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Public Reason and the Truth of Christianity

3/12/2007 - 6:00 AM PST

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Bishop Crepaldi Examines the Teachings of Benedict XVI

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 12, 2007 (Catholic Online)- Here is an essay written by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the director of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory, on the teachings of Benedict XVI on the role of reason and Christianity in the public square.

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Public Reason and the Truth of Christianity in the Teachings of Benedict XVI

Public reason is human reason that believes it can attain, through dialogue and research, certain truths about man and, in particular, about man in society. Public reason is certainly a critical reason, but is also a constructive reason that is not only capable of achieving the "consensus" of opinions, but can also attain the truth and the good of man in society for which it has a cognitive and an arguing ability.

The ability to understand the foundations of the dignity of the person, the main elements of the common good, the inalienability of human rights, justice, the meaning of individual freedom and of community ties, all depend on the possibility of a public reason.

The primary problem of public reason is to determine if it is possible and, secondarily, whether it is self-sufficient, or whether it needs a relationship with religion and, in particular, with the Christian religion. Benedict XVI has addressed this topic on several occasions and in different places, talking on the one hand of the truth of reason and, on the other, of the truth of religions.

The public use of reason and relativism

Public reason is not possible in a culture that is dominated by the "dictatorship of relativism,"[1] for a very simple reason: Relativism is a dogma and therefore it a priori rejects rational argumentation, even toward itself. Those with a taste for paradox could say that relativism is a fundamentalism.

On several occasions, Benedict XVI said that now it has become a dogma, or a presumption, and that it cannot be sustained if not through some sort of faith.[2] Hence, relativism rests upon blind faith. This is unquestionably contradictory because the words "dogma" and "relativism" are incompatible.

The thing is that relativism becomes a faith in order to overcome its internal contradiction, only to fall into a new one. Relativism, in fact, cannot be argued; otherwise it would refer to a capability of reason to argue the truth. In this case, relativism would contradict itself because it would admit the possibility of non-relative truths. Thus, relativism can only be "dogmatically assumed."

The "dictatorial" character -- in the cultural sense -- of relativism, prevents the use of public reason because it prevents the public use of reason. At this point, it could be interesting to go back to the writing where this public use was strongly proclaimed for the first time -- the short essay entitled "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" written by Kant in 1784.

For Kant, reason has a public use that serves a critical purpose. To illustrate this public use, Kant especially dwells on the rational critique of religion, i.e. the complete freedom of citizens, indeed even the calling, "to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts concerning mistaken aspects of that symbol, as well as his suggestions for the better arrangement of religious and church matters."[3]

Reason, with its own categories, claims to be the testing ground and the measure of faith and religion too. Why is a public reason to which Kant assigned such challenging tasks now reduced to relativism, which is incapable of critiquing not just religion, but even itself?

Public reason and the self-limitation of reason

The reason lies in the "self-limitation" of reason, as Benedict XVI has suggested many times.[4] This self-limitation underpins the dogmatically blind assumption of relativism and its inability to play any kind of critical role. The faith in relativism can exist only when the scope of reason has been drastically limited.

The self-limitation of reason consists in its being reduced to mathematical-experimental[5] knowledge, i.e. a type of rationality that is incapable of founding even relativism. This type of knowledge -- the mathematical-experimental type -- simply has "no evidence" of relativism, nor can have any because it is not an empirically observable fact.

Relativism is a philosophy and not a fact, and its foundation would require a different kind of reasoning which, however, is excluded by self-limited reason. This is why relativism can only either be "implicit" -- lived and not justified -- or dogmatically "assumed" -- accepted, for example, by an act of faith. In this sense then, the "dictatorship of relativism" is the necessary conclusion of ...

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