Joseph Ratzinger’s rise to the papacy in 2005 was preceded by a reputation for die-hard conservatism. This was no doubt in part due to his having headed for more than two decades the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican body that draws the orthodox line on doctrinal matters. Yet, as Pope, he surprised many for the nuanced encyclicals he wrote, and for his public effort to comfort the victims of sexual abuse by clerics and to reach out to other religions. As one observer put it, he turned out to be not as conservative as liberals had feared, or as conservatives had hoped. It is perhaps more accurate to call him the first truly modern Pope. Any doubt about that has been erased by his shocking resignation.
His resignation as Pope Benedict XVI, the reasons he gives for stepping down, and the unequivocal and swift manner in which he announced this decision, have compelled his staunchest critics to assess him in a new light.
This astonishing act, something that has not been seen in the Church in close to 600 years, changes the concept of the papacy from an office that is conferred and occupied for life to a functional one that must be held only for as long as its occupant feels physically and mentally adequate to its tasks. Benedict saw at close range John Paul II’s struggle with infirmity, and he had clearly no wish to reenact this script and subject the Church to the strains of a faltering leadership. More than any of his predecessors, Benedict has a clear insight into the difficult challenges that the Church faces as it seeks to assert its authority and define its relevance in a rapidly changing world.
For this reason, I have always thought that the characterization of Benedict as a conservative did not do justice to the complexity and sophistication of his thought. Indeed, this Pope’s deeply reflective position on many issues proceeds from a radical conception of the place of religion in an increasingly differentiated world.
This modern view, which he shares with other German thinkers like Niklas Luhmann and, to some extent, Jürgen Habermas, sees a world that is rapidly becoming fragmented along narrowly functional lines. Thus, for example, what is legal is legal; it need not also be moral. In such a world, values are compartmentalized and relativized, leaving little room for faith, moral intuition, or reason to project a holistic view of life.
In its most extreme form, this evolving reality produces alienation and loss of meaning. Benedict argues that religious faith must continue to offer an antidote to this contemporary nihilism. In a rare dialogue between him and the agnostic leftwing philosopher, Habermas, a few years ago, the two interestingly found many points on which to agree. Habermas argued that in the face of the alienating forces of technology and the global market, we must summon all the cultural resources at our disposal, including those of religion, on which we may continually build human solidarity and ground our normative choices. Reason alone, particularly its instrumentalized form, is not enough. As Benedict puts it, faith can do a lot to “purify” reason, just as the “divine light of reason” can help cure the “pathologies of religion.”
Not one to adopt an explicitly normative stance like Ratzinger or Habermas, Niklas Luhmann—the most consistent theorist of Western modernity—is content to clarify the complex terrain in which modern societies find themselves. Luhmann says that the complexity of the world mocks our simplistic visions of a desirable future. The more modern societies become, he observes, the less they are able to avail themselves of a unified view of the world before them. Their institutions and communication spheres become so differentiated and autonomous from one another that it is now more accurate to speak of multiple realities than of a single self-evident world.
Luhmann sees the functional differentiation of societies as a response to the immense complexities posed by globalization. As national boundaries become porous, sovereign states lose their ability to steer the societies under their command. This is happening also at a time when the diffuse authority associated with hierarchical societies is everywhere collapsing. What remains standing is functional authority, the ability to command respect and compliance solely on the basis of one’s continuing fitness to perform one’s function.
It used to be thought that the authority of the papacy was immune to such changes. Benedict’s resignation effectively explodes this mystique and forces the Vatican to face up to the challenge of modernity.
As one who understands modernity, Benedict views this challenge in at least two ways. First, he sees modernity and its postmodern variant as promoting moral relativism, thus posing a frontal assault on faith values. But, on the other hand, he also worries that the Church’s strong need to respond to social crises may often bring out a form of activism that ignores institutional boundaries and creates entanglements that could further erode its moral authority. Thus he counsels restraint.
Accordingly, Benedict has often railed against the excesses and irresponsibility of global capitalism in the name of justice, solidarity, and ecological awareness. That is his progressive voice. But, he has also repeatedly warned that even as the Church must clearly speak its truth, it must do so with humility, careful not to transform herself “into a directly political subject.” This is his modern voice, which may often not sit well with liberals and conservatives alike.