“The world is like an oil press that squeezes. If you are the dregs you are thrown away; if you are oil, you are collected. But being squeezed is inevitable.”—St. Augustine (354-430), cited by Pope Benedict XVI in his General Audience talk on Augustine on January 9, 2008
“The kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. […] If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.”—Pope Benedict XVI, in his great encyclical Spe Salvi (“By hope saved”), published on November 30, 2007, paragraph 24
“The question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life.” —Ibid.
“Man […] is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favorable economic environment.” —Ibid., Paragraph 21, explaining why the failure of Marxism was not accidental: it stemmed from its constitutive materialism, from not having understood the spiritual nature of man
Ratzinger, a Modern Augustine. How to Read History in the Light of Eternal Life (link)
January 17, 2023
By Sandro Magister
Joseph Ratzinger’s life had quite a bit in common with that of Saint Augustine, the doctor of the Church he most loved.
Not for nothing in the 2007 encyclical “Spe Salvi,” the one most unmistakably his own, written entirely in his own hand, did he recount of Augustine exactly what happened to him too, finding himself unexpectedly called to govern the Church instead of dedicating himself to a life made up only of study.
“All he wanted was to be at the service of the truth. He did not feel he had a vocation to pastoral life but realized later that God was calling him to be a pastor among others and thus to offer people the gift of the truth”: this is what Benedict XVI said at the general audience on Wednesday January 9, 2008, dedicated to the “greatest Father of the Latin Church.”
In fact, even as bishop and then as pope, Ratzinger always remained a theologian. And “Spe Salvi,” dedicated to Christian hope, is one of the high points of his teaching.
In direct confrontation with modern culture.
Against the illusion that there is an earthly solution to the injustices of the world, because instead – the pope wrote – precisely “the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life.”
In the following essay Roberto Pertici, professor of contemporary history at the University of Bergamo, analyzes in depth the vision of history that, with this encyclical, Joseph Ratzinger entrusted to us as his legacy.
To be taken to heart, in these difficult times for humanity and for the Church.
The first draft of this essay was written shortly after the release of “Spe Salvi.” But it is extraordinarily relevant today.
BENEDICT AND HISTORY
by Roberto Pertici
1. “Spe Salvi,” which Pope Benedict XVI published on November 30 2007, represents a far from trivial innovation in the “encyclical” genre, to which it indeed belongs.
Its fluid style and direct and pointed confrontation of some of the major representatives of contemporary culture, Christian and non-Christian, stem from the pontiff’s strong personality.
If at times the encyclicals of previous pontificates posed the problem of who the true writer was, here we are faced with a text clearly “of the author,” meditated on and written by Ratzinger, theologian and pastor.
He means it to be a powerful new presentation of Christian hope to a world in which the great political religions of the 20th century are “silence and darkness,” and in which the only real alternative left seems to be that of scientism in its various manifestations.
As a history scholar, I will limit myself to proposing a few reflections on the vision of human history that Benedict displays in this text of his. This is because I believe that the historical dimension and the problem of “justice in history” are central to the encyclical, and that the pope provides a solution to them that refers to some of what, for him, are the foundations of Christianity.
2. Two archetypes can be identified in the Christian conception of history.
Augustine of Hippo conceives of it as an eternal struggle between two “cities,” the divine and the earthly, which coexist and will be in conflict until the end of time: these will be distinguished only at the of the last judgement.
Augustine’s remains the most radical critique of millenarianism as a whole, of all those conceptions that have repeatedly maintained that in the near or distant future and irrevocably the divine city will prevail over the earthly city and will be realized in the world.
Augustine denies that humanity, burdened by original sin, can experience a complete liberation from evil in history: every generation must therefore renew its battle for the triumph of the good, all the while knowing that the triumph will never be definitive, and that on the contrary there could even be periods of “barbarity’s comeback.”
It is a tragic vision, not one of consolation: “The world is like an oil press that squeezes,” Augustine says. “If you are the dregs you are thrown away; if you are oil, you are collected. But being squeezed is inevitable.”
There is also another lineage, that of the eschatological tradition of the early days of Christianity, which awaited a historical realization of the reign of justice. It was revived – a century before Dante – by Joachim of Fiore, who foresaw a providential development of the historical process toward an age of the Spirit, in which humanity would be fully realized. It is known how a series of 20th-century scholars (from Karl Löwith to Eric Voegelin) saw in Joachimism a decisive moment in the historicization of Christian eschatology, and therefore a premise for the 19th-century philosophies of history.
Benedict XVI remains within the bounds of an Augustinian conception of history: this is confirmed by the critique that he develops of the idea of progress, a typical product of modernity.
