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Ratzinger and a Vision of Politics

Eamonn O’Higgins, LC

(ZENIT News / Rome, 01.03.2023).- One of the lesser-known areas of J. Ratzinger’s writings is on the theme of the scope and purposes of politics. For a number of years, I have offered a seminar to graduate students on a selection of Ratzinger’s writings on his political thought and it has been wonderful to see the understanding and interest his thought generates in these students, who come from different countries and continents. Much of what Ratzinger writes about political realities, mostly in essays and conferences, is refreshingly new to a somewhat tired subject that goes under the title of political science. His capacity to analyse and compare contemporary and historical phenomena is extraordinary. Above all, Ratzinger explains the need to break through the truncated vision of how we see things – he compares our contemporary vision to ‘a concrete bunker with no windows’ – and to ‘see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this’. 

I presented a paper recently an international webinar on The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI; my theme was The Dictatorship of Relativism and Contemporary Ideological Challenges. I have taken a few excerpts from the paper, which explains some fundamental themes of J. Ratzinger’s vision of politics. I have left out the footnotes; the full paper can be found in the publication A Journey Through the Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, OIRSI Publications, Kerela 2022. The excerpts are published here with the kind permission of the publishers.

I offer these reflections as a small personal homage to one of the greatest intellects of our time, of all time.

Fr. Eamonn O’Higgins, L.C.

(Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy, Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum)


Ratzinger’s interest in politics

In the interview with Peter Seewald entitled ‘Last Testament’, Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus, is asked about his interest in politics. The question follows remarks of his about K. Adenauer and the redesigning of the German state after the war. He answers in this way:

‘I have never attempted to exert myself politically, but I always had a great interest in politics, and the philosophy that stands behind it. Because politics lives off a philosophy. Politics cannot simply be pragmatic, in the sense of ‘we’ll do something’. It must have a vision of the whole. That has always concerned me’.

In this essay I would like to discern how J. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI viewed and judged the politics of his times and key notions of his thought that have important applications to politics.

Ratzinger’s background

Ratzinger has lived in interesting times. He experienced the dramatic years of the abolition of the Weimer Republic and the National Socialist totalitarianism that dominated Germany in the 1930s. In Bavaria, in the more Catholic southern part of Germany, he witnessed the struggle of the Catholic Church with Nazism, and also some Christian denominations that became aligned with the state and paid the price of their independence.

Ratzinger lived through the reconstruction of the two Germanys after the war, and the changing social and cultural times of the later 50s and early 60s, as the Iron Curtain and the Cold War implanted themselves on world politics. He was on campus during the 1968 student revolt and suffered the consequences of this social revolution and of political theology. Ratzinger was witness to confusion of the role of the Catholic Church in the world, after different interpretations of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, seemed to realign the Church and the Gospel in the light of worldly progress. In the 80s, as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger faced the popular Marxist interpretation of Christianity in the form of Liberation Theology. In 1989, the Berlin Wall tumbled down followed by the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the political independence of the former Soviet states. The end of the 90s brought the reconfiguration of political alliances and an emerging, unclear political panorama. Democracy had become the accepted form of government, but its meaning and substance were ambiguous. As Pope, Benedict followed the world economic crises of the early years of the new millennium, as well as an increasingly marginalised public role of religion. Biological technology also pushed an increasingly malleable vision of the human person. All these phenomena, and more, have been the times of J. Ratzinger and the defiant context for his vision of politics and the philosophy that sustains it.

Ratzinger’s perspective of enlightened reason

‘So to think that there exists a pure, anti-historical reason, solely self-existent, which is “reason” itself, is a mistake; we are finding more and more that it affects only part of man, it expresses a certain historical situation but it is not reason as such. Reason as such is open to transcendence and only in the encounter between transcendent reality and faith and reason does man find himself. So I think that the precise task and mission of Europe in this situation is to create this dialogue, to integrate faith and modern rationality in a single anthropological vision which approaches the human being as a whole and thus also makes human cultures communicable.’

