The Pope gave a talk today that was a profound critique of the modern scientific method.
I was in the Vatican press office at noon today when Pope Benedict in the Clementine Hall inside the Apostolic Palace conferred “Ratzinger Prizes” on three European theologians for the excellence of their theological work.
I was able to follow the ceremony live on closed-circuit television, and once again was struck by the clarity and profundity of this Pope’s thought.
“He’s a genius,” Italian journalist Salvatore Izzo said, when I asked him what he thought of the talk.
“His thought soars above that of everyone else,” said the Spanish journalist, Antonio Pelayo.
Once again today, the Pope, in just a few phrases, cut to the heart of the matter — the heart of the modern crisis of faith and culture, of faith and science.
Essentially what Benedict said was that modern man, despite the brilliance of his scientific discoveries, risks falling short of true “science,” true “knowledge,” because science claims that “faith” is outside of its purview, that science is one thing and faith another.
This is an error, the Pope said. A tragic, fundamental error — because it leaves out the most important object of the human search for knowledge, the one object which is eternal and immutable and so totally real, unlike all the vanishing productions of time: the divine.
But this error is not recognized as an error by most of modern science.
And this lack of recognition is a flaw in the scientific world view which has had, is having, and likely will have devastating consequences. (Yes, I am thinking of the forces scientists have harnessed, whether in the atom, or in the genetic code, which they do not fully understand, or control.)
At stake in this debate is the very existence of “theology,” the “study” or the “science” of “God.”
The word means literally “speaking of God.”
But can one speak of God?
Is theology a science with a content?
The modern consensus seems to be that theology is, in fact, impossible.
That theology is a self-contradictory term, that there cannot be a study of God, or a science of God, because science (most moderns say) can only deal with real things, and real things (it is widely postulated) are all material things.
Only matter exists, nothing else (it is said).
God, not being material, is therefore not a possible object of scientific study (in this modern view).
And this is why, throughout our modern society, in every sphere of our modern discourse, on the evening news, in the university classroom, in the media, there are reports of floods, murders, economic crises, sports scores, but not reflections on the nature of the divine — because the discussable and knowable “news” is limited to “real (material) things and events,” not transcendent (invisible, immaterial) things. Transcendent things are excluded.
This is the first and primary exclusion of the intellectual life of our age.
And this is the greatest poverty of the intellectual life of our age.
And this was the question Benedcit addressed today.
“Theology is the science of the faith, tradition tells us,” Pope Benedict said. “But here arises immediately the question: is it really possible? Or is not this in itself a contradiction?
“Is not science perhaps the contrary of faith?
“Does not the faith cease to be faith, when it becomes science?
“And does not science cease to be science when it is ordered or even subordinated to faith?”
Then Benedict makes clear that this is a central issue of our time: “Such questions, which already for medieval theology represented a serious problem, with the modern concept of science have become still more urgent, and at first glance, even without a solution.”
Benedict then said that this is the reason that theology has retreated in many places to departments of history, as a subject to be studied in its historical development and impact, but not as a present, serious subject matter.
“But if theology retreats completely into the past, it leaves the faith today in darkness,” Benedict said.
What is at stake in all this, Benedict continued, is the matter of truth itself.
“Is what we believe in true? Or is it not?” he said. “In theology, what is at stake is the question of truth; this question is theology’s ultimate and essential foundation.”
At this point in his talk, Benedict quoted the Latin Church Father, Tertullian, who said: “Christ did not say, ‘I am the custom or habit,’ but ‘I am the Truth’ — non consuetudo sed veritas.”
And Benedict then noted that the pagan religions of the ancient world were religions of custom, of traditional practices, of doing things as they had always been done, and that “the revolutionary aspect of Christianity in the ancient world was precisely the break with the ‘customary’ out of love for the truth.”
Then, as so often, Benedict brought in… the Logos — the meaning, the reason — of things, incarnate in Christ.
The Gospel of John that speaks of Christ as “the truth,” and Tertullian draws on this Gospel, Benedict says.
But in John’s Gospel we also find “the other fundamental interpretation of the Christian faith, which is expressed in the designation of Christ as the Logos,” Benedict writes. “If Christ is the Logos, the truth, man must correspond to him with his own logos, with his reason. To arrive finally at Christ, man must set out on the way of truth. He must open himself to the Logos, to creative Reason, from which he derives his own reason.”
Benedict concludes: “From this we understand that the Christian faith, from its very nature, must spark theology, must question itself on the reasonableness of its faith.”
It was at this point that Benedict made a rather provocative point, and one I am not sure I have fully understood, about the possibility of a false or negative use of reason — by implication, the possibility of a false Logos.
