by Fr. Peter Kucer, MSA
Fr. Peter Kucer, MSA, is an instructor of Church History and the Interim Academic Dean at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He completed his STD in Systematic Theology from the Catholic University of America in January, 2012, and worked in parish ministry before being appointed to the faculty at Holy Apostles in the fall of 2013. His interests include the relationship of Catholic doctrine to history, politics, economics and scientific reasoning. While teaching he is studying these relationships from the standpoint of stability and change. Another relationship that is of great interest to him is between Catholicism and Judaism again from the standpoint of continuity and change.
In Europe Today and Tomorrow, Ratzinger positively describes democratic socialism, a political system that is neither Communism nor is Capitalism. According to Ratzinger, “In many respects democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine; in any case, it contributed toward the formation of a social consciousness.” After this assertion, he clearly distinguishes democratic socialism from Communism or what Ratzinger calls totalitarian socialism. In describing the totalitarian aspects of this type of socialism Ratzinger writes:
Now that key political terminology that I will use in this essay has been de-idolized, I will proceed in determining the relevancy in US politics of the non-totalitarian democratic socialism that Ratzinger refers to. In doing so, I will first describe the historical context out of which Ratzinger affirms democratic socialism. Second, beginning in the light of Germany’s political history, I will examine Ratzinger’s view of democratic socialism and of other political ideologies. Lastly, both Ratzinger’s positive assessment of democratic socialism and his understanding of the relationship between the mission of the Church and political ideologies in the context of present day US politics will be discussed.
Ratzinger on Democratic Socialism and other Political Ideologies:
When Ratzinger’s remarks on socialism are read in light of the just presented historical context, then it becomes possible to correlate political terms that he uses with specific German parties. First, Ratzinger’s positive appraisal of democratic socialism is to be understood with reference to the present SPD party which, as previously explained, promotes a welfare state that is moderately planned, democratic, decentralized and non-totalitarian. Second, Ratzinger’s negative appraisal of the “rigidly materialistic and atheistic” totalitarian socialism corresponds to Germany’s KPD party which aimed at creating a state that is the totality of its citizens’ existence. According to Ratzinger, this form of socialism failed not simply because of its “false economic dogmatism” but more fundamentally due to its “contempt for human rights” and by “their subjection of morality to the demands of the system and to their promises for the future.” By making morality subordinate to the political system of communism, “man’s primordial certainties about God, about himself, and about the universe” are, argues Ratzinger, lost.
In defending the relative autonomy of faith from political reason, as well witnessed to by Mother Teresa and her sister, Ratzinger disagrees with theologians who after Vatican Council II “transformed de Lubac’s theology of Catholicity into a political theology that sought to put Christianity to practical use as a catalyst for achieving political unity.” According to Ratzinger, this transformation does not follow de Lubac’s thought “to its logical conclusion.” Rejecting this transformation of de Lubac’s thought does not mean, though, that Ratzinger is advocating an individualistic manner of perceiving Christianity in which grace mediated by the Church only has relevance for the individual soul and not also for man as a whole.
In Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger further argues that the politicization of theology is contrary to the Christian faith in the Trinity. In order to understand his reasoning his concept of ontological truth as defined by consciousness, love and freedom needs further explanation. Ratzinger describes truth in this manner by writing, “if the logos of all being, the being that bears up and encompasses everything, is consciousness, freedom and love, then it follows automatically that the supreme factor in the world is not cosmic necessity but freedom.”
The above reasoning leads Ratzinger to reject political theology as principally defined by Hegel since Hegelian idealistic political theology, according to Ratzinger, ignores freedom as constitutive to the world including its politics. In addition to rejecting an idealism that is taken up into political theology, Ratzinger also rejects Marx’s supposedly scientific, political theory which is similar to Hegel’s thought without the theological and spiritual aspect of Hegelian dialectics. Present, therefore, within his rejection of Hegelian political theology is also a dismissal of Marx’s approach to politics. He spells out his rejection of Hegelian political theology in the following manner. According to Ratzinger, Hegel rejects love as constitutive of God since, as explained by Ratzinger, Hegel views the Triune nature of God as only “the expression of the historical side of God and therefore of the way in which God appears in history.” Hegel, therefore concludes Ratzinger, is a Monarchist since the description of God as three persons in one divine nature “are regarded as only masks of God which tell us something about ourselves but nothing about God himself.”
Even in its early Christian form and then again in its revival by Hegel and Marx it has a decidedly political tinge; it is “political theology”. In the ancient Church it served the attempt to give the imperial monarchy a theological foundation; in Hegel it becomes the apotheosis of the Prussian state, and in Marx a program of action to secure a sound future for humanity. Conversely, it could be shown how in the old Church the victory of belief in the Trinity over Monarchianism signified a victory over the political abuse of theology: the ecclesiastical belief in the Trinity shattered the politically usable molds, destroyed the potentialities of theology as a political myth, and disowned the misuse of the Gospel to justify a political situation.
