In his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the recently elected Pope Benedict XVI said that one main task of the Second Vatican Council had been to clarify the relation between Church and state. The pope stated that in the twentieth century, “Catholic statesmen demonstrated that a modern secular state could exist that was not neutral regarding values, but alive, drawing from the great ethical sources opened by Christianity.” Such a state “would make room impartially for citizens of various religions and ideologies, merely assuming responsibility for an orderly and tolerant coexistence among them.” Though the address’s principal argument—that Vatican II should be read in light of a “hermeneutic of reform” rather than a “hermeneutic of discontinuity”—was controversial, Benedict’s remarks on Church and state caused little stir at the time. In the mid-2000s, few Catholics questioned one of the Church’s most significant political priorities since the Council: reconciliation with the liberal democratic order.
Less than two decades later, the situation has changed dramatically. An array of postliberal and integralist Catholics reject the political terms that Benedict proposed in his Christmas address. At the same time, and in other respects, these same Catholics are the late pope’s intellectual heirs and staunchest supporters. How can this irony be explained, and just where does Benedict fall in the current dispute about the relationship between Christianity and the political order? Like the late pope’s thought as a whole, the answer is more complex than it may first appear. Thanks to an unresolved tension in Benedict’s writings, it is possible for representatives of disparate schools of Catholic political thought to claim him as their own.
Benedict’s comments to the Curia on Church and state expressed the core of his political thought, which remained consistent throughout his long career. As a young theologian, having passed through the nightmares of National Socialism and World War II, Joseph Ratzinger was enthusiastic about the promise of postwar Christian democracies led by devout Catholics such as Konrad Adenauer. He promoted this vision throughout the decades that followed, including in the major addresses he delivered as Roman pontiff before political assemblies, such as in Westminster Hall and before the Bundestag.
Two foundational principles structured Benedict’s political thought. The first is that the state needs the Church. He concurred with the thesis of Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde that the modern state is a societas imperfecta: It needs moral values, which the political sphere cannot secure on its own. Benedict insisted that only Christianity could provide the values necessary for the flourishing of liberal democracy. He explicitly rejected the capacity of areligious philosophies, or of non-Christian religions such as Islam, to serve this function, and he believed that democracy might be lost unless people learned to live democracy with a view to Christianity, and vice versa.
Benedict’s second principle is that the state is secular. Although he did not define in precise terms what he meant by “secular,” his political writings contain certain recurrent themes. He insisted that it belongs to the very nature of the Church to be separate from the state, and that a historical achievement of Christianity had been the desacralization of the state and its separation from religious institutions. Benedict repeatedly returned to the priority of religious freedom as both a civil right and a teaching of the Church. He believed that Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty at once appropriated for the Church a principle of the modern state and recovered the authentic teaching of Jesus and the early martyrs. Benedict was strongly critical of past arrangements in which the Church had exercised, whether directly or indirectly, coercive civil power. The Church, he argued, is a community based on convictions, whose membership is voluntary. Just as the state can pose a threat to conscience, so too can the Church when she is endowed with civil power, which in the past she has frequently abused.
These two principles shaped Benedict’s vision of both the mode and the content of Christian involvement in political life. Yet they also created a puzzle, of which Benedict was at least partially aware: How can Christians provide the state with resources that the Church alone possesses, while also respecting the religiously pluralistic character of the modern democratic state?
By way of an answer, Benedict argued that the correct mode of Christian involvement in civil society entails private individuals’ acting from convinced consciences, rather than the Church hierarchy’s exerting any authority vis-à-vis the state. Second, and more consequentially, he limited the content of the Christian contribution to the state to values that are in principle accessible to reason alone apart from divine revelation. Although Benedict recognized that the values in question had emerged within the historical context of Christianity and been discerned under the influence of faith, grace, and divine revelation, the secular character of the state requires that these values be trimmed of their specifically Christian elements and justified in non-religious terms.
J. Christopher Paskewich aptly terms these moral values in Benedict’s theory “secularised religious values.” Here the pope turned to natural law as a common moral ground that respects religious pluralism, being in principle accessible to all regardless of their religious beliefs.
Given these convictions, it is not surprising that Catholic intellectuals who endorse a non-confessional, liberal democratic state supported by a religiously informed public philosophy have claimed Benedict as one of their own. Benedict’s political addresses feature in George Weigel’s narrative of how the Church rediscovered herself by embracing and purifying political modernity. Russell Hittinger, while proposing the principle of “separationism” (presumably as a critique of “integralism”), judges Benedict to be the most important twentieth-century thinker on matters of faith and politics. Martin Rhonheimer interprets Benedict as a staunch supporter of the natural law and of the secular state.
