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
Given that The Modern Papacy appears in a series on conservative and libertarian thinkers, I would have liked to see more on recent Catholic social thought, particularly John Paul's encyclical letter Centesimus Annus. Likewise, discussions of the papacy's liberal moments--in international relations, war and peace, environmentalism, welfare rights--would have improved the text. But I wish Gregg had gone one level deeper into the faith and reason discussion: For John Paul and Benedict, what does faith add to reason when it comes to political life? Gregg is clear that, for both thinkers, religious faith can correct faulty reasoning, motivate citizens to practice the virtues, and provide ultimate explanations for reason's existence and why it should be obeyed.
But here I think John Paul and Benedict might part company. There is a strain within Benedict's thought in which philosophy simply cannot provide its own foundations and must be buttressed by theology, so that faith becomes indispensible for the right ordering of political life just as much as for entry into eternal life. John Paul, meanwhile, seems to have had greater confidence in reason's sufficiency--for the tasks appropriate to it, including ordering temporal affairs--based on its self-evident first principles. Though both thinkers affirmed the existence of the natural law, I would have liked to have seen more from Gregg on how they understood its foundations.
Quibbles aside, The Modern Papacy is a significant contribution to the study of John Paul and Benedict's thought. Many might ask what the papacy has to offer: As Samuel Gregg lucidly presents, the papacy is wrestling with the most fundamental questions of Western--and any--society, and the Catholic challenge to modernity is to embrace faithful reason and reasonable faith.
Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good.