As 2015 rapidly surges ahead, crashing into us like the waves from Ephesians 4:14, it is tempting to simply view the state of things pragmatically—deep thinking and serious debating on the extraordinary circumstances of today’s world seems simply out of the question. While there is no shortage of opinions, the garrulous talking heads avoid any real discussion of solutions that would stem the tide. In Walden, Thoreau writes, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
One hundred and thirty years after Walden, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger told Vittorio Messori in The Ratzinger Report: “Those who really desire a more human society need to begin with the root, not with the trunk and branches, of the tree of injustice.” In the context of this part of the interview, Ratzinger referred to unjust social and economic structures and that “personal sin is in reality at the root” of them. Yet is it even possible to begin with—let alone even determine—the root of the tree of injustice?
That Pope Pius XII a year after the end of World War II remarked, “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin” indicates the growing awareness of a separating between God and man. While the defeated powers of that war displayed an obvious violent and atheistic mindset intent on liquidating anybody who shared different beliefs, the attempt to whitewash the Christian landscape has devolved into subtler forms—one that strives for unity without a God, something not lost on Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996:
The danger of a dictatorship of opinion is growing, and anyone who doesn’t share the prevailing opinion is excluded, so that even good people no longer dare to stand by (such) nonconformists. Any future anti-Christian dictatorship would probably be much more subtle than anything we have known until now. It will appear to be friendly to religion, but on the condition that its own models of behavior and thinking not be called into question.
Throughout his whole life, Joseph Ratzinger knew that if personal sin lies at the root, indeed the source of mankind’s pervading unhappiness and alienation from each other and God, change can only come with a proper recognition of where sin festers in the world and that the divine plays a role in uprooting it. He does not simply mean the scriptural understanding of man’s fallen nature as a result of original sin, but a rampant atheism dominated by an imposing pop culture that has superseded diverse cultures of ethnicity and community, where religions were intertwined with that culture, replacing mystery with the tangible alone. “The only way to be happy is for everyone to be equal. We must all be the same. So we must burn the books, Montag. All the books,” wrote Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
Ratzinger has seen in his lifetime a world transformed from celebrating widespread Catholic feast days in the “years of Our Lord,” Annis Domini—A.D.—to the artificial designation of the relativistic Common Era, and with it, an abandonment of things divine and a lowering of standards so much so we dare not contemplate forgiveness, reconciliation, and a new way. This transformation has been a disaster for both the possibility of real change and recognizing the impact of Benedict’s place in culture’s wake. James V. Schall’s reflection written the week of the pope’s abdication continues to hold true today: “Anyone who is not aware of the intellectual caliber of Benedict simply reveals his own incompetence or incomprehension.”
On Tuesday, September 12, 2006, Benedict XVI took to the podium once again at the University of Regensburg, where he had been in residence from 1969-1977. That famous speech quickly became the topic of controversy in the Muslim world and condemnation from the West, with Benedict receiving admonishments from such figures as then-president of France, Jacques Chirac: “We must avoid everything that increases tensions between peoples or religions.” The near-4,000 word address, which contains over a dozen endnotes, focused more on the necessity of using reason when it comes to the question of God than what sparked the controversy, which was a passage from the fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Benedict quoted and very quickly taken out of context: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Lars Brownworth noted the paradox of the unfortunate violence that ensued in Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization: “Benedict XVI [argued] that violence had no place in faith. Ironically, the speech unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the Middle East, resulting in the destruction of some churches and several deaths.”
Was the Regensburg Lecture a grave blunder from the professor pope as seemed to be the consensus? As history has shown, Regensburg remained on the one hand, in the mainstream eye an infamous misstep in the already ill-advised pontificate. On the other hand, writers and scholars took more and more note of it, particularly in light of recent dramatic and violent events. After the kidnapping and death of James Foley at the hands of ISIS in August 2014, the theme of Regensburg resurfaced from analysts such as George Rutler who wrote, “[Benedict] condemned no one, and spoke only for truth without which the votaries of unreason, for whom there is no moral structure other than the willfulness of amorality, and whose God is not bound by his own word, rain down with destruction.” Rutler, like Ratzinger, suggests that such exposing of the roots of injustice today will only continue to be misinterpreted if we only focus on the branches rather than the roots.
Regensburg once again came to light a few months later at the dawn of 2015 in the wake of what has set the tone for the first quarter of the year: the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The violence was quickly condemned across the West, with the outcry that resulted in a worldwide display of solidarity—the viral taglines #JeSuisCharlie and “We are all Charlie Hebdo” and the estimated 3.7 million who gathered for rallies a few days after the shooting. At the core of public response was the defense of “freedom of expression,” which movie stars, American politicians and the French president Francois Hollande, among others, vigorously defended. It’s unclear when the popular #JeSuisCharlie hashtag stopped trending; while actor Jared Leto received respectable applause for mentioning it at the January Golden Globes, he left it out when presenting the Best Supporting Actress Oscar a month later. And still deeper issues remained, root causes few seemed willing to address, notably, that of limits to freedom of expression.
