July 01, 2008

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

By Father Thomas Berg *

Herewith I begin reflections on Pope Benedict XVI - Joseph Ratzinger's book, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.

The Pope's speech at the University of Regensburg in September, 2006 was in many ways a continuation of the reflection he had engaged in shortly before being elected Pope and which was subsequently synthesized in this book. Crisis is, in many ways, a key for interpreting what the Pope has been saying about the West and Islam, and it well merits some sustained consideration. So I hope to go at it little by little in subsequent columns.

Chapter 1 is entitled, "Reflections on Cultures that Are in Conflict Today." He opens with this reflection:

We are living in a period of great dangers and of great opportunities both for man and for the world, a period that also imposes a great responsibility on us all. During the past century, the possibilities available to man for dominion over matter have grown in a manner we may truly call unimaginable. But the fact that he has power over the world has also meant that man's destructive power has reached dimensions that can sometimes make us shudder. He has investigated the farthest recesses of his being, he has deciphered the components of the human being, and now he is able, so to speak, to "construct" man on his own. This means that man enters the world, no longer as a gift of the Creator, but as the product of our activity - and a product that can be selected according to requirements that we ourselves stipulate (pp. 25-26; emphasis my own)

We are all children of a mindset which has long taken for granted that man's domination of nature — everything from learning to rotate crops to putting a man on the moon — is a good thing.

And the vast majority of it has been good. This drive toward domination has been a dominant passion of the western mind in particular, especially from the 16th century onward, with roots in the thought of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. But as the Holy Father points out, the drive toward domination has brought singular perils for humanity. Consider, for example, the drive to harness the forces of atomic nuclei (making nuclear weapons possible), and in our day, the drive to harness the processes of cell regeneration (which is currently ushering in the age of embryo-destructive research).

While it is certainly possible to employ this same knowledge and technical ability for the good of humanity, the Pope is reminding us that the expansiveness of the drive for dominion over nature also holds out the potential for catastrophe. More precisely, his point is that, in many sectors, the drive to dominate nature has now collapsed upon those who would be the dominators, upon human nature itself: "[Man] is now able, so to speak, to 'construct' man on his own." Indeed he is; the age of "designer babies" more than confirms and illustrates this point.

The Pope's concern, then, seems to be this: what happens to our culture when the vast majority of people become accustomed to thinking broadly about human life, human nature, and human existence as objects, as things ‘make-able,' in place of considering them as God-given realities; when they think about the human as a product, as one more potential artifact to be produced by human ingenuity? In Benedict's opinion, what happens is that we descend from understanding ourselves as being created in the image of God, to understanding ourselves as being made in our own image. The Holy Father continues:

All this demonstrates that the growth of our possibilities is not matched by an equal development of our moral energy. Moral strength has not grown in tandem with the development of science; on the contrary, it has diminished, because the technological mentality confines morality to the subjective sphere. Our need, however, is for a public morality, a morality capable of responding to the threats that impose such a burden on the existence of us all. The true gravest danger of the present moment is precisely this imbalance between technological possibilities and moral energy (p. 27, emphasis my own).

It is no secret that persons who espouse what Benedict calls a "technological mentality" will almost by default relegate moral discourse and the whole broad enterprise of ethical consideration to the realm of the utterly subjective. Recourse to that realm — so the idea goes — may have its usefulness (things like religious sentiment and moral consideration can give us a helpful psychological boost from time to time), but it is otherwise utterly unempirical, essentially irrational, and entirely skewed by one's tastes and preferences. It is certainly not the stuff of science, and morality — like religion — is best kept out of the public square.

Such an attitude, the Pope says, is perilous. Why? Because scientific advancement and the progress of human knowledge untethered from sustained and rigorous moral reflection will eventually implode on itself and society. A culture's "moral energy" — the stamina to ask hard, probing questions, to insist on the reasonable limits of scientific endeavor, to uphold the inviolable dignity of human life from conception to natural end — must keep apace with the advancement of scientific endeavor. And it must do so, not to squash that progress, not to impede science or "stand in the way of cures," but precisely to assure that science successfully achieves its genuine goals — without destroying humanity in the process.

Such an attitude is not "medieval"; it is, rather, based on a cursory glance at history, and a probing understanding of the human person and human weakness — precisely the kind of considerations from which the contemporary scientific mindset must never abstract itself. Researchers are human beings capable of moral failure or moral greatness. Whenever we touch the human in the laboratory, there are necessarily far-reaching questions that must be answered on the moral plain. Scientists, researchers, those engaged in healthcare — all would do well to strive to be sound moralists as well. But as Benedict notes, the disconnect today between the two realms of science and morality is considerable — dangerously so.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.