A three-point platform for dÈtente with secularism

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

For centuries, Catholicism and secularism in the West have circled one another warily – occasionally in open conflict, more often smoldering in a sort of Cold War-era sense of mutual suspicion and uneasy détente.

Recently, however, both sides have taken tentative steps towards the other. Some secularists have come to regard Catholicism as a bulwark against several currents they regard as worrisome: a frivolous relativism that makes any truth claims suspect; a fundamentalist brand of Christianity that continually surprises secularists with its social capital, for example in clashes between evolution and creationism; and the sudden rise of Islam across much of Europe.

On the Catholic side, gestures of reconciliation can also be heard. At a recent symposium of Western intellectuals in Lugano, Switzerland, gathered under the auspices of the Balzan Foundation, two senior Vatican officials presented what might be described as the church’s “peace platform” with regard to the secular academy.

Weaving together bits and pieces from presentations by Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, former Theologian of the Papal Household under Pope John Paul II, and Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sànchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Science and of Social Science, that platform could be said to consist of three points:

•tRespect for freedom of conscience
•tGood fences make good neighbors
•tThe rationality of faith

Freedom of conscience

Cottier acknowledged that Christianity’s emphasis on absolute truth over has bred concerns the centuries about intolerance. He insisted, however, that truth and tolerance are not incompatible.

“We need full respect for other forms of knowledge, and other ways of belief,” Cottier said. “This is actually an intrinsic requirement of our theology.”

“Fanaticism is the idea that we possess the absolute truth, and therefore we can act violently towards other people,” Cottier said. “An act of faith, on the other hand, must be a free act. A believer is someone who is free to act and to choose. Imposition is not belief, which requires tolerance and dialogue.”

On the basis of this distinction, Cottier praised what he called the “great intuition” of Pope John Paul II to ask Christians to apologize for their historical failures, especially times when they used force in defense of the truth.

“In Christian thought, there is always this idea of questioning oneself about past and present faults,” Cottier said. “We cannot promote and implement the truth at any price.”

“Truth only imposes itself through its own force,” he said, “which is at once a soft and yet powerful force.”

“Real faith,” Cottier said, “entails believing in this intrinsic power of the truth.”

Good fences make good neighbors

In his presentation, Sànchez quoted Kant’s famous line about the two things that filled his spirit with veneration: “the starry sky above me and the moral law inside me.”

In effect, Sànchez argued, these two “spectacles,” as Kant called them, represent two different realms of reality: the observable, external world, as measured and understood by natural science; and the subjective, interior realm, as probed by philosophy and theology.

The external and the internal, Sànchez said, intersect in the human person.

These two zones of reality can achieve “reconciliation” and “pacification,” he said, so long as “positivist ideology does not claim the right to abolish the border between the sciences of nature and the sciences of man, and to annex the latter to the former.”

With that in mind, Sànchez said, it’s possible to bring peace to one of the most contentious flashpoints in recent debates between science and religion – the theory of evolution.

Noting that the science of heredity was actually discovered by an Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel, Sànchez said that Christian theology has no objection to the idea that genetic mutations and natural selection drive biological development.

“No external limit can be imposed on the hypothesis according to which random variations, given changes, have been established and reinforced in order to ensure the survival of a species, and thus of the human species as well,” he said. “Of course recently this [view], to quote John Paul II, has become ‘more than a hypothesis,’ and we have historical evidence of it, even if we do not have proof at the level of physics and biology.”

What’s important in this discussion, Sànchez said, is to avoid confusion between two different senses of the word “origin” when talking about the origin of species, and thus of humanity: “origin” in the sense of genetic derivation, and "origin" in the sense of ontological foundation.

Though Sànchez did not quite tease out the conclusion himself, what he clearly implied is that as long as scientists remain vigilant that their conclusions do not trespass into the latter domain, there’s no reason why evolutionary theory and religious belief ought to be at odds.

In an interview on the margins of the Lugano symposium, Sànchez confirmed that view.

“Naturally, it can happen that science presents its magnificent discoveries as the only truth,” he said. “Truth becomes only that which can be discovered in the scientific sense. There’s a tendency to limit the truth to nature.”

“Yet,” Sànchez added, “I would say that for the most part, that’s not the case. The great scientists that I’ve known in my experience of ten years at the Academy all have an openness to transcendence, meaning to a truth that’s different from the truth one discovers in nature, even if it’s grounded in that truth.”

The rationality of faith

The heart of Cottier’s argument was not so much that Christianity is true – something, perhaps, he saw as a conversation for another time – but rather that it’s rational. That is to say, he was aiming to convince secularists not so much to agree with Christianity, but rather not to exile it altogether from the sphere of reasonable positions.

“The experience of the believer has its own legitimacy,” Cottier said.

The 86-year-old Dominican cardinal conceded that faith involves acceptance of a mystery that remains impenetrable for the human mind, which is the “transcendence” and “infinitude” of God. Nonetheless, Cottier said, acceptance of this mystery is a reasonable act based upon the “faithfulness” of the available evidence.

“Our heart aspires to this evidence,” Cottier said. “We can reach a degree of probability, so that faith becomes a plausible hypothesis.”

In other words, Cottier said, religious faith is not necessarily a matter of credulousness, meaning a willingness to believe almost anything – a stance he described as “offensive to reason.”

Instead, Cottier said, human beings are obliged to ask themselves the same questions they would ask about any hypothesis: Are the elements of proof we have enough? Is it reasonable to believe?

Cottier argued that one confirmation faith is rational is the way it activates the mind.

“Faith carries you into the mystery,” he said. “It’s not a matter of setting reason aside, but rather it’s the origin of a new vitality for reason.” Quoting Augustine, Cottier said that faith sheds light on both “the limits and the elan of reason.”

“In the light of faith, reason becomes the search for the divine logos,” Cottier said. “It stimulates a new intellectual awakening.”

“Theology corresponds to the natural need of human intelligence to believe,” Cottier said.

In his interview, Sànchez expressed a similar position.

“I believe that the human being includes within itself the experience of personal liberty, the moral law, and so on. On that basis, we can reach reasonable conclusions in the realm of religion – which religious claims seem to bear the stamp of truth, and which don’t.”

“From there,” Sànchez said, “it’s possible to elevate one’s horizons to God.

Sànchez struck a note of openness in terms of the church’s willingness to meet secularity half-way.

“The goal is to break down the separations, the isolation, between different environments and zones of knowledge in order to put them into contact with one another,” he said. “Today, across the various generations – the young, the elderly, and those of middle age – there seems to be a desire for synthesis, each one understanding that in his or her own way.”

“There are obviously many different approaches to whether there’s a God, if nature is all there is, or if there’s some truth about the human person that goes deeper than nature. It’s good that those who have the professional responsibility for studying these things themselves are seeing to build bridges in order to open up new horizons, which are not just critical but that seek a space in which the various disciplines converge upon one another.”
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