Pope Benedict XVI. Wikimedia Commons

Relativism and Statism

In order to offer a judgement on our society, we have to choose a criterion with which to evaluate it. In fact, analysis of the symptoms of the West’s weariness or bewilderment can produce very different diagnoses.
Javier Prades

In order to offer a judgement on our society, we have to choose a criterion with which to evaluate it. In fact, analysis of the symptoms of the West’s weariness or bewilderment can produce very different diagnoses. This observation gave rise to the interest in the criterion of interpretation for the relationship between the Church and the modern world that Benedict XVI proposed on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (December 22, 2005).

The Pope holds that the relationship between the Church and modernity began very problematically with the trial of Galileo, and reached a dramatic break with Kant and the French Revolution. It was a head-on collision, and no entente seemed possible. However, the Pope underlined, the modern age was and still is continually evolving: the American Revolution offered a different model of State than the French one, the natural sciences began to reflect on their own limits, and after the Second World War the first models of a modern secular State were born, drawing inspiration from ethical sources open to Christianity. On the other hand, the Church recognizes that there is a certain form of discontinuity in her attitude toward the modern age–not in principles, but certainly in the concrete forms. The Church has revised and corrected some historical decisions, even though in these “discontinuities” she had maintained her nature and identity.

The Pope suggests a fundamental “yes” to the modern age. However, he continues, this does not mean that the tensions between the Church and modernity will automatically disappear, first of all because there are contradictions within modernity itself and, second, one can never forget the fragility of the human condition. In this sense, the Gospel still is and will always be a “sign of contradiction” before men’s errors and the dangers to which he is subject in all ages (Lk 2:34). The Church wants to overcome the disputes with modernity that are born of misunderstanding or that are simply useless, continuing to maintain this fundamental contradiction, with the same mental openness and clarity of discernment she has had in other moments, as seen in Saint Peter’s approach in being ready to give pagans the reason for our hope (1 Pet 3:15), or Saint Thomas Aquinas’s dialogue in the Middle Ages with Aristotelianism, Jews, and Muslims.

A Contradiction Within the Dominant Mentality
If, as the Pope says, the Gospel asks us to illuminate and comprehend the tensions within the modern era, perhaps an interesting point of departure would be to examine how modern culture stands in terms of religious traditions and, in general, the religious dimension of every man. One can easily observe that the “progressive” mentality manifests itself today in two opposite tendencies: on the one hand, statist secularism, and on the other, multiculturalism. The two positions are mutually antagonistic, and neither manages to explain the totality of factors in play. In fact, if we refer to Cardinal Ratzinger’s words in Subiaco, Italy, on April 11, 2005, in his last address before his election to the papacy, we understand immediately that Enlightenment reason, because of its rationalist derivation, can be neither fully universal, nor complete in itself, and thus cannot claim to coincide completely with the reason of each man. Let us briefly examine these two positions.

Statist Secularism
The first emphasizes the universal aspect of human identity and, to this end, absolutizes the relationship between the citizen and the State, as seen formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To guarantee its efficacy, it must relegate to the private sphere any cultural or religious belonging that specifies an identity different from that of others, with the objective of locating all citizens at the same distance from the law, a position from which statism is derived. Here, the State tends to acquire an absolute value, erecting itself as the legitimate source of the rights of the citizen. Similarly, citizens reduce their position within reality and formulate it exclusively through the category of the rights they claim from the State. Regarding religious freedom, the State does not deny it, but nonetheless its recognition is very formal and narrow, poorly linked with the social realities that request and feed it–in fact, for example, no mention of God or Europe’s Christian roots was allowed in the Preamble to the European Constitution.

'Run on the Tuileries during the French Revolution' by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux

The second position of progressive culture is apparently more flexible and less secular. In fact, it emphasizes differences (cultural, religious, ethnic, etc.) as the basis of collective realities that set themselves between the individual and the State, and seeks to give them weight in the juridical order. At first glance, it overcomes the abstract conception of the citizen, and leaves more space to particular identities, religious included, but in this case, the most evident limitation is the difficulty of establishing unity among all these identities and, thus, the inability to attain universality. It is not able to accept a common human experience that affords criteria for comparison among the various cultural or religious expressions, and thus establishes an insuperable cultural and anthropological relativism. The negative effects of this outlook are visible in certain policies of positive integration in the European Union, or in the exaggeration of cultural or ethnic differences in certain nationalisms in Europe.

Man’s Elementary Experience, the Foundation for True Laicity
We need to give others the reasons for our faith, through an untiring witness of facts and words, a witness that shows them that it is possible to have a human culture that can respond to the true appeals of both positions and, at the same time, overcome their respective limitations. Thus, a truly lay vision of society and the State can be offered that enables us to leave behind the aporias bogging down the West. The two positions contain true elements of man’s elementary experience, but are both deficient. Thus it is fundamental to compare their postulates with the concrete experience of living man, of every real man. In this case, we will limit our discussion to two fundamental observations. First of all, each man is a unique individual, with absolute dignity inasmuch as he is a person and, at the same time, is an integral member of the human community. These dimensions are mutually referential, in a “dual unity.” Thus, man’s life cannot be arbitrarily separated into public and private spheres, because the social dimensions are constituent of the person. This is why Benedict XVI sees decisive importance in the defense of the family, respect for life, and the education of children. Since the public dimensions are constituted to be at the service of the person, political, economic, and social subsidiarity are decisive for limiting statism. Secondly, in observing concrete man, there emerges an enigmatic dimension that runs through his elementary experience: openness to an infinite exigency for meaning and happiness that characterizes every instant of his life. This openness, following an itinerary of reason and freedom, leads to the recognition of the experience of a personal and transcendent You, what we call God. Man thus seems to be endowed with an infinite dynamism of desire for and pursuit of this mysterious foundation upon which he depends, and which is the horizon that makes life possible. Since no man, not even the State, can arrogate the right of being the ultimate source of this infinite dynamism, because neither man nor the State are God, the recognition of elementary experience offers the foundation for a true laicity that safeguards society from cultural relativism or secularist statism.

A Toilsome but Necessary Rational Dialogue in Society
Elementary experience, in the terms described above, offers the criterion for evaluating the propositions of a correct personal and social life, and for judging legal systems. In fact, around this fundamental anthropological factor–whose key feature is religious freedom–the other values unfold, with their own undeniable exigency of universality. The modality for proposing these criteria must be an effective and free dialogue between the particular identities, whose point of departure is the certainty of one’s own personal and community identity and the passion for the identity of the other, in his difference from me and in his common human condition, open to Mystery. This is the only way we can deal with the grave ethical problems that technoscience imposes on our relationship with life, and the interrogatives raised by coexistence in an era of globalization and emigration. Both traditional religions and secular conceptions must answer to the ultimate and universal tribunal of reason and human experience. Only those societies that embrace this point of view can be considered truly secular, and can ensure their citizens a cultural context safe from religious extremism or secular fundamentalism, and the correct discernment and evaluation of the human value of the different cultural and religious traditions.

Perhaps this is the correct interpretation of what Benedict XVI intends when he says that the Church is called to offer a decisive criterion of judgment to modern societies, continuing to be that fundamental “sign of contradiction” and overcoming, through a toilsome but necessary dialogue, all the misunderstandings and errors that have come between the Church and modernity.