Farewell, Pope of Popes
Joseph Ratzinger warned us that the West faced a new dark age emanating from scientific laboratories, mendacious media, the corruption of democracy and the influence of the UN and other such bodies.
There is a funny anecdote — perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not — that went around the place in the interregnum between the announcement of the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of his successor. It was said that the pope was being interviewed by a journalist and was discussing the process by which the new pope would be elected. The journalist was fixated on the coming conclave, and the internal politics pertaining thereto. The pope, impatient with this line of questioning, intervened to redirect the conversation.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘it is the Holy Spirit who elects the pope.’ Here, he paused before continuing: ‘And the Holy Spirit only occasionally makes a mistake!’
We might like it to be true, for it would confirm all the more definitively what we already know about the capacity of insight, prescience, frankness, irony and intelligence of this man, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI — a laconic message for the world as though from a kidnap victim ordered to broadcast a statement concerning the determination of his captors, who uses the opportunity to issue a coded message in the hope of conveying the true situation. It would add, too, its own layer of black irony, arising from the possibility that Pope Benedict already knew what was about to unfold, implying that his departure was to some extent involuntary, that what he had once called the ‘filth’ of the Church had finally caught up with him, forcing him to withdraw from the battlefield he had graced with unprecedented fluency and intelligence for half a century.
Another random tale from the frontline of the Ratzinger media wars: At the time of Benedict XVI’s announcement in 2013 that he was to step down as pope, I was writing for The Irish Times, still a reasonably decent and respectable newspaper. One day, I was speaking on the phone to one of my editors — to whose ambivalent care I had filed more than a few robust defences of Pope Benedict XVI — when he suddenly remembered he had something important to tell me: He’d been speaking to a senior Italian diplomat who had confided in him the real reason why the Pope resigned.
‘Really?’ I prompted.
‘Oh yes,’ he replied. ‘It’s because he no longer believes in God!’ He paused momentarily before the punchline: ‘He’s too intelligent for that!’
Ah! — a none-too-subtly coded message: Faith is incompatible with intelligence and now your hero has tacitly admitted as much. Where does that leave you?
The episode is emblematic of several syndromes. Of course, it gives a sense of the kinds of conversations that may occur between journalists and senior Italian diplomats, but also a measure of insight into the media hostility towards Pope Benedict. Really, the thing that most bothered the commentariat about Ratzinger/Benedict was that he was so utterly, undeniably brilliant, his every word so coherent and irrefutable. His brilliance was not only a threat to their programme but also an accusation: ‘You’re missing something, maybe even everything!’ His resignation therefore came as a great relief — now they wouldn’t have to work so hard at corrupting every word of the pope’s before publication, or spend every waking moment tinkering with the narrative to ensure a consistency of negativity.
The ideology that contemporary editors and journalists are enjoined to disseminate makes such a mindset essential. The allotted mission is to make the world free for human desire understood in its crudest form, by the constant insinuation of what Benedict XVI, in one of his crystal phrases, termed ‘false infinities’. Such verbal precision made it unsurprising that virtually his every word had to be twisted beyond recognition before being passed into the mainstream. In these days of mass hypnosis by nonsense and mendacity, slurs and smears travel farther and faster than words of beauty and hope. So, for our catchword-clotted media, Ratzinger was the ‘grim enforcer’, the ‘Panzer-Cardinal’, The ‘Pope’s Policeman’, ‘God’s Rottweiler’, a renegade ‘liberal’ who had become an implacable enemy of ‘progress’, the ‘Man who couldn’t laugh’. Pope Benedict, having spent his life peering into the culture of which such malevolence was a central element, was unfazed. There is no existential condition of the modern age — scepticism, relativism, positivism, unreason, despair, nihilism, boredom — which he did not lay bare with the greatest tenderness and reason.
In an age of which Doubting Thomas might plausibly be deemed the patron saint, Ratzinger/Benedict spoke in two languages, sometimes intertwined: the languages of the Beyond and the ‘here below’. See the young Joseph Ratzinger, svelte and smiling in his black priest’s uniform, hair whitened from the heat of his mind, speaking to the inhabitants of the manmade world in a language that seemed effortlessly to translate the Word of the Godly city into the idiom of the earthly metropolis and shanty-town. This fragile body has in our time been as the filament in a floodlight of reason that has sometimes seemed capable of re-illuminating the world. Most of the time, he did the heavy generating while never moving from his couch, horizontal as a saint.
In his Foreword to Last Testament, the last of his four-part dialogue with Peter Seewald, his interlocutor described Pope Benedict as ‘the philosopher of God’. Yes, but he was also the theologian of the humble human seeker, extending the Word of God into the modern world, explaining, illuminating, synthesising, always striving to reconcile the altered desiring and reasoning of humanity with the Word that was always his touchstone.His adaptation of theology as an instrument of engagement with the modern world ranks him alongside singular figures like Václav Havel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as a practitioner of thought and curator of public conscience, though Joseph Ratzinger was a different kind of dissident: The others, driven underground by regimes whose tyranny had become incontrovertible, became, for a time at least, unambiguous heroes to their peoples and times. Ratzinger appeared to belong to an establishment — he became Pope, after all — but was really the voice of dissidence from a darkening future, a free radical before his time. Even in ‘retirement’, he remained the most eloquent voice of God in the world.
