On Love: Selected Writings, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Ignatius Press, 163 pp, $16.95, ISBN: 978-1621643463
Catholic moral teaching has followed Catholic theology into retreat. What might be called the Catholic anthropology – the notion that man is created in God’s image, endowed with an immortal soul which is his true self, his better part sharing in divine perfection but his earthly being corrupted by original sin, and for whom, with his every act and thought, eternity is weighed in the balance – has little enough purchase now even in countries that are (as census returns confirm Ireland to remain) nominally Catholic. Put bluntly, Catholic teaching simply does not figure as a living, everyday factor in calculations of what constitutes a good life, morally or materially. Presented with an intervention from Rome on some moral issue today, one rather gets the impression of a rearguard salvo from an army that has already lost its last battle; it rallies a few adherents to the banner and salvages momentarily its sense of mission, but neither reclaims lost ground nor arrests the retreat.
It has become a common observation that, however formidable the scope of its erstwhile power in this country, the rapidity of the Catholic church’s decline as an entity with the least relevance to the lives of the majority, not to say as an authority, testifies to the tenuous hold it had on that power. There is the sense that its grandeur was hollow, that its message had no real hold on the people, and that the facade was just waiting to fall away. Clerical sex abuse scandals and lesser instances of corruption ultimately explain only a small part of this decline. The felt irrelevance of Catholic teaching on issues like contraception or premarital sex explains a good deal more. The final explanation, however, is that fundamentally people simply do not believe the story the church tells: that a man was born as the incarnate son of God, took upon himself the sins of the world and was crucified for its redemption, and by his sacrifice granted us the possibility of eternal life. Clerical scandals could be weathered, just as church teachings would be adhered to, if people actually believed in such doctrines as the Incarnation, the Atonement, the virgin birth and the resurrection, or in the promise of perpetual, spiritual reward; but they do not: and, so the observation goes, they clearly never really did.
There is substance to the observation; and on foot of it, naturally, it is asked: how, if the greater part of the people never really believed in its teaching, could the church have attained to and so long maintained such awesome power? The question is quite easily answered. It is only an apparent paradox that the church’s temporal power can be greater where the people do not really believe in it. There is a passage in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, where the character Deutschlin shocks a group discussing the Reformation and Renaissance by proposing: “German deeds have always been done out of a certain immaturity, and it is not for nothing that we are the people of the Reformation. That, too, was a work of immaturity after all. The citizen of Florence during the Renaissance, he was mature, he said to his wife as he set out for church: ‘Well, let us pay our reverence to the popular error!’ But Luther was immature enough, a man of the people, of the German people enough, to bring about the new, the purified faith.” Germany, which via Luther made the error of taking things seriously, had to hound out impurity. The one true faith endured meanwhile in Rome and surrounds, where it was not really taken seriously, where no one really expected a priest to be chaste, a paid-for Mass to lift a soul out of purgatory or a ruler to pay more than lip service to Christian morality (as Cosimo de Medici was apt to counsel, in a statement that might have served as an epigraph to Machiavelli’s Il Principe, A state is not held by paternosters). One finds a quite different brand of cynicism but much the same result in Ireland; it is not original to suggest that Christianity generally, and more specifically the grim, sin-obsessed slant often given it by the native Catholic church, never really took root here.
As mentioned, this is a commonplace. Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland (1924) posited (sometimes fancifully) a pagan substratum underlying nominally Christian Ireland that retained vigour and relevance. The film version of John B Keane’s The Field has the priest state: “It’s just a thin veneer of Christianity we’ve painted over these people.” John McGahern offered similar views on occasion, as well as intimating it in his fiction. In an interview with Robert McCrum about his novel That They May Face the Rising Sun, the title of which points to a persisting burial practice grounded in pagan belief, McGahern said: “The people of the novel are from a more pagan and practical world in which the Christianity is just a veneer.” Declan Kiberd, reviewing McGahern’s Memoir, noted: “These are a people whose primordial pagan customs are more deeply embedded than the thin overlay of Christian doctrine.” The point: no one ever believed in it; so why did it achieve such power? Precisely because no one believed in it. Its endurance is partly attributable to its connection to political nationalism, strengthened by its persecution in the nineteenth century (and partly to the wealth of the church in a poor country, for wealth always awes and buys obedience); but if enough people had ever really cared deeply enough, or been sincere in their beliefs and expectations, some reformation would have followed.
Analogy with another system of power whose decline was rapid is helpful. Alexei Yurchak has elaborated the idea of “hypernormalization” to describe the functioning of Soviet society in the period of “late socialism”, that is, from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s. In these decades before its collapse, Yurchak argues, virtually everyone in the society, whether they were party officials, true communist believers, dissidents or just ordinary citizens, knew the system was failing; the evidence of its failure was everywhere too palpable for anyone to deceive themselves. The society having committed itself to the system for so long, however, few people could imagine a real alternative, and so the falsity and propaganda became the normalised conditions of life, accepted as reality; citizens and officials both were committed to the pretence of an efficient, developed, successfully functioning society. The rapidity of the final collapse showed how entirely it was a pretence, how little real belief there was in the communist regime and the concoctions of its propaganda; as the title of Yurchak’s book puts it: everything was forever, until it was no more.
