Cardinal Ratzinger on Why Pro-lifers Are Losing Referenda Like Ohio’s Issue One

Cardinal Ratzinger's prophecy about a "new oligarchy" who decide what is modern and progressive is coming to pass before our eyes.

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When I was a theology student, Karl Rahner came to a local university and gave a talk for what was a surprisingly small audience of only about 25 people. The famous theologian sat as a translator read a paper of his about cultural issues and theology. 

At one point, he made a remark about “Western Democracy” not being a Christian ideal. At the time, I was soaked in Solzhenitsyn, and I asked him if he would not prefer to be living in a democracy than a totalitarian regime. At the time, there was still a Communist government in East Germany.

He acted as if it would not matter to him. Western Democracy, he judged, was not so important a thing. I was shocked because he lived so close to the shadowlands of the Soviet bloc. We live in a different world today, of course, a world in which I might be more inclined to agree with him—especially in the wake of the defeat of pro-life referenda in some states and the victory of pro-abortion ballot issues in others. 

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I remembered my exchange with Rahner recently when I was reading Truth and Tolerance, a collection of Joseph Ratzinger’s essays published in 2004, before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI. What the cardinal wrote about freedom, truth, and responsibility is like a prophecy of the cultural wars we are suffering in our nation at the current time.

The feeling that democracy is still not the right form of freedom is fairly general and is steadily becoming more wide-spread…How free are elections? To what extent is the people’s will manipulated by publicity, by the agency of a few people who dominate public opinion? Is there not a new oligarchy of the people who decided what is modern and progressive, what somebody enlightened has to think? How fearsome this oligarchy is, the way they can publicly execute people, is well enough known. Anyone who gets in their way is an enemy of freedom because he is preventing freedom of expression. And what about the way public opinion is shaped in democratically representative councils and committees? Who can still believe that the general good is what really determines their decisions. Who can doubt the power of interests whose dirty hands are being seen more and more often?… In this confusion of forces the problem of society becoming ungovernable is an ever greater threat: the desire for opposing groups for domination blocks the freedom of the whole.

In Ohio, pro-life forces were involved in a campaign to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution, which can be changed by the votes of 50 percent of the electors plus one. As a result, there have been over 150 amendments to the constitution. The pro-life movement called for more process and more consensus in the rewriting of the constitutional framework of the state laws. That means that people frustrated with the legislature—and that means in Ohio liberals, mainline media, unions, and other organized groups, like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood—attempt to change laws by plebiscite. 

In November, a radical amendment that promises “reproductive freedom” will be on the ballot. It would make Ohio’s heartbeat law for fetal protection obsolete; and it would allow things like prescribing puberty blockers to minors without parental consent, as well as a whole range of other travesties. Issue One in August was meant to make it more difficult for interest groups and money from out of state to make the publicity campaigns that Cardinal Ratzinger saw as a danger to society. 

Issue One lost 43 percent to 57 percent, and the pro-abortion people have been encouraged. Predictably, the Wall Street Journal warned that the Republican Party should be more careful in its attack on abortion. The knives were certainly out for the August referendum, and there was considerable liberal ooftish available to fight the issue. Media and money made the contest David and Goliath, with the boy with the slingshot losing this time. 

The bishops of Ohio, who are strongly pro-life, did not endorse the issue. However, in some dioceses, like my own, they permitted priests to promote the passage of a stricter process of amendment as a defense against future attacks on values. This met resistance. I myself was confronted by a pro-abortion lady after Mass for violating the separation of Church and State. Other priests had people walk out. There was even vandalism of a parish church. 

It seems that the pro-abortion people were worried enough to try to intimidate clerics. Unfortunately, I think some priests will inevitably be cowed. I was very pleased to hear that Bishop Malesic of Cleveland said that maybe some people were surprised to wake up and find themselves in a pro-life parish. We will see what happens closer to the November vote.

In the same essay quoted above, Cardinal Ratzinger gave great insight about the political ramifications of the abortion issue. 

Now people should not say that the problem of abortion touches on a specific special case and does not help to clarify the problem of freedom as a whole. On the contrary, in this particular example the basic shape of human freedom, its typically human character, becomes clear…The being of another person is so closely interwoven with the being of this first person, the mother, that for the moment it can only exist at all in bodily association with the mother, in a physical union with her, which nonetheless does not abolish its otherness and does not permit us to dispute its being itself.

The human beings coexist. And the dependence of the child on the mother (which also extends after birth) means that coexistence becomes “an existence for someone that contradicts its own self-will and is thus experienced as the contrary of its own freedom.” The coexistence is symbolic of all our coexistence because the limits of freedom are about “the living of my freedom, not in competition, but in mutual support.” We all depend on each other, and freedom without responsibility is not freedom because it does not promote the good and respond to the truth. 

Pro-abortion groups want to impose a false consensus on society, one that denies the objective humanity of the fetus and the evil of the destruction of preborn human life. This means tolerating a rejection of the truth in the interest of social “peace” that is corrupt and corrosive of the common good. Cardinal Ratzinger speaks of “The consensus of whom?” and decries what he calls “an intellectual dictatorship,” which brings about an “intellectual climate” in which “parties and interest groups can impose themselves as the only legitimate representatives of progress and responsibility.” Pro-abortion groups want to impose a false consensus on society, one that denies the objective humanity of the fetus and the evil of the destruction of preborn human life. Tweet This

The forces opposed to the truth are very great in our society. Relativism has become a habit of mind, and this is especially true of people whose loyalty to political parties is greater than to a Catholic vision of life. This is especially true of the younger generations, who are so easily manipulated by social media and “influencers.” In their self-consciously modern sophistication, they end up the prey of elitist propagandists, an oppressive oligarchy imposing unjust opinions. A false value of “toleration” replaces the legitimate investigation of the limits of freedom experienced in responsibility.

There is much work to be done to educate people; for no one is so blind, however, as the one who does not want to see something. And we are talking here of a willed indifference to the demands of truth. The clarity of Pope Benedict’s thought on truth, responsibility, and freedom makes it a necessary reference for us in the political struggle for pro-life post Dobbs. The analysis of the elitist oligarchy is so prophetic and gives us some important weapons for the culture wars. 


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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