Christianity Offers Best Hope for Restoration of Community, Says Ratzinger Prize Laureate

Jean-Luc Marion, prominent Catholic philosopher and recipient of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize, discusses the great stakes of our time, from secularization and nihilism to the crisis of the Church and the coronavirus pandemic.

Jean-Luc Marion
Jean-Luc Marion (photo: JF Paga)

The tenth annual Ratzinger Prize was awarded to French philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion and Australian theologian Tracey Rowland. 

The two laureates, previously nominated by the Ratzinger Foundation’s scientific committee together with other scholars and then chosen by Pope Francis, were scheduled to receive their award during a Nov. 14 ceremony at the Vatican with the Holy Father, but the ceremony was canceled this week in light of the rise in COVID-19 cases. 

Following the Foundation’s Oct. 1 press conference to present the two winners of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize, the Register interviewed Jean-Luc Marion to get his thoughts on the current state of the world, and the major challenges facing humanity at this time in history. 

The 74-year-old scholar has to his credit an exceptional academic career. Author and subject of numerous academic publications translated in many languages, he has been a member of the Académie Française since 2008, and a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School since 1994. Marion was also among the founders of the international theological journal Communio, together with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac, in 1972. 

His work focuses on the history of philosophy, notably in the field of metaphysics, and on phenomenology, an important intellectual movement of the 20th century that studies the structures of consciousness that derive from direct personal experience. 

He is also one of the world’s greatest living authorities on René Descartes, considered to be one of the founders — if not the founder— of modern philosophy. 


As a philosopher, you’ve always claimed that your intellectual horizon is open to theology, as it offers insights into every other discipline. What makes you think that? 

The problem with “human sciences”— which is a vague and inappropriate term — is that in theory, they should be interested in everything that is, or at least everything that is thinkable. However, there is a modern tendency not to identify the field of metaphysics, and of theology (which remain quite separated), to disregard them. It is a heavy tendency, and a harmful one. Because the question of the divine, of the unconditioned, of the absolute principle, if there is one, is a question that has been haunting and continues to haunt human thought. If we don’t address it directly, it will reappear indirectly in other fields. These other fields, such as history, literature, history of art, sociology or psychology, keep being confronted with the question of theology in an indirect and sometimes anonymous manner — that is, with the question whether God can be revealed, or can reveal himself. 

I think that what we call theology (which is not the term we should use, since the traditional term is sacra doctrina [“sacred teaching”]) is a constituent part of rationality. There is no division, no gap between the field of rationality and that of sacra doctrina. This is why John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio was such a great text, except for the fact that it starts separating the two notions in the title. Obviously, John Paul II intended to show a continuity, but I think that one should not start by opposing the two terms. I think one can hardly do philosophy without entering the realm of sacra doctrina


In your recent book Brief Apology for a Catholic Moment, you recall the importance of religion as a cornerstone of societies and communities. This work stands out from the rest of your work by its more committed accents. What prompted you to write it? 

It was an occasional text, motivated by the debates surrounding laïcité [secularism] on the occasion of the last presidential election in 2017 in France. What I was willing to say is that no society can exist without a principle of community. It is precisely what is missing in all societies, both in the U.S. and in Europe. There is a deficit of community. And the role of Christians is to create communion out of a community within societies. 

I also explained that same concept in my book entitled The Rigor of Things — with a foreword by theologian David Tracy — in which I return to the main aspects of my career and writings. 

Part of the difficulties we are facing comes from the ignorance and denegation, on the part of societies which nevertheless were framed by Christianity, of their origins. It is a political weakness. Denying the Christian roots of our society is not only a mere and weak opinion, an ideology, but it is also a mistake from a political point of view. It means that we don’t understand the strengths that ground our societies. This is why contemporary politicians are so bad: they are not educated; they are not aware of the real historic state of the societies they are supposed to rule. 


The problem of church-state separation is also very present in your whole work. What do you think is so problematic about laïcité? Why do you prefer the concept of separation?

We should distinguish two separate issues. Separation is a very good thing, since it provides the separation between the political power and the religious authority. It is a biblical discovery. Ancient Israel was the first and only country where there was such a separation, while everywhere else, there was a confusion between the political power (emperor, pharaoh etc.) and the spiritual direction. In the case of Israel, the king was not the high priest. Both were watched over by the prophet. So, separation is a biblical concept. And the Church must always keep this principle, because each time there is an alliance of the throne and the altar, it damages the Church. Therefore, Christians can only be favorable to separation. 

