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Parting Reflections

This article is the fourth installment of George Weigel’s “Letters from Rome” series on the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

On the Funeral Liturgy and Homily

Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, mandated a revision of the Roman Rite that would be characterized by a “noble simplicity.” That concept was born from the classic Liturgical Movement, which had a powerful influence on the spirituality and theology of the young Joseph Ratzinger. So I found it appropriate that the funeral Mass for the late Pope Emeritus was characterized by what seemed to me noble simplicity, albeit noble simplicity amplified by the participation of thousands of concelebrants. That the liturgy was conducted primarily in Latin was also in accord with the teaching of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and in this instance at least the Latin served as a universal language for a Mass in which the entire world Church was represented. Thus the Latin response, Te rogamus audi nos, sung by the congregation, tied together the general intercessions prayed in German, French, Arabic, Portuguese, and Italian. 

That the Mass also reflected in part the liturgical tradition in which Joseph Ratzinger had grown up was entirely appropriate and, for those aware of the symmetry, touching. The entrance antiphon, sung in Gregorian chant, was the ancient Requiem Aeternam. The Kyrie was a lovely sung dialogue between the congregation (chant) and the choir (SATB polyphony)—a modern adaptation that seemed concordant with the venerable text and its Gregorian expression. The Gregorian Sanctus was a setting that Ratzinger would have sung as a boy, as was the Pater Noster and Agnus Dei. The Final Commendation and Farewell included the ancient chant In Paradisum and the Magnificat—and could anyone not be moved by that great Marian hymn of praise being sung as the casket of a man who strove to live his life proclaiming the greatness of the Lord was carried into St. Peter’s for his burial?

(It also struck me that one of the unremarked accomplishments of Pope Benedict XVI seems to have been the reform of the Sistine Choir. Once known by local wags as the “Sistine Screamers” for their operatic caterwauling, the choir now sings in a far more restrained manner, with minimal warbling and far more clarity.) 

In the hours after the funeral Mass, criticism of the brevity of Pope Francis’s homily reverberated throughout the Twitterverse and Catholic blogosphere. I can’t agree. All papal events (liturgical and otherwise) must now be conducted in two hours or less, given the pope’s poor health. Catholic funeral Masses are not supposed to include eulogies (a proscription often ignored in U.S. parishes). The logic of the proscription makes considerable theological sense: A eulogy, summarizing the past, is out of place in a Mass of Christian Burial that is liturgically focused on the future, both the future of the soul for whom we beg eternal rest in the light and life of the Trinity, and the eschatological future when Christ returns in glory and the dead in Christ are raised to a new and superabundant form of life, as previewed in the Lord’s Resurrection and Our Lady’s Assumption.

A skillful preacher can weave elements of a life into a proper funeral homily. (Fr. Raymond de Souza’s homily at the funeral Mass of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was a masterpiece of this genre.) But Pope Francis is not the homiletic genius that his papal predecessor was, so I was not offended by the brevity of his remarks, which were thoroughly biblical and Christocentric—quite appropriate for the funeral Mass of the Christ-centered Benedict XVI. Francis’s extensive quotation from the Pastoral Rule of Pope St. Gregory the Great neatly linked Benedict XVI to his peer—perhaps his only peer—as a papal preacher. The last words of the homily—“Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be perfect in hearing His voice definitively and forever!”—could not have been improved upon.

In sum: an appropriate liturgical farewell to a man of the liturgy, whatever expectations were frustrated.

Benedict XVI as Social and Political Critic

Joseph Ratzinger’s accomplishments as biblical expositor and theologian have been gratifyingly acknowledged over the past six days. Yet his insights into the drama of modern social and political life—and the challenges faced by twenty-first-century democracies—have rarely been mentioned. Thus I beg the reader’s indulgence to quote again from my 2019 book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, and its summaries of Benedict XVI’s “September Speeches,” which remain as salient today as when they were first delivered:

The first of these lectures, given at his old university in Regensburg on September 12, 2006, caused a media firestorm because of its reference to a robust dialogue between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian scholar. It was, however, far more noteworthy for the proposals Pope Benedict made about the developments necessary in the Islamic world if what Samuel Huntington had called Islam’s “bloody borders” were going to be pacified so that Islam and “the rest” could co-exist peacefully.