At the same time, there is a rigor to Ratzinger’s thought and a deliberately un-avoided confrontation with error, that is, with whatever is unworthy of human reason; narrowness of view, scepticism as the denial of what can be seen and recognised, the imposition of partial views, power over truth, and so on. He commits to a full understanding of the Christian faith, what he believes has been given (revealed) to man to know and rejects of the many ways of reducing Revealed truth to the measure of what we may find humanly predictable.

This makes the thought of J. Ratzinger uncompromising and challenging, especially in times of opinion polls and the Zeitgeist, the current temperature. The radical and demanding voice of Ratzinger perhaps finds its justification in comments he made in another interview, on his role and responsibility as bishop of Munich:

‘The words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers rang in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive’.

The Kingdom of God and political kingdoms

Both of J. Ratzinger’s major academic works deal with this future final existence in relation to earthly existence, as given to us to understand in the Christian Faith. Both St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure deal with the present times in the Christian context of final future fulfilment.

In The Unity of the Nations, Ratzinger explains the political impact on the Roman Empire of the light of Christianity, as understood by Origen and St. Augustine. For the Romans, the political state was everything, the res publica of greatest extension, and the emperor had divine status as a Conservator Mundi, and the gods of the Roman religion were to be acknowledged publicly; religion was politics, and politics had a necessary religious dimension. Had the Christian Faith been merely another private religious cult, there would have been little problem with its toleration. But this was not the Christian God. While New Testament writings urged the new Christian to obey political authority, it was clear that the Christian God was the God of all power and jurisdiction. Roman political power was relativized. There were now two cosmopoleis, instead of one; while the Roman polis remained and served a genuine human purpose, the new cosmopolis of God’s Kingdom was present in this world but was not of this world, and went beyond any earthly kingdom or jurisdiction. It was in this greater Kingdom, beyond earthly time and place, that the individual and collective unity of the nations would take place, something that would be achieved not by any human emperor, but by God: ‘…not a mission that can be carried out in a directly political fashion but rather as an eschatological hope whose accomplishment is, in the last resort, God’s doing’.  It was for the reason that the Lord Jesus was not identified as the Conservator Mundi; the present world was not to be merely preserved and contained, but to be brought forward to eschatological fulfilment. Christ was to achieve this and therefore was not the world’s conservator, but its Salvator Mundi.

This clarification of earthly political power in comparison and in contrast with the overarching eschatological fulfilment, beyond time, of the unity of the nations, is, for Ratzinger, of paramount importance: ‘I am convinced that the destruction of transcendence is actually the mutilation of man from which all the other sicknesses spring.’

This proportioning of hopes according to their proper ends has not always happened in human history. Ratzinger notes how in both the Judeo and Christian interpretations, ‘the Kingdom of God’ has been understood in terms of a political program, to be achieved by human hands, from those in the time of the prophet Jeremiah who understood God’s promises as the guarantee of political impunity, to the evidence of the Qumran War Scroll and its military preparations, to the pious identifications by the French monk Joaquin de Fiore of historical epochs with eschatological purposes.

More insidiously, the Christian eschatological hopes and promises, that find an irradicable trace in human nature, have been identified with political ideological movements down through the centuries. The political historian and philosopher E. Voegelin has traced this transfer of true religious hope into the various political ideological programs.  In substitution for God’s Providence (and in Hegel’s case, in the name of Providence), these ideologies have relied on historical or material determinisms to guarantee their promises, supported by any human means that will bring forward the necessary fulfilment of their promises. Recent totalitarian programs have taken on a quasi-religious demeanour.  Ratzinger’s term for these misguided political projects is chiliasm, with reference to the thousand-year period of peace promised in the Book of Revelation before the final coming of the Saviour.