In a series of radio talks delivered in 1969, when he was a youngish professor of theology in Ragensburg, Joseph Ratzinger had spoken of the future of the Church as a marginal, slimmed-down operation, with far fewer members and churches — ignored, humiliated and resented, socially irrelevant, starting over. He predicted that this Church would survive and, in its marginality, become stronger and more vital, but along the way would suffer many trials. The lecture was delivered at a moment of unparalleled turmoil in the Church and in European society — post Vatican II, the immediate wake of the student uprisings of ’68. Ratzinger had already begun his chosen exile from the centre of Church affairs, having split from fellow theologians, including Hans Küng and Karl Rahner, over their public interpretations of the deliberations of the Council. He warned that the Church was going through an era akin to the French Revolution or the Enlightenment, comparing the moment to the incarceration of Pope Pius VI, abducted by French troops and cast into prison, where he died in 1799. ‘We are,’ he said, ‘at a turning point in the evolution of mankind.’ The Church, he warned, now faced a similar foe, just as determined to destroy it, to confiscate its property and criminalise its priests and nuns. The Church would become smaller and would have to start all over again. ‘It will no longer have use of the structures it built in the years of prosperity. The reduction of the number of faithful will lead it to lose an important part of its social privileges . . . It will be a more spiritual Church, and will not claim a political mandate, flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.’ This process, he predicted, would last a long time. ‘But when all the suffering is past, a great power will emerge from a more simple and spiritual Church.’ This moment would come when the people on the outside arrived at the realisation that, having lost sight of God, they were living in a world of ‘indescribable solitude’, would come to recognise ‘the horror of their poverty’ and to see the ‘small flock of the faithful’ as something completely new. ‘They will see it as a source of hope for themselves, the answer they had always secretly been searching for.’
Accordingly, one of many tiresome liberal clichés about Joseph Ratzinger is that he was a moderniser who ‘turned’, to become an arch-traditionalist, harking back to the past. This falsehood goes back to Vatican II, when the young Professor Ratzinger, who attended as theological adviser to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, was first deemed a ‘progressive’. He has not rejected the label, but explained to Peter Seewald that, at that time, it meant something different than what it would come to mean: ‘not breaking out of the faith, but that you wanted to understand better, and more accurately, how it lives from its origins’. The change in meaning was already detectable at the time of Vatican II, but ‘only began to loom clearly with the passing of the years.’ An interesting aspect of these controversies is the way selective interpretations of the Second Vatican Council have since come to be employed to depict the Church as though some kind of political party, concerned with the administration of earthly matters. Such interventions, Ratzinger frequently observed, were based upon a refusal to read the text of Vatican II, or — worse — upon its calculated division into two parts: an ‘acceptable’ progressive part and an ‘unacceptable’ old-fashioned’ part. He wanted none of it. Vatican II must be read, he insisted, in the context of what came before. One of the greatest threats to the Church, he constantly reminded the faithful, is public pressure for a watered down, appeasing Christianity. And, as he told Peter Seewald for their second book of interviews, God and the World (2002), ‘I think the situation may absolutely develop here in which there must be resistance against the dictatorship of this apparent tolerance, which eliminates the scandal of the faith by declaring it intolerant.’
Ratzinger’s ‘trade’ might be called the science of the unknown, the realm beyond the three-dimensional, which — for all that we may be unable to penetrate it — nevertheless defines the structure and nature of the world and the flesh and blood factuality of our humanity. He early on recognised that we had entered a new age, in which man had given oxygen to a culture utterly inimical to the religious impulse. He saw that, although faith is incessantly exposed to the influence of culture, this had ceased to work the other way around. And, since all cultures are necessarily founded on religious ideas, the eclipsing of God in culture inevitably invited destruction. Belonging to God, he wrote in Theology of the Liturgy, ‘means emerging from the state of separation, of apparent autonomy, of existing only for oneself and in oneself. It means losing oneself as the only possible way of finding oneself.’ The problem is not simply humanity’s escalating remoteness from God, but that, in becoming ‘dissimilar’ to God, mankind becomes ‘dissimilar to itself’, to what being human truly is.’
The core problem he identified as the mutilation of reason in its detachment from transcendent concerns. Faith and reason, he insisted, need each other to truly become themselves. Without the mutual purification they provide, either element risks becoming pathological. When faith does not have reason, it becomes fanatical, unhinged; but reason without faith loses its very roots, since true reason is more than logic, or technocratic demonstrability. ‘Without faith,’ he wrote in Truth and Tolerance, ‘philosophy cannot be whole, but faith without reason cannot be human.’
