Ratzinger Understands that Power Must Be Ordered by Reason

How do we recognize what is right? In history, systems of laws have almost always been based on religion: decisions regarding what was to be lawful among men were taken from reference to the divinity. Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the state and to society, that is to say, a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead it pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law—and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.
∼ Joseph Ratzinger, Address to the German Bundestag, September 22, 2011.

Specifically, it is the task of politics to put power under the moderating influence of the law; and thus to order the sensible use of it. Not the law of the stronger, but the strength of the law must prevail. Power that is ordered by law and its service is the antithesis of violence by which we understand lawless and unlawful power.
∼ Joseph Ratzinger, “A Dialogue with Jürgen Habermas,” January 19, 2004.

Next to Aristotle’s “Man is by nature a political animal” and Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” the most oft-cited passage about politics is probably that of Lord Acton. It reads: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Schall’s addendum to the Acton passage is as follows: “Lack of power corrupts and absolute lack of power corrupts absolutely.” The failure to use power when it should be used can, at times, be more damaging than its illegitimate use. The person who told us to turn the other cheek said that he would judge the living and the dead. Jesus also told Pilate that he would have no power over him were it not given to the Roman governor by his Father.

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Faith and Politics is a collection of essays and lectures of Joseph Ratzinger from both before his becoming pope and during his papacy. Ratzinger always considered himself to be primarily a theologian, but in that capacity he recognized the essential place that philosophy had to play in any Christian understanding of man and the state. Surprisingly, perhaps, I have always considered Ratzinger’s book, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, to be the best introduction to his political philosophy. But his “Regensburg Lecture” succinctly situates the relation of classical and medieval philosophy to the stages of modern thought about man and politics. The encyclical, Spe Salvi, brings together in a profound unity Ratzinger’s views on history, modernity, philosophy, and revelation.

Joseph Ratzinger is a man of many parts. He plays the piano. He is a member of a French academy, a bishop, a man who expected to spend his life in a university classroom. No man can know something about everything, but Ratzinger comes pretty close. In this book, we have addresses that he gave at Westminster Hall in London and in the Bundestag in Berlin. To the English, he recalled Thomas More and John Henry Newman, as well as the great traditions of English history that manifested the English spirit in their Parliament. We also have in this book a discussion of modern thought with Jürgen Habermas and another with Paolo Flores d’Arcais on the existence of God, a discussion that centered on the claim of natural law to be universal.


I found the first chapter of the book particularly interesting as it goes into the rationale and prudence of using the notion of “human rights.” “Human rights” have, ironically, been the intellectual and rhetorical instrument used to overturn the whole order of nature and reason. This chapter refers to Ratzinger’s discussion of “rights” with the Italian philosopher Marcello Pera. The dominant understanding of “natural rights” today is not somehow a logical evolution from natural law thinking as it was understood in pre-modern times but rather a break away from it.

Many Christian thinkers, notably Jacques Maritain and John Paul II, have used this phrase “human rights” in a positive sense while, at the same time, they knew what the phrase meant in the tradition of Hobbes. Thus, they had to spend a good deal of time explaining why the “right to abortion” was not a “natural right” or why they were for some “rights” but not others. This Hobbesian form of “rights” dominates the contemporary public order. These “rights” are invented by the arbitrary will of man unrestricted by any outside criterion of right or wrong. The state facilitates the creation and enforcement of these rights in society. “Rights” to abortion, to choose one’s gender, or to same-sex “marriages” come from this source.

For Ratzinger, however, “man’s duty to obey God is a right vis-à-vis the state.” He sees this duty as a limit on the state. In this context, he recalls the tradition of Jacques Maritain. “For him [Maritain], the primary right of a people to govern itself can never become a right to decide everything.” The human mind does not “make” the truth but discovers it. The natural law relates to the truth of things. “The final element of the natural law, which at its deepest level intended to be a law of reason, in the modern era in any case, human rights have remained,” Ratzinger explained.

They are not intelligible without the assumption that man as man, simply through his membership in the human species, is the subject of rights and that his very being bears within it values and norms that are to be discovered but not invented. Perhaps today, the doctrine of human rights ought to be supplemented by a doctrine of human duties and human limits, and that would now help to revive the question of whether there might not be a reason of nature and thus a rational law for man and his standing in the world.

To have a “reason in nature” means that the “being” of man is already present in his existence. Man does not make himself.


The third chapter of this book contains Ratzinger’s discussion of the trial of Christ before Pilate in which the central question revolved around Pilate’s famous question: “What is truth?” To this scene, Ratzinger refers in this passage: “It is the question that is also asked by modern political theory. Can politicians accept the truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its place taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power?” Modern politicians have more often been on the side of Pilate when it comes to the issue of truth in politics.

Ratzinger does understand the situation of the politician who must remain in power if he is to accomplish anything. “Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he will have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet, success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right.” Machiavelli, who is considered the founder of modern political thought, maintained that a politician is successful if he remains in power by whatever means, but Ratzinger believes politicians should be motivated by justice. They should seek the truth and act rightly.

Modernity can be described as the belief that no objective order can be found in the universe or in man. Everything is relative and can be something else other than what it is. Existence is said to add nothing to our intelligence. Hence, nothing is stable. We can choose to remake ourselves. Benedict’s response to this view is most acute.

Man, too, has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it, and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself.

Unlike other beings in the universe, man knows that he did not create himself and that his humanity was given to him. He discovers what he is by reflecting on the fact that he already exists as a certain kind of being. History tells him that every time he denies his human nature or acts against it, bad things happen. To be what he is, he must freely choose to remain what he is.

Joseph Ratzinger, in conclusion, sought to save Europe from itself by defining it and understanding it.

The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome—from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks, and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibilities before God and in the acknowledgement of the inviolable dignity of every single person, it has established criteria of law; it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in history.

These elements of revelation, reason and politics are seen by Joseph Ratzinger as belonging together in a unified whole. Indeed, he says elsewhere that, “The fundamental right of the Christian is the right to the whole Faith…—the right to receive the Faith, to celebrate the liturgy of the Faith, and not to be exposed to the private opinions of the Church’s ministers.” These are the kind of “rights” that this pope was most concerned with—that we receive the whole of faith and reason, and not merely the subjective opinions of our ministers.

(Photo credit: Grzegorz Galazka/Getty Images)


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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