Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on acknowledging the Source of rationality
On April 1, 2005 — the day before Pope John Paul II died — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger received the St. Benedict Award for the promotion of life and the family in Europe. During the award ceremony held in the convent of Saint Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy, Cardinal Ratzinger gave an address titled “Europe in the Crisis of Cultures.” In 2004, a heated debate was waged over whether the text of a new European Constitution should explicitly mention the role of Christianity in shaping European culture. A number of Christian leaders insisted that a more vague reference to “religious values” failed to recognize the Christian distinctives that acounted for the shape of Europe’s cultural formation.
In his address, Cardinal Ratzinger examined the clash in modern Europe — and I might add, as an American, in the modern West more broadly — between two competing forms of rationality: a reason open to the transcendent and a calculating, functional, instrumental reason, defined and exercised within a purely immanent framework. He saw Europe presented with a choice between ordering its life in accord with an Enlightement understanding of reason — a reason without God and hence without adequate grounds for human dignity — or a reason ordered toward God, a reason formed by the Logos who is Love.
The text of the lecture was published in the journal Communio, and later published in book form as Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Here are some excerpts from the lecture:
“Of course, Christianity did not start in Europe, and so cannot be classified as a European religion, the religion of the European cultural realm. But it was precisely in Europe that Christianity received its most historically influential cultural and intellectual form, and it therefore remains intertwined with Europe in a special way. On the other hand, it is also true that, beginning with the Renaissance, and then in complete form with the Enlightenment, this same Europe also developed the scientific rationality that not only led to the geographical unity of the world, to the meeting of continents and cultures in the age of discovery, but that now, thanks to the technological culture made possible by science, much more deeply places its stamp on what is now truly the whole world, indeed, in a certain sense reduces the world to uniformity. And, in the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a way hitherto unknown to humanity, excludes God from public consciousness, whether he is totally denied or whether his existence is judged to be indemonstrable, uncertain, and so is relegated to the domain of subjective choices, as something in any case irrelevant for public life. This purely functional rationality, to give it a name, has revolutionized moral conscience in a way that is equally new with respect to all hitherto existing cultures, inasmuch as it claims that only what is experimentally provable is rational. Since morality belongs to an entirely different sphere, it disappears as a category in its own right, and so has to be identified in some alternative fashion, since no one can deny that, after all, we still do need morality in one form or another. In a world based on calculation, it is the calculation of consequences that decides what is to count as moral or immoral. And so the category of the good, which Kant had put front and center, disappears. Nothing is good or evil in itself, everything depends on the consequences that can be foreseen for a given action. Although, on the one hand, Christianity found its most influential form in Europe, we must also say, on the other hand, that Europe has developed a culture that most radically contradicts, not only Christianity, but the religious and moral traditions of humanity as well. This helps us understand that Europe is going through a true ‘stress test’; it also helps us understand the radical nature of the tensions that our continent has to face. But also, and above all, what it brings to light is the responsibility that we Europeans have to assume at this moment in history: what is at stake in the debate about the definition of Europe, about its new political form, is not some nostalgic battle at the ‘rearguard’ of history, but rather a great responsibility for the humanity of today. . . .
“From its very beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the logos, as the religion according to reason. It found its precursor, not primarily in the other religions, but in the philosophical enlightenment that cleared the way of traditions in order to devote itself to the pursuit of the true and the good, of the one God who is above all the gods. As a religion of the persecuted, as a universal religion that reached beyond states and peoples, Christianity denied the state the right to regard religion as a part of its own order, and so claimed freedom for faith. It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures of God and images of God, and has always in principle proclaimed their equal dignity, albeit within the inevitable limits of given societies. In this sense, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is not an accident that it came to birth precisely and exclusively in the domain of Christian faith. True, in that very domain Christianity had unfortunately contradicted its own nature by becoming a state tradition and a state religion. Despite the fact that philosophy, as a quest for rationality — including the rationality of faith — had always been the prerogative of Christianity, the voice of reason had been too much tamed. The merit of the Enlightenment was to insist once again on these original values of Christianity and to give reason back its voice. . . .