Interestingly, Ratzinger points out that it is often the failure of Christian thought to explain its own true depth and vitality that causes the consequent restless search in political programs for the total commitment to ideals. Specifically, when in theology and philosophy departments the search for truth and the true dimensions of human existence disappear, students look elsewhere for their radical commitment:

‘The only problem is that the special task originally assigned to it (theology)and to philosophy now drops out: the question about the whole, transcending the separate disciplines, is no longer asked. In such a situation it is obvious that theology students, too, will become bored with the painstaking professionalism of their teachers and will see in the partisanship of reason for the cause of the better world of the future more true theology than in the explanation of historical or structural facts and will understand theology as a practical science, along the lines of such an option for a future world. The slogan that orthopraxis precedes orthodoxy has its origin here. What is true must come about through a human construct, for which a practical philosophy works out the directions.’

All this explains why, for Ratzinger, the forgetfulness of eschatology is at the heart of our modern political problems:

‘I think we must make it clear to ourselves again today, in all earnestness, that neither reason nor faith ever promises that there will be a perfect world someday. It does not exist. Constantly expecting it, playing with the possibility and proximity of it, is the most serious threat to our politics and our society, because anarchical fanaticism necessarily proceeds from it.’ 

When the true horizons of man’s ultimate fulfilment are lost from sight, we turn to our own plans to make paradise on earth and the perfection of the goals provides the justification of all means to achieve them. We invent our own histories.

Ratzinger states that the link between what can be achieved in this existence and man’s final transcendent destiny is in his response to the truth of being, not in patterns of human history: ‘…eschatology is not necessarily bound to any particular philosophy of history but only to ontology.’

For Ratzinger, this relativizing of political goals and activity within the greater context of an eschatological fulfilment, making politics a real and relative ‘part of the whole’, and is what enlightened reason can and needs to do to guide us.

‘For if men have nothing more to expect than what this world offers them, and if they may and must demand all this from the state, they destroy both their own selves and every human society. If we do not want to get entangled anew in the tentacles of totalitarianism, we must look beyond the state, which is only one part, not the totality.’

Human Rights

Ratzinger, while recognising the vital importance of human rights and freedom, is critical of a one-sided understanding of rights and freedom. If man’s nature is essentially relational, that is, man’s development and flourishing is only to be found in the metaphysics of love, then this truth points to the way man needs to live in society. He is not an island, but part of the mainland. As such, he finds his way in life by his responding to others:

‘Increase in freedom must be an increase in responsibility, which includes acceptance of the ever greater bonds required both by the claims of humanity’s shared existence and by conformity to man’s essence. If responsibility is answering to the truth of man’s (relational)being, then we can say that an essential component of the history of liberation is ongoing purification for the sake of the truth.’

As Ratzinger says elsewhere, ‘Man finds his centre of gravity, not inside, but outside himself.’

Truth in politics

Ratzinger begins an essay on moral and religious values with the observation that today it seems that relativism is a precondition of democracy.  In reference to the trial of the Lord Jesus, Ratzinger notes that the question the Pilate poses to Jesus is in fact an answer – no one can claim to affirm truth. In an age that values freedom above all else, truth seems to be something that restricts and confines personal freedom, and therefore in opposition to freedom.

‘Truth is controversial, and the attempt to impose on all persons what one part of the citizenry holds to be true looks like the enslavement of people’s consciences. The concept of ‘truth’ has in fact moved into the zone of antidemocratic intolerance. It is not now a public good, but something private.’

Ironically, as Ratzinger notes, this increased personal freedom through public institutions and technology, brings with it new and perhaps more dominating forms of control and surveillance that in fact inhibit personal freedom in much more penetrating and profound forms.

Ratzinger notices that a common way to dismiss any discussion of the possible truth of public things is to label someone’s thinking as characteristic of a particular category – ‘conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist, progressive, revolutionary – and thus pre-empt any evaluation of the content with the dismissive ‘‘that’s what those people think’’. What count are opinions, that is, what I may think or want or desire for myself, which necessarily excludes any possibility of something that is for everyone. The ferocity of this refusal to explore and critique the merits of different opinions has been called by Ratzinger a ‘dictatorship of relativism.’