In summary, despite Ratzinger’s positive appraisal for democratic socialism, as primarily understood in reference to the German SPD party, he makes, as demonstrated previously, a clear distinction between political opinion and ecclesial faith. This distinction follows from his moderate integration of the reason-faith relation that respects a clear differentiation between political reasoning and truths of faith.
Furthermore, according to Ratzinger, in her present “painful ‘between’” state on earth the Church (in this context understood through the ordained and consecrated life) shares in the suffering of mankind “from within” by relating to the world non-politically. She does so, asserts Ratzinger, by offering moral norms for politics and not by presenting herself as an ideal “political norm of political activity.” For Ratzinger, the fundamental moral norm to be defended by the Church within the political arena is the right to life. The killing of the innocent, which includes abortion, “cannot”, declares Ratzinger, “be made right by any law.” While, for Ratzinger, the Church, as publicly represented by the bishops, is to be a moral authority in the world she is neither to focus her efforts on addressing specific political/economic issues nor is she to advocate any one political ideology. This does not mean she may not legitimately critique in a broad way specific economic/political positions and events such as the US led invasion of Iraq. However, it is not her role to come up with a detailed political/economic plan to serve as a blue print for the US, or any other country, to follow.
As is quite evident in the current US political climate, Socialism is portrayed negatively by both mainstream Democrats and Republicans. According to a recent poll done by Pew Research, “The word 'socialism' triggers a negative reaction for most Americans, but certainly not for all. Six-in-ten (60%) people say they have a negative reaction to the word, while just 31% have a positive reaction. Those numbers are little changed from April 2010.” The negative association that the term socialism bears in the US has a particular impact on those who are running for office or are in office. The term is typically used in order to either discredit an opponent or to reassure the voter that a candidate, by not being a socialist, is a moderate.
In contrast with the general US fear of socialism, which can be understood as an excessive reaction to the European revolutions of 1848 and the subsequent cold war, Ratzinger is not irrationally frightened by the mere prospect of socialism. He recognizes it as a political system that, along with other political systems, can be compatible with Christianity as long as it is not expressed according to the totalitarian version. Democratic socialism, for Ratzinger, served as a “salutary counterbalance” between more radical positions.
With that said it is important to acknowledge that Western Europe, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, has been described as experiencing a Eurosclerosis. This term is used in reference to Western Europe’s difficulty in funding their welfare state, their wide spread low birth rates, their rapidly aging populations, their high unemployment rates, and their slow job growth. Taking these aspects into account, the question arises as to whether the Western European social welfare state model is a viable one for the US to pattern itself on. Furthermore, as has been acknowledged by many, if Western Europe had not accepted US aid, for example in post WWII Marshall Plan, and had not relied on US leadership and military protection it would have been impossible for any Western European country to develop and sustain their welfare programs. Likewise, since the US was relied upon, along with constant barrage of criticisms, as the Western military might to keep chaotic anti-Western European forces at bay, the US was not able to develop a similar welfare program. It could not, since a significant portion of tax dollars, which could have been used to build up a social safety net, was instead used to support a US military budget that far exceeds any Western European military budget. Finally, it has been pointed out that Democratic Socialism has been relatively successful in small countries, such as in Denmark and Sweden, since they are small and homogenous. In contrast, the US is a large and highly diverse country politically, economically and culturally. Could these differences pose an unsurmountable obstacle for the US in its attempts to enact a similar democratic socialism?
Ratzinger’s political views on the proper relationship of Church and political ideologies are a direct outcome of his understanding of how reason is to relate to faith. According to him, although reason and faith are integrated and related to one another, they, at the same time retain a degree of autonomy within their perspective realms. He, therefore, opposes attempts to couple faith with socialism, as has been proposed in Europe, or in the case of the US, with capitalism as evident in more conservative politics typically associated with the Republican Party. Marrying any political ideology to faith would, according to Ratzinger, abolish, to the detriment of both faith and politics, the vital distinction between faith and politics. Faith suffers in such a scheme since, at the price of being immanent by being totally integrated with one political system, it loses its transcendence. Politics likewise suffers in this system since, argues Ratzinger, it would no longer be accountable to a reality that is distinct from it, thus greatly increasing the possibility of political regimes veering off into totalitarianism. According to Ratzinger, by maintaining a clear distinction from any one political system, faith, in respecting the different qualities that each system has to offer, is better able to come to the aid of all political systems.
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
In summary, the essential teaching US Catholics can learn from Ratzinger’s thought is that the maintenance of clear and not hazy boundaries between political reasoning and truths of faith is ultimately beneficial to politics since it allows the Church to be “an open space of reconciliation among the parties” and, as a result, grants to Catholics the interior freedom to judge a political party they may adopt according to the supranational ethics encouraged by the Church. The moral supranational ethics of the Church founded in universal truths also encourages Catholics to transcend their political party when it tends towards totalitarianism and to avoid idolizing the political party they adopt.
