The Political Side of Pope Benedict

Gary Potter is deeply read on the Church’s traditional social teaching. He has spoken and written extensively on the Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Here, he explores the political thinking of the current Supreme Pontiff. Readers may enjoy Gary’s superb talk at our last conference: Charles V: Father of Europe . Also recommended, as a complement to this consideration of Catholic social teaching, is a recent review, by Brother André Marie, of The Church at the Turning Points of History, by Godfrey Kurth: “Boniface VIII and the Heresy of Statism.” Webmaster

Besides liberals who were bound to be inimical, and probably would feel the same toward anyone who had spent as long a time as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there are Traditional Catholics (emphasis on Traditional) who cannot abide Pope Benedict. This is no secret. Their criticisms, and sometimes outright vituperation, clog the outer reaches of Catholic sectors of the blogosphere.

When you talk with such persons, they often assert that as a private theologian before serving as prefect, and during the many years he was at that job, the Pope “said things that he can’t take back. He left a record.” The suggestion is that the “things” were of doubtful orthodoxy if not plain heretical.

That Pope Benedict has a record is for sure. The most recent bibliography of his publications, which lists them up to the year 2002, covers 79 pages! To be sure, most of this vast output of writing is in German and comparatively little of it has been translated into English. Still, the catalogue of a single U.S. publisher, Ignatius Press, currently offers 30 books by Joseph Ratzinger in print in English.

Given the record, it is striking that when Pope Benedict’s Traditional critics speak of it, they seem seldom to quote him direct. When they quote anything, it will usually be an official Vatican document signed by him but which would have been written by a committee, or something that somebody else claims Ratzinger said, or, worse, somebody’s interpretation of something supposedly said.

Full disclosure: Though I have read most of the major documents that went out over his signature when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his writing as a private theologian generally is unknown to me. Over the years, when I would see an Ignatius Press ad announcing the publication of still another book by him, I rarely read past the title. The excuse I gave myself was that I haven’t read all of St. Augustine that I ought. I should take the time to read a contemporary theologian?

This is pretty droll since it turns out, I have now learned, that St. Augustine was the theologian Joseph Ratzinger’s first subject of study. That is, the topic of his doctoral dissertation (not available in English) was Augustine’s understanding of the Church “and thus, by implication, his understanding of the State and the political significance of Christianity.” I have learned this from D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., whose words I have just quoted. The words are drawn from Fr. Twomey’s book, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age; a Theological Portrait (published by Ignatius Press).

I am very happy to have read Fr. Twomey’s book because it has introduced me to a side of the Pope that, ignorant as I have been of his writing as a private theologian, I didn’t dream existed: his political thought.

It is thinking about which I wanted to know more as soon as I opened Fr. Twomey’s book and read (emphasis mine): “His political thought brings Ratzinger inevitably to the question of morality and its foundations. Like other contemporary thinkers [Fr. Twomey names Eric Voegelin as an example] he attributes the contemporary denial of objectivity in moral (or ethical) questions to a consequence of the widespread denial of transcendence, namely, the reduction of reason to empirical or quantitative rationality. Relativisim also poses the greatest of threats to the body politic. Reducing reason to the world of ‘facts’ and utility results in the annihilation of morality (practical reason) and thus to the abolition of man (to use the title of a well-known essay by C.S. Lewis, which Ratzinger quotes). This can only lead to the exercise of naked power devoid of moral constraint — and so the control by the few of the many. The existential question of the age is, according to Ratzinger, the threat of totalitarianism.

Fr. Twomey, following Ratzinger, continues a few lines later (emphasis again mine): “The public denial of God [as in the U.S. when, a few years ago, we saw the chief justice of a state supreme court removed from office for daring to display a plaque with the Ten Commandments in the state judiciary building] leads inevitably to the redivinization of society — the assumed immanence of God in history — and manifests itself in attempts to change man by changing the structures of society. Social engineering of this kind necessarily denies man his freedom; it also ignores the irredeemable imperfection of the human condition : ‘The longing for the absolute in history is the enemy of the good in it.'”

That reference to imperfection wanted emphasizing because to Joseph Ratzinger scarcely anything is as important, politically speaking, than what he has called “the courage to accept imperfection.” Why? Fr. Twomey explains: “Any moral appeal based on the promise of a perfect society in the future is in fact profoundly immoral — it encourages a flight from morality, from free, human, prudential decisions, toward some form of utopia.”

