WESTERN CULTURE TODAY AND TOMORROW:
ADDRESSING THE FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES
By Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI
170 pages, $16.95
To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531
Really read Joseph Ratzinger’s book.
Powerful perspectives and correctives dot every page. Take, for example, the role of monasticism in preserving Western culture after the fall of the Roman Empire. We all have images of Irish monks meticulously copying manuscripts, but why was that culture preserved in monasteries? Was it just an accident, only because monasteries happened to be around, as perhaps many people think? Was it just that the Western Roman Empire lacked an Andreas Carniegus to endow libraries for the next millennium?
Or rather, as Benedict XVI, seems to suggest in passing, was it that the world of antiquity knew that there was the kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of God and that both were important? And was it not the monasteries and churches of the West that, liturgical differences notwithstanding, still provided a common cultural glue that maintained communion in the absence of state institutions between Europe east and west, despite those differences? In other words, pace many European elites, was religion the core of European identity? Is not Ratzinger correct in saying Europe is not a “continent that can be comprehended neatly in geographical terms; rather, it is a cultural and historical concept”? And isn’t it a cultural-historical concept that originated in a religious context and also finds its children in the Americas?
Modernity is ready to relegate religion to the sacristy, yet the Western public square would not be what it is but for religion. That is what makes this book so vitally important not just for religious readers, but even more so for anybody engaged in public policy, governance, history and culture. To pretend that Western culture is intelligible apart from its Judeo-Christian roots is to talk about a chimera: It may be the “culture” some elites want it to be, but the illusion has nothing in common with real Western culture or its origins.
Ratzinger does not deny modernity, but he demands that modernity challenge its own presuppositions. The most important question I think he asks in this book is: What are “the ethical foundations of the law?” For Ratzinger, the answer is not inconsistent with the American founding principle of “unalienable rights.”
“This is the question of whether there is something that can never become law but always remains injustice; or, to reverse this formulation, whether there is something that is of its very nature inalienably law, something that is antecedent to every majority decision and must be respected by all such decisions.” It cannot be culturally relative “because the obviousness of these values is by no means acknowledged in every culture. Islam has defined its own catalogue of human rights, which differs from the Western catalogue.” And so have others.
Yet, in a global society, the need for a moral foundation that preexists particular forms of positive law is increasingly apparent, lest the conflict between one man’s right to life and another’s vision of executing his deity’s or his ideology’s grand vision collapse into a mere power struggle. The moral question cannot be ignored.
That’s why this book is so important. Politicians, diplomats, policy-makers and commentators all need this book as much as — if not more than — readers interested in religious topics or readers who are Joseph Ratzinger’s fans. Immensely timely, invaluably important.
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia. All views are exclusively his.