4.3.8 Democracy in CST texts (vi): Benedict XVI

Back to 4.3.7

Unit 4 Contents


Why does it matter in practice for democracies that we recognize the inherent connection of freedom and truth?  This was the question you were asked to reflect on at the end of the last screen.  Here are two distinct answers.

First, if we fail to connect up the freedoms that government protects with what is true and important about the human person, we run a very serious risk of failing to protect freedoms that really matter for human beings.  This is the danger that has driven the concerns about relativism expressed by Pope John Paul and, as we shall see in a moment, his successor Pope Benedict XVI.  When majority decision-making is seen as sufficient justification and legitimization of public policy, there is a great risk of injustice.  Pope Benedict was from Germany and must have been very conscious that the rise of Nazism in the 1930s – when he was a boy – can be seen in this way: the Nazi party came to power through democratic elections in 1932 and 1933.

Second, recognition of the inherent connection of freedom and truth has a major implication for the nature of political conversation in a democracy: this cannot avoid being about what is true.  It cannot be confined to discussion about individual rights or freedoms.  Participants have to bring into it the underlying reasons for why they think freedom X or right Y needs protection.  These reasons are of course to do with what is true.

This is a point of huge practical significance for contemporary democracies, not least because there is a prominent school of thought within contemporary liberalism which explicitly maintains the opposite.  John Rawls, perhaps the most influential political philosopher in the English-speaking world in the past fifty years, has argued as follows.  Given the increasingly great diversity of religious and philosophical convictions held in most Western democratic countries, we cannot expect to come to agreement about those before we have to decide politically how we will live together. Therefore we should adopt what he calls a “method of avoidance” in relation to questions of truth about the human condition – and, instead, rely on some basic ideas about human equality and freedom that most of us find we share in order to decide things politically.

In a way, Rawls represents exactly the kind of position that Charles Taylor was arguing against in the article we examined on the last screen.  Given that Rawls’s position has great influence in contemporary democratic life, we shall look at it more fully in the last part of this unit.  But it is enough to say here that the very diversity of convictions he refers to gives the reason why there cannot be the kind of agreement on freedom and equality he envisages: people’s different religious and philosophical convictions give them contrasting views on what rights and freedoms really should be upheld.  Hence we have no option in public discussion but to engage with one another about what really is true about human beings, however challenging this can prove to be.  If we don’t do this, we shall just talk past each other and ‘debate’ will be merely deployment of rhetoric in a contest to gain and use power.

Benedict XVI was pope from 2005 to 2013.  He visited the USA once during this time, and speaking on arrival at the White House he said this:

The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good (cf. Spe Salvi, #24). Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus Annus, 46).”1

Deep concern about relativism and the need to recover a sense of the dependence of freedom on truth was right at the centre of Benedict XVI’s papacy.  The quotation above is just one expression of this among many. Notice the way that in that quotation he draws attention to the second point I made at the start of this screen, about the need for democratic discussion to engage with deep issues about what is true.  He calls for “the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate”.

Both from well before Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI and during his papacy, he addressed these issues repeatedly, drawing attention to the risk to the foundation of democracy which they represent.  Here are just some of the places in which he did so:

  • 1992: Joseph Ratzinger, ‘What is Truth? The Significance of Religious and Ethical Values in a Pluralistic Society’, reprinted in Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), pp. 53-72 (accessible at Google Books here, at 1 Jul. 2014)2
  • 2002: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life’ (accessible at vatican.va here).
  • 2004: Public debate with the leading German social thinker, Jürgen Habermas (report in Prospect magazine, here).  According to one scholar of CST, in this landmark debate, “Jürgen Habermas agreed with the then Cardinal Ratzinger that we are now in a ‘post-secular’ phase where religious and other ideological bodies should be able to express themselves directly in their own terms within the public square”.3
  • 2005: Homily on the opening day of the Conclave following the death of Pope John Paul II (accessible at vatican.va here)
  • 2007: ‘Natural law is base of democracy’ (report at zenit.org, here)
  • 2008: Address at White House Welcoming Ceremony, Washington, DC, as quoted above (accessible at vatican.va here)
  • 2009: Caritas in Veritate  This was Benedict XVI’s main social teaching encyclical.  Although its topic is not democracy, its main theme is the inseparability of truth from the practice of love of neighbour and therefore from all Catholic social teaching and practice.

This list could easily be extended.  In 2006 no fewer than three books by Ratzinger on these issues were published, making available a wide range of writings from before he became pope in 2005.  One is referred to above, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), accessible at Google Books here.  The others are:

  • Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, jointly authored with Marcello Pera (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2006), at Google Books here
  • Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), at Google Books here.

Of all these and other statements on the theme of democracy, freedom and truth by Ratzinger/Benedict, it is probably his homily in 2005 on the first day of the Conclave at which he was elected pope that has received the most attention.  Here he used the phrase ‘the dictatorship of relativism’:

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4:14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” [Eph 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

While Ratzinger did not know when speaking these words that he was about to become pope, both this address and the specific phrase ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ came to be seen as, in large part, setting the agenda for his papacy.  As you know from our study of John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae, what Benedict XVI was emphasising by his constant return to these themes was not new in the Church’s teaching.  Rather, he evidently saw it as an immensely serious issue for the future especially of Western societies: if they lose connection with what is true about the person, then freedom, democracy and justice are imperilled.

The principal way in which Benedict XVI did extend and develop CST was in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, and in its main argument just mentioned, that all Catholic social teaching and practice must be located in the context of truth – the truth about who the human person is under God.  To conclude our brief study of Pope Benedict XVI in this unit, here is a very short reading from Caritas in Veritate.


Reading (1p.)

Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, #5




Near the end of this passage is the following:

Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society…

As you see it, are there particular areas or issues in our social, economic and political life to which this diagnosis seems to apply?

You could consider, among other possibilities,

  • economic inequality
  • marriage and family life, and, related to this, care for elderly people
  • practices of business corporations
  • the media.



End of 4.3.8

Go to 4.3.9 Review of CST on participation and democracy

Module B outline

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  1. Benedict XVI, address at White House Welcoming Ceremony, 16 April 2008, Washington, DC, accessible (4 July 2014) at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2008/april/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080416_welcome-washington_en.html 

  2. The references in the remainder of the bullet points in this list were accessible at the links given on this same date. 

  3. Adrian Pabst, ‘On Pope Benedict XVI’s Enduring Legacy’, TELOSscope, 12 Feb. 2013, accessible (1 Jul. 2014) at http://www.telospress.com/on-pope-benedict-xvis-enduring-legacy/