Should Benedict, then, be placed on the side of the Whig Thomists and the disciples of John Courtney Murray, against the integralists and postliberals? If we limit ourselves to Benedict’s writings explicitly treating politics, the answer seems to be yes. If, however, we consider the whole of Benedict’s theology, the answer becomes more complex.
The twentieth-century ressourcement movement, which sought to recover the Church Fathers while turning away from scholasticism, profoundly shaped Benedict’s theology. After Vatican II, ressourcement theology coalesced around the international Catholic theological journal Communio, founded in 1972 by Joseph Ratzinger and the two theologians he said he appreciated most, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac.
At the heart of Communio theology is a distinctive understanding of nature and grace: Human nature is intrinsically ordered to the supernatural end of communion with God. Communio theologians contend that baroque scholastic theology erred by positing a two-tiered, “extrinsicist” model of nature and grace. This scholastic theology abetted the rise of secularism, inasmuch as it conceived of an order of “pure nature” complete in itself apart from grace, thus making grace superfluous to human flourishing. Against this duplex ordo approach, Communio theology underscores the continuity between the orders of creation and redemption, nature and grace, philosophy and theology, and reason and faith. Emphasizing that the trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ is the origin and end of all reality, Communio theologians typically avoid speculation in natural theology or natural law ethics when undertaken in abstraction from divine revelation, for as the Second Vatican Council taught, “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”
These Communio commitments and concerns are detectable throughout Benedict’s corpus, from his earliest theological writings to those composed after his resignation from the Chair of Peter. Although he never composed a systematic theology of nature and grace, Benedict was sympathetic to the idea that human nature is intrinsically ordered to a supernatural end. He was critical of a duplex ordo approach, which would imagine an ordo naturalis that was self-contained and complete without supernatural grace. He criticized the Thomist division between philosophy and theology for producing a stark juxtaposition between the two orders. He stressed the intimate interpenetration of reason and revelation and eschewed the idea of “pure” reason abstracted from its concrete historical embedding, insisting that reason can function properly only when healed and informed by faith. Benedict’s sense of the historicity of reason and nature and the intertwining of both with faith and grace led him to express reservations about natural law theories throughout his career—reservations intensified by his belief that natural law arguments are convincing only when ensconced within the Christian moral and cultural framework in which they arose.
It is true that these motifs are less prominent in Benedict’s political thought than in his theology. His commitment to the religious neutrality of the state requires Christians to reduce their public claims to the ambit of reason and nature, trimming away those elements stemming from divine revelation. This trimming requires, in turn, a clear demarcation of reason and nature over against faith and grace, the very move Benedict often criticized. Likewise, despite his many reservations about natural law theories, the natural law carries more weight in Benedict’s political writings than it did in an earlier tradition of Catholic political thought. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the natural law was rarely expected to stand alone, without the support and guidance of divine law, in the actual moral ordering of any given polity. Instead, thinkers posited a complex mutual interdependence between divine positive law, ecclesiastical law, civil law, and natural law. The emphasis of Benedict’s theology on the “embedding” of natural law theories within a Christian framework strangely disappears in his key political writings.
Another Communio hallmark is a theology of the Church as communion, one that is patterned on and participates in the trinitarian communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Benedict’s understanding of the mode by which Christians should contribute to the public order led to a theoretical privatization of Christian involvement in political life, which cut against the grain of this ecclesiology of communion. Since the state is not to recognize the Church as a corporate body with particular leaders authorized to fulfill her public functions, the task of witnessing to secularized religious values devolves to individuals armed with their Christian consciences. Not surprisingly, Benedict’s preferred historical examples of this public witness were nearly always individuals acting in the face of powerful hostile forces, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, Thomas More, and Josephine Bakhita. The Church’s corporate, communal, and public presence fades into the background. Benedict praised the Anglo-American liberal tradition on numerous occasions, and here one detects its influence; in Locke’s thought, for example, the social nature of the Church vanishes and she is redefined as a free association of individuals whose solitary consciences have reached a similar judgment.
