Benedict XVI's Invaluable Prophetic Witness

Pope Benedict XVI looks out on the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 14.
Pope Benedict XVI looks out on the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 14. (photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As the Church celebrates Benedict XVI’s five year pontificate this month, I had a look again at Values in a Time of Upheaval, one of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s later books, published by Ignatius in 2005.

A selection of lectures he gave when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the book offers his invaluable insights into the modern world, drawing on the role traditional Judeo-Christian values have played, and should play, in a pluralistic society.

He writes in the introduction that the talks pose more questions than answers in the hope that others might come up with innovative solutions. But answers are there, and profound ones at that.

Bearing in mind this was all his own work and not a result of collaborative efforts (though of course he occasionally draws on other expertise and research), the book is a testament to Joseph Ratzinger’s greatness as a teacher, prophet and Pope.

Much of the book should be read in context but a few powerful passages can be understood on their own, some of which I reproduce below.

If you have any other memorable or favourite quotations from this Pope - and of course there are many - feel free to put them in the comments section below, citing where you found them if possible:

“A man of conscience is one who never purchases comfort, well-being, success, public prestige, or approval by prevalent public opinion if the price is the renunciation of truth. Here [Cardinal John Henry] Newman agrees with that other great British witness to conscience, St. Thomas More, who did not in the least regard conscience as the expression of his subjective tenacity or of an eccentric heroism. He saw himself as one of those timorous martyrs who reach the point of obeying their conscience only after hesitation and much questioning, and this is an act of obedience to that truth which must rank higher than every social authority and every kind of personal taste.”


“The inviolability of man ought to be an unassailed pillar of ethical regulations. We cannot trust one another and live together in peace unless man recognizes that he is an ultimate end, not a means to some other end, and unless we consequently regard other persons as sacred and inviolable. There is no evaluation of goods that could justify treating man as experimental material for higher purposes. We act ethically - not on the basis of calculations - only when we see this as an absolute principle that stands higher than all evaluations of goods. The inviolability of human dignity also entails that this dignity belongs to every man, to each individual who has a human face and belongs biologically to the human species. Functional criteria cannot possess any validity here: the suffering, the handicapped, or unborn human being is a human being.”


“Freedom of opinion has an inherent limit: it is not entitled to destroy the honour and dignity of other persons, nor is it a freedom to utter lies or to destroy human rights. Here we may observe a strange self-hatred of the West that can only be called pathological. There is a praiseworthy openness that tries to understand foreign values, but all that one sees in one’s own [Christian] history is cruelty and destruction. We must also learn to see that which was great and pure. If Europe is to survive, it needs a new acceptance of itself - naturally, a critical and humble acceptance…It cannot survive without reverence for that which is holy. This involves encountering with reverence that which is holy to another, but we can do this only if the Holy One, God himself, is not foreign to us.”


“The paradoxical modern demand of homosexual partnerships to receive a legal form…departs from the entire moral history of mankind, which - despite all the variety in the legal forms governing marriage - has always been aware that this is essentially a special form of the relationship of men and women, open to children and hence to the formation of a family. This is not a question of discrimination. Rather we must ask what man is as man and as woman, and how we may correctly shape the relationship between them. If this relationship becomes increasingly detached from legal forms, while at the same time homosexual partnerships are increasingly viewed as equal in rank to marriage, we are on the verge of a dissolution of our concept of man, and the consequences can only be extremely grave.”


“In view of all the terrible things in our world, many people are moved to ask: Does God exist? Where is he? And if he does exist, is he truly good? Is he not rather a sinister God or even dangerous? This question has taken a new form in the modern period. God’s existence looks like a limitation of our freedom. Someone is watching us; his eyes follow our every step. The rebellion against God in the modern period is generated by the fear that is induced by the omnipresent eye of God, which seems threatening. Man feels truly free, truly himself, only when he has got rid of God as a competitor. Adam wants to be the author of his own life; he hides from God “among the trees of the garden”. Sartre once said that one would have to deny the existence of God, even if he in fact existed, since the very idea of God contradicts the freedom and greatness of man.

But has the world become brighter, happier, or freer since it got rid of God? Has it not stripped man of his dignity, damning him to an empty freedom in which he is ready to do any kind of cruelty? God’s eye is frightening only when one regards this as dependence and servitude instead of recognizing that the love expressed in his eyes is that which makes our existence possible, that which allows us to live. The face of Jesus is the face of God. That is what God looks like. Jesus, who suffered for us and forgave his enemies while dying on the cross, shows us how God is. This eye does not threaten us. It rescues us.”


Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

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