Although there could have been little doubt about his determination to take the Church back to fundamentals, Pope John Paul II had been a highly charismatic and avuncular figure, whose uncompromising moralism was largely offset by his populist image and global voyaging. Although most commentators on Church affairs rejected his message, they also welcomed his populism and celebrated his charisma, embracing him like a slightly cantankerous venerable rock star whose occasional bluntness could be overlooked by virtue of his success at the box office. Pope Benedict, however, offered a different proposition. A longtime loyal lieutenant of Pope John Paul, the fact that he was widely regarded as the most brilliant theologian of his time cut little ice with media commentators. In truth, journalists regarded him as the worst of all possible popes: traditionalist, reticent, soft-spoken, given to long and complex sentences, and utterly rejecting of their view of the world. Benedict was, by the secular media analysis, a stop-gap and a throwback, a reactionary, a ‘right-winger’, an obscurantist. But what emerged, in spite of the scribes, was what had already been implicit in his magisterial writings over several decades: a supreme intellect mounted in a highly animated humanity, a man who in his lifetime had watched mankind lurch between great good and the greatest evil, and sought in his witness and mission to reconcile these observations with the truths he had inherited in the greatest repository of understanding in the world.
Back in the early spring of 2013, many commentators were predicting that the new pope might be chosen from among the innumerable protégés of Joseph Ratzinger, whom he had nurtured in the theological journal Communio, which he had founded many years before with like-minded theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubec. The names mentioned included the Italian Angela Scola, the Bohemian Christoph Schönborn and the Canadian Marc Ouellet. Instead, the man who appeared on the balcony was the all but unknown Argentine Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio, who in time would become notorious as the self-styled ‘Bishop of Rome’ who tried to change the Church in accordance with the demands of the world. In the immediate wake of the election of Bergoglio, much was made in the media of the different style of the new pope: his insistence upon taking the bus or driving his old Ford Focus, wearing his own black shoes rather than the red papal moccasins, and living not in the papal apartment but the guest house, Santa Marta, where visiting clerics are accommodated when they have business in the Vatican. The impression was slyly conveyed that Bergoglio was more ‘humble’, i.e. more Christlike, than his predecessor. The new pope, we were assured, was ‘opening up’ the doors of the Church to invite in the ‘other’ — all those whom, it was implied, the Church had excluded until then. Nothing that had been said by the man who had just been elected pope — as cardinal, bishop or priest — had suggested him as a liberal, still less a neo-pagan. On the contrary, he had been at war with politicians in his native Argentina over their determination to liberalise laws to provide for abortion and gay marriage. What unfolded can be understood only in terms of the infiltration of the Church in the middle years of the twentieth century and the influence of the corrupting world’s media — their demands, self-interests and driving philosophy. For reasons of ideology and commercial advantage, the media required the pope to offer, in effect, the ‘watered down, appeasing Christianity’ Pope Benedict had warned against, and there was an abundance of actors within the Church — in particular the Vatican — prepared to give the scribes what they desired. It is undeniable that Bergoglio permitted himself and his occupation of the throne of Peter to become instruments of both factions.
Sandwiched, thus, between two populist popes, Pope Benedict XVI, delicate and self-effacing, might seem at risk of historical obliteration. Saint John Paul the Great spoke to crowds, as does also the present incumbent. Benedict spoke to persons. John Paul, the great populist pope, drew multitudes of the curious and hungry to be uplifted and enthralled; Benedict was the envoy, interpreter, diplomat, persuader, the one who attracted people, one at a time, to delve into his books in the confident hope of having their questions answered. Wojtyla was the window through which we peered to see what God might look like. Ratzinger was the fireman who climbed out on the ledge to talk the sceptic down from the ledge of despair. His every word was an attempt to make things clearer. Human beings, he stressed, are by their essential nature both transcendent and dependent, and the fact that we have generated a culture that denies these realities does not make them less true.
The ‘narrative’ about the pontificate of Benedict, from the outset, told of a regression from the days of John Paul. Although Pope Benedict almost weekly issued erudite analyses of the nature of human reality in the modern moment, the message pumped out by journalists was that the Church had slipped further back towards the Middle Ages. His rigidities forgotten, Pope John Paul was ‘remembered’ as a kind and benevolent figure, while his successor was presented as little short of a despotic intransigent, obsessed with evil and sin. Few of those who praised John Paul and sought to bury Benedict could have named a single point of theological difference between them, but this did nothing to curtail the commentary that would dog his pontificate. He was close to the opposite of what this narrative suggested. From the outset as pope he eyeballed the culture of the age, his first two encyclicals confronting the two most pressing issues of our time: the haemorrhaging from public language of, respectively, love and hope. ‘In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence . . . I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others,’ he wrote in Deus Caritas Est.
Benedict’s primary project was the restoration to Western culture of an integrated concept of reason, the re-separation of the metaphysical from the physical. In Last Testament, Pope Benedict related how he followed the path forged by Saint Augustine in seeking a synthesis between revelation and philosophy, between the Abrahamic, living God and the God of the philosophers. ‘I came to the conclusion: of course we need the God that has spoken, the God that speaks, the living God. The God that touches the heart, that knows me and loves me. But he must be accessible somehow to the mind. The human being is a unity. And what has nothing at all to do with the mind, but rather takes its course alongside it, would then not be integrated into my whole existence, it would remain some kind of separated element.’
