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Samuel Gregg on the Regensburg Address, Ratzinger, and reason

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In a new article for Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research at Acton, talks about the “Regensburg Address” and what it means 10 years later.  Benedict XVI’s speech at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006 “managed to identify the inner pathology that is corroding much of the world, how this malignancy emerged, and what can be done to address it.”

According to Gregg, this speech “showed how a collapse of faith in full-bodied conceptions of reason explains so much of our world’s evident disarray.” But the Roman Pontiff didn’t just pull this idea out of nowhere; this is a concept that has been long featured in Joseph Ratzinger’s writings.   Gregg goes on to explain:

For what is at stake, Ratzinger believes, is nothing less than humanity’s ability to know the truth. And if man is defined as not just the one who knows, but as the one who knows that he knows, any faltering in his confidence that human reason can know truth that is more than empirical not only leads to the dead ends of fideism or sentimentalism. It obliterates man’s very distinctiveness. At the same time, recovering this confidence in reason has never, for Ratzinger, been about turning the clock back to a pre-Enlightenment world. In many ways, it’s about saving modernity from itself by opening its mind to the full grandeur of reason and, ultimately, the First Cause from which all else proceeds.

Gregg continues in the next section of the article talking about Ratzinger’s view of the Enlightenment.

In Ratzinger’s view, part of the problem is that many Enlightenment thinkers actually didn’t have enough faith in reason. Technical knowledge certainly matters. The natural and social sciences that acquired such traction in the eighteenth century have helped subsequent generations live longer and healthier lives. Thanks in part to Adam Smith, millions continue to be liberated from material poverty.

The problem, Ratzinger states, is that many who take pride in their reasonability “no longer offer any perspective on the fundamental questions of mankind.” Why? Because by themselves, scientific and economic reasoning can’t explain why, for instance, we should want to cure disease or reduce poverty.

Gregg concludes his article saying this:

Not only did Ratzinger reiterate the need to reject fideism, the type of faith that leads one to fly planes into buildings or cut the throat of an elderly priest, but he also underscored that reason confirms what revelation tells us to be true about God. Echoing Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Ratzinger specified that “reason is able to know with certainty that God exists through the creation.” It is this confidence, Ratzinger says, that “unfolds the horizons” for scientific discovery.

None of this is to downplay the scale of the challenge that Joseph Ratzinger identified so dramatically ten years ago at Regensburg. It means knitting back together a world in which reason points to true faith. It also involves helping the natural and social sciences, so stimulated by the various Enlightenments, to recognize their need for grounding in those truths that provide them with their very rationale and prevent them from being turned against man himself.

It would be easy, even understandable, to leave such tasks to another generation—one perhaps less awash in sentimental humanitarianism and less speechless in the face of the violent fideism currently plaguing the earth. That, however, was not Ratzinger’s way. To identify the pathologies of faith and reason that characterize the Muslim world and the West, he was willing to pay a high price in terms of rage from fideists and contempt from many who consider themselves enlightened.

The question we should ask ourselves is: are we willing to do the same?

You can read Gregg’s full article at Public Discourse here.

Kyle Hanby


  • In spite of the undeserved jab at the Reformation, Benedict XVI was excellent as far as it went. Keep in mind that in 19th century England theology was considered the Queen of the sciences. Also, France did not join the Reformation except for a few Huguenots, but the atheist Enlightenment began there and captured the entire nation. The greatest rebellion against Christianity took place in Catholic France, not in Protestant countries.

    Hayek goes into much more detail on he same issue in “The Counter-Revolution of Science: studies on the abuse of reason”, “Errors of Constructivism” and “Individualism: True and False.” Hayek focuses on the change in economic thinking, but the same ideas apply to religion. Hayek distinguishes between reason and Reason, which he calls pseudo-reason or rationalism. In pseudo-reason, atheists and deists placed themselves at the center of reason and insisted that nothing could be true unless 1) they personally could understand and explain it and 2) they could see the immediate consequences of it. They also elevated the natural sciences as true science and called everything else opinion. They wrote hymns to Reason and built temples of Newton in which to worship Reason.

    As Hayek shows, this all happened in “Catholic” France, not in Protestant countries. And France was the first European nation to become wholly atheist or agnostic. But the important point is that the new Reason did not persuade people to abandon Christianity; they abandoned Christianity long before and then fabricated their new Reason to rationalize it.

    So why did so many people abandon Christianity? We can only turn to the Bible where Jesus said they reject him because they love darkness more than like and their deeds are evil. Paul wrote that they know the truth but reject is in order to practice evil.