What the Soviet example reminds one is that, for a system of power or authority to endure despite the lack of faith in it among those over whom it exercises authority requires a crucial ingredient: that is, a similar disbelief in the system on the part of those in power. In Soviet society, the party nomenklatura was the last to believe a word of the propaganda. If they had not this cynical distance assumed toward their own ideology, they would not have tolerated the fact of the system’s failures, would have been outraged by its hypocrisy and its falsehoods and demanded reform. For this reason, the true believers, if they ever got close to power, did not survive long. Slavoj Žižek has recalled the force with which this insight struck him in his youth in communist Yugoslavia when, after a dreary seminar in which a senior Slovenian Communist Party official counselled a young communist group to read both volumes of Marx’s Capital, Žižek afterward privately advised the official that there were three volumes, and received in reply a gesture of disdain. “What shocked me was the extent to which not only the top party nomenklatura didn’t take their own official ideology seriously, but to what extent those who took it seriously were perceived as a threat.”
It is the immature true believers, like Luther, who demand reform; the mature party man knows that none of it is to be taken too seriously, that power and personal advancement are always what is at stake, and that one can get along quite well either side of the system if one just doesn’t believe too fervently. To believe in it is to set oneself up for a life of disappointment; only when one accepts the fundamental untruth can one begin to play with the possibilities it opens up. The unappealing historical character and official face of the church in Ireland – its self-righteousness, hypocrisy, taste for flummery and luxury, its obsession with the policing of “occasions of sin”, its hatred of the poor and partiality to the wealthy and its resentment of the sexually or intellectually liberated – reminds that this crucial ingredient for the maintenance of a system in which almost no one really believes was present in the Irish church. That is, a good number of the church hierarchy believed neither in the letter nor the spirit of its actual doctrines and took little enough interest in them anyway. Their motives for entering the priesthood presumably lay elsewhere, connected mostly in some way, one supposes, if not to pusillanimity, then – as with the motives of the soviet nomenklatura – to power and perceived advancement.
Why tarry with a book like this then, or with the pronouncements of the church in any form, if they are safely ignored? It would be a cardinal error to imagine that, with the progress of secularisation, the West has had done with the church and its teachings. Nothing would be further from the truth; its Christianisation shines forth in its every institution and doctrine. It is true that Rome has no real moral authority today (and it is probably true that the Protestant churches only ever had a limited amount); but to claim that, because neither the confirmed unbeliever nor the professed believer pay any heed to opinions issuing from the Holy See, the Christian mindset has receded, would only be to exhibit an ignorance of intellectual history. Mann in Doktor Faustus modelled the life of his composer, Adrian Leverkühn, on that of Friedrich Nietzsche; it is to Nietzsche also that are owed the opinions placed in the mouth of Deutschlin about Luther’s immaturity, the Renaissance and the Reformation. It was Nietzsche who, more forcefully than any other, insisted on three things: first, that biblical morality (including the Christian morality of the New Testament) required the biblical God, that it had and could have no other foundation; second, that the moral teaching of Christianity had so captured the Western mind that it determined our thinking not only on moral matters but defined our conceptions of science, politics, the economy and everything else; and finally, that you cannot get rid of the Christian God and retain social and moral systems based on Christian ideas coherently or without cost. Nietzsche had noted the irony that Christian insistence on truth-telling as a singular virtue and necessity for entry to heaven would ultimately undermine the religion, when nations of men accustomed to the injunction to truth turned the instruments for the assessment of truth onto the religion itself and found it wanting. Nietzsche saw this peculiarly Christian will to truth at work in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is far from alone in the observation; a legion of scholars, from Lynn White (famously, laying out in the 1960s “the historical roots of our ecological crisis”) to Alexandre Kojève (far more eccentrically, deducing the influence of the doctrine of the Incarnation on a notion of time and eternity which grounds modern, empirical science) have argued for the link between Christian thought – including its conception of man’s powers and prerogatives, its focus on the interior soul and its conception of time – and secular advancements, including the success of the project of modern science summed up in the phrase “the conquest of nature”. (The view that the furthest end of knowledge, the motor of progress, was, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, “the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate”.)
The injunction to truth has in its original form primarily a moral dimension, of course. The moral image of man that has emerged from long inculcation of Christian principles now determines the nature and function of Western nations’ institutions. One can scarcely conceive how deeply the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15: 3-7), echoed in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and centuries of meditation and commentary on Christ’s words in Luke: “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” have influenced the theory and practice of punishment and incarceration, concentrating it on a vision of moral and spiritual redemption which concretely results in the penal system’s focus on rehabilitation. It is a focus which has culminated in a set of principles – abolition of capital and corporal punishment, of penal servitude, of mutilation or preventative crippling of recidivist offenders, and the insistence on every convict’s entitlement to dignity and human rights – which from an historical and plainly human perspective is peculiar, costly and counterproductive. Nobody who regards these principles as progress should labour under the illusion that they represent some natural “humanisation” of systems in economically developed nations, or represent anything but the legacy of Christianity. It is similarly impossible to quantify how much the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30) has worked to determine Western notions of individuality, of self-understanding and cultivation of one’s better self. (Talent of course is an antique unit of currency (in Luke 19 the story uses Greek minas); the modern meaning of “aptitude, skill” emerged from Christian sermons extending the scope of and extracting lessons from the parable – much indeed as a prodigal son, or simply “prodigal” as a noun, now means one who returns to the fold after temporary apostasy, and more seldom one who is literally “prodigal” as the adjective applies in the story, that is, describing the son who squandered his inheritance).
