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Josef Ratzinger retires — The papacy remains: Why an enlightened democracy can’t do without religion endowing life with meaning

[Translated from the analysis of the GegenStandpunkt Publishers on Radio Lora, Munich — February 18, 2013]

Pope Benedict XVI has resigned — a surprising step. This announcement seems to have completely clogged up the daily newspapers and talk shows. The retired pontiff has caused reports of bombs and civil wars to be sent to the back burners — and certainly not only in Catholic media or countries. Contrary to what one hears about the separation of church and state and the purely private nature of religious belief — that magnificent achievement that reportedly puts the enlightened West ahead of backward theocracies — an entire bourgeois public plus the governing elite admit to being deeply impressed partisans of this way of finding meaning in life. They have every reason to appreciate what this club does for them.

A person who is a believer professes to being a servant of a heavenly master. This doesn’t mean, however, that he leads a bourgeois life that is substantially different from that of his godless contemporaries. Just like them, he has enough to do just to get done what is necessary: the acquisition of money takes place in accordance with the harsh rules of the “free market,” being stimulated by competition for career climbing and against social descent. In seeking the private pleasures that are supposed to make the whole effort worth it, a lot of careful management is required. Christians and non-Christians alike do what is dictated by the complete and finished “life and times” confronting them, namely, the economic constraints put in place by the law and the rules of their welfare state. The results they aspire to and always don’t quite manage are the same. And the interpretations of what they get in their daily lives are the same: mostly it’s the others who get lucky; one’s own services are never properly remunerated, and one is in general constantly denied justice. In this way, people — whether Jesus fans or practicing heathens — accompany their entire, modest lives with their moral discontent. So in this, Christians don’t overly differ from Muslims, nor the pious from their unbelieving compatriots.

But a person who is a believer imagines something extra about all this, namely, a omnipresent authority above and beyond all real bosses and rulers. This otherworldly authority demands unconditional obedience to the rules it issues for a decent life — and these rules are ultimately no different from those generally in force anyway. At the same time, this authority named “God” directs all life behind the scenes, executes at its end a mercilessly righteous judgment, and gives the puny mortal an infinitely merciful comeuppance. Thus pious people maintain an extremely fundamental servile attitude, but in return beckons, as a wonderful reward, an equally fundamental feeling of freedom and superiority: in his heart of hearts, the believer is obligated and accountable to no other authority than his otherworldly master. All earthly powers fade in comparison; the pious soul can let being bossed around, oppressed or unfairly judged — not to mention all material hardships and privations — in his life before death just roll off his back, because at the court of last resort he must only fear God’s judgment. From the Supreme Being there comes an absolute, non-appealable guilty verdict for everything and everyone — and for a believer the promise of a pardon after death, effective in the next world, just so long as he lives a life in this world pleasing in the sight of God.

Whatever the really existing masters of the Christian West think of the God proclaimed by Church doctrine, they are definitely keen on His secular function. The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung of February 13, 2013, for example, likes as a function of the Church that it has brought and held together the widest variety and most opposite of characters under one roof for thousands of years:

“No other institution endures so many ambiguities, so many contradictions… More than that, it holds the ambiguity and variety together: from the conservative bishop to the high earners who demonstrate their cultural Christianity as proof of their middle-class status, to the worker-priest in the slums of Sao Paolo.”

Other world religions, especially Islam in many of its fundamentalist interpretations, don’t quite manage that yet. This is not due to their faiths, however, but to other forms and goals of statehood that these faiths are serving as moral exaltation. One should not forget that it was in the name of the Cross that Christian armies terrorized the Middle East, and the pious authorities in the heart of Europe enabled the priests to defend their faith by means of the Inquisition.

So something of a cultural struggle was required in the Western civil societies as well for the now so fruitful symbiosis, between rule over life before death and making sense of it by invoking the afterlife, to take hold: a community in which all agree that there are more important things than the real life that burdens them day-to-day; a community whose members not only constructively adapt to all legally valid relations of hierarchy and subordination, but alongside that also adopt the standpoint of being obligated to a higher purpose in life and an absolute authority. This spiritual commitment is not to their societies with their free and democratic constitutional system, but to an imaginary absolute master with a pope as deputy, and is organized in a decidedly dogmatic club. Yet bourgeois democrats have virtually no doubt that they are fundamentally well served with the faith of their people, whereas they would never trust a totally non-believing people farther than they could throw them. They are aware of the benefits of a pious servile attitude for the morale of the troops. The glad tidings that all burdens will be compensated beyond the earthly vale of tears gives comfort to the faithful for failures in this world, creating a positive mindset towards the sacrifices that everyday capitalism and its national site administrators impose on them. So when German chancellor Merkel and other national leaders pay tribute to the legacy of the outgoing pope and once more express their respect for him, they see themselves (quite rightly) as the real beneficiaries of a solid faith in God.

This does not mean that the main actors and ideological advocates of the bourgeois polity are perfectly happy with the way the Roman Catholic Church serves the compensatory need for spiritual support. From a democratic perspective, there is quite a bit to reform when it comes to the behavior and appearance of the Catholic church — in the interest of the services that earthly rulers can expect from the community of their heavenly colleague. Turmoil over Holocaust deniers taken into the bosom of the Church again and the poorly managed abuse scandal, which have been bemoaned as the cause of an “erosion of faith,” are considered to be of little use. Especially in regard to young people, the spiritual authority of the Vatican seems to have a performance problem. Even if these young people actually crowd the church congresses, one can very well imagine some improvements. And thus, after the eulogies for the outgoing pope, come wish lists for the new one soon to be elected.

Above all, a bit more open-mindedness would not be bad. A few of the particularly reactionary customs and moral teachings of this authoritarian bunch allegedly no longer fit the modern world properly. And it would be really unfortunate if the Church’s laudable educational grip on those threatened by moral neglect suffered permanent damage from a dysfunctional papal dogmatism about women, gays, and vows of chastity. And then, of course, the media presence needs to be quite different. What good does it do, after all, if an outdated pope tweets past today’s youth with overdone appeals for abstinence. The pope needs to “communicate better” — truly not an unattainable task. How easily this can be had has just been demonstrated by the ultraconservative Benedict in his resignation. His retiring supposedly showed how “renewable” his club is — and everyone, whether religious or agnostic, readily thinks that makes sense. One can already see the way paved to a completely “modern understanding of the papacy”; all that is really needed is a credible successor.

For that, it would be enormously useful — as everyone agrees — to have a pope from the Third World: then you could see reform and renewal of the Church just by looking at him.