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).

Would you agree that Pope Emeritus Benedict is thinking about liberal democracy today as if it were on automatic pilot? That he is asking if liberal democracy is holding absolute values or pretending to stand for values as absolute justice? Is Benedict “spooking” us? Let’s take a closer look at his “spooking.” Modern liberalism and democracy are synonyms. The logic is procedural, i.e. making arrangements. That means the official way of doing something has no claim to what is good or true. Find the maximum number who are looking for happiness and protect them from their happiness being taken away.[1] Moreover, procedural means having rules, a juridical system, and prisons for those who break the rules. However, the procedural definition does not raise any questions about absolute values. Rather it recognizes the historical rise of liberalism, science and capitalism. How might Benedict be out to “spook” Europe and us? Is he alerting us that a group can come in and take away liberal democracy? Is he “spooking” us to look closely and ask: why is taking another’s freedom away wrong, on what basis, and to counter the efforts of any group? I have tipped my hand.

Why and how? For Pope Emeritus Benedict: reason has to engage faith. He worries about the growing sense of the absolute autonomy of reason and its self-sufficiency. If reason does not look for truth; if reason is procedural, i.e., reduced to making arrangements; if reason is instrumental, i.e. pro-science, pro technology, concerned with creating the greatest number of happy people; where is the balance? That is the problem for Benedict. In a sense it is a neutral problem, but is it? If society is not callous and violent, if society does not exclude from office those with a Christian view, liberal democracy might or might not have absolute values. He never denies history. I suggest that he sees liberal democracy in the West, including the USA, on automatic pilot, and the West only pretending to be committed to absolute justice.

The historical facts in the last century demonstrate that liberal democracy has not always been that great. Nor is it clear that liberal democracy is holding the value of absolute justice. How liberal democracy was almost lost is remembered by the seniors still living in what was East Germany for a while, and East Central Europe.[2] They like to sanitize, forget, and, understandably, look ahead. Pope Emeritus Benedict wants the West to think about absolute values, as “absolute justice.” Benedict wants the West to remember the thought of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II, and his encyclical Veritatis Splendor.[3]

They both have psychological anxiety [4] because of the attenuation of religion, not the loss of religion totally. John Paul II addresses the tendency of the people to wander away from the moral absolutes and the guidance of the Church in matters of morality. Benedict teaches moral absolutes vis-a-vis relativism. Benedict’s essays are an echo: without moral absolutes and an orderly political arrangement, something abominable will violate absolute human rights.

What tends to be overlooked by Christians is why and how Benedict points out that liberal democracy intersects with Christianity. The lens of the Popes is to fight off authoritarianism in its various forms from 1933 through 1989, the breakup of the Soviet Union,[5] and beyond. If liberal democracy gets saturated with moral relativism, if liberal democracy simply massages the idea, history discloses the abrogation of personal freedom. Someone or some group with power always overwhelms,[6] as the National Socialists and Bolsheviks did.

Benedict sees an attenuation of moral authority due to lack of knowledge and conviction about absolute values. Without it, where will your allegiance go, what is left that can be described as “Christianly”? If authoritarianism is picking up Christian support, isn’t authoritarianism almost being protected as if it were laminated? His worry is: where is Christianly resistance if not founded on moral absolutes? [7] To me, his claim that liberal democracy is not holding the value of absolute justice but only pretending to do so, is “thick.” To claim that liberal democracy is on automatic pilot and pretending to stand for absolute justice aligns with the poet T. S. Eliot’s image of “hollow men,” and that of W. B. Yeats: “the best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity.”[8]

Is the West as “hollowed out” a grave cause for worry? Is being hollowed out applicable to the Church’s moral authority and her absolute values? I suggest a leakage. Who listens to Pope Francis when reporters ask about moral absolutes? On September 15, flying from Kazakhstan, he was asked about the loss of faith in countries such as Germany, especially among the youth. He replied: “It is true that the spirit of secularization, of relativism, challenges these things; it is true. What you have to do, first of all, is to be consistent with your faith.[9]

Pope Francis echoes Pope John Paul II: “Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord” (Veritatis Splendor). Francis told reporters:  “It is true that the West, in general, is not at the highest level of exemplarity right now. The West has taken wrong paths.” Are the three Popes missing anything? Are they consistent with Catholic belief?

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


[1] Putin’s unjust war in Ukraine is how one can try to take rights away. President Mikhail Gorbachev, 1931-2022, introduced glasnost. He visited and knelt at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi for a half hour. Closer to home, it is not difficult to enumerate efforts to take away freedom. We ask: on what basis?
[2] Our pilgrimage began in Prague, circled through Germany and Austria, and to Bratislava, then a respectful visit to the tomb of Jozef Cardinal Mindszenty at Esztergom and ended at Budapest.
[3] On the feast of St. Alphonsus Marie Liguori in 1987, John Paul II set out to write an encyclical letter on absolute values as the very foundations of moral theology, …. Veritatis Splendor, 6 August 1993.
[4] Think of the father of modern existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, and the reasons for his anxiety.
[5] Putin’s unjust war in Ukraine is his effort to reset the breakup of the Soviet Union on Christmas 1991.
[6] Think of the classic antiChrist in the Book of Revelation.
[7] Benedict’s Values in a Time of Upheaval, Truth and Tolerance, and many more essays, may be indicating that he sees, for the first time, this problem is true and becoming amplified in the West.
[8] The Pope Emeritus’  readers often want more details about how he is constructing his arguments and diagnoses. His theological, philosophical, and historical training include  underdevelopment as his style.
[9] I  will refrain from taking the bait to apply the image of “hollowed out” to the political parties in the USA.

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 the Guardian Angels – October 2, 2022

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