About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pope wants (and does not want) to engage in politics

This must be Catholic week for me. After several, partially contradictory, pronouncements on the evolution-intelligent design “controversy,” the Vatican has released the first encyclical by the new Pope, Benedict XVI. An encyclical is official Church doctrine, because it represents the Pope's formal view on a particular topic (this is not to be confused with the Pope's infallibility, which is supposed to apply only to the interpretation of Scriptures).

Benedict was expected to fire his first theological cannonball at some controversial topic, like one of the many ongoing controversies in bioethics. After all, the former Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Vatican's office for the purity of the faith – formerly known as the Holy Inquisition. Instead, Benedict has apparently aimed lower, and wrote a relatively uncontroversial (to theists) 71 pages entitled “God is Love.”

In the encyclical, the Pope claims that God's love for humanity (such as it is) implies a duty for the Church to carry out charitable work. So far so good. Moreover, Benedict explicitly says that such charitable work cannot be done for the purpose of proselytizing or to push a particular political position. This is even better, though rather anti-historical, given the proselytizing and political influence associated with missionary work carried out by the Catholic Church throughout the world. Saying that “love is free, it is not practiced as a way to achieve other ends” is a worthy Kantian view of things, though one that is unlikely to make this Pope's views welcomed by evangelical Christians, especially in the United States.

Benedict, as any Pope worth his sacraments, also had to attack Karl Marx, who famously claimed that charity is a way for the rich to keep the poor in their place and avoid actually reforming society (Bill Gates take note). Benedict's attack on Marx takes the form of a non-sequitur (which is a logical fallacy), claiming that the Marxian project failed because the State cannot respond to every human need. Right, and neither do we want it to try, thank you very much. But surely the Church has also failed by the same account, for example by not establishing a just society when it had the chance, during the centuries when it politically and militarily controlled central Italy.

Moreover, Ratzinger then falls into downright contradiction when – after having stressed that the Church should not get itself embroiled into politics or interfere with the affairs of sovereign states – calls for Catholics to be involved in political life to “form consciences” and help society arrive at a “greater insight into the authentic requirements for justice.” All of this, of course, should be facilitated by the State, which should “generously acknowledge and support initiatives arising from the different social forces,” i.e., finance so-called “faith-based” organizations like the Catholic Church.

As in the case of the relationship between science and religion, the Church here seems to want to have it both ways: on the one hand, scientific findings cannot be interpreted as a reason to reject believe in God, but somehow a mysterious religious insight can go beyond the empirical realm; on the other hand, the State has failed to solve all human problems, and therefore should both support the Church and allow it to interfere with society while at the same time claiming not to be doing so. It's about time that we recognize that there are serious philosophical conflicts between a religious and a scientific worldview; similarly, we need to clear acknowledge the right of religious people to live a life – even a political one – that is informed by their faith, and therefore to “interfere” politically with the rest of us. In the latter case, however, Churches ought also to be taxed and should not receive any State support at all. That is the true meaning of a separation of church and state.


  1. Pope Benedict XVI:
    "God is Love."

    "for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me"

    The Bible:
    Isaiah 66:15-16 "See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For with fire and with his sword the Lord will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the Lord..."

    You'd think that the Pope would have read the Bible.

  2. My Dear Die Anyway,

    The Pope has surely read the Bible and that is why he carefully quotes and acknowledges only those those passages that fit his purpose. He is no different than Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Billy Graham or George Bush. They all want to extend and preserve their "kingdoms".

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    Tuesday, January 31st, 2006
    Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center
    3501 S. Lake Drive
    St. Francis, WI 53235

    Vespers at 6:30pm
    Greeting by Archbishop Dolan at 7:00pm
    followed by lecture, Q & A, and a reception.

    It looks to be fascinating. For more info see: http://www.archmil.org/news/ShowNews.asp?ID=2448

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