Neither Progressive nor Conservative: The Romanticism of Benedict XVI

Picture from ABC Religion and Ethics

An Article by Adrian Pabst published at ABC Religion and Ethics on February 15, 2013

Pope Benedict's sudden resignation has triggered an all-too-predictable avalanche of assertions about his alleged arch-conservatism and his stubborn refusal to drag Roman Catholicism into the twenty-first century.

The turmoil surrounding Benedict's papacy, such as that caused by the sexual abuse scandal, reinforced all the usual stereotypes about the Vatican: that it is a medieval theocracy ruled by an absolute autocrat who condemns the modern world while criminal clergy act with impunity. This ridiculous rhetoric is not just bandied by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Apart from these usual suspects, prominent Catholic theologians and public figures have used any number of pretexts to attack the pontiff - whether liberals like the Swiss theology professor Hans Kung or conservatives like Michael Novak or Romanus Cessario, O.P.

In an open letter to Catholic bishops published in April 2010, Kung blamed Benedict for the "Church's worst credibility crisis since the Reformation." Essentially, Kung accused the pope of restoring a reactionary vision of Catholicism that betrays the progressive reforms of the Second Vatican Council, at which both Ratzinger and Kung acted as periti, or young theological advisors to the Cardinals.

Similarly, conservatives have berated Benedict for not being hard-line enough on theological and political-economic questions. They are suspicious of his insistence that Christianity is inconceivable without the European synthesis of biblical revelation with Greco-Roman Antiquity. This critique barely masks their neo-conservative defence of American exceptionalism which they view as the highest expression of Christian universality.

What often goes unnoticed is that, behind the facile categorisation of progressive versus reactionary, there lies a much more fundamental contest about the future direction of the Catholic Church, and indeed a struggle for the soul of global Christendom. The authentic Catholic Christian tradition that Benedict has sought to uphold has been under mounting attack from both "conservative" and "liberal" forces, whose apparent opposition barely conceals their deep complicity:

- Theologically and philosophically, "conservatives" and "liberals" both divorce natural immanence from supernatural transcendence and view the natural end of humanity as completely separate from our supernatural finality. Ultimately, this gives rise to a collusive oscillation between an increasingly crass materialism and an increasingly esoteric spiritualism.

- "Conservatives" and "liberals" share a common commitment to a narrow form of rationality that sunders faith from reason and paradoxically fuses rationalism with fideism - naked, unmediated reason and blind, irrational faith.

- Politically and economically, both "conservatives" and "liberals" champion the Baroque scholastic emphasis on the primacy of nations and peoples over the universal communion of the Church. In contemporary debates on the merits of Benedict's social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, this pre-eminence of the Westphalian system over the three pillars of Christendom - the city, the empire and the Church - is variously more State-centric (as for European liberals and Latin American liberation theologians) or more market-driven (as for Anglo-Saxon neo-liberals and neo-conservatives).

What has underpinned this joint assault on Benedict's papacy is a distinctly modern, secular vision that can be traced to the nominalist and voluntarist theology of the Franciscan tradition - the belief that universals are merely mental concepts, and that the will is the ultimate principle of being. Rather than a fuller conception of the mediated participation of creation in its divine source, this voluntarist tradition posits a kind of static, impassive conception of being, abstracted from the particularity of persons, communities and associations.

As is now gradually being understood, both conservative neo-scholasticism and Enlightenment liberalism emerged from this same theological tradition. So, the liberal subtraction of any individuating characteristics or mutual relations from the essentially "human" draws on this univocal conception of being, whereby all things are just "bare beings" rather than things-in-relations-to-other-things and whose shared source is in God. Such an ontology of univocally existing beings that are stripped of their positioning in relation to other beings - and, indeed, common being - is the ultimate philosophical foundation for liberal individualism.

Linked to this conception of the univocity - as opposed to relationality - of being is the neo-scholastic primacy of the individual over the universal, and the radical separation between the infinite-eternal and the finite-temporal "realms." That, in turn, provides the foundation for State supremacy vis-a-vis the Church and all other institutions within the temporal-spatial realm of "the secular" (saeculum).

Thus both conservative neo-scholasticism and the liberal Enlightenment are wedded to a series of modern secular dualisms - such as faith versus reason and natural immanence versus supernatural transcendence - whose logic Pope Benedict sought to destroy in his ground-breaking Regensburg address.

The Pope has consistently argued for the orthodoxy of patristic and medieval theology and its development by the early German Romantics and, more recently, by the proponents of nouvelle theologie. At the heart of this vision lies an attempt to outline an alternative modernity - one that overcomes the modern division between human artifice and unalterable nature. So, instead of viewing man as the measure of all things, Benedict develops the tradition of integral humanism and an organic unity of mankind with the cosmos and God. Likewise, rather than the social contract that is imposed on the violent "state of nature," the Pope calls for new covenant that corrects human sinfulness, protects the dignity of the person and promotes human flourishing.