How does one answer this dictatorship? Ratzinger refers to a definition of truth by Thomas Aquinas as ‘the adequation of the intellect to reality.’ As Ratzinger says:

‘Though it is certainly the case that this formula does not say everything that can be said, it does bring to light something of decisive importance: the perception of the truth is a process which brings man into conformity with being.’ 

This means that we are not just pure volition, and that the world is not just formless matter to be twisted and shaped like plasticine in our hands. We are born into a given universe, as part of that universe that has shape and meaning and purpose. It is our task to listen to the meaning and purpose of reality according to the light of our intellect and, driven by the attraction to the truth of reality, to respond freely and fully.  As Ratzinger succinctly puts it, ‘man’s being contains an imperative’.

Clearly, this description links in with Ratzinger’s thought on man as a being of relation, and immediately daws attention to the need to listen to, perceive, and discover reality, in which we are immersed. By ‘listening’ (we can appreciate the different modes of listening according to the different modes of disclosure of reality) ‘my own being is enriched and deepened because it is united with the being of the other and, through it, with the being of the world’.  Ratzinger concludes that:

‘Men are capable of reciprocal comprehension because, far from being wholly separate islands of being, they communicate in the same truth. The greater their inner contact with the one reality which unites them, namely, the truth, the greater their capacity to meet on common ground. Dialogue without this interior obedient listening to the truth would be nothing more than a discussion among the deaf.’

Pathologies of reason

Ratzinger notices that in the present times our perception of reality suffers from a self-induced and discriminating blindness. We are able to see, count and calculate according to certain modes of perception to a hitherto unknown degree; hence our technical power, with the increased capacity for action that technical knowledge gives us. At the same time, other equally real modes of perception are discounted as unreliable, ‘subjective’ (and therefore not ‘objectively’ trustworthy) and not, therefore, real. Ratzinger recognises pathologies of religion that can take the form of religious fanaticism, dangerous irrationality, but he also points to pathologies of reason, caricatures of human thought that are equally defective and dangerous infirmities of the mind.

‘It belongs to the world of pure fable to attribute any qualities of a moral or aesthetic nature to the atom beyond its mathematical determinations. But the consequence of the reduction of nature to facts that can be completely grasped and therefore controlled is that no moral message outside ourselves can now come to us. Morality, just like religion, now belongs to the realm of the subjective; it has no place in the objective. If it is subjective, then it is something posited by man. It does not precede vis-a-vis us: we precede it and fashion it.’

What is at stake here is the moral and religious dimensions of reality that we have no longer become accustomed to see, and if seen, dismissed as mere emotions and sentiments that have no real object.  This pathological state of human reason accounts for technical supremacy in the world; the human person and human society are reduced and subject to technical intelligence, which also happens to be good economic business. Ratzinger, in a discourse to the German Federal Parliament in Berlin, refers to this pathology of reason as ‘a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world.’

Clearly, here there is a vital task to be accomplished. Ratzinger describes it as ‘the windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.’  Only in this way we will be able to perceive in a more complete way the true structure of reality.

Not only is it necessary to rediscover, to perceive again, with the capacities for seeing and perceiving, the various modes of truth and their interrelatedness, but the very existence of what is real, and therefore, true, points inevitably to the notion of God. Ratzinger insists that the nature of truth itself, its self-subsistence and its worth, indicate the presence and the power of God:

‘To think through the essence of truth is to arrive at the notion of God. In the long run, it is impossible to maintain the unique identity of the truth, in other words, its dignity (which, in turn is the basis of the dignity both of man and of the world), without learning to perceive in it the unique identity and dignity of the living God. Ultimately, therefore, reverence for the truth is inseparable from that disposition of veneration which we call adoration.’

