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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.

Sarah Stanley


  • Karl Dehm

    Europe is not adrift. Its finally come to its senses and has removed the religious yoke which has kept it in ignorance for centuries. Europe has become more intelligent, more moralistic and able to think for itself without believe in an authoritative, superstitious and controlling deity.

    • DD

      Indeed. The Soviet Union was a smashing success.

      • Karl Dehm

        And so were slavery and segregation in the states. Trying to bring the USSR into the equation is like saying Mexico should be included whenever we speak of the states because it is part of North America. I hate to burst your bubble but have a look at the following:

        Is it easier to obtain the American Dream in Europe?

        By Katie Sanders on Thursday, December 19th, 2013 at 1:33 p.m.

        Oh, sweet America, ye land of opportunity, home to the time-tested formula in which hard work + perseverance = success, in spite of family background.

        Or not. The new reality, as described in a Dec. 16, 2013, discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, is it’s harder than ever for Americans born into low-income families to advance up the economic ladder.

        Middle-class economic growth is stunted compared to other parts of the developed world, and it’s hard for people to work their way out of poverty, said Steven Rattner, a Morning Joe economic analyst and former Treasury Department official who oversaw the restructuring of the auto industry under President Barack Obama.

        “We have fallen way back,” Rattner said. “We’re behind many countries in Europe in terms of the ability of every kid in America to get ahead. It’s a real problem.”

        Why is that? host Joe Scarborough asked. They talked about the globalization of the job market and increased poverty.

        Rattner’s statement betrays our classic view of the American Dream. Is his point accurate?

        Rattner researcher Sundas Hashmi directed us to reports that bolster Rattner’s statement. The takeaway: The American rags-to-riches story is more out of reach than ever, possibly responsible for restricting economic growth.

        The Great Gatsby Curve

        We last heard a version of this talking point from the president himself, who spoke at length recently about the dangerous consequences for America if income inequality continues to rise and income mobility decreases.

        “In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies, countries like Canada or Germany or France,” Obama said. “They have greater mobility than we do, not less.”

        Alan Krueger, former chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, explained the connection between economic mobility and income as the “Great Gatsby Curve,” named after the novel about Prohibition-era upper-class excess by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

        Families at all earning levels were growing together after World War II but have been growing apart since in the decades since, Krueger wrote. The country’s top earners have pulled a lot further ahead than the middle and lower class, he said, and the trend line suggests the future earnings of today’s children will be tied more and more to the income level of their parents.

        “Not since the Roaring 20s has the share of income going to the very top reached such high levels,” Krueger said, according to prepared remarks.

        Krueger compared income inequality of 10 developed countries with the correlation between a parent’s income and their children’s (it’s more complicated than we described, check out the details in Krueger’s presentation or this Bloomberg infographic). The “Gatsby Curve” showed economic possibilities for children in European countries such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and France were much less connected to their parents’ income than in the United States and United Kingdom.

        Evidence from Pew and others

        Other research hits similar notes.

        A 2011 short report by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project described a joint study by researchers from 10 countries who looked at how children’s mobility is connected to their family’s socioeconomic background. They used parents’ education as a measure because it has strong ties to income and offered cross-country comparisons.

        Of the 10 countries studied, the United States had the strongest link between parents’ education and a child’s economic, educational and socio-emotional outcomes, the study found, more pronounced than in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Nordic countries, as well as Canada and Australia.

        “Americans absolutely confirm they believe America is the land of opportunity and that people should have equal opportunity if they have the skills,” said Diana Elliott, research officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project, in an interview. “The data fly in the face of what Americans have believed and what they say they believe in our polling work.”

        Pew researchers use data from a long-term survey that started tracking 5,000 families in 1968 and follows those parent-child pairs as they form their own households (known as Panel Study of Income Dynamics). Since economic mobility is best measured when people are in their prime working years around age 40, we won’t have a third generation comparison for another decade or two, Elliott said.

        The United States has a greater degree of “stickiness,” in which people at both extremes of the income distribution are likely to stay in the quintile into which they were born, than neighbor Canada, she said, referencing this report.

