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Bill McCormick, S.J.February 28, 2023
Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges pilgrims during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 4, 2009. Pope Benedict died Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 95 in his residence at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editors’ note: The following is a condensed and edited version of a talk given at Ave Maria University in January 2023, sponsored by the Jack Miller Center.

Joseph Ratzinger died on Dec. 31, 2022, three days after the feast of the Holy Innocents. The feast commemorates the tragic slaughter of young boys around Bethlehem by King Herod of Judea.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod had been informed by the magi of a “newborn king of the Jews” (2:3). Herod interpreted this infant king as a threat to his rule. He was determined to have the king killed and pressed the magi for the boy’s location. The magi ultimately demurred, however, and so Herod took matters into his own hands, having every boy under the age of 2 in the area of Bethlehem killed. Thanks to the warning of an angel, the Holy Family escaped Herod’s wrath by fleeing to Egypt. Israel’s former house of bondage became its refuge. They remained there until the death of Herod.

The Herod episode might remind us of another tyrant, the pharaoh of Egypt in his treatment of Moses and his people in the Book of Exodus. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger asks why Israel sought to leave Egypt in the first place. The obvious reasons, to escape bondage and to seek the promised land of Canaan, are certainly true: “In which Israel will at last live on its own soil and territory, with secure borders, as a people with the freedom and independence proper to it” (No. 29).

But Pope Benedict points out there is something more at work: “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness,” Moses said (Ex 7:16). Four times, Benedict notes, these words appear in Moses’ audiences with the Egyptian ruler. Pharaoh is willing to permit the Jewish people “freedom of worship” within his lands, but “Moses insists—in obedience to God’s command—that they must go out in order to worship” (S.L., No. 29). Moses cannot negotiate with Pharaoh because “the manner in which God is to be worshiped is not a question of political feasibility.... It can only be ordered by the measure of revelation, in dependency upon God,” (No. 30).

Israel is not simply to take its place among the nations; it is to be distinct from the nations, to serve God in a unique way. But this means that Pharaoh’s injustice to Israel is not just a crime against their self-determination as a nation but a crime against God’s election of them as his people. Benedict draws a profound conclusion from this drama: “The only goal of the Exodus is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the games of political compromise” (No.30).

Politics cannot save us, but tyranny seems to be able to damn us. This is an asymmetry to which Pope Benedict often returned.

There are many connections between Herod and Pharaoh. Both are tyrants whose behavior demonstrates the violent and self-defeating aspect of evil, which is parasitic on the good for its being.

But Benedict’s reflection on Pharaoh brings to a light a deeper connection between Herod and Pharaoh: Their tyranny infringes on the spiritual. Herod, like Pharaoh, seeks to rule in a divine way, demanding that God’s plan conforms to his plan, rather than his plan to God’s. Just as Pharaoh’s desire for power leads him to seek to control how and when Israel can worship their God, so Herod’s jealous rage over his own rule leads him to threaten the very Son of God. Tyrants like Herod and Pharaoh live in a world in which they can imagine no greater power than themselves. Any other basis for order is a threat.

In light of Benedict’s discussion, we begin to see that tyranny is often not only a political problem; it is also a spiritual one. To use a favorite expression of the late philosopher James Schall, S.J.: Humans cannot save themselves, but they can damn themselves. Politics cannot save us, but tyranny seems to be able to damn us. This is an asymmetry to which Pope Benedict often returned.

Tyranny and the City of God

These considerations offer a vantage point on tyranny. It is a perennial topic for political reflection and not only because it is a common problem.

In St. Augustine’s masterpiece The City of God, the African doctor of the church offers a profound meditation on humans as caught between two cities: the city of man and the city of God. These two cities are not demarcated by borders or institutions but are found mixed together in this life. They are rather distinguished by their loves, as Augustine notes in one of his more famous formulations:

Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by a love that extends itself even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self.

Augustine offers a new view on politics by taking it up into something bigger than anything like normal politics: the grand narrative of salvation history.

In classical political thought, tyranny refers to the unjust rule of one, the rule of one for his own private interest. “Private” here means taking away from the common: a privation of the common good. As such, tyranny points to the limits of politics. We can think of these limits in at least two different ways. First, politics suffers from the propensity of humans to err, to sin. This is both a cause and limit of politics. As Aristotle notes at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, politics needs to be coercive in part because of the “wicked” who must be restrained. Benedict was certainly aware of this limit on politics.

Augustine offers a new view on politics by taking it up into something bigger than anything like normal politics: the grand narrative of salvation history.

But there is a second limit on politics that becomes clearer under the inspiration of Christianity: Politics is not all that there is. Great thinkers like Socrates and Plato had a sense that there is more to reality than the passing, the ephemeral, the mundane. With the Incarnation, that ground of all being reveals itself as God, who created all things good and seeks to heal them and elevate them into communion with himself. And while communion with the eternal is no simple matter, it is characteristic of tyranny to deny anything beyond politics, anything beyond itself that is able to judge politics.

