FAITH Magazine November – December 2010
The positive impact of the Pope's presence on our soil is not in doubt. In this issue we have numerous pieces discerning the graces that our country has received. As our Road from Regensburg column recounts, his addresses to our political and cultural leaders seemed to hit the right note - giving us a gentle reminder about God. Yet the fact that the Vicar of Christ felt the need in this land of saints to return to the divine foundations of true civilisation is a salutary reminder of how far our culture has shifted away from them.
The largely unopposed progress of the secular revolution in our country in recent decades was also the explanatory context of the first and main point of our Holy Father's parting speech to the British Bishops. At Oscott seminary he requested:
"Be sure to present in its fullness the life-giving message of the Gospel, including those elements which call into question the widespread assumptions of today's culture. As you know, a Pontifical Council has recently been established for the New Evangelisation of countries of long-standing Christian tradition, and I would encourage you to avail yourselves of its services in addressing the task before you."
An indication of the cultural and ecclesial problem that the Pope was addressing occurred at Cofton Park just before he beatified John Henry Newman. Our country's most respected media organisation, the BBC, had invited a British Bishop and grandees from the Tablet, a well-known periodical that proudly carries the label "Catholic" on its masthead, to help set the scene for Radio 4's flagship religious discussion forum, The Sunday Programme.
Just moments before the start of the beatification Mass, when for the first time a Pope would exercise his solemn apostolic authority on British soil, our establishment panel, live on air, effectively held it up to ridicule. The Bishop's comment on Pope John Paul's magisterial rejection of women priests was recorded on Damian Thompson's blog: "'Well, according to Pope John Paul II, this was a definitive statement, wasn't it, so... [laughs] I couldn't possibly comment.' Cue knowing sniggers from Tabletistas."
It's because of such prominent attitudes in Church and state that the Vicar of Christ upon earth has to remind us Brits, in his ever-courteous way, of the existence, the relevance and the incarnate presence of divinity. Our editorial illustrates how agnostic presumptions became so deeply influential in our culture. Their roots go way beyond the 20th century's revolt against the revelation of God and the meaning of man.
Our editorial, supported by contributions from several eminent academics, highlights the ongoing Cartesian insularity of Catholic thought concerning the 17th century's leap forward in the investigation into the natural world, which we call the scientific revolution. This continual defensiveness has driven a wedge between faith and reason. We have noted before that Blessed John Henry Newman predicted that we in Britain would have "a new world to conquer before we have weapons for the warfare" (Introduction to The Development of Christian Doctrine). Providentially for us, Pope Benedict has put himself in the vanguard.
"Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." Romans 1:20
Early last September Stephen Hawking claimed to have come close to the coveted Theory of Everything, and this without any need to invoke God. He wrote in The Times: "Philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science ... scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." Behind the cursory dismissal of philosophy, and especially metaphysics, lies a materialistic prejudice that is widespread in the scientific community. Especially sadly it has been unwittingly encouraged by most prominent Catholic thinkers since Descartes. These thinkers have attempted to keep the specific discoveries of modern science in a box where such data cannot affect the study of the foundations of physical reality, namely metaphysics. The mainexceptions to this tendency are "Process" theologians, who unfortunately compromise the transcendence of God.
Because of this avoidance of science the rejection of the materialism of Hawking et al by the philosophical schools of Transcendental Thomism, neo-scholastic realism and personalist phenomenology, is restricted in its effectiveness. As one they rightly uphold the reality of the supra-material self-conscious human subject. It is indeed an important truth that at the core of our identity as human beings we experience a spiritual intentionality that defies reduction to the level of material causality. Nonetheless we human beings, precisely because we are matter and spirit, body and soul, cannot, in our very understanding of human consciousness, prescind from the material conditions that characterise the human condition. Human knowing, human reason necessarily entails human sensation. On thispoint we should not be shy of acknowledging the sometimes well expressed post-modern insight that the meaningfulness of linguistic concepts is always related to an individual's experience of the physical.
Such Catholic philosophy is hamstrung by its failure to engage fully with material reality, and its credibility is shaken in the light of the specific, successful and useful results of science. This philosophy often regards "usefulness" as of little metaphysical significance. Whilst the concept is certainly not primary at the level of spiritual communion between persons, actual and potential usefulness, in the sense of functional relationality, is, in the light of modern physics, chemistry and biology at the heart of the very being and metaphysical significance of physical things.
The fairly ubiquitous failure of contemporary Catholic thought to respect the findings of modern science as anything more than interesting and handy measurement and mathematics is charted in this issue by Stephen Barr, John Haldane and David Brown. This failure is the reason why Catholic academia continues to fail to find an effective and widely accepted response to the inexorable rise of the anti-metaphysical Kantianism.