How reason and faith interconnect has always sparked debate throughout history, Benedict said. Then, citing St. Bonaventure, he said that there can be two ways of using reason, one which cannot be reconciled with the nature of the faith, and one which belongs precisely to the nature of the faith.
The oen which cannot be reconciled with the faith is the reason used violently, the “violentia rationis (‘the violence of reason’), the despotism of reason which makes itself the supreme judge of everything,” Benedict said.
This is Benedict’s profound critique of “pure reason” — reason which becomes despotic, that is, reason which becomes, in essence, unreasonable.
And something that is essentially “unreasonable” is on the way toward becoming “irrational.”
The Pope said an example of this wrong use of reason, which is “incompatible with the nature of faith,” can be seen in Psalm 95, which recalls Meribah as the place where the early Israelites tested God and “tried me though they had seen my works.”
They had seen God, but then, they wished God to prove Himself again to them, meaning they did not “believe” (that is, “know for sure”) what they had in fact seen.
Not believing, they demanded to “see” over again — much as one attempts in a scientific experiment to “see” whether a reaction or a result is duplicatable, and so, truly “real.”
The Pope writes: “In this passage, there is a reference to a double encounter with God: they had ‘seen.’ But this was not enough for them. They put God to ‘the test.’ They want to subject him to experiment. He is, as it were, subjected to a questioning and must submit Himself to a procedure of experimental testing.
“This modality of the use of the reason, in the modern age, has reached the height of its development in the area of the natural sciences. The experimental reason appears today generally as the sole form of rationality that can be called scientific. What cannot be scientifically verified or falsified falls outseide the scientific realm.”
The natural sciences have achieved much with this method, the Pope said.
“But there is a limit to such use of reason,” Benedict said. “God is not an object of human experimentation. He is a Subject and he manifests himself only in a person-to-person relationship: this is part of the essence of the person.”
What the Pope is saying, once again, is that the pure use of reason is reductionist to the point of becoming despotic, and that, though this type of pure reason can, through experimentation, uncover some secrets of the natural world, it is unable to reach the true end of reason, which is to come face to face with ultimate truth, and find in that encounter that ultimate truth is marked by personhood, just as the seeker of that truth, the individual, reasoning, man or woman, is also marked by personhood.
“In this perspective,” Benedict continued, “Bonaventure mentions a second use of the reason, that is valid in the area of the ‘personal,’ to answer the great questions of human beings themselves.”
What Benedict is saying is that the human reason can be used for scientific research, but also to answer ultimate questions posed by persons, like the questions “Who am I really?” and “Why am I here? For what purpose? What is the meaning of my life” — questions that our modern world no longer considers to be “scientific,” but which are, in fact, a valid part of true science.
So this is, in fact, a profound critique on the Pope’s part of the claim of modern science to be a true and complete science. It is not complete, and so it is not true, the Pope is saying.
And at this point, the Pope brings in the word “love,” using it almost as a faculty of the mind to gain knowledge; that is, the Pope speaks of loving as a way of knowing which completes the reason, and perfects the reason, and would, if fully embraced, complete our flawed, defective “science” as well.
“Love,” the Pope said, “wants to know better the person loved. [Note: The word “to know” is related to the word for “science,” so the Pope is saying that love wishes to have a certain better knowledge, a certain “science,” of what is loved.]
“Love,” he continued, “true love, doesn’t make us blind, it makes us see.”
He continued: “The thirst to really know (the other) is part of love. Therefore, the Fathers of the Church found the precursors and heralds of Christianity — beyond the world of the revelation to Israel — in the ‘philosophers’: in persons who were thristy for truth and who were therefore on the road toward God.”
Again, what he is saying is that the early Christians saw in the Greek philosophers — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the tohers — the “precursors” of the faith, bceause those philosophers sought truth — even if they could not at times quite find it. They were “on the way”… toward Christ.
“When there is not this use of the reason, then the great questions of humanity fall outside the area of reason and are left to irrationality,” Benedict continued.
What he is saying is that, if science leaves out the type of knowing which we call “love,” it leaves the “great questions” outside of its purview.
This is the profound critique of modern science I mentioned at the outset.
Benedict is saying that modern science is attempting to know and grasp the truth of reality by a false, or at least crippled and partial, method.
“This is why,” Benedict then says, “an authentic theology is so important. Right faith orients the reason to open itself to the divine, in order that that reason, guided by the love of truth, can know God more intimately.”
Then he writes: “The initiative for this journey is with God…”
This seems at first a strange phrase. How can God be the initiator of reason’s search to find truth, which leads finally to God? Isn’t it my own choice? Isn’t it me, not God, who initiates the search?
No, Benedict says, it is God who initiates the search — from within.