Nietzsche’s protest that one cannot cleave to a moral system originating in Christianity after denying the Christian God has implications far more profound than appear at first blush. Nietzsche could already see that purportedly secular doctrines in the ascendancy in his time, and which looked set to become orthodoxy – the sanctity and inherent dignity of human life, the fundamental equality of human lives – were in their origin and character inescapably Christian. It was an absurdity, he felt, that people should, at the moment of the “death of God”, cleave all the more fiercely to the doctrines which depended on Him; or to imagine that one could keep and could promote the gamut of Christian virtues – lovingkindness, humility, charity, counsels of gentleness or forgiveness – when the religious-metaphysical belief system underpinning them had been renounced. If one gives up the God, one ought also, or must also, for the sake of what Nietzsche called one’s intellectual conscience, give up the teachings of the religion. In this Nietzsche foresaw the coming orthodoxy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: secularised Christianity that calls itself by the names of humanism, egalitarianism, human rights, and which (quite unknowingly) preaches Christianity without Christ. He foresaw that the renunciation of the religious teaching of centuries would be celebrated as deliverance from abjection and superstition; that poets would hymn the potential of man as he stands, in Swinburne’s words, “from hope and fear set free”; and he foresaw that it wouldn’t all be as easy as that – that to cleave to Christian teaching while renouncing its God requires indulgence of one’s natural stupidity and one’s capacity for hypocrisy, and that such indulgence exacts a cost. Leo Strauss summed up Nietzsche’s point in direct language with its full implications drawn out: Nietzsche “had made clear that the denial of the biblical God demands the denial of biblical morality, however secularized, which, so far from being self-evident or rational, has no other support than the biblical God; mercy, compassion, egalitarianism, brotherly love, or altruism must give way to cruelty and its kin.”
In Ireland, we no longer heed the edicts of the Catholic church (its continued role in education really just shows that few people care enough to reform anything); but like other Western nations, our moral orthodoxies and social institutions proclaim the legacies of Christianity. It is an irony the less amusing for being so predictable that proponents of human rights and equality often combine their advocacy with marked anticlericalism. As Nietzsche would have insisted, that they no longer confess the faith, perhaps from their mouths condemn it, matters little while they honour it by the creeds to which they subscribe. Those who despise Christianity while advocating for the foundational equality of human beings, or for the sanctity or inherent dignity of human life, are the disciples of the dead God. They are oblivious of the fact that the proclaimer of the death of God insisted that He died of his pity for mankind. We live every day, for better or worse (and I believe most would say, often for the better), with the legacies of Christianity; to imagine ourselves beyond its power because the authority of the church has waned is a nonsense. As RH Tawney, speaking for all with some little knowledge of the history and transmission of ideas, reflected: “Ideas have a pedigree which, if realised, would often embarrass their exponents.”
It is always worth looking into the pedigree of the ideas to which a society subscribes. What is at the root of the Christian virtues the advocacy for which has shaped the character of our institutions and traditions? A single, weighty word, Love, carries with it the challenge, demand and vision of the Christian tradition, and is the theme of this selection of Ratzinger’s writings. (The twenty-four homilies, blessings and meditations collected are drawn from a period spanning 1970 to 2003, before Ratzinger’s 2005 election as Pope Benedict XVI.) And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Everyone is familiar with the Pauline hymn to love which has made 1 Corinthians 13 the most popular reading at weddings (questionably, depending on how one translates the noun agapē, but more of that anon). There could be few better opportunities to test the pedigree of our ruling ideas than learning what one of the most distinguished living custodians of the religious tradition which is continued by our secular orthodoxies has to say about that tradition’s most hallowed of virtues.
