00 6/11/2009 9:17 PM

This particular review of a new volume of essays by Cardinal Ratzinger focuses on one of his 'political' essays on the nature of democracy and how it should reflect authentic human values which are also the fundamental Christian values.

Conscience, according to Joseph Ratzinger
by Benedetto Ippolito
Translated from

It is onerous for a philosopher to try and sum up his thought in a few pages. Benedetto Croce admitted to this difficulty explicitly at the start of a collection of his writings in 1945 entitled La mia filosofia.

Sometimes, however, compendia succeed quite well. And this is certainly the case with this splendid volume of essays by Joseph Ratzinger, which has been in Italian bookstores for a month now,
L'elogio della coscienza: La verita interroga il cuore (Eulogy of conscience: Truth interrogates the heart).

It is a volume that is as slim (178 pp) as it is precious - a gift to the general public of an accessible anthology of old addresses given on specific occasions in which as cardinal, Ratzinger spoke as a simple scholar-researcher.

The essays are subdivided into three sections corresponding to the three great themes confronted in the book: relativism, truth and evangelization.

Among the essays included, a lecture given by the author in Bratislava to Slovakian bishops in March 1992 stands out with particular relevance. It is dedicated to the meaning of religious and moral values in a pluralistic society.

It condenses the true critical mass of Ratzinger's political ideas, which would later prose in his famous philosophical debate with Juergen Habermas in Munich.

He takes off from teh idea of demcoracy, defined as the most perfect social synthesis of freedom and equality. As in Kelsen and Bobbio, popular sovereignty means, for Ratzinger, collective participation in the creation of laws.

This formidable opportunity offered to cizens of modern democratic societies must, however, be accompanied by the awareness of teh system's fragility.

The participation of every man and woman in political life implies that everything can be questioned - even democratcy itself - by the citizenry.

The paradox is that freedom, if devoid of content, can easily slide into destructive relativism, weakening the very functioning of public institutions.

This particular fragility also leads to the always incumbent risk fo an incompatibility between democracy and freedom, with the corollary risk of dangerous authoritarian 'exceptions'.

For Ratzinger, a democracy must never accept such 'solutions' because they are incompatible with its fundamental principles. And so the correct line to follow must always start with the idea of freedom, which must be upheld, but in a strongly ethical context.

On the other hand, a non-relativistic intention is constantly disclosed in society, attributable to the need that communities inevitably have for public recognition of certain substantial human values, protecting such values and guaranteeing their legality.

Ratzinger's precise proposition is, therefore, towards the consistent organization of aan authentically demcoratic State which does not claim to be the exclusive bearer of absolute truth nor the only promoter of freedoms which are nonetheless devoid of content.

Democratic institutions nust, in other words, welcome from 'outside; the good on which they live, adhering to a space of moral truths which are independent of the freedom of the citizens but acceptable to everyone without impediments.

A level of common public rationality must be found, obtained from the historical and cultural contributions of Christian tradition, which are able to guide consciences towards full activation of democratic life, in which, therefore, freedom along with intelligence would bring about true and proper unanimous acknowledgment of what is ffective for the good of society.

Ratzinger's conviction is that human rights are the only rationally adequate resource that can assure both the freedom of all the mebers of society as well as the robustness of certain independent moral values - both being irrenunciable aspects necessasry for a functional democracy to stay alive.

Moreover, a nucleus of moral truth, expressed in a few fundamental human rights, can be grasped by human reason and made compatible with individual freedom.

The conclusive hope of this profound philosophical reasoning it for the emergence of a renewed political interest in moral truth, not only as in the classical teaching of Plato, but even the modern teaching of Bayle and Maritain.

Indeed, it is only with the diffusion of a public passion for authentic values that the desire to consolidate democracy completely and definitively can be born in the free conscience of its citizens.

From the publisher's blurb:

More than directives from the hierarchy, what counts more is the ability to orient the faith in a way that leads to spiritual discernment.

The Pope does not impose anything from the outside but guards and protects the memory on which our faith is founded. Christianity must be defended continuously from the menace of subjectivity and the pressures of social and cultural conformism.

A review by one reader:

We must truly be grateful to then Cardinal Ratzinger for having offered us so many dense points for reflection to reinforce our human nature in its totality.

Ratzinger's texts are true and proper 'antibiotics' to neutralize the infections coming fromthe gusts of relativism, hedonism, and agnosticism with which, unfortunately, we are constrained to live.

Conscience is too delicate to be exposed without concern to all the dosctrinal winds that would blow away the truth that Christ has given us in himself. Thank you.

Other reviews of this book were translated and posted earier in the PRF.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:07 AM]