Reflection by Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv.



12 Days on Pilgrimage in August
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).

Our Marian Franciscan pilgrimage took us through central Europe where several of our twenty-eight pilgrims have roots. We prayed and celebrated Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Altötting, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s favorite place in his beloved Bavaria. In this third essay, I turn to his thoughts on why Europe is a “stand in” for secular modernity. “If Europe is to survive, … it involves encountering with reverence that which is holy to another. We can and must learn from that which is holy to others, but it is our obligation both in relation to them and to our own selves to nourish our own reverence for the Holy One and to show the face of the God who has appeared to us, the God who cares for the poor and the weak, the widows and orphans and strangers, the God who is so human that he himself became one of us, a suffering man whose compassion with our suffering gives us dignity and hope.”[1]

Why is Europe a stand-in for secular modernity? Together with Pope St. John Paul II, Benedict lived through the horrendous consequences of the relativization of truth in our modern period. As we drove through Munich, the University and buildings that were home to the Gestapo, their court, prison, and execution place, tears flowed. I remembered the Second World War, in particular, the conviction and courage of Sophia Scholl and her circle of friends in the White Rose Movement. They dared to criticize the unjust regime and were decapitated on Hitler’s orders. Our guide did not mention that poignant fact. Sophia and friends[2] demonstrated their intent to get to truth and love for truth without insisting that they had truth in their back pocket. Today their graves nearby are covered with fresh white roses daily.

Students who refuse to live the lie counter modern reason that has given up on the search for truth and reduced it to only opinion. No doubt the White Rose circle was familiar with Plato’s Republic and its three phases: first, a generation that has shown a degradation of the search for truth; second, a new and young character to the politics without a commitment to truth; and, third, the failure to talk about truth which enables those who seek power to gain it then feel free reign to use power as they choose. John Paul II and Benedict lived with the consequences. Today, all with good sense ask: What are you going to do to prevent the world from being laid waste anew by hatred and violence and falsehood?

As storekeeper, so to speak, to Pope John Paul II, an incredibly engaged Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) had his hand in the writing of Fides et Ratio. The irony is that he wrote a commentary on Fides et Ratio about reason as subject to pathology, to a deformed version of reason. In 1999,[3] the future Pope Benedict already saw the pathology of faith in secular modernity with several forms in fundamentalism which is always around.

Pope Emeritus Benedict finds pathology in fundamentalism as a modern production which is doctrinaire and narrow. Both Christians and Muslims have been irrational and violent and done fanatical things. Reflect on reason that does not scrub away fundamentalist thinking or fanaticism. Fundamentalism produced by reason arises as a reaction formation. The problem links with the suggestion that every religion does not have conviction. Religion is substitutable or worthless. To put religion on hold as a person grows up in favor of personal preference is not the Catholic way of formation. Benedict adds that the pathology of believers, in any form, is spread by hyper-rationality. Evangelical forms of Christianity, for example, do not have doctrines that develop as Catholic doctrines do. Another example is evidence that anyone can be as apocalyptic as any subgroup of Muslims misguided by jihadism.

Pope Emeritus Benedict deals with these issues in the pattern of  the thought of St. John Henry Newman, who insists that there is a good account and a bad account of reason. Newman grew up in England in the nineteenth century, when the English religious ethos was not to believe too hard: i.e., Yes, God exists; yet, don’t ask if God is triune. Yes, Jesus lived in history; yet, don’t ask if he was human and divine. Don’t ask about claims that Mary was his mother. Don’t ask too much about his death on the cross and claim that Jesus is the savior of mankind.

Benedict follows Newman’s distinction between the extrinsic and intrinsic connection. There is an extrinsic not intrinsic connection that Christianity leads to violence. Newman recognized the pathology of fanaticism as insistence that one thing is absolutely true and ought to be imposed on others. Thinking that is not pure enough is worth fighting for. On intellectual grounds, that is how fundamentalist thinking is the fuel about what is true and not true. Catholics know many examples of historical difficulties when the Church allowed periods of disagreement with patience and forbearance. The first years after Vatican II were a time of “experimentation.”

The important point that Benedict is making about Europe as a “stand in” for secular modernity is that it has arrived on the scene out of the dark ages with a message of human rights, reason as not subject to a Church, and the need for a generic equality in economics, gender, ethnicity, and social equality. Secular modernity, democracy, or equality relate to justice. He asks: Is it a break from Christianity or funded by Christianity? The United States imported secular modernity from Europe, and it has less resistance; therefore has worked.

When Christianity was called on to stand against the fanaticism of National Socialism and Communism, Catholics like Saints Maximilian M. Kolbe, Edith Stein, and others stood up. Conservative Protestants stood up as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had been teaching at Union Theological in New York City. Liberal Protestants, on the other hand, had the view that faith is relative to the historical moment and offered very little resistance. Thoughts?

Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv. Univ of Notre Dame,


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: 2006), 149, 150.
[2] Significantly, the White Rose students were reading about conscience in now St. John Henry Newman.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance (San Francisco: 2004), 183-209.

Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
Research Fellow Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure, Rome
Visiting Scholar, McGrath Institute for Church Life
University of Notre Dame
Feast of St. Wenceslaus, patron of the Czech Republic and Slovakia
– September 28, 2022


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