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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera
Basic Books, 159 pages, $22
Ratzinger and Pera warn of the new dogma of relativism


“A foul wind is blowing through Europe. ... The same wind blew through Munich in 1938.” So said Marcello Pera, secularist, professor of political science at the University of Pisa and president of the Italian Senate in this 2004 exchange of views with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In May of that year, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the Italian Senate on the state of Europe. The day before, Dr. Pera gave a lecture at the Lateran Pontifical University. The two leaders arrived at similar conclusions about the spiritual, cultural and political crisis facing the West. They then developed their ideas into the dialogue that is Without Roots, a book that quickly became an Italian bestseller.

Though only 10 in 1938, I was already reading the newspaper and remember the crisis in 1938 that Dr. Pera refers to. After “a campaign of lies visible even to the half-blind,” as Cardinal Ratzinger writes in his memoir Milestones, the French and British prime ministers handed over to Hitler the only militarily defensible part of Czechoslovakia while that country’s prime minister was forced to sit in an anteroom until he was invited in to sign the document that sealed his country’s fate and guaranteed the outbreak of World War II the following year.

This foul wind, Dr. Pera writes, “could turn out to be the death rattle of a continent that no longer understands what principles to believe. ... A continent whose population is decreasing; whose economy cannot compete; that does not invest in research; that thinks the protective social state is an institution free of charge; that is unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities attendant upon its history and its role; that seeks to be a counterweight without carrying its own weight; that, when called upon to fight, always replies that fighting is the extrema ratio, as if to say that war is a ratio that should never be used.”

A devastating indictment indeed -- and Cardinal Ratzinger agreed with it. While declining to make a judgment about the Iraq war, the cardinal tells Pera: “You and I are of a single mind in rejecting a pacifism that does not recognize that some values are worthy of being defended and that assigns the same value to everything.”

Assigning the same value to everything is another name for relativism, which Cardinal Ratzinger castigated forcefully in his sermon at the Mass preceding the conclave that elected him pope. “He’s queered the pitch,” I thought, as I listened to my old teacher, thinking that a man who laid his cards so openly on the table had forfeited whatever chance he had of election. Fortunately, I was wrong.

“The more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking,” Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “the more it tends toward intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism. ... Being faithful to traditional values and to the knowledge that upholds them is labeled intolerance, and relativism becomes the required norm.” Cardinal Ratzinger praises European laws that punish those who dishonor Judaism and Islam. “But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, instead, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.”

Is the situation in the United States today so different?

Of course Europe, and the West in general, have made many mistakes. But the West’s most significant merit, Dr. Pera writes, quoting the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, “has been its ability to be self-critical.” Today, however, self-criticism has become “a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological,” Cardinal Ratzinger writes. “It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.”

One would have to be fully blind not to perceive the parallels in our own country: in the media, and throughout the educational establishment. While acknowledging this, Cardinal Ratzinger sees America as still the great exception. His pages about the continuing strength of religious faith in the United States are an overdue recognition that American separation of church and state is a blessing for the church, and not an attack on it, as European Catholics have long charged. Cardinal Ratzinger’s words also refute the claim by Paul Elie in an otherwise excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly for January-February 2006 that Pope Benedict’s grasp of the American religious situation is inferior to that of his predecessor. Exactly the opposite is true.

The book, modest in size, is bracing indeed. One can only hope that it will be widely read.

Fr. John Jay Hughes is a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a church historian. His memoir No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace will be published in 2007.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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