Of Many Things

The current archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., undoubtedly possesses one of the finest intellects in the American episcopate. His most important book, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (2009), is an intellectual tour de force, an engaging account of the church’s relation to the secular world. Throughout the work, the author affirms the “primacy of relationship in establishing identity,” not just at the ontological and metaphysical levels, but on the theological, philosophical and practical planes as well.

One of the cardinal’s themes is the relationship between faith and reason, which has been undermined, if not altogether severed, by modern minds. “Ever since the enlightenment,” Cardinal George writes, “thoughtful people in the West have seemingly had two choices: to swear allegiance to religious faith and so foreswear investment in the human project, or to swear allegiance to reason and so foreswear commitment to religious faith.” As then-Father Joseph Ratzinger reminded us in his Introduction to Christianity, faith and reason are not only compatible with each other but each without the other ceases to be what its name would signify. Faith without reason is dangerously fideistic; reason without faith is strictly rationalistic.

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One of the most important contributions, therefore, that Catholics can make to the public conversation in the United States is “to enlarge their culture’s appreciation of human reason,” Cardinal George writes.

The essay by Adam Hincks is one modest contribution to such an effort. “The contemporary urge to separate knowledge from [religious] belief,” writes the Jesuit astrophysicist, “overlooks the essentially collaborative nature of human inquiry. By cordoning reason off from faith, it also threatens to strike at the very root of rationality itself.”

Faith and reason are also two necessary dimensions of any intelligible political theory. Mark Lilla, for example, a Columbia University professor, has said that Thomas Hobbes re-oriented the philosophical conversation in the mid-17th century by changing the subject “from God and his commands, to man and his beliefs.” This divorce of faith and reason, says Dr. Lilla, has served us well, for it enabled the complete separation of church and state and the subsequent triumph of Western liberalism. Hobbes inaugurated the process through which “political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation,” according to Dr. Lilla.

We should question the accuracy of such a straightforward narrative. As Charles Taylor has written, progress is not inevitable, for history is not a linear process but rather a dialectical process involving variant stages of re-imagining, re-interpreting and re-appropriating humankind’s longing for the transcendent.

The main problem with Dr. Lilla’s thesis, however, is not the facile historical narrative on which it relies, but rather the feeble philosophical pillars on which his nation-state rests. For if the separation of church and state requires the separation of faith from reason, then the philosophical foundation of Western liberalism, our common understanding of the relationship that establishes our identity as a political people, is dangerously impoverished.

For while there are basic presuppositions about which we may all axiomatically agree, says Dr. Taylor, “the key beliefs we need to establish our basic political morality are not among them.” If, then, Western liberalism is utterly self-justifying, then it is itself a Leviathan and no less a tyrant for simply bearing the name “democracy.”

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Michael Barberi
4 years ago
A good essay Fr. Malone, You said "For if the separation of church and state requires the separation of faith from reason, then the philosophical foundation of Western liberalism, our common understanding of the relationship that establishes our identity as a political people, is dangerously impoverished." I agree. However, what is not discussed is that U.S. citizens constitute a plurality of religions. Many citizens have different beliefs and, according to the Constitution, no one religion is to be promoted, favored or imposed upon others by the government. As Catholics, there is also a profound division with respect to certain moral teachings among the clergy, theologians, laity, as well as among many bishops. We could dismiss this non-reception and confusion, and simply state that the truth resides solely in all the moral teachings of the Catholic magisterium. However, I don't think such a debate would prove fruitful. I do agree that a Catholic should never separate faith from reason. Both faith and reason are needed in our pursuit of the truth in moral matters. This includes giving priority to the magisterium. Nevertheless, a faith without reason is blind, and reason without faith denies the transcendental. Equally important, respectful disagreements about certain moral teachings are not the mere result of Western Liberalism. This does not mean that some Catholics, and other Christians, are not influenced by Western Liberalism. However, Western Liberalism is not the only cause of non-reception. Witness the fact that many Catholic moral teachings lack a convincing moral theory that rings true to the deepest levels of one's heart, mind and soul. On the other hand, I do agree that Western Liberalism is not, and should not be, self-justifying in all cases. Human reason should never be the sole source of truth. These issues are complex and I have little to offer as answers to our political reality.

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