The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

Last Things: The Event That Is Christianity
James V. Schall, S.J. - 05/14/08

Welcome to Last Things, the regular column of James V. Schall, S. J., in First Principles.     —The Editors


“In his funeral eulogy for Gussiani, Ratzinger praised him for understanding that ‘Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event.’ This, in a nutshell, is the message of Deus Caritas Est.”
—Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith
“At the level of praxis Ratzinger has also warned the faithful not to get mixed up in interfaith situations which require them implicitly to deny their belief in the Trinitarian God.”
—Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith


The scramble and even frenzy to come to terms with the vast, fascinating, and happily not yet completed opera omnia of Joseph Ratzinger will be a major publishing enterprise in the next decades. German scholarship is normally noted for being, if anything, thorough and exhaustive, if not exhausting. Multi-volumes of heavily documented pages are the norm. Joseph Ratzinger is not immune from this valuable heritage. Indeed, he follows it with the best of them. But he also has Joseph Pieper’s concise, illuminating, and brilliant brevity that can say in a few pages what it takes most of us tomes to explain.

The world of Ratzinger scholarship is already formidable. It is a most welcome initiative that Tracey Rowland, the Australian scholar, should provide us with an accurate and relatively brief guide (the text of the book is a mere 155 pages) to the major themes and issues that have concerned the academic and ecclesiastical career of the Bavarian theologian, Joseph Ratzinger. No one will do it any better. Rowland writes with zest and wit, with a great capacity to summarize and explain issues, in pages that would take most of us years to assimilate. She spots the ideological backgrounds of the critics that cloud their judgments. She holds to a steady course of common sense and careful reasoning when it comes to understanding this Pope who has again made the term Logos a commanding word in contemporary philosophical discourse. Reason is something more than its rationalist usage. It is even more than the intuition of first principles. It is indeed the Verbum, the Word.


On almost every page of this book we find issues of the highest import. I will indicate a few in these comments. In his Regensburg Lecture (text in Appendix of this book), Benedict traced the history of western thought. It went back through the Old Testament. It pursued the affirmation: Deus Logos Est. The Apostles were in fact first directed toward Greece, the land of the philosophers, not to the lands of mystery. This turn, if we are to understand our universe, was providential, not accidental. But, as Rowland points out, granted this emphasis on reason, Benedict’s first encyclical is not Deus Logos Est, but Deus Caritas Est. This concentration on love, on agape (caritas), phila, and eros, was not intended to deny the Word, the Logos, but rather to emphasize the relation of “reason and love.” We do not love the act of loving, but what is, what is true.

Behind this emphasis on love, no doubt, is Benedict’s long-standing interest in Augustine, who reminded us that “two loves built two cities.” We have to be sure that what we love is loveable. This interest, as Rowland insists, is not to be seen as being anti-Thomistic. St. Thomas, after all, was one of the greatest readers of Augustine, ever. Rowland explains that Augustine’s famous maxim, that “faith seeks understanding,” establishes the interest of faith itself in philosophy and points us toward the “necessary prerequisite for the pursuit of understanding.” The pope wrote that “just as creation comes from reason and is reasonable, faith is, so to speak, the fulfillment of creation and thus the door to understanding.” In this context, Roland shows that Ratzinger not only wrote on Thomas from the beginning of his own studies, but has needed him to complete his own (Benedict’s) overall approach. That approach, as Rowland shows us, is harmonious with, and not antagonistic to, Augustine. In fact, Augustine may be the more useful in a post-modern, Nietzschean world.

That is the Augustinian side. Rowland also sites the pope’s self-description as “‘a decided Augustinian’ and ‘to a certain extent a Platonist.’” What about Plato? In a passage that recalls Pieper’s discussion of tradition, Ratzinger finds that in Plato “a kind of memory, of recollection of God, is, as it were, etched in man, though it needs to be awakened.” Intimations of Augustine’s “restless heart” are already there in Plato.

Nonetheless, Ratzinger’s emphasis on Augustine and Plato should not be understood as working against a robust Thomistic understanding of theology. Theology itself needs the kind of metaphysics that Aquinas perceived and explicated. Ratzinger wrote: “The exclusion of ontology from theology does not emancipate philosophical thinking but paralyzes it. The extinction of ontology in the sphere of philosophy, far from purifying theology, actually deprives it of its solid basis.” Theology, which begins with an event in the world, cannot happen if a real world does not exist and if the human mind is not open to it. The “solid basis” of theology cannot be theology itself.


