Benedict XVI: Understanding Europe’s Tragedies

Details are still forthcoming regarding the latest chaos in France, and while this particular attack is certainly not to be undermined, what with the dozens dead, over a hundred injured, after a truck plowed into a crowd gathering for fireworks on Bastille Day, it joins the troubling litany of terror that has exploded in only the last couple of years and shows no sign of abating.

As we journey further from the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, it does not mean that Joseph Ratzinger’s influence fade into irrelevance on today’s events. On the contrary: by ignoring the contribution of such a mind will only lead to a detrimental understanding of the obvious troubling times we have found ourselves in the second decade of the third Christian millennium.

In a society that proudly champions its globalization, we cannot isolate what underscores the discontent plaguing Europe. The slogans of unity, ubiquitous on social media and in rallies and marches that follow such terror assaults, for example the solidarity that momentarily swelled after the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo  are only potent if followed through long after events stop trending. If terror’s success is measured by a lack of will to combat it, such apathy and stagnation in many ways allow it to fester.

Here are five points from the mind of the former professor and pope which can help us make sense out of an increasingly unrecognizable Europe, and thus world, in the hopes to truly build not a man-made violent tower of Babel, but the kingdom of God:

1. “Those who really desire a more human society need to begin with the root, not with the trunk and branches, of the tree of injustice.”

Sin, the Cardinal is saying here in a quote from The Ratzinger Report, lies within all people as a fundamental part of the human condition. We are not imperfect, we are not made solely for this world. Overcoming sin—conversion, repentance, metanoia—will not be totally overcome, but the process is the journey of man towards God. By not dealing with this root of existence, by focusing on branches whether they be psychological, societal, legal, do little to right injustice. Rooting out sin first—recognizing the truth, the inherent goodness of the human person—then allows the branches to be properly addressed.

The Church deals with this in every aspect of the faith, particularly in the sacraments and the commandment: “love one another” (Jn. 13:34). Europe’s tendency for free-for-all liberalism may be tempered by celebrating unity and diversity in a peaceful coalition of differences united by a common humanity.

2. “The sole moral value that exists is the future society in which everything that does not exist now will be fulfilled.”

Cardinal Ratzinger’s book A Turning Point for Europe? is a must read to understand the root of Europe’s modern thinking and as a playbook for addressing where it has drifted in the last thirty years. It is no surprise that anyone remotely familiar with Benedict XVI was aware of his description of today being under a “dictatorship of relativism”—particularly Europe today. In this observation, the future pope posits that once a society refuses to acknowledge anything as truth other than what it deems to be the rule its citizens must live by, there is no end to what can transpire under that umbrella.

Once a culture goes down the road of relativism disguised as goodwill, it becomes clear there are no principles to anchor it. Just as a strong household lays down rules not for totalitarian purposes but to promote order, duty, loyalty, and commitment to a greater context beyond the ego, a firm but loving Europe, and in turn the world, can actually create healthy competition when pillared in clear directives. Otherwise, “tolerance” becomes mistaken for the unhealthy celebration of egocentricity, resulting in directionless youth, unemployment, boredom—and ultimately violence.

Morality and ethics are clearly still required in a culture that thinks it has no need of them.

3. “The man of today will for the most part scarcely respond with an abrupt No to a particular religion’s claim to be true; he will simply relativize that claim by saying ‘There are many religions’.”

This lesson, from Cardinal Ratzinger’s vital book Truth and Tolerance, summarizes the current thinking of the day dominating both hemispheres: religion, faith are outmoded, outdated, and more mythology than the truth they claim to possess. They are cults with which the sophisticated must deal as they strive for a new world order without the superstition.

On the other hand, that mentality, as Joseph Ratzinger suggests here, blatantly shows its limitations: secular society, because of its focus on everything but the root of the human person, is severely limited in answering the most profound difficulties of our time, all of which stem from the philosophy of relativism. While Europe struggles to find its own narrative in a post-Christian landscape that it carved out for itself for no significant reason other than it saw its own heritage as outmoded, outdated, and mythological, it again must shrug off the contradiction to both homogenize into believing a certain way while also promoting diversity. This kind of mixed messaging opens itself up for ongoing assaults.

4. “The Rosary is a spiritual ‘weapon’ in the battle against evil, against all violence, for peace in hearts, in families, in society and in the world.”

Fear can only be overcome by fearlessness. Mary and the saints remain Europe’s best spiritual weapons.

5. “We are the generation which seeks His face in our day.”

Benedict XVI’s longtime affinity for St. Benedict and the monastic life did not mean an exodus from the problems of the day. Rather, like the saint whose name and Rule and contribution to a European Christian Renaissance inspired Joseph Ratzinger to a lifetime of service to the Triune God, Europeans and all people of goodwill can seek not diversions but truths to help transform society. And one cannot get to the heart of change without encountering at some point the human incarnation of that triune God—Jesus of Nazareth.

Joseph Ratzinger’s whole life has been about the search for His Holy Face in everyday life, especially in the lowly, the suffering, the simple, the meek, the humble-hearted, the blind. They know pain, violence, and death. We can learn much from the disenfranchised in reshaping our broken world. In many ways, their wisdom is worth more than those we champion as our leaders.

Finally, while these lessons are addressed more about a fractured Europe than the forces attacking it, it is because Pope Benedict XVI—Joseph Ratzinger, so proud of his European and Bavarian background, knows it can do better. That it can unite, rebuild, and reorient its priorities will not only send a message to its attackers, but will also serve as a beacon of hope to the others who yearn to look at it again as a harbor for authentic personhood.

image: giulio napolitano /

James Day


James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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  • L Almaraz

    Like his namesake, Pope Emeritus Benedict the XVI proclaims the Truth and the Way of his and ours, the Savior Lord Jesus. If only the world would listen and take heed of his writings and embrace them then we would see the beginning of a new and better world!

  • pnyikos

    There are excellent points made here, but they go back quite a few years for Pope Benedict’s comments. I would like to see comments by Pope Benedict himself on the momentous events of the past year.