The Catholic Thing
Benedict Departs, but the Presence Endures Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 26 February 2013

“It must be borne in mind,” he wrote, “that no error could persist unless it contained a grain of truth.  Indeed, an error is all the more dangerous the greater that grain of truth is, for then the temptation it exerts is all the greater.”  

So wrote Cardinal Ratzinger in 1984.  The danger in question was that of “liberation theology,” offering itself in the name of deep sympathies for the poor, but working, inescapably, “to recast the whole Christian reality.”  The language and the scheme was Marxist.  The emphasis on the Bible put the accent on History, and in good Marxist-Hegelian terms, the unfolding of History would now become the source of “revelation” and “the real interpreter of the Bible.”  History, then, would become the “real bringer of salvation.”  In this way, “the concept of history swallows up the concepts of God and of Revelation.”

A large part of the power of Joseph Ratzinger’s writing was that he could recognize that “grain of truth” contained in the argument of his adversaries.  He would give them the deep respect of taking them seriously.  And in recognizing that grain of truth they had in hand, or the ground of their decent motives, he would penetrate to the root of things.  He would run deeper than they were capable of running, and in uncovering the source of the fallacies that beguiled them, he would make ever clearer the truths they were missing at the very core of things.

But suddenly, this week, it kicks in:  He really is leaving.  By the end of this week, the papacy of Benedict XVI will have ended. What makes it all the more jolting is that he has been such a vivid presence for so long – since well before he ascended to the papacy in 2005.  Part of the wonder and astonishment for some of us in 2005 was that the man who had been such a towering intellectual presence would actually be elevated by his “colleagues” to the head of affairs.  

But that may simply be a sign of the fact that the electorate here showed a certain clear-headedness – and humility. They were able to recognize a figure among them whose force as a teacher truly exceeded their own.  No doubt with the Holy Spirit offering a Helping Hand.

In the writings of John Paul II one would be struck instantly by the piety, and very quickly it would become apparent that one was in the presence of an accomplished philosopher.  With Benedict I had a sense of things slightly reversed. It would be apparent on the first page that one was listening to a world-class philosopher, and the piety would soon come through, quite as powerful and glowing.  

         Cardinal Ratzinger in 1984 

Part of the oddity of this moment is that he is receding from the papacy even when, as it seems to me, his force as a writer and teacher is unimpaired.

He took the name of Benedict in order to focus on the restoration of Europe and the West, and the central problem, the central danger, was the corrosive force of moral relativism.  He would write, as pope, on the “dictatorship of relativism.”  But his teaching in this vein had long preceded his elevation to the papacy.  

The assault on reason had come, in aggressive form, from the Communists and Fascists with their “pathology of reason” – their powers of calculation detached from any moral grounding.  But the dangers now came even from within the Church. There were those nuns and priests, thinking tenderly but thinking faintly. They would be drawn to “liberation theology” without quite realizing the line they were crossing as they absorbed a Marxist-materialist view of the world. 

There were notable Catholic jurists who rejected natural law because they didn’t think it would command wide agreement. But as Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in 1999, the lawyers put their accent on the “common convictions of citizens” when they had lost their confidence that they could find, in the natural law, the standards of judgment on right and wrong.

In his famous Regensburg Address in 2006, he ignited a storm of protest when he dared to suggest a certain tendency in Islam to beget violent jihadism, or a willingness to seek conversion through lethal coercion.  And yet Benedict might have been bringing off a trick-of-the-eye with rhetorical skill. He identified the problem here with the most strident and lethal denial of reason in jihadism. 

But the problem he took as the most decisive had its origins really in Protestantism, with its rejection of natural law and moral reasoning as instruments that could deny the freedom and supremacy of God. That rejection of moral reasoning in the name of faith (or sola scriptura) was reinforced by the drift in philosophy to separate theology from philosophy, faith from reason.  Religion would be reduced then to subjective beliefs cut off from the things we can reliably know.  And a philosophy determined to drive theology out of its domain ends up, in its sweep of skepticism, by driving reason out of philosophy itself.

Benedict challenged the best that the secular worlds could offer up in their defense by their most prestigious philosophers. And he forced them in turn to rise in meeting him.  His arguments will be with us to be read and read again, and to teach us anew, even if he retires now to the quiet of his study.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 26, 2013
The “grain of truth” in the Protestantism’s “rejection of natural law and moral reasoning,” has been a theme of the nouvelle théologie, ever since Laberthonnière accused the Neo-Thomists of being influenced by “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.”.

Thus, Maurice Blondel, insisted that we must never forget “that one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly complete (boucle), even in the sheerly natural order”

Jacques Maritain, too, declared that “the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being . . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account”
written by Jacob, February 26, 2013
A true scholar's pope.

I can only trust that God has some reasons I can't understand for this.

The way he angered violent Islamists and militant leftists was the most convincing possible proof for me of what a wonderful and blessed pope we had.
written by Ray Hunkins, February 26, 2013
Thank you Professor Arkes for this most insightful piece on our Holy Father. Let us pray that his work will continue to influence the affairs of the Church and most certainly, the coming gathering in Rome.
written by Chris in Maryland, February 26, 2013
I love Pope Benedict. Thank you for honoring him Prof. Arkes...and all of you at The Catholic Thing, especially Fr. Schall...who pointed me, with so many others, toward Joseph Ratzinger.
written by Stanley Anderson, February 26, 2013
Hadley Arkes wrote, "What makes it all the more jolting is that he has been such a vivid presence for so long – since well before he ascended to the papacy in 2005." It suddenly strikes me that this is actually a source of great comfort for the distress of all of us who lament his retirement, since if he had such a vivid presence well before his ascendancy to the papacy, we can probably expect an equally vivid presence well after his retirement from the papacy.
written by Maggie-Louise, February 26, 2013
A wonderful tribute to our Holy Father, Professor Arkes. Thank you.

The other day I began to read again a book that I had read years ago: "This Tremendous Lover" by M. Eugene Boylan. The first line of the "Introduction" that I began this morning was this:
"It is beyond the power of any human mind to know or measure the depths of sorrow that filled the Heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. One thing, however, we do know: that His sorrows were begotten of love, . . ."

I think that the same can be said of Pope Benedict.
written by Louise, February 26, 2013
Hadley, Your reminder of his long influence helps me understand my feelings better. He has been an anchor for us for so many years that it's much more than his time as pope. It also reminds me that I have always trusted his judgment and can do so now. Perhaps the harvest is so ripe that God has another man in mind to go out and collect it. After all, what else is left to compete with Catholicism for all the reasons you articulate.
written by Tony Esolen, February 26, 2013
I feel, when I am reading Pope Benedict, that whatever was valid from the exegetical critics of the twentieth century has been sifted and weighed, and then combined again with the teachings of the Church over the last two millennia. Every page has gold. But it isn't the scholar that I hear the clearest. It's the lover of Jesus, and Christendom, and everything good in human nature; filtered just a little through the sober German mind (as in his teacher Guardini). The next Pope had better be humble ...
written by Maristel harris, February 27, 2013
Thank you for putting out good writings about catholicism. We love pope benedict. One of friends eho is a priest said . People went to rome to see pope john paul 2 while peopl went to rome to hear pope benedict speak. Thanks to all writers like you there is some good out in the internet world.

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