        The Brookings Institution and Pew Charitable Trusts teamed up on a 2008 report that analyzed several studies on economic mobility and concluded the following:

        Cross-country comparisons of relative mobility aren’t always based on perfect data. But the United States is distinct from other countries, research shows, in having “less, not more, intergenerational mobility than do Canada and several European countries.”

        Upward mobility is particularly uncommon for children who are born into families at the lowest income bracket.

        A previous examination of this issue by PolitiFact Ohio mentioned a 2010 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a Paris-based think tank with 34 member countries, including the United States. The study found Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain and France out-ranked the U.S. in terms of a child’s ability to earn more than his or her parents. Only Italy and Great Britain had stronger links between a person’s earnings and his or her parents than the U.S. of the 12 countries evaluated.

        Why is this happening?

        A 2012 New York Times article that examined five studies about the United States’ lagging economic mobility identified the depth of American poverty as one culprit, as the country has a “thinner safety net” than other wealthy nations.

        Other potential reasons the Times reported include the increased likelihood of poor Americans to be raised by single mothers, decreased unionization, high incarceration rates and the country’s historical racial divide.

        A college education is one way for children born into the lowest income distribution to move up despite their family background, noted a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. But for many born into the poorest bracket, college is out of reach. Just 7 percent of adults whose parents were in the bottom income quintile obtained a college degree.

        Disagreement, caution and another measure

        Is it time to ring the alarm? Not yet, say some economists of conservative backgrounds. Among their concerns of the methodology and thrust of some of the research we have described:

        It is not wise to compare U.S. data with considerably smaller, more homogenous populations in European countries, such as Denmark.

        The evidence is scant that income inequality is hurting or driving our country’s economic woes.

        Looking at absolute mobility, or comparing a person’s income to their parents’, reveals a different story than isolating the measure that most of these studies used (that’s relative mobility, or looking at where an adult landed in the income distribution compared to his or her parents).

        For children born into the lowest quartile, 83 percent made higher family incomes than their parents, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, which examined the same long-term family survey that Pew uses. As a whole, 67 percent of U.S. adults out-earned their parents.

        Thing is, we don’t have solid comparisons for absolute mobility for other countries, said Donald Schneider, a Heritage researcher who addressed his concerns about international comparisons of economic mobility in a whopping 6,700-word piece.

        We won’t visit each point here (this is getting long enough — eat a cookie, you deserve it). Basically, he cautioned the data used for some of these studies is not collected in the same way, and cultural differences could account for some of the income gaps.

        Plus, he wrote, Americans have to make more money to move from the bottom to the top than in countries such as Denmark.

        But many see that as the problem, said Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who studied international comparisons of generational income mobility in 2007. More distance means more inequality.

        “We have more distance from the top to bottom,” she said, “and whether that’s a good or bad thing may depend on your point of view.”

        Our ruling

        Steven Rattner said, the United States is “behind many countries in Europe in terms of the ability of every kid in America to get ahead.”

        Some conservative economists say the comparisons between countries are imperfect, that we need better data, and Americans are doing just fine if you look at their ability to simply out-earn their parents. We don’t know how that compares to European countries.

        But many studies back up Rattner’s point. Studies show that we are behind “many countries in Europe in terms of the ability of every kid in America to get ahead.” Nordic countries have particularly higher rates of income mobility than the United States.

        • AndRebecca

          You sure must have a lot of time on your hands to sit and copy the writings of others to a comment site. We have problems with the American Dream in America because it is no longer taught in the schools. The kids aren’t learning much of anything with the teacher’s unions in charge, and with the federal government promoting methods of teaching which don’t work. We started using Leftist teaching methods a long time age and we are seeing the results.

    • You need to read Rodney Stark’s books on Western civ – “How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity” and “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.” Stark teaches at Baylor U and presents the latest and best in historical research. He shows that you are a victim of the US state-owned educational system which teaches myths fabricated by atheists in the French “Enlightenment.” The truth, subscribed to by most modern historians, is that the best of Western culture came from Christianity, such things as religious tolerance, freedom, and morality.

      As for intelligence, we have known since Alfred North Whitehead in the 1920’s that Christianity gave birth to modern science. In short, all of the great original scientists were priests and devout Christians, especially Newton who was a good theologian, too.