These dimensions of Benedict’s political thought are brought into sharper relief when compared with the teaching of his papal predecessor, Leo XIII. The two popes share much in their teaching about Church and state: an insistence that the state needs the Church; a distinction between the temporal power that belongs to the state and the sacral authority proper to the Church; and a concern about the state’s overstepping its limits and infringing upon the libertas ecclesiae. But whereas Leo taught in Immortale Dei that the civil rulers’ public profession of the true religion maintains the proper relation between the two powers, Benedict regarded this stipulation as a violation of the state’s secular character and an encroachment of the state on the Church’s terrain. The very thing Leo believed put limits on state power, Benedict regarded as an abuse of state power: recognition of the Church’s authority. Leo proposed an organic connection between the two powers; Benedict, their separation. Thus, whereas Leo encouraged the diffusion of the Gospel and Christian wisdom “throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society,” Benedict insisted that the secular character of the state demands that Christians circumscribe their political contributions by religiously neutral values.
The tensions between Benedict’s fundamental theological principles and his political thought have been worked out in a surprising way in the past few years by a new generation of Communio thinkers. These thinkers have considered the political consequences of the theological principles they share with Benedict, but they have arrived at a vision of Christian political order that conflicts with late pope’s in significant ways. Contemporary Communio theologians argue that Christianity’s internal logic requires the political establishment of the Church, so that the Church may provide political life with its full resources, which exceed the content of the natural law. Although they regard this arrangement as still compatible with a measure of religious pluralism, they have resolved Benedict’s dilemma by eliminating one of its poles: the commitment to the secularity of the state.
D. L. Schindler was not only one of the leading exponents of Communio thought in America, but also one of America’s most vocal Catholic opponents of liberalism. In 2016, he co-authored a volume—dedicated to Pope Benedict—on Dignitatis Humanae, which sought to interpret the conciliar decree in light of Catholic tradition and communion ecclesiology. Although explicitly reliant on earlier thinkers such as de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Benedict, Schindler parted ways with them in one critical respect: He advocated the political establishment of Catholic Christianity. On the grounds that Christ has penetrated all dimensions of human activity with his grace, Schindler argued that the Christian laity should open all temporal structures and processes of civil society, including state structures, to the Gospel, and should seek favored status for the Catholic clergy, including privileged recognition in the constitutional order.
These claims about nature–grace and the political establishment of Catholic Christianity have been deepened in the recent work of Michael Hanby, Andrew Willard Jones, and especially D. C. Schindler. The last claims that the relationship between Church and state entails the political instantiation of the classic nature–grace question, which he characterizes as a complex interweaving of two comprehensive orders, which open up to each other because they are perfect societies. For D. C. Schindler, the Church is the extension of the Incarnation into space and time, rather than a self-enclosed sphere juxtaposed with the equally self-enclosed sphere of politics. Natural law does not concern an independent realm of nature and politics, but is intrinsically related to man’s supernatural end. The Church bears witness to the truth of things without claiming to regulate them directly in the political sphere, while the state must recognize the Church’s authority and competence in religious matters.
Unlike Benedict, D. C. Schindler thinks that Christianity did not introduce a separation of religion and politics but rather taught God’s radical transcendence, a transcendence that demands the institutionalization of Christianity. Schindler rejects the idea that religion is a common good relegated to the sphere of civil society. He and Jones endorse the role of medieval kings as mediators of the Church’s sacramental order, a role Benedict considered a violation of Christianity’s desacralization of the state. Relying on Aquinas, Schindler builds his political theory around the idea that political order as such constitutes a societas perfecta, and claims that the notion of a societas imperfecta—one of Benedict’s key principles—destroys political order altogether.
The current Communio thinkers contrast sharply with Benedict in their attitudes toward liberalism. Benedict believed that Christianity and liberalism were compatible. He understood modernity (die Neuzeit) to be part of the authentic European inheritance rather than a corruption of it. In a 2014 text addressed to Marcello Pera, Benedict elaborated two contrasting interpretations of the major liberal thinkers: We might understand the liberals’ idea of God as already a step toward the loss of faith; conversely, we might claim that God remains the foundation of the liberals’ worldview. Though the pope thought both interpretations could be justified, he preferred the latter, believing that “the logic of liberalism” necessitates a confession of the Christian God. If liberalism rejects Christianity, it abandons its very foundations.
For D. C. Schindler, Hanby, and Jones, the logic of liberalism leads not merely to a rejection of God and the Catholic Church, but to a flight from reality tout court. Schindler undertakes a deep philological and philosophical inquiry in order to demonstrate that the liberal understanding of freedom is “diabolical,” and that liberalism undoes Christianity’s synthesis of the contributions of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome. Hanby thinks that the mechanization of nature and reason that took place in the seventeenth century amounted to a radical transformation, and therefore distortion, of the Christian tradition at every level. Jones advocates a “missionary insurgency” against the liberal order, especially against the effort of the sovereign state to surveil, catalog, and regulate all human interactions.
