Benedict Departs, but the Presence Endures

“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 Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of 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 available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.