July 08, 2008
Part two of Fr. Berg's reflection on Pope Benedict XVI - Joseph Ratzinger's book, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

In Chapter 1 of the book, Benedict notes that the disconnect today between the two realms of science and morality is considerable — dangerously so.  Benedict goes on to note that, notwithstanding the great contemporary disconnect between science and morality, our contemporary culture is not lacking a kind of pseudo-moralism.


It is indeed true that a new moralism exists today. Its key words are justice, peace, and the conservation of creation. But this moralism remains vague and almost inevitably remains confined to the sphere of party politics, where it is primarily a claim addressed to others, rather than a personal duty in our own daily life. For what does "justice" mean? Who defines it? What promotes peace? In the last decades, we have seen plenty of evidence on the streets and squares of our cities of how pacifism can be perverted into a destructive anarchism or, indeed, into terrorism. The political moralism of the 1970's, the roots of which are far from dead, was a moralism that succeeded in fascinating even young people who were full of ideals. But it was a moralism that took the wrong direction, since it lacked the serenity born of rationality. In the last analysis, it attached a higher value to the political utopia than to the dignity of the individual, and it showed itself capable of despising man in the name of great objectives (pp. 27-28).


Benedict is pointing at the commonplace appeal to 'common values', sometimes called 'core values', around which—it is supposed—all of us can rally. But as Benedict suggests, a supposed moral consensus on such values (protecting the environment, the quest for peace, human rights, and so on), as good as it may sound, conceals an underlying complete disparity of morals and worldviews.


The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has dedicated many years of thought to this phenomenon of ersatz moral consensus. He writes:


Where once the common language of morality, even in everyday speech, had embodied a set of precise distinctions which presupposed a complex moral scheme, there comes into being a kind of linguistic mélange which enables very little to be said. . . What these linguistic twists and turns testify to is the way in which the moral vocabulary had become detached from any precise central context of understanding and made available to different competing moral groups for their special and differing purposes. (After Virtue, 233.)


MacIntyre has keenly observed that attempts at arriving at this supposed 'moral consensus' are very often the best indicators of the very real, underlying, paralysis of contemporary moral discourse which, as Benedict points out, renders moral discourse "vague" at best, relegating it "almost inevitably to the sphere of party politics."


If truth be told, in our current cultural and moral milieu, the illusion of a broad-based consensus on the validity of a set 'core values' evaporates as soon as we delve a bit below the surface to discover both a) the irreconcilable conceptions of the good being invoked by parties to the supposed consensus, and b) the rival versions of morality to which these conceptions of the good are associated.


In other words, what we can rather quickly uncover—precisely what Benedict is alluding to—are the competing and incommensurable understandings about just what the good of the human person really is. Where do such diametrically opposed conceptions of each of these 'values' originate? In competing moral worldviews, worldviews which entail an account of morality informed by a particular understanding of the human person and the cosmos and of the good for man. History has shown that far too many of these—from Marxism, to the fundamentalist Islam, to secular humanism—lack, to some degree or other "the serenity born of rationality."


Pseudo-moralism, affirms the Pope, is actually an obstacle to genuine moral renewal. He then observes that in the same way, a reduction of Christianity to a vague and watered down conception of "Gospel values" is equally deleterious to the full thriving of Christianity. And from this observation about Christianity he then transitions into a consideration of Europe and "the foundations on which Europe rests."


We can say that while Europe once was the Christian continent, it was also the birthplace of that new scientific rationality which has given us both enormous possibilities and enormous menaces. In the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner hitherto unknown to mankind, excludes God from public awareness (pp. 29-30).


Benedict speaks of Europe's exclusion of God from the public square as if it were one of the most salient features of European culture today. It results, says the Pope, from a cultural ethos that reduces the notion of "rational" to the level of the functional and the experimentally demonstrable. "Since morality [in the current secular European worldview] belongs to a different sphere altogether," notes Benedict, "it disappears as a specific category; but since we do after all need some kind of morality, it has to be discovered anew in some other way."


Here we have another prescient insight from the Holy Father: the human person is necessarily, and cross-culturally, a moral animal. By his very nature, the human person tends toward the identification of certain specific norms by which to conduct his living in society. In other words, the human person always seeks or establishes for himself some kind of "north" which is the indicator of "right" behavior. Whether what is 'right' is indicated by some notion of 'good' or 'utility' or 'moral calculus' or 'conformity with a majority'—human life is little intelligible absent some notion of 'right behavior' no matter how disparate those individual accounts of 'right behavior' may be. And when a long established moral order or worldview erodes (as appears to have happened, by and large, in Europe) then peoples and societies will tend necessarily to replace it with something else—or rediscover it. 

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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