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Gregg on Pope Benedict, Western civilization, law, and reason

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Pope Benedict XVI often ventured into venues historically hostile to the Judeo-Christian tradition. A new collection of essays discusses many of these speeches, probing the relationship of reason to religion, the West, and natural law. Pope Benedict XVI’s Legal Thought: A Dialogue on the Foundation of Law, edited by Marta Cartabia and Andrea Simoncini, explores the Pope Emeritus’ speeches as well as the implications they have for law and democracy.

Writing for Public Discourse, Acton’s Samuel Gregg discusses this collection of the former Pope’s essays, arguing the theme seems to be a return to reason:

The contribution of these essays to showing how Benedict’s speeches provided pathways for faith and reason to restore coherence to the foundations of Western law and democratic systems is best described as uneven. Among the stronger papers are those of Glendon, the legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler, and the moral theologian Martin Rhonheimer. Each of these authors grapples directly and cogently with Benedict’s arguments concerning how religion and full-bodied conceptions of reason must necessarily shape each other, and in the process of doing so, help infuse greater rationality into our legal systems and democratic institutions.

Along with John Witte, these authors stress that by “religion” Benedict typically has in mind specific traditions of thought and practice, especially the manner in which orthodox Christianity integrated Jewish Biblical wisdom, Greek reason, and Roman law. This argument is similar to that unfolded by the secular German philosopher Jürgen Habermas throughout the 2000s: that to disconnect the West from this specific religious tradition is to uproot Western legal and democratic practices from their primary source of nourishment. While stressing (correctly) that Benedict has never held knee-jerk anti-Enlightenment positions (a perennial temptation that seems in recent years to have gathered steam among many conservative Christians in Europe and America), these authors underline the pope’s attention to religion as the core of culture.

The logic is remorseless: If you change the “cult,” then, for better or worse, you change the culture; if you change the culture, then, for better or worse, you change everything else—including the foundations of law and politics. Hence, to the extent that significant segments of Judaism and Christianity have abandoned orthodox belief and morphed into pale facsimiles of secular humanism, they actually contribute to the growing dysfunctionalism that marks contemporary Western legal and political thought and institutions.

At the same time, these authors stress that Benedict’s speeches are directed to restoring reason to its proper place in religious thought. This is crucial if religion isn’t to degenerate into either fundamentalism or sentimental humanitarianism—both of which disdain reason. The same addresses are also about correcting the commonplace assumption that reason and the public square have little to do with religion and vice versa. Rhonheimer and Weiler’s papers are especially good at elaborating on these significant points.

Visit Public Discourse to read “The Law of Benedict” in its entirety.

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Sarah Stanley

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