The supreme importance of Benedict was that he brought an intellectual rigour to the core of Christianity in the public square, expounding and illuminating the core connections — and disconnections — between Christianity and modern culture, and thus entering the world as, in a sense, a secular voice of the urgency of faith. Ratzinger/Benedict was adept at bringing Catholic legalisms back to their core significance, at reaching out to the educated generations of young people who now, as he correctly identified, hungered for something to transform the lassitude invoked in them by a culture selling sensation and freedom but nothing approaching the kind of satisfaction they craved. Despite the persistent attempts to insinuate that every speech and statement of Pope Benedict XVI related to homosexuality, contraception or abortion (topics he touched upon directly with surprising infrequency, thereby requiring journalists to invent subtexts and hidden meanings for his words), the keynotes of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate were: love, charity, hope, faith, reason and beauty. Commentators did their best to set him up as the scapegoat for the plague of clerical sexual abuse by rogue priests, implying he had been derelict in his responsibility when Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith — whereas it was he who altered the canonical procedures to make it possible to remove the problematic non-priests who were using the priesthood to prey upon — mostly — teenage boys, a factor rarely alluded to by homosexualist journalists. Pope Benedict kicked hundreds of such individuals out of the priesthood but this was rarely mentioned.
He could not be put in any box. Though dogged by his undeserved reputation as a theological traditionalist, he was in may respects the most intelligent reader of modernism, even at times as someone who comprehended the post-modernist impulse even better than many of its adherents. Often leaving for dead the most modern and radical among other thinkers — of every hue — he presented the Christian message for what it was: the most revolutionary set of ideas ever encountered in the human journey.
His concern always was for the soul of society. He faced an age in the throes of an identity crisis and sought to show it the way out. As the ideologies of the Sixties’ ‘freedom’ project shattered on the rocks of reality; as the proponents of these ideologies began to perceive that they did not, after all, have answers to the most fundamental dilemmas of humanity; as we slouched towards what loomed more clearly as the suicide of Western civilisation, Ratzinger/Benedict continue in his quiet way to whisper the most urgent and scintillating thoughts about why all this was happening and what we needed to do to restore things.
Far from the ogre of popular media mythology, Benedict XVI quietly revealed himself as a totally new kind of voice in modern culture, speaking with clarity and enormous depth about the constitution of mankind in a world seeking to live without Christ. His great gift was his capacity to analyse the deep condition of the modern world, to describe with extraordinary facility how its drifts and tendencies were impacting upon the human person in the most authentic recesses of the heart. Among the qualities that made him so uncongenial to journalists was what often seemed his almost obsessive determination to pursue arguments from beginning to conclusion, through many loops of attentive reasoning, setting out his case as though every word was required to be heard by both God and men. With a firm insistence, he reminded humankind of the dangers of misunderstanding human desiring, of pursuing too narrow a definition of freedom, of misusing reason in ways that would make such errors unavoidable. He consistently characterised the condition of modern society as defined by a futile pursuit of things that do not exist. But his adherence to the core content of Christianity, and his detailed critiques of modern reality were — to say the least of it — of no interest to those peddling the very destructive agendas he was trying to name and render fully visible to the world.
His words, sharp as icicles, penetrated the paradoxes of reality and drew their secrets out like a poultice. Man can comprehend the world, he said, only as incomprehensible — both the Mystery of Light and the mystery of darkness. Yet, paradoxically, reality is also constructed to be intelligible to man along a path of reason revealed by Christ. Man has the freedom to choose: to know God in Christ and become one with the Mystery, or reject Him and cause reality to transform itself into an indecipherable enigma. At stake, he understood, was a very secular concern: the very propulsion mechanism of the human species. The answers offered by the world, he insisted, again and again, would not be adequate to meet the needs of the human person. ‘False infinities’ would lead humanity astray. After all the pleasures, the emancipations, and the hopes we have pinned to them, there remained, as he wrote in A New Song For the Lord a ‘much-too-little’. Faith and reason, he explained, need each other to each become what it is supposed to be — each is purified by the other. Faith is a non-expendable quantity of the human structure, and without true reason, faith is impossible. Each element, without the other, becomes pathological. Where faith does not have reason, faith can become destructive and unhinged; but reason without faith is not reason. True reason is more than logic, or positivistic demonstrability. ‘Without faith,’ he wrote in Truth and Tolerance, ‘philosophy cannot be whole, but faith without reason cannot be human.’
Every word of his was as though designed to transport us beyond the immediate and ‘obvious’, beyond our own first impressions and responses, beyond our sense of ourselves and the world, to a new way of seeing and reasoning. As a priest, a theologian, and finally as pope, he remembered always that his job was to stand at the edge of human reality and point outwards, beyond. Thus, he constantly reminded us, even the Church is ultimately a sign rather than an institution. The Church is ‘not our institution but is the breakthrough of something different’, he wrote in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith(2002), and it followed that ‘we cannot ever simply constitute her ourselves’. Instead, we pray and bend and wait and become willing.
