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The Holy Seers

Two churchmen-one Polish, one German- transform the throne of Peter.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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The Modern Papacy

by Samuel Gregg

Continuum, 162 pp., $130

In The Modern Papacy, Samuel Gregg offers a quick intellectual history of the key moments in post-Reformation Roman Catholicism before launching an in-depth study of the thought of the most recent pontiffs--Karol Wojtyla-John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI. This volume is published under Continuum's Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers series, and Gregg is an international expert on the intersection of religion and economics. Yet the text is almost exclusively focused on a seemingly abstract philosophical question: the proper relation of faith and reason.

The question might seem abstract, but it flows directly out of Wojtyla's and Ratzinger's lives. Coming of age during the Second World War, both entered seminary (Wojtyla underground) during this time, and both came to see the crises of the 20th century--world wars, totalitarian regimes, genocides, and labor camps--as results of an atrophied rationality and man's closing himself from the transcendent. They concluded with the French theologian Henri de Lubac that "atheistic humanism," in its attempts to liberate man by abolishing God, resulted solely in chaining man to the whims of the powerful.

Wojtyla, trained as a philosopher, embraced Thomism, the mystical theology of John of the Cross, and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. Ratzinger, trained as a theologian, found the Thomism of the manuals to be dry and impersonal, and was drawn instead to the historical -theology of Augustine and Bonaventure with its emphasis on love. Both played major roles at the Second Vatican Council.

The roles they played after the council, interpreting and implementing its teachings, proved even more important. Wojtyla, becoming pope in 1978, and Ratzinger, serving as his most important collaborator as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before assuming the papacy in 2005, set out on a path of bringing the Church into the modern world by drawing more deeply from the wells of the Church's patrimony (ressourcement) to critically engage contemporary life (aggiornamento).

John Paul and Ratzinger wanted the Church to benefit from the advancements of modernity, but also wanted this modern world to benefit from the wisdom of the Church. It was to be a two-way conversation, and they had little patience for those who proposed either the progressive or traditionalist monologue--the world setting the agenda for the Church with the Church remaking herself accordingly, or the Church imposing herself on a modern world without reading the signs of the times to discern what of modernity was good and what was bad. This critical engagement entailed speaking to the modern world in terms it could understand and on topics that lay at the heart of contemporary life. Human freedom, its social preconditions and metaphysical foundations, took center stage.

Gregg presents John Paul and Benedict as more or less united in the main trajectory of their dialogue with modernity. For ease in classification, this can be grouped in four domains: science, reason, faith, and revelation. While the scientific method has provided mankind with many indisputably helpful discoveries, the modern papacy argues that to embrace the instrumental, technocratic rationality at the heart of the scientific process as if it were the entirety of rationality is to narrow the range of realities accessible to rational inquiry. While the scientific approach can discover truths about empirical physical realities, it can provide little help in discussions of justice, love, and beauty--whether they be about earthly domains or transcendent ones. Only by broadening the conception of rationality beyond the empirically verifiable realm of the scientific, John Paul and Benedict argue, can man arrive at the truths necessary to secure his full flourishing. In other words, man needs to embrace science without embracing scientism.

Recovering the sapiential dimension of reason that considers the big questions regarding the meaning and destiny of human existence and the significance of human action is a key part of recapturing a more robust conception of human rationality. As Gregg presents John Paul and Benedict, a major aspect of their engagement with modernity has been to show that reason can discern objective standards of right and wrong, good and evil, as well as ascertain the existence of God and certain key aspects of his nature.