The Political Side of Benedict XVI

Book Analyzes Foundations of Pontiff’s Social Thought

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 28, 2010 ( We are accustomed to looking at the Popes for spiritual and theological guidance, but a recent book highlights the importance and influence of the social and political thought of Benedict XVI.

In «The Social and Political Thought of Benedict XVI,» Thomas R. Rourke analyzes the Pope’s record on these issues both before and after his election to the Chair of Peter. Rourke is a professor in the department of political science at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

While more known as a theologian, Benedict XVI is a very profound political thinker, and his social thought merits more attention that it has so far received, Rourke argued.

He starts off by looking at the anthropological foundation of the Pope’s thought. In his book «On the Way to Jesus Christ» the then Cardinal Ratzinger looked at the development of the concept of a person.

The contribution of the Bible and Christian thought enabled the original Greek consideration on this to be considerably enriched, particularly in the aspect of seeing a person as a relational being. This leads to a spirituality of communion, which Rourke says is at the root of Benedict XVI’s understanding of social doctrine.

Thus, in the community of the divine persons of the Trinity we discover the spiritual roots of the human community. So, in the Pope’s anthropology it is not as though we are individuals who in a second moment enter into relations with other people. Rather, relationship is at the core of a person’s nature.

This brotherhood among persons is grounded in the fatherhood of God and so differs fundamentally from a secular view of brotherhood, such as that espoused in the French Revolution.

Added to this is the dimension of creation. Created in the image of God human life is given an inviolable dignity, leading the pope to condemn a utilitarian interpretation of our humanity.


While this anthropology might seem very abstract it is a necessary foundation for political philosophy, explained Rourke. Our view of what the shared life of people should be is necessarily grounded on an understanding of what a person is and what a community is.

According to Rourke, Benedict XVI considers politics to be an exercise of reason, but a reason that is also informed by faith. As a result Christianity does not define learning as the mere acquisition of knowledge, but requires it to be guided by fundamental values, such as truth, beauty, and goodness.

When reason is separated from a clear understanding of the ends of human life, established by Creation and affirmed in the Ten Commandments, then it has no fixed reference points for making moral judgments. If this happens then the way is open to consequentialism, which denies that anything is good or bad in itself.

One interesting line of thought in the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger is the division between Church and state, Rourke comments. The separation by Jesus, in Mark 12:17, of the two — «Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,» meant that Christianity destroyed the idea of a divine state.

Prior to Christianity the union of Church and state was the normal practice and even in the Old Testament the two were fused. In fact, this was the cause of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, as they refused to accept the state religion.

The separation of the two by Jesus was beneficial for the state, as it did not have to live up to expectations of divine perfection, Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed. This new Christian perspective opened the door for a politics based on reason.


Furthermore, he contended that when we revert to a pre-Christian understanding of politics we end up eliminating moral limitations, as happened in Nazi Germany and in communist states.

In today’s world, the future Pontiff warned that mythological understandings of progress, science and freedom represent a danger. The element in common that they have is the tendency to the development of an irrational politics that places the search for power above the truth.

As Pope, he took up this theme again in his second encyclical on hope. He warned that what we hope for as Christians should not be confused with what we can achieve through political action.

Returning to what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his book, «Church, Ecumenism, and Politics,» Rourke added that the separation of church and state has become confused in modern times in being interpreted as ceding the entire public square to the state.

If this is accepted then democracy is reduced to a set of procedures, limited by no fundamental values. Instead, the future Pope affirmed the need for a system of values that goes back to the first principles, such as the prohibition of taking innocent human life, or the foundation of the family on the permanent union of man and woman.


Among the many other topics that Rourke examines is that of conscience. This might seem to have little in connection to social or political issues at first glance. Instead, it turns out to play a critical role.

It is in the inner forum of our conscience that we preserve the fundamental norms upon which the social order is based. It is also a limit on the power of the state, as the state does not have the legitimate authority to transgress these norms. So it is that conscience is at the roots of limited government.

The destruction of conscience is the prerequisite for totalitarian rule, the then Archbishop Ratzinger, explained in a lecture given in 1972. «Where conscience prevails, there is a limit to the dominion of human command and human choice, something sacred that must remain inviolate and that in its ultimate sovereignty eludes all control, whether someone else’s or one’s own,» he said.

Rourke clarified that in saying this, the future pope was not diminishing what are the constitutional or institutional limits on power. The point being made is more fundamental. Namely, that no institution or structure can preserve people from injustice when those in authority abuse their power. In this situation it is the power of conscience, wielded by the people, that can protect society.

This, in turn, connects with faith, which is the ultimate teacher of conscience. Faith becomes a political force in the same way Jesus did, by becoming a witness to the truth in conscience. «The power of conscience is then to be found in suffering; it is the power of the Cross,» explained Rourke in his summary of what the 1972 lecture expressed.

«Christianity begins,» Archbishop Ratzinger said, «not with a revolutionary, but with a martyr.»


Rourke’s study includes an appendix that examines Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical on social matters, «Charity in Truth.» While he had almost finished the book when the encyclical was published Rourke noted that what the Pope wrote was consistent with the themes in his previous writings.

The introduction clearly shows this, Rourke noted, by its linking of truth with love and the idea that there is objective truth, contrary to the tendency towards relativism.

The encyclical concludes, Rourke commented, with the Pontiff’s longstanding affirmation that what is truly human flows from Christ and that Christ leads us to discover the fullness of our humanity. This Christian humanism is what Benedict XVI holds out as our greatest contribution to development. A compelling and inspiring goal to strive for.

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