The pope distinguishes between material development (technological, scientific, economic) and moral progress.
The first is undeniable and has brought great benefits to man, but it also presents an ambiguous face: “Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil” (par. 22).
But in the moral field? Is it possible to conceive of something like the accumulation of knowledge that occurs in science, a progress that is, as Benedict puts it, “incremental”? Is it possible to build on the ethical choices made by previous generations, to consider them as irrevocably fulfilled and thus progressively reduce the possibility of evil in the world until it disappears? Does 21st century man constitute moral progress in comparison with that of the 18th because he has proclaimed a moratorium on the death penalty, preached respect for the environment and equality between the sexes?
If this were the case, Christianity too would be only one stage in the journey of humanity, as important as one pleases but destined to be surpassed by something further, and the goal of the “overman” preached, in different ways, by Marx as by Nietzsche, would have its plausibility.
The pontiff, instead, states: “In the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.”
This also leads to the possibility of moral regression, in that the new generations can certainly “draw upon the moral treasury of the whole of humanity. But they can also reject it, because it can never be self-evident in the same way as material inventions” (par. 24).
So there is no progress in human nature, it cannot be progressively freed from the limitations that are consubstantial with it.
Still less can man hope that the solution to his existence can present itself from the outside, from changes in society.
Not that a struggle for a better society is useless; on the contrary, this is desirable and necessary, and politics can contribute greatly to the “minimization” of evil: only it cannot destroy the root of this and definitively resolve the problem of human freedom.
The pope says: “The kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. […] If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all” (par. 24).
3. The idea of indefinite moral progress is a product of modernity.
So does the critique that Benedict XVI makes of it involve, on the part of the Church, the return to a polemical attitude toward the modern world and thought, an end to that attentiveness to the “signs of the times” which was one of the results of the conciliar turning point?
In fact, nowhere has there been so much friendly insistence in speaking of the “modern world,” “modern thought,” “modernity” as in the Catholic world of recent decades.
But post-conciliar Catholic thought had its reasons: it wanted to bring to a close the season of opposition, the one in which the abstraction “modern world” was set against another abstraction, that of “Christendom”: the figment of an organic society, strongly marked in its civil institutions by the Catholic presence, which harked back to a mythical Middle Ages to be restored.
For centuries Catholic thought had made its own – opposing it – the genealogical tree that “modern thought” had given of itself: from the Protestant Reformation to the Enlightenment to the French Revolution to liberalism to socialism to communism.
What modernity had considered as a process of emancipation, Catholic thought regarded as a series of historical tragedies that was plunging humanity into the abyss.
This also led – it must be emphasized – to a distancing from liberal institutions and the values that underlie them: freedom of conscience, religious pluralism, etc.
Now in “Spe Salvi” there is no trace of all this.
First of all, it should be noted that Benedict does not condemn modernity, but urges it to undertake “a self-critique […] in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope” (par. 22), and, in this dialogue, also affirms the need for a parallel “self-critique of modern Christianity.”
But take care! The “modernity” delineated by the pontiff is not the one anathematized by anti-modern Catholicism.
In his reflection on modern history he does not mention the Protestant Reformation at all, and Luther is cited just once, to discuss his interpretation of a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews.
For Ratzinger, “modernity” has another progenitor: Francis Bacon.
It is in his thought – he writes – that “the foundations of the modern age. […] appear with particular clarity.”
And what are these?
1) The no longer contemplative but instrumental character of knowledge, by which man, through experimentation, succeeds in recognizing the laws of nature and bending them to his will.
2) The transposition of this conquest to the theological level: it is with science, not with faith in Jesus Christ, that man regains that lordship over nature which original sin had caused him to lose; in fact it is science that “redeems.”
3) Faith therefore becomes irrelevant to the world and is relegated to the private sphere.
4) Hope changes its nature: science promises a continuous process of emancipation from the limitations of life and an improvement, an infinite “progress” of the human condition.
5) This attitude spills over onto the political level: just as science guarantees the progressive overcoming of any dependence on nature, so it appears increasingly necessary to emancipate oneself from any other social, political, and religious conditioning.
6) There emerges the prospect of a revolution that would establish the definitive reign of reason and freedom (par. 17-18).
4. The pope even declines to develop the theme of the “negativity” of the Enlightenment (another typical feature of anti-modern Catholicism): what he highlights, on the contrary, is the fact that the relationship of that thought with the French Revolution was somewhat problematic.
“To begin with, the Europe of the Enlightenment,” he writes, “looked on with fascination at these events, but then, as they developed, had cause to reflect anew on reason and freedom.”