This is a difficult saying for politics, as Benedict knew. His meditations on democracy continually return to the criterion of truth by which to judge majoritarian politics, with its tendency toward relativism.

But the refusal to see something beyond politics offers temptations for Christians as well, particularly for those seeking short cuts for politics. If tyranny is pervasive, that means achieving justice is difficult. And this is indeed a central point of The City of God: Politics is hard. Christianity has no quick fixes.

What Christianity offers is at once less and more than instant recipes for politics. Christianity cannot replace the challenge of politics set forth in classical political philosophy, as in Aristotle’s Politics. The cultivation of human excellence fundamentally depends upon the most mundane, quotidian acts of political life, in which the virtues are cultivated slowly and painfully, with many missteps and failures, where justice and magnanimity are often at odds with envy and ambition, avarice and pleasure-seeking. These issues arise historically and conceptually long before any of the political problems we take to be characteristic of modernity: navigating plural spaces in which what counts as reasonable is deeply contested. The Gospel offers no shortcuts through these matters.

This is indeed a central point of The City of God: Politics is hard. Christianity has no quick fixes.

But this is not to say that the Christian faith has nothing for politics. Because what Christianity does do is teach humans of the limits of politics, both in its operations in sinful conditions but also insofar as human persons have an end beyond anything they could attain for themselves by earthly means. Insofar as tyranny rejects such limits, it exposes the relationship between politics and worship.

Quaerere Deum

In his famous conversation with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in Munich, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger argued that democracy depends on values that it cannot itself supply, perhaps most obviously the infinite value of human dignity. He never ceased to argue that democracy must be judged by truth, a criterion it cannot measure but can only be measured by.

During his papacy, Pope Benedict perhaps most powerfully reflected upon political life in his “September speeches,” a series of talks he gave to the political establishments in Berlin, Paris, Westminster, Beirut and Regensberg. In his lecture in Paris in 2008, Benedict reflected upon the common claim that Western monasticism saved Western culture. Monastic culture did much to build the West after the fall of Rome, and our debts to those monks are tremendous, he agrees. But Benedict notes that these monks did not mean in the first place to create a culture.

Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: quaerere Deum. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential—to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God. They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is. It is sometimes said that they were “eschatologically” oriented. But this is not to be understood in a temporal sense, as if they were looking ahead to the end of the world or to their own death, but in an existential sense: they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional.

The monks did not found a lasting culture because their goal was such a culture. They founded a lasting culture, rather, because their goal was beyond such a culture. This is not a culture that seeks to bring about a stable regime for its own sake, although they were happy for it to do so. They sought to build a culture that would allow them to pursue something beyond that culture.

If we bring together Benedict’s words at Munich and Paris, we see that liberal democracy is dependent upon Christianity for its byproducts. Democracy depends upon Christianity for something that modernity cannot supply itself, for something that Christianity does not itself seek to produce.

If we bring together Benedict’s words at Munich and Paris, we see that liberal democracy is dependent upon Christianity for its byproducts.

In other words, Christianity as a lived faith always reached beyond the everyday, beyond the mundane. And yet in so doing, it reinforces the mundane if and when it can. When it cannot, of course, it is openly choosing transcendence over the mundane, which is to say martyrdom. This is the political significance of martyrdom, as was made clear in the writings of Erik Peterson, much esteemed by Ratzinger.

“Lived faith” is key here, because Christianity can be reduced to a set of principles whose primary concern is political order. But they would no longer point to a relationship with Christ. They would not be faith in the transformative sense. As Benedict writes in “Spe Salvi”:

Is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope? Is it “performative” for us—is it a message which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just “information” which, in the meantime, we have set aside and which now seems to us to have been superseded by more recent information?

This kind of faith alone offers politics a horizon, a sense of what both grounds but also transcends it.

Christianity and Politics: Mutual Purification

Pope Benedict’s message on the limits of political power is untimely, at least in the United States. Some Christians, long weary of classical liberalism, will see such talk as remnants of a dead consensus. Others, put off by what might seem like an evasion from politics in the interest of defining its limits, will seek more engaged forms of political theology.

But the limits of politics is a matter as timeless as it is timely. If in recent decades it has been weighed down and increasingly confused with other forms of thought, that does not reduce the urgency for Christians to recognize and appropriate this theme as vital to their heritage, and indeed as a gift to the nations.

Particularly, Benedict’s repeated call for the mutual purification of reason and revelation offers the hope that cultures remain open to the challenge of the full truth about the human person, human community and its grounding in reality. The God of Abraham is indeed the God of the philosophers. But the ability to see God as the answer to the world’s questions requires us to stay close to that question, and is an ongoing challenge.

To put all of this another way: If Christians are called both to affirm this life and strive for one beyond it, then they are called to recognize where they choose life as we know it over abundant life. Against the human temptation to confuse human regimes with the kingdom of God, a temptation that has had variants in every age, Benedict urges us to set our sights upon an everlasting city, the New Jerusalem, in which he surely finds himself now.

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