Sunday, January 1, 2023
Thanks to fellow MOJ contributors for their reflections following the death of Joseph Ratzinger. He was a humble man of deep faith who served the church as a professor and theologian, Archbishop of Munich, prefect of the CDF, and finally as Pope Benedict XVI – the Bishop of Rome. He was not a lawyer or legal theorist, but his remarkable intellect and keen insights touched on virtually every area of thought, including law and politics.
Two articles I wrote were inspired by Benedict XVI’s speeches and writings: Religion and the Purification of Reason: Why the Liberal State Requires More than Simple Tolerance (here) wherein I drew upon Benedict’s address in Westminster Hall and his Regensburg address, and Love, Truth, and the Economy (here), a lengthy discussion of Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate.
Let me here make just two brief points.
First, as I discuss (pp.1021-1025) in the piece on Caritas in Veritate, Ratzinger sees the problem in modern liberal democracy as a problem of anthropology in that it conceives of human beings in wholly materialist terms. This, in turn, leads to thinking of solutions to social problems in a mechanistic fashion. “The current structures are sinful, the future structures will be just. We have to design and construct them the way one builds appliances” (here p. 196). But the idea that if we design and calibrate the right legal mechanisms a paradise on earth will follow is a utopian fantasy. There will never be a perfect world. “It does not exist” (p. 197). Instead, we must “recognize the perpetual endangerment of human affairs” (p. 197) which calls for a continuous moral renewal through the cultivation of virtue.
These lessons are important things for those of us who are law professors to bear in mind in interacting with our students. We should be mindful and confront the materialist thinking that functions as a premise for so much of modern law. We should also remind students of the limits of law. The reform of statutes and legal rules is important, but law will never be sufficient to the task of building a just society.
Second, Ratzinger’s most bracing public observation was his comment (here) that modern liberal society risks becoming a “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own egos and desires.” That liberal society often regards the articulation of truth as an intolerable burden, such that truth claims cannot be authoritative and must give way to expressions of will, manifests itself in many ways. That a human being cannot be recognized as a human being because his or her early existence is a burden to someone else is perhaps the most common example of this phenomenon.
Ratzinger’s observation was salient when he first shared it in 2005. In 2023, when newspapers report as “news” the absurdity that a “man” recently gave birth to a child that “he” conceived with sperm donated by a “woman” (here and here), and when individuals are threatened with jail time for “misgendering” (here and here), it is plain that the dictatorship is still ascendent. It remains to us, law professors and others, to follow Ratzinger’s example of humility, to respond with sensitivity in dealing with individuals, as well as courage “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).