Sunday, November 06, 2011

A need of philosophy

I was waiting for the LD to chip in, but he lingers. So, here I am, to raise for the reader the question of why among the most meaningful speeches given by the Pope is giving, there are those of a more philosophical than theological tenor. How does this fit with his specific magisterium?

On the site (also in English version), Sandro Magister has been recording a controversy going on among theologians and historians about the meaning of the Vatican II, with those of a more “traditionalist” bent denouncing its lack of continuity with the tradition, which for some makes it outright heretical, and those of a more “progressive” bent who extol that same lack of continuity, arguing that that is what the Council really meant.

Benedict’s position on this regard is well known, he made it clear little after his election: renewal in continuity.

This seems, however, to leave everybody, so to say, unhappy. “Progressives” look at him as a staunch conservative, “traditionalists” ask for a clarification, e.g., to submit the Council’s documents to scrutiny by a theological committee, which should judge their adherence to the orthodox doctrine. Of course I am expressing rather bluntly positions which are, in the contributions to the controversy recorded by Magister, quite more nuanced. But here I am not interested in nuances, to go rather to what appears to me the core of the question.

To state offhand my thought: the issue concerning the Vatican II documents is not theological but philosophical.

(And who are you, I could be asked, to pass such a sentence. Well, let me say in a humbly presumptuous’ way: a man trained in philosophy and theology, and before them in jurisprudence and social sciences.)

There is an analogy between the reading of the Council’s documents and the reading of law. So, let me start from this, because the issue of the nature of law was raised in the Reichstag speech.

Benedict mentioned there a German law professor, by the name of Hans Kelsen, who exerted an enormous influence. His conception of law echoes that of one of the most famous, and infamous, political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes: known as a defender of absolute monarchy, he actually theorized in the Seventeenth Century the absoluteness of the State, that today we give for granted. Already for him the law isn’t but the will of the Sovereign, one or assembly: in our terms, democratic or not, it makes no difference. Thus Kelsen in the Twentieth Century maintained that all process of law is lawgiving: down from the highest legislative bodies, like Congress, to the least of judges. It’ll be the latter to say which is the will of the law; and this means as a consequence that he can make the law say whatever he wills. This consequence follows from the fact that the law needs to be interpreted, and, missing any other criterion of interpretation except the will, the judge can make it will whatever he wants. It doesn’t save from the arbitrariness of judgment the possibility of appeal to a higher court, thus making the process of law giving to re-ascend the ladder all the way up to the Supreme Court. The question stays the same: on what criterion will the law be interpreted? You can’t say the Constitution, because this is again a law to be interpreted.

To say in other words, the judge will carry in his interpretation of the law his understanding of things: what we would call today his “philosophy”, meaning rather his opinion.

As I said, the same is the question with the Council’s documents. They lack indications on how they want to be read, in the way of continuity with the tradition, or break from it. I’d say that what they lack is philosophical breath, if I were sure that the reader of these lines understood that I meant, by it, a truly theological one.

The right ambition was to address non only Christians, but all people. But, unfortunately, this ambition was betrayed precisely in the “pastoral constitution” dedicated to “the Church in the contemporary world”, with the unhappy distinction of people in “believers and non believers”. It was meant to be the most philosophical of the Council’s constitutions, saying even to non believers what it means to be human, but it failed, because of that distinction (which I think I already criticized in a previous post), to clarify that all man are “believers”, the only question being to discern the truth that can rightly demand our believing. Because of this, not only the Council was unable to address “non believers”, but also left “believers” on their own when it came to the interpretation of the other “dogmatic constitutions” (e.g. on Revelation or on the Church): it left them free do bring to bear on it whatever presumed “philosophy”, i. e. opinion, they had a penchant for.

Given my (trained) sensibility, those other constitutions have a strange effect on me: like when I hear certain homilies in which the preacher fills his mouth with plain God speech. It makes me uneasy, because those Vatican II documents, like that preacher, don’t seem to take into account that in today’s culture at large speaking of God doesn’t find many point of contact. Christians share – alas – of that culture, and even they like any other men of our time need to be reintroduced to it. To find and show the missing points of contact is what I mean with giving real philosophical breath to theological talk.

Now, Benedict addresses that need with his philosophical speeches, thus exercising with them his papal magisterium.


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