The specific Nietzschean challenge to Christian teaching must be invoked because, through his long career, it is one to which Ratzinger has shown himself especially sensitive, and considered to be most insistently demanding of some reckoning. His first papal encyclical as Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, reminded: “According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice”, and acknowledged this to be “a widely-held perception: doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life?” Nietzsche is among the few philosophers named in passing by Ratzinger when describing his introduction to the study of philosophy in his 1998 memoir Milestones (or in its wordier German original: Aus meinem Leben: Erinnerungen, 1927–1977). The writer Botho Strauss could even title a feature for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in October 1994 “Cardinal Ratzinger is the Nietzsche of our time”, though in the piece Strauss designated Ratzinger an “anti-Nietzsche”, countering Nietzsche’s project of the Umwertung aller Werte, “revaluation of all values”. The designation suggested not so much that Ratzinger worked to keep this revaluation at bay, but that Nietzsche’s war of ideas had had great success in effecting a revaluation, and Ratzinger now counselled reversion to Christian values in a world where they had been inverted or subverted. The spectre of Nietzsche, with its mockery and challenge, recurs in these sermons. The Christian ideal of humility, Ratzinger observes, is “together with chastity and obedience … the most heretical word bar none. It is targeted by the mockery of Nietzsche, who depicts Christians, with their humility, as deformed, inhibited people who do not dare to stand up and have neither courage nor greatness.” Along the same lines, Ratzinger voices the question Nietzsche poses: “Secretly, in reality, is this Christianity not the religion of the resentment of the little folk, of the petty people who cannot bear what is great and therefore divinize what is small and wretched?” These charges do not shock; as Ratzinger accepts, they have become commonplaces. People on the whole have in their habits – and even if, as in Ireland, He survives on census forms and in questionably-motivated baptismal ceremonies – discarded God. “God is dead” is not so much a portentous judgement as it is the rather stylised statement of a fact. One can say that either Nietzsche is right, or he is wrong in one of two ways: God is not dead but remains a living force due to a resurgence in Western hearts and minds; or God’s death does not necessitate the wholesale abandonment of values rooted in Christian traditions. From this complex of reflections there emerge three possibilities. First, an explicitly Christian ethics, grounded in the teachings of Christ and their interpretation by theologians and clergy, proceeding from the conviction of the truth of the revelations of the Old and New Testaments and entailing wholehearted submission to God’s will. Second, an ethics which, though largely Christian in origin and character, disregards the notions of the divine and the truth of Christian revelation, and which in consequence is fated to yield in confrontation with the Nietzschean charge, restoring in good conscience “cruelty and its kin” to our systems of moral reasoning and the administration of justice. Third, an ethics whose origins lie in the Christian tradition but which separates its origins from faith in God; which must by some means, however secular and ambivalent, preserve its commitment to love, and continue to find its foundation and its claim to rational allegiance in that commitment.
Ratzinger offers the first of these, and is alert both to the menace and the seductiveness of the second; only the third possibility can be of any real interest, however – for the matter is otherwise settled one way or the other – and so it is the possible relevance of Ratzinger’s writings for that secular alternative that must be assessed in reviewing the collection.
Ratzinger locates the force of the Christian moral message in love (evidenced indeed by the title of that first papal encyclical.) Love of course is the Greek agapē, caritas in Latin, which the King James Bible rendered, in the Pauline passage identifying it as the chief Christian virtue, as charity, hallowing the translation for Protestant traditions. (Tyndale’s, the first English translation based on the Hebrew and Greek sources, had used love; the New KJV opts for “love” also.) Agapē gains a currency and importance in Christian writing unexampled in earlier Greek literature. The word is of uncertain derivation. Verbal forms go back to Homer and mean to greet with affection or to be pleased or contented; in Greek tragedy the verb is used only to denote showing regard for the dead; forms are frequent in classical Attic writing of fifth century Athens. Adjectivally it can apply to things or to persons, indicating fondness or desire. The nominal form first appears in writing in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament whose composition is dated mainly to the second century BCE (for example in Jeremiah 2:2 and Song of Songs 2:7). Determining how agapē differs in nuance or application from other Greek words for love has always been a minor industry within biblical exegesis. It is most commonly compared with eros (sexual or romantic love) and philia (friendship), distinctions evoked by Benedict in Deus caritas est. (CS Lewis in The Four Loves (1960) adds for good measure storge, affection based on familial bonds.) Its importance to the emerging group identity in early Christian communities is reflected in its prominence and frequency in texts of the New Testament. Eros does not occur in the New Testament. Philia occurs just once in that form, but philos (friend) occurs twenty-eight times, the verb philiō (to love or to kiss) twenty-four times, philēma (“kiss” as a noun) seven times, and words with the phil- prefix – with positive or negative meanings – a further thirty-four times. Agapē and related or derived forms, verbal, adjectival or nominal, comparatively abound, occurring, I believe, in fully 276 separate verses – not exhausting all uses, for the terms occur more than once in some verses. Defining it conclusively may be left to scholars and theologians with more time for and training in these matters; it is how Ratzinger finds love exemplified in the person, acts and teachings of Jesus, and the relevance of that exemplification for ethics, that are of concern.
We find at the outset a programmatic statement that may be unpacked and comprehended by degrees more deeply as the sermons accumulate. “Love is life. Love is synthesis; death is dissolution. Someone who has found love can say: I have found life.” Love is subverted or denied by egoism, or egotism: by “servants of death”, who “in their exclusive search for their own independence and their own will … are opposed to reciprocal dependence, which in the relation of love becomes the wonderful synthesis of life and freedom.” The overwhelming focus on the self, even to the end of self-improvement, is based on vanity or material acquisition. “But in this way, man can become neither completely just nor completely healthy, because the point of departure is wrong: the ego is at the centre along with man’s attempt to make himself.” Freedom requires not the splendid isolation of the ego or a maximal conception of autonomy as freedom from obligation and insulation from consequences; freedom worth the name requires a community. “We celebrate the freedom of man, our freedom from the primordial law of selfishness, freedom from the powers of death and, ultimately, from the power of death that domineers by isolating the ego.” Cast in the Christian language of grace, which egoism refuses: “Grace is not opposed to freedom; on the contrary, freedom is a daughter of grace. A person who is always seeking himself thereby actually loses himself and loses everything.” All of this is love, and its possession is the finding, its disregard the losing, of life: “And one cannot enter into love without having left oneself, without having left egotism behind.” “The core of all fear is loneliness, the fear of being unloved,” says Ratzinger, and egotism can be thought a modality or expression of fear, and fear as the trace of some ruined love never comforted. One who comforts a child which has lost its mother cannot replace the lost parent, we are reminded, but they can “enter into the loneliness left by the ruined love”.
