Pope Benedict Speaks Truth to Power

Published September 28, 2011

National Review Online

Americans exhausted by adolescent chants of “Pass this bill!” and the rest of the rhetorical detritus of the 2012 pre-campaign might go to the Vatican web site, click on Pope Benedict XVI, and spend a half-hour reading through the texts of the Holy Father’s recent visit to his German homeland. It’s amazing how refreshing it can be to listen to an intelligent and compassionate adult after weeks slogging through the slough of sound-bites crafted from focus-group hissy fits.

For, despite the fact that a lot of the mainstream media long ago decided that Benedict XVI was a non-story (save for when he was being accused, ludicrously, of responsibility for the sexual abuse of the young), the 84-year-old pope has, in six years, established himself as perhaps the world’s premier adult, at least among major international figures. He tells the truth to the roiled worlds of Islam about the imperative of finding Islamic warrants for religious freedom and the separation of religious and political power in a just state. He tells the truth to the United Nations about the irreducible moral core of world politics and economics. He tells the truth to Great Britain about the necessity of nurturing the human ecology that makes democracy possible (and does so in the place where Thomas More was condemned).

And he does all of this without hectoring and without scolding. Rather, this elderly Bavarian, who is indisputably one of the most learned men on the planet, draws upon a deep and broad knowledge of the taproots of Western civilization, which he deploys rhetorically through the skills of a master-teacher in order to invite others into a deeper apprehension of the truth.

It’s not snap, crackle, and pop; it’s something far more nourishing. And it draws. Benedict XVI drew somewhere between 1.5 million young people to Madrid in August for World Youth Day, a massive event that got precious little media attention, especially when compared to the slavish coverage of a few thousand young hellions trashing the streets of Britain earlier in the month. And he drew large and receptive crowds in his native Germany this past week, despite the carping of such disgruntled former colleagues as Prof. Hans Küng, who told Der Spiegel that Benedict was responsible for the “Putinization of the Catholic Church”, which was rather thick, coming as it did from the Aaron Burr of the Catholic revolution that never was.

But I digress.


In his September 22 address to the Bundestag, Benedict spoke some home truths to his countrymen who, like many of their European Union compatriots, have forgotten a great deal about the cultural foundations of the West – foundations that are essential in supporting the political edifice of human rights and the rule of law. Contemporary Europe imagines that it can sustain its democratic politics with resources drawn from the continental Enlightenment and its intellectual heirs; Benedict XVI takes a longer and deeper view. And in a setting that inevitably conjures up memories of the vile anti-Semitism that led to the Shoah of European Jewry, Joseph Ratzinger boldly reached back into the Hebrew Bible to teach a lesson to politicians about their vocation:

In the First Books of Kings, it is recounted that God invited the young King Solomon, on his accession to the throne, to make a request. What will the young ruler ask for at this important moment? Success – wealth – long life – destruction of his enemies? He chooses none of these things. Instead he asks for a listening heart so that he may…discern between good and evil. (cf. 1 Kings 3.9). Through this story, the Bible wants to tell us what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work…must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice….Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he would have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success [must be] subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right…‘Without justice, what else is the State but a great band of robbers?,’ as Saint Augustine once said…

And from that patristic vantage point in 5th-century North Africa, Benedict did not hesitate to connect the dots to the bloody 20th-century drama in which he and so many of his audience were caught up: “We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right – a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”

As for those who would respond, “well, that was then and this is now,” Benedict made another crucial point – that behind the black-letter law of the statute books there had better be an understanding of the moral law that is built into the world and into human beings: the moral law that can be known by reason and that judges the justice of all statutory law. Fitting legislation to that moral law is no easy business, the pope readily conceded. But there are resources at hand for undertaking that hard and essential work of justice, and they reside, not in religious obiter dicta, but in the exercise of the arts of reason. Indeed, the pope reminded those determined to drive Christianity out of the European public square for being divisive and “sectarian” that the uniqueness of Christianity among the great world religions is precisely that it does not propose “a revealed law to the State and society…a juridical order derived from revelation.” Rather, Christian theologians “pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law.” And when these early Christian thinkers adopted the natural law teaching of the Stoics from the leading exponents of Roman law, “the juridical culture of the West was born, which was and is of key significance for the juridical culture of mankind.” Here, and nowhere else, are the deepest taproots of the Western political tradition.

