The late Pope Benedict XVI’s writing as an antidote to the regime’s spell

On the day of Pope Benedict XVI’s death, one journalist commented that “never has there been such a disconnect between the public perception of a man and the human reality.” The comment rightly highlighted that the popular image of Joseph Ratzinger as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ never matched his real character or the depth of his thought.

This depth is reflected in disconnects concerning Benedict among the Catholic-adjacent Right. Some see Ratzinger as a great champion of traditionalism, which he was only in a nuanced sense. Others see him as a hopeless modernist, which he definitely wasn’t. But one can’t explain why people think he’s a modernist without explaining the nuances of his traditionalism.

Three central elements of Ratzinger’s pre-papal writings show the sense of the man and also illuminate salient current themes. The first is his lifelong concern with the classical heritage of the Catholic faith. As stated by the encyclical Fides et Ratio, “the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought”.

It might seem strange that so-called “Roman” Catholicism could do otherwise, but following from the 1960s there were many who saw the classical heritage of Catholic doctrine as expendable. Ratzinger was accused of being Eurocentric for claiming otherwise, with one leading professor rebuking him for being ill-equipped to align comfortably with the “multiculturality” of the contemporary West.

(“Yes,” you might think.)

But Benedict was never saying Greek and Latin philosophy are superior to other philosophies in any straightforward sense. His point was that classical philosophy is where universal truth was perceived by the light of human logos, which made it the optimum setting for the universal truth of the Divine Logos to take root and flower as Christendom. And he also acknowledged that many of the positions of Enlightenment philosophy have a similar universality to classical philosophy. He said the principle “that religion cannot be imposed by the state,” and a “respect for the fundamental rights of man,” for example, are truths that are “generally valid”.

A second element of Ratzinger’s thought is romanticism – and specifically German romanticism. As described by Theo Danouk, romanticism means understanding a nation as an “organic outgrowth” of a people who “share historical and social-cultural practices” including language, religion, and art. Culture is the term that captures all this, like Strauss’s definition of politeia as regime. The term refers to “simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life, its moral taste, form of society, form of government, spirit of laws.”

So while Ratzinger argues that Enlightenment principles are “generally valid,” he also maintains that such principles were gestated exclusively in Christian contexts, and they cannot “be reached in the same manner in every historical context.” This is why he opposed Turkey joining the EU – as “seeking to plant on Muslim soil the secular attitude that has matured in the Christian world of Europe.”

Ratzinger’s romanticism is mainly expressed through his writings on cultures, which he saw as highly distinct reflections of different contexts. As the 19th-century theologian Johann Adam Möhler puts it:

“Each nation is endowed with a peculiar character, stamped on the deepest, most hidden parts of its being, which distinguishes it from all other nations, and manifests its peculiarity in public and domestic life, in art and science; in short, in every relation.”  

Many of Ratzinger’s contemporaries saw culture as a merely accidental set of local ‘quirks’ which can be arbitrarily adopted by whomever – not as something profoundly formative on the “deepest, most hidden parts” of our being. But Ratzinger applies this same principle to Catholicism itself. Catholicism is universal, yes, but also a culture. Taking the faith to the ends of the earth, Ratzinger claimed, meant habituating others to this culture, not just reimagining it in other cultural forms. Different cultures might have “moral tastes” or approaches to “art and science” which simply can’t correlate with the faith.

Ratzinger held modern culture to evince moral tastes which are incapable of assimilation with Catholicism. Hence his famous condemnation of rock music, as reflecting a “self-centered concept of freedom” in which celebrating “release” from “responsibility” makes it “completely antithetical” to the faith.

Ratzinger’s final claim is perhaps the most prophetic. After recognizing people’s unease about the Western lineage of Catholicism, he points out that no one has this same unease about the global spread of technology, whose roots are also Western. He argues technology offers an insidious and destructive imposition of Western norms – including some of the worst aspects of Western cultures.

Modern technological civilization, Ratzinger wrote in 1993, “deeply encroaches upon the basic understanding of man, the world and God,” it “changes standards and behavior.” For Ratzinger, technology is attractive to people because it is essentially “magic, in the broadest sense of the world” which “promises power over the world.” This dark power, as we see it now, is avoidance of the world, today’s techno-Gnosticism on steroids.

Ratzinger held fast to classical heritage as a locus of truth which intertwined with divine revelation in the earliest centuries of Christianity. His thought remained sensitive to the distinctness and formative power of cultures as more than transferable ‘quirks’ in a globalized world. Modern culture should itself be critiqued in terms of its formative influence, he argued, and technology has a dark side – not too dissimilar from the ancient demonic rites of that original magic against which the early Church battled.

The legacy media discourse surrounding Benedict XVI’s death has been dominated by speculation about intra-ecclesial power struggles: the circumstances surrounding his resignation, and what future awaits conservative and traditionalist members of the Church now that he has gone. The themes of his pre-papal writing, however, are still very much alive – and in newly intensified forms – among those who are wise to the regime’s spell.

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London and the author of “Obedience is Freedom“.

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