There were two great issues confronting the Islamic world in the twenty-first century, Benedict XVI suggested. Could Islam, from within its own religious, philosophical, and legal resources, create warrants for religious tolerance (if not religious freedom in full), including the legal inviolability of conscientious decisions to change one’s religion? And could Islam, again from within those same Islamic sources, find a way to legitimate the distinction (if not the complete separation) of religious and political authority in the Muslim-majority states of the future? Benedict admitted that it had taken the Catholic Church some time and no little effort to find Catholic warrants for affirming religious freedom and the institutional separation of Church and state. But it had done so, not least at Vatican II in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, and the Declaration on Religious Freedom. And it had done so, not by surrendering to modernity, but by making the encounter with modernity the occasion to retrieve and develop elements of its own self-understanding that had gotten lost through the contingencies of history. Might there be some analogy in the various Islamic traditions to this Catholic experience of reaching back into one’s own religious and intellectual patrimony in order to recover lost ideas that could be sources of renewal in late modernity? 

It was absurd, Benedict implied, to expect that the answer to “Islam and the rest” was the transformation of over a billion Muslims into secular liberals; that simply wasn’t going to happen. So whatever answers to the dilemmas of Islam and pluralistic late modernity were to be found, they would have to be discovered within a process of retrieval and renewal within Islam itself. That process, Benedict proposed, should be the focus of interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims for the foreseeable future.

At Regensburg, Benedict also addressed the intellectual difficulties late modernity experienced in creating a true dialogue of cultures. One reason for that difficulty, he proposed, was the late-modern tendency to reduce all knowledge to the empirically verifiable, in a philosophical form of materialism that radically constrained the reach of human inquiry. Another, related problem emerged from the tone-deafness of late-modern understandings of reason to the claims of religious experience. Still another was the false notion of the God of the Bible and the identification of the divine with sheer willfulness (a problem that modernity, which got the idea from Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, shared with many currents in Islam). Once again reaching back into the patristic history of Christian thought he knew so well, Benedict reminded his listeners that, through its own creative encounter with classical antiquity, and especially Greek philosophy, the Church had come to understand that the God of the Bible was a God of reason, who had imprinted the divine rationality onto the world, thus giving philosophy a secure ground and making science possible. That same God of reason could not command the unreasonable, such as the radical dehumanization of “the other” and the murder of innocents, for to do so would be self-contradictory. Thus faith in the God of the Bible was one possible path to late modernity’s recovery of a robust concept of the dignity of the human person, which implied a rejection of coercion and violence in matters of conscience.

At Regensburg, and in others of his September lectures, Benedict XVI emphasized that the civilization of the West was the result of the fruitful encounter of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome: Greek faith in reason’s ability to get to truths built into the world; Jewish convictions about the dignity of the human person and about life as purposeful pilgrimage into the future; Roman assertion of the superiority of the rule of law to the rule of brute force. Renovating and strengthening the modern project, he concluded, required a fresh encounter with all three of the West’s civilizational building blocks.

Two years later, in a lecture on September 12, 2008, at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, Benedict XVI further developed his internal critique of certain aspects of late modernity while broadening his proposals for a renewal of the modernity project. In the striking setting of a thirteenth-century Cistercian monastery transformed into a twenty-first-century cultural and conference center, the pope suggested that the monastic vocation—quaerere Deum, “to seek God”—was of considerable cultural consequence, not only centuries ago, but now. 