In this essay, we have distinguished Democratic Socialism from totalitarian socialism. Next we examined the historical context in which Ratzinger positively appraises socialism in its democratic form. This was followed by examining, in light of Germany’s political history, Ratzinger’s take not only on democratic socialism but also on all political ideologies in relationship to the Church’s mission. Finally, in the context of present day US politics, Ratzinger’s assessment of democratic socialism, while insisting that the Church is never to officially promote any political ideology no matter how attractive it may appear, was discussed.
These various steps in the thought of Ratzinger were taken with the hope of finding a way to lessen the US’s highly polarized political environment. We saw that in Europe democratic socialism, by mediating between two political options, helped to bring about greater dialogue and cooperation. In stating this Ratzinger writes, “Starting from its initial premise, democratic socialism was able to become part of the two existing models, as a salutary counterbalance to the radical liberal positions, enriching and correcting them.” However, upon appraising some key differences between US and Western Europe political and economic history the question arose as to whether democratic socialism could ever serve the US political environment in such a positive manner. However, Ratzinger’s ascetic detachment as an official representative of the Church even from persuasive aspects of Democratic Socialism can teach US Catholic a very important lesson. Following the example of Mother Teresa’s indirect political influence the best way, as proposed by Ratzinger, for the Catholic Church, sacramentally speaking, in the US to have a positive effect on politics is to avoid presenting the faith as “a political norm of political activity.” This means that great caution is to be taken not to be tempted to wed the faith to what is currently defined as liberal politics or conservative politics. As pointed out by Ratzinger, such a marriage would contradict the very nature of Christianity, especially as it was lived out in its early stages. In explaining this Ratzinger writes:
When Christianity was looking in the Roman world for a word with which it could express, in a synthetic way understandable to everyone, what Jesus Christ meant to them, it came across the word conservator, which had designated in Rome the essential duty and the highest service necessary to render to mankind. But this very title the Christians could not and would not transfer to their Redeemer; with that term, indeed, though could not translate the word Messiah or Christ or describe the task of the Savior of the world. From the perspective of the Roman Empire, indeed, it would necessarily seem that the most important duty was that of preserving the situation of the empire against all internal and external threats, since this empire embodied a period of peace and justice in which men could live in security and dignity…Nevertheless, Christians could not simply want everything to remain as it was…The fact that Christ could be described, not as Conservator, but as Salvator certainly had no political or revolutionary significance, but it necessarily indicated the limits of mere conservatism and pointed to a dimension of human life that goes beyond the causes of peace and order, which are the proper subject of politics.
• Is the political system of democracy necessarily coupled with capitalism? Why or why not?
• Can the political system of democracy be coupled with socialism? Why or why not?
• Can a democracy become totalitarian? If so, why? If not, why not?
• What determines when a political system is no longer compatible with Catholic faith?
• Historically, why did Ratzinger claim, “In many respects democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine; in any case, it contributed toward the formation of a social consciousness.”
• Do you agree with Ratzinger’s claim, why or why not?
• According to Ratzinger, how may the Church, when presenting herself officially, legitimately engage the political world?
• Based on the article, how do you suggest a priest, when publicly speaking, represent the Church’s relationship to politics?
RESPONSES TO THIS CHAPTER:
Response from Sean Hurt:
Like I said in previous comments, in a past-life, I used to consider myself a socialist. So, Ronda sent me this chapter, I think, expecting me to have lot to say about democratic socialism. Rather, I don’t at all. It sort of leaves me cold—like ashes of an old flame. I’m more interested in Ratzinger’s warning about faith, that it’s not “a political norm of political activity” that finds expression in a particular form of governance.
An aspect of the gospel that is so astounding to me is that Jesus' message is perpetually fresh. Christ's truths are so true and yet so impossible... It's not just that they seem unlikely, but they're simply impractical. For example, can I offer up my other cheek or be a lily of the fields? Can I sell all my belongings, hate my mother and carry a cross? As Chesterton pointed out, there is nothing about Jesus' moral teaching that resembles a platitude. I think that's because the heart of the Gospel is rejection of the world for the sake of a deeper reality. It's a fresh message in every age, but nothing if not extreme.
So, there is no resting for us Christians. It's not a task to be done, but rather an unending ascent up God's holy mountain. In this sense, I can agree with the notion that faith is not “a political norm of political activity”. We cannot content ourselves with human governance because we were designed for God’s kingdom. The saints lead us ever on, ever closer to perfection. Any form of human government ultimately falls way short. Thus, zealous advocacy of a particular government seems to me a dangerous faith in mankind’s self-salvation, and a dangerous level of collusion with the world.