Freedom, sanctity and reason in the teaching of Benedict XVI

Joseph Weiler, the winner of the Ratzinger Prize 2022, the last of those that the Pope Emeritus was able to see during his lifetime, reflects in this article on Benedict XVI's conception of freedom and religion.  

Joseph Weiler-January 8, 2023-Reading time: 11 minutes

Pope Benedict XVI during an audience in 2010©CNS photo/Paul Haring

A Pope speaks urbi et orbiHe was not only the bishop of Rome, but also a moral guide for the whole world, for people of all confessions, including non-believers. This was never more evident than in his famous Regensburg speeches and in his address to the Bundestag, the German parliament.

Reading Ratzinger is, in a way, like reading the Scriptures. It is open to more than one interpretation. What follows, then, is my interpretation, without claiming to be the only one, or even the best possible one. Caveat, reader!

Freedom "from" religion and freedom "against" religion in a secular world.

What is the "civic religion" that unites all Europeans? We certainly believe in the need for liberal democracy as the framework within which our public life must develop. Free elections with universal suffrage, the protection of fundamental human rights and the rule of law constitute the "holy trinity" of this civic faith.

Freedom "from" religion is enshrined in all European constitutions. But it is commonly understood, and rightly so, that it also includes freedom "from" religion. This is positive and negative religious freedom in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

However, freedom "from" religion poses a challenge to liberal theory. We have no similar notion, for example, of freedom "from" socialism. Or of freedom "from" neoliberalism. If a socialist government is democratically elected, we expect policies that derive from and implement a socialist worldview, obviously respecting the rights of minorities. And, whether we like it or not, we are expected to comply with the laws that concretize these policies, even if we are not socialists. The same would happen, for example, with a neoliberal government. But if it is a Catholic-oriented government that is elected, taking freedom "from" religion seriously means that this government's hands are tied when it comes to passing laws derived from its religious worldview.

Indeed, one of the greatest political philosophers of the twentieth century, John Rawls, has argued that our democratic practice itself, regardless of whether it is left-wing or right-wing, must always be based on arguments derived from human reason, whose rules can be shared by all regardless of their ideological orientation, and therefore be open to persuasion and change of opinion. Religion, Rawls has affirmed without attributing to it a disparaging connotation, is based on incommensurable and non-negotiable truths, self-referential and transcendental. And, therefore, unsuitable for the democratic terrain.

We have, therefore, two challenges within our multicultural society composed of believers and non-believers. 

The first: how can liberal theory explain and justify freedom "from" religion? Of course, there are many attempts to rationalize this question within a liberal framework. None of them really convince me. Ultimately, if a socialist has the right to impose his worldview on society, why should the same be denied to a Catholic?

And the second, the Rawlsian one: what claim do groups of believers have to participate in democratic life - as people of faith - if, in fact, the religious worldview is (and is) linked to non-negotiable, self-referential and transcendental truths?

In my opinion, Benedict, with his speeches in Regensburg and in the Bundestag, has given the most convincing answer to these two challenges.

II. John Paul II, followed by Benedict, was in the habit of claiming freedom of religion as the most fundamental of all freedoms. In our secular culture, this affirmation was generally received with an indulgent smile: "What freedom would you expect a Pope to privilege?", interpreting such an affirmation in a corporatist sense, as if the Pope were a union leader concerned with securing benefits for his members. There is nothing ignoble about the shepherd caring for his flock, but this interpretation overlooks the true meaning of the Pontiff's position.

What had not received enough attention, in all the uproar caused by the comments of the Pope in RegensburgThe main focus of the religious freedom to which the Pontiff alluded was the fact that, in the religious freedom to which the Pontiff alluded, attention was concentrated on freedom of religion. in the face of religion: the freedom to adhere to the religion of one's choice or of not being religious at all. Benedict forcefully articulated all of this, and explicitly showed what was already expressed in the Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II, which John Paul II had emphasized, and which is certainly also part of the magisterium of Pope Francis.

Note well: his justification and defense of freedom "from" religion was not an expression of, nor a concession to, liberal notions of tolerance and freedom. It was the expression of a profound proposal nun. "We do not impose our faith on anyone. Such proselytism is contrary to Christianity. Faith can only develop in freedom," the Pope affirmed in Regensburg, addressing his faithful and the whole world. Thus, at the heart of religious freedom is the freedom to say "no" even to God.

Obviously, that freedom must have an external dimension: the State must guarantee by law to all freedom "from" religion and freedom "against" religion. But no less important, as I understood his message, was inner freedom. We Jews say: "Everything is in the hands of God, except the fear of God". That's the way God wanted it, leaving the choice to us. True religiosity, a true "yes" to God, can come from a being who not only has the outer material conditions, but also the inner spiritual capacity to understand that the choice, yes or no, and the responsibility for that choice, is ours.

