Benedict does Britain


coracle.jpgPace Douthat, but this wasn’t more than a modest success for the pontiff. After all, JPII never ran into opposition rallies, and 20k in London is a lot more than a handful of disgruntled picketers. Of course, had Benedict rowed his coracle across the Irish Sea, it would have been a lot worse. 

The business to be conducted was fourfold: the usual appearances before the local faithful and clergy; the new Benedictine tradition of “privately” meeting some abuse victims; the beatification of the Eminent Victorian convert, Cardinal Newman; and a Message. The message this time had to do with the role of religion–and specifically the pope’s version of religion–in public life. Unsurprisingly, Benedict would have more of it.

The fullest articulation came in his Friday address to Parliament, titled “Reason and Faith Need One Another.” The problem with merely secular democratic decision-making, according to the pope, is lack of moral grounding: “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are
themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then
the fragility of the process becomes all too evident–herein lies the
real challenge for democracy.” So religion is needed to help with the determination.

It’s actually not all that clear that “religion” has the clear line on moral principles that Benedict would like. The Catholic Church is anti-abortion and anti-death penalty, but whereas seven of the world’s 11 most religious countries (according to Gallup) prohibit abortion, nine of them have the death penalty. Meanwhile, eight of the 11 least religious countries have done away with the death penalty yet all embrace abortion rights. In the world as it is, both religious and secular norms determine social consensus, but neither according to the teachings of Catholicism.

To be sure, Benedict has a way out of such moral confusion:

The central question at issue, then, is this: where
is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The
Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right
action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of
revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in
political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could
not be known by non-believers–still less to propose concrete political
solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of
religion–but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application
of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This
“corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed,
though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism
and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems

This is the old natural law dodge: Everyone has access via reason to “objective” (true) moral principles, but only Our Church knows how to do moral reasoning properly, and we’re here to make sure you get it right. Good Catholic boy that he is, Michael Sean Winters is not impressed, and neither am I. There’s moral reasoning and there’s moral reasoning. To claim a special ability–not based on revelation–to “correct” the reasoning of democratic society at large in the absence of openness to the reasoning of the other side is nothing more than an argument from authority. And these days, the moral authority of the Catholic Church isn’t so robust.

“By their fruits shall ye know them,” said Jesus, explaining in the Sermon on the Mount how to determine false prophets. It’s hard to imagine Benedict delivering “Reason and Faith Need One Another” to the Irish or Belgian or his own German parliament. With fewer victims, the Brits could more easily look the other way.