Ratzinger's Faith: Part III

The Church is often portrayed as a stern moralizing agent, hurling anathemas against people, fixated on sin, especially sexual sin, and Joseph Ratzinger is also often portrayed as Exhibit A in that indictment. He did not earn the title der panzerkardinal for nothing, right?

But, as early as 1964, as Tracey Rowland points out in her book “Raztinger’s Faith,” which I have been examining the past few days, Ratzinger was concerned about the reduction of religion to ethics. Preaching to a group involved with student chaplaincy at the cathedral of Munster, Raztinger asked: “What is the real substance of Christianity that goes beyond mere moralism?”

The tendency to reduce religion to ethics is as old as Pelagius and, in our day, got a big boost from Kant. The dynamics of the Reformation, although fought over doctrinal claims, similarly yielded a reduction of religion to ethics and, with some help from the Enlightenment ideas about separation of Church and State, doctrine became something to be left outside the public square, confined to the realm of the personal, while religion was permitted into the public square to serve as a moral authority. The modern nation state, after all, needs a citizenry that is imbued with moral commitments lest it spin out of control in a seraglio of individualistic ambitions, unable to define the common good nor make sustained secular arguments why the common good, if there be such a thing, is a thing worth pursuing.

Recently, I reviewed Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion” which argued, in essence, that all was well in the 1950s, when there was a core set of coherent orthodox beliefs shaping the culture, but it fell apart in the 1960s and subsequently under the influence of the sexual revolution and other nastiness. As you can imagine, I found Douthat’s argument more than a little absurd: If orthodoxy was so robust in the ‘50s, how did it crumble so quickly? This is not only a question for Douthat. It can be well posed to George Weigel, Mother Angelica and Mary Ann Glendon too. Ratzinger, unsurprisingly, is more sophisticated in his analysis than Douthat and his neo-con colleagues. Rowland writes:

Breaking News: Francis declines to answer Amazon synod's requests for married priests, women ministers. Read more

According to Raztinger, von Balthasar, and others in the Communio school, the practice of the faith in the pre-conciliar era was hampered by moralism. They take the view that the problems which arose in the post-conciliar era were not simply the result of a spreading infection of the 1960s secular liberal virus but were more fundamentally the logical outgrowth of a centuries-long process separating the true and the beautiful from the good….The point which Ratzinger and von Balthasar made was that there could not have been such an implosion of Catholic moral practices within such a short frame of time unless there was something deeply flawed about the motivations behind the pre-conciliar practices. They concluded that people in the pre-conciliar era had a tendency to live prescriptively, not because they believed that the moral injunctions were life-giving, not because they could see truth, goodness, and beauty in the practices themselves, but because of a fear of eternal damnation.

There are many culprits in this tale of moralistic woe. Kant’s role in reducing religion to ethics is obvious. But, in Rowland’s telling, Ratzinger also perceived a strange Catholic ally supporting Kant, Jansenism. Although Kantian ethics “appears to be the dialectical opposite of Jansenism with its intensely pessimistic outlook for the capacities of fallen human nature, the two movements share the property of making obedience to a legislator (even if in Kant’s case the legislator is reason itself) the driving force behind moral action,” Rowland writes. “They also share a dialectical affinity for fostering a humanism without religion (the project of Kant), and a religion with a humanism (the effect of Jansenius).” She labels both strains of thought “spiritual pathologies.”

Ratzinger’s critique of modern moral libertinism, then, is not principally that it differs from Catholic rules. His critique, instead, is that it falls short of its own ambitions. “[F]or Benedict XVI the sexual revolution of the 1960s should be opposed, not on the basis of archaic casuistry, not because sexuality is merely a means to the end of procreation, but rather because the underlying vision of the dignity and meaning of human sexuality offered by 1960s Freudians, Nietzscheans, and New Age sex therapists is really not truly erotic…it takes the pathos out of the whole experience.” The problem with modern sexual ideas of self-assertion, you might say, is that it fails to recognize that self-assertion is not the proper path towards human love. Modern eros is not liberating but confining and, as Benedict XVI made clear in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, eros is only liberated from selfishness when it is joined to agape. We Catholics do not, then, abstain from cheating on our spouses because such a deed will send us to Hell. We abstain from cheating on our spouse because that path does not lead to happiness and God wants us to be happy. Those who embrace a libertine ethic do not find love, they find only their own will. The difference between the “hook-up” culture and masturbation is merely the presence of another at a “hook-up,” but that other is not to be loved, only reduced to a vehicle for self-pleasuring. It is easy to see how these observations apply to business and political ethics as well as to sexual ethics.

At the end of this road of ethics unmoored from a notion of human flourishing and human happiness is not self-fulfillment but bitterness. “Thus today we often see in the faces of the young people a remarkable bitterness, a resignation that is far removed from the enthusiasm of youthful ventures into the unknown,” Ratzinger observes. “The deepest root of this sorrow is the lack of any great hope and the unattainability of any great love: everything one can hope for is known, and all love becomes the disappointment of finiteness in a world who monstrous surrogates are only a pitiful disguise for profound despair.” The phrase “everything one can hope for is known” is worth sitting with for a very long time. Think of it the next time you get to a commercial break on television.

The threats to moral life today continue, and they continue inside the Church. Ratzinger discerns two pathologies, bourgeois pelagianism and the pelagianism of the pious. He describes the first thus: “If God really does exist and if He does in fact bother about people He cannot be so fearfully demanding as He is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover, I am no worse than others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that.” Ratzinger thinks this kind of thinking is not so much wrong because it presumes on God’s mercy, as because it entails a calculation about our relationship to God. What will He permit? What can I get away with? This bargaining with God is an unseemly thing, and completely misunderstands the gratuitousness of God’s grace. This is the parable of the Talents gone wrong.

The pelagianism of the pious does entail the spiritual disorder known as presumption. Ratzinger writes, “They [pious pelagians] want security, not hope. By means of a rough and rigorous system of religious practices, by means of prayer and actions, they want to create for themselves a right to blessedness. What they lack is the humility essential to any love – the humility to be able to receive what we are given over and above what we have deserved and achieved.” Both varieties of pelagianism, the bourgeois and the pious, fail primarily because they obstruct faith, or at least they obstruct the Christian faith. Both seek, above all, to avoid acknowledging the need for forgiveness and, therefore, close themselves to the possibility of receiving God’s mercy. A Christianity that is not founded on the hope in God’s mercy is no Christianity at all.

Rowland’s book subsequently looks at the Communion of the Church, political issues in the modern world, and Raztinger’s thoughts on liturgy. All three chapters are well worth reading, but I have gone on long enough and hope that I have given the readers of this blog some flavor of what to expect should you buy this book. What most commends this work is not the knowledge to be gained. I find that when theology is well done and well said, the reader does not only learn, but finds his conscience pricked, or her faith deepened. Theology at its best invites the reader into a deeper sense of his or her own faith. Here that quality is attributable both to Ratzinger and to Rowland. One may disagree with this action or that document produced by Ratzinger when he led the CDF or since he became Pope. But, the caricature of him as a theologian trying to roll back the Council is exposed here as utter fiction. It turns out, I believe, that we are still receiving the Council and that its greatest treasures, those associated with von Balthasar, de Lubac and Ratzinger, are still being unearthed and brought to light. In some ways conservative, in other ways quite radical, Joseph Ratzinger emerges in these pages as a thinker whose thought always grows out of the rich tradition of reflection on the fact of the empty tomb.


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement