Did Benedict XVI predict the rise of Trump and fake news?
More than 13 years ago, in a homily given at the conclave that would later elect him Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of a growing “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” The urgent call for a return to truth-based religion, far from repelling the cardinals, distinguished Ratzinger as the frontrunner for papal office.
Ratzinger’s papal platform did not prove broadly appealing. The secular pundits of the last decade often ignored his warning as the scare tactic of a dogmatist unable to adjust to the benign pluralism of a world that had, in keeping with Kant’s rallying cry, “dared to think.” I doubt the pope emeritus has much energy nowadays to follow the many instructive ironies of the Trump era; but if he did, he might take just the tiniest bit of satisfaction in seeing not just the religious right but also the secular left denouncing a growing “dictatorship of relativism.” Ratzinger’s distinctive emphasis on freedom’s need for truth, in other words, may have come not too late but too early to find a bipartisan hearing in the United States.
Examples of the secular left’s re-enchantment with objective reality abound. Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University was perhaps the first out of the gate with his interpretation of Hillary Clinton’s defeat as “the end of identity liberalism” in a New York Times article in November 2016. Obsession with diversity has produced, he laments, a “generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined group.” Donald J. Trump’s victory shows that this has ultimately “encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” The way back for Democrats, accordingly, lies in recovering a rhetoric of the common good and a shared destiny. Though Lilla does not use the language of “natural” or “objective” morality, he presupposes their reality. For how can a good be common, or a destiny shared, unless it is somehow discernible by all reasonable people?
Media voices, too, perhaps stung by the accusations of spreading “fake news,” now treat not cronyism but willful solipsism as the politician’s new capital sin. When Savannah Guthrie disputes Paul Ryan’s claim that the Republican budget will benefit the middle class, for instance, she asks, “Are you living in a fantasy world?”
Ratzinger’s distinctive emphasis on freedom’s need for truth may have come not too late but too early to find a bipartisan hearing in the United States.
But perhaps the most ambitious and far-reaching truth-based criticism of the Trump-era United States can be found in Kurt Andersen’s article for The Atlantic, “How America Lost its Mind,” in September 2017. Andersen combines Guthrie’s charges of fantasy with Lilla’s narrative of the rightward migration of the left’s intellectual extravagances. Yes, he concedes, the 1960s, the Eden of the baby-boomer liberals, were in many ways a retreat from reality into fantasy. In the 60s, the Esalen Institute (which even today identifies itself as a “world-wide network of seekers who look beyond dogma to explore deeper spiritual possibilities”) became a kind of epicenter for an endless variety of ecstatic, dionysiac mysticisms. Shamanic rituals, mescaline consumption, healing energies and tantric sex all combined to form the potent spiritual cocktail known as the New Age movement.
In Lilla’s telling this kind of magical thinking eventually found its academic expression in a mania for “deconstructionism.” Michel Foucault’s seminal argument in Folie et Déraison—that the difference between sanity and insanity rests entirely on social convention and that the very distinction serves only to legitimize hierarchies of domination—has set the research and teaching agendas of humanities professors ever since. Many students, even at Catholic universities, graduate more familiar with the principle that “all distinctions are violent” than with St. Paul’s vision of the church as a many-membered body.
The irony in this evolution of U.S. culture, Andersen notes, is not that ivory-tower insanity failed to remain confined to the academy but that postmodernism took deepest root in the sector of society that is normally most suspicious of university elites. The new communication vectors of social media and talk radio, with their broad accessibility and immunity from peer review, accelerated the rightward movement of the belief that all reality is socially “constructed” to such an extent that “starting in the 1990s, America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left.”
As evidence of the right’s proclivity toward fantasy, Andersen recalls its many paranoia-based enthusiasms: fear of one-world government, gun-control fanaticism, seven-day creationism, climate-change skepticism and more. Perhaps the most insightful aspect of Andersen’s narrative is his conclusion that right and left extremes have now met: “Neither side has noticed, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been on the same team.”
Ratzinger and Reality-Based Thinking
But at least one person did notice the secret kinship, the penchant for fantasy common to both the social-constructionist left and the identitarian right: Joseph Ratzinger. He evoked both in his coolly received phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism.” Though Ratzinger is often portrayed as a youthful liberal frightened by the chaotic 1960s into authoritarian rigidity, his writings suggest that he was “woke” not by the student riots of 1968 but by the Nazi riots of the 1930s. A background criterion silently guides his discernment of any theological proposal: Would a Christianity guided by this principle have withstood the spell of National Socialism? Already in his essay “Salvation Outside the Church?” (1965), Ratzinger casts doubt on the widespread belief that God cares not about the content but only about the sincerity of our beliefs. Should we not then have just encouraged Nazis to be good Nazis? After all, Ratzinger would later recall in a 1991 address delivered to the U.S. bishops in Dallas, even some Nazi consciences felt quite certain of the rightness of their cause. Having witnessed the rise of the original “alt-right,” Ratzinger could not easily forget that unchecked relativism—private or collective—sooner or later shows its demonic face.
At least one person did notice the secret kinship, the penchant for fantasy common to both the social-constructionist left and the identitarian right: Joseph Ratzinger.
But Ratzinger did more than earn the right to say “I told you so” for having arrived earlier at conclusions voiced by today’s chattering classes. His historical experience and rootedness in the Christian tradition allow him to chart the path for a return to “reality-based” thinking that is both more consistent and less naïve.
To take one example of Ratzinger’s greater consistency, we might compare Andersen’s and Ratzinger’s respective attitudes toward abortion. Andersen considers the legalization of abortion to be one of the healthy innovations achieved when the “reality-based left” was still culturally ascendant. Ratzinger, in stark contrast, takes the defense of the right to abortion to be a paradigm case of flight into subjectivist fantasy. In Truth and Tolerance (2003), he meditates at length on pregnancy, because there the “basic shape of human freedom, its typically human character, becomes clear.” No one is more dependent on another, more undeniably a “being-from,” than a child in utero. And no one is more oriented toward another, more obviously a “being-for,” than a pregnant mother, whose very bodily equilibrium changes to welcome the stranger. If we are honest, Ratzinger continues, we never outgrow this interdependence. Our nature is such that we exercise our agency only within a “network of services”—a freedom received “from” others on whom we depend and a freedom lived “for” others who depend on us. Summing up his reflections, Ratzinger observes:
It has thus become fairly clear that freedom is linked to a yardstick, the yardstick of reality—to truth. Freedom to destroy oneself or to destroy another is not freedom but a diabolical parody. The freedom of man is a shared freedom, freedom in a coexistence of other freedoms, which are mutually limiting and thus mutually supportive: freedom must be measured according to what I am, what we are—otherwise it abolishes itself.
The first good to be sacrificed to the idol of limitless freedom, in other words, will be reality-based thinking, which will invariably be followed by the immolation of freedom itself. The Catholic author Flannery O’Connor summed up the dynamic even more succinctly: “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”
Ratzinger’s prognosis perhaps proves especially apt in the United States, where the need to find constitutional support for abortion has led to some of the most fantastical jurisprudential reasoning in the history of the Supreme Court. The court reached the height of magical thinking with Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which ruled that requiring spousal notification prior to abortion posed an “undue burden” on a woman’s freedom. “At the heart of liberty,” the plurality opinion reasoned, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If legal abortion was, as Andersen presumes, a triumph of the “reality-based left,” it was a pyrrhic one.
Once the right to define reality became lodged somewhere in the body of law, it quickly metastasized. It resurfaced most recently in Packingham v. North Carolina (June 2017), where Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy applied Planned Parenthood v. Casey’s privatized model of freedom to the internet—the very medium Andersen and others credit with enabling the rise of the alt-right. We cannot deny registered sex offenders access to internet sites visited by children, Kennedy opines, not because the restriction is too ill-defined, but because it impedes access to an instrument of self-definition: “While we now may be coming to the realization that the Cyber Age is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves, and define who we want to be.” If the Supreme Court now sees internet access, like abortion, implied in the right to define our reality, should abortion rights advocates complain when the alt-right jealously guards its constitutional freedoms? Or should they just hope that the construction of dark cyberscapes of white supremacy remains “legal, safe and rare”?
Besides earning higher marks for internal consistency, Ratzinger also shows far less naïveté about the prospect of settling upon a common “yardstick of reality.” Andersen conjectures that religious belief makes the right more fantasy-prone than the left, whose secular proclivities make it more docile to the corrective influence of science and experts. Just how conspiracy theories came to hold sway over the irreligious right, Anderson does not explain. Such explanations might, after all, distract from the clarity of the distinction to be reinforced: faith lies on the side of irrationality and scientific expertise on the side of rationality.
Given this view, Andersen hardly feels the need to distinguish carefully within the mixed bag of florid religiosity to be found in the United States. “Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world,” he writes, “we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.”
Indicative of Andersen’s tone-deafness to things religious is the fact that he places miracles and seven-day creationism, the existence of grace and out-of-body experiences all on the same level. He dismisses—really dismisses—everything immaterial as equally implausible.
Ratzinger, of course, shows himself to be more nuanced. For him, the frontier between rationality and irrationality does not coincide neatly with the boundary between science and religion. Rather, it transects science and religion alike. In Truth and Tolerance, published long before Andersen sounded the alarm, Ratzinger was already cautioning against New Age spirituality and the Esalen Institute for their “completely irrationalist pattern of religion.” He observed just a few years later in his much-criticized Regensburg Address (2006), moreover, that any religion unable to persuade through reason would inevitably resort to violence. His citation of a medieval Christian polemic against Islam distracted the world from this central message, which was to warn against irrationalism in all religions, Islam and Christianity alike. Ratzinger’s exhortation implied that Islam could recover its philosophical legacy and was not necessarily irrational. This is certainly more generous than Andersen’s operative presumption that religion, by its very nature, is disposed toward fantasy and coercive intolerance.
If Ratzinger insists that faith needs reason for its own health, he is no less insistent that reason—especially scientific reason—needs to be chastened by faith if it is to avoid its own excesses.
If Ratzinger insists that faith needs reason for its own health, he is no less insistent that reason—especially scientific reason—needs to be chastened by faith if it is to avoid its own excesses. Scientism, when unchecked, leads to the irrational belief that science can answer all questions. Ratzinger observed in an essay from the 1970s, “Farewell to the Devil?”, that for every Galileo affair, in which the church seems to intrude overconfidently into the domain of science, there are as many cases where science’s heedlessness of religious wisdom produces pseudoscience. He again mentions, in particular, the anthropology of National Socialism, whose doctrine of racial inequality then represented something like a scientific consensus. To understand just how established was the “science” of social Darwinism, with its teaching that different races represented different levels of evolutionary development, one need only recall that the Bronx Zoo once kept an African pygmy among its specimens. Elite U.S. institutions like Harvard taught it like dogma, crusading to abet natural selection by sterilizing undesirables. It has been revealed recently that not even Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Christian evolutionary vision could resist the pull of eugenicist ideology.
Are today’s explanations of every feature of human existence according to supposed evolutionary advantage—from consciousness to art to love—any more rational than the scientific racism of the first half of the 1900s? Few have been willing to admit scientific fideism as baldly as the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin once did:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life.... [W]e are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Science, as soon as it inflates its materialist method into a philosophy of life, commits to a creed as impervious to disproof as that of any Wiccan coven or Charlottesville rally. The historical entanglements between scientism and racism certainly suggest as much.
Trumpism both terrifies and fascinates precisely because every attempt to denounce it reveals the internal inconsistencies in American culture. The religious right becomes tongue-tied explaining its support for a religious illiterate like Trump or a sexually predatory senator like Roy Moore. The secular left stammers to explain why it should oppose self-constructed identity movements like the alt-right. If Ratzinger were pondering the landscape of our civil society, he would doubtlessly agree with Andersen that America’s right flank needs a dose of reality. But he would likewise remind Andersen’s “reality-based left” that the greater part of reality escapes the microscope’s gaze and the expert’s prognosis.
Indeed, the fundamental reality to which Americans, both right- and left-leaning, must return is that of being God’s creatures. Only when we accept the shape of human existence as something given by God, to be discovered collaboratively rather than defined privately, can we resist the encircling dictatorship of relativism.
I'm not sure what Trump or Trumpism, whatever that is, or fake news have to do with this article. It seems to be one vague thought after another. But is dutifully bashes Trump where it can. The author seems to live in a bubble and his description of "right" does not match anything I am aware of.
Fake news has been with us always and is not going away. It has always been politically expedient to distort the news to control people with fake stories or fake narratives based on illegitimate interpretations of what is happening. The current term "fake news" originated with Google to discredit conservative ideas. The term "yellow journalism" goes back more than a century. And Thomas Jefferson used fake news sources to bash John Adams.
But the term has been turned on its head as fake news now points to mainstream liberal news sources as the source of most fake news. The reason: the mainstream news is almost entirely of the left and can correct any fake news from the conservative end if it sees it. But it won't correct its own fake news because it is not to their benefit. The left is very much interested in control. Correction of fake news from liberal media usually comes from the few conservative news sources that are available but these will not be widely repeated by mainstream new sources. Unless it is really egregious.
I have a question for the author. Are the people who are called the "alt-right" really from the left? The term "right" is used like it has meaning but it doesn't. If it means the opposite of liberal/left/progressive then just who are these people and thinkers of the "right?" My understanding is they are those who espouse freedom vs the control espoused by the left.
Mr. Cosgrove, a striking example of "the control espoused by the left" is the violation of academic freedom of speech by the author's Marquette University in the shameful suspension of Professor McAdams.
I find it ironic that the words "truth" and "free" are used over 20 times in the article when the author is of the left which is essentially against both concepts.
"Indeed, the fundamental reality to which Americans, both right- and left-leaning, must return is that of being God’s creatures. Only when we accept the shape of human existence as something given by God, to be discovered collaboratively rather than defined privately, can we resist the encircling dictatorship of relativism.."
Are you saying that the USA must become a religiously based nation??That smacks of Dominionism, or at he least paternalism, and I would think that citizens of all political beliefs, but without any interest or belief in religion, would take severe exceptions to such a statement.
As a society we can not push, or allow any religion to dominate the public square.
The public square, as you call it, needs ruling.
Church and State together managed a very good outcome in Christian Europe for centuries and the Jews continue to do well likewise.
It is a peculiarity of the USA to make a new commandment before all the others "thou shalt not combine Church and State". It has borne very bad fruit, and so by its fruit we know it.
I should elaborate my no doubt unfamiliar point of view.
God chose a people of his own and ruled it through prophets, before He was ready his people chose a King (Saul) and it was a disaster so God gave them a different sort of king (David) who was the icon and the ancestor of the king of kings.
Christendom, led by the Holy Spirit, refined kingship eventually into constitutional democracy.
The head of State reigned but did not rule, best result yet.
Apostates and heretics began overthrowing monarchy and regressed to a head of state ruling and reigning and it has been disasterous in many, many instances and now it looks like in the USA.
We in Australia are resisting this regressive move, we keep a monarch and have an elected Government and not one of the various political gangs has the slightest chance of taking over the kingship. Thank God.
Man alone will never have a perfect social order, get used to it.
I am Australian, born during World War 2 and more than 50 years a doctor much of the time working in the mental health disciplines and steadfastly adhering to the dual nature of humanity as being incarnate spirit/spiritual animal; not acknowledged in most psychiatric and psychological theory.
I despise the dualistic and materialistic world view of people as left or right, no matter what way local language is used to utilise labels to enact dualistic hatred and prevent dialogue.
Politics is not a way of salvation and no politics is validly ascribed to Our Lord and Saviour, so is it not incumbent upon the prophetic duty of the disciples of Christ to avoid and deny political theories any canonical validity.
We must judge leaders, rulers and the powerful by the revealed moral law as summarised in the OT Decalogue and discerned by 2000 years of Christian life. All are called to faith, hope and love.
There is not justice or injustice as a measure alone, there are pride, covetousness, envy, lust, wrath, gluttony and sloth as habits, attitudes and behaviours by which we measure our virtue or otherwise and the virtue of others likewise.
Remember, God always acts in the individual and he gives us all of creation as endowment and starts us all naked, powerless and utterly dependant on each other - this is the only equality; from then on no two people are the same in health, wealth, power, safety, security or length of life and then to die, with no pockets in our shrouds.
As for governance of the community, local state and federal, it would seem that if a valid religion is not the foundation stone then atheism and or materialism rules by default.
I am not convinced that separation of Church and State is the most prudent option or the last word in the advance of expertise of governance methods.
I wrote the following letter to the NY Times regarding an article about Comey today:
RE: James Comey’s Attacks on Trump May Hurt a Carefully Cultivated Image, April 17, 2018
To the editor:
The Comey comment that Trump is “morally unfit” to be president stands in stark contrast to the steadfast silence of religious leaders in the United States. That truth should more properly have been asserted by those who allegedly provide moral guidance to the nation’s citizens.
What does that say about moral relativism?
Comey is probably the most corrupt FBI director since Hoover. He was responsible for covering up all the Obama scandals. The Russia collusion story was bogus and the biggest fake news story in history from the get go and Comey knew it. He has sent the country into convulsions to coverup Obama's scandals.
What does that say about moral relativism?
You know full well that the strict observance of the separation of Church and State since the mid 1900s is the source of mutual silence by both the Church and The State on the affairs and views of the other. Your other comments on these pages indicate that you wish that silence to be maintained by The Church on the issue of abortion and that silence to be broken on issue of Trump and other social justice issues such as immigration. I mention abortion specifically because full throated denounciation by the Church would require it to denounce the many unions who support Planned Parenthood and require Catholic members to quit.
The uncommented on immorality of our national leaders extends back to Thomas Jefferson with the apex of Churchly silence being maintained during the ascendancy of The Sainted Kennedys who cracked open the ultimate doors of secular power to the baptized Catholic.
Moral relativism and arguments about its particular application always come down to "whose ox is being gored". It is the flawed nature of humanity when challenged to seek the moral high ground. So it was that the flawed Becket that upon instant elevation to Bishop suddenly discovers that God's honor "trumps" the King's honor.
You misrepresent my position on abortion. I have no problem with the USA bishops vocally condemning the practice of abortion, although I do find that invective from anyone doesn't serve well their cause. Given that so many Catholics avail themselves of abortion, it's obvious that the bishops have not done the job well to teach and persuade even their own flock.
I do strenuously oppose the USA bishops' insistence on legislation or a constitutional amendment to enshrine anti-abortion legislation into law. First, in spite of their protestations of government infringement on religious freedom, the bishops seemingly have no qualms imposing our beliefs on religious people who do not share our position. And, despite what you may like or know, there are religious, indeed non-religious, citizens who do not believe that ensoulment occurs at conception. Second, our position, I believe, is a total ban on abortion and abortifacients, from the moment of conception. Or is it? If it’s not, we are hypocrites. And criminalizing abortion, in my opinion, in such circumstances leaves too much uncertainty and runs the risk of inequitable application.
But to go to my original comment. Is Trump “morally unfit” to be president? His numerous “affairs,” bankruptcies, welshing on payments with contractors, his equivalence on protesters in Charlotte, etc. ad nauseam, persuade me that he is. It may all be legal. To my mind it isn’t moral. That Comey would say it and few if any religious leaders in the United States do not, does give me pause, serious pause, about following people who respect the separation of church and state on the issues of their convenience as opposed to conscience!
