Acton Commentary

Benedict's 'Grey Eminence'


Following Benedict XVI's recent visit to America, there was some grumbling from social justice activists that the pope said relatively little about matters ranging from climate change to third-world debt. This reflects, they suggested, the pope's disinterest in "real" issues.

From his papacy's beginning, Benedict has indeed proved remarkably reluctant to enter into detailed discussion of policy questions. There are two reasons for this. First, just after being elected pope, Benedict reaffirmed that the Catholic Church does have non-negotiable positions on particular matters, most notably the protection of innocent human life, marriage, and religious liberty properly understood.

But Benedict also reaffirmed the Church's teaching that, as far as other policy issues are concerned, lay Catholics are free to make their own prudential judgments, guided, of course, by Catholic principles. Even within the Catholic Church, it is not well-understood that Catholics enjoy remarkable liberty to take a variety of positions on most policy questions.

The second reason for Benedict's disinterest in policy details, however, ultimately reflects his view about how Catholics ought to approach social-political questions.

In this regard, perhaps the greatest influence upon Benedict's social thought--his grey eminence--is a French Jesuit theologian who died 17 years ago. Born in 1896, Henri de Lubac experienced the twentieth century's upheavals at first hand. He fought in the trenches of World War I, participated in the French Resistance during World War II, worked as a theological expert at Vatican II, and served as friend and intellectual interlocutor to both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.

Like Ratzinger, de Lubac was considered somewhat avant-garde before Vatican II. He consequently experienced considerable unpleasantness at the hands of overzealous church officials.

But after Vatican II, de Lubac--like Ratzinger--emerged as a formidable defender of Catholic orthodoxy. De Lubac also continued to endure harassment for his views. This time, however, the odium theologica came from heterodox theologians such as Hans Kung whose agenda amounted (as it still does) to dissolving Catholicism into a secularized, hyper-politicized, bureaucratized, and doctrinally-empty pseudo-Christianity.

But Ratzinger and de Lubac's similarities go beyond this. They shared the conviction that the road to Church renewal is not immersion in whatever happens to be the latest intellectual fashion.

Authentic renewal, de Lubac held, could only occur by going back to the original sources of Christian inspiration--most notably, Scripture grounded in the Church's Tradition as well as the Church Fathers--and then using this as a basis to think about the present. This, de Lubac argued, was the best way to articulate a distinctly Christian message to the modern world.

A good example of how this applied to social issues is de Lubac's book, Catholicisme: Aspects sociaux du dogme (1938). In his Memoirs, Ratzinger recalls the impact this text had on his own thought. Indeed, it is directly cited in Benedict's encyclical Spe Salvi.

Catholicisme draws upon Scripture and early and medieval Church Fathers to think through what the nature of the Church itself suggests about the individual's place in society. The beauty of this approach is that it brings to the surface ideas that cannot be neatly categorized as "right" or "left." Rather, it produces a distinctly Christian perspective that explodes our increasingly sterile secular political categories.

This method was on display during two recent speeches delivered by Pope Benedict.

One was his United Nations address in which Benedict politely but firmly noted that the very notion of human rights was first conceptualized by Catholic theologians and only ultimately made sense when grounded in a biblical vision of man. This is a way of talking about rights that cuts through the morass of much contemporary rights-talk, which is reflected in the typically incoherent statements about rights produced by most international organizations.

The second speech was Pope Benedict's recent May 3rd address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Here the pope reflected upon the nature of subsidiarity and solidarity. Drawing upon Scripture and commentaries from Augustine and Aquinas, Benedict reminded his audience that the ultimate purpose of these principles is not efficiency or equality. Rather, it is "to place men and women on the path to discovering their definitive, supernatural destiny."

Neither solidarity nor subsidiarity, Benedict stated, have purely "horizontal" (i.e., earthly) meaning. They also have "vertical" (i.e., transcendental) significance. Solidarity, Benedict wrote, is ultimately about helping others to encounter life in all its fullness, something only completely realized through life in Christ.

Subsidiarity, Benedict maintained, "liberates people from a sense of despondency and hopelessness, granting them the freedom to engage with one another in the spheres of commerce, politics and culture". But above all, Benedict added, subsidiarity makes "space for love... which always remains the most excellent way."

None of this is to suggest that Benedict or de Lubac thinks that politics or public policy is unimportant. Their point is that if you truly believe in the truth found in the sources of orthodox Christianity, then you will think and act as if the transcendental destiny (heaven or hell) that everyone can freely choose for themselves is real, and such considerations will shape every moral decision you make, including your political choices.

That's the core of Benedict's social message. It's hard to imagine a more radical one.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author, most recently, of The Commercial Society (2007).