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"No Weighing, No Disputing, No Such Thing": Ratzinger and Europe | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 11, 2007

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"There is no weighing of good that can justify treating man as experimental material for higher ends." -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Cernobbio (Como) Italy, September 8, 2001 [1]

"There is no disputing the historical fact of the Christian faith in giving life to Europe." -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, La Combe Cemetery (Caen) France, June 5, 2004 [2]

"There is no such thing as an a-historical State based on abstract reason." -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Church of St. Etienne, (Caen), June 5, 2004 [3]


In his brief "Preface" to Europe: Today and Tomorrow (Ignatius Press, 2007), a collection of eight essays, lectures, and homilies that touch on the nature of Europe and the concept of politics that this entails, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that he had not particularly planned to speak on these topics. But "I have been invited repeatedly during the past decade to give conferences on this subject (of Europe)." These often brief, occasional addresses deserve some attention as they are filled with insights that we might otherwise miss. This material comes from the three years just before Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. He has always displayed a generous willingness to speak frankly and freely on many topics insisting only on the force of his arguments. He again reveals himself as both erudite and clear about what he holds. His mind exists in that realm of freedom that is oriented to the truth and in this form makes a particularly powerful demand on the integrity of his readers.

I have given these reflections a rather "odd" title: "No Weighing, No Disputing, No Such Thing." These words, taken from passages in the book, reveal a man who is willing to take a stand, to call something what it is, even if unpopular, but not because it is unpopular--rather because it is the truth. We begin to realize that one of the unique things about Benedict XVI is his preference for reason and reasoned argument. Though he be pope, he keeps insisting that what he says is reasonable, and it is. It makes sense. I am sure that, if necessary and appropriate, he will use his authority. His very office means there is a place for it. But he is disarming.

Benedict's book on Jesus of Nazareth specifically indicated that no one had to believe what he said if he had reasons not to do so. But this very approach puts the shoe on the other foot, as it were--not on his but on ours. We can no longer reject the arguments for Catholicism simply because they are said to come from "authority." This is a popular rationalization. This very authority, however, claims reasonableness, even when faith is also included. Faith is always directed to reason, to a reason that knows it is not itself divine. Faith always seeks understanding.


The first matter I should like to take up is that of war. Recently, while on vacation at Lorenzago di Cadore, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the famous peace effort of Benedict XV on August 1, 1917, to propose a peace plan that would have avoided the worst slaughters of World War I. The beautiful Alpine area of Italy where the pope was at the time had been the scene of World War I battles. "The Holy See's proposal was oriented to the future of Europe and the world. It complied with a project that was Christian in inspiration but could be shared by all since it was based on the rights of people." (L'Osservatore Romano, July 25, 2007). Here we have a hint of the close connection the pope sees between Europe and what it is with a more general politics that propose an alternative to war.

Yet, even Scripture tells us that there will always be "wars and rumors of war." In the same address, Benedict notes that "sin ruins ever anew this divine project (or order), causing division and introducing death into the world. Thus humanity succumbs to the temptations of the evil One and wages war against itself. Patches of 'hell' are consequently also created in this marvelous 'garden' which is the world." One of the striking features of the pope's book on Europe is what might be called its "anti-utopianism."

The pope, as a German, takes considerable pains to make sense of World War II, a war many think was caused in part by the unfortunate and vindictive treaty imposed after World War I. "The Treaty of Versailles had deliberately planned to humiliate Germany and impose enormous burdens on it, which reduced its people to dire straits, thus opening the door to extremist ideologies and dictatorship" (115). The pope is at pains to praise the efforts after World War II, largely instigated by Americans and Christian politicians, to reconcile winners and losers in that war. This meditation Cardinal Ratzinger gave at the German cemetery at La Combe on the meaning of the lives of those German soldiers buried there is moving. "As Germans we are grieved by the fact that their (dead soldiers') idealism, their enthusiasm, and their loyalty to the State were exploited by an unjust regime" (114). The implication is that such confusion can happen anywhere, not just in Germany.

Again Benedict XVI knows that, however important his mission to reason be, "history shows us that too often men act in ways contrary to all logic and reason. The fact that the politics of reconciliation (after World War II), triumphed is to the credit of a whole generation of politicians: let me recall the names of Adenauer, Schumann, De Gasperi, De Gaulle. These were objective, intelligent men who had a healthy political realism. But their realism was rooted in the firm ground of the Christian ethos of enlightenment, refined by reason" (116). The political philosophy of Benedict XVI can, like that of Augustine, be characterized by these words spoken at a German cemetery, that of "political realism," where sin and the fall are not strangers, nor is there an absence of reason and the practical effort to do what can be done.

In an address he gave at Caen in Normandy on June 5, 2004, Josef Ratzinger gave his assessment of the morality itself of fighting World War II. It is a passage, I think, of great importance. Christians (but not only Christians) are often so insistent on "peace" that they only belatedly face the reality of an enemy who would demolish them if he could. Ratzinger characterized life under Nazism as "a dominion of lies" (86). "No one could confide in anyone else, because everyone, in a way, had to protect himself under a mask of lies that, on the one hand, served the purpose of self-defense but tended, on the other hand, to strengthen the power of evil." This description is, in fact, pretty much the description of life under a tyrant that is found in Aristotle's Politics. It is often a popular ridicule to see in political movements a "power of evil," but sometimes no other explanation is possible. If we are dominated by relativism, as the pope often indicates we are, it will be doubly impossible to see what really threatens us.