Though Benedict acknowledged the destructive aspects of the French liberal tradition, he believed that the Anglo-American liberal political tradition had produced a form of democracy grounded in natural law that was favorable to Christianity. D. C. Schindler considers this same tradition no less a radical revolution than Marxism, and “the most radical rejection of Christianity possible.” Schindler and Hanby both say that America is anti-Catholic at its roots. Again, Benedict was largely friendly toward an Enlightenment notion of freedom, which he thought was an ally against destructive postmodern conceptions of freedom divorced from truth. Jones calls the “Enlightenment Project” a “fraud” cynically exploited by twentieth-century elites to maintain their hegemony.
What is striking about the political thought of the current Communio theologians is not simply that they part ways with the founders of their school, such as Benedict and de Lubac, on questions of political order, but that they do so precisely by applying the theological principles of their forebears to political questions. In other words, they largely agree with Benedict on the theology of nature and grace, the relation of faith and reason, and ecclesiology, but they disagree with him about the political consequences of these commitments. This postliberal turn has been an unexpected development within the Communio tradition.
The tension in Benedict’s thought embodies a broader tension in twentieth-century Catholicism, because it expresses two imperatives that have proved hard to reconcile: on the one hand, the desire for a Christocentric understanding of the cosmos and of human history, together with a renewed effort to sanctify the world; on the other hand, the desire to make peace with modernity and its distinctive political ideas and forms, while purifying them of excesses. Men of Benedict’s generation were confident they could hold these desiderata together, in part because they were living in a culture still informed by Christian belief and practice.
That gospel-informed culture has since evanesced, a development that in recent decades has made the relationship between the two imperatives uneasy. The debates over questions of political order, now often fiercely conducted among Catholics, are a consequence of the accelerated dechristianization of Western society. Whig Thomists remain committed to both the Christocentric understanding and comity with modernity, and they see Benedict as a model of how to reconcile them. At the same time, they recognize that these imperatives are not being widely realized in the Church or in political life. The postliberalthinkers we have surveyed seem to believe that these two imperatives are not ultimately compatible, and they are leading the Communio tradition toward a Christocentrism with thoroughgoing political implications and away from the reconciliation with modernity’s political secularism. They are doing so, moreover, in the name of the theological principles they share with Benedict. In different ways, both tendencies are inheritors of Benedict’s complex thought.
The advantage of the Whig Thomist outlook is evident. At the practical level, it proposes a Catholic vision of political engagement suited to the liberal democracies of the West. Undoubtedly, this vision has accomplished significant good, with the Dobbs ruling being its latest, and most important, achievement. Whig Thomists are likely to dismiss the arguments of Communio postliberals as impractical thought games that intellectuals play. For the Communio thinkers, this objection betrays a deep error. D. C. Schindler explains that prudence is concerned first with truth, and only secondarily with the possible implementation of the truth: To reflect on a matter only to the extent that such reflection can bring about a practical change “is to promote disorder in the strict sense, to make confusion a ‘public thing.’” Hanby says that our powerlessness to bring about another social order does not absolve of us the obligation to reflect deeply on this one. The Communio postliberals have distanced themselves from a certain brand of Catholic integralism, because they believe some integralists shift too readily from the speculative to the practical.
In his 2005 Christmas address, Benedict said that the Second Vatican Council “had to question the relationship between the Church and her faith on the one hand, and man and the contemporary world on the other.” Sixty years after the Council began, and nearly twenty years after he spoke those words, this task has become all the more urgent in a dramatically altered “contemporary world.” The rapid dechristianization of the West has made the Whig Thomist position less convincing to many Catholics—especially young Catholics—as a speculative proposal about the best ordering of public life. It has also become less achievable at the level of practical politics. This has provided an audience for postliberal thinkers like the Communio theologians. They remind us of the imperative to think beyond the current political order and to consider how it is forming—or deforming—our souls.
Both sides, with good reason, claim to be Benedict’s heirs. Now that he has departed this life, the evaluation of his thought will proceed, perhaps in a spirit of greater detachment. The dilemma Benedict tried to resolve, however, will continue to elicit alternative solutions and passionate disagreements, as Christians make their pilgrimage through the passing kingdoms of this world toward their eternal homeland.
Sam Zeno Conedera, S.J., is assistant professor of history at Saint Louis University. Vincent L. Strand, S.J., is assistant professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America.
Image by Levan Ramishvili licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.