For eight glorious years Pope Benedict XVI was our father and our brother: The father who teaches us to adhere, to understand more deeply, to postpone, forego, to obey in all the deepest senses; a brother who accompanies more gently, allowing himself to empathise and cajole. The father’s authority calls upon a deeper kind of affection: the kind that loves the destiny more than the immediate approval of his child. Yet, Ratzinger did not speak as a leader so much as an equal, most of the time choosing his words from the vocabulary of his listeners, his words collapsing time and topography to enable a clear sightline to the infinite. His mission was to bring the truth as he had discovered it under the most rigorous condition to the modern mind ‘here below’ and in doing so to penetrate the human and its mysteriousness more truly.
He consistently characterised the condition of modern society as defined by a futile pursuit of things that do not exist. In his dazzling ‘bunker’ speech to the Bundestag in September 2011, he described an ‘ecology of man’, a counterpoint to the more familiar concept of ecology of the natural world.
The two elements must go together, he declared, if human freedom is fully to be realised. ‘Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will’, he elaborated. Man ‘is not merely self-creating freedom’ — he is intellect and will, but also nature, ‘and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.’ But rather than adhering to his nature, man lives seeking to pretend that he is not a creature but his own master, as though he has himself created the conditions for human life. And yet, in this supposedly manmade world, he still covertly draws on God’s raw materials, denying their origin.
Pope Benedict was speaking primarily about the triumph over public culture of positivistic thinking — the insistence that only what is provable can be trusted or believed. The positivist understandings of nature and reason, he said, had gained an almost universal acceptance, with the effect of reducing nature to something that awaits man’s total triumph over it. Nature becomes functional, not given. The favoured logic recognises only what is measurable, provable, demonstrable, and no other form of reasoning or seeing is permitted. In such a dispensation, ‘progress’ is possible in the material sense only. Man appears to move forward, and convinces himself that he is moving inexorably towards a domination of nature. But this is illusory, because his capacity for achieving coherence between himself and his environment is not subject to the same quality of progress as that which defines his self-declared ascendancy. Man’s freedom renews itself in every instant, and so he is called upon to confront every new moment from a point of beginning.
The ecology of the human is defined by limits and consequences that become the blue lines in the notebook of existence — unerring and constant laws by which the human is defined against reality. In the modern world, we tend to forget this, allowing ourselves to imagine that limits are placed arbitrarily by tradition or an imagined tyranny, in which consequences can be pathologised or reattributed, and new vistas carved out as though the ‘dead’ God has overlooked them.
In recent times, the most ominous threats to the ecology of the human have come from movements to promote abortion, gender theory and initiatives to change the meaning of marriage to accommodate gay couples on a similar basis to man-woman relationships — men’s attempts to become the gatekeepers of life and death for the human being at the beginning and the end. In these phenomena we can observe a globalised, determined attempt to defy the limits defining the human, and deny that consequences will follow from man arrogating to himself the redefinition and remaking of his own nature. The unspoken objective is to insinuate a new metaphysics in which man becomes not merely his own master but, in effect, his own creator. In denying the sanctity of every human life, from conception to natural death, or the difference and complementarity between men and women, man turns upon himself, attacking both his own humanity and the very basis of human functioning. This cannot but lead to catastrophe.
In that remarkable Bundestag speech — perhaps the greatest by a pope in living memory — we received the most graphic and accurate description of where what we called ‘progress’ had taken us. Benedict showed us that, in his pursuit of omnipotence, man has lost sight of what might serve to comprehend his desires and cushion him against his own inability to satisfy them. He has, in other words, lost sight of his own structure, of the inbuilt disproportionality between what the human person truly desires and what his dreaming leads him towards. The dreams, as Pope Benedict intimated, are good — leading man to discover great things about the world — but the desire that propels man to pursue them is far greater than anything man himself can devise or comprehend. Thus, the more he seeks stewardship of his own destiny, the more dissatisfied man tends to become. Man had grown too ‘clever’ for God, rendering himself ‘creatorless’, without any reasonable basis for understanding his own origin. But, far from being smarter than those who preceded us, modern men had become intellectually enfeebled by the very process of claiming self-sufficiency, rendering himself unable to make the kind of connections that might enable the species to protect itself against its own overweening delusions.
That speech amounted to a summary of a lifetime’s public project, warning forcibly of the eclipsing of Mystery in modern culture, of the decline into the relativist and positivist codes and delusions that lock us into our errors — and then the antidote: throwing open the windows so that God might be recognised anew by His people.
Perhaps uniquely among the great minds of the Church through the ages, Benedict recognised that we had entered a new age, in which man had given birth to a culture that was, for the first time, utterly inimical to the religious impulse. Those who claimed an earthly continuity with the past were exposed by his words in their clinging to a spurious continuity, their blindness to the rupture of modern technocracy. Above all, he recognised the necessity to acknowledge that faith was incessantly exposed to the influence of culture, but that this had ceased to work the other way around. And, then, cutting to the chase: all cultures are necessarily founded on religious ideas, so that the attempted eradication of these from any culture inevitable invites destruction.
