The Pope and The Enlightenment

Pope Francis has two firsts to his claims. He is the first member of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and the first to name himself Francis a name he shares with the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor (the Franciscans). He is not however the first Pope to criticize the tyranny of moneyed interests in the capitalist order. Other Popes have done so in the past. One was even referred to as “the worker’s Pope.”
The papacy has often offended some one’s political sensibilities. The Chair of St. Peter does not take sides in the political debates of the day. But, it often points out what it sees as the flaws of particular situations or ideologies. Communism promotes atheism. The papacy will not befriend that kind of ultimate view. It will however agree about the injustices of the capitalist system. The papacy has never been a friend of modernism. It will acknowledge some of the good that modern technology has produced. And the popes will question the basis of good that we may assign to other technological developments.
The point is this. Pope Francis is a Christian leader. He leads a peculiarly Christian institution. I believe what he says matters. And I believe Popes are often right in discussing matters of justice. I also disagree with them on matters of justice and theology. What I wish to discuss is the relationship of the papacy and the enlightenment movement of the 16th and 17th centuries. The fracas is still going on. Pope Francis is the most recent and interesting person to take part in this dispute.
Modernism is epitomized as the Age of Reason or the Scientific Era. Galileo is often called the first scientist. And it is his story that students are taught that illustrates the contention between the basic assumptions of modernism against those of historic and traditional Christianity. What has authority in the lives of human beings? Is it Reason? Or is it a spiritual authority in the secular world? In short the either/or problem. Some will argue that the solution is both/and in nature. The late Stephen J Gould was the latest to propose “two magisteria of truth.” There is only one problem with this compromise working. We know the “scientific naturalist” viewpoint is one magisterium. Yet, there are any number of “spiritual magisteria” from which to choose. So there cannot be two and only two paths to truth. It may satisfy an individual in that person’s life choices. But, then again it is a modernist perspective.
The papacy – it is often argued – does not represent all of Christianity. This assertion is true. Protestants cannot dismiss the problem this way. Christianity is a belief system that asserts heavenly and temporal authority at the very least over the lives of its’ adherents. The protestant value of freedom of conscience assumes the conscience of the Christian is under the authority of the Christian belief system.
Pope Francis embodies the reformations of the Catholic Church that took place with the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi and the Counter-Reformation work of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Both saints conducted their works just before the Renaissance and the beginning of the modernist movements. The intention of his work will be to rebuild and reform the Catholic Church that has been ravaged by modernism. He will not seek to return to the past. Indeed, that is something he hopes to avoid. Rather, he seeks to evangelize the world that is now questioning how scientific naturalism could possibly bring meaning. The problem will be this. Can we drop modernism and scientific naturalism?
Someone once observed that scientific naturalism only works so far in technology. “Einstein explained gravity better than Newton. But, it was Newton’s equations the engineers used to get to the Moon.” Bohr made digital computing possible. And his work is why you can read this essay online. There is no moral and intellectual satisfaction with two opposing viewpoints that effectively work. Theoretical physics still cannot reconcile General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. Even more puzzling is how any kind of spiritual or moral philosophy can be reconciled with scientific naturalism.
So then when the Pope questions the effect of the victorious ideology of global capitalism, he is not promoting anything other than showing that our naturalistic assumptions associated with our economic theories give us no true moral stand. Capitalism is based on assumptions of the behaviors of human beings en masse. Many predictions made from economic models based on these assumptions are often wrong. Just consider the fact that capitalist development had no greater fan than Karl Marx.
Do we then rely on religious authority for all things spiritual and temporal? No. Because such authority is often too neat. Whereas actual life in this world is never so neat. Pragmatism – the truly American philosophy – asks us to dismiss the discussion. It is a both/and approach similar to the thinking of Professor Gould. It claims that the truth we seek must be informed by scientific naturalism. Without it the truth we claim will be demonstrated ultimately as false. The approach offered here gives scientific naturalism the upper hand in decision making on matters of morality and justice. Why? Because the agreement is felt that this viewpoint works.
Scientific naturalism allows us to answer many questions in the world. But, in matters of human living and organization it would cause us to fall into the trap of the “naturalistic fallacy” in political and moral theory. This is the idea that something we see in nature should be how humans act. But, of course, nature has too much variability and variety for such an approach to be satisfying. Human organization must come from other sources. Religious ones are good. Ethical and moral reflection are good. Anything necessarily contrary to scientific understanding would be immoral or unethical. Human beings may have a sex drive. Scientific naturalism does not give a reason to wantonly indulge that drive. Human society may be organized in ways that promote bad behavior. Yet, there is no way to avoid the consequences of cause and effect.
Pragmatism is the best philosophy to inform the theological reflections of the church today. Pope Francis is on his way. He won’t get the Catholic church there in his lifetime. The Protestants must learn it now.