As examples of the “two phases of the reception of what had happened in France,” Ratzinger recalls two texts in which the philosopher Kantreflected on those events.
In the first, of 1792, Kant looks favorably on the events in France and on the secularization measures of the Constituent Assembly’s two-year tenure: these – in his judgment – mark the overcoming of “ecclesiastical faith,” which is being replaced by “religious faith,” that is to say, by simple rational faith.
But in the essay of 1795 his judgment is rather different: we are in the aftermath of the fall of Robespierre, Europe has witnessed with dismay the policies of violent de-Christianization and the advent of the revolutionary cults: the political counterpart of this phase was the Terror.
The philosopher’s mind is confronted with another possibility: that with the violent end of Christianity there could take place, “in a moral respect, the perverted end of all things” (par. 19).
There is no need to add that this rethinking gave birth to the liberal thought of the first decades of the 19th century.
The path of important sectors of modern thought is therefore – for Ratzinger – different from that genealogy of modernity against which Catholic culture has argued for centuries.
This gets underway with the first appearance of modern scientism in Bacon; it develops in a few of the more radical sectors of the Enlightenment and in the anti-religious “constructivism” of the Jacobin Terror; it culminates in the “opulent society” and its ideologies: scientism, technocracy, consumerism, mass hedonism.
Of course, Karl Marx is also on this path, but Ratzinger’s approach to the thought of the German revolutionary is anything but dismissive.
For Ratzinger, Marx is – one could say – the Bacon of the proletariat: “Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change” (par. 20).
But the outcomes of the communist revolutions of the 20th century also constitute the first real setback of this post-Baconian line of thought, and this setback is not a matter of happenstance.
It stems from the internal logic of Marxist thought: in reducing the individual to a series of social relationships, Marx was convinced that the transformation of society, “with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production,” would “ipso facto” create the new man.
A brief intermediate phase of dictatorship would be followed by the birth of the new Jerusalem, in which man would finally be himself.
The results of this thought have been seen.
The failure of Marxism was not accidental: it stemmed from its constitutive materialism, from not having understood that “man […] is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favorable economic environment” (par. 21).
5. In the past two centuries atheism has taken on the dimensions of a mass phenomenon.
But in many cases it did not stem, at least at first, from deliberate materialism.
It was instead – Benedict XVI writes – “a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice” (par. 42).
In this analysis of atheism as moralism there are perceptible echoes of a certain Catholic progressivism of the mid-20th century.
So for Ratzinger as well this widespread atheism has its origin in certain limitations of the Christianity of recent centuries.
This is seen as having posed as a religion of individual salvation and as having declined to place on a universal historical level the problem of the meaning of existence and therefore of human suffering: “In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task” (par. 25, but also 22 and 42).
So here is the self-critique that the pope urges contemporary Christianity to undertake, and this is why “Spe Salvi” re-proposes the great question of “injustice in history.” And here the themes of Ratzinger’s Augustinianism return: if “the world is like an oil press that squeezes,” what is the meaning to be given to the sufferings of those who have been “squeezed” for millennia?
The philosophies of history of the past centuries made these the “material” on which progress was making its painstaking way: the man who had reached perfection should have turned his head to them and said: “We have finally reached the goal, but this is thanks in part to your tribulations.”
This attributed a merely instrumental meaning to those countless existences, but it was still a matter of some sort of meaning.
Now, with the irreversible crisis of those historical conceptions, with the widespread recognition that history has no “meaning,” those lives are at risk of definitively losing any sort of meaning.
The question Benedict poses to contemporary man is therefore the following: should we resign ourselves to the fact that injustice has the last word in human history?
That the sufferings of past centuries and of the present are without redemption?
It is in this perspective that he once again speaks forcefully of the “last judgment,” not from an apocalyptic-punitive point of view, but as an element of hope, which restores a balance in the economy of the history of the world.
“I am convinced,” he says, taking to the field in the first person, “that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing” (par. 43).
The prospect of the last judgment – the pope also insists on this – does not imply resignation toward the injustices of the present, but rather “calls into question the responsibility” of each one (par. 44), driving us to an ethics that is not flatly eudaemonistic, but “to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we make each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full.”
We are sometimes led to such “ascetic” ethics by much of contemporary idealism: “But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions,” in short, when life is at stake, “I need the certainty of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here” (par. 39).
Christian hope – in Benedict XVI’s encyclical – thus once again takes on a supra-individual dimension, one could say cosmic-historical.
It presents itself as the only one capable of giving meaning to universal history.