“That having been said, the two parties need to reflect on themselves and to be ready for self-correction. Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the logos. It is a faith in the Creator Spiritus, the source of all reality. This faith ought to energize Christianity philosophically in our day, since the problem we now face is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is therefore nothing but a ‘byproduct,’ and perhaps a harmful one, of its development — or whether the world comes from reason, so that reason is the world’s criterion and aim. The Christian faith tends towards the second position. From the purely philosophical point of view, then, it has a truly strong hand to play, despite the fact that many today consider the first position alone to be “rational” and modern. But a reason that springs forth from the irrational and that, in the end, is itself irrational, is no answer to our problems. Only creative reason, which has manifested itself as love in the crucified God, can show us the way.
“In the necessary dialogue between Catholics and the secular-minded, we Christians have to take special care to remain faithful to this basic principle: we have to live a faith that comes from the logos, from creative reason, and that is therefore open to all that is truly rational. But at this point I would like, as a believer, to make a proposal to secular folk. The Enlightenment attempted to define the essential norms of morality while claiming that they would be valid etsi Deus non daretur, even if God did not exist. In the midst of confessional conflict and the crisis of the image of God, the attempt was made to keep the essential moral values free of contradiction and to undergird them with an evidence that would make them independent of the many divisions and uncertainties of the various philosophies and confessions. The idea was to secure the bases of coexistence and, in general, the bases of humanity. At that time, this seemed possible, inasmuch as the great basic convictions created by Christianity still held and still seemed undeniable. But this is no longer the case. The quest for a reassuring certitude that could stand uncontested beyond all differences has failed. Not even Kant, for all of his undeniable greatness, was able to create the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God is knowable within the domain of pure reason, but, at the same time, he thought of God, freedom, and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which it was impossible to act morally in any consistent way. Doesn’t the situation of the world today make us wonder whether he might not have been right after all? Let me put it differently: the extreme attempt to fashion the things of man without any reference to God leads us ever closer to the edge of the abyss, to the total abolition of man. We therefore have good reason to turn the Enlightenment axiom on its head and to say that even those who are unable to accept God should nonetheless try to live veluti si Deus daretur, as if God existed. This was the advice that Pascal gave to his non-believing friends; it is also the advice that we would like to give to our non-believing friends today as well. Thus, no one’s freedom is restricted, but everything human gets the support and the criterion it so urgently needs.
“What we most need at this moment of history are men who make God visible in this world through their enlightened and lived faith. The negative witness of Christians who spoke of God but lived against him obscured his image and opened the door to unbelief. We need men who have their eyes fixed straight on God, and who learn from him what true humanity is. We need men whose intellects have been enlightened by the light of God and whose hearts have been opened by God, so that their intellects can speak to others’ intellects and their hearts can open others’ hearts. God returns among men only through men who are touched by God.”
Oliver O’Donovan and his mentor, George B. Caird, offer lessons from the book of Revelation for thinking about politics
In the Introduction to his 2005 book The Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan described a crisis in Western politics. “Western civilization finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them. Faced with decisions about their future development it has no way of telling what counts as improvement and what as subversion. It cannot tell where ‘straight ahead’ lies, let alone whether it ought to keep on going there.”
I think Dr. O’Donovan would agree that this civilizational crisis has only deepened in the intervening fifteen years, and that it shows no signs of subsiding. As various confrontations in recent years have made clear, the very idea of political authority has become increasingly unintelligible in the modern West, largely due to fateful false steps taken in the development of modern ideas about society, community, personhood, freedom, historical change. For decades, O’Donovan’s work has borne witness to the claim he made in the opening pages of The Ways of Judgment: that Christian political thought – when pursued faithfully and in light of the testimony of revelation and of the theought of the premodern Church — “has an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened.” Christian political theology has the capacity to defend “the coherence of political conceptions as such.” In fact, O’Donovan asserts, “this coherence depends in important and surprising ways upon the faith expressed in the creeds.”
In an age in which most Christians — scholars, politicians, and laypeople — strive to reduce the framework of their political reflections to terms that could be endorsed by civic-minded Deists or even atheists, O’Donovan has insisted that facts of the redemptive work of God in history — centered on the Incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and coming return of Christ — must be perspective points for thinking well about politics. Consider, for example, his insistence that any adequate evaluation of claims about social or political “progress” needs to take into consideration the Biblical account of how the Christocentric ends of history are certain to be counterfeited, especially as modern Western societies strive to set aside their Christian heritage:
“The possibilities open to society with history and memory of the Gospel proclamation do not include naïve malevolence, but only a formation that is demonic to the extent that it is not redeemed and redemptive. . . . The redemptive reality within history becomes the occasion for disclosure of the historical possibilities of evil, an evil shaped in imitation and replication of the redemptive good. Personalised interpretations of the Antichrist theme, which lie buried like fossils in the palaeontological deposit of religious thought, have tended to conceal the importance of the Antichrist conception precisely as an interpretation of the dynamic possibilities of society. For society has become a historical reality within the saving purposes of God. Social evil is not always regression, barbarism, turning back to the primitive esse from the bene esse. It must, under historical conditions, become precisely misdirected progress, corrupt sophistication, the idolisation of historical evolution. Though political experience continues to be troubled by regressive movements, the worst, and the most characteristically twentieth-century, evils of political experience have been progressive.”
