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The Pope Who Schooled the Politicians

Piety, intellectual acumen, and political savviness are three characteristics necessary for popes to succeed on the religious and diplomatic stages. Possessing all three is extraordinarily rare. Papal history shows that more than a few of the 266 Roman pontiffs have lacked all three of these—to say nothing about other failures in virtue. Benedict XVI, who just passed away after reigning for eight years and then living in retirement for an unprecedented nine years, had the first two skills in abundance while being out of his depths in the third.

There were gaffes on the international stage, most notably when he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s insult of Muslims in his 2006 Regensburg address; a Catholic nun in Somalia was killed in retaliation. He lacked a strong hand in Vatican political affairs, most evident in the “Vatileaks scandal” initiated by Benedict’s own butler.

But what Benedict lacked in political stratagem he overcame with philosophical brilliance when given the floor on the world’s grandest political stages: Westminster Hall, the Reichstag Building, and the UN General Assembly. Through his penetrating insights into the fundamental elements that underly politics—the dignity of the human person, the rule of law, the role of religion in society, the primacy of conscience—Benedict found a way to school the politicians by reminding them what is supposed to animate their work.

“Politics,” Benedict explained to the German Bundestag in 2011, “must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace.” From this goal follows, as he told his audience in Westminster Hall in 2010, the central political question: “[W]here is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?”

Benedict’s political thought emanates from the same source as his theological thought: that the God who is Logos—that is, creative, rational, and loving thought—became flesh and dwelt among us. “The God who is logos,” Ratzinger wrote in a new Preface to his magnum opus Introduction to Christianity in 2002, “guarantees the intelligibility of the world, the intelligibility of our existence, the aptitude of reason to know God and even the reasonableness of God…. The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person, is Love—this is what our biblical faith tells us about God.”

Benedict insisted that because reason and nature are indelibly stamped by God, the foundations of politics need not flow from Biblical revelation. Rather, as he articulated in Westminster Hall, “The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.” Religion’s task, he continued, is not to write policy, but “to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.”

Justice and peace depend upon objective moral principles for their existence. In his address to the UN General Assembly in 2008, Benedict acknowledged that today these principles are understood in terms of “human dignity” and “human rights.” These terms are regularly wielded as cudgels in political discourse, but Benedict ground them in the only context that gives them credence: “[T]he rights recognized and expounded in the [UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights] apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”

Without a natural law grounding for human rights and human dignity, Benedict cautioned that “[r]emoving human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks.”

In other words, without a natural law foundation, we have a dictatorship of relativism.

Before the Bundestag, Benedict presented his most detailed response to the question, “How do we recognize what is right?” Benedict acknowledged that in the 20th century the natural law was marginalized and replaced by a “positivist understanding of nature,” meaning that nature is a random manifestation of phenomena that have no connection to a broader whole; what matters is only what we can make nature do for us. This positivist understanding of nature is complemented by positivist reason, which holds that empirically verifiable ideas are the only valid ones, and positivist law, which asserts that laws have their force strictly from the imposition of the sovereign and not any deeper source. 

The symptoms of our failed contemporary politics spring from a single illness, one that Benedict diagnosed clearly: the rejection of a natural order whose purpose reflects the loving God who created this order for humans to flourish.

By denying the spiritual dimension of humanity and the teleology of nature, positivism, declared Benedict, “diminishes man.” In a memorable illustration, Benedict argued that “the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world.”

It is no wonder, in light of Benedict’s vision of an objective moral order that distinguishes what is right and what is just on the basis of nature, that so many ideologies—totalitarian, communist, progressive—have employed all kinds of tactics to silence religion in politics and the public square. Today in the West the natural law vision of politics, and the Catholic Church that advocates for it, is the only limit on unbridled personal license that progressives seek to enshrine into law. The abortion lobby is the most nefarious offender, as it conceals its demand for sex without consequences by distorting the idea of human rights. This same demand has prompted a war against nature itself, as called for by the same-sex marriage and transgender lobbies. The unscrupulous aggression with which certain progressives have tried to suppress religion catalyzed Benedict’s defense, articulated at the UN and in Westminster, of religious freedom as an authentic human right that is good for individuals and for pluralistic societies.

At the end of his address to the Bundestag, Benedict unequivocally stated that “we are called to defend at this moment of our history” the belief that “a Creator God…is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions.”

With belief in God comes acceptance of the fact that human beings cannot will whatever they want into reality or into law. “Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

Posterity tends to regard political visionaries—Tocqueville, Lincoln, Churchill—more highly than political functionaries, regardless of how much worldly success the latter gain. Without a single political victory to his credit, posterity will judge Benedict the political victor. The symptoms of our failed contemporary politics spring from a single illness, one that Benedict diagnosed clearly: the rejection of a natural order whose purpose reflects the loving God who created this order for humans to flourish.