The enclosure of the ego in itself thwarts and distorts a person’s humanity, and denies the openness – to others, to the alien and to the familiar – taught by the gospel. “Being Christian is manifested precisely in openness to one another, in mutual acceptance, in the willingness to grow together and to receive from each other.” Jesus interests us “not merely as any other historical personage might, but rather as the one in whom it becomes clear who God is … Jesus is not a self-enclosed man at all but, rather in [the Gospels’ Christological] cycle the complete man who is really worth knowing, the man who is open by definition, through whom and in whom one can know who God is.”
Love is expressed in – almost synonymous with – a kind of simple but indispensable goodness, which Ratzinger sees in the figure of Joseph, the husband of Mary and socially the father of Jesus: “For him, the Law is not an instrument with which to claim his own rights, his own benefit; in his life, the Law is the means employed by a sincere, upright, and generous goodness, without grand words.” In the life of the mother of an Austrian friend, Ratzinger finds simple piety, and in that, “maturity and freedom”, superior to an egoistic striving for “greatness” measured by public noise. He writes that “… from a life like this a sort of radioactivity of goodness must have emanated that still sustains and moves an entire generation, making it, in its turn, radioactive of goodness”. His listeners and readers he advises in turn: “Be liberated from yourselves so that the radioactivity of love can find room and strength in you.”
As love is bound up with a fundamental goodness, so its presence is preserved in the soul of the good person by an essential measure of humility – noted by Ratzinger as among the most scoffed at of virtues in the modern world. Goodness and humility are “where the true image of God is manifested”. Without humility one yields all too easily to egoism, which often expresses itself in a false kind of openness, a public thirst for justice which is loud, judgemental, a cover for self-aggrandisement or another means of self-congratulation. Everyone is familiar with that loud voice of righteousness that in reality knows no love, and lacks humility. “And just as there is no faith without humility, so there is no love. Everyone knows this: part of love is knowing how to put up with something, knowing how to remain silent, knowing how to accept humiliation. Love can exist only in great humility.” The slide from “humility” to “humiliation”, or their coupling, indicates the modern difficulty with this counsel: who, one is wont to ask, could put up with “humiliation” and really save their self-regard; how could tolerance of humiliation be a part of, or passed off as, love, and not merely the patent of one’s weakness? Humiliation comes in diverse forms; this is not necessarily the counsel always to turn the other cheek (which itself can be qualified by many other gospel verses): one is often left feeling humiliated when one suffers public reversals, loses an argument or a game: to “lose gracefully” and not be quick to anger or excuse is a sign of maturity, as is acceptance of the fairness of one’s loss. And humiliation is not related only to what is directly done or suffered by a person themselves: to see the humiliation or embarrassment of one’s children, one’s family, one’s friends, and not to turn away from or disown them or become angry at them out of one’s own embarrassment at the association, is a part of love. One does not turn away from those who have been humiliated out of fear of humiliation by association, just as one ought not to reprimand but console and counsel a child that has been humiliated or failed in some way. Love is to exercise tact and discretion, to accept one’s own just losses and be appropriately loyal to others in theirs, to decline to join a rush to judgement, and to learn when it is better to endure humiliations suffered rather than raging and lashing out and making things worse.
One finds in those without due measure of humility a deformed or incomplete goodness, thoughts and actions only apparently directed towards others – often towards collectives or in the service of abstract ideas, which are easier to love than the singular or the immediately-to-hand – actions and thoughts which are in fact self-directed, evacuated of love and a cover for instrumental self-seeking. The instrumental, contractual approach to life, love and justice is common, very often though usually inadequately disguised, and arises from preoccupation with oneself. A life “devoid of truth, devoid of love” is inevitable wherever “someone closes himself off in matter, in the things of this world, when someone wants to have himself for himself alone, and lives only for himself”. To live for oneself is to conceive of relationships and actions as instrumental and contractual; such an attitude, where it appears to take account of others, is really only lending its effort at interest, giving of itself in expectation of greater returns. This is a commerce of virtue which is unseemly and vulgar. In the religious sphere, but arguably also in the secular moral one, this mercenary, stocktaking approach to virtue is the mark of what Nietzsche called ressentiment: a spiteful, base and at bottom vengeful mentality, which longs only to see itself exalted and those it would envy punished. Jesus’s teaching scandalised the pious among his audience, Ratzinger reminds us, because of its inclusivity, its call to forgiveness; for the Jewish teachers of his time and place, a teaching which dropped any promise of the punishment of the enemies of Israel and the Lord’s people was unacceptably heterodox. “Salvation without vengeance would really be no salvation at all, for it was not worth the trouble. Why had their people suffered? Why had they been devout, if nothing happened to the others and all were reconciled?” Contemporary moralists repeat the fault of those rabbinical pygmies when they profess the faith with self-righteousness, or in expectation solely of reward; where “salvation and Christianity interest us only if we get something specific out of it and, so to speak, there is a negative effect for the others”. A moral attitude – not only Christian – ought to give freely of itself, in a spirit of love, giving its effort and time in the furtherance of a good cause, giving credit to deserving others without envy, because it is the right thing to do. In the metaphysical-religious terms of Ratzinger, this is the natural law that permeates God’s creation and can be learned from the nature of the universe itself: “Superabundance is the expression of a love that neither keeps score nor calculates, but gives unselfishly.”
