society. What makes the preamble about D-Day so relevant to the actual purpose of the Pope’s article is, ironically, that the Church only made peace with democracy and the civil rights of non-Christians -- to the extent that it has -- after the Second World War. Whether during the Dreyfus Affair, the rise of Mussolini, the Weimar Republic, the Spanish Civil War, the triumph of Hitler, or the fall of Salvador Allende, its lot was mostly cast with the authoritarian right. That was also mostly the case in Latin America and other colonial territories though those identified with “liberation theology,” which the Pontiff has always criticized, put forth a valiant resistance against authoritarian dictators and their imperialist allies. To be sure, the Church played an important role in the struggle against communist totalitarianism and Pope John Paul II stood tall in his condemnation of the Iraqi War. But the dominant right wing and anti-secular legacy of the Church is not easily forgotten.

Secularism is a complex phenomenon that, ultimately, speaks to the possibility of understanding human development without reference to God or some force external to humanity itself. This project fundamentally contests the thinking of the faithful and it crystallized during the Enlightenment. Science explored the internal workings of nature and human experimentation produced technology. New theories of neo-classical economics and, ultimately, the labor theory of value showed how wealth is generated through human effort while liberal social contract theory highlighted the rational individual, civil liberties, the right of resistance, and the accountability of public institutions. All of this, in concert, led to what Max Weber termed “the disenchantment of the world.” The difficulty for critics of secularism is to articulate a corrective to the existing production process, a meaningful alternative to liberal notions of freedom and accountability, or anything other than what Ernst Cassirer termed “mytho-poetic” thinking to counter the claims and rationality of science.  

Secular liberalism always threatened the absolute claims of religious institutions and the provincial disposition generated by organic societies with pre-modern economic arrangements. And religious institutions always knew it. The liberal secular state and liberal secular ideology together serve freedom by allowing people to make up their minds on the issues of faith and religious observance. The suggestion of Pope Benedict XVI that the liberal state should be recognized as a secular institution even while liberal secularism should be opposed as an ideology simply dissociates power from legitimacy. It begs concrete questions: Should the church act as a controlling mechanism on the liberal state or should the strictures of the liberal state be privileged in political matters? Has the Church ever been willing to regulate itself, without external pressure, on issues like child abuse? Should rabbinical tribunals decide who is a citizen of Israel? Is it legitimate for an Ayatollah to issue a fatwa that contravenes the rule of law? Is the religious belief in democracy real or is it real only when the interests of the Church or Synagogue or Mosque are not involved? 

Breaking with any sort of dogma is impossible without distinguishing between “faith” and “knowledge.” Every attempt to blend reason and faith or offer “fundamental” or grounding values through some form of “civic religion”-- even when God was placed at the center -- resulted in authoritarian disaster. The point about “grounding,” “foundational,” or “pre-political” values is precisely that they are pre-political. They remain unconnected with rights or liberties precisely because rights and liberties receive their definition only in political society. The Bible, the Koran, or any number of other holy texts from other religions alone can serve as the source of “grounding” and “pre-political” values. But the possible interpretations of these texts are infinite in number precisely because they all speak to religiosity or the personal experience of faith. How is one interpretation to be privileged over another?

Other than respect for the basic values underpinning the liberal political order, moreover, it would also seem that “foundational values” are not quite as self-evident as the Pope would care to believe. Women, gays, and those of other religions will surely differ with regard to their character and, with all due respect, not everyone would even agree that the death of Jesus embodies the “highest expression” of love. The Church itself caused rivers of blood to flow during the Crusades, the witch burnings, the inquisitions, the pogroms, and endless internecine wars, in a host of failed attempts to ascertain what is “basic” to its own faith. Every interpretation of any holy text has the possibility of taking on absolute pretensions once the private “faith” informing it is identified with the public interests of any religious institution intent upon “secular” power. That is why only the respectful indifference of the secular democratic state to religious values and the like – what the Pontiff terms a “reason fallen ill” – can provide the antidote to the “abuse of religion.”

The will to know – about stem cell research, about genomes, about DNA, and about the atom – may not guarantee the ability to make proper use of that knowledge. But that it illuminates how the world and the human being are “made” need not inevitably lead to destruction. New scientific developments can also improve the mental and physical health, the quality of life, enjoyed by people everywhere. The same warnings that are now heard with respect to stem cell research and genomes and DNA could also be heard when Galileo, Ben Franklin, and Einstein introduced their discoveries. Fearful stalwarts of the old regime have always warned against tampering with “nature” and interfering with the design of God. But what then is the alternative? Should “we” or, better, some institution arbitrarily prevent that knowledge from coming about?

Democracy has never had anything to fear from reason or experimentation. The most durable democratic societies were created by nations that most self-consciously divided church from state and that refused to identify any private belief with the public good. Nations like England and the United States retained their moral “compass” in spite of their strong affinity for empiricism, positivism, and pragmatism. Their political arrangements left morality and faith in the province of the subject. That is the despair of Pope Benedict XVI who wants religion to be more than a kind of “subjective ornament providing a possibly useful kind of motivation.”

