[By the 19th century] in the final analysis all that man could really know was what was repeatable, what he could put before his eyes at any time in an experiment… he might have resignedly noticed that so far as his past was concerned he was just earth, a mere chance development… he does not need to be disturbed by this any longer, for now, wherever he comes from, he can look his future in the eye with the determination to make himself into whatever he wishes… the reduction of man to a ‘fact’ is the precondition for recognizing him as a faciendum [something to be made], which is to be led out of its own resources into a new future.
Introduction to Christianity, 36-7
Reflection – This passage is from a long analysis by then-Fr. Ratzinger of the devolution of truth from the classical-medieval definition of the mind corresponding to the reality of the perceived object, through truth as only being about our knowledge of our own artifacts, to the movement he describes here: truth as limited to the outcomes of the positive sciences, to what could be proved in laboratory tests, measured and manipulated for some end of our own.The critique of this reduction of truth to positive science has been a major theme in Ratzinger’s entire career. He has often pointed out that this notion of truth, besides excluding God and the moral law (which many see as a feature, not a bug, and indeed as one of the primary goals of logical positivism!), also excludes the goodness and worth of the human person, the primacy of love, the question of justice, and a host of other human goods that few would want to see removed from this world.
And indeed this is what he is getting at in this passage (which I acknowledge is a bit abstruse). If truth only applies to lab results and technological outcomes, then the way is open for the human person to be manipulated, refashioned, shaped and twisted in whatever way those holding the levers of power deem appropriate today.
We see this in the current aggressive push to the deconstruction of human sexuality. The prior norm of sexuality, heterosexual marriage, has been rejected, and the only norm operative now is consent and autonomy. All forms of sexual expression—the whole LGBTQQI2SLMNOP schemozzle—are equal, and anyone who suggests otherwise is increasingly liable to civil or even criminal prosecution (is this blog post a crime?).
The dangers of this to everyone are obvious. The aggressive push to normalize all forms of human sexual expression and to punish those who (like myself) assert that only human sexual intercourse can only licitly occur within a heterosexual marriage now reflects the ascendancy of relativism and the sexual revolution.
But the one thing we have to say about society is that it’s always changing, and the changes are anything but predictable. What if some other group with some other ideology of sex (say, for example, radical Islam?) seizes the reins of power 50 years from now? By the reasoning of the current wielders of power, anyone who dissents from the socially advanced good of humanity is to be punished and ostracized; will they be content to be punished and ostracized in turn when the balance of power shifts away from them, and some other vision of the social good holds sway?
Underlying this specific controversial matter is the attitude towards truth and the human person that emerged from 19th century positivism and associated philosophies. Is there a truth about human life that is accessible to our minds? Could it include both a norm of human sexuality, and an irreducible commitment to human dignity and goodness? Can we take our stand on the call to radical freedom at the heart of humanity, and can this create a space in society for open speech, fearless debate, a true sincere quest for the real and the life-giving in all areas of life? In short, can we talk about this? Or are we just mute matter to be shaped and formed, bullied and scorned into a rigid pattern of social conformity? A great deal depends on what we mean by the word ‘truth’ and how we understand our relationship and commitment to it.