TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Pope Benedict XVI’s Enduring Legacy

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was certainly sudden but not altogether unexpected. During the pontificate of his predecessor, the then Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have advised the long-suffering Pope John Paul II to renounce the Petrine office. Crucially, in mid-2010 Benedict gave a strong indication that he was considering abdicating. On April 29, 2009, he left his pallium—the sign of Episcopal authority—on the tomb of Pope Celestine V in the Basilica Santa Maria di Collemaggio, in L’Aquila. In the same location Celestine had been crowned pontiff on August 29, 1294—an event that is commemorated as the festival of Perdonanza Celestinana in the earthquake-stricken city every August 28–29. It is unlikely that Benedict’s highly symbolic gesture was a random act. Clearly he felt a deep spiritual connection with the studious monk-pope Celestine, who abdicated in 1295.

Benedict’s move marks an extraordinary end to a paradoxical papacy. Timid yet outspoken, Benedict has helped reshape global Christianity around an intellectual revival that redefines the terms of engagement between politics and religion.

His near eight-year reign may have been plagued and blighted by the child abuse scandal, his contentious stance on contraception and HIV/AIDS, and the recent whistle-blowing “Vatileaks” scandal in which his erstwhile personal butler Paolo Gabriele leaked private letters and confidential documents to journalists and authors.

However, since his unexpected election in April 2005 the pope has rarely ceased to surprise the world with his interventions. Contrary to the archconservative image, his positions transcend the conservative-liberal divide, especially on economic and social issues as well as inter-faith dialogue.

On the latter, Benedict is undoubtedly best remembered for his controversial 2006 Regensburg address, in which he appeared to equate Islam with violence. (He quoted a 15th-century Byzantine emperor who said that the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed were “evil.”) But in reality, he used much of that address to condemn violence in all religions, saying hatred and conflict in the name of belief are a perverse distortion of true faith.

The seemingly inflammatory nature of his Regensburg remarks sparked violent protests across the wider Middle East and Pakistan. Faced with angry reactions, Pope Benedict apologized for any offense caused and said that the “true meaning of my address was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”

The kind of inter-faith engagement he championed represents a clear break with the past fifty years of largely meaningless rhetoric about how all faiths are essentially the same and how Jews, Christians, and Muslims all pray to the same divinity. But since Islam does not consider Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and Christianity does not view Mohammed on the same par as the prophets of the Old Testament, it is no good pretending that each is simply a variant of the other.

On the contrary, mutual understanding and reciprocal respect require that Christians and Muslims recognize and debate fundamental differences that distinguish their respective faith. Such an approach is at once traditional and progressive.

Thus for Pope Benedict, the best hope for genuine peace and tolerance between Christianity and Islam is to have a proper religious engagement about the essence of God and the nature of peace and justice. Otherwise, interfaith dialogue among believers will amount to little more than the polite platitudes of politicians and diplomats. Based on their shared commitment to truth and wisdom, Christians and Muslims should have debates that are theologically informed and politically frank.

The fundamentalists on each side will only be intellectually defeated and effectively marginalized by reasoned belief and rational argument about what true religion might be and how to practice it within each faith tradition—not the illusion of sameness across different creeds that denies each their own distinctness.

Likewise Pope Benedict’s appeal to true faith was a powerful argument against secular extremists and militant atheists who dominate Western discourse on religious belief. They need to be challenged when wrongly claiming that all religions are inherently violent and that only the privatization of faith will rid the world of conflict and evil.

As such, the pope sought to chart an alternative vision beyond both religious fanaticism and secular radicalism. His vision remains one of the most ambitious attempts to revive religion intellectually and to underscore its enduring importance in both politics and culture nationally as well as globally. For these reasons, his theological-political legacy is of tremendous significance for all world religions, especially Christianity and Islam.

Crucially, Benedict’s vision has reconfigured the contemporary debate on religion and politics. It is now clear that the modern divorce of religion from politics reinforces the absolutism of secular reason and the “dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires,” as Joseph Ratzinger put it in a homily shortly before his election as Pope.

Given that secular liberal democracy and unbridled “free-market” capitalism have so clearly failed to deliver universal freedom and prosperity, it is perhaps no longer surprising—though no less significant—that theology is having a major public impact on the impasse of modern secularism and the Enlightenment. In a landmark debate in 2004, Jürgen Habermas agreed with the then Cardinal Ratzinger that we are now in a “post-secular” phase where religious and other ideological bodies should be able to express themselves directly in their own terms within the public square.[1] However, for Habermas the norms to regulate this debate must remain secular and liberal (procedural and majoritarian).

