When Habermas and Ratzinger Shared
the Idea of a Post-Secular Age
Giancarlo Bosetti 4 January 2023

Ratzinger shared with Habermas a “post-secular” vision, namely the idea that for contemporary societies the classical narrative of modernity as secularization, disenchantment and the abandonment of religion to the margins of society, or its confinement to the private sphere, should be discarded. Both saw the value in the possibility that from a dialogue between public reason and faith, both sides could benefit or, going further, that processes of “mutual learning” could be initiated. They both uttered this term – which has since entered the philosophical lexicon – during a meeting that took place in Munich in January 2004 at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, a year and a few months before the Cardinal would have become Pope. The speeches they delivered (collected in Ragione e fede in dialogo, Reset-Marsilio, 2004 – in English, The Dialectics of Secularization, published in 2007) had important and original points of convergence.

Habermas opened the meeting with the famous question posed by German jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde: the liberal, secularized state feeds on normative premises that it alone cannot guarantee (because if it preached some form of ethics it would no longer be liberal). It is therefore possible that religion could still provide reserves of morality. This additional support for civil and legal progress had, moreover, already been codified by John Rawls in his later work, Political Liberalism, when he realized that he could not exclude the experience of religious mobilizations that had enabled the establishment of civil rights from the history and theory of justice.

Ratzinger, for his part, welcomed the idea of a mutual limitation between reason and faith, which in the case of the latter would rein in fundamentalist impulses, and in the case of the former would offer moral references useful for preventing encroachments from uncontrolled scientific and technological advancement. Ratzinger, a bitter enemy of relativism, which he would later stigmatize in his homily delivered for the opening of the conclave that would elect him pontiff in April 2005, here opened himself up to Habermas and a cross-cultural perspective, which recognized how both Christianity and Western rationality could not claim to represent an absolute universality, and how they were the product of a determined historical context. The reason for which there was a need for dialogue with other contexts, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, all of which were being traversed by deviant and radical tendencies, but also by counter-tendencies open to rationality and tolerance. In these respects Ratzinger’s legacy is undoubtedly contradictory. It was he who as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, who closed the trial at the Palace of the Holy Office of the Belgian pluralist theologian Jacques Dupuis with a notification denouncing the dangers of dialogue between religions, because dialogue risks overshadowing the Gospel’s proclamation on the only admissible and self-sufficient truth of faith. It was he who got John Paul II to sign the 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which seemed to conspicuously backpedal the achievements of the Second Vatican Council.

But it is also true that it was still he who participated in the Munich meeting, and wrote that January 2008 speech for the Sapienza University in Rome, which he was never able to deliver due to public backlash, in which he boldly outlined his message as head of the Catholic Church as a bearer of a contribution of “humanism” to collective life. In his speech, then widely published, he put forward not Christianity’s “whole offering”, but its humanistic core. He did so with the theological passion, of one who knew how to extract from Christian doctrine those values in common with public reason, but also with the philosophical competence of one who had absorbed the lessons of Habermas and Rawls, the American philosopher who was explicitly at the center of that Munich discourse. There was a clear distinction between comprehensive doctrines, peculiar to each belief-system. For example all Christian doctrine and dogmatics include many “surplus” elements that fall outside a reasonable area of intersection with other secular faiths and cultures, and cores of humanism that can indeed be sustainably shared: the area of overlap, as Rawls called it. It is ironic that Benedict XVI’s address that most approached the line of liberal philosophy fell under the target of a misguided boycott campaign in the name of freedom of science.


This article was originally published by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on January 2, 2023. 

Cover Photo: German philosopher Juergen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, in Munich (2004). (Credits: Catholic Academy of Bavaria)

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