 It is interesting to see here that, for Ratzinger, perception of the modes of truth is not modelled on the impartial, detached bystander, but rather requires from us a spirit of affirmation and submission, because what truth reveals is holy ground. There are traces of personal being in all things.  Far from this is the manipulative, controlling domination that has become so much part of our way of perceiving reality.

The power of truth

What power has truth? Ratzinger is aware that the voice of truth in society and in politics can often be drowned out by force. His own experience of living under a despotic regime made this very clear. Ratzinger quotes H. Rauschning, a politician from Danzig, who lived in the years of the Weimer Republic, who recalls words spoken to him by A. Hitler: ‘I liberate man from the coercion of a mind that has become an end in itself; from the dirty and degrading self-inflicted torments of a chimera called conscience and morality and from the demands of a freedom and personal autonomy to which only a few can ever measure up’.  Clearly there is a price to be paid for living according to one’s conscience; this we can see from the men and women who have suffered and died for moral and religious truth. What good does it do or achieve?

Ratzinger, in an essay on conscience, comments on a story by the German author R. Schneider, called Las Casas (in English, ImperialMission), about an unscrupulous conquistador Bernardino and an innocent and enslaved girl of the Lucayan tribe. The girl, in Schneider’s novel, represents the voice of conscience, that burns into Bernardino’s soul to light up the hidden guilt there. Ratzinger recognises Schneider’s own role in persecuted Germany of the 1930s:

‘It seems to me that this mysterious feminine figure, more than any other in the novel, expresses what Schneider obviously experienced as his own task and his own fate: to him it was not given to be one of those who intervene on the battlefield of power. It was left to him, instead, to be the voice of conscience, to endure the guilt of the time in suffering, and through his suffering to authenticate the call of conscience.’ 

It seems, therefore, that there is a necessity for the way of suffering for one’s conscience, as a contribution to the common good. This implies that, beyond the forces of this world, of whatever order – of media, of military might, of money – there is a greater achievement in fidelity to truth, often through suffering, that, in the end, has its way of affirming itself. Ratzinger writes these profound thoughts:

‘Yet in the end injustice can be overcome only through suffering, through the voluntary suffering of those who remain true to their conscience and thereby authentically witness to the end of all power in their suffering and in their whole life. Slowly we are beginning to realize anew what it means that the suffering of an executed man is the salvation of the world and victory over power, that precisely in the place where power ends in suffering, man’s salvation dawns.’

Democracy’s foundations

Ratzinger recognises this positive view of democratic procedure:

‘Since the collapse of the totalitarian systems that left their mark on long stretches of the twentieth century, many people today have become convinced that, even if democracy does not bring about the ideal society, nevertheless it is in practice the only appropriate system of government. It brings about a distribution and control of power, thereby offering the greatest possible guarantee against despotism and oppression and ensuring the freedom of the individual and the maintenance of human rights.’

While the history of democratic government is witness to many hard-earned and important victories of equality, representation, suffrage, and constraint of political power and consequent personal freedom, Ratzinger sees dangers in an absolute trust in the democratic system to secure the good of human society. In the first place, he points out that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, in A. Lincoln’s formula, is not always what happens in practice. He asks a series of questions about the very implementation of the democratic process, how democracy is supposed to happen and what in fact occurs.

‘The feeling that democracy is not the right form of freedom is fairly common and is spreading more and more. The Marxist critique of democracy cannot simply be brushed aside: how free are elections? To what extent is the outcome manipulated by advertising, that is, by capital, by a few men who dominate public opinion? Is there not a new oligarchy who determine what is modern and progressive, what an enlightened man has to think? The cruelty of this oligarchy, its power to perform public executions, is notorious enough. Anyone who might get in its way is a foe of freedom, because, after all, he is interfering with the free expression of opinion. And how are decisions arrived at in representative bodies? Who could still believe that the welfare of the community as a whole truly guides the decision-making process? Who could doubt the power of special interests, whose dirty hands are exposed with increasing frequency? And in general, is the system of majority and minority really a system of freedom? And are not interest groups of every kind appreciably stronger than the proper organ of political representation, the parliament? In this tangled power play, the problem of ungovernability arises ever more menacingly: the will of individuals to prevail over one another blocks the freedom of the whole.’

