The Political Philosophy of Joseph Ratzinger

Joseph Ratzinger was aware of the central event of modernity, namely the transferal of basic Christian categories from the transcendent order to the political order of this world.

Editor’s Note: A number of years ago, Crisis Magazine asked Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. to write a piece about Pope Benedict XVI in the event of the former pontiff’s passing. Since then Fr. Schall himself passed away (in 2019). This piece is likely then the last published writing of Fr. Schall.

Like many classically trained German scholars, Joseph Ratzinger was learned in many spheres of knowledge. He displayed a considerable familiarity with those areas in which he did not directly specialize. One thinks of his knowledge of music, of his ability to play Mozart on the piano. He was said always to carry a Greek text of the Bible with him. He knew the historic and contemporary German thinkers. He was a member of one of the French learned academies. He was comfortable in several classical and modern languages.

Ratzinger’s great love, even after he was called to Rome and his later elevation to the papacy, was to settle down to become a professor in a German university. His predecessor in the papacy, Karol Wojtyla, was likewise a brilliant philosophy professor. But unlike Ratzinger, had he not been a cleric or pope, he might well have become an actor, the president of Poland, or both. Somewhat reluctantly, Ratzinger realized that he was called to do something else besides German academia. But it would not be entirely wrong, on reading what he wrote during his pontificate, to argue that what he did do was to become a German professor in the papacy. 

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One of the principal tasks of the Church is to teach the truth handed down to it and further deepen revelation through its light. Ignorance and error are not virtues, however prevalent they might be. Errors of mind are not neutral and need clearly to be identified and counteracted. Ratzinger’s successor, Pope Francis, has downplayed or eschewed this aspect of the papal office. Thus, writers who attend to Catholic intellectual tradition today habitually, for clarity and insight, return to the works of Joseph Ratzinger.

Ratzinger wrote a number of books and essays (Truth and Tolerance; Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures) that could properly be related to precisely “political philosophy.” He would designate himself, however, as primarily a theologian. A good part of his theological work had to do with logos, with mind or reason. How did it relate to revelation? He was familiar with John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, in which theologians were gently chastised for neglecting philosophy. Errors of mind almost always reappear as errors in ethics and conduct.

A major aspect of Ratzinger’s work was to show the coherence of reason and revelation. This endeavor naturally referred to the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s, a Gospel phrase that still serves as the foundation of reflection on any political philosophy. Christian revelation was unique not because it affirmed that things belonged to God—all religions did that—but that things also belong to Caesar. What belonged to what in detail constitutes the on-going task of both theology and political philosophy in particular circumstances of time and place.

“Political philosophy” is that effort to make clear to the statesman, to the non-philosopher who has the power of life and death, why politics does not embrace everything about human life, even though man is, as Aristotle taught, by nature a political being. Aristotle also taught that politics was the highest of the practical (ethical) sciences, but not the highest science as such. This ranking was based on the fact that man was not the highest being in the universe. The political order, the order of human doing, of the virtues, was itself oriented to the order of being and its principles. Philosophy, in its turn, was open to the whole, to any recognizable “reason” that might be addressed to it, including revelation. 

Good statesmen, in turn, recognized that philosophy and religion could and often did produce their own aberrations and extremists. So the common sense protection of the civil society from philosophical and religious ideologues is a legitimate function of political philosophy and every day politics. 

Thus, the trials of Socrates and Christ under the laws of Athens and Rome, the best actual polities of their time, presented political philosophy with its paradigmatic beginning. Could the just man live in any existing state? Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias represented the statesman for whom the civil laws reflected the highest good. No transcendent order limited them. Plato’s conclusion was that the only just order existed in mind or speech. This view became the basis for recognizing Aristotle’s admonition that politics was limited, that our expectations always needed to be, as Leo Strauss once said, “moderate.”

In these reflections, I am particularly interested in Ratzinger’s contribution to “political philosophy.” He had much to say about what we might call ordinary politics that is shot through with contemporary issues of elections, constitutions, vices, war and peace. He understood the Christian background to Europe and what its loss means. Of war, he wrote, in true Augustinian terms: “The world has always been torn apart by wars and catastrophies, and nothing allows one to hope that, for example, ‘perfect peace’ will manage to erase the watermark of all humanity.” 

This passage on war alone is enough to remind us of how aware Ratzinger was of the central event of modernity, namely the transferal of basic Christian categories from the transcendent order to the political order of this world. The goals of Christianity were replaced by a subtle parody of themselves now seen as political events and technological developments in this world. When man came to consider himself the highest being in the universe, replacing God, politics became the highest science, just as Aristotle had expected. Everything became politicized including the Christian message itself. 

