Benedict XVI: God’s Revolutionary

“Revolution” – it’s a word that conjures up images of winter palaces being stormed and the leveling of Bastilles. But if a true revolutionary is someone who regularly turns conventional thinking upside-down, then one of the world’s most prominent status-quo challengers may well be a quietly-spoken Catholic theologian who turns 85 today.

While regularly derided by his critics as “decrepit” and “out-of-touch,” Benedict XVI continues to do what he’s done since his election as pope seven years ago: which is to shake up not just the Catholic Church but also the world it’s called upon to evangelize. His means of doing so doesn’t involve “occupying” anything. Instead, it is Benedict’s calm, consistent, and, above all, coherent engagement with the world of ideas that marks him out as very different from most other contemporary world leaders – religious or otherwise.

Benedict has long understood a truth that escapes many contemporary political activists: that the world’s most significant changes don’t normally begin in the arena of politics. Invariably, they start with people who labor – for better or worse – in the realm of ideas. The scribblings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped make possible the French Revolution, Robespierre, and the Terror. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Lenin and the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia without the indispensible backdrop of Karl Marx. Outside of academic legal circles, the name of the Oxford don, H.L.A. Hart, is virtually unknown. Yet few individuals more decisively enabled the West’s twentieth-century embrace of the permissive society.

Benedict’s most status quo-disrupting forays occur when he identifies the intellectual paradoxes underlying some of the dysfunctional forces operating in our time. To those who kill in the name of religion, he points out that they scorn God’s very nature as Logos, the eternal reason which our own natural reason allows us to know. To those who mock faith in the name of reason, Benedict observes that in doing so, they reduce reason to the merely-measurable, thereby closing the human mind to the fullness of truth accessible through the very same reason they claim to exult.

A similar method is at work in Benedict’s approach to internal Church issues. Take, for instance, Benedict’s recent polite but pointed critique of a group of 300 Austrian priests who issued a call for disobedience concerning the now drearily-familiar shopping-list of subjects that irk dissenting Catholics. Simply by posing questions, the pope demonstrated the obvious. Do they, he asked, seek authentic renewal? Or do we “merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

Beyond the specifics of the Austrian case, Benedict was making a point that all Catholics, not simply dissenters, sometimes forget. The Church is not in fact “ours.” Rather, it is Christ’s Church. It is not therefore just another human institution to be changed according to human whim. That in turn reminds us that Christianity is not actually about me, myself, and I. Rather, it is centered on Christ and our need to grow closer to Him. Certainly the Church always needs reform – but reform in the direction of holiness, not mere accommodation to secularism’s bar-lowering expectations.

So has all this attention by Benedict to the world of ideas come at a cost? Even among his admirers, one occasionally hears the criticism that Benedict focuses too much on writing and not enough on governing.

But perhaps Benedict writes and writes because he knows that for the pope to write is to participate in the arena of universal public conversation, thereby putting the truths of the Catholic faith precisely where they should be. For this, he’s widely admired not just by Catholics but also countless Orthodox and Evangelical Christians, and even the occasional “smiling secularist.”

The pope isn’t, however, doing this because he’s trying to please certain audiences. Like all true revolutionaries, Benedict is remarkably single-minded. Throughout his pontificate, he’s relentlessly endeavored to do what many of the immediate post-Vatican II generation of bishops, priests, religious, and theologians manifestly failed to do – which is to place us before the person of Jesus the Nazarene and the minds and lives of the doctors and saints of His Church, in order to help us recall the Christian’s true vocation in this world.

As the never-named whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, realizes the night before his execution, the goal of Christian life isn’t ultimately earthly justice, human rights, or this or that cause. Instead the seedy alcoholic who’s broken all his vows discovers that Christianity is about something else: “He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.”

Sanctity isn’t a word you hear very much from dissenters. After all, if you spend much of your time trying to read out of Scripture all those things that make Jesus the Christ, or seeking to collapse Christian ethics into consequentialist incoherence, you’re unlikely to be encouraging people to pursue lives of heroic virtue. Yet even among faithful Catholics, there’s often the sense that sanctity is for other people: that our everyday failures to follow Christ mean that holiness is somehow beyond us.

That, however, is most decidedly not Benedict’s view. For him, sanctity is what it’s all about, no matter how many times we fall on the way. Moreover, it’s only sanctity, Benedict believes, which produces that breath of fearless and indestructible goodness that truly changes the world. Never did Benedict make this point so directly than when he spoke these words during an all-night prayer-vigil for thousands of young people at World Youth Day in Cologne, 2005:

“The saints are . . . the true reformers. . . . Only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come . . . It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true. True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?”

Yes, God is Love. The Logos is Caritas – there is no more revolutionary message than that.