Even so, this is not the heart of Ratzinger’s criticism of the present form of democratic government. It is not just the greater or lesser failure of practice that is at the root of the inadequacy of democracy, but a deeper malaise in the absolute trust in the democratic process to produce a good society.

In contrast to classical notions of forms of government ordered to the various goods of society, Ratzinger notices that we have shifted responsibility for society to the processes, the institutions themselves, to guarantee a good society. Here Ratzinger points to a common misplaced trust and confidence both in former Marxist ideology and in Western political thought:

‘The ethos does not support the structures, but rather the structures support the ethos, precisely because the ethos is the fragile thing, while the structures are considered firm and reliable. I see in this reversal, which is at the root of the myth of the better world, the real essence of materialism, which does not just consist of the denial of one sphere of reality but is at bottom an anthropological program that is necessarily connected with a certain idea about the interrelations among the individual spheres of reality. The claim that mind or spirit is not the origin of matter but only a product of material developments corresponds to the notion that that morality is produced by the economy (instead of the economy being shaped, ultimately, by fundamental human decisions).’

The claim that the good society can be produced independently of the character of those who belong to it is an illusion that has taken hold of Western democracy. The only way public institutions can of themselves shape society is by ever closer control and surveillance, which, in the end, becomes an invasive form of tyranny. Ratzinger notices that increasing anonymous institutional control and surveillance produces a Kafkaesque domineering bureaucracy that ironically makes people less free.

Ratzinger and the Law

Ratzinger notices that law, the great instrument of democratic social order, has been hollowed out. When fundamental ethical and religious values are no longer recognised as having a real and universal application, then laws simply become hollow systems of rules that have no foundation in truth. Laws may them be hierarchically coherent, logical and clear, but their content will be whatever prevails politically at any given moment. The laws offer no protection from the strongest, the most powerful, and the interests, usually economic, of the few. This phenomenon is called juridical positivism:

‘…which today, especially, has taken on the form of the theory of consensus: if reason is no longer able to find the way to metaphysics as the source of law, the State can only refer to the common convictions of its citizens’ values, convictions that are reflected in the democratic consensus. Truth does not create consensus, and consensus does not create truth as much as it does a common ordering. The majority determines what must be regarded as true and just. In other words, law is exposed to the whim of the majority, and depends on the awareness of the values of the society at any given moment, which in turn is determined by a multiplicity of factors.’

Even Constitutions or Basic Laws lose their foundational status and become reinterpreted, or simply changed, according to the tactics of powerful interest groups.

In contrast to these shifting sands of mere structures, Ratzinger indicates the necessary ethical and religious truth that any society needs to perceive if its structures and processes are to guarantee freedom and the common good. In this respect, democracy presupposes and depends on the right functioning of people’s consciences for its systems and structures to achieve justice and the true good of man in society. There is no possible abdication of responsibility of personal conscience as the light to guide social structures, even though, as we have seen, this responsibility can come at a great price:

‘Only the unconditional character of conscience is diametrically opposed to tyranny; only the recognition that conscience is sacrosanct protects man from man’s inhumanity and from himself; only its rule guarantees freedom.’ 

The pre-political foundations of democracy

Speaking of the pre-political foundations of democracy, Ratzinger indicates that it is not enough to search and perceive the necessary ethical values that sustain the true good of society. Ethical values, in turn, are dependent on a religious context for their ultimate foundation. This means that there is a greater source of truth than that which has its origin in human perception; there is given to man a source of light and understanding that is vital for him to make sense of his existence and without which man’s reason is deficient:

‘But ethics alone cannot supply its own rational basis…Even Enlightenment ethics, which still holds our states together, is vitally dependent on the ongoing effects of Christianity, which gave it the foundations of its reasonableness and its inner coherence. When this Christian foundation is completely removed, nothing is left to hold it all together…The essential thing is this: reason that is closed in on itself does not remain reasonable, just as the state that tries to become perfect becomes tyrannical. Reason needs revelation in order to be able to function as reason. The reference of the state to the Christian foundation is indispensable for its continuance as a state, especially if it is supposed to be pluralistic’.