There recurs in the sermons a suspicion of what one might call moralism, and with it moral and political activism. Those who are most extreme in this orientation, who imagine the realisability of political utopias, must believe a political and administrative system can be relied on to satisfy both immaterial and material needs, and they imagine injustice – as they perceive it – can be eliminated; that “ruined love”, impossible of repair but in need of consolation, might be a thing of the past. “But a world like that, in which there is no longer any need for consolation, would be a desolate world; a world in which love is no longer necessary, because the system provides for everything, would be an inhuman world … Yes, being human is too burdensome for us. But if our humanity were taken away from us, we would cease to be human beings and the world would become inhuman”. Political activism is too often “a mental attitude that is wholly concentrated on its own demands and claims or by the resulting revolutions”.
It is interesting in this respect that Ratzinger cautions against the lure of “a Christianity that is too much conditioned by the Western activist mentality, in which everything depends on doing, on planning, placing trust in one’s own resources”. That is the attitude with a focus exclusively on “its own demands”; we surely are all are familiar with such, know that activism is often motivated by negative emotions, resentment or envy or disappointment, is only the vehicle and alibi for egoism, and that moralism is a peculiarly acute contemporary malaise. In a sermon on the Feast of Saint Josemaria Escriva, Ratzinger remarks of the saint’s life that he “became a great man of action, who lived by the will of God and called others to the will of God, but without becoming a moralist. He knew that we cannot justify ourselves; thus, just as love presupposes the passivity of being loved, so too sanctity is always associated with a passive element.” The call to “passivity” need not appear as a counsel of despair, a call to stoicism or political quietism. Rather it is the call to restraint, to appraise judiciously, to understand that to “live in truth”, as the Christian phrase has it, one must act and work without the expectation of victory, or of success and recognition. One must recognise that action, ever the more attractive course because it seems to offer purpose, is often just noise, motion, made for the want of patience and restraint; that it is often empty, and in its motives egoistic. Such activism does not really respect those on whose behalf it acts; it is born of some combination of rage, boredom, resentment and self-conceit. Because it is false it is poisonous, and because it does not really respect whatever cause or concept it claims dedication to, it is fundamentally violent. Writes Ratzinger: “Where unconditional respect for the weak, the defenceless, and the helpless no longer rules, we are in a regime of violence where law is replaced by violence. And where violence dominates, we are in the dominion of death.”
Neither should that passivity be the public face of an inward capitulation to hopelessness, another great modern malaise: “… the creeping illness of our time is called hopelessness. It seems to take root everywhere.” Ratzinger notes, accurately: “… we see how desolation dominates in the midst of well-to-do nations”. Where activism is rooted in egoism, the contractual again dominates: “For this mentality, only success matters; in a life without the hope of eternity, one must take the greatest possible advantage of this life; and justice goes to ruin.” One might substitute for “eternity” here the secular equivalent “posterity” (understanding with Aristotle that our progeny represents the only shadow of immortality we can know), and understand that the new hopelessness of man is the nihilism that recoils from sacrifice for the future, that cannot conceive of the species having real value if one is oneself no longer a part of it – that vicious mentality summed up in the phrase après moi, le déluge. The aversion to sacrifice is the complement of the refusal of suffering. “Because if man is not able to suffer and his suffering has no meaning, then he is not able to live, either. And if he cannot accept his own suffering, neither can he accept the suffering of others, and then only what is useful and advantageous prevails, barbarity prevails in this world.” Violence, barbarity, proceed from the focus on one’s own demands, even if those demands – or especially, given the cosmic scope – are for an end to injustice and a meaning for suffering. In the face of this and as an alternative, love calls one to be thankful, grateful – in a word, to be good; to summon “the courage, even in the midst of a world of violence, nevertheless, to be thankful, happy people. Love is stronger than violence. Violence is never constructive … Someone who uses violence to build the future remains a violent man without respect for human dignity.” The political has taken the place of the divine in much modern thinking, and for this reason political activism has supplanted religious in the conceptualisation of justice; for Ratzinger there is a fatally egoistic trap in this, and one can repudiate his religious standpoint but still understand it. “Someone who tries to bring man to an emancipation in which he thinks that he owes nothing to anyone and bases everything on his own law and on his own will, is dreaming and eluding reality, animated by a false pride.” This has a dehumanising effect, and the loss of humanity on a collective level breeds radical and unwelcome consequences: “When man loses himself, his domination of the earth becomes the destruction of the earth. When man loses himself, his technological abilities become a direct threat to the survival of the human race.”
