Pope Benedict vs the calculating elites

Pope Benedict vs the calculating elites

The late pope fought a brave, lonely battle against the tyranny of nothingness.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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In 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the UK, there was fury from the fashionably godless. The preening macho rationalists of the New Atheist set couldn’t believe that such a ‘controversial’ pope had been gifted a state visit. Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Stewart Lee and others wrote to the Guardian – of course they did – insisting that ‘Pope Ratzinger’ should not be ‘given the honour of a state visit’. Yes, they really did use his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, rather than his papal name. That’s how petty they were. That’s how insulting they were determined to be to the leader of a faith adhered to by more than a billion people.

There was a ‘Protest the Pope’ rally in central London. Richard Dawkins told a crowd of 10,000 ostentatious unbelievers that Benedict was ‘an enemy of humanity’. People waved condom balloons in fury at Benedict’s utterly unsurprising opposition to birth control – he was the pope, guys. Others waved placards branding him a ‘bigot’, a ‘homophobe’. There were rainbow flags. And there were foghorn atheists as far as the eye could see. You remember those people from the weird God Wars of the 2000s – devoted to Dawkins; always reeling off a Hitchens quote (Christopher, not Peter); never more than three minutes away from telling some poor soul: ‘I’m an atheist, you know.’ These showy rationalists lined the streets to contrast their commitment to reason with the ‘cruel, damaging’ dogmas of Benedict’s backward religion.

It was a pretty spiteful affair, proof of the intolerance that lurked in that secularism on steroids that was so popular in the mid-Noughties. There was also a profound irony in this Benedict-bashing spectacle. Because this man they loved to hate, ‘Pope Ratzinger’, as they demeaned him, was a far keener defender of reason than they were. He was a more rigorous student of Enlightenment, too. And he did more than they ever will to challenge the real menace to truth in the 21st century – not religion but the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, as Benedict called it. There was more humanism in Benedict’s brave, often lonely battle against today’s tyranny of nothingness than there is in the New Atheists’ snotty rage against religion.

Benedict XVI, or the pope emeritus, as he came to be known when he surprisingly resigned the papacy in 2013, died today. He was 95. He was a fiercely intellectual pope. His first church was the academy. He was ordained as a priest in Freising, in southern Germany, in 1951, but he spent far more time teaching in universities than preaching in churches. By the age of 31 he was a professor of theology. His star as a theologian rose and rose in the Sixties and Seventies. In 1977, there was much surprise when Pope Paul VI made him the Archbishop of Munich and Freising: normally a seasoned priest, not a university intellectual, would assume such a role. He later went to Rome, where he was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, arguably the most important institution in Roman Catholicism, the one charged with defending the church from heresy. It was there that he further sharpened his intellectual sword. He became pope in 2005 and resigned in 2013 – the first pope in 600 years to do so.

In the 2000s, both before and during his papacy, Benedict devoted his brilliant mind to doing battle with moral relativism. He viewed relativism, where the very ‘concept of truth has become suspect’, as the great scourge of our times. He railed against ‘the massive presence in our society and culture of [a] relativism which, recognising nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires’. He said that the cultural elites’ dismantling of truth, even of reality itself (witness transgenderism’s war on biology), might present itself as ‘freedom’ but it actually has severely atomising and authoritarian consequences. The postmodern assault on truth is pursued under the ‘semblance of freedom’, he said, but ‘it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ego’.

In short, absent any notion of universal truth, devoid of social standards we might define ourselves by (or against), we’re left with just the individual, playing around in his own prison of identity. ‘A large proportion of contemporary philosophies… consist of saying that man is not capable of truth’, said Benedict. ‘But viewed in that way, man would not be capable of ethical values, either. Then he would have no standards. Then he would only have to consider how he arranged things reasonably for himself…’ Relativism means letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’, he said. We’re in that moment now. The march of moral relativism has not made a freer, more content society but an agitated, uncertain one. Post-truth, post-reality, even post-biology, the individual is not liberated, but lost, left utterly alone to ‘arrange things reasonably for himself’.

Perhaps Benedict’s most important insight was that this dictatorship of relativism represented a negation of the Enlightenment. Too many right-wingers and ‘Trad Caths’ – youthful influencers who take refuge from wokeness in the incense-fused safe space of the Catholic Church – blame every ill on the Enlightenment. Technocracy, scientism, the pseudo-rational deconstruction of language and reality – it’s all apparently a logical consequence of man’s grave folly of believing he could master nature and shape the future.

Benedict knew better. What we are witnessing is a ‘radical detachment of the Enlightenment philosophy from its roots’, he said. Modern rationalists tell us that ‘man, deep down, has no freedom’, and also that he ‘must not think that he is something more than all other living beings’, Benedict noted. This is proof, he said, that those who pose as the contemporary guardians of Enlightenment thought have in fact come to be ‘separated from the roots of humanity’s historical memory’. Enlightenment thinkers did believe man was higher than beasts. They did believe man was capable of freedom. Today’s supposed rationalists act ‘in total contradiction with the starting point of [Enlightenment thought]’, Benedict said.

