The Dialectics of Secularization. Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005. 85 pages.
In January of 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, posed this provoking question to his audience at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria: Is religion “an archaic and dangerous force that builds up false universalisms, thereby leading to intolerance and acts of terrorism” (64)? The context for the question was a debate between himself, then Prefect of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Jürgen Habermas, a liberal, secular philosopher, receiver of the Kyoto Prize for lifetime achievement, and self-proclaimed as “tone-deaf in the religious sphere” (11). The Dialectics of Secularization is a transcript of their dialogue in response to the agreed upon subject: “The Pre-Political Moral Foundations of a Free State”.
In other words, must a constitutionally-defined free state justify its ethical norms with an antecedent, universal claim for truth and, thus, compromise its own claim of a neutral world view? On the other hand, how can any religion which does make universal claims justify those claims in a manifestly plural world without bending towards intolerance, injustice and, in the extreme case, acts of terrorism? One might think Cardinal Ratzinger, staunch defender of Catholicism, would be obliged to answer “no” to his own proposition of religion as an archaic and dangerous force; and one might think that Habermas would defend his own commitment to a neutral, universally accessible reason as the antidote to claims of any revelation antecedent to reason. Instead, however, both men promote the limits of their respective positions, succeeding in the difficult but worthwhile balancing act of criticizing the presumptuous over-reach of their own tradition while still articulating unwavering conviction.