The morbid focus on the self is naturally at the same time a dependence on others, a preoccupation with how the self is seen, judged, spoken about, with worldly opinion and praise. This is wont to make one captive to the opinions of others. “Pride does not make people free, but gives opinion power over reality. It puts dominion into the hands of the dictatorship of appearances, making us its slaves. On the other hand, humility means not to seek out or follow current opinion, not to be frightened by the last place, but to take God, the truth, as the principal criterion of judgement. Humility means remaining steadfast, based on this courage: suffering and thereby becoming free in it.” In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates calls the many, the mass of people, the greatest of sophists; the sophist is the one concerned above all with appearances over reality; one cannot care for the opinion of the crowd and not end up compromising oneself. “The rejection of Jesus was the fear of ‘doxa ton anthropon’ (John 12:43), the fear of human opinion, which means the dominion of appearances.” To refrain, to exercise discretion and act from love in the teeth of popular opinion when it is swayed by indignation or hatred, is to run the risk of ostracism. To dissent from or not to join the common cause may be taken as opposition or subversion, and in fevered times risk danger or death, in defiance of the rage-charged varieties of fanaticism which will always insist: you are either with us or against us. In a meditation on the Gospel’s “Blessed are you when men hate you” and the fate of Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac – Stepinac was sentenced to prison and then house arrest by the Yugoslav communist government for alleged wartime collaboration with the fascist Ustaše regime, after a trial widely viewed in the West as a “show trial” – Ratzinger adverts to the (loosely paraphrased) words of Plato’s Socrates before the tribunal of the Athenians at his trial: “No one who in the name of his conscience opposes a prevailing multitude will be able to save himself on this earth.”
What is perhaps the best of the sermons and meditations here collected (originally delivered in September 1970) concerns itself with the relationship between the power of public opinion, including public opinion as sanctified in religious law, and the individual act of goodness or love, via a meditation centred on the gospel story of the healing of the bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43). It contains a mixture of historical and theological exegesis and moral reflection. Jesus in this sequence appears at odds with the norms of his place and time, but he seeks neither to distinguish himself by an act of rebellion, nor to disregard in ignorant fashion a tradition. Ratzinger writes of the woman’s affliction of bleeding: “This illness excluded her from the human community and, above all, made her unable to worship”; she is “not only economically ruined” (as the story makes clear), but “wounded in her humanity”. Her approach to and touching of Jesus is based on “an almost magical ancestral faith” – she has heard tell of the miracle-worker or magic man, and approaches for her own benefit, but in a humble way.
What happened here? Jesus with sovereign freedom transcended the norm of ritual purity. He is neither frightened nor alarmed by the fact that after such a contact he too is impure now, nor does he challenge it. He is free for the human being who is seeking and who is in need and suffering, whose need matters more than the irreproachable character of the national and religious status of his society. Through his freedom, he welcomed the marginalised, downtrodden woman back into the human community. To put it in modern terms, he violated the societal taboo, allowing the humiliated person to touch him, and with the freedom and the power of goodness he shattered the power of prejudice.
What is right maintains itself in the face of what custom mandates; what is true abides over and against the tyranny of opinion. “What is happening here, of course, contains in itself an element of reform, of overcoming a hardened legalism; but not in the sense that people make things cheaper and easier for themselves, rather in the sense that people risk more and give more, not less.” In the woman’s “erroneous and magical faith” Jesus “perceives a yearning for salvation that is present in that distortion”; he “glimpses something else in a faith of this sort (although from the theological perspective it is highly dubious), something that he accepts and affirms, causing salvation to spring from it ‑ this should make us, too, a little more tolerant, more careful, and more cautious in out judgements.”
The caution to be “more tolerant” is easy to despise, whether because one can point out that the church headed by the man urging it in this context has often not been so, or because one associates it with that brand of inclusive liberalism which might be exemplified by Richard Rorty and which has often been criticised for being too devoted to tolerance and pluralism as ends in themselves (though it was Rorty himself who wrote: “Let us not become so open-minded that our brains fall out”). It is of a piece however with the counsel to retain a measure of humility. It echoes that call to a kind of “passivity” that does not mean renouncing worldly action or retreating to the cloister or the Epicurean garden, but rather understanding that tact, tolerance and discretion are essential to dealing justly with others and honestly with oneself. As Ratzinger writes: “Basically tact, courtesy, is a sign of humanity, sometimes its last bastion.” This is the call to quiet, everyday goodness, private moral courage that in Ratzinger’s word becomes “radioactive”. “God reveals himself in what is insignificant, in what is not exciting from a worldly perspective, through the Cross,” Ratzinger says, conscious at the same time not only of the vulgar aversion to sacrifice and suffering but of the Nietzschean critique that scents ressentiment under the injunction to humility. “Man would like to have cheerful deities, if possible a religion of stupefaction, diversions, and pleasure; and hence also the fact that Christianity continually faces the same recurring temptation to consider and to dismiss the cross as a sort of embarrassing accident that in reality should not have been and ought not to be.”