      Also see Larry Seidentop’s “Inventing Individualism.” Seidentop teaches at Cambridge and credits Christianity solely and completely for Western individualism. Europeans knew all of this before the “Enlightenment” but chose to lie about it and fabricate the myths that you perpetuate.

      What has atheism given us? Nothing, unless you count the atheists Hitler, Stalin and Mao who murdered close to 100 million of their own citizens.

      • Karl Dehm

        The figures of people killed by the three musketeers pails in comparison to those that have murdered by religion. Have a look at the following:

        Religion even at its meekest has to admit that what it is proposing is a “total solution”, in which faith must be to some extent blind, in which all aspects of the private and public life must be submitted to a permanent higher supervision. Totalitarian system, whatever outward form they may take, are fundamentalist and, as we would say, “faith-based”.

        The Crusades: 6,000,000

        Thirty Years War: 11,500,000

        French Wars of Religion: 4,000,000

        Second Sudanese Civil War: 2,000,000

        Lebanese Civil War: 250,000

        Muslim Conquests of India: 80,000,000

        Congolese Genocide (King Leopold II): 13,000,000

        Armenian Genocide: 1,500,000

        Rwandan Genocide: 800,000

        Eighty Years’ War: 1,000,000

        Nigerian Civil War: 1,000,000

        Great Peasants’ Revolt: 250,000

        First Sudanese Civil War: 1,000,000

        Jewish Diaspora (Not Including the Holocaust): 1,000,000

        The Holocaust (Jewish and Homosexual Deaths): 6,500,000

        Islamic Terrorism Since 2000: 150,000

        Iraq War: 500,000

        US Western Expansion (Justified by “Manifest Destiny”):20,000,000

        Atlantic Slave Trade (Justified by Christianity): 14,000,000

        Aztec Human Sacrifice: 80,000

        AIDS deaths in Africa largely due to opposition to condoms: 30,000,000

        Spanish Inquisition: 5,000,000

        TOTAL: 195,035,000 deaths in the name of religion.

        Just google famous atheists – the lists is far too long for me to show here.
        While you are at it, look for the number of scientists who were persecuted by the church.

        • You must have your figures wrong. Those were probably fabricated by atheists to make themselves feel better because historians have declared the 20th century to be the most bloody in human history and there were no wars of religion. Except for WWI, atheists started all of the wars. Hitler murdered 12 million of his own people while Stalin and Mao murdered at least 30 million apiece. That doesn’t include the hundreds of millions killed in WWII, started by the atheists Hitler and Stalin.

          • Karl Dehm

            If you do not believe my figures that is a good sign that you do not accept things that are given to you on blind faith. The figures are readily available on the internet or in various books. If you are truly interested, read up on it.

            Whether it is blind faith demanded by a dictator or religion, I really don’t see much difference. Dictators use the same techniques used by religions to control people to do unspeakable things to mankind. If you are really interested in the truth, read god is not great by Christopher Hitchens. It will give you an insight into religions, dictators, humanism and will also give you information on atrocities committed by dictators and religions. I was able to download it for free, but I can’t remember on which site. May the truth be with you!

          • Why should I accept your figures over those on Wikipedia?

            “Whether it is blind faith demanded by a dictator or religion, I really don’t see much difference.”

            That’s a typical cop out by atheists. You declare the atheists who committed the worst atrocities in the history of mankind to be religious. But as I have told other atheists, if you choose to define atheists as religious, then I reserve the right to declare religious people as secular.

            You can’t escape the fact that atheists in the 20th century murdered more people than any group of people in the history of mankind.

            I haven’t read Hitcdhens’ book, but from what I have read about it he doesn’t know much about atheism. He is a rank amateur. I recommend “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions” by Alex Rosenberg if you want a better idea of what atheism is about. You also need to read Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre and Singer.

          • AndRebecca

            The Christians invented record keeping and moveable type. Without them you wouldn’t have a computer to vent your rage and present your revisionist history.

        • AndRebecca

          I know your figures are way off. The atheists in Europe, Russia, and China in the last century killed well over one hundred million. No way were 20,000, 000 killed in western expansion. There weren’t twenty million in the western states and records are around today for all to see.

  • John Thomson

    I’m not RC myself, but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by the cardinal.