At any rate, a number of commentators picked up on the theme of judiciousness with regards to free speech. For Samuel Gregg, examining a terror attack such as the one on Charlie Hebdo can only be understood not from a secular standpoint disregarding religion as integral to the situation, but a theological one—something Benedict foresaw at Regensburg. “Many professional interfaith dialoguers didn’t like the Regensburg address because it highlighted just how much of their discussion was utterly peripheral to the main game and consisted in many instances of happy talk that avoided any serious conversation about the real differences that exist between many religions,” Gregg noted in an interview shortly after the January 2015 jihadist attack. “It also annoyed those who believe that all religions are ultimately the same and of equal worth.” George Weigel, less than two weeks after the assault, wrote that now it is truly time to face the facts about where we are—and who we are—in both Europe and the world:
In the world of Charlie Hebdo, sadly, all religious convictions (indeed all serious conversations about moral truth) are, by definition, fanaticism—and thus susceptible to the mockery of the “enlightened.” But the crude caricature of religious belief and moral conviction is false; it’s adolescent, if not downright childish; it inevitably leads itself to the kind of vulgarity that intends to wound, not amuse; and over the long haul, it’s as corrosive of the foundations of a decent society as the demented rage of the jihadists who murdered members of Charlie Hebdo’s staff.
“The man of today will for the most part scarcely respond with an abrupt No to a particular religion’s claim to be true; he will simply relativize that claim by saying ‘There are many religions’,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004’s Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. Some intend on their total eradication. In the wake of the Paris shooting, the American Humanist Association sent out a viral post: “Religion isn’t and shouldn’t be protected from criticism. Those who break the law to enforce religious codes must be brought to justice. Freedom of speech, thought, and expression will never be destroyed. #JeSuisCharlie #Charlie Hebdo #Humanism.”
Throughout Joseph Ratzinger’s career, we have seen the recurring theme that to create a truly humane existence, tolerance and dialogue are only stepping stones to a better world, one made up of authentic love and respect. The tendency to lump anything religious into a lot to be ignored and dismissed as irrelevant leaves a secular culture ill equipped to respond effectively to challenges such as the Hebdo attack, ISIS or any number of acts of violence that have occurred this year. Samuel Gregg, George Weigel and other observers cite Regensburg as one of the most important speeches to be delivered in the twenty-first century, leading, one hopes, to an eventual widespread recognition of the value of Benedict’s insights. This was not lost either on Islamic expert Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.: “He makes no compromise: he continues to underline the need to announce the Gospel in the name of rationality and therefore he does not let himself be influenced by those who fear and speak out against would-be proselytism. The pope asks always for guarantees that Christian faith can be ‘proposed’ and that it can be ‘freely chosen’.”
Ratzinger’s concern over the modern ignorance of culture, leading to insensitivity, violence and a vicious circle is due in large part to the current state that Western societies find themselves. Truth and Tolerance argues that culture as we know it is no longer able to make room for belief in invisible, spiritual realities, particularly Christianity. “We should not forget that Christianity, as early as the period of the New Testament, carries within itself the fruit of a whole history of cultural development.” To relegate Christianity to the private sphere, walled off from everyday life, is not only to deny its relevance—it is to deny its very reality. “[T]he people of God is not just a single cultural entity,” he continues, “but is gathered together from all peoples … it must always be struggling against the opposing weight of shutting off, of isolation and refusal.”
Christianity, then, with its root in Christ, in its purity, is the conduit between a wholly secular worldview and an absolute transcendent perspective. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” opens Pope St. John Paul II’s penultimate encyclical—and his most Ratzingerian—Fides et Ratio, “and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Rooting out a relativistic mentality exposes a double standard that has masked modern culture. Faith and reason apply as much about God as it does to the reception of God. And Joseph Ratzinger does not withhold issuing a warning in Truth and Tolerance about societies who decide God is not relevant when he writes, “No one can understand the world at all, no one can live his life rightly, so long as the question about the Divinity remains unanswered. Indeed, the very heart of the great cultures is that they interpret the world by setting in order their relationship to the Divinity.”
But do we today dare even consider a “relationship to the Divinity” without provoking embarrassment, as President Obama increasingly seems to suggest?
Conversion from sin leads to a clear-eyed view of the fundamental nature of man, something we no longer quite grasp, if Pius XII’s declaration that the greatest sin of the last century was a loss of the sense of sin. The root from the tree of injustice Cardinal Ratzinger mentions in The Ratzinger Report, a root nurtured out of a relativistic acknowledgement of cultures, flattening diversity and heritage in the name of tolerance and equality, cultivating a goodness without God, a humanism without humanity, under the banner that truth cannot be known can only lead to a false enlightenment, a “darkening of truth. This distorts our action and sets us against one another, because we bear our own evil within ourselves, are alienated from ourselves, cut off from the ground of our being, from God.” As a spiritual desire splinters away from peoples and cultures like debris from a sinking boat, the less we desire to seek the light of renewed hope.
As the years continue to accumulate following the papacy of Benedict XVI, one might easily dismiss his contribution as irrelevant. But while everyone else is talking, his words about the root of the tree of injustice remind us that truths remain. And with those words, Joseph Ratzinger has set out a path wherein he, evoking the Good Shepherd, offers to put us—a people in need of rediscovering their roots—onto God’s shoulders, and bring us home.