Ex-Pope Benedict’s reactionary career

March 27, 2013

World in View

by Gerry Emmett

Ex-Pope Benedict’s reactionary career

Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation announcement on Feb. 11 took the world by surprise. It is the first time in almost 600 years that a Pope has decided to quit. He has announced that he will continue to live in the Vatican, bearing the title “Pope emeritus,” and “continue to serve the Church through prayer.”

It is likely that the ongoing scandals of abuse by Catholic clergy and irregularities involving the Vatican Bank helped the former Joseph Ratzinger make his decision. He was not a natural public figure, being more comfortable in manipulating behind the scenes. But it was his failure to take action on the abuse cases that he knew about, and the public’s knowledge that he knew and did not act, that made him singularly poor as a Church figurehead.

Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said, “I would hate for him to be remembered as someone who did the right thing because from our perspective, Pope Benedict’s record has been abysmal.” While some abuse victim advocates are pressing for Ratzinger to be tried in the International Criminal Court, that is unlikely for many reasons, not least because he will retain diplomatic immunity living in the sovereign Vatican City state, much as the late Archbishop Paul Marcinkus did during the Vatican banking scandal of the 1970s-1980s.


Ratzinger’s career has been distinguished by reactionary politics. As much as anyone, it was he who made sure that the reforms of Vatican II wouldn’t lead to fundamental changes in the position of women—in his eyes, not fit to hold spiritual authority—or Gays, who were to remain in the closet. He retained a hypocritical and deadly opposition to both safe sex and birth control. For many of these opinions his only appeal was to prejudice—they were valid because this is how things had “always” been done.

Most telling was his opposition to Liberation Theology, which he did attempt to justify philosophically.

The future Pope’s views of Liberation Theology were formed by his flawed and reactionary understanding of Marxism, and of Marx’s roots in Hegel. It’s likely that, like so many, Ratzinger never bothered to read Hegel’s actual works. Thus, the idea of human liberation (and he saw its appeal) became for Ratzinger the basis of a mythology of political reaction. Rather than seeing freedom being proven real in the lives of his contemporaries, in the struggles against exploitation and imperialism in Africa and Latin America, he felt obliged to recreate the very alienation that Marx critiqued in the 1840s.


Where Hegel saw Freedom as the basis of human history, Ratzinger saw the reduction of humanity to necessity and unfreedom. Like a typical post-Marx Marxist, in fact, he wrote “[Hegel’s] attempt at total logic ends in illogicality, in the self-dissolution of logic into myth” (Introduction to Christianity, 1968). But his positive view is mostly an undialectical inversion of Marx’s critique of religion, in fact.

It’s too bad Ratzinger was such a poor Hegelian. Hegel’s account of the corruption of the Church is basically what he lived out in his failed public career and the wretched ending to his papacy. His consciousness embodied what Hegel critiqued as “externality,” or that which is in “rigid opposition to self-conscious spirit” and thus “binds the spirit under an externalism by which the very meaning of spirit is perverted and misconceived at its source, and law and justice, morality and conscience, responsibility and duty are corrupted at their root.”

Liberation Theology indeed represented that moment when religion was split into its two aspects, as Marx pointed out, the religion of the oppressed and the religion of the rulers. It is what Hegel also referred to in his section of the Philosophy of Mind on “Mind Objective” concerning the attitude to a body of objective truth. The post-World War II world had caught up to that stage of philosophy, debating those once-esoteric issues as world-historic battles that continue today in the struggle against various forms of fundamentalism, wedded to state power, that crush the human spirit.

This philosophic failure was central to Ratzinger’s life and thought. Indeed, for all his “intellectualism,” in many respects he is closer to the pseudo-intellectualism of a cult leader like Lyndon LaRouche. Their published views on popular music, for instance, are so similar, and so racist, that it’s tempting to ask which plagiarized from the other.

It would be nice to be able to forgive an old man his human failings, but it’s impossible to forget the dead of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Rwanda— or the AIDS victims of Africa. He has left us our vision of horror and of solidarity. It was his choice.

The ex-Pope may try to return to his behind-the-scenes role with a new, perhaps more charismatic and less damaged Pope. He may feel that as long as the Catholic Church as an institution is seen as “too big to fail,” he can drive it toward that smaller but “better,” “purer” state that he prefers.

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