One of the enduring aspects of Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy will be the deep thinking he did on issues of faith and reason, says Melbourne priest Fr Jerome Santamaria. Recognising how both faith and reason can be distorted when pitted against each other, Fr Jerome says that Benedict sought to ‘restore reason to its true glory’ against ideologies that would diminish it.

Fr Jerome is a local speaker and panellist at the upcoming Benedict Conference, and he encourages new or casual readers of Benedict to look at two speeches of German pontiff that offer broad outlines of his thought in this area.

‘Pope Benedict was very good at giving a big picture,’ Fr Jerome explains. ‘He could see the contours of our world, the tectonic ideas that both gave it stability and could shake it.’

At the end of the day, what Benedict saw, and what came out in these speeches, was the idea that reason ‘goes wonky’ when it loses its full context in God. ‘Faith allows reason to be itself,’ Fr Jerome says.

Opening up the ‘full breadth’ of reason: the Regensburg Lecture

The first speech Fr Jerome points to is the famous Regensburg Lecture, delivered in September 2006 at the University of Regensburg, where Benedict used to teach as just ‘Fr Ratzinger’. His address there was called ‘Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections’, and in it, Benedict explored how faith and reason were once in a ‘synthesis’ that began to unravel in the late Middle Ages.

This original synthesis was born of St John’s words, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1:1)—or in the beginning was the logos, a Greek word that means both ‘word’ and ‘reason’—Benedict says. In writing this way, John brings together the insights of the Bible and Greek philosophy, identifying God as the rational ground of creation. God is the basis of its order and intelligibility, and of our ability to investigate it.

This harmony between God and reason enabled the development of theology—which Benedict describes as ‘inquiry into the rationality of faith’—and even science, investigation into the empirical aspects of reality.

But as philosophers began to put God beyond the reach of reason, and as different reformers tried to strip the Bible of any taint of Greek influence, faith and reason grew apart.

Benedict tracked how some contemporary ideas emerged with the dissolving of this synthesis. He pointed especially to how, with the emergence of technological and scientific sophistication, science came to be the sole arbiter of truth, sidelining questions of philosophy and religion as merely subjective. But in doing this, Benedict said, science limits itself; it accepts the rational structure of creation without questioning why that rationality exists.

When reason is reduced simply to the scientific, sidelining important questions of human origin and destiny, humanity also ‘ends up being reduced’, Benedict said. What faith does is to open up the ‘full breadth’ of reason rather than to close it down.

The moral foundations of politics: the Westminster address

The second speech Fr Jerome recommends was also delivered in September, this time to the British Parliament and representatives of various public institutions in 2010. During this address, Benedict spoke about the ‘two-way process’ of faith and reason and how, without each other, dangerous distortions arise.

Reflecting on the trial of St Thomas More, Benedict gently pushed those gathered to ask what the moral foundations of their politics were. Were they founded merely on consensus or pragmatism?

‘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,’ Benedict said.

He pointed to the abolition of the slave trade, arguing that such a movement was incomprehensible without the deep ethical principles that motivated it. The abolitionists’ ideas about human dignity were born from something much deeper than consensus.

Benedict said that both faith and reason have a ‘purifying’ and ‘corrective’ role to play for each other. Faith needs to be purified by reason if it is to avoid descending into ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘sectarianism’. But likewise, reason must be purified by faith if it is to avoid becoming manipulated by ideology. In this sense, the role of faith is not so much to ‘supply’ true moral principles as it is to purify reason enough to discover them.

One of the most important principles for reason to discover is the unique dignity of human beings. Without faith, reason is unable to account for this unique dignity, and without that we have no proper and humane basis on which to build our societies.

Benedict said:

This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith—the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation.

Engaging the questions

Pope Benedict was a great example of someone who wasn’t afraid to engage with the big questions of his time, and he encouraged others to do the same.

During an in-flight interview on the way to the Czech Republic in 2009, Benedict spoke of how important it is for the Church to engage in the intellectual questions of the day, even if the Church only exists in society as the minority.

‘I would say that usually it is creative minorities who determine the future, and in this regard the Catholic Church must understand that she is a creative minority who has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very lively and relevant reality,’ he said.

‘They both need each other: the agnostic cannot be satisfied with not knowing whether God exists or not, but must seek and perceive the great heritage of faith; the Catholic cannot be content with having faith but must seek God even more, and in dialogue with others must re-learn God more deeply.’

In other words, the Church must engage with the deep questions of meaning.

‘Pope Benedict did not just say this,’ Fr Jerome says. ‘He did it himself.’

The 2023 Benedict Conference will be held on Saturday 28 October. Building its conversations around the themes of truth, goodness and beauty, the Benedict Conference is an opportunity to explore more deeply the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI and how a ‘Church of faith’ can speak to the challenges of today. Tickets available here.