The Social and Political Thought of Benedict XVI
By Thomas R. Rourke
Lexington, 158 pages, $55
This short book provides a nice, although rather basic, introduction to the social and political thought of Benedict XVI. Thomas Rourke, a professor of political science, finds in Benedict a thinker who has plumbed more deeply the questions at the heart of modern political life than have most political scientists because, unlike the producers of so much of modern political theory, he explores the prepolitical foundations of a rightly ordered polity.
Rourke begins his presentation with the anthropological foundations of Benedict’s thought in the Christian conception of the person, elaborating on the communion and brotherhood that this uniquely allows for and discussing man’s dignity as the created imago Dei. When modern society rejects these basic truths, the political order suffers, and we get the assorted bloodbaths of the twentieth century: the Holocaust, the Gulag, the abortion industry. Rourke turns next to a discussion of the relation of church and state, faith and reason, and the way in which Christianity, by supporting reason and the natural law, provides sure foundations for the state. Here he stresses—perhaps overemphasizes—Benedict’s belief that reason has theological foundations. Rourke closes with brief discussions of conscience, freedom, Gaudium et Spes, and culture, with a concluding appendix on Caritas in Veritate.
Although this book is useful as an introduction to the social and political significance of the current pope’s extensive writings, Benedict is a subtler thinker than Rourke presents. Although he notes that Benedict sees positives and negatives in the Enlightenment, modernity, and democracy, Rourke focuses almost exclusively on the negatives. Insofar as modernity has strayed from Christian roots, it has, at least in Rourke’s telling, gone wrong, and Christianity provides the answer. That’s true as far as it goes, but Rourke provides no insight into how disagreements within Christianity and among Christians are to be resolved. Moreover, as he presents the theological foundations of Benedict’s thought and identifies Christian solutions to modernity’s problems, Rourke might have paid attention to the distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing. He largely ignores questions of epistemology, many of which underlie our contemporary disagreements. Yes, faith and reason are mutually supportive, but how do they relate in their foundations?
While not particularly well written—the prose is plodding—this book is sufficiently clear to get core points across. While not as deft as other recent studies of Benedict’s thought, it is a welcome addition and should serve well as an introductory text.
—Ryan T. Anderson