His writings will one day inspire a generation to revolt against the West's secular consensus
Benedict XVI will celebrate his 90th birthday on Easter Sunday. Cardinal Joachim Meisner famously described him as a man who is as intelligent as 12 professors and as pious as a child making his First Communion.
If one inserts the words “Joseph Ratzinger” into the Google Scholar search engine, which records academic publications, one obtains some 24,600 hits in four seconds. The words “Benedict XVI” bring up even more results – 66,100. As a comparison, Walter Kasper scores a mere 6,930 and Hans Küng 6,270. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac score 16,900 and 13,200 hits respectively.
The only theologian of the last century I could find who trumps the 66,100 figure is Karl Barth, who has been the subject of a massive 127,000 academic articles. The Catholic theologian who came closest to Ratzinger was Karl Rahner, weighing in at 41,500 hits.
As Bavaria’s most famous son since Ludwig II enters his 10th decade of life, it is worth considering what the impact of all these publications might be in the brave new world of 21st-century Catholicism. My thought is that the publications of Ratzinger will form a treasury to be mined by future generations trying to piece together elements of a fragmented Christian culture.
Ratzinger himself emphasises that the seat of all faith is the memoria Ecclesiae: the memory of the Church. He believes that “there can be a waxing or waning, a forgetting or remembering, but no recasting of truth in time”. As a result, “the decisive question for today is whether that memory can continue to exist through which the Church becomes Christ and without which she sinks into nothingness”.
In this void of nothingness, in a world without the memoria Ecclesiae, the human person strives for an autonomy that is in conflict with his nature. It is natural, normal and healthy for one’s sense of self to exist within the context of a living history and tradition. Those without such moorings often spend their entire youth trying to “find themselves” without much success and often only after years of painful experimentation.
These reflections on the importance of memory were made by Ratzinger in 1982. Earlier, in 1958, during his theological teenager phase, Ratzinger wrote an essay entitled “The New Pagans and the Church”. In it he observed that whenever people make a new acquaintance they can assume with some certainty that the person has a baptismal certificate, but not that he has a Christian frame of mind. This was a full decade before the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Today we cannot even presume the existence of the baptismal certificate. Members of the millennial generation find themselves in a situation where they have rarely experienced a fully functional Christian social milieu. To find out about Christianity, especially the Catholic version of it, they watch documentaries and films. They interrogate older Catholics, and google information about the saints, liturgies and cultural practices.
The cultural capital that should follow as a natural endowment upon their baptism has been frittered away, buried and in some cases even suppressed by previous generations. They are like archaeologists. They discover fragments of the faith which they find attractive and then they try to work out where the fragment once fitted into a Catholic mental universe.
When a new generation arises in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era, craving a human ecology that respects both God and nature, and wanting to be something more than rootless cosmopolitans, Ratzinger’s publications will serve as Harry Potter-style Portkeys, giving creative young rebels access to the missing cultural capital – indeed, access to what Ratzinger calls the memoria Ecclesiae.
High on the list of the missing cultural capital is the realisation that from the earliest times Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, the religion according to reason. As Ratzinger expresses the principle: “Faith has the right to be missionary only if it transcends all traditions and constitutes an appeal to reason and an orientation towards the truth itself.” The lack of truth, he argues, is the major disease of our age.
One of Ratzinger’s own mentors was Romano Guardini. The Italian-born German theologian wrote that “the Church forgives everything more readily than an attack on truth. She [the Church] knows that if a man falls, but leaves truth unimpaired, he will find his way back again. But if he attacks the vital principle, then the sacred order of life is demolished.”
In particular, Guardini argued that the human will “has to admit that it is blind and needs the light, the leadership and the organising formative power of truth. It must admit as a fundamental principle the primacy of knowledge over the will, of the logos [reason] over the ethos [custom].”
Being well intentioned is necessary but not sufficient. Cardinal George Pell famously described the idea that it doesn’t matter if we make poor judgments providing we mean well as “the Donald Duck heresy”. Donald is always making mistakes but he rarely intends any harm.
Using an expression from the psychoanalyst Albert Görres, Ratzinger has argued that the mentality that wants to give priority to ethos over logos represents the “Hinduisation” of the faith.
