Faith and Politics: Selected Writings
by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).
Ignatius Press, 2018.
Paperback, 269 pages, $19.

Reviewed by Casey Chalk

Poor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The retired pope isn’t even dead yet, and pundits speak endlessly of his legacy. Following allegations by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that Pope Francis lifted sanctions against disgraced American cardinal Theodore McCarrick that had been imposed by Benedict, voices have both lauded and criticized the emeritus pontiff. If true, some have noted that the American cardinal maintained a public profile during Benedict’s pontificate—was “God’s Rottweiler,” as he was once known, unwilling to back up his disciplinary measures? Alternatively, The Washington Post on 2 September reported that “Benedict has been used as a symbol of resistance for a segment of traditionalists who oppose elements of Francis’s reformist papacy.” Though even some pro-Benedict observers have acknowledged the latest ruckus is likely to hurt the emeritus pontiff’s reputation as pope and theologian, there is a less discussed aspect to his legacy we should seek to preserve: that of political philosopher.

Consider this quotation from Faith and Politics, a recently published collection of his writings:

… [This] happens when the concept of human rights is detached from the concept of God. The multiplication of rights leads finally to the destruction of the concept of law and ends in a nihilistic ‘right’ of man to deny himself—abortion, suicide, and the production of a human being as a thing become rights of man that at the same time deny him.… It becomes convincingly clear that when separated from the concept of God, the concept of human rights finally leads not only to the marginalization of Christianity but ultimately to its denial.

One might think such a quotation appears in Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, given its skepticism towards an exclusively rights-based conception of freedom. Yet the above is indeed from the pope emeritus, featured in an anthology of Benedict’s political writings that spans not only his time as pope, but his years as the theology professor Joseph Ratzinger and his many years as a cardinal. Ratzinger/Benedict addresses a broad variety of subjects in this book, spanning not only human rights and liberalism, but also secularism, the tension between truth and power in the public square, pluralist societies, and public ethics, among other topics.

Building upon the above quote on rights and liberalism, Benedict notes, for example, how the fathers of liberalism believed God to be the foundation of “their view of the world and of man.” Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II recognized that this form of liberalism could largely be affirmed by Christian teaching. Yet even here Benedict, like Deneen, is wary: “the concept of God is detached from its biblical foundations and thus slowly loses its concrete force.… Liberalism loses its own foundation when it leaves God out.” A liberalism detached from external objective truth descends into a subjective pragmatism that can have deadly results.

Consider his analysis of the interaction between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, a reflection that originally appeared in the second book of his trilogy on the life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. Benedict perceives this confrontation as a rich insight into the inherent tension between truth and power in politics that ultimately deteriorates into state-sanctioned violence. The Roman procurator Pilate is “the representative of classical worldly power,” and presents the common conception of the state as one defined by power and authority. “Dominion demands power; it even defines it.”

Pilate’s understanding of kingdom is contrasted with that of Jesus, who declares to the Roman governor that “my kingdom is not of this world.” As Benedict observes, “If power, indeed military power, is characteristic of kingship and kingdoms, there is no sign of it in Jesus’ case. And neither is there any threat to Roman order. This kingdom is powerless.” Jesus connects this kingdom not to power but to “truth,” presenting an alternative paradigm than that of brute force and political dominance as understood by the Roman Empire. Pilate, influenced either by ancient sophistry or a soldier’s pragmatism, responds to this claim by asking, “What is truth?”

Benedict sees in Pilate’s question the same one asked by modern political theory:

Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its place taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power? By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?

In our own political climate of “alternative facts,” competing liberal and conservative accusations of gaslighting regarding the same story, and claims of epidemic levels of lies and misleading statements from the executive branch, recourse to the competing paradigms of truth and power seems quite relevant. American citizens should be wary of prizing polemical victories over truth and overlooking lies for the sake of partisan power. Benedict warns:

What happens when truth counts for nothing? What kind of justice is then possible? Must there not be common criteria that guarantee real justice for all—criteria that are independent of the arbitrariness of changing opinions and powerful lobbies? Is it not true that the great dictatorships were fed by the power of the ideological lie and that only truth was capable of bringing freedom?

When we reduce truth to yet another rhetorical device—or worse still, deem it irrelevant to politics—we are often inclined to replace it with pragmatism, “by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.” This is exactly what we witness in the trial of Jesus: his accusers, uninterested in justice, press Pilate by referencing the tools of power and pragmatism. “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend,” they tell him, reminding him that the wrong choice could lead to his removal from power. “In the end, concern for career proves stronger than fear of divine power,” Benedict notes. The sidelining of truth to power in politics ultimately results in violence, typified in the sentencing of Jesus, who is subjected to the full force of the Roman politico-military machine in his scourging and ultimate crucifixion.

In the short term, Pilate gets what he wanted, securing peace through brute force. Yet lasting political peace ultimately comes not from power alone, but from justice. Benedict observes: “Rome’s real strength lay in its legal system, the juridical order on which men could rely. Pilate … knew the truth of this case, and hence he knew what justice demanded of him.” Yet Pilate pragmatically chose power instead, believing he was “fulfilling the real purpose of the law—its peace-building function.” As students of history know, however, this peace was short-lived. Within a generation of Pilate’s ruling, the Jewish people, sick of Roman oppression and injustice, would ultimately revolt, and Judea and Jerusalem would be laid waste by Roman armies. As Benedict concludes: “It would become clear that peace, in the final analysis, cannot be established at the expense of truth.”

In many respects, the West stands upon a precipice, torn between a progressivist pluralism that seems to spell our society’s suicide, and an aggressive, reactionary hypernationalism that threatens to return us to the violent first half of the twentieth century. Both paradigms possesses elements of truth, but both appear firmly fixed on preserving, if not extending, power to certain ideological camps. Either paradigm, untethered from classical, objective conceptions of truth, portends a violent, chaotic future. Whatever society we seek to form in the twenty-first century, we would do well to hearken to the sage wisdom of the pope emeritus, lest our political decisions lean dystopian rather than utopian. Even for those increasingly skeptical of the Catholic hierarchy in the wake of the recent scandals, Benedict’s words still ring true: “freedom from God proves to be man’s hell, which, in fact, strangely enough, agrees exactly with the old definition of hell.”  

Casey Chalk is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, and a contributor for The American Conservative.