“God,” he writes, “has placed in the heart of man the longing for His face.”
So theology, for Benedict, is the true light of the human reason, which guides human reason in its search for truth, and eventually directs that search to the ultimate truth, which has a face.
“Therefore, theology is made up, on the one hand, of that humility that allows us to be ‘touched’ by God, and, on the other hand, by the discipline connected to the order of reason which preserves love from blindness and helps to develop its ability to see.”
In essence, Benedict is offering a powerful defense of theology as the way to a science which is truly, thoroughly “reasonable,” and which is therefore complete, not leaving ultimate questions aside, but grappling with them, and answering them.
The Pope gave three European theologians the Ratzinger Prize for their excellence in theological studies: Manlio Simonetti, an 85-year-old Italian professor and expert in ancient Christian studies and patristic biblical interpretation; Father Olegario Gonzalez de Cardedal, a 76-year-old Spanish priest and professor of dogmatic and fundamental theology; and Cistercian Father Maximilian Heim, a 50-year-old German theologian and abbot of the Heiligenkreuz monastery in Austria.
During the ceremony, the Pope greeted each of the prize recipients, handing them each a large award certificate and a small envelope.
The prizes included a check for $87,000.
The Ratzinger Prize will be awarded each year in sacred Scripture, patristics and fundamental theology.
This was the first time the prizes were awarded since the establishment last year of the Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) Vatican Foundation, which promotes theological studies on the pope’s writings and to reward promising scholars.
In remarks at the award ceremony, Fr. Heim spoke of the peculiar freedom of the theologian, saying, “As theologians we are free to seek truth in a fearless manner.”
“[I]t is not the theologian who forms truth,” he said, “truth forms the theologian.”
Remarks of Abbot Heim, OCist, On Ratzinger Prize
Below is an English translation (with transcription of his Latin remarks) of Prof. Maximilian Heim’s speech on receiving the Ratzinger Prize.
Abbot Maximilian Heim’s Acceptance Speech for the Ratzinger-Prize
Held in Rome on June 30, 2011
The Theologian as cooperator veritatis
Vobis – non meo tantum nomine, sed his quoque duobus theologis, qui una mecum praemii palmam tulerunt, annuentibus – tota mente ac animo sincero gratias ago maximas ac plurimas pro illo honore, quo commodule brabeo hoc theologico Ratzingeriano exornati sumus.Liceat mihi inter laureatos natu minimo et Vobis, Sanctissime Pater, pro benevolentia Vestra et Vobis, eminentissime domine, pro verbis honorificis prolatis necnon toti coetui festivo gratias referre.
Aperte mihi confitendum est me in conspectu illius stupendi operis theologici, quod ambo alii praemii consortes effecerunt, humilitate sincera esse locuturum.Illud, quod Vobis, Sanctissime Pater, carum est et grave, praeceptum Sancti patris Benedicti, qui in regulae libello admonuit, ut omnes ad consilium vocarentur, „quia saepe iuniori dominus revelat, quod melius est“, mihi solacio est et animum confirmat.
Sanctissime Pater, muneribus sive professoris theologiae sive episcopi sive supremi ecclesiae universalis pastoris – quod munus nunc exercetis – fungentes nos triumvirales brabeo Ratzingeriano, quod dicitur, quasi laureatos modo tam diverso quam singulari et commovistis et formastis et quodammodo cudistis.Mihi nunc propositum est iis, quae sequuntur, verbis animum in ea intendere, quae magistri theologiam profitentis sunt.
Christianity has a specifically “intellectual” accent. When Jesus sends the apostles as missionaries, he uses the phrase “euntes ergo docete omnes gentes.” The risen Lord sends us into the world in order to teach others: He seeks to be discovered – He seeks to be known and loved.
His strategy is by no means self-evident. We are surprised at being permitted to enter into an individual, even personal, relationship with God, who is truth. Yet despite the fact of that friendship, we must nonetheless often remind ourselves that our faith’s claim to truth cannot be relegated to the realm of subjective perception.
Holy Father, you are a teacher who forms his students, in some cases over the course of six decades. With an alert eye and a profound sense of the thought of our time, you perceive the the issues confronting us and resist the all too smooth solutions offered by passing intellectual trends. You yourself have been formed by the Church Fathers and the great scholastic thinkers, especially St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure, and contemporary theologians such as Gottlieb Söhngen.
Teachers such as Augustine and Bonaventure guide their student’s eye, but the actual instruction comes from the truth itself. Put allegorically: the teacher opens the window through which the truth’s light comes streaming in. He animates his students and urges them to carry on courageously. The truth reveals itself through the teacher’s service. Yet the actual teacher is truth, that is Christ himself. The student succeeds in glimpsing the same Lord upon whom the teacher’s sights are set. It is therefore the teacher’s responsibility to love truth, to seek it ever more deeply, and permit himself to be formed by it. A teacher must always remain a recipient.
