Viewpoint: Benedict XVI and the Enlightenment

Source: FSSPX News

During his address to the Curia, on December 22, Benedict XVI commented on the visits he had made during the year. About his visit to Turkey, he expressed the wish that Islam achieve an aggiornamento similar to that which Catholicism accomplished with the Second Vatican Council, in other words, that Muslims open themselves to the values of the liberal philosophy of the Enlightenment, and especially to the rights of man.

“My visit to Turkey afforded me the opportunity to make public my respect for the Islamic religion, a respect, moreover, which the Second Vatican Council (see Declaration Nostra Ætate, n° 3) pointed out to us as a duty.

I would like here to express once again my gratitude to the authorities of Turkey and to the Turkish people, who welcomed me with such immense hospitality and offered me unforgettable encounters.

In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult quest, found concrete solutions for the Catholic Church. It is a question of the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were strengthened in the Enlightenment. On the one hand, we must oppose the dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations, thereby depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment. On the other, we must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion. As in the Christian community there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs – a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all - so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.”

Comment

We may wonder about the degree of realism in this invitation to an aggiornamento of Islam. We may also be surprised that the pope considers more the opening of the Muslims to the Enlightenment than their conversion to “the Light that came into the world”. Nevertheless we will consider in this text only the presentation of Vatican II as a “long and difficult quest”, a quest “that will certainly never be concluded once and for all.” For, according to Benedict XVI, the last council brought “practical solutions to the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were expressed in the Enlightenment”, but these solutions are the fruit of an unending quest, because they rest upon a balance, or even a compromise. Indeed it is a question of conciliating on the one hand, the rejection of “positivist thinking which excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations”, and on the other hand the “true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of the faith”. The instability of the compromise comes from the fact that among the victories of the Enlightenment we also find the positivist thinking which excludes God. And we cannot separate the liberal values by calling some “true” and disqualifying others as “false”. Benedict XVI seems to make a distinction in which the false values are merely excesses of the true conquests. Far from being an excess, thinking which excludes God is the result of the human rights claimed by the Enlightenment. We could find the same attitude in his address in Regensburg concerning the relationships between faith and reason. After having criticized, and rightly so, the de-hellenization of Christianity – in fact, the rejection of realistic philosophy, brought about by the idealism of Kant and the rationalism of Harnack – Benedict XVI stated: “The attempt at self-criticism of modern reason broadly sketched here does not include in any way the idea that we should go back to before the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and reject the intuitions of the modern era. We acknowledge unreservedly the greatness of the modern development of the mind.”

Some time ago, a journalist who could hardly be considered suspect of excessive traditionalism wrote: “It is always the same contradiction. We do not want to renounce emancipation, nor what Durkheim called the religion of mankind, but we hate the consequences of it.” (Elisabeth Lévy in “Festivus festivus”, conversations with Philippe Muray, Fayard, 2005, p. 453). The principles of the Enlightenment – like the Revolution which flowed from them – form a whole entity, and it is not by baptizing them as “excesses” that you will manage to exorcize their unavoidable effects, or their logical consequences.