But the fact is that morality and faith must be treated this way in a genuinely liberal and democratic political order. That is because it must prize behavior more than belief and insist, building upon John Locke, that the individual is free to do what the law of the state does not explicitly prohibit. If the Pope believes that Enlightenment political thought leads to anarchy then he is seriously mistaken. Postmodernists have been so critical of the enlightenment legacy, in fact, precisely because its partisans differentiated clearly between freedom and license. The Enlightenment was ultimately directed against religious fanatics and what today would be considered the arbitrary exercise of institutional power. The majority of the philosophes were never concerned with abolishing religion. They were instead concerned with securing the right of each not merely to believe, or not, in his or her own way, but to decide upon what is worthy of belief in his or her private existence without having that belief turned into an imperative for the public at large.   

What then becomes of the common good? The multiplication of individual interests, experiences, and opinions is the common good. Or, to put it another way, the common good is the enlargement of freedom and the possibilities for expanding individual experience. Freedom is not a word that has much currency in the Pontiff’s article. But it remains decisive: “moral reason” is an oxymoron if it does not speak to a conviction in freedom whose “foundational values” include respect for the liberal rule of law, an elementary sense of fairness, the accountability of institutions, and the extension of reciprocal rights and obligations equally to all members of the community. Not some abstract “grounding” but freedom is the foundation for human self-understanding. That is essentially what the best of the philosophes sought in political terms. Enlightenment fundamentalism, if there is such a thing, is ultimately predicated not on scientific truth but on privileging individual autonomy and the critical exercise of reason over the claims of unyielding traditions and unaccountable institutions.

Reducing people to things can be undertaken by a variety of institutions and justified by a variety of religions and ideologies. Perhaps a complementary learning process is necessary for the partisans of knowledge as well as the partisans of faith. But if such an encounter were to take place then its goal can only be to confront the chains that bind. It must begin by assuming the need for not less but more freedom: more education, more research, more information, more participation, and more accountability of institutions. The real clash is not between “civilizations,” or what has been termed the “West and the rest,” but between supporters of a secular liberal state with a pluralistic public realm and others intent upon imposing their religious convictions on disbelievers.

Faith, myth, and dogma lie at the core of servitude and authoritarianism. Critique, science, and tolerance  – by contrast -- incarnate what little hope that there is for the hopeless. Not religion but reason, moreover, is on the ropes. The idea that “reason” is somehow the problem today for western societies is simply to blame the victim. In this world of managed misinformation, communitarian backlash, religious fanaticism, and self-righteous ignorance, it is perhaps useful for all of us – including the Pontiff and his followers– to consider the anguished words of his countryman, Thomas Mann, which echo from an even darker time: “As if there was ever too much intellect in the world!”



[1] This article has a history. It essentially summarizes the position taken by the Pontiff in his debate with the pre-eminent philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, which was held before a small invited audience on January 1, 2004 at the Catholic Academy in Munich. Cardinal Ratzinger argued the importance of “pre-political” foundations for a liberal secular state and a universal notion of common law derived from “nature”-- though what the former actually implies and what the latter concretely can contribute to the liberal state remains unclear. As for Habermas, in accepting the Peace Prize of the Deutschen Buchhandels in October 2001, his speech emphasized the need to reconnect “faith” (Glauben) and “knowledge” (Wissen) and “translate” the “religious content” of moral concepts into a “secular language.” It became for him a matter of salvaging the “original religious meaning” of existence that modernity was eroding or ignoring. Thus, in spite of his belief that reason must still control religious faith, his position ultimately reflects the shift from a “post-metaphysical” to a “post-secular” theory. For more on this see: http://theodor-frey.de/dialog.htm; http://religion.orf.at/projekt02/news/0401/ne040120­_harbermas_ratzinger.htm; http://www.sbg.ac.at/sot/ texte/2004-01-22-zsf-merkur.htm; and, in English, http://marston.blogspot.com/ 2005/05/habermas-ratzinger.html.

[2] Norberto Bobbio, Ideological Profile of Twentieth-Century Italy trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[3] Looking back upon totalitarianism, to make his point about the dangers of embracing either faith or reason, the Pope contrasts the irrationalism of Hitler with the ultra-rationality of Marxism. But the fact is that communism jettisoned the historical logic, the rationality, and the “science” of Marxism. Willing to seize power in an underdeveloped nation, where the proletariat was a tiny minority, Leninism rested on a thoroughly romantic politics of the will and it makes sense why Antonio Gramsci – a stalwart of Leninism and a founder of the Italian Communist Party – should have called the Russian Revolution a “revolution against Das Kapital.” Unconcerned with accountable institutions, insistent that any historical constraint can be overcome, arbitrary in its designation of enemies, the unqualified “faith” in the party soon turned into an unqualified “faith” in its leader. What became the left totalitarian trajectory, which developed from Lenin to Stalin, perfectly reflected the right totalitarian development from Mussolini to Hitler. It is, in short, not as if the right was romantic and irrational while the left was overly scientific and rational. The Pope is also mistaken about Pol Pot who might well have exemplified the most extreme version of romantic left-wing irrationalism with his willingness to sacrifice roughly a third of his people in the insane desire to recreate an agricultural golden age supposedly lost in the mists of time. There is a reason for the title of what remains perhaps the most telling explanation concerning the appeal of communism. Note the reprint of the anthology The God that Failed ed. Richard Crossman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).


Stephen Eric Bronner is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. The author of Reclaiming the Enlightenment (Columbia,) and the forthcoming Blood in the Sand: Imperial Fantasies, Rightwing Ambitions and the Erosion of Democracy (Kentucky), he is the Senior Editor of Logos.