A theological teacher is therefore one who seeks to bring his students to an encounter with God. Naturally, he seeks God’s proximity in his own work and that allows him to teach with joy, a joy nourished by his love for the people entrusted to his care. This joy and love, writes St. Augustine, give the teacher the strength to persevere in his vocation despite occasional disappointments from others or inner fatigue.
Teaching and proclaiming the truth combine love of God and neighbour, friendship with Christ and the imitation of Christ, contemplation and apostolic works. Teaching is twofold, as St. Thomas Aquinas notes: doceo aliquem aliquid. One must love God, about whom one is speaking, as well as the people to whom one is speaking.
The second great teacher who influenced you, Holy Father, especially in your approach to theology, is St. Bonaventure. His work presents us with a remarkable combination of scholarly method, spiritual ardor, a struggle for comprehension, and pastoral zeal. According to St. Bonaventure, the theologian has the marvellous yet demanding obligation to place his writing in the service of expressing the Word of God – thus committing him to objectivity, clarity, and beauty. You are an excellent example for us as a theological writer, Holy Father. Your texts continually attain linguistic clarity and rhetorical beauty, giving your readers and listeners a new appreciation of God and his Church. At the same time, as a theologian of the Church you are committed to protecting the “simple” faith of the little ones (cf. Mt 11:25) by withstanding fashionable trends in contemporary discourse with prophetic resistance.
St. Bonaventure defended the Church’s apostolic faith in his time. He did not see a conflict between the Church as an institution and the quest for sanctity. He fulfilled his duty to lead in the Church by being a theologian who “thinks and prays.” In his scholarly method, theological inquiry is understood as scientia secundum pietatem, “as a science devoted to the perfection of the entire human being in perception, will, and emotion.”
Academic theology should serve to strengthen others’ faith and deepen the happiness they experience in their relationship to God. Consequently, theological studies are a path to sanctity. It is a matter of lifting our hearts to God, the “sursum corda” imperative, the movement toward God. Therein lies a specific and perpetual duty.
Each one of us knows from experience that the doctoral advisor is an influential person for every young scholar. That is why the theologian and philosopher Gottlieb Söhngen must be mentioned here. His greatness lay in his vast range of inquiry, as Joseph Ratzinger said during the Requiem for his teacher. Söhngen’s life shows us that faith has nothing to fear from scientific inquiry, as long as the person seeking theological truth has radical faith. It must be a faith that has experienced God personally and is convinced that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It must be a faith that was preceded by a decisive commitment to God.
This is where, in my opinion, we must grasp a truly great opportunity available to us now. As theologians we are free to seek truth in a fearless manner, since it is not the theologian who forms truth – truth forms the theologian.
We would not be able to inquire into the nature of truth if we had not already experienced it to some degree. It is this experience that allows us to have hope and pass our faith on to others.
The great theologians of Church History are indispensable companions along the way. Premiere among them are the Church Fathers and Doctors. The Fathers are “the true stars, shining from afar.” They stand immersed in Holy Scripture, close to Christ; they are the teachers of the Church united. Theologians should find solid grounding ad fontes, in their studies as well as in their teaching. We seek to be instructed by the saints, people who knew that is only God who matters, people who have understood traditions, people who are rooted in the Word of God.
This form of existential Theology is what we find in your work, Holy Father. For you, “theology and ecclesiastical life have joined together in a particularly strong manner.” You have attained what St. Thomas Aquinas put so concisely in his commentary on Ephesians: “The Apostle speaks of shepherds: Persons who carry responsibility for the Lord’s sheep; and he continues: and of teachers, in order to show that an essential part of the shepherd’s duty is to teach (proprium officium pastorum ecclesiae est docere) faith and morals.”
We seek to understand theology as Speaking of God, which comes from a vibrant encounter with Him, about whom we are privileged to speak – an encounter given to us in the Church as a gift. And we seek to understand theology as preaching that in turn leads to a personal encounter – in prayer.
As theologians, we want to be Cooperatores veritatis in union with you, humble yet confident open for scholarly debate with the “Universitas scientiarum” because we do not see an opposition between fides and ratio. Using reason, we seek God, who is truth, the foundation and fulfilment of human existence. Doing so “in concert with the tradition of Christian faith has been undisputed in the history of the University.”
In gratitude for this award and for your service to the Church and to the whole world, we pray that God may bless you copiously on your Diamond Jubilee as a priest. May the splendour of truth shine on: ad multos annos felixissimos!