As such, Benedict has always opposed in equal measure both the liberal attempt to render formal rights equally normative with substantive goods, and the neo-scholastic project of universalising American exceptionalism. In a sense, then, liberals and conservatives oppose the Pope precisely because he is not modern enough.

Not unlike militant atheism, the conservative-liberal tirade against Benedict XVI owes more to ideology than to reason. The very division of Catholicism - as well as other faith traditions - into a liberal-progressive wing and a conservative-reactionary wing is a modern, secular distinction that distorts the specificity of each and every religion.

This why Hans Kung's pet project of building a "global ethos" (Weltethos) - which effectively instrumentalises religion in the service of a dumbed-down, dubious morality that amounts to little more than "being nice to each other" - is an affront to the unique character of diverse faith traditions themselves, just not to the Pope. Championing a generally vacuous morality is a far cry from the universal truths and ethical principles which Christianity seeks to uphold. By denying real universalism, Kung's Weltethos is entirely compatible with modern secularism and the "dictatorship of relativism" which Pope Benedict has consistently denounced. No wonder that Kung prefers a liberal Catholicism that emulates secular culture and, in the process, loses its unique, integral vision.

Similarly, neo-scholastic exceptionalism elevates the Baroque scholastic legacy of the Counter-Reformation into the new theological imperative. Connected with this is the neo-conservative and neo-liberal desire to defend the norms of Anglo-Saxon culture and the power of the American empire. Convinced of their own self-righteousness, conservatives pretend that their project is entirely consonant with traditional Catholicism and, indeed, is a harbinger of its global future - a supremacist logic that reduces imperial Christendom to little more than Western neo-colonialism.

But worst of all, both the Pope's liberal critics and his neo-scholastic detractors fail to understand the long, intellectual tradition which Benedict XVI has sought to preserve and extend - a Romantic orthodoxy that eschews much of the modern Reformation and Counter-Reformation in favour of the patristic and medieval legacy shared by Christians in East and West. This legacy extends from the teachings on the Church Fathers and Doctors like St Augustine, Dionysius or St Thomas Aquinas on the unity of nature and the supernatural, against the modern separation of the natural universe from divine creativity and grace.

In short, Benedict rejects the modern dualism of nature and grace or faith and reason and argues for a new overarching synthesis - the theme of the bulk of his Regensburg address, clearly lost on most commentators. The Pope's argument was that these modern dualisms have paved the way for the disastrous separation of reason from faith, an opposition that underpins the increasingly bitter conflict between the absolute reason of extreme secularism and the blind faith of religious fundamentalism. As such, Benedict's call to restore the "grandeur of reason" - whereby reason and faith require each other and are mutually augmenting - is both far more radical than Kung's demand for yet more liberal dialogue, and far more traditional than neo-scholastic rationalism.

But it would be a mistake to think that Benedict merely looks back with a sense of nostalgia to the foundational creed and the councils of the early Church. On the contrary, he links the patristic and medieval legacy to modern Romanticism with their shared emphasis on natural intimations of the divine and on human artistic activity. It is this Romantic tradition that has helped sustain and create the high culture which the Pope champions. This is what ultimately underpins his defence of traditional liturgy (including the Tridentine Mass) against the onslaught of "sacro-pop" - "parish tea party liturgies and banal 'cuddle me Jesus' pop songs," to use the wonderful description of Tracey Rowland in her book Ratzinger's Faith.

Beyond the liturgy, Romanticism is also key to saving secular culture from itself. By rejecting both absolute instrumental reason and blind emotional faith, the Romantic tradition outwits the contemporary convergence of soulless technological progress and an impoverished culture dominated by sexualisation and violence. More fundamentally, it opposes the complicit collusion of boundless economic and social liberalisation that has produced laissez-faire sex and an obsession with personal choice rather than objective (though contested) standards of truth, beauty and goodness - a concern shared by Rowan Williams in his seminal book Lost Icons.


Questions obviously remain about how Pope Benedict's vision might be translated into a radical overhaul of the Curia and relations between Rome, the clergy and the laity - an immense task that will likely fall to his successor. But far from being nostalgic or reactionary, this Pope should be remembered for being an unreconstructed Romantic who has tirelessly worked for an intellectual and cultural renaissance of Catholic Christendom.

Adrian Pabst is lecturer in politics at the University of Kent. He is the author of Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy and the editor of The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI's Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy.

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