The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, then, had two key themes: the crisis engulfing humanity in modern manmade culture and the possibility of rediscovering the antidote: Jesus Christ. Crisis and Christ—or, perhaps, crisis in a Christian world in Christ’s apparent absence. These two strands were interwoven in virtually every public statement and written sentence of this extraordinary witness to the human dilemma. His appeal for the young lay in an intellect manifestly located in the heart; his charisma—which is undoubted—derived from his reticence, shyness and his entirely genuine humility. ‘I could not be a John Paul III’ he told Peter Seewald for Last Testament. ‘I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma.’
It wasn’t true. A Spanish friend described to me the extraordinary events at the aerodrome of Cuatro Vientus, Madrid, in the Summer of 2011, where Pope Benedict said Mass in front of two million young people for World Youth Day. All day long, despite temperatures nearing 40 degrees, the multitudes of the young sang and danced as they waited for the pope, firemen spraying then with water to keep the heat at bay. Later, as the pope began his homily, the rain came in great horizontal sheets that left nothing or nobody undrenched. The Pope abandoned his homily; it became uncertain that the event could continue. Then Benedict began to speak again. He said the Lord had sent the rain as a gift. He told the young people that they would encounter trials in their lives much worse than this, but should not be fearful because they would be accompanied always. ‘Your faith is stronger than the rain,’ he said. Then, with the storm still raging, the Pope knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and two million young people lapsed into silence.
Seasoned policemen afterwards said that, had a storm like this hit a rock concert or a football match, there might have been a major catastrophe. Here, there was silence, stillness, before something immense and seemingly immeasurably attractive. For seven years, Spain had been in the clutches of the Socialist regime of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had determinedly sought to squeeze the mysteriousness out of civic reality. Still, the world saw that weekend in Madrid that the children of that era recognised something more hopeful than what politicians call progress, more beautiful than what journalists call freedom. The following morning, a squad of reporters from El Pais, one of the leading Spanish dailies, descended on Cuatro Vientus to sift among the detritus of the previous day’s happenings. They were searching for beer cans, used condoms, evidence of drug use among the young people who had gathered to greet the pope. They found nothing to satisfy them.
When first he met Cardinal Ratzinger, Peter Seewald was a lapsed believer and in his Foreword to their first book-length dialogue, Salt of the Earth, seemed to summarise the general situation along with his own: ‘I had left the Church a long time before; there were plenty of reasons. Once upon a time, all you had to do was sit in a church, and you got bombarded by particles of faith loaded in the course of centuries. But now every certainty had become questionable, and all tradition seemed impossibly old and stale. Some were of the opinion that Christianity had to adapt to people’s needs. Others thought that Christianity had outlived its usefulness; it was out of date and no longer had a right to exist. It is not altogether easy to leave the Church. But it is less easy to return. Does God really exist? And, if so, do we need a Church as well? What is it supposed to look like — and how can someone rediscover it?’
On the occasion of the publication of the third volume of their conversations, Light of the World, in 2010, Seewald told an interviewer for the French weekly magazine, Pèlerin: ‘Today, after having formerly rejected the Church and spent time as a Communist, I’m finding once again — in the Gospels — the ideals of my youth. Christianity is not reactionary; it is revolutionary. That’s what we need to rediscover.’
The most intriguing aspect of the four-part Ratzinger/Seewald dialogue is as a document of the friendship between these two men from the land of the Reformation, the former German Communist and the German Cardinal/Pope/Pope Emeritus. This most unlikely of relationships would prove extraordinarily fruitful in teasing out the more perplexing issues concerning the Christian faith in the modern world, and in a way that speaks instructively concerning the personality and intentions of Pope Benedict XVI: his commitment to interface with the doubter in this age of scepticism; his insistence on a simplicity of language so that old truths may become renewed.
Seewald is a superb interviewer, who seems to have immersed his whole being in his questions before asking them. Like a chess grandmaster, he pursues a series of predictable moves, then nonchalantly shifts to the unflagged: ‘Was there ever a second in your life when you asked yourself whether or not everything we believe about God is only an idea?’ he interrupts. ‘Whether you might wake up one day and say: Yes, we were wrong?’ Benedict’s reply: ‘The question “Is it really proven?” comes to one again and again. But then I’ve had so many concrete experiences of faith, experience of the presence of God, that I am ready for these moments and they cannot crush me.’
In an interview published in the January-February 2016 edition of Faith magazine, Seewald said that Ratzinger ‘was always a very modern person, even if people didn’t see him this way; modern in a sense he does things no one has done before, because they’re necessary, examining those steps like no one else. He examines them not only with his mind but of course in prayer as well.’