As Benedict put his case, God can only be sought because God can be known, and God can be known because God has revealed himself, in the People of Israel and in Jesus Christ. That self-revelation continues in time through the study of the Scriptures, the written record of divine revelation. Lectio divina, the prayerful contemplation of the Bible, was a major part of monastic life when the Collège des Bernardins was built; that is why the facility had classrooms and a library as well as the chapel. That study of God’s revealed Word had had profound cultural consequences in the West, for it informed and infused a culture of the word: a culture of conversation and learning; a culture of intelligibility. The intense study of the Bible, Benedict proposed, had developed important intellectual skills within Western civilization, including the disciplines of textual translation and interpretation. Those skills had then spilled over from monastic life to shape the unique culture of the West, the first in human history to evince an insatiable curiosity about other cultures.

The careful study of the Bible leads inexorably to the conviction that there are truths in the human condition that cannot be reduced to empirical measure—including the deepest truths of the human condition, such as the truths about love, loyalty, fidelity, suffering, and purpose in history. So the Collège des Bernardins represented, in its medieval origins and its contemporary role as a place of human encounter, a refutation of the materialism and radical empiricism prevalent in late modernity. Late modern positivism, Benedict argued, was “the capitulation of reason.” To succumb to the temptation of positivism, he argued, would be “the renunciation of [reason’s] highest possibilities.” And the twentieth century should have taught modernity what happened when reason gave way to systematic irrationality and falsehood.

Late modernity might want to consider another option. It might consider the recovery of one key element in the civilization of the West, embodied in the Collège des Bernardins and its originating commitment, quaerere Deum: “What gave Europe’s culture its foundationthe search for God and the readiness to listen to Him—remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”

The third of the Ratzingerian September lectures took place on September 17, 2010, in another evocative venue: Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, home to the “Mother of Parliaments” and site of the trial and condemnation of Sir Thomas More. Benedict XVI, the German-born pope who thanked the British people for having won the Battle of Britain in 1940, used the occasion to reflect with his audience, composed of what the locals once called “the great and the good,” on the relationship of ethics to politics. Reminding his listeners of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary struggle to end the slave trade—a decades-long effort motivated by Christian conviction—Benedict suggested that legal positivism, or any notion of law detached from ethics, inevitably led to the abrogation of human rights, to repression, and ultimately to tyranny. Faith and reason had to work together to solidify the moral foundations of late-modern democracies so that the Weimar experience in interwar Germany did not repeat itself in the twenty-first century.

That proposal then led the pope into a discussion of religiously informed moral conviction in public life. In Britain as elsewhere in the West, loud voices were demanding that religious conviction be quarantined within the sphere of personal or private life—an expansion of the French concept of laïcité beyond the borders of habitually anticlerical France. There were even those who argued, Benedict noted, “that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that [this] might somehow offend those of other religions or none.” These were “worrying signs of a failure to appreciate . . . freedom of religion [and] the legitimate role of religion in the public square.” And they were worrisome because they were undemocratic. For if the rights of believers to express their faith publicly and to bring religiously informed moral judgments into public life were denied, citizens of a democracy were being denied the right to bring the deepest sources of their moral judgments to bear in their civic lives.

To bring religiously informed moral conviction into the public square, however, was a matter of appealing to the natural moral law, not to theological principles that could only be fully grasped by believers. The Church was not in the business of designing public policy, “which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion.” The Church’s role was to be a voice of clarification in public debates, working to ensure that true moral reason was not confused with mere pragmatic calculation, and reminding late-modern politics that, throughout the tradition of the West, politics had always been understood to engage questions of “ought,” and specifically the question, “How ought we live together?” The natural moral law that can be known by reason, Benedict suggested, might provide a grammar allowing the divergent voices in the public square to understand each other and wrestle with each other’s claims. Keeping that grammar alive in public life was the primary task of the Church. In that sense, he proposed, “Religion . . . is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”

