03 August 2009

Secularism: Kant's mistake?

from an article by Fr. Anthony Carroll, SJ on Fr. George Tyrrell, SJ's modernism:

Chief among the opponents of the medieval system of thought who would cause concern for the Church at the time of the modernist crisis was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant asserted that medieval and early modern thought had failed to question the appropriate limits of human reason and so had become tangled up in interminable confusions. His critical philosophy would famously deny the capacity of reason to come to know God, in order to make room for faith. For Kant, God could not be affirmed through our sensory perceptions but could be a postulate of practical reason that would ground our moral action.

Without intending to do so, Kant removed questions about God from modern philosophical discourse, creating what we now think of as "secularism"--the notion that religious belief is intensely (and only) private. From this we have inherited the false idea that religious belief has no proper role to play in public discourse.

Kant's insistence on locating the ground of our moral action in God was quickly undermined by British analytical moral philosophers (G.E. Moore, A.J. Ayer), leaving us with a purely emotive ethics: moral judgments are really just statements about emotional states and personal preferences, e.g. "Adultery is wrong" = "I don't like adultery."

Secular orthodoxy continues to affirm the purely emotive/personal nature of moral judgments, excluding from consideration any appeal to objective standards of ethical behavior. Thus we have the near hegemony of "personal autonomy" in medical ethics.

Carroll points out that transcendental Thomists (Tyrrell, Rahner) attempt to incorporate Kant's basic philosophical insights into traditional Catholic theology in an effort to retake the rational battleground for God. The success/failure of this project is still under debate.


  1. Thank you for this. While it is not a popular position for me to hold, I have come to suspect that Kant has also infected some thinkers within the Orthodox Church who would deny the ability of reason to know God. It has been years since I read his work closely, Vladimir Lossky (for example) seems to assume a Kantian understanding of reason in his (Lossky's) polemic against the West. I think there are similar strands in the Fr John Meyendorff, Fr Alexander Schmemmann and the ethist Christos Yannaras (who reads suprisingly like Rahner, but that's another story :)). While I admire the work (and lives) of all of these men, when I read your post a light went on and their confusion reason in Kant with the medieval view of reason became apparent.

    Again, thanks.

    In Christ,


  2. Fr Jensen,

    Augustine and Aquinas are helpful in reminding us that reason itself is a gift oriented toward unveiling the Good who is God.

    Too much of the debate about faith and reason assumes that faith claims must be judged against reason qua logic, making reason the de facto common language of the debate. If we allow this move, we lose before the debate begins.

  3. "Adultery is wrong" = "I don't like adultery." is an understandable error, since it is so often proposed by people who like adultery.

  4. Father, I could not agree more with you about reason as a gift oriented toward that leads us to God.

    Last year I presented a paper on the human will at a psychology conference. Beginning in Augustine compared the will in some Church fathers with the understanding of the will in Karen Horney. I could do this since it was a gathering of Christian psychologist, most of whom were Evangelical. It was a shock to them to hear that the human will was given to us not to make good rather than bad decisions but to be obedient to the Most Holy Trinity! To their credit people got it, but it was tough for them.

    Something like that happens, I think, when we talk about reason as the faculty by which we come to know God and which only finds its fulfillment in the knowledge of God. Reason as logic is such a small part of the whole picture. And I agree that assuming that faith must be judged by reason qua logic is already to leave the Christian tradition.

    Alas, and let me end here, this later claim is one that many Orthodox Christians assume is the Catholic position and so, like my Evangelical colleagues' understanding of the will, the discussion is over before it has begun.

    In Christ,

    Fr Gregory