A striking example occurs in Last Testament, the only time in the book when Pope Benedict surrenders to the role of ‘philosopher of God’, when Seewald asks him where the God of hope and love is actually to be located, prompting the Pope Emeritus to revisit a theme he had touched on before, notably in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi: the timelessness and placelessness of God. In his response we can observe the breadth of Benedict’s gaze as he acknowledges the difficulties of confronting a positivistic world with a proposal that, in some respects, is conceptually and linguistically out-of-sync. Is it not the case, Seewald wonders, that heaven is nowhere to be found in what we see as reality? So where then might God be enthroned? The Pope laughs: ‘Yes, because there is not something, a place where He sits. God Himself is the place beyond all places. If you look into the world, you do not see heaven, but you see traces of God everywhere. In the structure of matter, in all the rationality of reality. Even when you see human beings, you find traces of God. You see vices, but you also see goodness, love. These are the places where God is there.
‘We must do away with these old spatial notions as they do not work anymore. Because the all is certainly not infinite in the strict sense of the word, although it is so vast that we humans may certainly refer to it as infinite. And God cannot be found in some place inside or outside; rather, His presence is something wholly other.’
The translation of theology and faith into the language of the present time ‘has tremendous lacunae,’ he continues. We need ‘new conceptual schemes’, to renew our thinking about many aspects of God, to ‘completely clear away these spatial things, and grasp matters afresh.’ God is the reality that upholds all reality. ‘And for this reality I don’t need any kind of “where”. Because “where” is already a limitation, already no longer the infinite, the creator, who is the all, who sweeps over all time and is not Himself time, for He creates time and is always present.’
In his announcement of his resignation, Pope Benedict gave his critics and their mendacious narrative their definitive answer, demonstrating in the most dramatic way that his life as pope had been lived in service — not power — and that all the time he had been in the hands of Another. In his gesture of surrender, this most radical of men reminded us that the ultimate radicalism does not reside in the human being who exhibits it, but in the transcendent and eternal ‘radicalism’ of the Creator of all things and the Redeemer who entered history to save mankind.
Bur Ratzinger/Benedict always took pains to ‘earth’ his observations in the ways of the world, albeit without a hint of compromise with these ways adrift of the eternal. In Paris, in 2008, delivering a lecture in the Collége des Bernardins, he warned in conclusion: ‘A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation — the search for God and the readiness to listen to him — remains today the basis of any genuine culture.’ This amounted to a summary of his lifetime project: making the need for this synthesis clear and diagnosing the symptoms of its breakdown in the modern world: the decline into an absolutist relativism, positivist delusions, the separation between faith and reason — seeking the restoration of the circuitry by which the reasonable God might be recognised anew by His people.
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in the final year of his pontificate, the pope journeyed across Rome to the Piazza di Spagna, where he spoke pointedly of ‘the city’ and contrasted the loving example of the Blessed Virgin with the persistent drumbeat of negativity in the news media. By ‘the city’, he was again invoking the total manmade reality, which, for all its beauty and utilitarian qualities, contained many traps for human longing. The city becomes home to us but also steals our capacity to look deeply. ‘People become bodies and these bodies lose their souls, they become things, faceless objects that can be exchanged and consumed,’ he said. We complain of the pollution that makes parts of the city difficult to breathe in. ‘Yet there is another kind of contamination, less perceptible to the senses, but equally dangerous. It is the pollution of the spirit; it makes us smile less, makes our faces gloomier, less likely to greet each other or look each other in the eye.’
The final year of his pontificate also saw the release of a film, Bells of Europe, dealing with the relationship between Christianity, European culture and the future of the continent, includes extracts from a series of interviews with important religious, cultural and political leaders. His contribution to the film, as remarkable as it is brief, gives a far better understanding of what this man has represented than the thousands of acres of newsprint generated about him during his lifetime. In a few sentences, he got to the heart of the difficulty of modern man. In a few broad strokes, he provided both reassurance and guidance, setting out both an antidote to the positivistic misappropriation of reason and a method for seeing truly.
‘The first reason for my hope’, he says, ‘consists in the fact that the desire for God, the search for God, is profoundly inscribed into each human soul and cannot disappear. Certainly we can forget God for a time, lay Him aside and concern ourselves with other things. But God never disappears. Saint Augustine’s words are true: We men are restless until we have found God. This restlessness also exists today, and is an expression of the hope that man may, ever and anew, even today, start to journey.’
Young people, he says in that filmed interview, ‘have seen much — the proposals of the various ideologies and of consumerism — and they have become aware of the emptiness and insufficiency of those things. Man was created for the infinite, the finite is too little. Thus, among the new generations, we are seeing the reawakening of this restlessness, and they too begin their journey making new discoveries of the beauty of Christianity; not a cut-price or watered-down version, but Christianity in all its radicalism and profundity. Thus I believe that anthropology, as such, is showing us that there will always be a new reawakening of Christianity. The facts confirm this in a single phrase: Deep foundations. That is Christianity; it is true and the truth always has a future.’
In 1986, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that ‘it is almost impossible to escape the fear of being gradually pushed into the void and the time will come when we will have nothing left to defend and nothing to hide behind.’ In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde in 1992, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of the ‘terrible danger of nihilism’. He saw coming the ‘tired Catholicism’, the ‘secularised messianism’, the ‘tyrant legislator’, the collapse of the revolution of ‘68, the opportunistic resurgence of Islam against the decadent West.’