The last of Benedict XVI’s September lectures, delivered in Berlin at the Bundestag on September 22, 2011, developed and sharpened themes from the Westminster Hall address, as the native son laid before his countrymen Augustine’s telling question in The City of God: “Without justice—what else is the State but a great band of robbers?” Ratzinger did not spare himself or his fellow Germans a modern history lesson. Germany knew, lethally, what happened when power was divorced from right—when politics became a Nietzschean exercise in the will to power rather than the pursuit of the common good guided by ethical principle. Citing the biblical example of King Solomon, who had asked God to grant him a “listening heart,” Benedict told the legislators of a united, post-Cold War Germany that they might well consider the same plea: “What would we wish for? I think that, even today, there is ultimately nothing we could wish for but a listening heart—the capacity to discern between good and evil, and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace.”

In the Bundestag, Benedict XVI returned to the theme of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome—biblical revelation, faith in reason, and confidence in law—as the three pillars of the West, not only in the past but in the late-modern (and increasingly post-modern) present. What happened, he asked, when Jerusalem was eliminated from the conversation—which meant eliminating the idea that the God of creation had imprinted the divine reason on the world, such that the world was intelligible? It seems that faith in reason itself—the Athenian factor in the equation—begins to weaken; was that not the situation of a late modernity in which faith in reason had so atrophied that the best that could be conceded was that there was “your truth” and “my truth”? If that’s all there is, however, then convictions about the superiority of law to brute force would soon weaken. Why? Because if there is only “your truth” and “my truth” and neither party recognizes anything as the truth, then there is no criterion or horizon of judgment by which to settle the argument. In that circumstance, someone is going to impose their power on someone else. And if the imposing “someone” is the state, then we are back to the dictatorship of relativism of which Joseph Ratzinger warned on April 18, 2005.

The West had been brutally alerted to the danger of irrational religion on September 11, 2001, and in the many acts of jihadist terrorist terrorism that followed. Ratzinger had long warned that faith unpurified by reason threatened to become superstition, or worse; he now raised a caution against secular fundamentalism, which often expressed itself in notions of law detached from moral truth—the law is what it says it is, period. That legal positivism, Benedict XVI reminded the German legislators, had played a deadly role in their own history: “We Germans know from our own experience that [Augustine’s warnings about a state without justice] are no empty specter. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right—a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”

Then the pope pointed a way into the future that drew a humanistic lesson from Germany’s twenty-first-century obsession with ecology:

The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.

The natural world about which Germany’s Green Party was so concerned included the world of human self-understanding and aspiration. If the men and women of the twenty-first century rediscovered the moral truths embedded in the world, they and their children and grandchildren could avoid the catastrophes suffered by their parents and grandparents: lethal political catastrophes caused by defective concepts of the human person, human community, and human destiny. It was possible to live freedom as something grander than an expression of personal willfulness. Nietzsche was wrong; there was more to modernity than will; and the rediscovery of that “more”—of a reason informed by faith—could lead to a rediscovery of the deep truths about political modernity’s great aspiration: freedom.

The depth and breadth of these reflections, very much worth reading in the original and in their entirety, thus gives the lie to a nasty, foolish, and ill-informed piece by Paul Elie, published by the New Yorker on January 4, in which the author claims that Ratzinger/Benedict XVI refused “to let Catholics deal openly with the questions of the age.” How? Evidently by affirming settled Catholic understandings of the nature and expression of human love, the fundamentals of Catholic political theory, and the nature of the ministerial priesthood.

What rubbish.

One Final Quote

The 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s leadership, was the complement to the critique of heterodox themes in various of the theologies of liberation issued by CDF in 1984 (Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation). The 1986 text contains a sentence that, given its simplicity and profundity, I have to believe was penned by Ratzinger himself: “God wishes to be adored by people who are free.” Those ten carefully crafted words are an apt summary of Joseph Ratzinger’s faith, the lodestar of his remarkable life.

May he rest in peace, far from the caricatures and calumnies of lesser men. 

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