Ratzinger’s book, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, details the transference of the notions of heaven, hell, death, and purgatory to become, through technology, ecology, and politics, projects of man in this world for its own self-salvation. Ratzinger put it this way in the 1988 Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith instruction on “Christian Freedom and Liberation: “Since that time (of Luther and the Enlightenment), many have regarded future history as an irresistible process of liberation inevitably leading to an age in which man, totally free at last, will enjoy happiness on this earth” (#6). For Ratzinger, what this position implies is that the ultimate intelligibility of modern culture lies not in science or politics but in a theological deviation.

“How,” we might inquire, “does this transformation work?” What Ratzinger has done, especially in his greatest Encyclical, Spe Salvi, and in his “Regensburg Lecture,” is to explain how the content and drift of modern thought, once the primacy of God in nature and human nature is rejected, takes up Christian doctrines to transpose them into political projects. Thus, the final end and happiness of man, itself taken from Greek and Christian sources, is not rejected. It is reformulated as a goal for the collective human race to be achieved down the ages. 

Morality, always itself directed to a final end, is now adjusted in terms of this new end. The Socratic principle on which our civilization was founded—that is, it is never right to do wrong—becomes the “right” to do what is necessary to achieve our new goal. It is not everlasting life for each person, but life in this world.

Christianity maintains that every human person is created by God for a supernatural purpose which can only be attained after death as a result of how he lived or did not live midst the polities of this world. The four last things—heaven, hell, death, and purgatory—all relate to how individual lives are lived during their transitus in this world. 

What Ratzinger notes is that each of these goals now has a secularized version of itself. Heaven becomes the mission of mankind to keep itself in existence down the ages for as long as possible. We now hear of scientific efforts to abolish death. But, as Ratzinger notes, the keeping of us alive in this world for hundreds and hundreds of years is itself a hell on earth. And with our ideologies, we have in effect created collectivized hell on earth in which evils are eliminated by eliminating those thought to cause them. Purgatory, moreover, makes sense in the light of the nature of sin and the nature of our repentance.

Christianity accepts the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul. It is aware that some judgment must be made on those responsible for crimes and evils. Plato had seen that the world would be created in injustice without some resolution of the unpunished crimes of actual human beings. But Ratzinger notes that the immortality of the soul is not sufficient to account for the personal nature of both crime and salvation. 

Ratzinger cites two Marxist philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Both recognized that justice could not be really requited or rewarded without the resurrection of the body and the restoration of the whole person in this world. The Christian notion of the resurrection of the body indicates a far deeper understanding of man than the notion of some inner-worldly collective end inside time. As many have pointed out, making man’s final end to be some perfect city down the ages means that most of mankind will be little more than slaves to this end.  Most men will never see its supposed glory.

In his “Regensburg Lecture,” Ratzinger does one enormously important thing for political philosophy. He established the principle that allows us to see how the mortal life of men in existing cities is related to revelation. He establishes the fact that both in the Old and the New Testaments we find at work an intelligence, a logos, an intelligibility. What is asked of political life and philosophy itself, as I like to put it, is that they answer all the questions about their nature as best they can. In this process, they arrive at certain issues that they cannot seem to answer by themselves, though they can formulate the questions that perplex them.

Questions that did arise in political living and in philosophy, ones that ended in an impasse, turned out to have intelligible answers in revelation to the questions as asked. Reason and revelation do not properly meet until reason itself formulates the questions to be answered. Thus, the lives and trials of both Socrates and Christ bring reason to the point that justice is not achieved in this world and that death is not the greatest evil. Philosophy at this point can see that the Christian answers to these issues are at least feasible. They cannot be simply rejected on the grounds of irrationality.     

Joseph Ratzinger is a philosopher. He is primarily a theologian. When we read his careful three-volume account of Jesus of Nazareth, we realize that he deals with all the arguments, scientific, literary, and otherwise, about why the Christian revelation cannot be true. He accounts for why these arguments cannot themselves be valid. He ends by affirming that, when we have examined all the evidence, Jesus of Nazareth is who he said he was. This fact alone makes the world different. 

Looked at from the vantage point of political philosophy, the deaths of Socrates and Christ are the beginning of the discipline. They find their coherent ends in the need to reject all the alternate this-worldly proposals for human existence that populate the modern mind.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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