A Dwindling Debate Print
By Robert Royal   
Friday, 08 May 2009

For me, one of the blessings of being involved in Catholic matters is that my work takes me, often enough, to Rome. Which is where I am this morning. Last night, I debated Luciano Pellicani, a well-known Italian professor of sociology, a non-believer and a socialist, who has just published a book entitled The Pagan Roots of Europe. As you can tell just from the title, it runs contrary to much of what I believe. And, in fact, the debate was shrewdly organized by the Italian publishers of my own book The God That Did Not Fail. Making two of your authors fight it out in public is as good a way to sell books in Rome as in the United States. But the experience was in several ways a pleasant surprise, for reasons that I think are instructive.

To begin with, Professor Pellicani actually knows something about history and even the history of the Church. Our English-speaking amateur religion bashers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins don’t much bother to take the measure of something they think both repugnant and destined, sooner or later – preferably sooner – for extinction. In their absurdly simplistic accounts, religion should eventually wither away (as in the old Marxist dream) under the weight of its violent history and its inability to withstand rational criticism.

Pellicani takes a very different view. Italian socialists are something of a special breed, and he even confessed – though still maintaining that he’s a non-believer – that the roots of socialist brotherhood, of course, lie in the Christian notion of charity. Even more importantly, like me he believes that religion is a part of human nature, that metaphysical questions arise within us because of the world in which we find ourselves, and, therefore, that faith of various kinds will perpetually be a feature both of private conduct and public affairs.

But it was on this very last point – the public role of religion – that we diverged. For him, as for many critics of the Church, Christian history is a history of tyranny: the use of force against heretics, crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, resistance to reason. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, must therefore be limited to private life and excluded from public questions. I pointed out that the history of the past 200 years – the Terror that immediately followed the so-called triumph of reason after the French Revolution, the Gulags produced by the scientific socialism of the Marxists, the Holocaust stemming from the scientific racism of the Nazis, and we might add the slaughter of the innocents via abortion in the developed societies of the world – all offer counter-evidence to the notion that secular reason has led to anything like the society of tolerance and humanism that its proponents claim.

In short, Original Sin touches even those who deny its existence.

At this point, Professor Pellicani made an astonishing move: he explained to me that the horrors I had invoked were not uses of reason but were religions of reason, which is to say yet another bad example of one group of people using an ultimate idea to justify killing another group of people. To me, this is a very strange argument indeed. All the perpetrators claimed to be acting humanely, reasonably, as no doubt most abortion doctors do as well. As Benedict XVI has argued, all these deaths remind us that there are monsters associated with reason as well as monsters associated with faith. And the murderous uses of reason in the past century may help us see the need for a kind of convalescence of reason itself.

Many non-believers are quite willing to say as much, but instead of acknowledging that this means we must find truths of both faith and reason if we hope to hold onto our humanity, they make the fatal error of believing that only denying all ultimate truths – which really means a relativism denying truth itself – will enable us to carry on in tolerable fashion. Professor Pellicani, who comes out of an older secular tradition, was not so foolish as to follow this line, but he asserted that modern societies are no longer organized to incarnate grand truths. They are intended to permit us to pursue self-realization.

Self-realization would be a good thing if we had a serious and deep idea of the self – ultimately, one that is rooted in God. The old humane socialists failed because they tried to hold onto a rich vision of humanity, the one created by Christian thought, without the necessary tools. The basic problem with the modern version of the ancient quest for self-realization is that it tends to regarding consumerism and a very narrowly conceived personal set of values as constituting the good life. The older, more humane socialism of my opponent recognizes as much, but that current of life and thought – which long lived off capital borrowed from the Christian tradition – cannot speak with any depth to the human race, whose demons will not be restrained by something as thinly rationalist as socialism.

By now, almost everyone also knows that the secular societies of Europe or others tending towards the European model – which are the only exception to the global rule of societies deeply rooted in religion – are literally not reproducing themselves. Quite apart from these arguments about the respective importance of Church and State, societies without religion are without hope – and increasingly without children and a future.

The longer perspective of the Church is both wiser and deeper. Sincere and fair-minded secularists like my debate partner may also be our partners in seeking a better world. But unless they or the societies in which they live get religion – and fast – there won’t even be many of them left to debate with.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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