Traces N.7, July/August 2006

Meeting 2006: A Celebration of Reason

In Massachusetts, a coalition of clergy from different faiths recently issued a statement accusing the Catholic Church of “religious discrimination” because of its public efforts against the legalization of same-sex marriages. According to them, it is discriminatory to deny civil marriage benefits to couples whose marriages are already recognized by non-Catholic religious denominations. The Catholic Church may not recognize those marriages, they argue, but it has no right to demand that the state withhold legal recognition.
Leaving aside the issue of gay marriage itself, it is interesting to see what this accusation tells us about the current debate about religion and politics in the United States. In particular, it helps us understand the importance of the theme of this year’s meeting in Rimini: “Reason is the need for the Infinite and culminates in the sigh and the presentiment that this Infinite be manifested.”
The signers of this statement and those who appeal to their faith in order to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage have the same view of faith and politics. This is totally different from the Catholic view. For example, as Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley noted in his reply to this accusation, in February 2004 religious leaders in the state signed a statement supporting a proposed amendment to the state constitution safeguarding the traditional definition of marriage. This statement was signed by the Catholic bishops, and leaders of the Black Ministerial Alliance, Orthodox Churches, various Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian communities, Jewish congregations, the Islamic Council of New England, and the Vision New England Churches. These leaders represent over 3,000 religious congregations in the state of Massachusetts.
Obviously, the signers of the 2004 statement were not appealing to their faith, since they represented a wide variety of faith convictions. It was not faith that bound them together. It was something else. What was it?
It was reason. It was a view of reason as the theme of this year’s Meeting describes it: a need for meaning open to infinity and thus open to the totality of reality. As stated elsewhere in this issue, “When we become Christians, we do not void reason. Precisely because we have the true conception of reason, we can challenge the rationalists, because they do not respect the nature of reason.”
In fact, the Catholic teaching on the nature and capacity of human reason betokens a confidence on humanity matched by no other ethical proposal in the world. It even affirms reason’s capacity to suspect the possible self-manifestation of the Mystery within which the very purpose of our existence is hidden. Reality cannot be fully grasped by a reduction of reason to the investigative methods of science. When reason is allowed its full scope, it touches the very frontiers of divine revelation while still remaining entirely within the domain of reason, that is, as a possibility inherent in our humanity itself. That is why we do not appeal to faith when we propose our view about social justice. All the Church asks from the State is the preservation of religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions, as Pope Benedict XVI explains in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (cf. 28). Our faith imposes nothing on reason. Therefore, as the Pope writes: Catholic social teaching “has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”
Unfortunately, in the United States–given the influence of a Protestant rejection of reason as able to lead us to a “presentiment” of the possibility of revelation–the public debate on issues such as same-sex marriage, evolution, embryonic stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia, and other “life issues” often becomes a clash between the claims of faith without reason against the ethical relativism of a rationalism or positivism that denies reason’s full possibilities. This makes impossible a public political defense of substantive and permanent moral principles, since there cannot be a consensus between citizens on the ideal of a “good life.” Such considerations must be limited to individual, private choice. When this happens, religious freedom seems to require public neutrality in ethical matters, except in the defense of those ethical imperatives that sustain this situation. This is increasingly our situation.
As a matter of fact, this impasse is the result of a way of thinking about reality characteristic of a “modernity” that postulates an enmity between reason and Mystery. This year’s Meeting in Rimini will show the many ways in which this enmity can be overcome, affirming the indubitable achievements of modernity, and making possible a true dialogue between believers and non-believers on religious freedom and the nature of a just society.
It is a matter of what McIntyre calls a “change of paradigm”: abandoning the “paradigm of certainty” that imagines that reality can be fully grasped by an adequate scientific rational method, and embracing a “paradigm of truth” in which reality is grasped through a learning process–an education–nourished by a long tradition of thought. Modernity’s paradigm of certainty was a rationalizing abstraction, while the new paradigm of thought invites us to penetrate the complex and mysterious depth of things and persons. This constitutes a truly “post-modern” way of thinking, replacing the absolute relativism that claims to be post-modern but is in fact a last attempt to hang on to paralyzing or destructive ideologies.
American Catholic thought was influential in the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious freedom, even though the Council did not totally embrace all of its presuppositions. In any case, the Catholic Church in our country is correct in calling today for that truly democratic public debate on the issue that is so ingrained in the American spirit. Our contribution to it is our conviction that reason is the need for the Infinite and culminates in the sigh and the presentiment that this Infinite be manifested.
Lorenzo Albacete