All eyes will be focused on the White House come April 16 when the successor to Peter touches down for his tête-à-tête with the successor to Washington. What will Pope Benedict XVI say to President Bush in private and what will he have to say to the rest of us on April 19 when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly? Speculation has been swirling in and out of Catholic circles as the date of the historic visit fast approaches. There will be ample time for the pope's flock of over sixty million Catholics in the United States to absorb his peerless theological reckonings and pastoral guidance. But the pope's visit is no closed-door affair, for Catholics only. No, this pope and former professor is coming here well aware that in United States, he will command a podium unlike any other to address the entire world. I am willing to venture that the substantial portion of his message will consist of a universal invitation to return to reason.
The role of reason was the principle theme of his now-famous and controversial lecture in Regensburg, Germany back in 2006. The citation regarding Islam and the hooey from critics that followed overshadowed the pope's principle theme: that reason, correctly understood, is indispensable for an authentically humane society. The pope went to great lengths in that speech to demonstrate that God, precisely because He is Reason, (Logos) can never order acts that are irrational, such as the killing of innocents in the name of God, etc. The other half of his speech — the bulk of the address — was aimed directly at the developed and increasingly secular Western world. In an unworthy nutshell, Pope Benedict's corollary point on reason was that a faux "reason" that excludes any talk of God as "unscientific" constitutes not authentic reason but a crude imposter whose aim is to snuff out man's exploration of his own nature and destiny. True science, by definition, must include metaphysics because it provides us with knowledge of things as they are in their unchanging nature. It is from that starting point from which all pursuant inquiries must proceed.
For generations now, the West, while prospering immensely in the material sense, has been dogged by an insidious relativism that calls into question the underlying truths upon which our enlightened society has been built: belief in a benevolent Creator, the inherent dignity of the person and the freedom of individual conscience. This battle between liberalism, understood in the classical sense, and modern-day relativism has manifested itself in a number of ways in Western society, from the dizzying identity crisis within the increasingly secular European Union to the left's relentless attacks on traditional values within our own nation. And inside the hallowed halls of elite academia, generations of young minds have been convinced by a dry professoriate hooked on existential nihilism that the only certainty in life is, well, uncertainty. It is reasonable, mature and enlightened, students are told, to give up on the hidebound quest for certainty in life regarding their ultimate purpose and on finding answers to inescapable questions like: "Why am I here and where am I are going?" This constitutes the poisonous pill of relativism that, once ingested, overwhelms the victim with self-doubt, narcissism and alienation from others and, finally, from self. The most dramatic manifestation of this malaise can be perceived in Europe's alarming demographic plunge.
Pope Benedict offers a more complete and refreshing option well worth considering: Man, guided by the faculty of reason, can "unlock" the realities of the created world — a world that possesses its own intrinsic rhyme and reason precisely because it was conceived in the mind of the Logos: Eternal Reason. Even more significant, reason that is correctly formed leads man to understand and embrace his own nature, thereby allowing him to decrypt the mysteries of his existence, including his origin and destiny. Certain fundamental truths are woven into our nature by the hand of God and He graciously provides us with reason to arrive at these truths. This nature informs man as to the "do's and don'ts" covering the whole ambit of human action, whereby he learns that the "do's" fulfill and complete his nature while the "don'ts" undermine it. This daily exercise in the "drama of the moral life," as George Weigel has put it, displays true scientia at work because it starts with the premise that the most important things about reality can be deduced with certainty.
Virtually every aspect of contemporary society has sauntered away from reason. Orders emanating from dark caves in the Hindu Kush calling for the wholesale slaughter of unbelievers in the name of Allah represent for Americans perhaps the most dramatic display of the consequences brought about by religious extremism, that is to say, religion sans reason. The West features its own distinct, albeit more subtle, exhibition of a cultural malaise as a result of the abandonment of reason's guiding light. We boast a proliferation of medical research that ceaselessly flirts with storylines from the pages of A Brave New World. The pope has his work cut out for him and we'll be listening to hear what he has to say.