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Re-reading modern history

In his Christmas address to the Roman Curia on true and false interpretations of Vatican II, Pope Benedict XVI asked why the Church had had such a difficult time opening a dialogue with “the modern age.” His answers are provocative — and turn some of the conventional accounts of modern history inside-out.

“Catholicism-and-modernity” got off to a bad start, the Pope suggested, when the Galileo trial opened a fissure between the Church and natural science. Immanuel Kant’s philosophical attempt to define “religion within pure reason” then seemed to eliminate any notion of a divine revelation to which the Church was accountable. The most dramatic breach came after 1789, when the French Revolution proposed — and bloodily enforced — an “image of the state and of man…intended to crowd out the Church and faith.” A liberalism with no room for God was not a liberalism with which the Church could co-exist. And how could there be a dialogue with science when science “claimed to embrace, with its knowledge, the totality of reality to its outermost borders,” a claim that made the “hypothesis of God” unnecessary? European ideas and European politics thus led to a reaction under Pius IX: what Benedict called “a harsh and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age.” Yet Pius’s broadsides were no less “drastic” than the rejection of Christianity by those who most self-consciously embodied the spirit of the “modern age.”

There were other currents at work in modernity, however, and they eventually made their presence felt. Here, Benedict is worth a longish quote:

“It was becoming clear that the American Revolution had offered a model of the modern state that was different from that theorized by the radical tendencies that had emerged from the second phase of the French Revolution. Natural sciences began … to reflect (on) their own limits, imposed by their own method which, while achieving great things, was nevertheless not able to comprehend the totality of reality. Thus both sides began … to open up to each other. In the period between the two world wars and even more after the Second World War, Catholic statesmen had shown that a modern lay state which is not neutral with respect to values can exist (by) tapping into the great ethical fonts of Christianity. Catholic social doctrine … became an important model between radical liberalism and the Marxist theory of the state. Natural sciences … realized ever more clearly that (their scientific) method was not comprehensive of the totality of reality and thus opened again their doors to God, knowing that reality is greater than what a naturalistic (scientific) method can embrace.”

Several points are worth teasing out of this trenchant analysis.

(1) The harshness of the 19th century confrontation between Catholicism and “modernity” was, so to speak, bilateral. Powerful forces in European culture and politics aimed at nothing less than the eradication of Christianity, or, at the very least, tethering the Church to an all-powerful state. As Benedict concedes, Pius IX’s language was the language of condemnation; but there was, in truth, a lot that needed condemning (as Anglican historian Owen Chadwick made clear in A History of the Popes 1830-1914 and as another British scholar, Michael Burleigh, will underscore in his forthcoming Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War.)

(2) The American Revolution, which institutionally separated Church and state while affirming the transcendent origins of the “truths” on which democratic politics had to be based, was an entirely different matter than its French counterpart. Thus “1776″ helped compel the development of doctrine that eventually led to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (a point that might be pondered, not only by Lefebvrists, but by Communio contributors convinced that America is, at bottom, an ill-founded republic).

(3) Catholicism and science can have a mutually beneficial dialogue when the Church remembers that it’s not in the geology business and science remembers that the scientific method can’t measure, much less account for, all-there-is — which is, I take it, the central point at issue in the current round of the Darwin wars.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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