Religion and Secularity

John Grondelski recommends The Dialectics of Secularization by Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger


By Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger

Ignatius Press, 2007

85 pages, $14.95

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If you like the challenge of delving into the thought of two heavyweight German intellectuals, this book is for you. In 2004, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas, one of Germany’s most important contemporary German secular philosophers, addressed two abstruse, but very real, contemporary questions: Does a secular society need to appeal to some transcendental norm to ground (and limit) state power, and how do believers as believers fit into such a society?

Florian Schuller, the director of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria (where the colloquy from which this book originated took place) notes that, for several years, advocates of religion and secularization in Europe have been engaged in discussion.

Actually, this discussion has been going on longer because, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, some European Catholic theologians developed a whole “theology of secularization,” acting as if secularization was triumphant and Catholics only needed to put a theological veneer over it.

Happily, not all theologians — including Ratzinger — succumbed to that temptation. The issue has been rejoined today as Islamic immigrants to Europe, in no way prone to sit quietly on a “naked public square,” revived debates that Europe’s secular elites thought they had erased with Voltaire.

This book contains the Ratzinger and Habermas lectures, each of which respectfully engages the opposite’s viewpoint. Habermas admitted that “philosophy has good reasons to be willing to learn from religious traditions.”

“In the post-secular society,” he says, “there is an increasing consensus that certain phases of the ‘modernization of the public consciousness’ involve the assimilation and the reflexive transformation of both religious and secular mentalities.”

Ratzinger, in turn, acknowledged something similar: “There exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a ‘controlling organ,’” he said. “Religion must continually allow itself to be purified and structured by reason . . . [while admitting that] there are also pathologies of reason, although mankind . . . is not as conscious of this fact today.”

The editor sees the Ratzinger-Habermas exchange as the beginning of a potentially fruitful dialogue on religion and secularity in Europe today. That discussion is certainly worthwhile, but this reviewer is less optimistic: Secular elites can justify their appeals to immanent norms only because they are still profiting from the transcendent Christian culture grounding Europe for two centuries.

But nominalism did not bare its fangs until people stopped believing in God and then substituted the fallible human will for the omnipotent (and omniscient) divine will as the source of moral norms.

Likewise, the optimism that buoys secular opinion, in my view, seems sustained by the residual Christian inheritance off which Europe is still living.

Ignatius Press was founded to bring the thought of important German theologians like Ratzinger to an English-speaking audience. It has again served us well in publishing this very timely, albeit very abstract, book.

John M. Grondelski writes from Washington, D.C.

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