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  • Pope Benedict XVI and Modernity:A Patristic Theologian's Perspective
  • James Lee


In a series of radio addresses delivered over the course of winter 1969–1970, Joseph Ratzinger sketched out a picture of the "crisis of the present," a crisis in which "faith is being shaken to its foundation," and the future is being set in motion "along roads that lead we know not where."2 According to Ratzinger, the crisis of the present day is, in essence, a long-deferred resumption of modernism.3 Modernism laid the foundation for a particular kind of relativism that remains the chief threat to humanity, for rather than preserving human freedom, relativism actually effectively eliminates it. Left unchecked, relativism will lead to the destruction of the ethical foundations of the past and to the dehumanization of society.

Some thirty-five years later, Cardinal Ratzinger reiterated his stance on the dangers of relativism in a homily delivered pro eligendo romano pontifice ("for the election of the Roman Pontiff") on April [End Page 89] 18, 2005: "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."4 Far from waning, the threat of relativism has grown stronger since Ratzinger's warning decades ago. In his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus, continued to draw attention to relativism and its role in the ongoing crisis facing the Church in the modern world.5 What is the origin of this crisis? What remedy might a patristic theologian such as Benedict have to offer?

The present study traces Benedict's genealogy of modernity and his diagnosis of the root cause of the relativism that undermines the foundations of society. It also considers how Benedict draws on patristic theologians, such as Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–254) and Augustine of Hippo (ca. 354–430), in order to provide a response to the challenges of the Church in the present time. For Benedict, these Church fathers offer lasting insights that are not relegated to the past, but can be applied today.6 A retrieval of patristic thinking does not mean merely winding back the clock. Rather, it is an engagement [End Page 90] with the richness of patristic thought that has force in new historical contexts. Thus, we find in the early Christian theologians a renewable resource and a light in the present darkness that leads along a road whose end we can, and indeed must, know.


Using Europe as a case study,7 Benedict offers a diagnosis for the developing dictatorship of relativism. He identifies two particular periods that resemble ours: 1) modernism, beginning roughly in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, and 2) the age spanning the Enlightenment and the Great Revolution of the West, often referred to in German cultural history as the Rococo.8 Both possess a systematic preference for a certain kind of rationality over against tradition. Modernism "bears the greatest resemblance to the present situation in the Church," and in fact, the contemporary crisis is a continuation of the modernism that "never really came to a head" but was "interrupted" by the changes at the beginning of the twentieth century and the First World War.9

Three key principles characterize modernism: 1) belief in progress, 2) the absolutization of the scientific-technical civilization, and 3) the promise of a new humanity of the messianic kingdom.10 At [End Page 91] first glance, these may seem fairly innocuous. However, these three principles, which modernism synthesizes, are the foundation for a relativism that threatens to dehumanize society. How?

In a series of lectures and essays collected under the title A Turning Point for Europe?, Benedict identifies the underlying philosophy of the principles of modernism.11 At the root is a particularly pernicious kind of materialism, one that does not simply deny spirit, but rather subjugates spirit to matter in principle and origin.12 Spirit is reduced to a product of irrational forces: the Logos, or "reason," of creation is replaced by irrationality. "Self-consciousness," a term used to denote human rationality, is the consequence of the movement of random particles...


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