Benedict XVI. The Voice of Ethical Reason

The author of the article, a doctor in Political Science and Public International Law, has recently written "The Voice of Ethical Reason. Benedict XVI from London's Westminster Hall and Berlin's Reichstag".

José Ramón Garitagoitia-January 5, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes

Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in 2006 ©CNS photo/Vatican Media

Joseph Ratzinger (1927-2022) felt deeply an academic vocation from his youth. When John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, he found it difficult to leave his teaching position at the University of Regensburg.

Some time later, in 1982, he was called to Rome to work with the Polish pope as one of his closest collaborators. He accepted, but it was not an easy decision. On several occasions he asked to be relieved of his duties in the Vatican, and St. John Paul II responded by confirming him in his post: he needed him close to him, until the end.

After Wojtyla's death, the 78-year-old former professor from Regensburg became, on April 19, 2005, the 264th successor of St. Peter. He chose the name Benedict, in symbolic continuity with Benedict XV, who acceded to the Chair of Rome in the turbulent times of the First World War.

Seeing the unbelievable come true was a shock for him: "I was convinced that there were better and younger ones". From his deep dimension of faith, he abandoned himself to God. "I would have to slowly familiarize myself with what I could do, and I would always limit myself to the next step," he would explain with simplicity years later.

At the inauguration of his pontificate, Benedict XVI alluded to those who wander in contemporary deserts: "the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst; the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of broken love (...), of the darkness of God, of the emptiness of souls that are no longer aware of the dignity and direction of the human being". From that day until his resignation on February 28, 2013, he put his enormous intellectual power at the service of the mission he received. He visited different parts of the world on 24 occasions. Each trip was a great effort for him: "they always represent great demands for me," he acknowledged with simplicity.

The pope teacher

Five years after his election, he gave a wide-ranging interview to journalist Peter Seewald, published under the title Light of the World. The conversation covers a wide range of topics, including the pontificate, the crises of the Church, ways forward, contemporary society and the cultural panorama in the transition from the 20th to the 21st century.

As far as his mission as Roman Pontiff is concerned, he would have to rely heavily on his collaborators, and leave many things in their hands in order to focus on the specific: "to preserve the inner vision of the whole, the recollection, from which the vision of the essential can then come".

John Paul II was a giant in many ways. By his presence alone, by his voice and gestures, he had a wide media resonance. The German pope's personality was different: "You don't necessarily have the same height, nor the same voice, has it been a problem?", Seewlad asked him. The answer shows doubts about his capacity for endurance: "sometimes I am worried and wonder if from a purely physical point of view I can hold out to the end".

From that simple attitude, he was determined to fulfill his mission: "I simply said to myself: I am the way I am. I do not try to be someone else. What I can give I give, and what I cannot give I do not try to give. I do not try to make of myself something that I am not, I have been chosen - the cardinals are guilty of this - and I do what I can".

When the journalist asked him for a key to understanding the pontificate, he referred to his academic vocation: "I think that, since God has made a professor pope, he wanted precisely this aspect of reflexivity, and especially the struggle for the unity of faith and reason, to come to the fore".

The pontificate of reason

The seven years and ten months he spent at the head of the Catholic Church will go down in history as a pontificate of reason. In carrying out his mission, he took the advice of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas (Düsseldorf, 1929) at the colloquium they held in Munich in January 2004: to make proposals that could be understood by the general public. The dialogue between the two intellectuals on the 'pre-political moral foundations of the liberal state' was now behind them, but the confronting ideas were as topical as ever.

In his interventions, he sought to contribute to the internalization of ideas by raising questions and making arguments about the great treasure of being a person and about the spiritual transformation of the world accessible to his interlocutors: "This is the great task facing us at this time. We can only hope that the inner strength of faith, which is present in man, will then become powerful in the public arena, shaping thought at the public level and not allowing society to simply fall into the abyss. He insisted that the human being is subject to a higher set of standards. It is precisely these demands that make greater happiness possible: "only through them do we reach the height, and only then can we experience the beauty of being. I consider it of great importance to emphasize this".

He was firmly convinced that happiness is a challenge and a goal accessible to all, but he needs to find the way: "Being human is like a mountain expedition, which includes some arduous slopes. But when we reach the top we are able to experience for the first time how beautiful it is to be there. Emphasizing this is of particular interest to me." Comfort is not the best way to live, nor is well-being the only content of happiness.

From modern areopagi

Benedict XVI did not shy away from complicated issues, and always posed the questions in a positive way. He aimed high in his arguments about the nature and destiny of persons, and the moral demands of society. The most varied areopagi of contemporary society opened their doors to him, with great impact on public opinion.

I keep an indelible memory of his words in Auschwitz (2006) on the silence of God, which I listened to while closely contemplating his suffering face.

That same year, he was invited to his former alma mater, lhe University of Regensburg. He dedicated his master class to explaining the relationship between religion and reason. In the speech he prepared for the opening of the academic year at the University of La Sapienza (2008) in Rome, he wondered what a pope could say in a public university.

He addressed the emergence of the medieval university as a reflection on the truth of the person in the different disciplines. The foundation of human rights was the focus of his address to the UN General Assembly (2008), and in the Collège des Bernardins de Paris shared with the French intelligentsia the sources of European culture.

Benedict XVI's visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010 also had an unquestionable political dimension. A very special moment was his speech at Westminster Hall, where he addressed the British society from the oldest parliament in the world: 1800 guests, representing the political, social, academic, cultural and business worlds of the United Kingdom, along with the diplomatic corps, and members of both Houses of Parliament, Lords and Commons.

In the same place where the Lord Chancellor Thomas More had been tried and condemned to death in 1535, he received a warm welcome. Aware of the moment and the surroundings, he dedicated his speech to stressing the importance of the constant dialogue between faith and reason, and the role of religion in the political process.

The sources of European culture

The following year, on the occasion of his visit to Germany, he addressed the federal parliament in the Berlin Reichstag. From this emblematic place, he spoke on the ethical foundations of political options, democracy and the rule of law. He addressed justice and political service, with their objectives and limits. Following his scholastic style he asked himself some questions and offered answers: "How can we recognize what is just? How can we distinguish between right and wrong, between true right and only apparent right?"

He explained that Western culture, including juridical culture, developed in a humanist humus that permeated everything, including areas considered not strictly religious. It was a consequence of the common sources of European culture, which had left its mark both in the Enlightenment and in the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. But in the second part of the 20th century there was a change in the cultural situation to which it was necessary to respond, and to free reason from its self-enclosure: "where the exclusive domain of positivist reason rules - and this is largely the case with our public conscience - the classical sources of knowledge of ethos and law are left out of play". It was urgent to open a public debate on the question, and he acknowledged that this had been the main purpose of his speech in the Reichstag.

The pope-professor always spoke in a kind and respectful manner, with intellectual rigor. In each of these places he argued about what was of interest to others, whatever their ideology, creed or political condition. He always thoroughly reasoned his proposals on the objectives and responsibilities of a society worthy of the human condition.

The authorJosé Ramón Garitagoitia

D. in Political Science and Public International Law

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