For Ratzinger, by contrast, there must be a plural search for a shared common good, which he does not say is merely pre-given in natural law and abstract reason, for that is part of the logic of neo-scholasticism, which is inextricably intertwined with modern rationalism and fideism. In the Pope’s case a re-invention of constitutional corporatism in a more pluralist guise against modern liberalism is linked both to an insistence on the fundamental metaphysical relationality of all beings and on the indelible role of basic social units above the level of the individual.

Equally such a post-secular politics and economics is linked to a stress—encouraged by other Catholic thinkers who have influenced Ratzinger, like Robert Spaemann, Luigi Giussani, and Alasdair MacIntyre[2]—that education as the transmission and exploration of the truth is as fundamental a dimension of politics as the will of a democratic majority.

In this light, those who brand the Pope as hopelessly conservative and reactionary have not grasped his critique of both left and right. Since the modern political right has always focused on the absolute power of “the one” and the arbitrary right to decide on the state of exception (Carl Schmitt), while the modern left has insisted on an equally absolute right of “the many” to found and withdraw legitimacy (Michel Foucault), both can be taken to ignore the primacy of natural and cultural relation, and of the mediating role of “the few” concerned with truth and virtue.[3]

A political economy focused on the latter would be a more theological option that would define the secular realm as concerned with things in time and with necessary coercion, only through its ultimate outlook toward transcendent norms, which alone supply ultimate standards beyond the will either of the one or of the many. As such, Benedict’s political critique of value-free democracy and capitalism and his social and cultural critique of the “dictatorship of relativism” are of a piece with his defense of the Hellenic metaphysics of relationality and the Biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo in his controversial Regensburg address.

By making these complex links in the Regensburg lecture, which were clearly lost on most commentators, the Pope was asking nothing less than whether our politics of “right and left” remains caught within shared secular, liberal axioms. These axioms are also those of theocratic fundamentalisms since they equally deal in a politics of the indifferent will, inherited—as is also the case in the end for liberalism—from the theological nominalism and voluntarism of the late Middle Ages, as I indicated in my book of Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy.

This is not at all to search for a new middle “third way” that is as conceptually empty as it is practically non-transformative. On the contrary, Benedict’s post-secular politics and economics is a quest for a way that cannot be charted on our current conceptual map. He seeks to retrieve notions of fundamental relationality, of the common good, and of principles that can determine appropriate “mixtures” of government as between “the one,” “the few,” and “the many”; the center and localities; political government and pre-political society; international community and nations; education in time and government in space; absolute right and free decision; economic freedom and just distribution as well as—finally—between secular and religious authorities.

Of course, this does not preclude pragmatic cooperation between different faiths on problems of common concern such as violence in religion, aggressive secularism, and the moral crisis of capitalism.

Quite the reverse, Pope Benedict’s social teaching resonates strongly with people of all faiths and none. From the outset he argued that the world economic crisis has revealed a deeper crisis of public morality and private integrity. For thirty years, executive culture and global finance have separated corporate risk from private reward and making money from doing good.

The effect of this aggressively self-serving approach has been catastrophic, locking the West and much of the rest in a vicious circle of debt and demoralization.

Beyond the standard response of either more bureaucratic state regulation or more cutthroat free-market competition, Pope Benedict has called for much stricter limits on the power of national states and global markets, which converge and undermine both community and society. His vision of a “civil economy” seeks to embed contracts in relationships of trust and cooperation on which vibrant economies depend—as a number of thinkers have explored in greater depth in a collection of essays The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy, which I edited in 2011.

Last year, the Vatican published a series of concrete proposals to transform the world economy. These proposals combine stricter laws on corruption and a small tax on speculative financial transactions with a system of incentives and rewards for more virtuous behavior. For example, company law could be rewritten to reflect not just shareholder value but also the environment and society by introducing green technology or building social housing. Beyond the liberal-conservative divide, Pope Benedict’s position is economically egalitarian and politically pragmatic.

Of course all this requires the mobilization of people around the globe. But Benedict’s ideas are more prescient and radical than the secular ideologies of left and right. His legacy cannot be dismissed as simply conservative or purely religious.

(An abridged version was published in The National.)


1. Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, Dialektik der Säkularisierung: Über Vernunft und Religion (Freiburg: Herder, 2004); trans. The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

2. Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 15–19, 66–67, 57–63, 112–15.

3. John Milbank, “Preface: The Politics of Paradox,” in The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (London: SCM, 2009), pp. ix–xix.

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