What about this turn to Greece with its philosophy and not to the more mystical East? “Ratzinger argues that the whole panorama of the history of religions sets before us a basic choice between two types of religion: religion as mysticism and religion as monotheism.” This choice has consequences. “The first leads to a mysticism of self-identity, the second to a personal understanding of God.” In other words, do we ourselves fuse to become gods? Or is there a true “I” that is not God, but one that can know him? There is much at stake here. Is there a being God or only experience of an “All?”

“The New Age movement is the best contemporary example of a mystical religion,” Ratzinger wrote. In this context Ratzinger is referring to Albert Görres’s concept of the “Hinduization of the faith.” Rowland explains:

This occurs when doctrinal propositions no longer matter because the important thing is contact with a spiritual atmosphere which leads beyond everything that can be said. Against this kind of approach Ratzinger has quipped that ‘Jesus had no intention of producing some content-less state of exaltation.’ . . . [F]or a reduction to the mystical way means that the world of the senses, particularly the work of the intellectual faculty, drops out of our relation to the divine. Religion loses its power to form a communion of mind and will and becomes a mere therapy.

While Ratzinger spends a good deal of time on materialism and relativism, it is refreshing to notice that he is also aware that the greatest temptations to faith and reason itself do not come from the sins of the flesh but from the aberrations of the mind in its efforts to explain things exclusively by itself and its own powers.


Rowland’s chapter on “Modernity and the Politics of the West” is a must read. As the pope noted in Spe Salvi, his second encyclical, the history of the West can in many ways be conceived as a gigantic this-worldly effort to achieve the ends of Christianity by politics, issuing from a denial of any transcendent purpose to man or the world. “Ratzinger thus rejects all philosophies of history which would find in the historical process some dynamic outside the theo-drama of God’s offer of grace and the human response to this offer.” The effect of this understanding is to allow politics to be politics and not a substitute for metaphysics. There are the “things of Caesar,” a phrase that clearly implies that many other things, often the most important ones, are not of Caesar.

Rowland cites the following passage of Ratzinger in which he distinguishes between a healthy “secularity,” an understanding that the polity has a purpose, and “secularism,” a closed ideology. “Secularism is no longer that element of neutrality which opens up areas of freedom for everyone. It is beginning to turn into an ideology that imposes itself thorough politics and leaves no public space for the Catholic and Christian vision, which thus risks becoming something purely private and essentially mutilated.” Ratzinger has admired the American founding as a reasonable example of a polity that did not conceive itself to be a religion or ideology, but understood that it must leave space for religion to live and flourish within the limited public order.

Rowland lists several core principles that Ratzinger uses to think of the state. These principles are worth citing in full as they make clear the ideas that Benedict has affirmed about the civil order.

  1. The state is not itself the source of truth and morality.
  2. The goal of the state cannot consist in a freedom without defined contents.
  3. The State must receive from outside itself the essential measure of knowledge and truth with regard to what is good.
  4. This outside cannot be “pure reason” however desirable in theory, because, in practice, such a pure rational evidential quality independent of history does not exist. Metaphysical and moral reason comes into action only in a historical context.
  5. Christian faith has proved to be the most universal and rational religious culture.
  6. The Church may not exert herself to become the state. . . .
  7. The Church remains outside the state . . . (but) must exert herself with all her vigor so that in it there may shine forth the moral truth that it offers to the state and that ought to become evident to the citizens of the state.

This is an excellent summary of Benedict’s thought on the nature of the state and its proper relation to the Church. It indicates the limits and therefore the nature of both necessary realities.


The final thing I would like to indicate about this excellent and readable book is that it finally addresses the central place of beauty in our lives. In many ways the real battles of our time occur over the liturgy and not over politics. “The emphasis given by Benedict to ‘an intellectual affirmation by which one understands the beauty and the organic structure of the faith’ means that the primary task of the church in this era is one of catechesis and healing rather than accommodation and assimilation.” It is the culture itself, as Rowland delineates in the second chapter of the book, that has embodied principles that lead to its death. We have already accommodated and assimilated; what is now needed is to heal and to purify.

Rowland remarks that “Ratzinger describes history as a whole as the struggle between love and the inability to love, between love and the refusal to love.” This too is something that begins in beauty, for it begins, as Plato taught us and as Augustine reaffirmed, in our very souls where we all must begin to see the reality and beauty of what is. Ratzinger’s Faith is the real introduction to what is most needed in our times. It understands both that Deus Logos Est and that Deus Caritas Est.

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