The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described contemporary Western society as a three-cornered battle. In one corner are those of religious faith who posit that there is an ultimate good beyond the limits of human life. Another corner features secular humanists who contend that there is no good beyond human flourishing. Finally, the last corner belongs to a variety of neo-Nietzscheans who reject the idea of a human good, whether in this life or beyond.
Taylor’s framework is a helpful backdrop against which to read Pope Benedict XVI’s discussion of humanism in the Conclusion to Caritas in Veritate. There he writes,
The greatest service to development . . . is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity. On the other hand, ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism.
Pope Benedict’s assertion is two-tiered. On one level, he counters the standard Enlightenment critiques issued by secular humanists against revealed religion: it leads to intolerance, violence, keeps people in poverty, and ultimately strips human life of its value by its focus on the hereafter as opposed to the here-and-now. This secularist position belongs not only to the academic elite, but also to the person-on-the-street who sees Christianity as “taking all of the fun out of life.” Pope Benedict has been countering this view throughout his pontificate, even from his first homily as pope, when he proclaimed:
If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.
The second tier of Pope Benedict’s assertion is a counteroffensive against the secularists’ critiques of religion: Not only does God not impede integral human development, but furthermore, without God, true humanism is impossible. It becomes an “inhuman humanism.” We should pause and consider the force of the critique leveled by this phrase for a moment. If one’s project is humanism, could a more cutting critique of this project be offered than by calling it an “inhuman humanism”?
Returning to the framework of Taylor’s three-cornered ring, here we see the Pope on the offensive against the secular humanists, arguing that in the end, their position ultimately ends up in an anti-human nihilism. If we were to bracket off the existence of God from our worldview, then, it seems, the Pope would argue, the “correct” position is not that of the secular humanist, but that of the Nietzscheans. As Malcolm Muggeridge once memorably put the matter,
When mortal men try to live without God, they infallibly succumb to megalomania or erotomania or both: the raised fist or the raised phallus, Nietzsche or D. H. Lawrence. Pascal said this and the contemporary world abundantly bears it out.
The Pope, it seems, might agree with Muggeridge. Examples supporting this interpretation of Pope Benedict abound. During a recent Vespers service in Aosta, he explained that a society without God has “no compass, no direction.” When speaking to young people last year in New York, the Pope spoke of his own years as a teenager under a regime “that banished God and thus became impervious to anything true and good.” In a heartfelt letter concerning the lifting of the excommunication of four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, the Pope writes:
The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.
Some commentators have been quick to point out how much Benedict holds in common with secular humanists when it comes to working for peace, justice, and human development. And certainly some points of collaboration exist. But it would be a mistake to read the Pope only in the light of this hermeneutic of collaboration. One must also keep in mind the gravity of the critique Pope Benedict is offering to secular humanism, a critique he has leveled most forcefully in Caritas in Veritate’s denunciation of an “inhuman humanism.”
© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.