August 25, 2008

Part three of Fr. Berg's reflection on Pope Benedict XVI - Joseph Ratzinger's book, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

By Father Thomas Berg *

This is part three of my reflections on Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger's book, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.  If you missed the earlier columns, part one is here, and part two is here.


Continuing with Chapter 1, in Benedict's view, contemporary Europe is the product of a cultural ethos that has predominated since the Enlightenment and has, by and large, permeated all facets and dimensions of European life, both private and public. This he refers to as "Enlightenment Culture."


According to the thesis of the laicist Enlightenment culture of Europe, it is only the norms and substance of this same Enlightenment culture that can determine the identity of Europe, and it follows that every state that accepts these criteria can belong to Europe. Ultimately, it is unimportant to know on which framework of roots this culture of liberty and democracy is planted. And we are told that this is precisely why the roots cannot be included in the definition of the bases of Europe—for these are dead roots that do not form part of today's identity. Accordingly, this new identity, which is defined exclusively by the Enlightenment culture, entails that God has nothing whatever to do with public life and with the foundations of the state (p. 37).


The Pope makes this observation in reference to two phenomena: the exclusion of any reference to the Christian roots of Europe or God from the European constitution, and the consideration of new member states in the European Union (he specifically refers to the case of Turkey). The Enlightenment culture can be found, of course, right here at home in the U.S., or in Central America, or in almost any place in the world. It is simply the worldview which holds that certain achievements of the Enlightenment period (the solidification of the notion of human rights, the freedoms of citizens, democratic rule) have superseded the need to anchor our understanding of ourselves in any transcendent reality.


This makes everything logical and even, in a certain sense, plausible. For what higher good could we wish than that democracy and human rights be respected everywhere? But at this point, we must ask whether this Enlightenment laicist culture is truly the culture—finally revealed in all its universality—of a reason that is common to all men, a culture that must be accepted everywhere, even if it is rooted in a soil that is historically and culturally diverse. And one must ask whether this culture is truly complete in itself, so that it does not need any roots outside itself (pp. 37-38).


Enlightenment culture prides itself on being based on the best that human reason can offer. But as we have seen, we have every reason to suspect that this is not the case, that indeed Enlightenment culture is the product of philosophies which have, paradoxically, restricted reason and curtailed all that reason has to offer.


The Holy Father is not calling into question here the genuine good of our having attained to a deeper understanding of inalienable rights and the superiority of democratic rule in government. Those indeed are genuine measures of human progress attained during, and following from, the Enlightenment. But a culture which is shaped predominantly by a worldview which excludes the transcendent from its self-understanding is a culture on the road to crisis. On both sides of the Atlantic, this is the current state of affairs.


Therefore, Benedict ends chapter 1 with two questions: whether the philosophies of the Enlightenment and the culture they have spawned really constitute the best that humanity has to offer, and whether this Enlightenment culture is truly complete in itself with no need for roots or touchstones of meaning beyond itself.

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

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