Samuel Gregg


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

  • Alicia

    Changes do begin in the realm of ideas, but there also has to be follow-through and I don’t think the Pope is strong in this area, particularly when it comes to the very priests he criticized on Holy Thursday. Popes do not have the luxury only of existing in the realm of ideas. They also have to implement them.

    • MMJ212

      He in fact does both (follow-through /implement)…e.g., the ongoing FSSP initiative, the Regensburg address that led to unprecedented dialog between Muslims leaders and our bishops/Curia; the Extraordinary (Tridentine) Form of the Holy Mass initiative, the Anglican Apostolic Constitution initiative, the Reform of the reform in the liturgy, especially at the Pope’s public celebration of the Liturgy of the Holy Mass, Vespers, etc….etc.  I think you get the point of this beautiful essay on B-XVI’s “modus operandi”…but you apparently and simply don’t believe the Pope is right…I understand your instinct re: the dissident priests, but  my “money” is on B-XVI and his judgment:  … “The saints are . . . the true reformers. . . . Only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come …  these dissident priests of the so called  “Austrian Priests’ Initiative –Call for Disobedience” …will wind up in the dust bin of Church history…without any notable footnotes on who they were or what they wanted…just a simple chronological logbook entry.  For the faithful…they are simply a “thorn” and a blessing…an opportunity to examine our fidelity and perseverance in Spirit and Truth…to His “O.H.C.& A.” Church…simply a test…in the Lord’s often time confusing and perplexing, but always mysterious and perfect wisdom of His Divine Providence.

    • You want  a Pio Nono?  Expect rather Leo XIII who also ascended the throne as an old man. Benedict needs at least five more years to turn this battleship around, and he has to use the gifts he owns to do the job.   Ideally we would have an Alfred the Great, the bookworm with a nervous stomach, born to be a monk, but who was called to be   general.  

      • Joannespetrus

        Leo XIII was 68 when he ascended the throne of St Peter, ten years younger than the present pontiff.

  • Malonep18

    Nice point Alicia.  It is most important to remember that those priests have a Bishop who is responsible for them.  This Pope is also addressing their Bishops with what we see and read publically.  It’s hard to know what BXVI does one-on-one with these Bishops. Continued prayers for this Great Pope.

  • Tout

    I repeat: dare to act ! I never took H.Host in hand, always on tongue, even when priests tried to open my hands. I also knelt to receive but stopped that, for now I am too old to get up again, occasionaly  caused trouble with someone too close behind me. I don’t want to ‘show-off’ but invite others to act. I always wear wooden 3 cm cross over my sweater. Four persons said “I like your little cross”. Always make sign of cross before meal, also in restaurant, alone or with others who don’t. Once a week (not raining) I pray rosary at Mary-statue downtown. Sometimes a pedestrian comes,touches the statue. A young man (20 ?) came, prayed,left.Girl (19 ?) knelt on ground,prayed,left.Woman joined me praying the rest of the rosary,left.Older woman came,prayed,left. People in cars stopped for red light, see me, and my sign “Whether glad,sad or wary,pause a while, say a Hail Mary”. Didn’t know how to start a   procession, so I went 6 times alone around 4 streets, praying, rosary in hand.In 2005,woman & son came along; more the other years.In 2008 young mother took over, did beautiful job: 50 people praying, singing, carrying big Mary-statue thru the streets, then Mary-crowning in church.Give only 25 cents till we can use an altar-rail. Don’t clap my hands.  Used to drive to Tridentine Mass but have no more car. For Consecration, knelt on floor in the aisle, if no room between standing people.Please,ALWAYS RECEIVE ON TONGUE, KNEEL FOR CONSECRATION !! Don’t clap hands.

  • Sam Johnston

    SHAME! Does the Church really expect us to all forget how many it has murdered in the name of Orthodoxy?  “Kill them all, God will know his own”! How many have been imprisoned for simply stating a different understanding of the divine? Shall we forget that not “believing” (subscribing to orthodoxy) was a capitol crime until quite recently?
    Finally, at the practical level, has religion, let alone Christianity, improved man morals? I would love to see the evidence. 

    • msmischief

      “Kill them all, God will know his own”?  How impressive.  Your charge against the Church is a lie — a statement nowhere found in the many contemporous accounts of the attack, and first appearing more than a century after the fight.


  • Sam Johnston

    “. …a statement nowhere found in the many contemporous accounts of the attack”
    Yes. Let us argue about words rather than acts. As I charge, morality is not fostered by the Church.

    • msmischief

      Ah.  Words are important when you cite them and not when they are rebuted.

      • Sam Johnston

        O.K. you have sucked me into the debate game.
        1. I did not allege any particular “attack”. The words express an attitude, they are poetic license, if you will. That is why they are famous, like “Et tu, Brutus”.
        2. If we were restricted to “contemporous accounts”, we would have to exclude the entire Bible.  
        P.S. Why are you unwilling to use your real name?

