Pope Benedict’s Parting Challenge

With all that has been said about the passing of Pope Benedict XVI, most of it neglects the larger historical context—his prediction of the end of our era and his vision for the one to follow it.

One must begin back in the decade following the horrors of World War I in April 1917. By then the Enlightenment Era’s victory for universal peace and prosperity was reckoned so successful as to justify a serious proposal to “outlaw war.” It resulted in a Kellogg-Briand Pact that was signed by all the world powers, including the US and Germany.

At the very same time, a nonentity named Adolph Hitler was building a political movement that had other ideas about war and peace; and a child was born to a humble religious family in Catholic Bavaria. The two lives entwined when Joseph Ratzinger, as a young man, witnessed his parish priest being beaten by anti-Catholic Nazis before Holy Mass and was later forced into military service in a war that was supposed to have been outlawed by the Pact to end all wars.

Ratzinger survived with a mission to understand why. He became a serious student of philosophy at the University of Munich in 1946, and then a priest in 1951. He earned a doctorate in theology and was a long-time university professor, and then Vice-Rector at the University of Regensburg. From 1962 to 1965 he served at the Second Vatican Council as a chief theological advisor. In 1977, he became an archbishop and in 1981 Pope John Paul II appointed him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Over the next five years, he produced the definitive modern Catechism of the Catholic Church and following the death of John Paul became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005. He was the first Pope to abdicate in 600 years in 2013 and he died on the last day of the year 2022.

Over his lifetime, Ratzinger became a dominant force in the intellectual debate over the influence of progressive liberalism in the West and the world, notably debating with atheist philosophers like Jurgen Habermas with mutual concessions and respect. His life spanned the early optimism and dominance of Wilsonian idealism, Nazi rule and defeat in World War II, the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union.

He rejoiced in the Cold War victory but did not see it as The End of History or believe that it produced a new man to populate it. To Ratzinger, 1991 was no more a final victory than it was 1917. Indeed, his magnum opus, a collection of articles written during the 1990s until his papacy, Truth and Tolerance, predicted the end of the Enlightenment itself.

By the close of the 20th century, it had become clear to both the religious Ratzinger and secular Habermas that Western reason, science, democracy, and unbounded freedoms were failing. The Nazi and communist alternatives had fallen but the “feeling that democracy is still not the right form of freedom is fairly general” Ratzinger noted. Critics were raising valid questions about its legitimacy.

How free are elections? To what extent is the people’s will manipulated by publicity, that is by capital, by the agency of a few people who dominate public opinion? Is there not a new oligarchy of the people who decide what is modern and progressive, what somebody enlightened has to think? How fearsome this oligarchy is, the way they can publicly execute people, is well enough known. Anyone who gets in their way is an enemy of freedom because he is preventing freedom of expression.

“Are not alliances in this or that interest” becoming “visibly stronger than the actual representation in Parliament?” he continued. This “confusion of forces” has society “becoming ungovernable.” The great promises of the Enlightenment for freedom and the ideal life are still supported but remain “unmet.” Some of the disenchanted have turned to authoritarianism but more have turned against any restrictions, against law itself, as the “opposite of freedom.” The foundations rather than particular laws are called into question. Superficial pragmatic solutions cannot solve the problem which demands either accepting Sartre-like anarchy, with each person defining freedom for himself, or a convincing alternative philosophical understanding.

Ratzinger starts his alternative not by bidding “adieu” to the Enlightenment ideals of scientific, rationalistic, and moral freedoms but to “correct our course in three essential points.” He notes that each of the ideals arose in the medieval university and produced positive benefits for society until the 14th-century Black Plague undermined that political and moral order. The problem today is trying to have science and rationalism “explain everything” rather than accepting the Medieval and early Enlightenment balance or tension between scientific reason and moral tradition. What is missing today is a fusion that can legitimize both. Even Habermas conceded that a “transcendental reference” might be part of a solution.

Ratzinger argued that freedom comes only from law, that law only makes sense with limits, and that reason is only reasonable when derived from tradition.

To “meet the crisis in the history of freedom in which we find ourselves,” Ratzinger’s first requirement in Truth and Tolerance was to recognize that as fundamentally important as freedom is, it simply cannot be understood as an “ever-widening loosening of norms.” Rather, a basic truth is that “Freedom can only exist in an ordered coexistence of freedoms. Law is, therefore, not the opposite of freedom, but its necessary condition.” Indeed, agnostic Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek came to the same conclusion much earlier in his Constitution of Liberty.

There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there certainly has been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown customs and habits…. Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in large measure be a tradition-bound society.

Hayek noted that the early Middle Ages kings considered themselves bound by traditional moral and legal norms, allowing them to “modify abuses that had crept in [but] not [to] create law.” This view of law legitimized it and was of “supreme importance” in developing a rule of law in the West fostering freedom. It was not until the 15th century that the divine right monarchs could for “the first time” claim to make law as an “instrument of deliberate policy” on their own moral authority. But the legacy of law as beyond mere power was revived to inspire legislative balance by abolishing the divine Star Chamber in 1641 and the revival of Magna Carta ideals in 1688.

Ratzinger’s second truth for ordered freedom is questioning the Enlightenment idealist belief in progress as a necessary, continuous, and fundamental transformational process guaranteeing the end of poverty, illness, and all the difficulties of human life. As Walter Lippmann put it, the Rousseau Enlightenment devised a “Christian heresy” promising heaven on earth that could justify any means to get there, including Hitler and Stalin. Ratzinger argued that unless that lie is confronted directly, we are asking for that history to be repeated. Social order simply does not go in a straight line in any direction, as any knowledge of history makes plain. There seems to be some obligation to “struggle for the relatively best possible framework of human coexistence,” contributing to some victories, but history proves that a society that is “all-around right and just, will never exist.”

Ratzinger’s final requirement for true freedom is to “bid farewell to the dream of the absolute autonomy of reason and its self-sufficiency. Human reason needs a hint from the great religious traditions of mankind.” Religion is unavoidable and “the pathology of religion is the most dangerous sickness of the human spirit.” Lenin and company proved it, and mainline religions are not innocent either. But it is critical to recognize that “the atheistic systems of modern times are the most frightful examples of passionate religious enthusiasm.” When the existence of God is denied, freedom is distorted and disappears as brutal Nazi and Communist intolerance proved.

Aristotle needed a first cause that must have been uncaused. Jefferson required deism. While lacking belief in God, Hayek conceded the practical importance of religion to freedom, especially that of Western Judeo-Christianity. In his 2011 address to the Bundestag, Pope Benedict said the challenge “at this moment of our history” is to proclaim the empirical truth that “a Creator God” ideal 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.”

Is Ratzinger’s tripartite course-correction to save Western Civilization and ordered freedom even conceivable in an anarchic, irreligious, and autonomous age? Yet, polls even in Europe show that a majority actually still believe in God or a higher power, as do almost all in the United States. A Creator is written into the Declaration of Independence and religion into the Bill of Rights. And the Constitution itself was a pragmatic rather than perfectionist document, devised to rely broadly on state traditional norms and limited national rules of law.

Together, even today’s public beliefs and remaining institutional strengths may provide a political beginning. But as Ratzinger argued, the first battle is basically epistemological, for public intellectuals to understand that freedom comes only from law, that law only makes sense with limits, and that reason is only reasonable when derived from tradition.