Conversely, and with equal vigour, Ratzinger has emphasised that knowing the content of the faith, having an expert knowledge of all the doctrines, is not sufficient, unless the heart is opened by grace. The human intellect needs to search for the truth. It was made for this. But so too the human will was made for goodness, and unless the will is attracted to the good, the intellect is likely to go astray.
This is what Ratzinger means when he uses the medieval maxim “reason has a wax nose”. As most barristers know, the human intellect can be used to formulate arguments to defend all kinds of actions and propositions.
The human head and the human heart thus need to work in tandem. Both require a Christian formation. In this context Ratzinger often asserts that “love and reason are the twin pillars of all reality”. Without these twin pillars in full operational order people end up as “narrative wrecks”.
Without the truth some people are morally rudderless and engage in all manner of self-harming behaviour. There is no rationality giving unity to their actions. Others have the truth but, since they do not love, their human formation is stunted and they often cause great harm to other people.
To those who experiment with all manner of psychotherapy, drugs and Eastern mystical religions in order to discover their inner self, Ratzinger offers the advice that the human person can only find his centre of gravity from a position outside of his self. It is Christ who is the centre of gravity of every human life.
It is Christ who holds a vision not merely of a perfected humanity understood as a universal concept, but for each individual person He holds a vision of what that person could be in co-operation with the gifts of grace.
Acceptance of the Incarnation is the key to understanding humanity. The next indispensable element in a Catholic culture is the concept of sacramentality. There is, in other words, a specific way in which God relates to people through time and space. Here the idea that the human person is composed of both spirit and matter, and that God relates to both, not just to the spirit, is important. In the sacrament of the Eucharist the mere matter of bread and wine is changed into Christ’s Body and Blood.
As Ratzinger describes this moment: “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into His Body and Blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission’, which penetrates to the heart of all being.”
The sacraments, as the word suggests, sacralise human life. They raise it to a higher level. They are also one of the means by which a person receives grace. They are not simply social milestone markers.
A further indispensable element of a Catholic culture is the ability to distinguish authentic Christianity from its various secularist mutations. A common temptation in the present era is for people to try and separate the fruits of Christianity from belief in the basic tenets of the faith as expressed in the Creed.
For example, kindness, patience, putting other people first, caring for one’s neighbour are all fruits of a Christian culture. Secular humanists are often keen to retain these fruits but separate them from belief in God.
This project leads on to what Ratzinger calls “political moralism”. In the absence of a strong Christian culture, the state begins to act as if it were the Church: bureaucrats, especially education department officials, set themselves up in a position analogous to priests. As an alternative to a Christian moral formation they offer various social engineering policies. We end up in the absurd situation where children as young as four are monitored for so-called sexist behaviour.
Many of Ratzinger’s publications, including the encyclical Spe Salvi, offer critiques of the new secular morality, while his earlier encyclical Deus Caritas Est can be read as a Catholic defence against the Nietzschean charge that Christianity poisoned eros (love/desire). Ratzinger does not deny that warped, puritanical versions of Christianity denigrated eros.
However, he distinguishes a Catholic account of sexuality which links eros to agape (love/charity) from those aberrant forms. He thereby provides further support for John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love (also known as the Theology of the Body).
This is just a short account of the many elements of an embattled Catholic culture that can be found in the mountains of publications by Ratzinger.
The discovery of Ratzinger by future generations may well lead them on to the literary and philosophical treasures of his Polish friend Karol Wojtyła and the theology of his Swiss friend von Balthasar, his French friend de Lubac, his Italian friend Giussani and an English author called John Henry Newman. They may even find Tolkien and a writer from the Orkneys called Mackay Brown, the Norwegian Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset and an Etonian called George from the noble house of Spencer who thought there needed to be a prayer crusade for the restoration of the old faith in Britain (he is known today as Ignatius Spencer).
Through these authors, a generation tired of the banality of cheap intimacy and nominalism gone mad may rediscover the buried capital of a civilisation built on the belief that the Incarnation really did happen. They may also gradually learn to distinguish a secularised Christianity that hooked itself up to whatever zeitgeist wafted along from the real mysteries celebrated in something called the old Christian calendar.
Tracey Rowland holds the St John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Australia. She is the author of Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (OUP)
This article first appeared in the April 14 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here