However, this has little, if nothing to do with the French concept of laïcité, which is aimed at fighting the Catholic Church. We used that word in France, while in Germany we used to say Kulturkampf. These concepts emerged in the 18th century, crossed the whole 19th century as well as a part of the 20th century. So, laïcité means the opposition and the fight against the Church. One must be very careful in distinguishing these two things. 

Now in France, laïcité is used as a way to address the issues caused by Islam, without saying the word. It is very strange. It doesn’t really make sense; it is more of a political slogan. 


The concept of “separatism” is now emerging in France, through the new bill aimed at addressing the spread of “separatist” radical Islam in the country. But the bill is also providing for an extension of the field of laïcité, which will have heavy consequences on the whole society, including many Catholic families, since homeschooling will be forbidden in the whole country from next year as a result of the legislation. What are your thoughts about that? 

 The concept of separatism doesn’t mean anything. It must be said that there are communitarian centrifugal forces within the French society, which is true. But the concept of separatism has had a certain meaning at some point of history, but it is certainly not an adequate concept here. 

What we call separatism in France is the fact that there are pockets of Muslim communities that don’t want to abide by the rules of the Republic. There are similar situations in the U.S. But again, separatism is not the right word to describe such a phenomenon.

Regarding the ban on homeschooling, it is problematical not to send children to school when it is done by people who refuse to follow the Republic’s law. Obviously, the Catholics who homeschool their children don’t fall into this category. So, one must clearly identify the issue that is being addressed — that is, people of the Muslim faith who refuse to go to school because they refuse to accept the Republic itself. We can take administrative measures to address that issue, but there is no reason to encompass Catholics who don’t oppose the Republic. Imprecise concepts lead to useless excesses. 


Speaking of semantic confusions that add to the confusion of the world, you regularly refute concepts like value or crisis, which you think are greatly hackneyed nowadays. Why are they problematic? 

The concept of value should not be used in the field of ideas or in theology. It is a mere economic and stock-exchange-led way of thinking. Values are produced by human evaluation, therefore they are not steady. There is no eternal value; it is stupid to think otherwise. There are no Christian values, but Christian realities. 


In your view, the concept of value has a deeply nihilistic dimension when attributed to a belief or a philosophy. Do you think that the fact that we speak about moral values all the time shows that our societies are still bathed in nihilism?

Absolutely. We are in the thick of it. Nietzsche actually said that nihilism had started in the 1880s and that it would last for two centuries. We’ve passed the first century, and we have another one ahead of us. We must be aware of that. 


Can we say that the Church is in crisis?

Among all the institutions that make up the society, the Church is the one that addresses difficulties more frankly than any other. The other institutions of the state, such as the military, the justice system or education system, spend all their time trying to avoid a crisis, hiding it or lying, without taking decisions, and this is why they are doing so poorly. But the Church, when it has to address a problem, just does so with forthright honesty. In the recent cases of sexual abuse, the Church actually reacted, whereas the other institutions didn’t react to similar crises within their own ranks. 

The Church knows how to address crisis because, in fact, the Church is made of all the people that the judgment of God, the crisis of Christ, put in crisis. So, they are kind of used to crisis!


Have we entered a post-Christian era? Can we end up with total secularization in the West? Or, since nature abhors emptiness, is there a risk that the new forms of religiosity that we’ve been witnessing over the past century will be reinforced and reach hegemony? 

The new religiosities embodied by various ideologies, such as Bolshevism, Nazism and all the totalitarian ideologies, have always been substitutes to Christianity, since the beginning. 

But in a period of nihilism, it is even more visible. 

Society, in itself, is always non-Christian. St. Augustine explained that very well in The City of God, which we should re-read. The problem is not the fact that there is a gap between the Church and society. This is quite normal, since the Church comes from God and society doesn’t want to go back to God. It has always been this way, and it is not surprising. What is actually surprising is that the Christians may be surprised. 

A society can never be entirely Christian, because Christians themselves are not entirely Christians. Then why would the society be entirely Christian? It is ridiculous to dream about that. If Christ’s goal was to make society entirely Christian, then he would have done so. If he didn’t, it is not up to us to do it. 


Benedict XVI has predicted a continuing erosion of the faith and of the power of the Catholic Church and its survival thanks to the rise of creative minorities scattered throughout the West. Do you think Christianity could disappear from the West?

I don’t believe that Christianity is disappearing from the West at all. Christianity has always been a minority and in conflict. It is not more the case now than in the past. 

We are going through a period of radical nihilism indeed, but the current situation for the Church is not unprecedented. The Church has always been in opposition to what refuses God within societies, which is normal. 

When we think that a society is fully Christian, we are always wrong. It is an illusion. The Middle Ages, eventually, has been an illusion, as the great period of Christian kings was an illusion. That is not true — they weren’t very Christian. 