 If Ratzinger is right, then democracies need to enquire and discern from the great religious traditional sources of truth without which society fails. These religious sources have been implicit in modern historical forms of democracy; of late, a much more brittle form of reason has dominated. Ratzinger reiterated this need of society to rely on religious enlightenment when he spoke to British parliamentarians in Westminster Hall, the same hall where Thomas More had stood trial for his religious beliefs. The vital role of authentic sources of religious truth helps to ‘purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.’

Ratzinger observes, with A. de Tocqueville, that while democratic structures and laws are necessary instruments and processes, they are not of themselves the sum of what democracy is and needs. A. de Tocqueville points to the complementary role of instituta et mores, structures and what we can term the ethical and religious values that reflect man’s social reality:

‘Alexis de Tocqueville has impressively demonstrated that democracy depends much more on mores than on instituta. Where no common persuasion exists, institutions find nothing to lay hold of, and coercion becomes a necessity. Freedom presupposes conviction; conviction, education and moral awareness.’

Therefore, democracy and its necessary institutions of government depend fundamentally on each person’s capacity to perceive moral truth, the truth of what it means to be a human person in truly human relation with all others in society. This power of informed and educated conscience is, in the end, the ultimate guarantee against tyranny, in whatever democratic form it may present itself, and it is each one’s lived-out conscience that contributes to or subtracts from truly human society. It is not surprising that Ratzinger underlines the need for education in moral truth as essential for our democratic form of government. This independent power of personal conscience is the fundamental source and safeguard of limited government.

The unity of the nations and the brotherhood of man

Ratzinger dedicated his first original work (in the sense of a thematic work that was primarily not an exposition of another thinker) to the theme of universal brother from the Christian perspective. I think it is correct to say that the work also attempts to understand in what way universal brotherhood per se may be properly understood. Ratzinger is well aware of the complexity of the theme and the need to overcome facile slogans and solutions.

Ratzinger notices that in Ancient Greece and Rome the idea of brotherhood, whether based on blood or other ties, always seem to create a division between those who belonged to the fraternity and the rest, who did not. With the break-up of the polis structure in Greece, and the loss of local political and religious identity, two opposite trends were observable; the growth of religious communities of brotherhood, especially of Eastern influence, at times secretive and searching for a new religious identity, and the opposite trend; Stoic cosmopolitanism, which recognised the unity of brotherhood of all men.

Ratzinger relates that this idea of universal brotherhood without distinction found expression in the European Enlightenment, though with a difference. Now brotherhood was not founded on a common Father, but from a common and equal human nature, without barriers:

‘….the problem of the extended idea of brotherhood was here solved in a very radical way: brotherhood no longer created two separate zones of ethical behaviour; on the contrary, in the name of brotherhood all barriers were removed and a unified ethos was proclaimed as binding on all men in equal measure. This sweeping away of all divisions has something splendid about it, but it is dearly bought, for brotherhood, extended so far, becomes unrealistic and meaningless.’

The Marxist idea of brotherhood returns to a fundamental division of mankind into two opposing groups, the capitalists and the proletariat, in conflict with each other. To overcome the historical economic structures of oppression and inequality, the proletariat was called to fight a class warfare to achieve a future classless and equal brotherhood of man.

So, what is the legitimate aspiration of universal brotherhood? How does one reconcile differences between brothers? Is there a unity of the nations, and a real goal of a united nations? Or is one to resign oneself to pragmatic solutions of minimising conflict, balancing interests, protecting oneself and one’s group?