Readers may be forgiven their surprise at encountering referenced to the Antichrist in the work of a long-time Oxford professor. But one hopes their surprise gives way to humble receptivity. In a 1986 article titled “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation,” O’Donovan acknowledged a debt of gratitude to New Testament scholar George B. Caird, “whose commentary (The Revelation of St. John the Divine [London: A. & C. Black, 1966]) taught me how to read the Apocalypse.”
In this tempestuous election year, I’ve been studying Caird’s commentary in the hopes of securing deeper understanding of our own political moment. Here are two extracts from the book, the first from the opening of his discussion of chapter 6, with its seven seals and four horsemen:
“For all the haunting quality of John’s poetry, the hymns sung by the heavenly choir in honour of the Lamb have not revealed any new truth. It was the common belief of the whole early church that the exalted Christ had taken his seat on the heavenly throne at God’s right hand, there to reign as Messiah and Lord; and this belief was based on a psalm which declared that the Messiah was destined so to reign until God had put all his enemies under his feet (Ps. cx. 1; cf. Mark xii. 35–37; Acts ii. 33 ff.; v. 31; vii. 55 ff.; Romans viii. 34; I Cor xv. 25; Eph. i. 20; Col. iii. 1; Heb. i. 3, 13; x. 12 f.; I Pet. iii. 22). If John has something new to communicate about the reign of Christ, it is because he insists on taking the traditional belief with the utmost seriousness. It is not enough to assert that Christ’s reign is already established in heaven and will ultimately be established on earth also at his Parousia; for heavenly events must have here and now their earthly counterparts. It is not enough for him to hold that the regnant Christ reigns over the hearts of those who love him, that he reigns only insofar as men by obedience and loyalty allow him to reign. He believes that Christ is already the ‘ruler of earthly kings’ (1. 5). Unless Christ can be said to reign over the world of hard facts in which Christians must live their lives, he can hardly be said to reign at all.
“During the last thirty-five years of his life John has lived through a series of grim events which might well seem a challenge to the Christian belief in the kingship of Christ: the earthquakes of A.D. 60 (Tac. Ann. xiv. 27); the humiliating defeat of the Roman army on the eastern frontier by the Parthian Vologeses in A.D. 62 (Tac. Ann. xv. 13–17; the persecution of the Christians which followed the fire of Rome in A.D. 64 (Tac. Ann. xv. 44); the four-year horror of the Jewish war which ended in A.D. 70 with Jerusalem in ruins; the suicide of Nero in A.D. 68 and the political chaos which ensued as four claimants battled for the imperial throne, and for a whole year the Roman world echoed to the tramp of marching armies; the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 which had obliterated the luxury resorts of the Bay of Naples and created a pall of darkness so widespread that men feared the imminent dissolution of the physical order (Pliney, Ep. vi. 16); and the serious grain famine of A.D. 92 (Suet. Dom. 7). John’s vision of the four horsemen is intended to assert Christ’s sovereignty over such a world as that.”
In the summarizing final chapter of his commentary, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation,” Caird sounds some similar notes:
“John’s faith in God is all the more remarkable because he was at all points a realist. He was a realist in his appraisal of the churches with their little strength and their variegated weakness, so realistic that we can still recognize in them the churches to which we ourselves belong; yet he never doubted God’s ability to clothe the church in the robe of purity and perfection which would make her a fit bride for the Lamb. He was a realist in his grasp of the power and splendour of imperial Rome and of her ability to crush the church, in his analysis of the real nature of the forces that were devastating the earth, so realistic indeed that his world, once we understand it, is very little different from our world; yet he never doubted that in the battle between the monster and the Lamb the ultimate victory would go to the Lamb. He himself had stood in a Roman court of justice, fortunate to escape with his life, and he believed that countless other Christians must stand where he had stood; yet he remained confident that every verdict of such a court must be either upheld or reversed before the superior court of the great white throne.”
Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis warned against surrogate contrition
In March 1940, C. S. Lewis wrote a column in The Guardian titled “The Dangers of National Repentance.” England had only recently entered the Second World War, and a number of young Anglican intellectuals were urging their fellow citizens to recognize penitently the extent to which England and other enemies of Germany in the war of 1914–1918 had created the conditions that gave rise to this new conflict. Lewis — who had been wounded in the Great War and whose brother Warnie was at the time of the column’s composition stationed in France — perceived a perilous temptation presented by activists eager to repent on behalf of their elders.
“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is . . . the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing — but, first, of denouncing — the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’ . . .
“Is it not, then, the duty of the Church to preach national repentance? I think it is. But the office — like many others — can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance. We know that a man may have to ‘hate’ his mother for the Lord’s sake. The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her — that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling before it in the unnatural — the spectacle becomes merely disgusting.”
— from “The Dangers of National Repentance” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970)
Note: A reading of this essay by C. S. Lewis is available here.
Thaddeus J. Kozinski on reading modernity’s symptoms wisely (and wonder-fully)
“In a remarkable passage, Alasdair MacIntyre zeroes in on the essence of modernity’s peculiar disease:
“‘We have within our social order few if any social milieus within which reflective and critical inquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained. . . . This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.’
“What MacIntyre is saying, I think, is that the culture of modernity is a culture without wonder, and since without wonder there is no awe, as Plato taught us, modern culture tends to preclude the experience of that which is most awesome, God. What is the antidote to this? MacIntyre once said that we need a new Benedict, but I wonder if we couldn’t add Socrates to the list. Dietrich von Hildebrand describes the Socratic, questioning, wondering spirit as
“‘the inner willingness which is not closed against even the most unpleasant truth, which is really free from bias, ready to make friends with things, open to the proof of all objective existence, not looking at things through a colored lens that allows only such things to pass into the understanding as do not offend our pride and self complacency.’
“The existence of even one person with a genuine spirit of erotic, Socratic questioning, a soul with true metaphysical courage, is, I think, the most effective antidote to the suffocating, anti-questioning, partial-truth culture we live in, in both its traditionalist and modernist varieties. Those who believe themselves to have obtained answers without having first endured the existential agony of questioning the darkness, whether because they have judged that there are no answers, or because they believe themselves to be already quite securely possessed of dogmatic certitude, need to recognize in such an attitude neither a humble disposition of ignorance nor pious submission to God's word, but a type of idolatry, the idolatry of partial thinking.”
— from Thaddeus J. Kozinski, Modernity as Apocalypse: Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (Angelico Press, 2019)
Aquinas, Augustine, and Aristotle on good government
“In the second book of the Politica we study the constitutions of the various Greek states. Thomas accepts Aristotle’s inductive bases, and will employ them in his work De regimine principum. In the nature of man he finds the origin and the necessity of a social authority, represented in varying degree by the father in the family, by the leader in the community, by the sovereign in the kingdom.
“He distinguishes, further, good government from bad. Good government has three forms: monarchical, where one alone rules, aristocratic, where several rule, democratic, where the rule is by representatives elected by the multitude. But each of these forms may degenerate: monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, democracy into mob-rule The best form of government he finds in monarchy, but, to exclude tyranny, he commends a mixed constitution, which provides, at the monarch’s side, aristocratic and democratic elements in the administration of public affairs. Yet, he adds, if monarchy in fact degenerates into tyranny, the tyranny, to avoid greater evils, should be patiently tolerated. If, however, tyranny becomes unbearable, the people may intervene, particularly in an elective monarchy. It is wrong to kill the tyrant. He must be left to the judgment of God, who, with infinite wisdom, rewards or punishes all rulers of men.
“On the evils of election by a degenerate people, where demagogues obtain the suffrages, he remarks, citing St. Augustine, that the elective power should, if it be possible, be taken from the multitude and restored to those who are good. St. Augustine’s words run thus: ‘If a people gradually becomes depraved, if it sells its votes, if it hands over the government to wicked and criminal men, then that power of conferring honors is rightly taken from such a people and restored to those few who are good.’”
— from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought (Herder, 1950)