It should not be surprising that Benedict had a deeper, more subtle understanding of the Enlightenment than many of the coarse rationalists in the New Atheist set did. For he was a critical student of Enlightenment thought, as Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai outlined in his excellent study of Benedict published last year: Light of Reason, Light of Faith: Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment. Agbaw-Ebai argues that Benedict’s theology was one steeped in rationality, speaking to his decades-long engagement with Enlightenment thinkers.

Indeed, Benedict held that Christianity was a ‘religion according to reason’. He argued, rightly, that the Enlightenment sprung from the traditions and tensions within Christianity itself – ‘the Enlightenment is of Christian origin’, he said. One of his most striking utterances was to say that the Enlightenment had ‘given back reason its own voice’. That is, it took ideas of reason from Christianity and expressed those ideas in the voice of reason alone. Benedict won’t thank me, but this echoed Karl Marx, who famously said religion is the ‘sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself’.

Benedict’s beef was not with reason, then, as his ill-read critics would have us believe, but with what he referred to as ‘purely functional rationality’. Or scientism, as others call it: the modern creed of evidence-based politics that judges everything by experiment rather than morality. Ours is a ‘world based on calculation’, Benedict lamented. ‘[It] is the calculation of consequences that determines what must or must not be considered moral. And thus the category of good… disappears [my emphasis]. Nothing is good or bad in itself, everything depends on the consequences that an action allows one to foresee.’

We see this cult of calculation everywhere today. Industry and growth are judged not according to whether they will be good for us, but through the pseudo-science of calculating their impact on the planet. Human activity is likewise measured, and reprimanded, by calculating the carbon footprint it allegedly leaves. Parenting has been reduced from a moral endeavour to a scientific one – you must now follow the calculations of parenting experts and gurus if you don’t want your kids to be messed up. Benedict was right about our world of calculation – it chases out questions of morality, truth and freedom in preference for only doing what the calculating classes deem to be low-risk in terms of consequences. When everything is devised for us by a calculating elite, freedom suffers, said Benedict – for ‘our freedom and our dignity cannot come… from technical systems of control, but can, specifically, spring only from man’s moral strength’.

Benedict was most concerned with defending the specialness of humankind against the claim of the ‘functional rationalists’ that man is essentially little more than a clever animal. This is why he agitated so firmly against the calculating classes’ belief that ‘man must not think that he is something more than all other living beings’. He’d be branded a speciesist if he said this today – how dare you assume that polluting, marauding mankind is superior, more important, than the beasts of the Earth? One of my favourite comments from Benedict was made at his installation Mass as pope in April 2005. He said: ‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’

No, I do not share Benedict’s belief in God. I am an atheist. But Benedict’s agitation against the idea that humanity is a consequence of evolution alone was a profoundly important one. A key part of today’s functional rationalism is evolutionary psychology, a science particularly beloved of Dawkinites and the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. It holds that virtually everything human beings think and do can be explained by evolutionary processes, as if we are indistinguishable from those monkeys that first came down from the trees; as if we are propelled into tribal affiliations and warfare and sex by traits stamped into us by the ceaseless march of nature. This, too, chases out the small matter of morality, the small matter that we have risen above our nature and now really are ‘more than all other living beings’, in Benedict’s words. We are capable of choice, we are capable of good. Good – a terribly old-fashioned concept, I know.

This is why the God Wars of the 2000s mattered. What they confirmed is that anti-humanism is the true motor of modern ‘rationalism’. In the past, the great clash between humanists and religionists was over how one explains the wonder of humanity. Is our specialness a gift from God or is it an innate part of our existence as cultural beings, possessed of a supreme capacity for thought? ‘Man… looked for a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but the reflection of himself’, said that humanist, Marx. In contrast, the flexing New Atheists of the Noughties viewed man as little more than stardust, an accident of evolution, a brainy monkey. As Hitchens said of religion’s supposedly corrosive impact on society: ‘What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees?’

‘What makes man wonderful?’, argued humanists and theologians in the past. ‘Why is man so shit?’, ask the rationalists of the 21st century. Against their technocracy, misanthropy and evolutionary fatalism, Benedict made a searing cry: human beings are special, human beings are good. This atheistic humanist, for one, found more to cheer in the reason espoused by that Pope of Rome than I did in the petty anti-religiosity of educated secularists. It is no surprise to me at all that some of the heavyweight ‘rationalists’ of the God Wars – Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry – have now fallen for the cult of genderfluidity, a religion infinitely more unhinged than any of the great world religions. This treachery of the rationalists confirms that their guide was not humanistic reason, but mere hostility to religion, especially the Catholic one. If you want to understand reason and truth and why they are so central to human exceptionalism, read not Fry, but Benedict. RIP, Your Holiness.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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