Habermas vs the Pope

The darling of the 68ers and Benedict XVI find a surprising amount to agree on
November 20, 2005

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Left-wing German philosopher Jürgen Habermas treats religion with respect (photo: Wolfram Huke)

On 19th January last year, two old men came to the Catholic Academy of Bavaria to debate the imposing-looking topic: "Pre-political moral foundations of the liberal state." Both are German; both grew up under the third reich; both went on to achieve distinction in their respective fields. But here the resemblance ends. Jürgen Habermas is a leftist philosopher and advocate of "democratically enlightened common sense." His championship of untrammelled debate as the foundation of political legitimacy has inspired radicals across the world. His antagonist, Cardinal Ratzinger, came to prominence as an enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy throughout the Catholic church. He is now Pope Benedict XVI.

Here, then, were the makings of an epic duel, worthy to stand alongside Luther's famous confrontation with Zwingli or Heidegger's 1929 dispute with Cassirer at Davos. But the duel never took place. The transcript of the debate instead reveals the strange spectacle of philosopher and cardinal bending over backwards to accommodate each other. Habermas treats religious communities with great respect, claiming that they have "preserved intact something which has elsewhere been lost." And Ratzinger grants a central role to the "divine light of reason" in controlling the "pathologies of religion."

This conciliatory tone will come as a particular surprise to English readers. Here, the periodic spectacle of "science versus religion" has acquired something of the character of a Punch and Judy show. (See Richard Dawkins's Prospect piece on "Gerin oil.") Things are different in Germany. There, the long tradition of Kulturprotestantismus—a diffuse, non-denominational religiosity—guarantees the churches widespread respect, if not attendance. The German philosophers, although rarely conventionally pious, always took religion seriously. Not for them the sneering scepticism of Hume or Russell. Habermas is in this tradition. Like Kant and Adorno, his aim is to disentangle religion's ethical vision from its dogmatic claims.

Habermas has not abandoned his belief in the moral autonomy of the liberal state, however. The democratic process generates its own grounds of allegiance; it does not feed off a pre-political ethnic or religious solidarity. This is what Habermas has famously termed "constitutional patriotism." For the German people, cut off from their own pre-war cultural traditions, the concept of constitutional patriotism is a godsend. It suggests the possibility of a civic pride purged of history. The new parliamentary buildings in Berlin, chastely functional yet with a certain subdued splendour, are a fitting monument to this renovated German spirit.

But how does religion fit into the gleaming new world of constitutional patriotism? Here Habermas's thinking takes a surprising turn. In the face of the uprooting effects of technology and the global market, the liberal state should "treat with care all cultural sources on which the normative consciousness and solidarity of citizens draws." Religion is pre-eminent among such sources. "In sacred writings and religious traditions, intuitions of sin and redemption, of deliverance from a life experienced as unholy, have been articulated, subtly spelt out and kept alive through interpretation over millennia." Thus although the civic bond is not based upon pre-existing religious ties, it should treat them with the greatest delicacy, recognising them as important allies in its own struggle against the alienating forces of the modern world.

Religious insights become available to the secular world through a process of what Habermas calls "saving translation." Thus the Biblical vision of man as made in the "image and likeness" of God finds a profane expression in the principle of the equal worth of all human beings. Such translations are not—as Habermas himself has admitted—always successful. "When sin was converted to culpability, and the breaking of divine commands to an offence against human laws, something was lost." This unpurged residue continues to haunt the secular imagination, finding a garbled outlet in horror films and tabloid headlines. But even if imperfect, the translation of religious into secular language still remains our best hope of avoiding the savage conflicts that so often beset the passage of modernity.

Ratzinger's presentation contains even more surprises than Habermas's. Maybe the former cardinal is simply presenting what Germans would call his Schokoladenseite ("chocolatey" or sweet side), but the impression is of a humane intellectual, not the dogmatist sometimes portrayed in the liberal press. This should be no surprise. The Catholic church has always been more open to the varieties of wisdom than orthodox Protestantism. Thus while Habermas makes his peace with religion, Ratzinger bestows his blessing on the modern multicultural state.

Significant differences remain, of course. Ratzinger is less friendly to democracy than Habermas. Popular support does not constitute legitimacy, he notes, for majorities can be blind or wicked. What we need is a standard of justice that transcends the "play of majorities." Such a standard is provided by natural law. Although associated with Catholic philosophy, the doctrine of natural law does not rest upon specifically Christian foundations. It appeals to human nature; it comprises that body of principles binding on all humans in virtue of their membership of the species. First developed by classical philosophers, natural law was only later given a Christian inflection. Now, argues Ratzinger, it should be restored to its original cosmopolitan breadth. Discussion of natural law "must today be conceived and pursued interculturally. For Christians, it would have to do with the creation and the creator. In the Indian world, this might correspond to the concept of 'Dharma,' the inner lawfulness of being; in the Chinese tradition to the idea of the ordinances of heaven."

However, one serious difficulty stands in the way of this cosy cultural convergence. Natural law theory presupposes a concept of nature which, although not specifically Christian, is nonetheless theistic or metaphysical in inspiration. It rests, that is to say, upon the premise that nature provides us with rational grounds for action. And this view of nature has—as Ratzinger himself admits—long since fallen victim to evolutionary theory. If we are not creatures of God, but merely clever monkeys, then how can the accidents of our constitution dictate what we ought to do and be? Ratzinger's response is to subject science itself to a certain critical limitation. It is philosophy's task, he claims, to "keep open a view of the whole, of the broader dimensions of human reality, of which only partial aspects can ever be revealed in science."

How can we account for this détente between the philosopher of radical democracy, the darling of Germany's 68ers, and a figure viewed by many as the apotheosis of reaction? The spectre of religious terrorism offers a partial explanation. In a 2001 lecture, Habermas described 9/11 as a reaction to "an accelerated and radically uprooting modernisation." If the modern west is to be perceived as more than merely "godless," if it is to inspire not just fear, but also respect, it must recover its ethical substance. And this in turn demands some kind of reconciliation with its own religious inheritance.

But Habermas's deeper anxiety concerns genetic technology—the most menacing example of "radically uprooting modernisation." He has argued repeatedly that the new "liberal eugenics" threatens the main assumption upon which the liberal state is built: that of symmetrical relations between free and equal citizens. Although his position does not rest upon theological premises, he acknowledges its debt to the Judeo-Christian view of life as a divine gift, immune to human manipulation. Here is an instance of that "saving translation" discussed above. The image of divine creation corresponds, in secular terms, to the unpredictability of our genetic make-up—an unpredictability which places absolute limits on the power of any one human being over another.

Ratzinger, for his part, engages in some "saving translation" of his own. Shunning conventional Catholic language of souls and essences, he accuses gene technology of a "fundamental transformation of man's attitude to himself. He is no longer a gift of nature or the Creator; he is his own product."

Anxiety over genetic technology is widespread in Germany, where it evokes memories of Nazi breeding programmes. But the root of the disquiet lies deeper. Germany's tradition of ethical idealism encourages a sensitivity to religious perspectives lacking in Britain's more utilitarian public culture. Here, the debate over gene technology has been dominated by practical questions of health and economics. Principled objections are to be appeased or pacified; it never occurs to us that they might contain a point of general philosophical value. We in Britain have much to learn from these two old men in Bavaria.