These questions arise particularly today, as consensus politics has given way to conflict politics, and the clash of civilisations, a phrase also used by Ratzinger.

In his explanation of the meaning of Christian brotherhood, Ratzinger first of all notices the tension between the particular identity of the Jewish people and the universal sonship of the one Father. Speaking of the Jewish nation, Ratzinger says:

‘That meant that brotherhood did not depend merely on common racial descent, but on common election by God. It was a brotherhood in which it was not the common mother (the polis) which mattered, but the common Father, that is, the universal God, Yahweh. Here we come upon the special charge that the Israelite idea of brotherhood carried. It implied brotherhood with a common Father, God, who was not, however, merely the God of Israel alone, but of all. This was the strange paradox of Old Testament religion as a whole: that Israel’s national god was the universal God, that, indeed, Israel did not have a national god at all, but a supernational one.’ 

Here, therefore, we have the terms of humanity’s bond: there is one Father, God, who calls all to sonship. The sonship in God is the source of the brotherhood of all men and women. This universal brotherhood is something to be achieved, not simply a given by nature. This renewal of humanity is through the rebirth of baptism, until all become brothers and sisters in the sonship of the Father.

So, what is the fundamental disposition towards others who do not yet share the identity of Christian sonship and brotherhood? Is this a fall back to the divisions of particular identities?

Ratzinger notices in the Scriptures the ‘dualities of brothers’, pairs of brothers who often provide contrasts or conflicts between themselves, and the consequent ‘theology of the two brothers’. Speaking of the Catholic Church, Ratzinger understands the theology of the two brothers in this way:

‘In relation to Christian brotherhood this means that, however important it is for the Church to grow into the unity of a single brotherhood, she must always remember that she is only one of the two sons, one brother beside another, and that her mission is not to condemn the wayward brother, but to save him…living for whom is the deepest meaning of her existence…In contrast to the Stoics and the Enlightenment, Christianity affirms the existence of the two different zones and calls only fellow believers ‘brothers’. On the other hand, however, Christianity, unlike the mystery cults, is wholly free from a desire to form some self-sufficient esoteric group. Rather the separating off of some has its ultimate significance only in the service it fulfils for the others who are, at bottom, the ‘other brother’ and whose fate is in the hands of the first brother.’

Christianity sees the universal brotherhood of mankind in the sonship of the one Father as an eschatological destiny, something that will only fully come about at the end of time, in eternity, and also as something primarily achieved by the Father in Christ.  All political programs aimed at unification and identity, at whatever level, are necessarily partial and impermanent and do not represent the rebirth in sonship. This is important to remember as it is so easy, in the name of the legitimate desire for the brotherhood of man, to attempt to conform all to some standard, or to justify revolution and ideology in the name of man’s authentic destiny. Nevertheless, true steps can and need to be taken to bring cultures and societies into exchange and truth-based dialogue. We are all called to a greater unity, we all share a common humanity, and we only move towards our destiny together, as brothers.

This understanding of J. Ratzinger on the true meaning of human brotherhood in Christ points to the true spirit with which politics needs to be imbued. Man’s transcendental social destiny is not a political option, but the true context within which political programs of unity need to be promoted.


As a general conclusion to these comments on J. Ratzinger’s political thought, we find a profound theological context for the politics of this world. While it is a mistake to identify political effort in this world with the transcendent destiny of man, as some have done, based on ideologies of historical or material necessity, the other major error is to sever the worldly from what transcends this world, leaving theological truth as relevant for some later stage of man’s existence. I suggest that the thought of J. Ratzinger both distinguishes what is from what is to come beyond this actual existence, and, at the same time, marks from what is to come what is relevant to this existence. In his reply to P. Seewald, Ratzinger said that there must be ‘a vision of the whole’. I believe his theological vision is a valid vision of the whole, and that politics, even mundane politics, finds its true context, its true philosophy, only in reference to this theological vision, which is entirely reasonable.