The project to structure civil societies from an ecclesiastical vision has been widely spread, but eventually, it never lasted. I am not being critical by saying that. It is nothing more than an observation. 

When there is an alliance between the Church and a strong political power, like in Spain at the time of General Franco, this Christianity proved to have been illusional. We shouldn’t dream about that. It is a good thing for the Church to know that it is a minority. 


What do you see as is Joseph Ratzinger’s greatest philosophical and theological contribution to the Church?

He is definitely one of the greatest theologians of modern times. His three books on Jesus of Nazareth are a revolution in the Gospel reading. Moreover, he has an exceptional knowledge of the history of theology, like very few others before him. He is more and more read, and rightfully so. I have for him the greatest intellectual admiration. 


You follow the tradition of Christian phenomenologists, like Paul Ricœur, to whom you succeeded at the University of Chicago Divinity School. You define yourself, more specifically, as a phenomenologist of donation. What do you mean by that? What distinguishes you from atheist phenomenologists like Jean-Paul Sartre

 I don’t consider myself a Christian phenomenologist, specifically. I am a Christian, and I do philosophy: this is following the phenomenological tradition, which is different. There is a form of philosophy that is phenomenology, and that I practice after thinkers like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricœur, Jacques Derrida, Michel Henry and of course Emmanuel Levinas. This tradition of thought is very powerful in Europe, especially in France, as well as in the United States. And I am also a Catholic Christian and of course I have been focusing on the question of the relationship between reason and faith, so to speak. But this formula doesn’t really make sense, as I noted already, as it suggests that there is an opposition between the two things — and that, while reasoning, one is not making an act of faith, which is untrue.

Starting from this classical tradition of phenomenology, I invented the concept of phenomenology of donation. I came to the conclusion that going back to things themselves, which is the master word of phenomenology, always leads to a residue, an incompressible remainder, which is already implicitly given. I tried to understand in which sense we could say that the phenomenon consists of a given. It is a question of the philosophy of knowledge, a philosophy of the being of things — but obviously, if we admit that the phenomenon rests ultimately on the given, it is clear that it cannot be separated from the question of donation, which is also yet a well-known sociological and ethnological issue developed by other thinkers. And if we permit the given, then we’ll think about the question of donation, which crosses with a certain theology. This is what happened in my case. 

You’ve just recalled that you are a disciple of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his famous book Ethics and Infinity, he offered a deep reflection on the role of the face as a mediator of the relationship with others, as having an ethical dimension. According to him, the sight of a face creates a sense of responsibility in an individual. As entire populations are now forced to wear masks outdoors, and now even in private homes in Italy, people are wondering if these practices could establish themselves durably as this health crisis has profoundly changed lifestyles and the relationship to disease. What are your thoughts about this? Can the generalized wearing of mask across a population over a long period of time weaken the sense of community? 

Absolutely. The obligation to wear masks outdoors is monstruous, and I think it will not last. We’ve been taking measures to prevent the spread of Islamic veils in public spaces in Europe, and now we are covering everyone’s face. This is incredible!

The coronavirus crisis is not first a health crisis, since it appears eventually that there are relatively few deaths, although the virus has spread widely. It is more of a social and sociological — in brief — a moral crisis. No one understands what is going on, and politicians, who prove to be unable to develop serious health policies, try to save their positions and health systems by making citizens bear their own responsibility. It means that we are exporting the hospital's problem to the public square. Since we are unable to have enough hospital beds to treat people, because we don’t know how to heal them or we just can’t because it is too expensive, then what do we do? We tell them to behave like sick people on the street and treat them as suspects. It is very clear. 

Given the fact that when we are at the hospital, freedom is very limited, then public freedoms are now limited on the pretext of fighting the epidemic. There is a violation of public freedoms. Many people are saying that. Politicians should say: “We should be able to cure or to limit the spread of the epidemic, and we shouldn’t accuse the citizens of being responsible for it.” It is definitely not what they’ve been saying. This whole situation is very bizarre. 

 Again, it is neither plague nor cholera. We are not seeing half of the population dying, like it happened in the past. Some people die, unfortunately, but it is minimal on a population scale. What is not minimal, though, are the coercive measures that we are imposing to citizens. It is the first time since World War II that people are controlled as they are now. 

I hope that the various populations will decide that it cannot go on like this. Politicians, whether they are democratic or not, are always ready to turn citizens into slaves in some way, because it is more convenient for them to rule their countries. It is not the politicians who will free us as soon as they can. At some point, citizens will have to put some limits on these restrictions. Until now, citizens have been very obedient and submissive. I hope it will not last.