Ratzinger stopped the dissolution of the Catholic faith, defending everything that must be defended, but without being able to close the circle. He has re-founded the fundamental relationship between faith and reason, and has defended magnificent theses on the centrality of God in the public square. However, in some judgments he made about modernity, such as the Age of Enlightenment, he was not that convincing. It is essential to analyse his thinking. Presentation of the book Capire Benedetto XVI. Tradizione e modernità ultimo appuntamento (Understanding Benedict XVI. Tradition and modernity, last appointment), Cantagalli, Siena 2021, 10 euros. (It is possible to purchase it by writing to abbonamenti_acquisti@vanthuanobservtory.org

Understanding Benedict XVI is a demand of thought and faith. In him, tradition and modernity have met one last time. He stopped (like a Kathecon) the dissolution of the Catholic faith, defending what had to be defended and reaffirming what had to be reaffirmed, but without succeeding in closing the circle and protecting the ship from the storm. There are some who say that he was defeated in all fronts and that modernism prevailed in the end; there are those who state that the result was inevitable, since even his thought, ultimately but not in all the senses, depended on the res novae of a modernity that denies tradition. On the other hand, there are those who think, like me, that Benedict XVI has indicated many fixed points in clear opposition to the tendency that modernism has to dissolve the Church in the world and transcendence in history, but that he did not complete the work that those same fixed points that he himself established required for internal coherence. He has said a lot, but he has not said all that needs to be said. His pontificate has been left incomplete, not only because of his resignation, but also from the point of view of a theological thought. He exposed many problems, but he did not get to come up with the solution.

It is essential to analyse the theological thought of Benedict XVI. In doing so, we end up analysing much more. His theology is the greatest result of the entire conciliar and post-conciliar period: evaluating it as a whole means also evaluating this entire period. Taking stock of him means understanding why so many truths that he said later turned out wrong. Why was liberation theology, which he had condemned, later rehabilitated? Why has the “Court of the Gentiles”, which he understood in a certain way, ended up in the radical and worldly initiatives of Ravasi? Why hasn’t the dialogue with secular thought (the “devout atheists”) been maintained based on the concept of “open secularism” and an exasperated secularism has prevailed instead? Why, if he said that religions can be “together to pray” but not to “pray together”, now the opposite is done? Why are we no longer talking about non-negotiable principles or natural law? Why does faith, which he said was “a being”, becomes liquid with the prevalence of a misunderstood discernment made in conscience? Was he wrong about everything? Or was he himself an accomplice? Or, as I believe, did he try hard but then he could not carry it out? Did he have in his mind some requirements that were not completely satisfied? Can we start from them to recover some lost pieces and put order in the great problem of the relationship between tradition and modernity?

Benedict XVI has founded or re-founded the essential relationship between faith and reason with its centrality of the Logos. His speech at the University of Regensburg is worth his whole pontificate. For him, when reason detaches itself from faith, it ends up limiting itself and falling into relativism (which later becomes dictatorship). In this area, his teachings are of extraordinary importance. However, his judgment on modernity, that is, on the moment when this detachment occurs for the first time and with disastrous consequences, is not so clear. His criticisms of the rationalism of modern philosophy are varied and profound, but they do not go to the root. If he, on many occasions, criticizes modernity, on others he praises it. For example, he values the Enlightenment and in his speech to the German Parliament in 2011 he makes the Age of Enlightenment, the Declaration of Human Rights and the German Constitution itself dependent on Christianity. He distinguishes between a radical Enlightenment and a liberal Enlightenment without taking into account, however, that both are a threat to faith. His repeated praise for the American solution to the relationship between politics and religion is not entirely convincing.

Regarding the centrality of God in the public square, Benedict XVI’s thought has some formidable features, courageously supporting texts that conciliar theology considers outdated even though they are true and pertinent: “Whoever defends God defends man” , “only those who know God know reality and can dispose of it in an adequate way”, “those who exclude God from their horizon falsify the concept of reality”. Statements that would make a resurrected Rahner tremble. At Westminster Hall, in 2010, he said that there are not only “the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public sphere”, thus reaffirming the public role of the Christian God, as Creator and Redeemer. At the end, however, the contribution of religion (and of the Church) is reduced to founding the moral demands of politics, thus excluding a relationship with religious needs, which would live only in the consciences of believers and not in the institutions and laws.

All these problems (and more) can be summed up in the image of the Baron of Munchausen. This one fell into a swamp, but he didn’t worry because all he had to do was grab his hair and make it to shore. The greatness of Benedict XVI’s thought lies in having developed a critique of this claim, which is the claim of modernity, without thereby managing to complete the play.

Stefano Fontana


N.B. – The reflections presented here are treated in depth in Stefano Fontana’s recently published book: Capire Benedetto XVI. Tradizione e modernità ultimo appuntamento (Understanding Benedict XVI. Tradition and modernity, last quote), Cantagalli, Siena 2021, pp. 120. It is possible to purchase it by writing to abbonamenti_acquisti@vanthuanobservtory.org .