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Remembering Benedict XVI

The late pope emeritus offered a brilliant and compelling analysis of secularism

A portrait of Benedict XVI stands in the baptistery of Benedict in Marktl, Germany. Associated Press/Photo by Andreas Schaad

Remembering Benedict XVI

As with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, today’s death of Benedict XVI indicates that the last embers of the generation of leaders whose rite of passage to public status was marked by World War II are now all but extinguished. And as with others of that generation—Raymond Aron, George Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Czesław Milosz, etc.—Benedict was for a time a key voice, offering commentary, critique, and proposals for preserving the best of the West in the face of mounting domestic secularism and the rise of a confident and aggressive Islam in Asia and Africa.  

Before he was Pope Benedict XVI, he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As John Paul II’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had the reputation of being the pope’s enforcer, doubling down on traditional church teaching on sexuality and contraception while also moving against the liberation theology being promoted particularly by South American priests such as Leonardo Boff.

But more important to the wider Christian world than his internal leadership was his thinking with regard to culture and secularism. A deeply learned theologian rather than a philosopher, Benedict made signal contributions to thinking about the nature of the secular world. Indeed, though many of his most significant intellectual contributions predate his papacy (2005-2013), the accuracy of so many of his observations and analyses has given his work a mantic quality.

For example, in his 2004 speech “Europe: Its Spiritual Foundations” he observed that the technological world European innovation had forged was built upon the culture that Christianity had fostered. Yet, he noted, the technological world had in turn served to render that very culture apparently obsolete, at least in the popular imagination. His argument is reminiscent of the paradox that Nietzsche spotted in the 19th century: The quest for truth that Christianity instills in human beings because of its belief that the cosmos has an intrinsic, divine order ultimately and ironically leads human beings to discover (or believe they have discovered) that no such order actually exists and that technology can be used to create whatever order humans desire. The will to truth undermines itself, to be replaced by the will to power. And as then-Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, this new world is not a world that affirms life. Rather it denies it: Children, he comments, become not so much the hope for the future but rather a limitation on the present.

In the 16 years since, his observation has only become more true, although perhaps with the qualification that, with the advent of gay marriage, children as symbols of equal status also now possess instrumental significance for the present. Everything, even new life, can be made into a commodity.

Underlying Ratzinger’s thought about culture was his belief that a loss of a transcendent framework for organizing society ultimately left no stable foundation for positive construction.

Underlying Ratzinger’s thought about culture was his belief that a loss of a transcendent framework for organizing society ultimately left no stable foundation for positive construction. This was particularly clear in his gentlemanly dialogue with the great German critical theorist, Jürgen Habermas. There was perhaps more common ground between the two than one might have expected. Habermas, building on the Frankfurt School’s typical suspicion of unchecked Enlightenment confidence in human reason, and Ratzinger working against the background of Augustinian and Thomist paradigms, came to similar conclusions: a blind faith in reason with no place for the transcendent and a religious fanaticism unchecked by reason are both culturally and politically dangerous. A model where reason and religion could learn from each other is the only way to build a stable and just society.

The dialogue was fascinating and constructive, but it also highlighted one important difference: unlike Habermas, Ratzinger had a theology that gave him a framework for this dialogical proposal, grounded in the objective truth of God. Habermas seemed to think God was a good idea. Ratzinger actually believed He existed and that His existence is rather important.

I disagree with much of Benedict XVI’s Catholicism, but it is hard not to find his analyses of secularism compelling. I believe his brilliance on this point is likely one reason why Rome for a while became a very attractive option for intellectuals worried about the increasing crassness of western culture and the comparative poverty of Protestantism to provide a framework for responding to the same.

Ironically, his successor, schooled in the very liberation theology Benedict had worked to suppress, seems a much less profound thinker and indeed a symptom of the superficiality that secularism fosters. Even Rome seems to have passed from an era of great minds to one where Twitter and the Nietzschean battles of raw will on social media have become key—forms of public discourse that preclude thoughtful engagement and fuel the very fragmentation and intellectual corruption that Benedict XVI analyzed so perspicuously. As the pope emeritus is laid to rest, so passes one of the most important religious critics of our day.

We are all impoverished by his passing. 

Editor’s note: Word came this morning from the Vatican that Pope Benedict XVI had died, after a long illness. The death of a “pope emeritus” is unprecedented in Catholic history. The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will preside at Pope Benedict’s funeral on Thursday. 

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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