Could the Germans themselves have risen up to get rid of the Nazis? Some, as in the case of General Rommel and others, tried. "Thus it was necessary for the whole world to intervene in order to break the cycle of criminality and to reestablish liberty and law," Ratzinger thought. The implication of this sentence is that even those not immediately involved in such an evil or who can do little about it have responsibilities to get rid of it. "We Germans too give thanks that liberty and law were restored to us through that military operation. If ever in history there was a just war, this was it: the Allied intervention ultimately benefited also those against whose country the war was waged" (86). This is a sentence that should be etched on the walls of every honorable military academy in the world. It comes from the defeated. It does not "justify" all wars but it is based on the realism that can see what is at stake in a given historical circumstance.


The pope next takes up pacifism, which can have its witnesses, but which can also be a mask for not doing what is necessary to protect freedom and justice. Here, he remarks, we have demonstrated "on the basis of a historical event that absolute pacifism is unsustainable." Notice the careful use of these words. The grounds for war are to be demonstrated by what is actually going on in this or that country, in this or that time. It is not an abstraction but a concrete realization of the power and nature of a regime that seems to extend its force and limits. This is why the pope says, as I cited above, "there is no such thing as an a-historical State based on abstract reasoning."

The pope is careful to retain the "just war" context of these considerations. The just war theory was developed in Christian and classical thought precisely to explain why honorable regimes must at times defend themselves or others in the very name of justice. We still must ask if "just war" is possible and a duty in every occasion where use of force arises. The answer cannot ever be an "unequivocal" never. It depends on judgment and prudence. This is how the pope defines a just war: "a military intervention conducted in the interests of peace and according to moral criteria against unjust regimes." This means that "peace and law" and "peace and justice" are connected. "When law is trampled on and injustice comes to power, peace is always threatened and is already to some extent broken. In this sense a commitment to peace is above all a commitment to a form of law that guarantees justice for the individual and for the entire community." Clearly this means that a military and police component to the very possibility of law and justice is presupposed. The allowing of law to be "trampled" on and of "injustice" to come to power is clearly a sign of civic blindness and moral irresponsibility. This position was also the gist of C. S. Lewis' famous essay "Why I Am Not a Pacifist," found in his Weight of Glory.

Benedict in the same address does not hesitate to ask about the wars that followed World War II. They are strikingly many in lands ranging from Korea to Iraq, from Chechnya to Somalia, from Bangladesh to Algeria (88). Next the pope takes up the issue of "terrorism." He even says that it has "become a sort of new world war" (90). This is quite an accurate phrase: "a new world war." What are its dimensions and what is its nature? This is a war, Ratzinger remarks, "with no definite front, which can strike everywhere and no longer recognizes the distinction between combatants and the civilian population, between the guilty and the innocent. " Ratzinger includes in this category "organized crime," whose force is "constantly strengthening and extending its network." Could such forces gain nuclear or biological weapons? They could.

Referring back to the logic of the cold war, the pope granted that it still retained some intelligible rationale. "As long as this potential for destruction (nuclear and biological weapons) remained exclusively in the hands of the major powers, one could always hope that reason and the awareness of the dangers weighing upon the people and the State could rule out the use of the type of weaponry. Indeed, despite all the tensions between East and West, we were spared a full-scale war, thanks be to God." This passage, I would say, is a belated acknowledgement (though John Paul II said the same thing) that deterrence did work and the fact that increased accuracy of technology and weaponry finally convinced the Soviets that they could not keep up achieved its purpose.

However, the terrorist situation is different. "We can no longer count on such reasoning (mutual deterrence and rational comprehension), because the readiness to engage in self-destruction is one of the basic components of terrorism—a kind of self-destruction that is exalted as martyrdom and transformed into a promise" (91). Presumably, the pope does not equate Muslim terrorists with organized crime in this sense. The gangster or dope runner is not seeking martyrdom whereas the Muslim terrorist, in his own rationale, is. The gangster is in it for power and money, not for religion.

The pope still thinks that this terrorism itself can be met but by careful means. "One cannot put an end to terrorism—a force that is opposed to the law and cut off from morality—solely by means of force. It is certain that, in defending the law against a force that aims to destroy law, one can and in certain circumstances must make use of proportionate force in order to protect it." This is clearly the reasonable, common-sense position. Again the pope adds, "An absolute pacifism that denies the law any and all coercive measures would be capitulation to injustice, would sanction its seizure of power, and would abandon the world to the dictates of violence." Again, these are memorable words much in need of recollection and emphasis.

This position does not mean neglecting the ideological roots of terrorism, nor the need for forgiveness. Endeavors to break the hold of terrorists need to be put into effect, including humanitarian ones. Here Ratzinger touches on the Islamic question as he has often done, with the question of whether God wills the use of violence in his cause. "There seems to be a collision of two major cultural systems, which manifest, nevertheless, quite different forms of power and of moral perspective: the 'West; and Islam. What is the West, however? And what is Islam?" (92). Ratzinger cautions against generalizations, as there are diversities within these cultures. He is also quick to reject the rationalist position that all faith is "fundamentalist" or fanatic. Religion itself is often viewed by modern skeptics as the only reason for terrorism.

Yet, if we accept the famous view that at bottom all wars are theological, we cannot avoid the effort to understand the recent surge of Islam or parts of it to world power and the expansion of Islam as its historic religious destiny. Ratzinger acknowledges "pathologies" both of religion and of reason. "There can be no peace in the world without genuine peace between reason and faith," he writes (93). More than anything else, I suspect, this defines this pope's overall agenda in the world. This book, in fact, with its intimations of his future "Regensburg Lecture," drafts the rationale for his thinking. In this particular book, he is more concerned with Europe than Islam, though he quite clearly understands that what we know as modern Europe came about in its geographical area because Islam had conquered the South and East, and even parts of the North of Europe, Spain and the Balkans and for a time Sicily and Sardinia.

Part One | Part Two


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