The secular import of the Christian virtue of love can be grasped by meditation on its character in the Pauline hymn to love: whatever my knowledge, my faith, my deeds, if I have not love, I gain and am nothing. Love, says Paul, is patient, is kind, does not envy or boast, is not proud; it is not self-seeking, not quick to anger and keeps no record of wrongs. That which is separated from love’s component parts – that action whose motives lie in envy, egoism, self-regard, anger, resentment, whatever cover is given the motive by appeal to justice or fairness, is worse than empty. Taken in this simple sense, the secular relevance of love is clear enough. In its crudest sense one may think of it as, in Leopold Bloom’s phrase, the opposite of hatred. To bear hatred towards a person (again said Aristotle) is to wish for them no longer to exist. To love a person or persons is to wish, then, for their continued existence, and preferably experiencing peace and prosperity. Broadened and deepened, this is extended to the continuation of the species, and progress and prosperity in which one will never share. What is motivated by love is selfless; it is the good freely chosen for itself.
This is never far from the basic mandate of deontological ethics and its greatest exemplar, Kant, that one ought to act from a sense of duty – doing what is right because it is right (Nietzsche was perhaps correct to call Kant “a crafty Christian”). One should do the right thing because it is the right thing, and not because anyone gains from it. The purity of motive – the absence from one’s calculus of what Kant calls “the pathological” – is a fair test of whether one’s actions are good or not, of whether they are motivated by love. To cultivate this orientation to goodness for its own sake, to practise and act from love in its broad sense, one may assume equips one to recognise action not so motivated, to recognise what is corrupted and vain. The special contempt reserved for certain types of do-gooders, what the Germans call Weltverbesserer, is ultimately premised on the perception that their motives are not pure. On the purely secular level, one may say broadly and truly that anything begun out of resentment or envy is doomed; it is already corrupt at its core, and no self-deception or special pleading can conjure away its corruption. Love is goodness, and goodness ultimately consists in harmony between the inner motivation or belief and the outward behaviour; for most people, who will not become martyrs to a just cause, it shines through in the insignificant actions, is proven in the ordinary and the unexceptional. One might apply a stricter interpretation to the phrase “charity begins at home” – hearing in charity a translation of agapē – and insist that morality begins “at home”, in one’s private life and familiar and habitual intercourse with others.
There are plenty of people who will loudly champion public causes, those of refugees, or minorities, or victims of historical injustice and so forth, while paying no heed to the consequences of their actions closer to home, who can still imagine themselves good people by dint of their activism. Activism is likewise one of the commonest covers for mediocrity; if today the artist or college professor whose output and posture is almost wholly politicised is ten-a-penny, this is because activism is a convenient cover for mediocrity: it is much easier to speak politically than to put in the arduous work required to master an art or a discipline (in the end a moral effort), or to craft something original, and by politicising one’s stance one marshals in one’s favour a sort of moral blackmail, extorting others (the public, colleagues, taxpayers, funding bodies) to take oneself and one’s work seriously. We should rightly be suspicious of any activist stance whose aim happens to coincide with an activist’s self-advancement; much of the activism that claims to aim at justice is transparently a matter of power, and is motivated not by justice but by envy and resentment. For those who in Ratzinger’s words have found love, and can say they have found life, these poisonous emotions abate and their motives are purified: “There is no envy for other men’s fortune when one has discovered the true good, the pearl of great price.” The Christian virtue of humility broadly construed can in secular terms manifest as tact, courtesy, selflessness; and from the enjoinder to embrace these components of love one can distil a secular lesson even for the nonbelieving. That love is the kind of goodness – tactful, honest, steadfast, refusing self-deception and moral posturing that would merely sanctify and assuage one’s resentments – that can resist both the seductiveness and mockery of the Nietzschean challenge, and even meet with the approval of the man issuing it.
In truth, Ratzinger in pure form will not reach the nonbeliever, and will struggle to penetrate the hearts of those casual subscribers to Christian doctrine who profess it by habit and do not really know what it is they are supposed to believe. (Does the immortal soul separate and ascend to heaven at death, or is salvation granted on the occasion of Christ’s second coming, with the resurrection of bodies and the Last Judgement? What is the status of the doctrine of original sin, given rejection of the literalness of the Eden story; and if man’s “fallenness” is constitutional but figurative, what sense then attaches to the long-disputed doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception?) The passages extracted above are never more than a sentence or two from counsels, urgings, assertions, that only by God’s love, in grace that is touched by submissiveness to and acceptance of the divine, by openness to the infinite and faith in the reality of eternal life, can one follow Christ; and that only by such apostleship can one fully accomplish, and not compromise, one’s humanity. Men’s souls no longer provide nourishing ground for these seeds of thought to grow; there is lesson enough in the sermons for the secular mind, too, however. Love, the secular virtue, is preserved in courtesy, tact, integrity; in honest dealings with others and humility about oneself; in ceding to another what is properly theirs, whether that be credit, praise or property; and in the reservation of ‑ instead of the rush to ‑ judgement. If this is love – kindness, patience, hopefulness, perseverance – nothing separated from love or motivated or marked by its opposite, hatred – unkindness, egotism, anger, impatience, self-righteousness – can ever really be in the profoundest sense of the word, which is also the simplest and most everyday sense, good.
Paul O’Mahoney works in Trinity College Dublin