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.

Most important of all is to see, with Benedict, that "at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason." Gregg explains that, in Benedict's view, "agnosticism and atheism ultimately rely upon a rational affirmation that all is ultimately based upon irrationality." But even while defending reason's lofty vocation, John Paul and Benedict stress that being rational isn't enough, for rationality itself points to the existence of truths that reason alone cannot grasp, truths that can only be known through God's revelation, accepted by faith. In other words, man needs to embrace reason without embracing rationalism.

When reason concludes that there are truths about God and the universe that reason itself cannot ascertain, that man's finite reason cannot exhaust the infinite, this could open the door to legitimizing faith in anything--and everything. Gregg is careful to point out that the modern papacy's engagement with modernity is just as critical of theistic thinkers who attempt to ground faith's legitimacy in what amounts to little more than blind leaps.

In the media circus surrounding Benedict's Regensburg address, few commentators took the time to note that the main thrust of his remarks was criticism of European, not Islamic, thought. Criticizing those rationalists who castrated reason's true scope, Benedict also challenged Christians to recover the traditions of philosophical theology, to reject the voluntarism that detached God from the rational order, and to see God as Logos. Our understanding of God must be informed as much by our reason as by our acceptance of God's communication by way of Scripture, and this acceptance of revelation itself must be made for good reason, pointing to the reasonableness of the act of faith. In other words, man needs to embrace faith without embracing fideism.

Although knowledge of God's inner Trinitarian life, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Communion of Saints can be known only through the revealed texts of the Bible, Gregg argues that the modern papacy is clear that these biblical truths can be fully grasped only if the Bible is read intelligently, in light of the philosophical truths that grace builds upon, and in a reasonable, integrated manner consistent with the entirety of the biblical canon. As Gregg explains, "In the absence of reason, believers are more susceptible to fanaticism and terrorism, precisely because God becomes for them an idol when they are in fact simply worshiping their own will." In other words, man needs to embrace the Bible without embracing Biblicism.

The modern papacy cares about getting the relationship of science, reason, faith, and the Bible right because it sees itself as ultimately articulating nothing less than the truth about man and God. And it is this truth, John Paul and Benedict insist, that sets man free. So much of the Enlightenment's political efforts were directed at securing man's liberty, and yet the 20th-century results yielded more bondage than ever. The gamble was on supposing that a "Dictatorship of Relativism" (as Ratzinger put it) provided a more secure ground for human liberty than the "Splendor of Truth" (as John Paul put it). Only if man is capable of knowing truth--including moral and spiritual truths--can he be capable of freely directing himself toward ends freely chosen, away from evil and toward goods that are to be pursued. If man is ultimately the measure of all things, if man purports to create good and bad, right and wrong, rather than discern these naturally existing realities and respond accordingly, then what at first seemed like unlimited freedom results in stultifying nihilism. If whatever I decide upon is good, then the significance of the choice is eviscerated.

Freedom untethered to truth in the political realm truly does lead to dictatorship, either of the despot who gains power through force or of the majority that imposes its will on a minority without justifying reason. For if reason is unable to arrive at truth, what does a political community have remaining to appeal to when organizing common life? Those who ground democracy on relativism, then, undercut the very foundations that support democratic institutions in the first place: a proper concern for the authentic good of each member of the community and a respect for each member's ability to participate in this process of discernment. Gregg notes that rights, as a result, become "increasingly justified by reference to majority opinion and defined by the will of the stronger or according to some utilitarian calculus," not by appeals to nature or nature's God.

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.

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