The Quest for a "New Humanism"

One idea that is very evident in my own personal study of philosophy and theology seems to be the question of ‘humanism’: what is it and why is it important? The exaltation of the human person, as pagan as it has often become, is nevertheless an integral part of Catholic thought, specifically insofar as Jesus Christ presents to us the perfection of human nature as manifested in a divine person. Moreover, in addition to my private interest in this question of humanism, it also appears to be one of the foundational points in the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, and certainly one of the most talked-about ideas in modern Catholic academia; writers like Luigi Giussani and Henri De Lubac do wonders in presenting the challenge as one both of importance and feasible consideration. But how imminent is the need to reflect upon such an issue that oftentimes seems forever aloof and ultimately unattainable?

The Holy Father tells us precisely that: in a recent letter to Cardinal Renato Martino, Benedict writes that it is “ever more vital…to promote a ‘new humanism.’” The pope here is speaking with principal regard to the place of peace and justice in the modern world. He identifies that, as part of a true exaltation of human dignity and worth, technological and scientific advance cannot be the sole benchmarks by which we measure success. “[H]uman development,” he says, “cannot be reduced to simple economic growth, it must include the moral and spiritual dimension. A truly integral humanism must, at the same time, also express solidarity.” In contrast to the ever-popular notion that success demands efficiency, the Holy Father seems to side more with Blessed Mother Teresa’s famous axiom, that God does not require success, but fidelity. Certainly, fidelity to God in understanding the value of the individual human life far supercedes any economic or technological progress that discounts the individual for the sake of the whole. This latter model is not Christian, since it is not concerned with salvation but efficiency.

“True and lasting peace is unimaginable without the development of each person and of all peoples,” writes Benedict. “Nor is it conceivable to think of reducing arms if first we do not eliminate violence at its roots, if man does not first turn decisively to searching for peace and for what is good and just,” namely the meaning of human life. Like all things Catholic, the answer to the question is bigger than the question itself; realizing how to promote true justice and peace is something only captured in the fullness of the Catholic Tradition, and in a deep-seated love for Christ in the sacraments and in the people of God. The Holy Father agrees, that “it will be difficult to find a solution to the various technical problems [of national security and disarmament] without man’s conversion to good on a cultural, moral and spiritual level.” We must not be primarily concerned with security, but rather with our vulnerability before the Almighty God. In recognizing our weakness as human beings—in need of salvation through Christ—the prospectus of viable solutions to more tangible problems becomes clearer and ever more achievable.

This is precisely the import of the ‘new humanism’ called for by Catholic intellectuals the world over. “The future of humanity depends upon a commitment on everyone's part,” concludes Benedict. “Only by pursuing an integral and solidary humanism…can humanity progress toward the true and lasting peace for which it longs.”

[cf. Vatican Information Services article for a full report on the pope's letter to Cardinal Martino.]