The Pope vs. Habermas: Reason & Religion in Secular Society
Many people may wonder why a small book like The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion matters. After all, the authors, Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), discuss the nature of ethics in secular society by appealing to highly sophisticated arguments that include long sentences packed with meaning.
But these kinds of discussions, which usually take place in the upper echelons of society, publicize thoughts and concepts which eventually yield wide-ranging implications for the rest of society. The Dialectics of Secularization is comprised of two papers presented in January 2004 concerning “the pre-political moral foundations of a free state.” In these papers, Jürgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI reflect on the basis for ethics in society.
Today, I wish to briefly summarize the main themes of the Habermas / Ratzinger dialogue. Tomorrow, I will interact with some of the authors’ suggestions.
What Habermas Thinks
Habermas begins by asking if a democratic constitutional state can “renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence” (21). He wonders whether or not there is a way to provide justification for political rule that does not find its grounding in religious categories.
Against those who see religion as necessary to sustain the constitutional system, Habermas argues that “systems of law can be legitimated only in a self-referential manner, that is, on the basis of legal procedures born of democratic procedures” (27). In other words, legitimacy comes from legality.
Habermas recognizes that solidarity among the citizenry is needed for secular society to sustain itself. But religious or metaphysical traditions need not be the providers of this solidarity (29). Instead, the democratic process itself can serve as the “uniting bond” that mobilizes the participation of its citizens (32). Likewise, patriotism can sustain solidarity once the principles of justice enshrined in the law have time to penetrate the culture’s ethics (33-34).
Habermas warns about external threats to secular society. Once citizens act in isolation based solely upon self-interest, they use their subjective rights against one another. As the markets and the power of bureaucracy continue to weaken social solidarity, Habermas recognizes the need for a bridge to certain religious traditions (42).
Habermas sees philosophy and theology as intertwined. He believes philosophy can translate religious terms into secular principles without completely emptying them of their substance. Now that societal solidarity appears to be under threat, Habermas recommends that the constitutional state “deal carefully with all the cultural sources that nourish its citizens’ consciousness of norms and their solidarity” (46).
Believers and unbelievers must work together, expecting dissent and disagreement, while affirming the right of both to make contributions (whether in secularized or religious language) to public debates (50-51).
What Pope Benedict Thinks
Pope Benedict XVI (hereafter “Benedict”) begins his lecture by showing how we now find ourselves on the threshold of seeing the formation of a global community and a new era of human capabilities. Despite recent advances in technology and scientific discovery, Benedict is troubled by the dissolution of ethical certainties regarding “the good,” and he believes that science cannot offer adequate answers about the existence and purpose of man (55-57).
Benedict spends a good deal of time reflecting on the relationship between power and law. “It is the specific task of politics to apply the criterion of the law to power, thereby structuring the use of power in a meaningful manner,” he writes (58).
But how does the law come to be? How can the law keep from becoming a mere benefit of those who are already in power? Benedict believes there are “self-subsistent values that flow from the essence of what it is to be a man, and therefore inviolable” (61).
Today, new developments are forcing us to grapple with issues concerning the use and abuse of power. The onset of terrorist activity (with religious fanaticism as one of its sources) has proven that it no longer takes a large-scale war to greatly impact the culture.
Likewise, our current capability to create humans raises questions about the ethical dimension of turning human beings into mere products. The invention of the atomic bomb and the arrival of test-tube babies should cause us to “doubt the reliability of reason” (65). But who or what can regulate human reason?
Benedict focuses on human rights and includes within that phrase “a doctrine of human obligations and of human limitations” (71). He counters Habermas’ belief that strict rationality is sufficient to bind people together. Instead, he appeals to the Christian understanding of reality as providing a powerful impetus for human rights in the world. He points out the weakness of the rationalist view, evidenced by its inability to demonstrate its foundational principles in contexts outside the West (76).
Despite the differences between Benedict and Habermas, both men advocate the adoption of similar practices. Benedict readily admits that there are “pathologies in religion” among the fanatical extremes of religious groups. These pathologies need reason to purify and structure them. But on the flip side, he believes there are pathologies of reason too, and religion can serve as a guardian that keeps reason within its proper limits. Benedict hopes that Western culture will listen and accept a “genuine relatedness” to other cultures (78-79).
Tomorrow, I will interact with the arguments of Habermas and Benedict…