Sunday, January 31, 2010

Values In A Time of Upheaval by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) - Review

Values in a Time of UpheavalI must admit that I have always had a hard time reading the Holy Father's works. Just as soon as I start them, I find myself overwhelmed by the spiritual depth and intellectual richness that he has been blessed with and conveys in his writing. But, I keep going, confident that one day I will be able to open one and read it cover-to-cover without having to take a month (or three or six) break to let my brain recover from the stretching. This past month that finally happened.

As so often happens, I stumbled upon a book while visiting friends over Christmas. While browsing their collection, Values In A Time of Upheaval instantly caught my eye. As soon as I noticed the author--Joseph Ratzinger--I couldn't resist the urge to pick it up and begin reading it right there. I had never heard of the book before, but my friend was gracious enough to let me borrow it to read.

Although he is a genius of a theologian, I never would have considered the Holy Father to be a political philosopher in the tradition of Sts Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. My view is changed now. His book, which is actually a compilation of essays and commentaries, draws together in the clearest possible manner the relationship between the state and the Church, and the responsibilities held by each to mankind. He begins by examining the moral foundations of the free state, and goes on to explore the necessary and significant role that religions--especially Christianity--play in maintaining a free, functioning society. "Freedom preserves its dignity only as long as it retains the relationship to its ethical foundations and to its ethical task. A freedom that consisted solely in the possibility of satisfying one's needs would not be human freedom, since it would remain in the animal realm." At the risk of oversimplifying his message, in order for a society to be truly free, it must first acknowledge the humanity of each individual member, and after that protect that humanity by "bow[ing] down before a reality that is defenseless and incapable of exercising any coercion: morality."

The Holy Father later explore the nature of truth, namely that it is something that cannot be recreated or redefined by the will of men or society, but rather has existed from the beginning of time and was passed down first in the form of the Natural Law and more fully revealed and developed within the Judeo-Christian faith tradition. Maintaining this truth, he argues, depends on keeping a healthy sense of reason balanced and informed by faith. A lack of one or the other leads ultimately to either a totalitarian state, where the state subsumes total moral authority, or a fundamentalist state, where man begins to use religion in pursuit of unbridled power.

Finally, he explores the duty of the Church and we, its citizens:

"The fact that Christians are journeying toward the other city does not alienate them. In reality, it is this that allows us to be healthy and our states to be healthy. For if men have nothing more to expect than what this world offers them, and if they may and must demand all this from the state, they destroy both their own selves and every human society. If we do not want to get entangled anew in the tenticles of totalitarianism, we must look beyond the state, which is only one part, not the totality. There is no antithesis between hope for heaven and loyality to the earth, since this hope is also hope for the earth. While we hope for something greater and definitive, we Christians may and must bring hope into that which is transitory, into the world of our states."

Although he composed his essays primarily from the perspective of a reflection upon the history of the European continent, the truths he conveys apply to all of humanity. We ignore them at our own peril.

If you enjoy exploring political and moral philosophy, or if you are a Christian looking for a renewed sense of clarity about the relationship between Church and state during these times when they seem to be increasingly at odds, Values In A Time of Upheaval is a book that you will not be able to put down and will quickly find its way into your library.


  1. A healthy sense of reason informed by faith...I loved this phrase- and how he described the implications of lacking one or the other. Praying for our country!

  2. Looks like I need to go to the bookstore!