As Pope Benedict prepares for his visit to the United Kingdom, speculation abounds as to what he might say. Perhaps clues can be found in a previous speech he delivered, which has been surprisingly overlooked.Fisher Lecture at the Catholic Chaplaincy at Cambridge University. The Times of London said it was one of the best-attended theological lectures ever in contemporary England, and for ample reason: it was classic Joseph Ratzinger–Ratzinger at his scintillating best.
Addressing what he called “the characteristic signs of our time,” he names them: an overwhelming sense of gloom, paradoxically alternating with a naïve sense of “progress;” a spiritual emptiness finding expression in sexual excess and drug abuse; a secular conformism which forbids serious criticism of social immorality (“whoever dares to say that…is put on the sidelines as a hopeless obscurantist”); and—most prophetically—a false and fanatical search for “liberation,” which spurs terrorism: “a real prevention of its root causes has not yet taken place….and, as long as this is so, it can erupt anew at any time.”
Against this nihilism, Ratzinger proposes the Christian world view, ingeniously invoking that most British of British Christians, C.S. Lewis. The latter’s Abolition of Man is cited as a guide to escape this destructive relativism, and as a defense of the Natural Law, which Lewis traces back to the earliest times of man. “The problem of modernity,” comments Ratzinger, “the moral problem of our time, consists in the fact that it has separated itself from this primeval testimony.” The future pope then goes on to explain why objective morality is itself evidence for Christianity’s truth and virtue, and how humanity finds its true fulfillment in it: “Morality is not man’s prison; it is rather the divine in him.”
Will Joseph Ratzinger, now as Pope, expand upon this theme during his return visit to Britain? There is every reason to hope he will, given his well-publicized defense of the Natural Law against the proposed (and misnamed) “Equality Bill” in Britain, which would threaten religious liberty, not to mention undercut the very morality on which the health of the country depends.
What was most encouraging about Ratzinger’s Cambridge talk—and what continues to inspire the faithful about his papacy, even when under duress—is that, as he told his Cambridge audience, he “will not be intimidated” by secular restrictions and taboos. Expect Benedict to exhibit that same faith and courage during his upcoming journey—William Doino Jr.
[Postscript: Cardinal Ratzinger’s complete Fisher Lecture (1988), entitled “Consumer Materialism and Christian Hope,” was reprinted in a 2002 collection, Teachers of the Faith, pp. 78-94, published by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, and available for free, on their publications website here; scroll down to section listing the 2002 titles]