Now in these newborn moments of 2023, following the departure of this great man, his words sound not so much prophetic as a real time acknowledgment of our contemporary drama. He anticipated the decay of the Catholic Church from the aftermath of Vatican II, and diagnosed the external conditions and pathologies that would hasten this process, delivering Western civilisation to a position of abject and unknowing dependency on what remained of what the Church had bequeathed a long time before. Long before these symptoms became visible, Joseph Ratzinger had been warning of the encroachment of the ideological ‘New World’ being ushered in by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, Cultural Marxism, and the farewell of Europe to Catholicism taking place without tears or nostalgia or even awareness, the advent of a ‘post-European Europe’, a Europe without Christ, the crisis of relativism with its tentacles around Western culture, the explosion of a reinvigorated Islam, the aftershocks of 1968, the neo-Communist insurgency into the most intimate areas of human existence, and the paradox of a West that, at the maximum of its material power, reached also the peak of cultural insecurity and lassitude.
The Western political hegemony after 1989, its hubris epitomised in Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant declaration of the ‘end of history’, was an illusion for Ratzinger. In the West, as much as under Communism, he detected a kind of totalitarianism, for all that this was presented as seductive and apparently benign. He understood that the great successes of the West contained the seeds of its future decline. Today, having become too ‘clever’ for our own good, we have nothing left to believe in, because we have ‘no need’ for belief. And yet, as time unfolds, we can see ever more clearly the accuracy of Václav Havel’s diagnosis that Soviet tyranny was no more than ’a convex-mirror image’ of Western capitalism and its protective systems, a slightly exaggerated version of something relating fundamentally to a perversion of human desire and a profound misunderstanding of human freedom. The Ratzinger who had called Communism ‘the shame of our century’ was worried by the possibility that the West would fall into a new dark period emanating from scientific laboratories, mendacious media, the perversion of university education, the corruption of parliamentary democracy, the insidious growth of the ideological influence of the United Nations and other supranational bodies — all those pillars of the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ against which this diminutive giant had fought for half a century. All these things were happening while this great man was dying.
Joseph Ratzinger was, and remains, a pilgrim in the alien territory of postmodernity and the remnants of the old European world marked by shortness of breath, emptiness, derision, death-wish. Before becoming Benedict XVI, in half a century of interviews, lectures and essays, he made a spectacular pilgrimage through modernity and the old European world, his almost every word greeted by dismissiveness, emptiness, derision. His genius was from the beginning a threat to the programme of postmodern culture, the liquid and sweet barbarity of post-cultural societies. His resignation was a great relief for the many who remained in denial, too many of them within the Catholic Church. His presence was intolerable to the new culture, riven as it was with a collective suicidal ideation. His genius and intelligence posed threats to the new ‘freedoms’, and so it was vital that he be ignored. But almost immediately it became clear that the cliff edge was exactly as close as Joseph Ratzinger had been saying.
Joseph Ratzinger was a colossus who in the end was ‘defeated’ in his efforts to save Western civilisation from going over the cliff, but he has left behind him the codes which may yet enable humanity to put things into reverse. He saw the collapse and described it with a clarity no one else had achieved, and also spelt out the antidote. Having offered himself as a living shield against secularisation, relativism, Islamisation and creeping nihilism, he in the end felt forced to withdraw with the danger approaching its worst point. Over the course of half a century, he had presented to the world a unique set of ideas concerning its situation, addressed not only to Catholics/Christians, but to the secularist and even the atheist as well. He travelled to ever corner of Europe to try to stop the collapse, but it came to nothing because his voice was twisted and distorted in the megaphones of his enemies.
Nearing the end of his pontificate in 2012, anticipating the occasion of the 46th World Communications Day, Pope Benedict asked us to consider the importance of silence. Words need silence, he said — the two phenomena not being opposites but different elements of the same mechanism, ‘two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and to be integrated with one another if authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved.’ He called it ‘God’s silence’ — silence becoming contemplation, out of which a new Word, the redeeming Word, is born.
And now, this greatest of popes has repaired to ‘God’s silence’. But, as with his stepping down from the throne of Peter, it does not amount to a retreat, simply another phase in the different ways Joseph Ratzine has had of accompanying and speaking to us. Those of us who understand how blessed we have been by his presence shall continue to have, by his words of witness, access to the presence of our beloved Pope of all popes, on his knees somewhere in the vicinity, reminding us always of the newness that is promised — that He Who Makes Us reigns supreme over every earthly thing, and every earthly being, and that the Father in Heaven speaks to us through the words and silences of men who are of and like us, but have been charged with, and changed by, the heavy responsibility of leading us to what awaits, no matter how much the interlopers and predators may try to thwart that reality by seeking the claim for themselves the throne of God in the sight of other men.
In a thousand years, when every single person writing today in the Irish, Italian, British, German and American media has long been forgotten, the name of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI will resound in the world as one of the great prophets of the Christian ages. When the world falls apart, aa it threatens to again, in the days of his waking, it is from the words of this unapologetic dissident that humanity will stand the best chance of piecing it back together. May God be good to him.