  • Greg

    Actually he is Hitler’s revolutionary. At least I didn’t join Hitler Youth.

    • Not Greg

      You sir are an ass. And not even a witty one.

      • Steve

         The revolution was Vatican 2 Thessalonians 2.  Here’s what you do, put all the once autonomous Bishops in a college.  Then when it’s time to elect a new Pope, the Bishops, keenly aware of their place, vote for whomever the power brokers decide should carry on.  Do you really think the Holy Ghost chose Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger?

    • Canvention

      The youth had NO choice! And our youth now in America have no choice but to receive various indoctrinations into sinful things with ‘sex education’ etc.  The shaping and capturing of the children is always the goal, is it not?

  • The Ratzinger family HATED Hitler, and tried their best to steer out of the way of the Nazis.  Joseph is now 85.  That means that he wasn’t even born when Hitler was working his way into power.  He was all of 12 years old when Hitler invaded Poland.  The parents signed him up for the Hitlerjugend so that he wouldn’t be killed — and then he joined a seminary and got out of it.  When Gunter Grass first met Joseph Ratzinger, he was near his 18th birthday, in a German prisoner camp.  Grass, we recall, was an SS officer.  Of course, Gunter Grass is not made to repent over and over for his partaking in mass murder, because Grass became a Marxist novelist.  That’s his free pass.  Joseph Ratzinger hated Nazism, as his whole family did, and is now slandered.  But that’s nothing new.  Pius XII has endured the same slander, this time spurred by one Rolf Hochhuth, a Soviet pawn paid off to sign his name to a German play slandering Pius as Hitler’s deputy.  That is rather like Hitchens calling Mother Teresa “Hell’s Angel” — a matter of getting things upside down in so flagrant a way that the madness can only be attributed to seated malice or even demonic activity.

  • And then there’s the charge that “religion” is a force for evil in the world.  The use of the word “religion” is meant to obfuscate things, because we are not talking about “religion,” but about faith in Jesus Christ.  Now, it is a plain historical fact that the overwhelming majority of wars that have been fought have had nothing to do with religion.  The Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Huns, the Angles, the Saxons, the Goths, the Magyars, the Vikings — none of them fought for “religion.”  They fought for what men have always fought for: plunder, prestige, land, power, revenge, fear.  Napoleon did not fight for religion (he was a secularist), Bismarck did not fight for religion (he hated the Church, and was another secularist), the British did not fight for religion (they were out for power and wealth), the Chinese in all their history did not fight for religion …  The Muslims are the dangerous outlier, but that has to do with the peculiarities of the Koran.

  • Now then, we are supposed to believe that the Christian faith did not change the world.  Nobody who knows a damned thing about history can claim that.  Occasionally we get somebody bemoaning the change, because a WARLIKE people was made to go soft — that is the point of view of Gibbon and Nietzsche — or because a hedonist “utopia” was spoiled — that is the point of view of Bertrand Russell.  But this is a plain historical fact.  Before the Christians came preaching the dignity of every human being, regardless of how poor or how weak, children with deformities were habitually exposed to die (that is even recommended by the otherwise humane Plato), girls were exposed because they were less valuable, slavery was universal (and things began their gradual reversal when Christ took the form of a slave, as Saint Paul says), young boys and girls were fair prey (that was simply taken for granted); you had the regular murder of men in the gladiatorial arenas of the Roman empire; you had “decimation” as punishment in the Roman legions … Fact: before the religion of the Old and New Testaments, there are NO hospitals founded in the world to take care of the poor; there are NO schools founded among initially hostile people to teach them to read and to take better care of themselves; there are NO missionaries taking their lives in their hands to bring people the good news of love and of human dignity; and to this day, outside the ambit of the Christian world, there are no Mother Teresas, no Damiens of Molokai, no Jean de Brebeuf, no Junipero Serra, no Matteo Ricci … no exaltation of poverty; no looking upon the feeble or the simple with honor … And here we are, now, lurching back into the mass murder of innocents.  You want a world without Christ?  There are plenty.  Go there — go to secularist China, go to what’s left of the Soviet Union.  Look what has happened to the once humane nation of England, and the Netherlands.  The difference between a Christian and a post-Christian is the difference between someone who KNOWS that the poor person before him is an image of Jesus Himself, and someone who will be conniving ways of getting rid of said person.  Check out the utilitarians.

    • JTLiuzza

       Well done, Mr. Esolen.

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  • Jongeiser

    Pope Ratzinger believes in Jesus Christ to save all humanity even though most of humanity doesn’t need or want to be saved. I would say he’s wasting his breath. 

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