Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Pope's religious defence of democracy

Exclusive for Monitor, by Adrian Pabst.

Throughout his four-day state visit to the UK, Pope Benedict XVI has made a compelling case for the enduring presence of faith in the public realm, not just in secular Europe but across the entire world. By combining a critique of secularist attempts to marginalise religion with a call for renewed dialogue between religious belief and secular rationality, the Pontiff has changed the terms of debate on the complex links between religion and politics – one of the greatest challenges in the current context of a global religious resurgence.

Far from being defensive or reactionary, Benedict has once more confounded his critics by acknowledging profound errors in religion. These include the “unspeakable crimes” of child abuse by Catholic priests and the social problems caused by religious sectarianism and fundamentalism. But instead of privatising faith and enthroning reason as the only standard of validity (as staunch secularists and atheists demand), the Pope argues that religious violence and hatred can only be overcome by an ongoing public engagement between rationality and belief.

Benedict’s argument is that reason and faith are mutually corrective and augmenting. Without each other’s import, both principles can be distorted and instrumentalised at the service of egoism or absolute power. Just as rationality acts as a controlling organ that binds belief to knowledge, so faith can save reason from being manipulated by ideology or applied in a partial way that ignores the complexity of the real world.

Without each other’s corrective role, distortions and pathologies arise in both religion and secularity – either religious extremism that uses faith as a vehicle of hatred or the secular, totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century that legitimated genocide and total warfare.
Moreover, faith and reason are intimately intertwined in beneficial ways. Faith can reinforce trust in the human capacity for reasoning and understanding. Secular rationality can help religious belief make sense of its claims and give coherence to its intuitions.

Crucially, reason and faith can assist each other’s search for objective principles and norms governing both personal and political action. What binds rationality to belief is the shared commitment to universal standards of truth, even if these are never fully known and always deeply contested. As such, the relatedness of reason and faith is not merely a concern for religion but in fact lies at the heart of politics, the economy and society.

The trouble is that the dominant models of democracy and capitalism are indifferent to common ethical foundations and matters of truth. Instead, they operate largely on the basis of majority opinion and mass preference, manipulating the public and exploiting popular fears. It is therefore hardly surprising that democratic politics and market economics are associated with demagogy and dispossession.

Remarkably, Benedict offers a religious defense of democracy and the market economy that outflanks secular ideologies of left and right. He argues that the democratic and capitalist systems require the vital contribution of religion if they are to be saved from their own worst excesses. By locating faith firmly at the heart of the shared public square, the Pope seeks to correct both secular liberal intolerance vis-à-vis religion in politics and religious extremist opposition to democracy.

Contrary to accusations leveled by his secularist and atheist detractors, Benedict does not advocate a model of coercive theocracy. On the contrary, his vision is based on the separation of state and church and on the distinction between religious and political authority.

In his historic address at the houses of Parliament last Friday, he put it thus: “the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply [the objective norms governing right action], 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”.

Since all political and economic decisions involve ethical choices and have moral consequences, both governments and businesses must reflect on the foundations of the fundamental principles guiding their decisions. Neither the ever-changing social consensus nor pragmatic, short-term policy responses are an adequate basis on which to decide complex societal matters.

Marginalising or privatising religion deprives the state, the market and civil society of a rich intellectual and practical resource – underpinned by both faith and reason. That resource is indispensable for the right application of universal, objective principles to our most pressing problems. The pope’s theological defense of democratic politics and market economics has the potential to change the way we think about a plural search for the common good in a multicultural context.

For over one century, secular reason has sought to impose the norms of democracy and the market economy on religious traditions. Now that secular rationality is so manifestly in crisis and religion increasingly resurgent, Pope Benedict’s call for the enduring presence of faith in politics has resonance across the United Kingdom and the whole world.
 Adrian Pabst is a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, UK, and a visiting professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), France.