Benedict has thus made freedom "from" religion a theological proposition. This is, after all, the heart of the Second Vatican Council and of Ratzinger's contribution to the Council and its subsequent interpretation. This, in turn, has a profound anthropological significance. Religious freedom touches the deepest notion of the human being as an autonomous agent with the faculty of moral choice, also with respect to his own Creator. When Hebraism and Christianity express the relationship between God and man in terms of covenant, they celebrate this double sovereignty: the sovereignty of the divine offering and the sovereignty of the individual to whom it is offered.

I believe that everyone, believers and non-believers alike, can understand that if one accepts the existence of an omnipotent Creator, insisting as an intrinsic religious proposition on the freedom to say no to such a Creator is fundamental to the very understanding of our human condition. In this sense it is paramount that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have defended the primacy of religious freedom: it stands as an emblem of the very ontology of the human condition. Of what it means to be human.

One can go a step further. Quoting James, Benedict XVI explains in his homily at Regensburg (to which too little attention has been paid) that "the regal law," the law of the kingship of God, is also "the law of freedom." This is puzzling: if, by exercising this freedom, one accepts the transcendental regal law, how can this constitute a real enhancement of one's freedom? Does not the law, by its very nature, imply accepting restrictions on our freedom?

I understand Benedict to have said that by acting outside the bonds of God's law I simply become a slave to my human condition, to my human desires. In the words of St. Ambrose: "Quoam multos dominos habet qui unum refugerit!". To accept the law of God, as the "governing law," the law of the One who transcends this world, is to affirm my inner freedom in the face of anyone and anything in this world. There is no better antidote against all forms of totalitarianism in this world. This is true freedom.

IIIWhat then of the second challenge, the Rawlsian one? In my understanding of the Bundestag speech, Benedict did not reject the Rawlsian premise. Without mentioning it by name, Ratzinger did not challenge Rawls' premise, but his erroneous understanding of Christianity.

When Catholics, Benedict argued, enter the public sphere to advance proposals on public norms that can become binding in law, they do not make these proposals on the basis of revelation and faith or religion (even though they may coincide with these). It is part, as we have seen, of Christian anthropology that human beings are endowed with the faculty of reason, common to humanity, which, moreover, constitutes the legitimate language of general public normativity. The content of the Christian question within the public sphere will therefore be in the realm of practical reason: morality and ethics as often expressed through natural law. If I may give an example, when Cain killed Abel, he did not turn and say to the Lord: you never told me that killing was forbidden. Nor does the reader of Scripture raise such an objection. It is understood that by virtue of their creation (for believers in the image of God) we all have the ability to distinguish between the just and the unjust and do not need divine revelation to do so.

Nor is this a concession to secularism. It is an inevitable outcome of the religious propositions that informed the Regensburg discourse. To adopt a publicly binding norm based solely on faith and revelation would violate precisely that deep, religiously grounded commitment to religious freedom, for which forced faith is a contradiction and is contrary to the divine will.

It is also a bold proposition. Yes, on the one hand it constitutes the Catholic's entry visa into the normative public square on an equal footing. At the same time, it imposes a serious and severe discipline on the community of faith. The discipline of reason could force a revision of moral positions. Gone is that joker in the deck, "This is what God has commanded." This is not part of shared public reason. If you adopt a language, you have to speak it correctly in order to be understood and to be convincing. And this also applies to the language of reason.

The value of sanctity

IV. I now turn to what I consider to be an extraordinary teaching addressed specifically to the community of the faithful, and which is opportunely found in the homily at Regensburg, rather than in the famous address to the academic community.

The nexus between general normativity and reason is seductive and, in a certain sense, constitutive of Christian identity. But here lies an interesting danger for the homo religiosus. This is the danger of reducing one's religiosity to ethics as it is often expressed in natural law, however important it may be.

"Social issues and the Gospel are inseparable" was one of the central messages of the homily in Regensburg. It is a striking phrase. For me, the more interesting question is: why did the Pope find it necessary to remind his flock that social concerns and the Gospel are inseparable?

I will now begin to answer this question, with the obvious humility and distrust that derives from the fact that I, an outsider, enter the terrain of a faith community to which I do not belong. If I am wrong, I would be happy to be corrected.

The Pope warned us, believers in general, and more specifically his Catholic flock, of the danger of considering that the Christian demand for public normativity expressed through the language of general reason applicable to all human beings, exhausts the meaning of a religious life or even of Christian normativity.