Why don’t we get this today, the pope then asked? He might have said, rightly, that we don’t get this because Christophobia is a major defect of 21st-century European high culture – an irrational refusal to concede to Christianity any nurturing role in building a Europe of civility, tolerance, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. Rather, Professor Ratzinger took a more academic tack and noted that the 21st-century West is still paralyzed by what we assume to be “the unbridgeable gulf…between ‘is’ and ‘ought'” as defined by Immanuel Kant and, above all, David Hume. This bifurcation leads to a thoroughly positivistic notion of reason and to a thoroughly positivistic notion of law: The only reason that counts is scientific reason, and the only law that matters is black-letter law. But this amounts to an enormous impoverishment of human understanding, and a very brittle, indeed dangerous, notion of law, Benedict suggested. Against this self-demeaning positivism, “the windows must be flung open again,” so that “reason…can rediscover its true greatness” and human beings can learn once again that “man is not self-creating freedom.”

Benedict reminded the Bundestag that t
he great modern European exponent of legal positivism, Hans Kelsen, “at the age of 84 – in 1965 – abandoned the dualism of ‘is’ and ‘ought'” – and immediately softened what might have seemed a “gotcha” moment by stating, almost whimsically, that “I find it comforting that rational thought is evidently still possible at age 84!” But then he concluded with another history lesson for a continent that has largely abandoned its history:

The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person, and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks, and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: It is these criteria that we are called upon to defend at this moment in our history.


Europe is dying, and Benedict knows it. It is dying demographically, which is one root of its current fiscal and political mess. But self-destructive birthrates do not just happen, absent wars, plagues, and natural disasters; Europe’s self-destruction is a by-product of a deep spiritual malaise that has led to both demographic winter and cultural crisis. Thus Benedict XVI in Germany intended to be far more than Professor Ratzinger, teaching a needed lesson in cultural history. He was also the pastor, speaking to what he described to seminarians in Freiburg im Breisgau on September 24 as a “poverty in human relations and poverty in the religious sphere” in a country of great material abundance.

That abundance, he suggested, had corrupted the Church and weakened its evangelical edge: “The Church in Germany is superbly organized. But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit…[for] the real crisis facing the Church in the Western world is a crisis of faith.” And the only answer to that is evangelization: The Church in Germany and elsewhere in Europe must “resolutely…set aside her worldliness,” as Benedict put it the next day to a mixed group of clerical and lay Catholic activists, and take up once again the task of becoming a community that offers the “nourishment of love [in] concrete friendship with others and with the Lord” – an evangelical task that can only be accomplished by regular worship in the Sunday Eucharist (which some 7 percent of urban Germans attend).

The future of Europe, in other words, depends on whether Europe becomes, once again, a continent of saints. It may seem a quaint, even quixotic, notion. But as the pope put it to a large gathering of young people, it’s wrong to think of saints as “remote from the world, naïve and joyless,” men and women of impossibly great “ascetic and moral achievements…who could never be imitated in our own lives.” This is a wrongheaded view of sanctity, for “Christ is not so much interested in how often in our lives we stumble and fall, as in how often with his help we pick ourselves up again. He does not demand glittering achievements…but [rather] wants to make you his friends,” who can be holy “if we allow his grace to work in us.”


It is, of course, unclear whether that call to friendship with the Lord Jesus will lead to the reconversion of Germany. What does seem clear is that this unapologetically evangelical appeal has more chance of success than Hans Küng’s tattered summons to a Protestantized Catholicism, indistinguishable in any essential sense from the Lutheranism that has been thoroughly marginalized in post-modern Germany and from which no new evangelical energy can be expected. Benedict spent time with the Lutheran leaders of his homeland during his apostolic visit, but he cannot imagine that, in their present, moribund condition, they will make strong ecumenical partners in reconstructing the Christian foundations of the keystone in the arch of the European Union.

Neither will the German Greens, whom the pope went out of his way to praise in his Bundestag address for recovering some sense of moral purpose in politics, with the Green outrage at what they regard as the plundering of nature. The pope may be right that the recovery of the very idea of a “nature” that structures reality is a step, albeit a baby step, beyond subjectivism and positivism. But Germany’s Greens are the most aggressively secular and anti-Christian force in a thoroughly secular society. And even when he was offering them what some doubtless regarded as unwarranted praise, he reminded the environmentalist radicals that “there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom.”

Postmodern man, alone with his freedom, disconnected from others, from nature, and from the moral order embedded in reality: That is the humanity to which the 21st century Church must preach the Gospel and offer friendship with Jesus Christ. Benedict XVI is unflinching in recognizing the magnitude of this task, and winsome in his depiction of the human communities of solidarity that can be built out of such friendship with the Lord. Whether anyone is listening will be an important signal of whether Europe really is finished, or whether a reconnection to the deepest sources of its unique culture will be established, thus paving the way to perhaps not a dominant future, but to any future at all.

George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center where he holds the William E. Simon chair in Catholic Studies.

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