You evade the point:....a full throated denunciation of abortion would require the Bishops' denunciation of abortion rights supporters...more specifically the many unions such as the SEIU and UFT who fund and support Planned Parenthood .
Similarly there is no doubt that President Trump has an objectively immoral past .....But should the Bishops hit the pulpit to denounce that conduct when they have so scrupulously elevated the entire Kennedy Family to sainthood? Nor have they hit Bill Clinton ( affairs, Clinton Foundation payola, and selling pardons) who is every bit Trump's amoral equal.
In both of these contexts please keep in mind that the focus of this article by Aaron Pidel is "relativism".
Were the Bishops to practice your advice they would indeed be engaged in the very " relativism " and hypocrisy which is the focus of Pope Benedict's condemnation......picking and choosing who and what immorality to condemn based on factors other than the objective reality of the conduct.
I think the Pidel article is a good conversation starter. I would be sorry to see either the article or any comments on it serve as a conversation stopper. What has intrigued me for some time now is the continuity of thought found in papal writings all the way from the late 19th century to the present regarding the distinction which has been thought to be necessary between ideology and faith, where each of these approaches battles over possession of truth. Granted, sometimes one has to look pretty hard to find the continuity in these writings, but it is there to be found. I suspect that the reason this line of thought might have emerged in the 19th century was because of the appearance of Marxist theories at that time. If one looks at the etymology of the term “ideology” one can notice a temporal correlation between the beginnings of the use of the term and the beginning circulation of Marxist theories.
One can discern the core concept and the evolution of interpretation of the term “ideology” to be something like an explanatory story or “theory of everything” that draws people into its “revelation” as to why things are the way they are and, if things are bad, what must be done to change them, and, if things are good, the lengths to which one must go to prevent change from occurring. And to justify doing the things that must be done, truths have to be asserted, under the guise of having been “revealed” by the ideolog. And here is the crucial difference between faith and ideology. It depends on who the recognized revealer is.
Surprised by the article's headline, I was turned off by it and almost didn't bother to read it, but it succeeded in gaining my attention. The content of the article reveals the author to be very reflective as he highlights some gems from the thought of Ratzinger-Benedict. If I could summarize: religion and reason go together. The Left in American politics could use a healthy dose of religion to gain a wider view of human dignity. The Right in the American political sphere could gain back some of its moral integrity by speaking louder against obvious violations of human dignity on the part of some of its members. I do wish the author had pointed to the distinction, whether he finds it satisfying or not, between what the Right's immoral leaders' personal behavior and their proposed policies. The Right seems to want a religiously-based values system to breathe life back into the culture of death. Scandalized and let down time and time again, her advocates do not look to leaders, whether they be religious or secular, to be shining examples so long as they protect and promote these values in policy. The Left seems to want to attack personal character in order to promote its own values-based policies, which often tend to violate human dignity directly--the author uses abortion as his strongest example. Both sides, if I may reiterate my attempt at summarizing the author, need to check ego at the door and embrace reform with a reality check. There is no perfect political party as there is no perfect Christian. Reminds me: Ecclesia semper reformanda est.
As a Legionary of Christ (with as founder Father Marcial Maciel) I must be the first to confess my debt to the critical sense and sane realism of Pope Benedict who helped to free us from our mortal illusions. I have learned that there is no better friend than a critic who tells you the truth.
That is why I think that conservative Catholics have no better friend that Pope Francis who tells them the truth they need to hear, and without being rude to them!
What our Holy Father predicted was the rise in atheistic materialism, due to a global relativism that denies God, The Most Holy And Undivided Trinity, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage.
"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one."-John Lennon, played at 2012 Olympics
"The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man." - Pope Benedict Christmas Address, 2012
Please Pray for baby Alfie Evans.