Friday, August 05, 2005

Interpreting Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI on the Crisis in European Culture

Here are several pages from a lecture given by (then) Cardinal Ratzinger; the mere fact the speaker is (now) who he is makes the lecture intensely interesting. And, of course, when he says in Part III "[b]ut, above all, it must be said that this Enlightenment philosophy, and its respective culture, is incomplete. It consciously severs its own historical roots depriving itself of the regenerating forces from which it sprang..." he has my attention; still, all things considered, he turns out to have a nuanced optimism about Enlightenment philosophy. Anyhow, if you have a moment, take a look and share what you think.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Addendum: On the one hand, Cardinal Ratzinger identifies Enlightenment rationality as a phenomenon that should trouble the Christian Church. In Part I, he talks about a "purely functional rationality" growing out of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment connected with an increasingly secular, merely scientific understanding of the world. Although a laudable commitment to human rights followed in the wake of the Enlightenment's spread over the north Atlantic, the Cardinal claims our commitment to freedom has gone too far, leading us to agitate for the ordination of women and normalization of homosexuality.

Well, I disagree with him there--such agitation can spring from anti-Enlightenment sources just as well; but back to his essay. Getting to the heart of his concern, he writes: as "[a]ccording to the thesis of the Enlightenment and secular culture of Europe, only the norms and contents of the Enlightenment culture will be able to determine Europe's identity," (Pt. II) it follows "this new identity, determined exclusively by the Enlightenment culture, also implies that God does not come in at all into public life and the foundations of the state." (Ibid) And that, I think, touches Cardinal Ratzinger's main point: Enlightenment culture is execrable for bringing human beings to defy their moral dependence on God, and to develop an understanding of the world without God.

And that seems to be a different line of critique from mine; I target Enlightenment's commitment to individualism, insinuating that it will lead to the kind of defiance of God Cardinal Ratzinger deplores. Cardinal Ratzinger seems rather to leave individualism by the wayside--and indeed there is a strain of Roman Catholic thought, exemplified for instance in Michael Novak's work, that would celebrate a union of catholic Christianity and individualism. When Cardinal Ratzinger says "a Christianity and a theology that reduces the heart of Jesus' message, the 'kingdom of God,' to the 'values of the kingdom,' identifying these values with the great key words of political moralism" he seems to be criticizing the very priority of social justice I advocated on ECUSA's behalf as a (partial) antidote to liberal individualism. Does Cardinal Ratzinger neglect the Enlightenment's individualism?

No--so far as I can tell; seeming can be misleading. When he mentions "[a]nd in the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience, either by denying him altogether, or by judging that his existence is not demonstrable, uncertain and, therefore, belonging to the realm of subjective choices, something, in any case, irrelevant to public life," (Pt. I) he acknowledges the inadequacy of a Christian individualism.

It may well be, for all he has said here, that he would not see that inadequacy as implying (a) ECUSA's particular social justice agenda--indeed, the two are inconsistent on the face of it, or (b) the more general type of emphasis on social justice evident in ECUSA, an emphasis that comes, if Philip Turner is correct in his essay "ECUSA's God", at the expense of concern with merely individual sin. Regardless, supposing my suspicions are correct about the Cardinal (and I have cause, given his treatment of liberation theology) there is enough overlap between him and ECUSA to make an interesting debate possible.


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