Social issues," as an expression of morality and ethics, are central to the Abrahamic religions, but by themselves they do not define religious sensibility, religious impetus or religious meaning. After all, religion does not have a monopoly on morality and ethics. An atheist can lead an ethical life and have an interest in social issues no less noble than believers.

The religious category par excellence, the one that has no equivalence or correspondence in a secular vision of the world, is sanctity. To reduce religion exclusively to social-ethical concerns, however important they may be, leads to a fatal diminution of the meaning of holiness. Of course, holiness is not separate from ethics and morality. Morality and ethics are necessary conditions, but they are not sufficient for holiness. Holiness is not exhausted in ethics and morality. It denotes something more: closeness to God's love for us and our love for Him, His presence in our whole existence.

I want to share a famous passage of Scripture, found in both the Old and New Testaments - Love your neighbor as yourself - which I think perfectly matches Benedict's insistence in his homily that social issues and the Gospel are inseparable.

Where is this passage found for the first time? It is in Leviticus, chapter 19. A very special chapter in the entire Bible because it explicitly addresses the notion of holiness.

"The Lord said again to Moses, 'Speak to the whole community of the Israelites and command them, 'Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy'" (Lev 19:1-2).

It is this chapter where the precept "Love your neighbor" is found. But we all tend to forget the end of that passage. It is not simply "Love your neighbor as yourself", but "Love your neighbor as yourself", I am the Lord". And it is this final part that introduces the homo religiousus in the notion of holiness, which goes beyond the common morality of all humanity.

I want to emphasize that, in my opinion, the "added value" of holiness does not make the religious superior to his lay brothers and sisters. It simply makes him different.

Let me investigate the deeper meaning of "Love your neighbor as yourself - I am the Lord", and offer an interpretation.

Above all, the prescription of love goes beyond our normal understanding of ethical behavior that can be translated into natural law. No one would think of transposing into secular law the duty to love our neighbor. This is rather a manifestation of Catholic normativity, exquisitely expressed in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: "And if anyone asks you to go with him one mile, go with him two."

Second, the final part-I am the Lord-explains why this famous passage is found in a chapter that begins with the prescription to seek holiness. When we fulfill the obligation to love our neighbor, we are not only expressing our love for our neighbor and ourselves. Its fulfillment is also an expression of our love for the Lord. And this is where holiness resides.

I find it significant that Benedict gave us this teaching in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. For, insofar as I understand them, the various sacraments, prayer, the Mass in general and the Eucharistic celebration in particular, as well as all other similar practices, are the means by which the Church offers the believer the possibility of expressing love and devotion to the Lord. And this surely goes beyond simply leading an ethical life.

If there is any merit in this interpretation, it is that it contains a remarkable historical irony.

At the time of prophets such as Amos and Isaiah, and obviously in the Gospel, the faithful had to be reminded that faith and holiness could not be attained simply by following sacraments and rituals if these were not accompanied by ethical behavior and the royal Law of Love.

Today, the situation is reversed and it is necessary to remind believers that the richness of the religious sense is not exhausted simply in leading an ethical and solidary life. To lead an ethical life is a necessary condition, but certainly not sufficient. Ethical conduct and solidarity must be accompanied by a relationship with the divine, through prayer, through the sacraments, seeking the hand of the Creator in the world He has created.

It is part of the modern condition that makes many of the faithful almost ashamed of the Gospel, of the sacraments, as well as of the statements, the words used and the practices that express the sacramental aspects of their religion and faith. These appear, irony of ironies, as "unreasonable" (try telling that to St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine!) And this phenomenon is widespread among all the children of Jacob/Israel.

Benedict XVI with the winners of the Ratzinger Prize 2022: Joseph H. H. Weiler and Michel Fédou, on December 1, 2022. ©CNS photo/courtesy Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation

The prophet Micah preached: "Man, you have been taught what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to practice righteousness, to love godliness, to walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8). Walk humbly, not in secret!

I would like to end on a personal note. I have had the privilege of meeting Pope Benedict on three occasions. Once was in 2013, shortly before his retirement, a rather brief meeting in which I introduced him to two of my daughters. The second occasion was a few years later, when at his request I was invited, to my surprise, since I had never formally been a student of Ratzinger, to deliver the keynote lecture at the celebrated "Ratzinger Schülerkreis," his Circle of Disciples, after which I had the sheer pleasure of having a long one-on-one conversation with the Pope Emeritus: pure theology. And, finally, our last meeting took place about a month ago, together with Fathers Fedou, Lombardi and Gänswein, on the occasion of the Ratzinger Award 2022. These encounters have remained indelibly etched in my mind. His parting words were meaningful and touching: "Please, my regards to your daughters".

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