This language ought to resonate with every thoughtful U.S. Catholic during our current very long electoral season when the candidates getting the most media attention, drawing the biggest crowds and pulling in the most money are the ones who speak most eloquently of “ending poverty,” “saving the planet,” “providing universal health care,” “jobs for everybody able to work,” etc., etc. It is all akin to President Bush’s megalomaniacal pledge in his second inaugural address to “end evil in the world.” Yes, it may be political rhetoric, but in too many cases it is also obviously believed, by the candidates as well as those who support them. Thus it tends toward the fulfillment of the old prediction (I don’t know who originally made it) that tyranny will not come to the U.S. in the form of jackbooted stormtroopers crashing through the door. It will be a lawyer or social worker standing there and saying, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Of course the offer to help poses the threat it does because the number of persons who would refuse it become fewer all the time. This relates very much to another problem, that of Church-state relations. After all, there would be no public denial of God, and thus no attempt to change men by changing the structures of society, if Christianity and its teachings were not kept separate from the state. At least that is what many Catholics, and not a few Protestants, hold.

Joseph Ratzinger believes there should be separation, and surely he is correct, not because separation ought to exist, but because the modern state has become so powerful and overbearing, the Church cannot afford to be allied to it, much less can she have with it the kind of organic union that existed when Christendom did — a time when the state as we know it did not exist. Today her life would become absorbed by its. That is, separation has become today a safeguard not simply of freedom of worship, but freedom to worship.

But this brings us to a truth that has to do with both the question of Church-state relations and the demonstrable fact (demonstrated when, for instance, voters choose candidates promising utopia) that an ever-growing number of Americans are perfectly happy to let the government do their living for them. It gets stated in the course of Fr. Twomey’s discussion of Cardinal Ratzinger’s position on separation:

“Whenever the balance is upset and one side dominates the other, both Church and State suffer the consequences. Christianity is the soil from which the modern democratic State cannot be uprooted without decomposing. The State, Ratzinger insists, must accept that there is a stock of truth, which is not subject to a consensus but rather precedes any consensus and makes it possible for society to govern itself. The State ought to show its indebtedness in various ways, including the recognition of the validity of the public symbols of Christianity — public feast days, church buildings and public processions, the crucifix in schools, and so on.” Now here is the point of quoting this passage: “Yet, such public recognition can only be expected, says Ratzinger, when Christians themselves are convinced of their faith’s indispensability, because they are convinced of its ultimate truth.”

Why do so many Christians today obviously lack such conviction — lack it to the degree they will readily open the door to the government bureaucrat who wants to “help,” who will relieve them of life’s difficulties (and glory)? The answer may be suggested in Fr. Twomey’s discussion of the centrality of conscience in the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, including his theology of politics (this centrality is the real subject of the book, and these lines are from the chapter, “The Role of Conscience in Politics”):

“Political, economic, and military power can only be controlled from within, by the conscience of those who exercise political authority and who, when they fail, must be resisted by the person of conscience protesting against the exploitation of the powerless. This will inevitably entail suffering, which is the only way, ultimately, that injustice can be overcome.”

Do many Christians today lack the conviction needed to live the Faith, which living would result in a Christian society — Do they unconsciously recoil from it? — because they intuit that to believe and then act on their belief could entail suffering? Fr. Twomey does not say if Joseph Ratzinger ever raises the question. He may not. As a teacher — now the Faith’s supreme teacher on earth — he may simply teach that the willingness to suffer — to take up our cross — is necessary.

At any rate, the reader has noticed by now that for the time being the present writer is not much different from the critics of Pope Benedict. I have relied here entirely on Fr. Twomey, not Joseph Ratzinger himself. However, Fr. Twomey concludes his book by expressing the hope that it “may prompt others to study Cardinal Ratzinger’s original writings, to judge for themselves.”

I am certainly prompted, but for the moment am simply exceedingly glad to have been made to realize by Fr. Twomey that the Church’s current visible head has thought deeply, and will continue to think, on things about which all serious Catholics, and every lover of true freedom, need to be thinking. Given the age in which we live, and the threat Pope Benedict understands all of us to face, the Holy Ghost knew, as He always does, what He was doing at the most recent conclave.